Charles Allen

Rock & Rule

Ashoka in Ancient India

By Nayanjot Lahiri

Harvard University Press 408pp £25.95 order from our bookshop

That remarkable Indian ruler Ashoka Maurya, who lived from approximately 304 to 232 BC, remained lost to history for some two thousand years until the words written on his rock and pillar edicts were first deciphered and translated by James Prinsep in 1837. Even then it took the better part of a century for India’s intelligentsia to accept that here was a model of which all Indians could be proud: an indigenous ruler who had united India under a common law based on ethics alone, and who sought (ages before Mahatma Gandhi) to promote non-violence and religious tolerance as the basis of government. Part of the problem was that the Indian populace preferred mythology over history, with that mythology being largely based on Brahminical ideology. Ashoka’s humane concept of kingship had been shaped by his conversion to Buddhism, which, in turning its back on priests, caste divisions, sacrificial offerings and prayers to the gods, had directly challenged Brahmin orthodoxy.

In seeking models of government for an independent India, the leaders of India’s freedom struggle divided on ideological lines. The Hindu traditionalists, led by Gandhi, sought what he called ‘Ramarajya’, a return to the mythical golden era described in the epic poem the Ramayana when the man-god-king Rama ruled.

Sara Stewart


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