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Rediscovering Ashoka the Great, the outsider king

Irwin Allan Sealy’s new novel ‘Asoca’, based on the life of the great ruler, holds up a mirror to our troubled times

A Buddhist representation of emperor Ashoka on elephant, first century BCE, Sanchi.
A Buddhist representation of emperor Ashoka on elephant, first century BCE, Sanchi. (Getty Images)

Irwin Allan Sealy’s Asoca tells the story of an emperor from the subcontinent in third century BCE, a man we know as Ashoka the Great. Sealy has a delightful play on his name—ashoka and ashocha mean the same thing, effectively, but he attributes his preferred softer “ch” sound to the prince’s mother and her “socially” lower dialect. This gentle linguistic shift immediately places us in a position of intimacy with our hero, a man not as good-looking as his more appropriately birthed royal stepbrothers but with a far more glorious destiny.

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We hold this intimacy throughout the book as we follow the young boy, who grows into a worthy (if tormented) prince and eventually, into an emperor who transforms the geographical and spiritual landscape of the vast territories he comes to rule. Adding to our closeness to Asoca is the first-person narrative supported by Sealy’s carefully constructed prose—for the most part, it is deceptively flat, calling no attention to itself with either flourish or rhetoric. Like a deep and wide river, it flows quietly alongside Asoca, its calm surface reflecting emotions and events as they succeed each other and the prince creates his extraordinary life.

The name Asoca also establishes the prince as an outsider, a niggling discomfort that he carries with himself all the time. His closest friends are men from the margins, the woman he truly loves and leaves behind is not of royal blood—all this heightens our expectations of the radically new world Asoca can bring into being. Shramans (ascetics) lurk at the edges of his consciousness long before he takes over the throne. But Kautilya, the master strategist behind Asoca’s grandfather’s success, is also a constant shadow in his life. Asoca says: “My own preference even at home had always been for the dissenter. The shraman simplifies the truth, a brahman complicates it. One risks all, the other hedges his bets. A shraman throws away the rule book; a brahman is (sic) the rule book.”

Asoca settles in to his new role as king (not without some discomfort) and initiates administrative reforms. Here, the seeds of the Ashoka that we know are sown—but the cataclysmic change is yet to come. Sealy dispenses with the Kalinga war quickly in a few short pages, abjuring descriptions of battle and focusing instead on how the brutality affects Asoca. Asoca is horrified by the number of dead and persuades himself that the responsibility for this genocide lies with him. By this time, he is surrounded by Buddhists, even within his family, and his previous ambivalence towards violence re-emerges to haunt him. But it is the blind itinerant monk Ananta, brought before the king for “royal insubordination”, who helps him see the way ahead, to understand the nature of suffering and the simultaneous enormity and futility of guilt. Asoca must choose a way forward from the many paths available to a king.

Asoca: By Irwin Allan Sealy, Penguin Random House India, 392 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Asoca: By Irwin Allan Sealy, Penguin Random House India, 392 pages, 699.

“Prince Siddhartha had turned his back on all that, all this, and gone into the forest to meditate before he became the Buddha. Ananta was not implying that I should too; as one of my functionaries he saw the need for an ordering of the world of men. But he was saying that it was time I stopped looking back. Which I did, or began to do.” Convinced that the principles for living an ethical life must exist within society as much as they do outside it, Asoca decides dhamma, the code of good conduct the Buddha articulated for his followers, will guide all his choices henceforth, that he will rule by conscience over all else. Asoca now understands that actions are far more important than words, that the measure of a man is what he does, not what he says.

Sealy’s Asoca surely holds up a mirror to the times in which we live: empty of human decency, devoid of ethical governance, littered with cynical performances of renunciation. Ashoka the Great’s story is one of the more significant stories from our past, as is that of Akbar (also) the Great. These emperors inhabit legend as expansively as they inhabit history, providing us with a critical alternative narrative to that of brute conquest and a reflexive, unthinking opposition to different ideologies and cultures. Both of them opened their courts to diverse and multiple conversations, both sought a way of righteousness over the simple rule of law.

This is a good time for us to draw both solace and inspiration from what came before. But pity the people that seek hope not in their future, but in their past.

Arshia Sattar is a writer and translator based in Bengaluru.

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