Dev Kumar Jhanjh (DKJ): So to start with, ma’am, if we look at your latest works, you have focused more on the textual sources. In such a scenario, how important do you think inscriptions are in deconstructing early Indian history?
Romila Thapar (RT): First of all, let me say that I don’t think I have focused more on the textual works. I have certainly used the textual works quite extensively as indeed I have used the inscriptions quite extensively too. I think they’re both extremely important as sources but of a different kind. Texts, you naturally have to ask who is the author, what was the intention of the author, who was the audience, why was the text written, what function did the text serve, etc. Now in the case of inscriptions, you know who the author is but you ask the same sort of questions, why were the inscriptions put up, what purpose did they serve, what was the agenda of putting up inscriptions, to use the word that is commonly used these days.
So, I don’t think it is a case of whether one source is better than the other. It is the case of two sources complementing each other. And I think it is extremely important to give adequate space to inscriptions because there is, I don’t know how to put it, but maybe one could say that in most of the texts that we use, there are some very straightforward texts on political economy like the Arthashastra and so on but there are others, we tend to use literary texts. Now literary texts do have a problem which is a problem of poetic licence. The author is committed to exaggerate because this is part of the literary style. Now that, you normally do not get too much in the inscriptions. That is, inscriptions tend to be much more matter of fact. This happened, this happened on this date, this happened for this reason and so on. Although there are some very magnificent inscriptions that have a lot of literary style to them and therefore do have a bit of what we call poetic licence.
DKJ: So what is your take on the importance of the inscriptions Mr Sinha?
Kanad Sinha (KS): One thing I would like to add is that my studies are mainly text based. I have focused mainly on texts. But whenever I use inscriptions, one has to keep in mind that inscription is also a text. There is not a clear-cut division between archaeological and literary texts, so inscriptions, even at times coins can act as textual sources. Inscriptions definitely are also textual sources. The other thing is when the orientalists and other colonial and early nationalists studied Indian history, there was much fascination with antiquity. So inscriptions are antiques. They belong to the period; they belong in the same form as they were composed. But the texts of course change. However, given our present understanding of history, this change itself is a very important historical question. Why the text changes its nature. Through whom and who patronises the change and how? So these are also very important historical questions.
And finally, what I would say about the issue of poetic licence, that of course there is a difference between Ashokan inscriptions where the emperor directly speaks and the eulogies which are composed later on by court poets. So there is also poetry and there is also exaggeration. Contemporary records can also be exaggerated if they are written with a specific purpose of glorifying the ruler’s achievements. It is the court which is approving a certain kind of exaggeration. So even if inscriptions belong to the period when they were actually created, it is the particular kind of text particularly the prashastis created for a particular purpose with a particular kind of poetry and directed to a particular kind of audience. So these are some of the factors which should be kept in mind when we study the inscriptions.
So as she has said, I would say that the texts and the inscriptions are two different kinds of sources but it is more about bringing them together to reconstruct the historical picture rather than privileging one kind of source over the other.
DKJ: Since the script of the Harappan civilisation has not been deciphered, the earliest datable written materials in India are from the third century BC which is during the time of the Mauryas. Why and how did the practice of issuing inscriptions start? Was there any particular socio-political background leading to the coming of written documents carrying royal order?
RT: Well, I think one of the issues is certainly, if you want your order to reach out as far as possible in distant parts of your kingdom, issuing inscriptions in those days would have been one of the mechanisms of doing that because you issue a statement and that statement is repeated and inscribed and engraved right through the territories that you control. So in a sense, it is an effort to try and be in contact with subjects who are placed in distant places. Now there again, what is very interesting is that the rock inscriptions tend to occur all over the subcontinent except for the far south. They don’t occur there. The pillar inscriptions on the other hand are limited to the Ganges plain. And so one has to ask the question, was this deliberate? And if it was deliberate, then why should a certain set of inscriptions have a limited geography whereas the others are all over the subcontinent.
On the question of how did this fashion, if you like, how did this system of issuing inscriptions begin, I think there is the possibility, I have no evidence for proving it, but I think there is a possibility that this was a time in which many kings were issuing inscriptions in our neighbourhood. For example, the Achaemenid inscriptions were lengthy inscriptions which the Persian kings, the Achaemenid kings issued in Iran and we know that there was a lot of contact between Mauryan India and Achaemenid Iran. So it is possible that this idea may have come through somebody saying “Oh, but you know in Iran, the kings issue inscriptions.” What is also very important is that the content of the Iranian inscriptions is very different from the Ashokan. The Iranian inscriptions are all full of self-praise and that kind of thing whereas the Ashokan inscriptions are very subdued as far as that. I think there is a certain amount of self-praise but not to the degree as is the case in Iran. But that idea may have just floated across and they had been picked up.
But primarily I think it was really the desire that what he had to say had to reach out and it is one thing to say to your officers that I want this to be propagated all over the country, it is another thing to actually take the time and trouble to say, I want it engraved so that even the local people, those that can read it, will read it and will talk about it. So it is a form of propagation.
DKJ: So you are saying the idea of the issuing inscriptions came from the Achaemenids or did that work as prototype of the Ashokan inscriptions?
RT: Well, I wouldn’t call it a prototype. I would simply say that it was a vague idea in the sense that I don’t even think that one can use words like influence or anything of that kind but it was known that in the neighbouring kingdom from which the Mauryas were borrowing various things, designs on the pillars, the acanthus leaf design, that kind of thing is coming from there. It was possible that somebody mentioned that one of the things that their kings do is to issue inscriptions which get engraved all over the place on rocks and pillars and so on. And this may have struck somebody as an interesting idea, if you want to propagate your ideas.
KS: Actually this scholar called Harry Falk has argued, as you were saying of prototypes, that actually the Achaemenid inscription was a prototype and Ashoka invented a kind of writing, Ashokan Brahmi, for that. But there is a problem…
RT: That is a very dicey argument. I am sorry, I don’t buy that.
KS: No, nor do I because if there was no language, then it would not make any sense to the audience it has been addressed to. There must have been some writing practice. So just speaking of prototype can be a problematic area.
RT: And we must remember the big debate that is going on today is that Brahmi may go back to a pre-Mauryan period. I mean that is an archaeological fact and it is an archaeological problem and the debate is really on reading the evidence from an excavation, from a series of excavations in fact. But there is a debate on how early Brahmi was and there are scholars who are saying that it was just pre-Mauryan.
DKJ: Most of the inscriptions of the Maurya period do not carry the name of Ashoka but only bears his title Devanampiya Piyadasi. Is there any possibility that these inscriptions were issued by some other ruler and necessarily not the Ashoka of the Buddhist legends?
RT: No, this was a possibility that was discussed in the middle of the nineteenth century when the inscriptions were first deciphered; nobody knew who this Devanampiya Piyadasi was because none of the Puranas had this as a name in the king list. And people did go around asking who was this king and where did he rule and all the rest of it. Then the Buddhist chronicles of Sri Lanka were discovered, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa in which they referred to Devanampiya Piyadasi as the title of the Mauryan king Ashok. And Ashoka was then known because he occurs in a Puranic king list as well. And it also says that this title was bestowed on the Sri Lankan king Tissa so that it was understood that this was a title and possibly not a personal name. Although there is a lot of discussion on that at the moment as to whether Devanampiya was the title and Piyadasi was his personal name or what. But the clinching argument, the clinching evidence was in 1915 when they discovered an Ashokan inscription in Maski in south India which clearly says Devanampiya Piyadasi Raja Asoko. So that absolutely clears that.
DKJ: One may wonder by looking at the distributing pattern of the Ashokan inscriptions which almost cover the entire subcontinent starting from Shahbazgarhi, Mansehra, Lamghan and Kandahar in northwest to Kalsi, Delhi, Sarnath in north, to Bihar, Dhauli in east, Girnar in west and many areas of southern India, more than 29 sites have been discovered from all over the subcontinent. And recently Monica Smith with her team from the University of California, which consists of researchers from different fields like statistics, anthropology, geography, is claiming that there may be a possibility of finding 121 Ashokan sites from all over the subcontinent and these 121 sites have the same kind of environmental similarities with these 29 sites wherefrom the Ashokan inscriptions have been found. So it is a huge number of sites. But only on the basis of the distribution of the Ashokan inscriptions, can we really conclude that Ashoka extended his sweep over this vast area?
RT: No, we can’t conclude that this vast area was directly governed by him in the same way we cannot conclude that the extent of the Roman Empire was directly governed by Rome. So you have to first of all understand what you mean by ‘directly governed’? If you are talking about a centralised administration, then my own feeling about this which I have expressed in the course of a few lectures is that all large territories like this are never centrally governed. There are always decentralised pockets of various kinds in the administration. I had argued that the Mauryan Empire had three categories of administration. There was the Ganges Plain which was possibly centrally governed because it was closely under control. And I called that the metropolitan state. And then there are regions in the distance like in the northwest, in Gujarat, in the east and in the south where you have an administration that is not immediately under central control but is carrying out some of the orders of central control in the context of local administration as well and these are core areas where in fact there is much more communication between the metropolitan state and these areas. And the administration also follows a similar kind of pattern but not exactly. So there is a difference.
Then the third category is what I call peripheral areas which are areas like the forested areas and so on where the administration didn’t actually go in and cut down the forests and set up settlements but where it had an agreement and an arrangement with the people living in the forest, the Atavikas and the tribals and so on who supplied them with whatever goods they wanted. It was a much looser administration.
So first of all, I think, I am a little worried about the way in which you take a map of the subcontinent and you take a pen and you draw a big black line and say this was the Mauryan Empire because for early empires anywhere in the world, we cannot be absolutely sure. The surety of boundaries comes with the invention of cartography and we don’t have for the Mauryan period detailed references to what was within the empire and what was outside the empire. So we can’t tell. And things change. I mean you have Ashokan inscriptions in Afghanistan, in Greek and Aramaic and so on. This was not part of any Indian empire earlier. It was really only with the Mauryas and their Treaty with Seleucid that bits and pieces came in. So there is that problem of assuming that wherever you find the edicts of Ashoka, it means that area was directly under the central administration.
Now where do you find these edicts? You find them everywhere from Mansehra and Shahbazgarhi and from Laghman and Kandahar right down to the edge or southern edge of Mysore and you find them in the east and you find them along the Himalayan foothills. Now these are environmentally, totally, totally different areas. So how many environments are you going to study in order to try and get a parallel to the Ashokan inscriptions. It is not as if you have a cluster of inscriptions at one place with one environment. It is a completely different environment. So it does involve immense environmental studies if that is to be done.
Secondly, the litmus test at the end will be the inscription itself. Unless you can see the inscription and say yes, this is an Ashokan inscription, it is written in Ashokan Brahmi, it is carrying sentiments similar to his other inscriptions and so on, you cannot be sure.
The point is that these inscriptions will turn up again and again in different places. I mean it was not so long ago that this one near Delhi turned up, the Bahapur inscription, just down the corner from here near Kalkaji. Of course, there will be inscriptions. I mean if the king has been so prolific in the sense, his inscriptions all over the place as he says that he is having them engraved everywhere, we are bound to find more inscriptions. But we don’t have to then go through insisting that we must have all this sophisticated technology in order to find the inscription because usually the inscriptions are found when somebody stumbles on them. They are walking through a forest and there suddenly they find a rock and they look at the rock more closely and it has got an engraving on it.
Now it is not that I am decrying the technology but all I am saying is that there is a certain common sense involved in discovering inscriptions and that common sense I think is much more important. You have to have an instinct of where you go to find these kinds of inscriptions. I mean when you take Mysore for example, Karnataka, the place is flooded with Ashokan inscriptions. And who knows, I mean if one was to look carefully in the Swat areas and the North-West Frontier which is now part of Pakistan, you may find more inscriptions there as well.
DKJ: Next question, the information which connects the Ashoka of the legends with the Ashokan inscriptions is his repentance after the Kalinga war. How important do you think is the rock edict 13 of Ashoka in the general design of his royal policy called Dhamma. Does not its replacement with a separate edict in certain places affect the overall message of these major rock edicts?
RT: I don’t think it affects the overall message of the major rock edicts. It affects the overall message of a particular rock edict, number 13, which is the one in which he expresses his sorrow and talks about what problems he has caused for people through his war effort. What is interesting is that separate edicts occur in Kalinga and in Sannati in the Karnatak and we don’t know how the separate edict got to Sannati because we don’t know of any campaign that he conducted. He doesn’t mention any campaign in the Karnatak. And this inscription was found because it was being used as the peetha, the base for a Hindu idol in a temple in the area. Obviously at a later date, they had cut a hole in the inscription so that they could stick the idol into the tenon of the slab. And the other side of the slab has this inscription. Otherwise the only places where these two separate edicts occurred was Kalinga.
Now the question to ask of course is that having conquered Kalinga, was it that he didn’t have the greatness of mind to express his sorrow to the people of Kalinga, that he issued separate edicts. Or did he think that it was politically not wise because some of us have argued that although he was a Buddhist and he was a great supporter of the idea of Dhamma, he was also a statesman, he was a ruler. Therefore, there were politics involved in the decisions that he took. So could it be that he felt I can express my remorse for this in other areas but I can’t do it over here because that would be like an admission of defeat. Now he didn’t want that to be associated with him.
KS: Speaking of political wisdom, if we look at the contemporary political treatises like the Arthashastra maybe, the Arthashastra clearly advises the king to conquer new places. But he also says how to win the allegiance of the people. So sometimes wear their dresses and speak their languages and what Kautilya advises very strongly is that you have to create a sense of good government, that the previous king was bad and I am providing you good government. So if we look at the content of the separate edicts, it is mainly about good governance, why the provincial government officials should behave properly and everything. So rather than telling the people of Kalinga that okay, I have caused this much suffering in Kalinga, he probably tried to show that look, I am providing good governance to Kalinga. Maybe that is a possibility.
RT: I think that is certainly a possibility that he is concerned and also it is not just that he is trying to win over people by saying, I am providing good government but he is aware of the fact that in an area which has been recently conquered and it was quite an extensive area, you have to have good government. Irrespective of what message you are sending to people, the sheer fact of governing that area means that you have to have efficient government. And therefore, these edicts would fill that role as well. He is telling his administration that you really have to be particularly good in this area keeping in mind (which he doesn’t actually say but keeping in mind no doubt) the fact that people would be deeply disgruntled by the campaign. So it is logical.
DKJ: Despite being a devout Buddhist, Ashoka showered his patronage to the Brahmanas, Nirgranthas, Sramanas and Ajivikas. Suddenly there were tremendous cultural differences. Furthermore, he issued his records in different scripts and languages bearing the same content. Was it an attempt to establish unity in diversity? You have mentioned about the attempt of Ashoka in welding the sub-continental society. Will you please elaborate on this?
RT: Yes, what I meant when I was talking about welding differences was really the ideology of Dhamma more than anything else. The notion, the concept, the ideology which was a very simple concept, a very simple ideology which anybody could follow. Now I think one has to remember that at that time, what he is referring to, where he is continually talking about the need for people of different sects to talk to each other, the need where he says that you must always honour other sects rather than just your own because by honouring other sects you are in a sense being more magnanimous than just going on honouring your own sect. This was a period in which there were massive differences. And there were lots of sectarian movements which were in conflict with each other and I think he was aware of this.
Now the thing that intrigues me very much is that yes, he is very aware of the differences in thought. He is very aware of the differences in culture which is why when he is reaching out to people in Afghanistan, he is writing in Greek and Aramaic, he is not writing in Brahmi and Kharosthi. Brahmi wouldn’t have been understood but Kharosthi, there is Kharosthi in some inscriptions on the edges but the main inscriptions in eastern Afghanistan are Aramaic and Greek. So it is quite clear that he is trying to reach out. And the Greek inscriptions are very interesting because they are not literal translations of the rock edicts but they are summarising what he is saying and putting them into colloquial Greek. He is doing this and it is very important that he has reached there. Now with all this concern about people understanding each other, talking to each other, honouring each other’s sects, at the same time when it comes to his relationship with the Buddhist Sangha, he is extremely rigid because the inscriptions, the edicts that are issued to the Sangha very clearly state these are the texts you have to be familiar with. The other one says that if there are dissidents in the monastery, they have to be dressed in white clothes and banished from the monastery. There is no question there of sitting down with diverse opinions and trying to find some kind of common unity in the Buddhist diversity as it were.
So I think that it is a very interesting psychology of his attitude to the general public which is one in which he is concerned about their being common loyalties and common ideas being discussed and his attitude to the Buddhist sangha which is certainly much more partisan and much more authoritarian.
KS: Speaking of this, more than unity in diversity, I think any Indian power who had an intention to rule a large area of the subcontinent had to understand that there are many religious beliefs. They had to acknowledge that and they could not be sectarian in their official policies. For a long time, historians have argued that the Guptas were staunch Brahminical people and of course, they had showered patronage on their official religion which was Vaishnavism and they clearly declared themselves Parama Bhagavata but despite that they patronised other sects as well. They patronised the Shaivas, they patronised Buddhism. Samudragupta not only allowed a Buddhist monastery to be built by the Sri Lankan king, it is actually during the reign of Kumaragupta when Nalanda is established. So more than creating a unity in diversity, it is just acknowledgement of the diversity in official policy. And never in Indian history, I think any power has been successful unless the power acknowledged the coexistence of various religious sects. This is a message, I think, even present Indian politics has to understand that without acknowledging the religious multiplicity of the subcontinent, one cannot govern India for a long time. For a democracy it is even more difficult and impossible.
RT: This is also tied up of course with the other thing which is how do we understand religion in India. Unfortunately, the whole colonial exercise was to present Hinduism and Islam or any other religion for that matter, Sikhism and so on as a monolithic block as they had it in Europe where you have had Christianity as a monolithic block which they broke into two monolithic blocks, Protestantism and Catholicism and they looked at Hinduism and Islam in the same way here. But in fact, when you start looking at the history of religion, not the theology of religion, but the history of each of these religions, they are sects. They are all developed on the basis of sects and sects have much greater diversity. They also have the ability of coming together where they need to but there is much greater diversity. I think it is this that was in the minds of all these rulers. I find nothing strange in a political power saying, well, if there is this range of sects, I will give patronage to every one of them. This is one of the striking things when you compare the notion of patronage of European kings and of Indian kings. The European kings are always patronising the same religion all the way through the whole dynasty unless they get into political problems with the other side. But in the Indian case there is a consistency with which the good ruler is the patron of all these sects because the good ruler understands the politics of inter-sectarian rivalry, coming together, demands, whatever it maybe but it is those that the good ruler understands and that is terribly important and very different from Europe.
DKJ: As you have brought in the case of the Guptas, that is why I would like to ask you this question. The Gupta rulers had at times chosen Ashokan pillars or rocks for inscribing their inscriptions. Is there continuity between how these two powers from the north Indian plains articulated their imperial ideology through inscriptions or was this a mere coincidence?
KS: No, I cannot say that this is completely coincidental. But there are some elements of what I would say comparability between the Guptas and Mauryas because of the fact that the history of early India for the greater period of time is not the history of a unified monolithic empire. It is only these two powers from the Gangetic valley, who substantially controlled a large area, in the case of the Guptas mainly of north India, in the case of the Mauryas a larger area. But as the Guptas came later than the Mauryas, they might have had some ideas about the only power from Gangetic valley, and could have thought of doing something similar. So there are some elements of continuity, like the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta is the earliest Gupta official record I would say and he very carefully chose an Ashokan pillar to inscribe his inscription. And again we see Skandagupta’s Junagadh inscription, he not only chooses an Ashokan rock but also repairs the Sudarshan lake which is actually a Mauryan construction. So in the choice of the places for their inscriptions, they sometimes showed a continuity with the Mauryas but there was a sense of difference also. It is not that they are imitating the Mauryas. Samudragupta’s Allahabad inscription, its main content is Samudragupta’s conquest. Though he chooses an Ashokan pillar, the policy of Ashoka and Samudragupta are worlds apart. And that is the same case with the text produced from the Gupta court as well. For instance, the only complete political drama we have from ancient India is Mudrarakshasa composed by Vishakhadatta and there are reasons to think that Vishakhadatta might have been a commissioned writer of the Gupta court given that he also composed the Devichandraguptam which is kind of a justification of the early tenure of Chandragupta II.
Now what the Mudrarakshasa does, it chooses the early days of Mauryan history as its theme and again there is an interesting connection that after all, Chandragupta is the founder of the Mauryan empire and at least two of the Gupta emperors shared the same name. And when the Mudrarakshasa ends, there are lines celebrating a king called Chandragupta. Now which Chandragupta is Vishakhadatta celebrating? Is it Chandragupta Maurya or Chandragupta II who might have been his patron or is it a connection between the two he is trying to address, that is a possibility that somehow this text is legitimising a ruler with imperial ambition even if, I don’t think Chandragupta II ruled an empire in the sense that the Mauryas might have ruled but the imperial ambition is definitely there. But there is also a sense of difference. If you look at the Mauryan records, the king is a much more authoritarian power than what the Mudrarakshas show. Now Prof. Thapar also has shown in The Past Before Us that it is a kind of Gupta commentary on what happened in Mauryan history. Guptas are much more decentralised compare to the Mauryas. The Brahman minister plays a much more important role in the Gupta polity than in the case of the Mauryas. And Mauryas were not as pro-Brahman in particular though Ashoka paid similar respect to Brahmans as he gave to Sramanas. The Gupta polity was much different. And that sense of difference was also there. So I think the Guptas had a fair idea about what the Mauryas did, they knew that the Mauryas are the only earlier instance of a polity like that, so they invoked those elements but they were very conscious of their difference also.
DKJ: So it was not just a mere coincidence.
KS: It is not a coincidence but it is not imitation also.
RT: Prior to Kalahana (c. twelfth century CE) who gives a very detailed account of Ashoka and the Brahmanas, the only Brahminical texts that ever mentioned the name are the Puranic king lists. No other Brahminical source talks about this particular king, nor do the Buddhist texts. And so what is interesting about the Mudrarakshasa is—was he actually reading Buddhist texts to get some information on Chanakya? Because there is a hint that the way in which he develops the character of Chanakya is based on the Buddhist text and the stories in the Buddhist texts. That is one thing.
Secondly, in their art the Guptas do imitate some of the Mauryan traditions quite deliberately and effectively. On the question of the Allahabad pillar, though, what has bothered me all along is that - were the Gupta engravers able to read the Ashokan script or not because at one place the Samudragupta inscription cuts into the Ashokan inscription? Now why are they doing that? Either they can’t read the script, they don’t know what is written there and they say, doesn’t matter, we will cut into that or they are deliberately contradicting what Ashoka said and therefore they treat the Ashokan inscription as something to disregard since that is telling a story they are not conforming to because they are telling the story of conquest and here he is talking about ahimsa and non-violence and that kind of thing. But what intrigues me is that if you take the Allahabad pillar for example and then later on of course in the 17th century, Jehangir comes with his genealogy, it is written on the same pillar. And then there are other medieval kings who come and write graffiti all over, I was here, signed whatever it is. What interests me about these things is not that there was an actual continuity from one dynasty to the other, they may have been in some cases, yes, but why did they choose to write on these earlier inscriptions, why did they choose to write on the same body of the earlier inscription and I can’t help feeling this is a kind of historical consciousness. Now this is not history. It is not that they are treating it as history but somewhere there is a sense of this as representing the past and they are getting legitimacy out of the past, like saying to themselves, ‘we will be doing this through the centuries, we are still doing it, we are still trying to get legitimacy for ourselves in the twenty-first century by turning to the past and saying this is traditional and this is this stuff.’ I think this is part of that. And that does raise the very interesting question as I have tried to do in this book, The Past Before Us, that was there an underlying sense of historical consciousness.
DKJ: Ashoka preferred to communicate with his subjects through these messages rather than with visual representations of the king. However recent excavations at Kanaganahalli have unearthed a sculpture labelled King Ashoka. Is it a different way to remember the king from how he would have preferred to be remembered?
RT: There are two panels at Kanaganahalli labelled Raja Asoko. The two do not resemble each other. The two panels, they are not side by side, one is at one end and one presumably was at another end or whatever it is, they represent two different events. The two figures do not, are not identical to look at. So I think one has to be very careful when one talks about the representation of Ashoka because some people have called them portraits. Now they are not portraits. First of all, the sculpture panels at Kanaganahalli went up 100-200 years after Ashoka and certainly the person who sculpted them had no idea of what Ashoka looked like.
DKJ: In Nehruvian India, the Ashokachakra and the Ashokasthambha were chosen as national symbols. While the Ashokachakra replaced the charkha at the centre of the Indian flag, Nehru was completely aware of Ashokan records which is proven by his constant reference to the Ashokan inscriptions in the parliament and not to the available literature on the legends of Ashoka from the textual sources. Why was it done? Was he attempting to copy the ideology of Ashoka for independent India? What do you think?
RT: This question takes me back a little bit and if you would permit me to take five minutes for the answer, it has to do with the fact that what we call our heritage is not something that comes to us neatly packaged, generation after generation. Each generation passes a package on. We invent our heritage. And this is very very clear if you look at the perception of Ashoka in Indian history. What do I mean by this?
The Samudragupta Pillar which we have just been talking about, I mean the Allahabad pillar which we have just been talking about, we don’t know whether they could read the inscription or knew anything about Ashoka other than what the Buddhist texts have told. So he is beginning to fade from memory. There is very little except in Buddhist circles. If you read the Puranas, the Vishnu Purana for example, they say the most dreadful things about the Buddhists. So there is no love lost between the Brahminical tradition and the Sramanic tradition. And in fact, these two traditions which are regarded as the two religions of India in the pre-modern period, the grammarian Patanjali refers to the two of them and says that their relationship is like that of the snake and the mongoose. So there is extreme hostility between them. So in the Brahminical texts he is wiped out. In the Buddhist texts he is made much of. By and large people do not refer to him. If you read Sanskrit literature, Ashoka is not somebody who is constantly on stage as you would think that being a great king he would be and the Mudrarakshasa is really the only one that talks about the Mauryas in any kind of serious way.
When you come to Ferozshah Tughlaq who has not been recognised but he is the great conservator of Indian antiques in this country. It is really amazing. He was obsessed with the Ashokan pillars and he went all over the place collecting these pillars. I mean you have got two of them in Delhi which he put on to barges. I mean the description of how those pillars were brought to Delhi is mindboggling. And he goes around asking everybody what is written on these pillars. Nobody knows. There isn’t a single person that knows what is written. Someone says, arre woh Raja Bhim ki laathi hai! (That is the stick of Raja Bhim.) Someone says, nahin who lingam hai! (No, that is a lingam.) This goes on. So that means that as far as Ashoka is concerned, once Buddhism goes out of India, Ashoka goes out with Buddhism. So we know absolutely nothing about him for the whole second millennium.
And that is why in the nineteenth century when his inscriptions are deciphered, nobody knows who he is and even when the texts, the Sri Lankan, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa are read and they talk about Devanampiya Piyadasi Ashoka, still people are very unclear as to who this king was.
It is only when the inscriptions are read very carefully by the early twentieth century that he is slowly coming back into the radar and being recognised by Indians as a king. What makes him a great king is not the recognition only of Indians, that is mild but, it is H.G. Wells who writes an outlying history of the world in which he says, this man is absolutely extraordinary. He is a king with an ethical view and moral principles, so on, you don’t have kings like that anywhere else. And everybody gets very excited. He is our king, he is an Indian king, he is being praised to the skies. That is the point at which nationalist historiography picks him up. And makes a big thing out of it.
Now please remember that for 1500 years he was unknown in India. So much for our heritage, and suddenly in the twentieth century, twenty-first century, he becomes a pillar of Indian heritage. So Nehru’s understanding of him is based partly on nationalist historical writing which is very good in the way they reconstruct the inscriptions and till today it is still carried on about was this Brahminical, was it Buddhist and so on and so forth and H.G. Wells and then the whole tradition amongst Western historians, all the histories in the world, the Will Durant type of history, you have Ashoka coming in over there. So he picks him up.
Now the symbol that he picks up then is really not unity in diversity or anything of that kind. I think, and this is my personal opinion after reading the Discovery of India, Nehru’s interest in this particular personality from the past was due to the fact that he combined ethics with politics. And I think that this was a concern of Nehru’s. He doesn’t write about it at length but now and again one gets the feeling that whilst he is talking about political history and political events and so on, somewhere in his mind there is this thing about how ethical is all of this. And it is that linkage of ethics and politics and how politics has to be ethical that I think is triggering the interest in Ashoka.
The video interview can be found here: https://youtu.be/JHFj-gYr5So