Book review

Book Review: Irwin Allan Sealy's 'Asoca: A Sutra' portrays Emperor Ashoka as a doubting Buddhist

Print edition : January 28, 2022

A first century C.E. relief in the southern gateway of Stupa 1 of Sanchi depicting Ashoka, on a chariot, visiting the Nagas at Ramagrama. Photo: CREATIVE COMMONS

The writer paints a portrait of Emperor Ashoka as a man who first questions and even resists the creed he eventually embraces.

MY first thought when I saw a copy of the handsome book Asoca: A Sutra was, “why Asoca?” It was the instinct of an ancient India historian, to be sure, one long accustomed to the diacritical system of transliterating Sanskrit or Prakrit words into English. In that notation system, ‘c’ is reserved for the sound ‘ch’ and not ‘ka’, whereas there is no ‘ch’ in the name of the celebrated Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, whose life story this novel purports to tell. Hence the puzzlement.

As it turns out, Erwin Allan Sealy, the author, tells us that he meant only to suggest a soft rustic rendition of the name as ‘Assoka’, a version that the protagonist’s mother, the queen of humble origins, is shown calling him. While that phonetic effect is not achieved, I dare say, by the spelling the book title opts for, either way, what Sealy does is to impress upon the onlooker and the prospective reader that his Ashoka is different.

Therefore, despite the expectation of a certain deference to history in this review of an avowedly historical novel, it may be fitting to begin by departing from that expectation, and dwelling instead on the personal. That is because it is precisely his personal, touristic, random visits to sites of Ashokan edicts—Sarnath (Uttar Pradesh), Sanchi (Madhya radesh) and Kalsi (U.K.) and, later to a theatre in Chengdu, China, fortuitously putting up a play on a king ‘Asoka’—that Sealy identifies as the wellspring or inspiration for this novel.

Again, though a professional historian by training and practice, I would identify closely with and applaud this very intimate and experiential attraction to history. My own foray into research in early India more than 25 years ago originated in a similar fashion, from visits to ancient ruins or their remains in the National Museum in New Delhi or, even more serendipitously for the book under review, from the impression left behind by an aesthetic and powerful TV serial on Chanakya/Kautilya, the Mauryan minister, that was telecast on Doordarshan in the 1990s.

I detour into my story only to make the point that the sheer potential of popular visual culture or, in the case of this novel, popular literary culture to bring the past alive and right into our midst is enormous, and so too, therefore, the potential to ignite and enflame a passion for history and an actual professional pursuit of it in the lay reader.

In other words, though Sealy is conscientious and forthright in declaring very early that he is “unconcerned with scholarship”, he has taken liberties and is even “obliged to make things up” (pp.xiii-xiv)— a candour and courage that are refreshing and disarming in the face of scholasticism—I think this does not take away from the service he has done to the cause of history by penning a deeply felt exploration of the inner life of a real king from the past.

Also read: ‘To bring Asoka back in public discourse was important’

To take this further, let us now confront head-on the elephant in the room, namely, the fraught relationship between literature and history or literature and reality, with which a novel such as Asoca must necessarily contend with. The mainstream of professional history writing, it must be admitted, has for the longest time maintained an unspoken binary between history and literature/poetry, a deemed opposition that is often rendered as fact versus fiction, history deemed to be ‘true’ and fiction ‘false’ or a figment of the imagination.

After the literary turn in the humanities, however, with works of scholars such as Hayden White and A.K. Ramanujan, this supposed antagonism between history and literature, or fact and fiction, has come in for serious reconsideration, and has even been abandoned by the new vistas opened up by cultural history and a history of ideas today.

Indeed, history itself has been shown to be inescapably a form of literature, a narrative, a plot and story without which bare facts would make no sense. Similarly, literature, or literary tropes, are widely recognised now as yielding a host of historical insights and a symbolic, intuitive grasp of the structure of historical experience. Therefore, as someone whose own work stands at the intersection of literature, history and philosophy, I welcome the project that Asoca: A Sutra represents.

Specifically, what the author has done is to masterfully move into and occupy the interstices and the liminal space between Mauryan history and a 21st century, deeply poetic and contemplative rendition of it. Let us settle this anxiety right away: Despite his own disclaimers, Sealy has not taken liberties with Ashokan history as we know it.

He has held on to the bare bones of all the facts from the 3rd century B.C.—the characters, the events, the locales, the dramatic conversion to Buddhism and its role in the personal and royal life of the emperor. And, retaining all these as the scaffoldings of his novel, he has then added, in his inimitable literary style, depth of perception and emotion, complexity of character and role, and richness and vividness of ambience. All of these come together to give shape to an at once freewheeling and fully under control, taut biography—or should I say reverie—which is as irreverent, impetuous, wayward and questing as its protagonist himself, and always profoundly human.

A most worthy ally in this enterprise has been Sealy’s celebrated prose which has the ability to seize and then surprise you, and to move you as it takes you along the twists and turns in the life of one tormented, yet self-aware individual called Ashoka. Witness a few samples of this haunting writing style that draws you in and creates a mood, often brooding, from which it is difficult to pull away. Here is the description of the lands just outside the citadel of Pataliputra, ancient Patna, the Mauryan capital, as Ashoka escapes into them one night:

“Outside was open ground. Beyond that, dark forest. The sky was white. Gold had entered the river, blue hung on at the treeline. I knew not to loiter in the clearing and crossed straight to the trees…. Night seemed to fall again as I slipped into the trees, but the forest rang with morning birds.… The sun had come up and its first red rays turned the forest into a pillared hall. A leaf fell tumbling through that red-gold light. I crossed to the next tree. The forest was sal, the tall, straight hardwood that made our Mauryan fortifications.” (p. 14)

The character sketches Sealy pens are as riveting. Thus, there is the cameo by Kautilya, the famed, ageing prime minister who Ashoka calls Uncle K, “the maker and keeper of kings” and who in turn calls Ashoka “a simple contrarian” (p. 23, 84). And then Ashoka’s eldest brother Susima (Sushumna), the heir-apparent. Once as 10-year-olds, Ashoka had just met with an accident in the royal kitchen and here is the scene as it unfolded thereafter:

“Father came up close. His arm sought out Susima as he listened to Mother’s account [of the accident]. He was watching me fixedly in the way he had of looking just over my shoulder….

“He drew his firstborn to him and rubbed his back as if he was the injured one. ‘You’re all right,’ he said at last, boxing Susima’s chin. ‘That’s the main thing.’

“Susima glowed. I hated him right then… He was, truth be told, the noblest of us all. He didn’t lie or cheat or push and shove and scramble. But then, he didn’t have to. He carried himself as if the crown were a settled thing.

“You shouldn’t really.” (p. 4)

In another childhood episode, when Susima tells Ashoka’s mother about an escapade the brothers had all sworn not to reveal, Ashoka presciently says: “Was that when I first saw Susima was unfit to rule? A king can’t go back on his word. Not even in the service of truth.” (p. 8)

Depth, complexity, and vividness—all these qualities of Sealy’s style also significantly shine through in his treatment of what historians will have us believe was the central phenomenon of Ashoka’s life, namely, Buddhism and its tenet of dhamma (the Prakrit form of ‘dharma’). In this context it is relevant to note Sealy’s presentation of Ashoka as someone who bore many a chip on his shoulder right from his childhood, on account of being the son of a low-born woman, possessing a pock-marked face (earning for him perhaps the cruel sobriquet of ‘crocodile’ from his step-brothers), and suffering a lack of approval from his father, the King Bindusara, who, as we saw, prefers his good-looking firstborn, Susima. It is this Susima, along with a bunch of other brothers in the running for the throne of Magadha, that Ashoka grows up to infamously murder.

Engagement with dhamma

Given this background, it is meaningful to see Sealy render Ashoka’s engagement with dhamma as one man’s search for inner balance and self-government, a personal peace, if you like, more than even a royal policy driven by sectarian affiliation. This is an interpretation that one cannot help thinking the Buddha himself would approve of. For, the prescribed pursuit of nirvana in Buddhism is ultimately a rather individual affair, something each one has to work out for himself/herself. And yet, this reaching into the inner recesses of a psyche and its fundamental needs is very post-modern, very 21st century indeed, which is perhaps why Sealy also says his Asoca belongs in the present more than 2,400 years ago.

Of course, there has been intense scholarly debate over the nature of Ashoka’s dhamma. One view suggests that, though inspired by Buddhism, dhamma, with its advocacy of inter-religious concord and civil behaviour for all, was more a universal socio-ethical code than a Buddhist doctrine. This has been contested by those who maintain that there is little to differentiate Ashoka’s dhamma, with its emphasis on non-violence and righteous living, from the Buddha’s dhamma. Ashoka does not hesitate, after all, to publicly own up, in his rock and pillar edicts, his deep veneration for the Enlightened One, his patronage of His followers and his intervention in the running of the Buddhist sangha.

Also read: On rediscovering Asoka through his edicts

Now, what Sealy does is to ingeniously wed the two approaches, felicitously using all the elbow room that literature affords, to present Ashoka’s state policy of dhamma as an outward reflection of his inward search, even a parallel development to it. Going within Ashoka and excavating his personal need for peace and equipoise, Asoca: A Sutra paints a portrait of the emperor as a man who, far from falling head over heels for The Way that his wife, children and associates swear by, first questions and even resists the creed he eventually embraces. “A doubting Buddhist”, as Sealy puts it (p. xv).

Ashoka says:

“Conversion is a curious thing. No excitement like it, no conviction so profound. There is no garment so fitting because there was no nakedness so complete as yours when you saw the error of your ways. But you change not just your clothes; you are abandoning your old self… you are asked to put your reason in hock, place your all in trust. You are putting yourself in eternal debt....

“My way was not like that. I refused that excitement. I refused conviction, trust, faith, debt. I retained my mind.” (p. 203) This is where Sealy’s investment in characterisation bears rich, ambiguous fruit. Even as the king appears to be putting into practice in his realm the policy of dhamma under the advice and inspiration of monks like Tissa and Ananda who he surrounds himself with, Ashoka himself arguably remains an unsure, roving, restless soul until the very end.

So, we are back, after a long journey through the historical, to the personal in Sealy’s latest masterpiece. Again, does this dilute or take away from the historical authenticity of the book? Does Asoca: A Sutra commit historical heresy by plunging into the subjective and the imaginative? Let me quote Ashoka himself in answer, in the words of Sealy: “A secular sutra is no heresy if it lit the way!” (p. 374) In the same way, a work of fiction is no heresy if it lights up the path to historical understanding.

Shonaleeka Kaul is Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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