In his opus on Ashoka, Daya has given us a literary work of significance and a historical work of considerable importance. When there are hundreds of books in multitude of languages on Ashoka, why, you may ask, is the necessity for one more? While all the rest describes the life and times of Ashoka, Daya [...]

Sunday Times 2

A courageous call for fresh search for historical Ashoka

Reviewed by Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana

In his opus on Ashoka, Daya has given us a literary work of significance and a historical work of considerable importance.

When there are hundreds of books in multitude of languages on Ashoka, why, you may ask, is the necessity for one more?

While all the rest describes the life and times of Ashoka, Daya has courageously challenged the veracity and, indeed, the very basis on which every such publication is founded on. He questions the authenticity of the contents of not only the conventional historical works they are based on but also the authenticity of the revered Puranas, Prakrit, and Sanskrit chronicles of ancient India to Lanka’s Pali chronicle Mahavamsa and the world-renowned interpretations of stone inscriptions of India and Sri Lanka.

True, most intellectuals have always had little regard for the oral history recorded centuries later by partisans in venerated narratives from Bhagavat Gita and Ramayana that records the history of India. But there was always the acceptance of the records of the interpreters and commentators of the stone inscriptions of Ashoka. From Turner and Geiger, the early translators of Mahavamsa, there was legitimacy placed on the Ashokan inscriptions and Lankan inscriptions such as Rajagala which gave authenticity to all historical works on Ashoka. H.G. Wells considered Ashoka the greatest monarch the world had ever seen, a statement according to Daya, is considered ‘Gospel Truth,’ in India and other South Asian countries and to say otherwise, as he seems to imply, is considered blasphemy, heresy and in India traitorous.

Scholars rely on inscriptions on stones and pillars and Sri Lankan Pali records to study the life of Emperor Ashoka

In his own admission, that being the case, he has brought forth a provocative piece of work that a lesser person would dare not even imagine publishing. However, the mere fact that his work was published by a reputable publishing house in India testifies to the fact that this indeed is a worthy publication.

The general acceptance, as recorded by historians, is that in his quest to govern India by moral force alone, Ashoka turned Buddhism from a minor sect into a world religion and set up a new yardstick for governing, which had huge implications for Asia. But his brave experiment ended in tragedy, and his name was cleansed from the record so effectively that he was forgotten for almost two thousand years. But a few mysterious stone monuments and inscriptions survived, and these keystones to the past were discovered by amateur British archaeologists, many of them employees of the East India Company and British Indian bureaucrats, motivated mainly by curiosity and a love for India’s history. They dug around,   deciphered the mysterious lettering and came up with theories, some of which are highly questionable and even silly, and ultimately shed light on fragments of the Ashokan story, and in the process, India’s ancient history was itself recovered, and Ashoka was considered the greatest ruler India has ever known.

While scholars uniformly rely on the inscriptions of Ashoka many including Sri Lankan historians like Dr. Ananda Guruge and Patrick Olivelle, Professor of History, Texas University, who have written extensively on Ashoka, believing that the Ashokan inscriptions, Sri Lankan Pali records and the Theravada tradition founded on them can be relied upon as providing a credible account of the role and achievements of Asoka as far as his services to the Buddhist cause are concerned. But they do not consider Ashokan inscriptions as constituting a comprehensive biography of the emperor or that we have found and accurately deciphered or interpreted all the records which he could have left.

Referring to the chronicles Vamsa literature, in his book “Ashoka the Righteous – A Definitive Biography,” Dr. Guruge says: most of them have been translated into English and several other European languages nearly a century ago by foreign scholars who had enormous difficulties in understanding and interpreting these documents. Dictionaries hardly existed at that time, and our archaeological and epigraphical research was still in its infancy, not only that, all this work of the pioneers needs to be reviewed in the light of our present knowledge of languages and history, but that, a fair assessment of the Buddhist sources, in general, and Sri Lankan Pali sources in particular, is a pre-requisite for the removal of quite a number of misconceptions and the clarification of many a puzzle.

Daya Dissanayake says his “study aims to question some of the ‘accepted’ theories and build up a case for identifying King Asoka on the basis of the archaeological evidence, rather than purely on the basis of literary sources. Since nothing had been discovered of any documentary evidence from pre-Asokan times, and the earliest we have are the Asokan inscriptions, we cannot place total reliance on these sources. According to Buddha’s own teaching, we cannot accept what was written many centuries later. We should not repeat “evam me sutan” (thus, I have heard). We should try to be “ehipassiko” (see for ourselves).”

The author then goes on to challenge the accuracy of the Sri Lankan literary sources as represented by Mahavamsa and the rest of the vamsas, the generally accepted sources for the origins and propagation of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

He, for instance, points out that Ashoka never mentioned Mahinda and Sangamitta or their mission to Lanka. It is his view that “we have not yet found any written records of the period, or even any paintings. All the literature that describes this period were written many centuries later and would only have described the life of the people at the time of writing, or what the writers imagined to be. Accepting such later writings and trying to create the life of people in the 6th to 3rd century would be like accepting as fact most of what our chronicles, epics, and historical fiction gives us…We are trying to talk of dynasties or emperors in mid-first millennium BCE South Asia, using our imagination, exaggerated descriptions in the epics and religious literature and the history of later periods.”

Given that his edicts rarely refer directly to either Buddhism or the Buddhist Sangha, he points to the considerable controversy over the extent to which Ashoka can be regarded as a practising Buddhist. The author points outs that the “Sinhala classics (Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa?) mention that Buddha visited Sri Lanka (Sinhala Dweep?) three times during his lifetime, though archaeologists have still not found any evidence, regarding the arrival of Buddha, or of Asoka’s emissaries – Mahinda thera and Sangamitta theri, or of the arrival of a Bo (Ficus religiosa) sapling from India… The only evidence about Mahinda Thera is the single inscription translated by Prof. Paranavithana in Rajagala, about 200 km away from Anuradhapura, in which we do not know if Paranavithana correctly translated as he extrapolated and added the “ma” in assuming the name inscribed was that of Mahinda.”

He points out that “now we have five Asokas. i). from the inscriptions, ii). from the Sri Lanka Pali chronicles, iii). from the Sanskrit northern literature, iv). Taranata’s History of Buddhism in India, and v). The real historical Ashoka. It has become a near-impossible task to see and identify the real Asoka, through all the legends built around him, and the misinterpretation of his inscriptions. If we could identify the ‘real’ Asoka, it would, in turn, help us to identify the real Buddha and trace the development of Buddha Dhamma and Buddhism through the initial stages.”

The author considers that the stories of Ashoka are mostly a blend of history and legend. They are mainly based on historical facts with an element of legend. Previous writers on the topic have made use of facts and information found in Mahavamsa and various other sources of history, legend and folklore in compiling these publications.

Therefore, the author’s basic conclusion and recommendation are that considering the “academic world is not even in agreement of the date of birth and death of the Buddha or how many years he had lived; all these inscriptions need to be studied and understood afresh. Thus, the epigraphists, linguists, cultural-historical archaeologists, historians, and Buddhist scholars need to collaborate and study all the Asokan inscriptions anew, from the original estampages, pushing out of their minds all the previous translations. It is a challenge to archaeologists of the twenty-first century to make use of the latest technology and equipment, to search for the historical Asoka, with an open mind, not to prove or disprove his existence or his story, but to establish the historical facts of the period.” It is certainly an argument that is eminently reasonable to be considered by any open-minded person.

Of course, I knew who Ashoka was, and I knew him as one of the greatest kings the world has seen who introduced Buddhism to Lanka, a matter of utmost importance to the Island’s history. What I expected to get from Daya’s “ Who is Ashoka” was a detailed description of Emperor Ashoka, how he came to power and a list of all the good things he did after that famous change of heart and conversion to Buddhism subsequent to the conquest of Kalinga. What I ended up was something else. No, I was not disappointed, and I cannot be blamed if I am left with the idea that though what we have read about Ashoka seems as if the writers had witnessed the events, they now resemble the work of a well-read, researched and highly creative imaginations, the hallmark of great historical fiction that they leave the reader wondering where facts ended, and fiction began.

Writing not as an expert, but merely as an interested reader, I find Daya’s masterpiece is an impressively researched, carefully crafted, much-needed study introducing a well-argued new element of doubt on a fascinating historical personality. While some may disagree, I am confident that it will be an enriching read for anyone with an interest in historical events or Buddhism and open to considering new, even if debatable, ideas.

(Mr. Jasentuliyana is a
former Deputy Director General, United Nations)


Book facts
Who was Ashoka?
Author: Daya Dissanayake
Published by Bird Nest (An imprint of Pakshighar Parakashanee, Odisha, India)


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