Asoka (In History and Historical Memory)

Item Code: IHG031
Author: Patrick Olivelle
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788120834026
Pages: 149 (21 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.9 inch X 6.3 inch
Weight 460 gm
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Book Description
About the Author

Patrick Olivelle is the chair Department of Asian Studies University of Texas Austin (USA) where he is the Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religious. His work has covered the ascetical tradition of India the Upanisads and the Dharmasastras. Among his major publication are the Asrama System History and hermeneutics of a religious Institution (Oxford 1993) Pancatantra (1997) The early Upanisads annotated text and translation (Oxford 1998), Dharmasutras the law codes of Apastamba Gautama, Baudhayana and Vasistha (Motilal Banarsidass 2000) and Manu Code of Law: A Critical and Translation of the Manava Dharmasastra (Oxford 2005) Dharmasutra Parallels Containing the Dharmasutra of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana and Vasistha (Motilal Banarsidass, 2005)


From the Jacket

The current volume which contains the presentations at a symposium sponsored by the south Asia Institute and the department of Asian Studies of the University of Texas at Austin (February 4, 2006) is intended to advance the study of Asoka both as history and historical memory. The authors of these papers take as historically significant not only the "historically truth" of Asoka but also the ways in which Asoka presents himself and his political nationalistic and religious purposes by succeeding generation both in India and in other parts of Asia especially within the expanding Buddhist communities and nations.



The papers included in this volume were presented at an international symposium on Asoka sponsored by the department of Asian Studies and the South Asia Institute of the University of Texas at Austin on February 4, 2006.

Many individual were instrumental in the success of this symposium and in the production of this volume to all of them a hurtful thanks you. They include my colleagues Joel Bereton, Janice Leoshko, Martha Selby, Cynthia Talbot, and Oliver Freiberger. I want to thank especially the distinguished participants enlightening and energetic. Circumstances prevented Harry Falk from attending the symposium but his paper was read during the symposium. A special thanks to our friend and colleague Richard Lariviere who as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas Provided generous funds for this symposium.

One of my graduate students David Brick helped with the formatting of the volume for publication and the attendant logistics. I also express my gratitude to Mr. N. P. Jain of Motilal Banarasidas for his assistance in publishing this volume.



Apart from the founders of religious tradition the Maurya Emperor Asoka stands out as the most central political and cultural figure of ancient India. The discovery of the Asokan edicts for the first time raised an ancient Indian individual from the fog of the history and legend into the light of history. Given that the edicts in some way communicated Asoka's personal messages cultural historians of ancient India had for the first time unparalleled source fro reconstructing the person and activities of an ancient Indian King.

In 2003 we organized a conference at the University of Texas at Austin with the theme "Between the Empires: Society in India 300BCE to 400 CE" This conference brought together scholars pursuing advanced research relating to this period and provided them the opportunity to interact with each other over a three day period. The participants included archeologist's art historians, numismatists religion. This conference and the volume resulting from it (Olivelle 2006) made clear the seminal nature of this period for the rest of Indian cultural history. In the presentations and discussions during this conference Asoka loomed large.

Recent scholarship in the literature of this period including the Sanskrit epics (Biardeau 2002; Hiltebeitel 2001 2005; Fitzgerald 2004) and the Dharmasastras (Olivelle 2005: 2006) has shown that these texts can be best understood as responses to the continuing effects and memory of the Asokan reforms. As Fitzgerald (2004: 120) notes "It seems fair to conjecture that the emergence of the Maurayan empire generally and Asoka dharma campaign in particular were profound challenges to many pious Brahmins and that these events may well have been a strong stimulus to the creation development redaction and spreading of the apocalyptic Mahabharata narrative. The presenting of Yodhisthira and Rama as dharmarajas can been seen within this interpretation deliberate challenges to the other king of dharma the Buddha whose stupas ascribed to Asoka are significantly called dharmarajika.

It is significant that Asvaghosa Biddhacaria at least as preserved in the Tibetan translation concludes not with the erection of eighty thousand stupas enshrining the Buddha relics by the Emperor Asoka. The conversion and religious activities of Asoka according to Asvaghosa writing four centuries after Asoka signal the final triumph of the Buddha doctrine. The memory of Asoka remained strong centuries after death. As Salomon notes in his contribution to this volume (p.48) Rudradaman inscription engraved on the same boulder as an Asokan edict and mentioning Asoka by name shows that the historical memory of Asoka was still alive during Rudradaman's reign some four centuries after his lifetime." Asoka then is significant not only for the history of India during the 3rd century BCE but also for the political cultural and religions formation during the subsequent centuries.

Recent theoretical advances in approaches to history and culture moreover along with re-evaluations of the archeology, paleography art and content of the Asokan inscription and monuments have prompted renewed interest in Asoka and his place in India History. No historical documents no written history and no historical reconstruction is freed from cultural, social, religious and political biases. In this light even Asoka own inscription do not constitute unmediated and accurate historical sources they reveal only what Asoka wanted to reveal. They are political documents just as a state of the Union address by an American President. Neither can be used without considerable analyses for the reconstruction of the Asokan regime or the administration of a president.

Historical person's events and political formation however are created and recreated by historical memory as they are carried forward within the stream of tie. As deeg (p. 109) observes: "what we can get out of the sp called historical sources is the result of a distillation process as it were which says more about the time and the people who preserved them then about the time it pretends to describe." Yet these sources of historical memory are significant not so much for the light they may shed on Asoka and his time but for the insight they provide into the society religions politics and culture of those who culture of those who created these sources and presented and re-presented the Asokan "reality".

The current volume which contains the presentations at a symposium sponsored by the south Asia Institute and the Department of Asian Studies of the University of Texas at Austin (February 4, 2006) is intended to advance the study of Asoka both as history and historical memory. The authors of these papers take as historically significant not only the "historical truth" of Asoka but also the ways in which Asoka presents himself and his policies to his subjects and the ways in which Asoka is remembered and used for political, nationalistic and religious purposes by succeeding generations both in India and in others parts of Asia especially with in the expanding Buddhist communities and nations.

Three of the papers in this volume by Harry Falk, Madhav, Deshpande and Richard Salomon reassess the Asoka inscriptions themselves Falk who has just published a major volume on the Asokan inscription themselves and archeological remains (Falk 2006) analyzes in detail the actual process that medicated Asoka's messages and commands and the actual carving of rocks and pillars across the subcontinent. In other words what in these inscriptions can be called "Asokan"? We often see the not simply stone engravers but the administrators in charge of the imperial message. Deshpande studies the history of the crucial term devanampriya both in the Pre-Asoka Vedic Literature and in the grammatical and other literature post dating Asoka while Salomon evaluates the significance of the Asoka edicts the first inscriptions in the Indian subcontinent with respect to the "epigraphic habit" in India during the succeeding centuries.

These studies along with that Janice Leoshko, who reexamines the artistic remains from the Asokan period, highlight some unique features Asoka's activities both epigraphic and artistic. Although Asoka introduced writing and lead in most aspects of their proclamations Leoshko's work shoes the pitfalls of merely looking at foreign influence on Asokan artistic production. "Why is influence perceived in a manner that implies subordination?" she asks (p. 62). It can Asokan pillars "offers intriguing evidence of Asoka engagement with international definitions pf kingship." The possible connection between Asokan pillars and Egyptian obelisks "allows us to consider issues of agency that are increasingly featured in studies of this monarch. We might consider how the Asokan pillars reflect the crafting of identify an issue that relates to ideas of Near Eastern kingship and an issue that might have especially mattered in the environment of greater Greek presence in South Asia after the time of Alexander the Great".

Klaus Kartrunen looks for evidence of Asokan memory in the Greek classical accounts of the Hellenistic period while John Strong paper looks at that memory as it was articulated in later Buddhist texts especially the lotus Sutra String (P. 100) finds "some significant reverberations between the Lotus Sutra the edicts and the Legends of Asoka in both Sanskrit and pali traditions" indeed we can detect such reverberations also between the Buddhist and the Brahmanical texts pf the period especially. The epic considers the proliferation of these stupas which the Buddhist tradition ascribes to Asoka himself as a sure sign of the end of the Yuga. Asoka was reinvented again and again to sustain different political and religious establishments.

We hope that this small contribution to Asokan studies will be of use to scholars and students of ancient Indian and perhaps spark further reflections and study of this unique individual from India's past.




1 Patrick Olivelle, Introduction 1
2 Harry Falk, The Divers Degrees of Authenticity of Asokan Texts 5
3 Madhav M. Deshpande, Interpreting the Asokan Epithet devanampiya 19
4 Richard Salomon, Asoka and the ' Epigraphic Habit in India 45
5 Janice Leoshko, Assessing Evidence of Asokan Period Art 53
6 John Strong, Asoka and the Lotus Sutra 95
7 Klaus Karttunen, Asoka and the Mauryas: A Graeco Roman Perspective 103
8 Max Deeg, from the Iron wheel to Bodhisattvahood Asoka in Buddhist culture and Memory 109
  Index 145

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