A prolific chronicler of India, Allen (Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, 2009, etc.) shows just how addictive the country can be.
The author’s delight is obvious as he investigates the search for the great Indian leader, Ashoka. This is not so much a biography as a chronicle of that quest, and the details of the search become tedious. India-born and descended from generations serving the British Raj, Allen is well-acquainted with the archaeological sites of the stupas, rock and pillar edicts and Elephant Rocks. Throughout the 19th century, the Asiatic Society of Bengal archived copies of the great edicts Ashoka ordered carved there. These massive tablets pictured his history, explained Buddhism and addressed schisms that occurred during his reign. His revolutionary edicts enabled Ashoka to conquer by Dharma, undermining the authority of the Brahman by calling for religious tolerance and the banning of animal sacrifice. In order to understand the edicts, the first job was to decipher the language as it evolved through a number of influences. Nowhere does Allen address the idea that few might have been able to read any language in the 3rd century B.C. Admittedly, many readers will have limited tolerance for the detailed etymology and philology of the Greek, Pakrit, Sanskrit and Pali names for sites and characters. The author has a wealth of material available in the writings of British, Indian and Chinese who came before, helping him to establish the beginnings of Buddhism and its spread throughout the subcontinent. Allen’s enthusiasm and love for India are obvious; his waxing eloquent over the 23 volumes of Archaeological Survey Reports by Alexander Cunningham indicates a devotion few of us could share.
Lovers of intense research will enjoy this book. Readers with no sense of Indian history or geography and little archaeological curiosity will get bored.