Book review by Bhaskar Parichha
Title: Ashoka and the Maurya Dynasty: The History and Legacy of Ancient India’s Greatest Empire
Author: Colleen Taylor Sen
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
In The Outline of History, H. G. Wells wrote of Ashoka: “In the history of the world, there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves their highnesses, their majesties their exalted majesties and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.”
Ashoka and The Maurya Dynasty: The History and Legacy of Ancient India’s Greatest Empire by Colleen Taylor Sen is a refreshingly ravishing account of the Mauryan empire. Two things stand out prominently in the book: flawless and wide-ranging. Sen has done something extraordinary in dealing with the most powerful empire in India – the amount of material she has used to write the book.
Says the blurb: “At its peak in 250 BCE the Maurya Empire was the wealthiest and largest empire in the world, extending across much of modern India, except a small area in the far south, Pakistan, and parts of Afghanistan up to the Iranian border. The Maurya capital, Pataliputra, was one of the largest cities of antiquity. India (although it was not yet called by that name) was a global power that traded and maintained peaceful diplomatic relations with its neighbors, as far afield as Greece and Egypt.”
Chicago-based, Dr. Colleen Taylor Sen is a culinary historian – having authored several books on food from across continents. A widely translated author, this book does full justice to the subject.
Says the book: “[O]f the seven or eight Maurya emperors, two are remembered today as among India’s greatest leaders: Chandragupta Maurya and his grandson Ashoka. Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, created his empire through both war and peaceful means. He was the first Indian leader known to have signed an international treaty (with the Greeks in the northwest). His grandson Ashoka, after conquering Kalinga in a bloody war in 261 BCE, renounced violence. He then spent the rest of his life advocating and propagating a policy of religious tolerance, kindness to all creatures, and peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society—a policy he called Dhamma.”
Sen discusses Emperor Ashoka’s life, achievements, and his legacy in her book. It also explores the legacy and influence of the Mauryas in politics throughout Southeast Asia, China, and India, as well as in contemporary popular culture. That makes the book broad-based.
An anecdotal reference to the book is in order. While searching for food histories in India, Sen found herself intrigued by Ashoka and began exploring more about him. After conquering Kalinga in a bloody war in 261 BCE, Ashoka renounced violence. He spent the rest of his life propagating religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society.
In a book of about two hundred sixty adrenaline-charged pages, Sen deals with the rise, the highest point it reached, and the fall of the dynasty. She focuses on the accomplishments of Ashoka. In addition to a truthful account, she discusses Buddhist legends, the legacy of the Mauryas, and colonial South Asia. A captivating add-on tells the story of the rediscovery of the long-forgotten historical Mauryas in the 19th and 20th centuries. The intricacies of Mauryan historiography do not take her away from storytelling and she tells it rather profoundly. The result is a glowing record of one of the world’s most remarkable political eras.
The appendix to the book is as fascinating as it is inquisitive. She does a thorough analysis of how several historians unearthed the Mauryas and what led to those explorations. In her view, the post-Independent Indian historians took a ‘patriotic line’ and presented Ashoka as a ruler free of foreign influences. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw in Ashoka the embodiment of a secular role. The Marxist historian, DD Kosambi, wrote that the Ashoka edicts were the first bill of rights for citizens. Then she says, despite extensive scholarship, many questions about the Mauryan empire remain unanswered. For example, what did the city of Pataliputra look like, and will it ever be excavated?
The book is a brilliant addition to the existing literature on Ashoka and the Mauryan Empire. A must-read for history professionals and general book lovers.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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