During my last US visit I could get a wonderful book by Bruce Rich ‘To Uphold the World- A call for a New Global Ethic from Ancient India’, distilling the timely message of Ashoka and Kautilya.
And recently I came across another book, a fictional biography, ‘Ashoka the Great by Wytze Keuning Translated by J E Steur’. Interestingly more than the book and its hero, the story about the author and even the translator are equally fascinating.
Wytze Keuning was a school teacher in the obscure town of Groningen in the Netherlands. Keuning wrote the book rather a trilogy on the life of Ashoka-“Ashoka: The Wild Prince”, “Ashoka: The Wise Ruler” and “Ashoka: The World's Great Teacher” between 1937 and 1947. Interestingly like the famous Max Muller, Keuning also hadn’t visited India.
While teaching at the local school, Keuning came to know about Ashoka, developed an interest in the character, then researched and wrote the book. He wrote in Dutch. For decades, the book was not visible in European bookstores.
And then J E Steur, the former child psychologist got hold of a copy and translated the book in English. She discovered that even Keuning’s d e s c e n d e n t s were unaware of his monumental work.
Equally interesting is the story of another Briton who might be credited for Keuning’s knowledge of Ashoka. James Princep had arrived in Calcutta to work at a mint of the East India Company. Princep was a coin collector, developed an avid interest in the script on the Ashokan coins. It was the extensive work of Princep that established a link between the script on the coin and the many rock inscriptions found across the subcontinent. In 1915, Princep deciphered the script and found that the reference to “Beloved of the gods, King Piyadasi” on the rock edicts meant Ashoka.
It was only after Princep’s discovery, led to huge western interest in Ashoka. Hundreds of western scholars and historians started to collect information on Ashoka and wrote their treatises. Without these Europeans, be it Princep then or Keuning and Rich and many others, Indian history would have been the poorer.
In his book “The Buddha and the Sahibs”, Charles Allen tells the story of British officials, engineers and archaeologists who roamed the hot and dusty Indian countryside in the 19th and early 20th century, examining rocks, stones and caves to join the dots that “recreated Indian history”.
As I roamed around Nalanda, Rajgrih and then visited Kumhrara in Patna (Patliputra), I always wondered that many stories of the era that can bring pride to the nation are still covered under mounds and forests.
Why can’t Indian researchers, writers and historians produce work as Keuniing and Rich did?
Interestingly, according to Rich, the first major work in Sanskrit on Ashoka was the Asokavadana, presumably written in the second century AD in northwest India. The Asokavadana was translated into Chinese in AD300, and became well known in Japan, Korea, and central Asia, (but not in India). We must ponder over why it happened so. I tried to find if it is available in Hindi, but failed. Can someone tell me if we have a good translation in Hindi of Chanakya’s ‘Arthshastra’ and ‘Asokavadana’?
Ashoka and Chanakya remained forgotten for almost a thousand years in India.
Will it not happen to Gandhi but for the writers and researchers of western countries?
Interestingly, a new serial ‘Chandragupta Maurya’ is being shown on ‘NDTV Imagine’ every Friday and Saturday at 9PM. I eagerly wait for it and enjoy it, though it’s just fictional.
I wish the above two books are read by those who are ruling the people of India today.