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Kesavan Veluthat

Edited by Patrick Olivelle , Janice Leoshko and Himanshu Prabha Ray
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. xviii+450, Rs.1250.00


One of the most heard-about figures in history is Asoka, the Mauryan king who ruled in the third century BCE. Ever since he was discovered in the nineteenth century by British scholars —or was it a case of invention?—he presented himself to different people in different ways. He was an emperor who ruled the whole subcontinent, a conqueror who forsook war at the height of victory, a visionary who was, alas, responsible for the breakup of the empire—in short everything that the empire in India and the newly emerging nation there wanted. Understandably, he became something of an icon for the nation that was making itself—a paragon of ahimsâ, one who looked upon the whole subcontinent as a single entity. To what extent historical accuracy was behind it all is another question. Independence and the arrival of the Indian Republic forced historians to worry about a different set of questions. They started examining the conditions that went into the making of Asoka. The social and economic background of the times was studied with keen interest and he was situated within that context. Changes in historiographical strategies were an enabling factor here, apart from the ideological preoccupation of the historian. Archaeology, particularly results derived from excavations, brought out material evidence of the times and hence a ‘materialist’ interpretation was possible in every sense. Asoka ‘the great’ was rehabilitated, as it were, in history. The book under review is the result of an attempt, by scholars of different disciplines and persuasions, to re-examine Asoka and his times from various angles, after about half a century of this rehabilitation. It brings together papers presented in an international conference on ‘Asoka and the Making of Modern India’ held in New Delhi in 2009. In a way it is a tribute to modern Indian historiography. Solid contributions to different aspects of scholarship—epigraphy, archaeology, numismatics, textual studies, museum studies, aspects of religion and philosophy and more —are presented here. So also, there are at least a couple of papers bringing out the relevance of it all in the modern context. In short, it is a stock-taking of scholarship, undertaken with thoroughgoing professionalism. The Introduction by the editors closes with a question: ‘Can there be more than one understanding of the past?’ Not only with the experience of the discipline of history, but with that of Asoka himself over the whole range of Indian ...

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