There are few historical figures more integral to South Asian history than Emperor Ashoka, a third-century BCE king who ruled over a larger area of the Indian subcontinent than anyone else before British colonial rule. Ashoka sought not only to rule his territory but also to give it a unity of purpose and aspiration, to unify the people of his vastly heterogeneous empire not by a cult of personality but by the cult of an idea—“dharma”—which served as the linchpin of a new moral order. He aspired to forge a new moral philosophy that would be internalized not only by the people of his empire but also by rulers and subjects of other countries, and would form the foundation for his theory of international relations, in which practicing dharma would bring international conflicts to an end.
His fame spread far and wide both in India and in other parts of Asia, and it prompted diverse reimaginations of the king and his significance. In this deeply researched book, Patrick Olivelle draws on Ashoka’s inscriptions and on the art and architecture he pioneered to craft a detailed picture of Ashoka as a ruler, a Buddhist, a moral philosopher, and an ecumenist who governed a vast multiethnic, multilinguistic, and multireligious empire.
“Olivelle has made a wonderful gift to the world: a brilliant, reliable, readable synthesis of what we know about one of history’s truly great emperors. This book should be in every learned person’s library.”—Richard W. Lariviere, president emeritus of the Field Museum, Chicago
“Ashoka is certainly one of the towering figures of world history. In this highly readable account, Patrick Olivelle has skillfully woven together more than a century of scholarship about this great king.”—Deven M. Patel, University of Pennsylvania
“Olivelle’s novel approach—to write a biography of Aśoka in Aśoka’s own words—that is, the words of his inscriptions—provides us with an entirely fresh and surprising portrait of the great Mauryan emperor, stripped of millennia of hagiography and religious piety and resituated in a conceptual landscape of Aśoka’s ‘civil religion.’”—Stephanie Jamison, University of California, Los Angeles
“In this wonderful book, subject and author are perfectly matched. Patrick Olivelle, arguably the greatest living scholar of ancient India, has given us a sensitive and authoritative biography of Ashoka, one of the most remarkable figures in world history and an emperor whose revolutionary moral philosophy has had an enduring legacy. With the rigour of its research, the subtlety of its judgments, and the elegance of its prose, Patrick Olivelle’s Ashoka sets new standards in biographical writing.”—Ramachandra Guha, author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World