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Reassessing Ashoka

Kumkum Roy

By Nayanjot Lahiri
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2015, pp. xx 385, Rs. 1595.00


The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka has attracted the attention of scholars and laypersons with access to formal education for nearly two centuries since his ‘rediscovery’ in the 1830s. Nayanjot Lahiri’s work is the latest in a long, rich and diverse series of biographies of the ruler. It is significant as being the first major reassessment of Ashoka by a historian of ancient India in the twentyfirst century, also because it is explicitly meant for a general audience, and attempts to move, remarkably successfully, beyond a dry academic narrative. The prelude provides a dramatic and lucid entry point into the discussion. Lahiri transports us through a swift survey of Ashoka’s justly famous inscriptions and the historiography on the Emperor as it has evolved over the decades. She promises, amongst other things ‘a narrative account of Ashoka in which a clear path that follows the trajectory of his life cuts through the jungle of legends and traditions, the epigraphs and monuments, and the archaeological facts and details that surround him’ (p. 21). At the same time, the very next page assures the reader that archaeology will be used extensively ‘to evoke the times in which Ashoka lived’ (p. 22). The first chapter, which Lahiri adroitly titles ‘An Apocryphal Early Life’, is at once vivid and full of graphic details about the predictions regarding Ashoka’s birth and future, drawn from later Sanskrit Buddhist accounts. Lahiri next pieces together a portrait of Mauryan Pataliputra, juxtaposing fragmentary archaeological evidence with the accounts of Megasthenes and Xuanzang, as well as the prescriptions of the Arthasastra. She then goes on to provide us with a vibrant reconstruction of Taxila as it may have been during Mauryan times, based primarily on Marshall’s excavation of the site. As she cautions us at the outset, we may never know whether Ashoka actually visited the city—nonetheless, it is valuable to catch a glimpse of what a contemporary urban settlement may have been like, given that Pataliputra itself is far less amenable to large-scale excavations. Also interesting is the discussion, in a different context, on how the imperial entourage may have travelled (pp. 91–92). Readers curious about matters marital and extra-marital will be gratified with the chapter that discusses Ashoka’s possible marriage with the daughter of a merchant, a supporter of Buddhism, and the more or less bloody path he may have traversed to make his way to the throne. ...

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