New Ashoka biography: Engaging life-story of an emperor who ruled by Dharma

Distinguished scholar Patrick Olivelle’s new work is for “informed and curious” readers

GN Bureau | January 23, 2024

#Patrick Olivelle   #Emperor Ashoka   #Politics   #Religion   #Culture   #History  
A view of Sarnath, near Varanasi, from where the famed `Lion Capital of Ashoka` was found. (GN Photo)
A view of Sarnath, near Varanasi, from where the famed `Lion Capital of Ashoka` was found. (GN Photo)

Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King
By Patrick Olivelle
HarperCollins, 400 pages, Rs 799.00

Ashoka, the great emperor, is not only one of the most iconic figures in South Asian history, his legacy – more than anyone else’s – forms the foundation of the modern Indian republic. The state symbols and emblems of the nation pay tributes to the last great Mauryan emperor centwho is remembered above all for his ecumenism. Not many rulers fit the notion of a ‘philosopher-king’ as he does.

The figure of Ashoka (3rd century BCE) has, naturally, attracted scholars. There have been a series of biographies and detailed monographs in this century alone, taking latest research into account. However, people at large know little about this important personage beyond what the school textbooks and booklets offer.

Distinguished scholar Patrick Olivelle, who has written on Ashoka before, has penned an engrossing portrait for the “informed and curious” people with his ‘Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King’. This book, the first in the ‘Indian Lives’ series edited and curated by Ramachandra Guha, is based on sound scholarship, but refrains from jargon to bring the story of Ashoka to a wider readership.

Ashoka has been imagined, and reimagined, several times over. It has been said that there are at least two Ashokas: the historical Ashoka (whom we know mainly through his inscriptions), and the legendary Ashoka, who is largely a construct of the popular imagination. Olivelle’s new book resists the temptation to blend the two as it seeks to gain an insight into the emperor’s world. Based primarily on the inscriptions (which is where Ashoka ‘speaks for himself’), the author constructs a fascinating portrait of India’s first great ruler, where the figure of Ashoka comes vividly alive notwithstanding the elusiveness and fragmentary nature of the sources.

Olivelle introduces the reader to the many lives of Ashoka in the four parts of the volume: Ashoka the Ruler who extended the Mauryan empire across almost the entirety of the Indian subcontinent; Ashoka the Buddhist who played a critical role in taking the Buddha’s teachings to new shores and also in shaping the Sangha, or the community of adherents; Ashoka the Moral Philosopher who preached as well as practised Dharma as Moral Philosophy; and Ashoka the Ecumenist who exhorted people, through his rock edicts and pillar inscriptions, to respect all religions and promoted social harmony.  

In a sense, each of the four of them displays some or the other connotation of the word ‘Dharma’.

Here is an accessible yet thoroughly well researched biography of “an emperor beloved of gods” – a rare one who said sorry after a bloody war and ruled with the motto of non-violence. He is the one we need to turn to for answers to some of the more deep-rooted dilemmas facing us today.



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