Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor Charles Allen

Little Brown, pp.460, 25

When totting up the positives from the British Raj, people often put the railways first, followed by the Indian Civil Service or the Indian Army. The Empire was won by the sword and held by the sword. It was racially exclusive, its taxes were often predatory, and its punishments savage. But at least it left an institutional legacy that helped to make independent India a startling success against all the odds, after the bloody wound of Partition and despite the excruciating poverty of the second most populous nation on earth.

But what the British bequeathed to India was not only a usable future but a usable past. This may sound paradoxical. In the millennia of India’s more or less recorded history, the years of British dominance were an eyeblink. How could we come-lately fly-by-midnights pretend to write or rewrite their national story? Yet the contribution of British archaeologists, palaeographers and numismatists to the making of modern India is no less significant than that of British engineers, judges and civil servants. As a matter of fact, many of them were the same people. It is hard to think of a network of amateur scholars anywhere to match their achievements.

The tradition of intense attention to every aspect of the Indian past began with the Calcutta judge Sir William Jones (1747-1794), and it continued until the end of the Raj, fostered by enlightened governor-generals and viceroys, from Warren Hastings to Curzon. And these labours were to help shape the ideology of the new nation as they had illuminated her history.

When Jawaharlal Nehru was using his privilege as Father of the Nation to select her icons, he chose for the flag the wheel with 24 spokes, the Chakra or ‘wheel of the moral law’, which now flaps and spins in the middle of the Indian tricolour. And for the national emblem he favoured the sandstone capital excavated at Sarnath in 1904-5, showing four lions standing guard over four Chakras.

The capital represents the lion’s roar of the Buddha spreading the moral message to every quarter of the compass. Both the lions and the wheel are emblems of the Emperor Ashoka who ruled all of India bar the south-eastern tip from about 269 BC to 232 BC. Nehru, educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge like the spoilt son in Kipling’s ‘Mary Gloster’ and a secular moderniser to his fingertips, chose this ancient Buddhist ascetic as the inspiration for the new India. Writing from his prison cell to his 14-year-old daughter Indira, he put Ashoka on a par with Jesus as a teacher. There might be relatively few Buddhists in India today (there are three times as many Christians), but only Buddhism, rather than the Hindu or Muslim traditions, could supply the underpinning of non-violence and tolerance of other religions which the new nation needed if it was to survive.

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Like other nation-rebuilders, Nehru reached back to the Past before Last, just as 19th-century Greeks had looked back beyond the Ottoman Empire to the Athens of Pericles and English republicans of the 17th century had looked back to their sturdy Saxon forefathers with shoulders  still unscarred by the Norman yoke. Before the British, no Moghul emperor or Hindu prince had managed to dominate the whole subcontinent. Only Ashoka had done it. He was a superhero as well as a spiritual model. And by insisting on the veneration of Ashoka, Nehru pointed to a more inclusive — and realistic — alternative to Gandhi’s vision of  returning to a Hindu golden age centred on the spinning wheel and the bullock cart.

Yet it was the British who dug Ashoka out of the mud of antiquity, gave him flesh (he was short and pudgy with a bad skin, sometimes known as Ashoka the Ugly) and, above all, gave him a voice. What we now know of Ashoka, we owe to men like F. O. Oertal, executive engineer of the Benares Division, who dug up the wonderful lions at Sarnath, the deer park where the Buddha first taught the Dharma; or General Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, who had first identified Sarnath as a crucial site 70 years earlier.

Arriving in Calcutta in 1833 as a 19-year-old military engineer and waiting for a posting, Cunningham filled in the time helping a young clerk in the East India Company’s mint to sort out the old coins he had collected. This timid, half-blind junior in the Assay Office was James Prinsep who died of a brain disease at the age of 41 and who, as Secretary of the Asiatic Society, deployed his amazing skills as draughtsman and linguist to draw, translate and interpret not only the coins but the Sanskrit inscriptions on rocks and pillars that Ashoka had left all over India. It was Prinsep who cracked the  script and established that identical inscriptions were to be found everywhere from the foothills of the Himalayas down to the Deccan, and it was a civil servant in Colombo, George Turnour, who identified the author as Ashoka.

It is an inspiring tale, and Charles Allen tells it with the light, unshowy touch that has become second nature to him in his numerous excursions into British India and beyond. Here he ploughs over some of the same ground that he covered in The Buddha and the Sahibs and, more glancingly, in The Buddha and Dr Führer. Now he brings those earlier labours together in the quest for Ashoka. En route, he aims one or two irritable swipes at Edward Said and other critics who have denounced ‘the Orientalists’ as lackeys of Western imperialism. For without the Orientalists, the Oriental past would be sadly shrunken. Ashoka would remain a shadowy figure, his existence half-debatable and his teaching dismissed as largely spurious.

It would have been extraordinary if Ashoka had conquered so much of India by non-violent methods. And he didn’t. His name might signify ‘without sorrow’, but he inflicted a good deal of sorrow in his savage subjugation of Kalinga, the British province of Orissa. What is so remarkable is that his own carver records the horrible details in the famous Rock Edict No 13:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi [Ashoka’s ceremonial name], conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, 100,000 killed and many more died from other causes. After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dharma [which Allen translates as ‘moral law’, though he warns that it has a more cosmic and religious sweep], a love for the Dharma and for instruction in Dharma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

Few great political leaders become pentiti. Even fewer advertise their repentance on huge elephant-shaped rocks along major highways. It is as though Tony Blair put up billboards along the M1 declaring that he had been wrong about Iraq and giving the casualty figures for which he felt responsible.

It is hard to think of anything quite like the Rock Edicts and the Pillar Edicts which Ashoka had engraved on tall sandstone pillars in his temple complexes (one transplanted pillar still stands on Delhi Ridge, not far from the British Memorial to the Mutiny, which is somewhat less self-critical). What is so remarkable is their almost conversational tone. We read of Ashoka’s personal struggles to internalise the moral law and to govern in a spirit of charity and with unremitting attention to the welfare of his people 24/7, as we would say now.

Allen notes that the Edicts seldom mention the Buddha, bcause they are directed not exclusively at the Buddhist community but at the entire nation. The precepts they teach, he argues, are more moral than religious. Ashoka often refers to the ‘vulgar and worthless ceremonies’ of some religions, an accusation which can only be aimed at the Brahman priests.  

Yet I am not quite convinced that we should see Ashoka as a sort of diluted deist, an Indian Jefferson or even an upgraded Alain de Botton, more interested in religion as social cement than for its own sake. Parts of the Edicts sound to me rather more profound. We are to respect other people’s religions, Ashoka says, not just to avoid bloodshed and because it is the decent thing to do. In Rock Edict No 12, he claims that, by honouring other religions, ‘one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions’.  Being infused with other people’s religions will not water down our own faith but help all religions to grow together. Has the ecumenical movement, even today,  progressed quite that far?

The life stories of the excavators and paleographers who brought Ashoka back to us are as fascinating as that of the Emperor himself. Most of them went to an early grave, victim of climate and cholera. Those who managed to get back to England returned as poor as when they set out. But what lives on is the message chiselled on the rocks.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Emperor, History, India, Non-fiction, Spirituality