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Book Title: Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas|
The author of the book: Romila Thapar
ISBN 13: 9780195639322
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 626 KB
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Reader ratings: 6.2
Edition: Oxford University Press, USA
Date of issue: May 8th 1997
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When he had been consecrated eight years the Beloved-of-the-Gods, the king Piyadassi, conquered Kalinga. A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished. Afterwards, now that Kalinga was annexed, the Beloved-of-the-Gods very earnestly practised Dhamma, desired Dhamma and taught Dhamma. On conquering Kalinga the Beloved-of-the-Gods felt remorse, for, when an independent country is conquered the slaughter, death, and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved-of-the-Gods, and weighs heavily on his mind. - excerpt from the 13th Major Rock Edict of Ashoka ()
The legendary Indian ruler Ashoka Maurya (Aśoka, 304–232 BCE) - if one is to believe some of these legends - made the transition from the slaying of ninety-nine of his one hundred brothers during a war of ascendancy and the construction of a "Hell" in which he had people tortured by refined and unspeakably cruel means he had learned during a little sidetrip to the real Hell, to a sudden conversion to Buddhism and transformation to perfect Goodness. Is there enough scientifically founded evidence to try to determine who the actual Ashoka was? And even more interesting to me, what does one know about Mauryan India during this historically first unification of nearly all of greater India?
The noted Indian historian Romila Thapar (b. 1931), a specialist in ancient India, has drawn the ire of certain of her compatriots because she has objected to re-writings of Indian history that she claims to have been motivated more by religious, ideological and political reasons than by factual ones.(*) Her opponents have called her a Marxist, but there is no sign of that ideology in this carefully scholarly text in which she must comb through unreliable, incomplete sources shot through with legends, which she relates for the reader to contrast the often widely disparate versions and then to deconstruct them.
Ashoka was the third and in important respects the greatest member of the Mauryan dynasty, founded by Ashoka's grandfather, Candragupta, who had encountered both Alexander the Great and Seleucus I during their attempts to conquer India.(**) On the advice of his remarkable advisor, Kautalya (whose great text of statecraft, Arthashastra, has survived and is an invaluable source for many aspects of Mauryan India), Candragupta set up a highly centralized bureaucracy that impinged on nearly all aspects of social and economic life in the empire, at least in principle. Ashoka's father, Bindusara, was apparently a great conqueror and significantly increased the expanse of the realm. Thapar carefully dates Ashoka's coronation to 269-268 BCE after a nearly four year interregnum of war with his brothers for the rule. After his ascent to power, the sole war of Ashoka for which we have solid evidence - the Kalinga War in 260 BCE - was a source of deep regret for him (see the above quote from one of his edicts carved into stone). It would appear that he renounced war thenceforth.
What he did instead was to promote religious tolerance and social responsibility in an attempt to meld an empire of many peoples, religions and cultures into a harmonious whole (ultimately failing, at least in the latter goal). One of the ways in which he did so was to have moral "edicts" carved into pillars and stones all over the empire in the local languages and regularly read out to the people. Ashoka's extant edicts are translated in an Appendix and are strongly infused with a Buddhist respect for all life and with appeals for tolerance. The very embodiment of the enlightened ruler, he travelled throughout the realm preaching the Dhamma and listening to the problems of the people. He also promoted the spreading of the Buddhist Word to other countries, called the (for Buddhism extremely important) Third Buddhist Council together, and endowed the Buddhist infrastructure. An ancient ruler who held a vast empire together not by force but by moral suasion is indeed noteworthy, particularly since his suasion was based on respect for all living beings and not on threats of horrible afterlives for transgressors.
Thapar ties Ashoka's views and actions into his social, political and economic context, and it is her nuanced description of this context (insofar as it can be reconstructed at this time) that is the main point of interest for me in this text and has helped me to begin to understand the foundations of the unique Indian social structure. Though the beginnings of the caste system were pre-Mauryan, there was still a great deal of social mobility prior to the rise of the Mauryas. It was during the Mauryan dynasty that the ramification into finer and finer castes and the crystallization of the caste system preventing any movement between the castes really started, despite the fact that none of the important Mauryan monarchs were followers of the mainline brahmanical religion. Though Thapar writes that Ashoka's political and social vision failed to hold the empire together long after his death, the nearly thirty years of peace during his reign, the extensive construction of roads and the trade-facilitating empire-wide administration set up by the Mauryas spawned an era of economic growth that lasted well after the collapse of the unwieldy empire. She ends the book with a brief overview of the rapid decline and end of the Mauryan dynasty during the half-century following Ashoka's death.
The text of the original version of Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas published in 1961 is supplemented with an updated bibliography and an extensive Afterword that brings the text up to the stand of 1997. I am very favorably impressed with Thapar's scholarly balance and clarity of expression and have already started another of her books.
() Piyadassi is one of Ashoka's names. The Dhamma (Dharma) is the Way or Law of the universe for Buddhism and Hinduism, very roughly speaking, at least ordinarily. But Ashoka appropriated the word to denote also his own Buddhism-inspired view of social order, which he promoted in his edicts.
(*) Signs of such ire even here in GR, noticed by accident: a certain "Ruchi" one-starred at least five of Thapar's books in one day. Really? Let me say in advance that anyone making an ad hominem attack on either the author or myself in any thread of mine will find their comment deleted and themselves blocked permanently. I just underwent such an attack because of my recent discussion of Abu Nuwas' "transgressive" poetry and find I have no tolerance for it. If you have scholarly objections, fine, but since I have read almost none of Thapar's sources, even in translation, I am in no position to engage in a meaningful response. Just so you know.
(**) The report of the encounter with Alexander has been questioned, and the encounter was of no particular significance anyway. But Candragupta (known to the Greco-Roman world as Sandracottus) and Seleucus I definitely met in a war which resulted in Seleucus ceding the Greek possessions in greater India in return for a huge number of war elephants he then used to defeat most of his Greek competitors for Alexander's empire. One of the things I have learned over the past few years is just how closely linked the ancient world actually was.
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Read information about the authorRomila Thapar is an Indian historian and Professor Emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
A graduate from Panjab University, Dr. Thapar completed her PhD in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Her historical work portrays the origins of Hinduism as an evolving interplay between social forces. Her recent work on Somnath examines the evolution of the historiographies about the legendary Gujarat temple.
Thapar has been a visiting professor at Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the College de France in Paris. She was elected General President of the Indian History Congress in 1983 and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1999.
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