Ashoka: The story of rediscovering the great king
Dr R Balashankar
Ashoka, Charles Allen, Little Brown, Pp 460 (HB), Rs 750
The story of King Ashoka has been told and retold several times, fascinated by his repentance at the moment of victory. He devoted much of his later life to the propagation of Buddhism not just in India, but farther into the south and south east Asia. Charles Allen’s Ashoka traces the history of the ‘rediscovering’ of the emperor by the British Indologists and historians.
Allen sets off by blaming Hindus for the decline of Buddhism in India — one of the most clichéd arguments — and connecting it inexplicably to the Babri Masjid demolition. But the story moves on. Grippingly Allen recounts the plunders carried out by various Muslim invaders, which wiped huge parts of the source material on the history of pre-Islamic India. Lost in these gruesome attacks were the enormous Buddhist sites and manuscripts. Hence the need to reconstruct Ashoka from fragments of information available.
The narration includes the raids of Mohammad Bakhtiyar, a commander of Qutb-ud-din Aybak, who set fire to Nalanda. The fate of the university was sealed with one question from the marauder. Did it have Koran? When it was answered in the negative, he ordered it be torched and all inmates killed. The operation was chronicled by his men: “The greater number of inhabitants of that place were Brahmans … and they were all slain.” The burning went on for months. Nalanda then had three multi-storied libraries named Ratnasagara, Ratnadadhi and Ratnaranjaka. Bhaktiya’s Nalanda raid came after his many successes in other Hindu cities. In Benares, where according to the chronicler he destroyed a thousand temples and converted them into mosques. Later he destroyed two other places of learning in Bengal, flourishing Buddhist monasteries at Somapura and Jagadalala. The stories of loot, plunder and destruction by Muslim invaders go on.
The early British who came to India were traders and businessmen. But till almost the time of Macaulay, several of them were India-lovers, who attempted to understand India and its people. One such person was Sir William Jones. He wanted to write the history of India. But there was hardly any evidence of the pre-Islamic India, as a modern historian would understand. His quest to ‘fix’ a date took him to the Greek history, Alexander, his invasion on the western borders of India. Sir Jones made several conjectures and guesses and fixed the date of Ashoka as a descendent of the Maurya empire. Charles Allen goes on to describe in detail several of evidences collected, the interesting stories behind the emergence of them and how a jigsaw puzzle was being fixed. Of course, now we know that Sir Jones erred in his estimation and confused Gupta Chandragupta with Maurya Chandragupta. This mistake has been explained very well by Dr V Lakshmikantham and Dr J Vasundhara Devi in their book What India Should Know (Bharatiya Vidhya Bhawan, 2006). Jones worked on a backward logic. He zeroed in on the date of Alexander’s India campaign and looked for the corresponding Indian name, mentioned by the Greek writers. ‘Sandrokoptas’ was a name in Greek accounts. “If we can fix on an Indian prince, contemporary with Seleucus,” he declared, “they would have that common fixed point of history.” He fixed the Indian name as Chandragupta (Maurya), who lived at least 1500 years before the one identified by Jones.
On with the story of Ashoka: The deciphering of the Brahmi script proved to be of great help, in decoding the rock edicts of Ashoka. While enthusiastic work was going on in studying the Indian history, the year 1837 became memorable for good and bad reasons. The Orientalists received a setback because Anglicists and Evangelists in Britain gained the upper hand in the form of Thomas Macaulay and Lord Bentinck. The British government decided that English would be the medium of dealing in India and government funding for printing of works in vernacular was withdrawn. Several accompanying decisions were taken. People being posted in senior positions in India were being scrutinised and brainwashed about the supremacy of the White skin and their agenda in India was being set out clearly so that they would not ‘stray’ far. It worked. The British enthusiasm in Indian history waned, eventually, the Indians were being handed out tailor made versions of our history, that suited the convenience of the alien rulers.
The year 1837 also marked one of the fastest developments in Indological studies, with discoveries and deciphering of evidence coming at a very fast pace. “For students of Indian studies the year 1837 will always be remembered as the annus mirabilis of Indian historiography and philology; the year in which astonishing revelations came so thick and fast that there was no time to absorb the implications of one before the next had been announced.”
Allen’s narration concludes with ‘Ashoka in the Twentieth Century.’ The Ashoka story and his greatness caught the imagination of western intellectuals. H G Wells declared “Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.” Says Allen “Indian nationalists, looking for pre-colonial models of government, were quick to seize on this idea, among them Dr Radhakumud Mookerji, whose lectures on early Indian history at Lucknow University in the early 1920s became the basis for the first truly scholarly account of Ashoka and his times.”
There is this last chapter on the decline of Ashok dharma and Buddhism. The rediscovering of Ashoka is a fascinating story and Charles Allen has rendered it in style. There is plenty of material in appendix and notes. Alllen is a traveller, historian and storyteller and has authored books about India.
(Little Brown, 100 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y ODY, sold in India by Hachette India).
Dr R Balashankar
A Short History of the Jews, Michael Brenner, Princeton University Press, Pp 421 (PB), $24.95
Jews in twentieth century are one of the most focussed communities in the world. More of than not in a negative tone. “They are frequently viewed above all else as players in the Middle East conflict, and their history is then often understood as the cause behind the escalation of this conflict.” But what is their “true” history? Michael Brenner, Professor of Jewish history, attempts such a narration in A Short History of the Jews. “The golden thread that runs throughout this book is migration. Jews were not always wandering, but wandering has characterized Jewish history across all epochs and continents,” says Brenner. He begins the book from the mythical sources. He discusses the Bible and the biblical characters. “What we know about the earliest beginnings of the people of Israel comes only from its own sources, which are Biblical. Documents of other people that mention Israel during the first few centuries of its existence are extremely rare, and from the Biblical material alone we cannot derive any claims of historicity.”
Brenner discusses the emergence of the structure in the Jewish religious set up. The time when rabbis (teachers) acquired a prominence comparable to that which the priests had enjoyed before them. It happened after the period of Second Temple. “If priests oversaw the Temple service, rabbis were associated with study and legal interpretation.”
Jews were reduced to second-class citizens by the religions that came after it namely Christianity and Islam. While Pope Innocent III prescribed a garment patch to be worn by the Jews, Islamists, calling them dhimmis, charged them jizya, the protection money to be paid by them for their safety. This very much sounds familiar to the Hindus.
Brenner makes an interesting observation. “In contrast to polytheistic cultures, monotheism is always about universal recognition. Peoples who themselves worship a variety of gods do not, as a rule, have any problem tolerating and respecting other peoples’ gods. But it was different for the monotheistic Jews, as it would be later for Christians and Muslims: If only a single God exists, this must be the true God, who ideally should be recognized by people everywhere.”
The book discusses the several migrations of Jews to various parts of the globe. In fact the chapters are titled along the lines of the movements of Jews. Some of the chapters are tantalising like ‘From Dessau to Berlin’ and ‘From West to East.’ Part of the story is also about the East European Jewish Dreams and American Realities, and the chapter ‘From Everywhere to Auschwitz’ deals with ‘Annihilation.’ The last chapter ‘From Julius Streicher’s Farm to the Kibbutz’ brings us up to date, ‘The Jewish World After the Holocaust.’
There are comparative table of countries and cities with largest Jew population in 1898 and 1930; in 1948 and 2006; and 1940 and 1948; This is a stark story in itself. There are substantial suggestions for further reading.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)