The imagined past

Print edition : July 27, 2012

A reassessment of Asoka the Great and his significance in historical memory.

Two decades ago, Robert Lingat observed that there are in reality two Asokas the historical Asoka and the legendary Asoka. Reimagining Asoka: Memory and History brings the two face to face. The editors of the volume are known from their previous works for innovative approaches to interpreting the history and archaeology of early India. It is no surprise that the book they have put together sets out to do something similar. It places memory, a tool of analysis associated with modern history and ethnography, at the centre of an ancient Indian history enterprise. Also, in doing so, it in effect suggests that much of what has been regarded as historical verities can be re-understood as imaginaries constructed by various traditions in the past, so that there is a need twice over to insert a mediated distance between the object of historical inquiry and what we come to believe about it.

When applied to a subject that is so well established in Indian history books as to be practically a given a figure as pivotal as the Mauryan emperor Asoka, who is credited with having ruled over our first and largest empire ever in the 3rd century BCE, and to whom a great legacy of power and piety is attributed down to the present the suggestion on view approaches the revisionist.

It can posit Asoka, for instance, less as the agent of all the feats ascribed to him in Buddhist texts composed centuries after him than as a motif appropriated, memorialised and magnified by monks and Buddhist rulers across time and space, who were out at once to invoke and erect an exemplar for their beliefs and practices. It can also posit Asokas doctrine of non-violence/pacifism and renunciation of war ( dhammavijaya) as an enduring subtext for philosophical discourses that later emerged from the subcontinent rather than a flash in the pan which was quickly forgotten by the land and people, and rediscovered and feted only millennia later in nationalist agendas. In these and other ways, the volume aims at a reassessment of evidence on Asoka the Great and a consideration of his significance in historical memory (preface, page xv).

The 19 essays in this collection go about these aims in a very wide angle, touching on many different aspects of Asokan/Mauryan studies. They cover historiography, such as Shailendra Bhandares sharply critical review of theories on purported Mauryan coinage and Virchand Dharamseys piece on Bhagwanlal Indrajis pioneering contributions to Asokan studies in the 19th century. They discuss language and literature: Oskar von Hinuber writes on the rationale behind languages used in the far-flung Asokan edicts and Grant Parker explains the dynamics of cross-cultural contact represented by Greek and Aramaic versions of these, specifically. The good old question of whether Arthasastra is a Mauryan text is examined and categorically denied in Mark McClishs contribution.

Essays on religion include John Strongs Buddhistic exegesis of the first Minor Rock Edict and Harry Falks on the transformation of Lumbini into a major pilgrimage site through Asokas actions. Richard Salomon touches on the topic of chronology through his tentative exploration of the connection between the fall of the Mauryan dynasty in 185 BCE and the newly discovered Yona or Indo-Greek era.

Vidula Jayaswal discusses the technology of stonework and suggests the presence of foreign craftsmen in the sandstone quarries at Chunar for the preparation of Asokan pillars. There is even an essay on the environment in this wide-ranging compilation: Jean-Francois Salles argues for changes in the sea level off the Bengal coast and the slow emergence of new lands resulting in the lateness of Mauryan settlement at Mahasthan.

Then there are pieces on Asoka in Asia (Max Deeg on Chinese imitations of Asokan narrative traditions and Chongfeng Li on Asoka-type Buddha images in China) and Asoka in contemporary times (Janice Leoshko on how museums impact historical imagination and Bhagwan Josh on statist identities served by Asokan elements). The most prominent of Asokan emblems today are the Lion capital and chakra from Sarnath, both national symbols that enjoy a startlingly wide visual currency, far outstripping anything their inventor could have hoped for, appearing on everything from Indian currency to missiles.

This last section of the book illustrates the many lives ancient Indian images have led through time, displaying a capacity for not merely continuity but reinvention.

Diverse collection

While the above essays are, for the most, stand-alone studies, one can also discern other contributions in Reimagining Asoka that appear to cohere via something of an unstated dialogue with each other.

Though probably not planned to do so, they inscribe a unity of concern in this otherwise diverse collection. The first of these is Romila Thapars retrospective, which deftly goes about identifying varieties of historical memories of the king.

A stone slab with an edict of Asoka recovered from the Chandralamba temple at Sannati in Gulbarga district, Karnataka. Romila Thapar wonders if the use of a stone slab bearing the dhamma edict for constructing the idol as late as the 7th century CE was not a self-conscious act of brahmanical vandalism.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

These range from memories that seek to appropriate and approve of him, such as the northern ( avadana) and southern ( vamsa) Buddhist textual traditions, which are primarily responsible for constructing the legends and aura around Asoka as a great Buddhist king, to those memories that, it is argued, reject and undermine him, such as the brahmanical Puranas, since they dismiss him by a mere mention in their king lists and were hostile to the Buddha. And then there are those memories that implicitly engage with him, such as the discourse on kingship in the Mahabharata, it is suggested. Yudhisthiras and then Arjunas initial denunciation of the violence of war is seen to be inspired by Asokas supposed latter-day pacifism, which in turn was inspired by the heterodox (Buddhist) ideal of non-violence; the epic heroes rejection of warfare takes considerable orthodox argumentation in favour of it (like in Bhagavad Gita, we are told) to counter and quell.

While this is a tantalising reinterpretation of the Mahabharata, it depends rather too heavily on an uncertain re-dating of the Santi and Udyog parvas to a period post Asoka. Even if the re-dating were correct, the theory would pose a somewhat diffusionist understanding of ideas or intellectual trends, believing them to be capable of occurring at only one site and moment in history, with all other occurrences necessarily inspired from or a response to the first.

Asokas Dhamma

From Romila Thapars classification it seems that the reception to Asoka in history was polarised between the Buddhist and the brahmanical. Thus she wonders if the use of a stone slab bearing an Asokan dhamma edict for constructing the idol in the Chandralamba temple (in Gulbarga district of Karnataka) as late as the 7th century CE was not a self-conscious act of brahmanical vandalism.

This must remain an assumption, and one which tends to conflate Asokas dhamma with Buddhism, like in the earlier argument where the Puranas are read as ignoring Asoka because of their proclaimed hostility to the Buddha.

This conflation actually runs counter to Romila Thapars long-held and widely accepted position that his dhamma was non-denominational and not Buddhist.

The nature of Asokas dhamma and, therefore, of his primary role and significance in history is the main concern in the essays by Patrick Olivelle and Himanshu Prabha Ray. Olivelle offers some important clarifications regarding the character of Asokan inscriptions, describing them as epistles rather than edicts, and mostly meant for the officers of the kingdom and Buddhist monks, not the general population (page165).

This is a point K.R. Norman also makes in his piece in this volume. On the question of dhamma, Olivelle endorses Romila Thapars view that it was not a Buddhist creed. But he goes on to observe rightly that dharma (of which dhamma is the Prakrit form) was a pre-Asokan concept central to many orthodox and heterodox traditions and must have already enjoyed a resonance amongst a large section of the people when Asoka invoked it. Accordingly, he dubs Asokas dhamma a civil religion.

However, in Minor Rock Edict I Asoka himself connects his zeal for dhamma with his conversion to Buddhism. In the face of this inescapable testimony, Olivelle concedes that Buddhism may have been the inspiration for dhamma.

As opposed to Romila Thapar, and unlike Olivelles attempted middle ground, Himanshu Prabha Ray is emphatic in asserting that the abiding historical memory of Asoka is as the royal pilgrim and propagator of the overarching Buddhist dhamma of the edicts (page 69). In this context, she draws attention to the location of the edicts in the precincts of religious, rather than royal, establishments, so that they can be seen as markers of a Buddhist sacred landscape, which came to be defined in the Mauryan period. She speaks of the coalescence of the sangha and the state (page 71) and of the emergence of a cultural rather than imperial unity in Asokas empire.

While this position is refreshing and has the merit of being internally consistent, it does not offer enough evidence to argue that the king and the pilgrim acted as one. It begs the question: How exactly did the two roles intersect; whose aims were paramount? If the religious aspect of Asokas acts and intentions predominated, were there no imperial concerns involved simultaneously? Indeed this question in reverse can be put to Romila Thapars view in which dhamma is considered essentially imperial, and not religious, policy.

This unresolved tension between the categories of religion and politics among historians in evaluating an ancient Indian king perhaps results from modern-day eurocentric conceptions of secularism consisting in the separation of state and church. The hesitation to resolve the tension may also be on account of a desire to preserve the perception of Buddhism as a popular, not elite, religion.

Be that as it may, the twin elements of his religion and his politics can perhaps be reconciled only by appreciating that Asokas dhammavijaya (conquest by dhamma) was not a pacifist or renunciatory policy (inspired by Buddhism) at all, but a mode of seeking and asserting sovereignty through other means. It established a highly political model of Buddhism and not a Buddhistic model of politics. It was perhaps for this reason that it was repeatedly invoked by subsequent Buddhist kings of Sri Lanka and China not because they were Buddhists but because they were kings.