Monday, 25 June 2012

Book Review: Aśoka And The Decline Of The Mauryas by Romila Thapar

Romila Thapar was prescribed reading for my history papers at the National Law School of India University and I became a fan, though I can’t say I’ve read much of Thapar once academic requirements were met. Recently I read a book on the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka by Charles Allen and to say I found it provocative would be an understatement. According to Charles Allen, Ashoka was heavily influenced by the Greeks. His grandfather Chandragupta Maurya had been a mercenary who fought for Alexander the Great. Buddhism was systematically decimated by a Hindu resurgence led by Adi Shankara. Allen goes to the extent of saying that in modern India, Ashoka is not given the importance he deserves since Indians don’t not wish to glorify a ruler who was so much influenced by Greek culture. I picked up Thapar’s Aśoka And The Decline Of The Mauryas more to see if any of Allen’s fanciful theories have been supported by Thapar than anything else. Thankfully, they have not been.

Thapar says that it is possible Chandragupta met Alexander the Great. In any event, there were very numerous cultural exchanges between the Greeks and the Mauryas, which included matrimony, but Thapar does not dwell much on whether such influences shaped Aśoka (as spelt by Thapar). What then according to Thapar made or created or resulted in Aśoka achieving so much during his rule? ‘The single man who dominates his race, his society, his community, often in opposition to the larger body of his compatriots, is not an isolated prophet or an evil genius, or a man of supernatural vision born out of his time. The germinal matter which he may have used in order to found his position and power will, on analysis, be found to lie within the group from which he arose.’ I thought of Hitler, his ideology and rise to power as I read this. Did Hitler convert a big chunk of German society to his anti-Semitic ideology or were the seeds of anti-Semitism already dormant in Germany and Hitler only had to cause the dormant seeds to germinate? Thapar says that ‘it is largely the reactions to the particular conditions of a given society which are responsible for the attitudes of its individual members.......... It is sometimes said that personal idiosyncracies are often responsible for the policy of a man in power and that these are unrelated to the larger society and age to which he belongs. But even this apparent autonomy of personality is only on the surface. Investigation reveals a social influence in the promptings of many personal actions, or atleast the influence of a social force outside the isolated man.’

Thapar discounts a lot of the commentary from Buddhist sources, including writings from Ceylon, since they had a vested interest in showing Aśoka to be a hardcore Buddhist who sent his son and daughter as missionaries to Ceylon. Thapar says that Buddhism had reached Ceylon before Aśoka’s son Mahinda went there as a missionary. Probably there were even Dhamma missions to Ceylon before Mahinda’s visit. Prince Vijaya most probably went to Ceylon with a large number of people, including the first Buddhists and they took Prakrit with them. Ceylon chronicles claim that Prince Vijaya was from Vanga, but Thapar is of the view that Indian settlers in Ceylon came from both eastern and western parts of India. Thapar does not specifically comment on whether the Tamils had started living in Sri Lanka before the Sinhalese, but she does say that people of all sects lived in Ceylon before Mahinda got there. For example, the princess who married Prince Vijaya hailed from the Pandyan kingdom which is now in modern day Tamil Nadu. Anyone willing to listen?

Was Aśoka such a pacifist that his pacifism weakened the empire? Thapar responds in the negative. Aśoka’s empire covered most of the sub-continent and if he wanted to expand, he would have had to fight west of the Hindu-Kush, an action that would not have been so wise. Further, he had excellent relations with Antiochus of Syria, his only serious rival in the world known to the Indians of those days. As an example of Aśoka not being so pacifist, Thapar says that capital punishment continued to be awarded in Aśoka’s time. Aśoka might have been a practising Buddhist, but his secular message to his people, one contained in his various rock edicts, was one of Dhamma.

Why did the Mauryas decline after Aśoka? Thapar downplays the so-called conflict between Brahminism and Buddhism, something which has been stated by many historians to be one of the reasons for the decline of the Mauryas. Thapar categorically states that the Mauryas did not decline on account of this conflict. Rather, it declined because the Mauryan empire did not have the concept of statehood. Rather, the emphasis was on maintaining the social order. Also, Mauryan administration was too top heavy and centralised and as the empire became weak, the centre could not control the periphery. The partition of the empire immediately after Aśoka’s death also played a role, as did the fact that Aśoka’s successors were of a lesser calibre.

Thapar is an academic who does not have the slightest inclination to use bombastic language or blockbuster narration. Maybe because Aśoka And The Decline Of The Mauryas was originally published in 1973, one finds a lot of quaint phrases such as ‘on an examination of these statements, it is apparent that.........’, ‘there is agreement among various sources that’, ‘for the purposes of this enquiry, we shall restrict ourselves to’, (this use of the royal ‘we’ is the best of the lot) ‘we have attempted in this work to place Aśoka in historical perspective, against the background of....’ and ‘we are of the opinion that.’ In order to capture the new evidence and knowledge thrown up since the time of its first publication, the 2012 third edition of Aśoka And The Decline Of The Mauryas has a very elaborate Afterword and appendices of around 60 pages each.

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