FlipKart has become my favourite e-shop for books. Recently after getting first Chanakya Chant, I got Ashoka, and then Mudrarakhash, a Hindi translation of Bishakhadutt drama on the historical story of Chanakya.
I have finished reading Ashoka by Charles Allen today. Allen Turner very rightly propounds, “Ashoka may be said to be India’s founding father, being the first ruler to forge India into a single nation state. Emperor Ashoka espoused non-violence and the utterly novel concept of conquest by moral force alone-and he was very probably the first ruler in history to establish a welfare state.”
The main characters of the books, Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka have been my heroes for years. The source materials for Chandragupta Maurya are Puranas, Megasthanes’ Indica, Kautilya’s Arthshastra and ‘Mudraraksha’. Megasthenes, the ambassador of Seleucus I in the court of Chandragupta Maurya authored Indica. Later writers such as Arrian, Strabo, Diodorus, and Pliny refer to Indica in their works. To Greeks, Chandragupta is known as Sandrokyptos, Sandrokottos or Androcottus.
Allen’s ‘Ashoka’ is a superbly written story how the hardworking British officers of East India Company dug out the historical personalities of Ashoka, Chandragupta and Chanakya that got lost in Indian history from the debris.
The missionary zeal of the British officers along with their official assignments took interest in revealing the puzzles of the Indian history too through excavations. Allen has covered the archeological discoveries of every object related to Ashoka from all over India and even Sri Lanka.
The source materials for Ashoka’s story are the early Buddhist scriptures and historical literature from Shri Lanka and Ashoka’s edicts on rocks and pillars that he himself got inscribed during his reign almost all over his empire.
A Map of Ashoka Empire
Megasthenes, the ambassador of Seleucus I in the court of Chandragupta Maurya authored Indica. Later writers such as Arrian, Strabo, Diodorus, and Pliny refer to Indica in their works. To Greeks, Chandragupta is known as Sandrokyptos, Sandrokottos or Androcottus
But Allen has covered the discovery of each of the major pillars and rock edicts-major as well as minor more than thirty or so and how the written content was deciphered and finally they did also come across the name of the person who got them inscribed.
“In Pillar Edict 2 Ashoka even asks rhetorically, ‘what constitutes Dharma?’ and sums it up as ‘little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity’=to which he adds from Rock Edict 1,’much self0examination, much respect, much fear (of evil) and much enthusiasm’. Not so much as a word about prayers, offerings, sacrifices, rituals or gods.”
And on Ashoka’s secular approach, Allen refers to Pillar Edict 6, ‘I have honoured all religions with various honours’, and Pillar Edict 7, ‘My DharmaMahamatras too are occupied with various good works among the ascetics and householders of all religions’.
Ashoka ends Pillar Edict 7 with closing words:
“Beloved-of-Gods says: Wherever there are stone pillars or some slabs, there this Dharam edict is to be engraved so that it may long endure. It has been engraved so that it may endure as long as my sons and great grandsons live and as long as the sun and the moon shine, and so that people may practice it as instructed. For by practicing it happiness will be attained in this world and the next.”
Allen has also written a chapter on the burning of the Nalanda library. Nalanda had exhaustive repository of Buddhist knowledge in the world, housed in three multi-storied libraries: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi and the Ratnaranjaka. “Muhammad Bakhtaiyar sent a messenger to enquire if Nalanda’s libraries contained a copy of the Quran. On learning that they did not, he ordered the destruction and put the entire site, extending over many acres, to the torch. The task of burning the library took several months.”
Allen’s book in his note provides another story: “The last known eyewitness of the fate of Nalanda was a Tibetan monk named Dharamaswamin. Arriving at Nalanda in the year 1235, he found just one survivor, a ninety-year-old monk named Rahul Sribhadra who was teaching a small class of acolytes from a Sanskrit grammar- the only manuscript to have survived the great fire. Dharamaswamin stayed on to study, only for the class to break up in panic when it was reported that Turk raiders were heading their way. Dharamaswamin carried his elderly teacher into hiding, and when the two returned to Nalanda they found the rest of the class had fled. Having taught Dharamaswamin all he knew, the aged monk handed him his copy of the Sanskrit grammar and told him to return to Tibet.”
How can any religion preach heinous task of burning books with various types of knowledge and literature, or sculpture, and architectural wonders that causes irreparable damage?
Perhaps Mauryas were the most secular of the kings. Chandragupta Maurya started with Brahmin Chanakya, but later on followed Jain Guru. Ashoka too started with Brahmin, the grandson of Chanakya, Radhagupta but ended with Buddhism.
What could have been a better subject to write on Bihar Divas?