Ashoka and the Maurya Dynasty: the History and Legacy of Ancient India’s Greatest Empire

Review by Robert Harding

The ancient Mauryan Empire and its third emperor Ashoka (c.304-232 BC) represent a striking departure for Colleen Taylor Sen. The author’s reputation rests on her series of food books, most notably Curry: a global history. Nevertheless, this new book is a good read and caters well for Sen’s intended audience, the general reader, and her bibliography is wide-ranging and up-to-date. Students would probably still use more established titles on the market, such as Romila Thapar’s Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. It is no surprise the two titles are similar: Ashoka dominates his dynasty. He provides an indigenous model for the modern Indian state, both because he ruled most of South Asia and because of his reputation as the quintessential just ruler. But he was also probably instrumental in making Buddhism a world religion.

There is an excellently paced summary of pre-Mauryan history and the treatment of early Mauryans is also good; but the book has to be judged on the basis of Ashoka. Here, Sen sensibly gives the legends from later Buddhist narratives a separate chapter, allowing her to create a coherent story using contemporary records.

As for the primary source material, a strong feature is the space devoted to Edict texts, a set of inscriptions attributed to Ashoka. This focus gives readers new to the subject a direct experience of the major historical source. Buddhism – which Ashoka favoured and patronised extensively – is a significant presence in the book, but Sen avoids the mistake of making her account just a history of that religion.

Her sections on government, economy, and society are more questionable. The recent redating of the ancient linguist Panini to the 4th century BC gives the author scope to use him, as well as the historian Megasthenes. But Sen’s extensive use of the Arthashastra, the treatise on statecraft, is unfortunate given its prescriptive nature and the evidence that its original core is post-Mauryan.

More could have been made of archaeological evidence for economic and artistic developments. Sen does discuss Ashoka’s pillars, as well as the pillared hall at Patna (the modern incarnation of Ashoka’s capital of Pataliputra), but misses other material evidence like the numerous terracotta statuettes testifying to religious practice, and recent claims about the Ashokan shrine at Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini.

The appendix on the rediscovery of the Mauryan Empire is about India’s ancient past as a whole, a subject with its own general histories, such as Charles Allen’s Ashoka. The chapter on the Mauryan legacy is far better, and the space could have been used to cover other subjects in more depth, such as Ashoka as the paradigmatic Buddhist king, and the Chinese identification of his empire as the original Buddhist holy land.

Ashoka and the Maurya Dynasty: the History and Legacy of Ancient India’s Greatest Empire
Colleen Taylor Sen
Reaktion, Hardback, £25
ISBN 978-1789145960