Book Title: Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King
Author: Patrick Olivelle
Emperor Ashoka lived many lives. Most of them were constructed by different sources. In Buddhist records, he has been portrayed as a great follower of Buddhism who gave up violence after witnessing the bloodshed at the battle of Kalinga and adopted Buddhism as his faith. Not only was he converted to Buddhism and became an Upasaka, he also took up the endeavour to spread the faith within and outside Indian borders. Just as Buddhism transformed Ashoka from a conqueror into a Buddhist Upasaka, Ashoka also transformed Buddhism from a small sect in the Gangetic valley into a global religion. His deep involvement with Buddhism was the most important aspect of Ashoka’s life, according to Buddhist sources. The Brahmanical records, by contrast, constructed a different image and underplayed many of his achievements.
The book under review sets the record straight. It liberates Ashoka’s image from both the Buddhist and Brahmanical blinkers and constructs a new image — the ‘inscriptional’ Ashoka. Ashoka was unique among his contemporaries in that he consciously left behind his own words on his life and times in the form of a large number of rock edicts and inscriptions. These have unfolded a new world for us. These inscriptions and rock edicts, engraved in Pali language and in Brahmi script, were brought to public notice in 1837 by James Princep, a British officer. Once the language and the script were deciphered by Princep, they enabled us to understand Ashoka through his own words. The book by Patrick Olivelle, a prominent Sanskrit scholar and a historian of ancient India, does an admirable job of enabling us to see Ashoka as he would have liked to be seen by posterity.
There is no doubt that Ashoka created the rock edicts and inscriptions not just for his contemporaries, but also for subsequent generations and centuries. So, who was the real Ashoka and what did he look like? This is an important question and the book throws some light on it.
Ashoka was indeed a unique ruler not just of his times, but possibly for all times. He was a proto-nationalist who used state power to create a community of his subjects and constantly communicated with them through edicts and inscriptions. He created a new script — Brahmi — and popularised it throughout his empire. The Brahmi script survived his death and became a feeder to most Indian scripts. Ashoka can also be credited with creating a separate literary tradition in Prakrit language, as an alternative to Sanskrit. Ashoka was truly a historians’ emperor who left behind a large repository of records and documents for them.
But above all, Ashok needs to be recognised for creating a new philosophical imagination on religion. It all started when he made a great transition from a life of territorial conquests — characteristic of all emperors — to one of a spiritual conquest. This new spiritual quest took him to Buddhism and then to Dharma. His Dharma was not fully identical with religion, as the idea of religion was prevalent then. Ashoka’s Dharma was more than rituals and faith or a marker of one’s sacred identity. Ashoka’s Dharma was a blueprint of a moral order. It was larger than religion; it also transcended Buddhism. The new idea consisted of dedicating one’s life to a constant moral striving. Ashoka’s conception of Dharma also rested on an important distinction between community and faith. His Dharma was not to be confined to any single community. He made an appeal to all the ritualistic communities (Pasandas) in his empire to reach out to larger moral goals. They did not have to seek conversion to some standardised faith to reach out to Dharma. Ashoka’s Dharma was larger and higher than all the religious rituals and doctrines. Patrick Olivelle has described this particular trait of Ashoka’s moral philosophy as ‘ecumenism’.
Ashoka was very keen that this path to Dharma should be accessible to all without any pre-conditions. In one of his rock edicts, he inscribed: “This [moral striving through religion] can be achieved not only by eminent people, but even lowly people... This promulgation has been promulgated for the following purpose — so that both the lowly and the eminent may strive, that the frontier people may also come to know it, and that this striving may endure for a long time.” Ashoka wanted all communities to follow their separate rituals, live in harmony with one another and reach out to great moral heights, the ultimate destination of human life.
All these traits made Ashoka unique and distinctive. It is true that all emperors and great people leave their stamp on the times they live in. So did Ashoka. But he also cast his shadow on the many centuries that followed him. He sought to impart a new and larger meaning to lived life in which the main purpose was not the inert act of living, but one of constant striving for a higher moral universe. His Dharma was both the means and the ultimate end of this striving.
This is an extremely important book which not only retrieves the authentic Ashoka, but also puts him in perspective by highlighting the important legacy of Ashoka for our times. We need this legacy now more than we ever did.