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Book Review of Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King by Patrick Olivelle

Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King by Patrick Olivelle

Author: Patrick Olivelle

Published by: HarperCollins India

Genre: Historical Non Fiction

Pages: 400

MRP: Rs. 799/-


Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King is a fascinating and insightful biography of one of the most enigmatic and influential rulers in Indian history. The book is written by Patrick Olivelle, a professor of Sanskrit and Indian religions at the University of Texas at Austin, and it offers a fresh and nuanced perspective on Ashoka’s life, philosophy, and legacy.

The book is divided into four parts and thirteen chapters, each of which covers a different aspect of Ashoka’s life and reign. The chapters cover topics such as Ashoka’s early life and family, his rise to power, his military campaigns and conquests, his conversion to Buddhism, his edicts and policies, his legacy and impact, and his reception and interpretation in later times. The author uses a mix of historical sources, literary texts, and archaeological evidence to reconstruct Ashoka’s world and to analyze his ideas and actions.

One of the strengths of the book is its clarity and accessibility. The author writes in a lucid and engaging style that makes the complex and abstract concepts of Indian history and philosophy accessible to a general reader. The book is full of interesting anecdotes, stories, and examples that illustrate the key points and themes. The author also provides helpful summaries and overviews at the beginning and end of each chapter, which help the reader to navigate the dense and rich material.

Another strength of the book is its originality and creativity. The author challenges many of the conventional assumptions and interpretations of Ashoka’s life and legacy, and offers new and provocative insights into his character and motivations. For example, the author argues that Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism was not a sudden or dramatic event, but rather a gradual and deliberate process that took place over many years. The author also suggests that Ashoka’s famous edicts on morality and justice were not just a product of his Buddhist beliefs, but also reflected his political and administrative concerns.

However, the book is not without its weaknesses. One of the main weaknesses is its political bias. The author tends to portray Ashoka as a liberal and progressive ruler who championed human rights, social justice, and religious tolerance, and who rejected violence and war. While there is some truth to this portrayal, it is also an oversimplification and anachronism that ignores the complexities and contradictions of Ashoka’s reign. The author also tends to downplay or ignore the negative aspects of Ashoka’s policies, such as his authoritarianism, his paternalism, and his suppression of dissent.

Another weakness of the book is its lack of historical and cultural context. The author assumes that the readers are already familiar with the basic concepts and events of Indian history, and does not provide much background information or explanation. This can be frustrating for readers who are not well-versed in Indian culture and history, and who may struggle to understand some of the references and allusions. The book could have benefited from more footnotes, glossaries, or appendices that clarify the terms and concepts used.

Despite these weaknesses, Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King is a valuable and thought-provoking book that sheds new light on one of the most fascinating and complex figures in Indian history. It is a book that challenges our assumptions and prejudices, and that invites us to see the world from a different perspective. It is a book that celebrates the beauty and complexity of human life, and that reminds us of the power of ideas and ideals to shape our destiny.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about Ashoka and his legacy, as well as the broader themes of Indian history and philosophy. The book is a stimulating and rewarding read that will make you think and feel.

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