This is a worthy - and highly readable - attempt to redress the appalling neglect still accorded to one of the greatest rulers of world history. Asoka was the Indian king who brought the world's attention to the teachings of India's greatest son, Siddhartha Gautama (known to the world as the Buddha) yet his name and reputation still remain largely ignored in India, and virtually unknown to the West. Why so? Charles Allen here supplies us with the answer. In raising Buddhism - then an obscure sect - into the state religion of his great Indian empire, Asoka thereby incurred the lasting enmity of the Brahmins, since Buddhism preached against caste and condemned priestly sacrifices. Whilst Asoka's reign thus supplied the world with some of its greatest art - let alone some of its deepest and most profound religious teachings - the priestly caste were not about to renounce their enormous privileges and power, and they have fought Buddhism ever since - often bitterly - and indeed, almost succeeded in erasing the name of Asoka from history as a result. It was only painstaking work by Western scholars - and British scholars in particular - that slowly succeeded in dispelling the Asokan darkness, and it is much to Allen's credit that he has not only chosen to bring Asoka into the full light of day here, but that he also identifies the culprits who, then and now, have continued to draw a veil over this wonderful king and his astonishing legacy. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that in bringing the teachings of the Buddha to the world Asoka has exerted a wider and more profound legacy than Alexander the Great ever did. He really is as important as that.
That said, I was nevertheless saddened to see Allen using this book to rehearse his continuing vendetta against those who consider the Piprahwa finds to be a hoax (pp. 326-30). Not only has this problem no place in such a book - the Piprahwa finds are not considered Asokan - but Allen delivers us several howlers: Piprahwa and Gorakhpur are in Uttar Pradesh not North Bihar, and if he spells Oudh as Oude just one more time..... We are also told that though `doubts continue to be raised about the authenticity of the Piprahwa site and its inscription', such doubts are confined to the `lunatic fringe' of Buddhism. Yet as Allen himself knows perfectly well, there are at least two professors - one a very eminent Indologist indeed, of worldwide academic reputation - who have such doubts, and such authorities can scarcely be relegated to any `lunatic fringe' of Buddhist studies. Perhaps he entertains some sort of personal agenda on the Piprahwa `relics' for reasons which he has yet to publicly divulge. If so this is a pity, since it mars an otherwise fine and worthy book.