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Let’s Talk About: The mystery and morality of Ashoka

The Mauryan emperor was among the rare monarchs titled ‘great’. But have biographies and popular imagination done justice to his memory?

WrittenBy:NL Team

Counted as one of the rare Indian monarchs titled “great”, Mauryan emperor Ashoka had played many roles. Be it as a pacifist, or a philosopher king, who cast a large shadow on faith, statecraft and art in the Indian subcontinent. Though his legacy has often been contested by certain social and political forces with a focus on his mentor Chanakya.

Welcome to this special episode of Let’s Talk About, in which Abhinandan Sekhri sits down with US-based Indologist Patrick Olivelle and historian Ramachandra Guha, to try to understand Ashoka’s complex personality and the limitations posed by historical data and biographies. Patrick’s recent book Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King is the first part of a series called Indian Lives, curated by Ram.

While Ram says biographies have more space to capture controversies without sounding too academic, Patrick says Ashoka’s biography is heavily limited by the data available, especially when the bulk of it comes from the monarch himself and necessitates reading between the lines. 

Is there any data to understand what happened at the Kalinga conquest, beyond what’s captured by popular imagination? “We have no other historical information about the Kalinga War except Ashoka’s own writing,” says professor Patrick, adding that what makes Ashoka “unique” is that he’s the only king to ever apologise. “There can never be a definitive book on Ashoka, but I think Patrick’s is the best book on Ashoka,” says Ram.

Why? And what else does Ram’s series offer?


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