Ashoka: The Great and Compassionate King
age group: 
12+ yrs
Number of pages: 
historical Buddhism Ashoka the Great


HISTORY never ceases to surprise. With every new fact unearthed, perspective shifts ever so slightly, that it opens up a whole new world to explore. But history also can be stubbornly elusive, refusing to let the curtains part, choosing instead to remain tantalisingly mysterious. As is the case with Puffin Lives' Ashoka - The Great and Compassionate King. So, on the one hand, we discover the spectacular life of one of the greatest kings of Indian history, Ashoka, and on the other, we realise there is so still much we don't know about the king's life and reign.

The book begins with the rather astonishing fact that history had forgotten this Great Emperor for 2000 years! That pulls you right into the narrative, as you relish the journey of how the painstaking efforts of James Pinsrep brought Ashoka and his Mauryan Empire to life. Deciphering the king's many edicts carved on rocks and exquisite pillars in a script unknown to historians and academicians alike was probably only half the battle won, as there was virtually no information available on the king in the country's ancient Sanskrit texts. The second breakthrough came when details of the king's life were found in the Buddhist texts instead of Sri Lanka and Tibet. And thus, we see how this mighty emperor, who carries the extraordinary story of redemption - from bloody wars to peace through Buddhism - built an empire that went beyond the traditional boundaries of kingly authority.

Despite this discovery, however, we see how little we actually know about the king. We know about his exploits, his compassion, his valour, and some scattered facts here and there, but we don’t know about his childhood, his growing up years, his relationship to his father or brothers, the murky story of his ascension to the throne, or his growing conviction in Buddhism and therefore the sudden change of heart after the blood war of Kalinga. You can sense the author's, Subhadhra Sen Gupta's, frustration too with this lack of information, as she tries to build the king's story. There are several repetitions, especially between the 'History Bug' and the chapters. The author's obvious attempts at fleshing it out with food facts and Mauryan life in general only work in parts.

Having said that, I felt Subhadhra has hit the right tone in language, with an easy conversational flow to her narrative, making it much more appealing to the young reader.

Reviewed by Praveena Shivram