When I read about Ashoka the 3rd century BC ruler of much of India, my curiosity was aroused. Ashoka began as a warlord but felt remorse at the waste of life on the battlefield. He invited followers of the Buddha to teach him . As a result he abolished the death penalty and recommended prisoners be treated with respect and wild animals protected and set about the creation of a kind of welfare state 250 years before Christ! Thanks to Ashoka spreading his edicts beyond India the religion we know as ‘Buddhism’ exists today. But he was forgotten for 1000 years. How could that happen? The Madras Courier published my analysis of what happened. In my opinion it is poignantly relevant to the world today.
My second novel Sculpting the Elephant was partly motivated by a desire for more people to know about Ashoka . Military conquests are celebrated and tyrants remembered but this example of an Empire spread peacefully through ideas and not armies was written out of history. The contemporary plot of Sculpting the Elephant is about a mixed relationship but it links to the story of a nineteenth century fictional polymath who becomes obsessed about uncovering the lost story of Ashoka .
The Bodleian Library is a location in Sculpting the Elephant and its director ,Richard Ovenden, has just published Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge . The sad thing is that it does not include Nalanda ! The destruction of the great library of Alexandria is well known but the destruction of Nalanda was even more profound in its effect. Ashoka founded the world’s first international university at Nalanda circa 250 BC. It spread over nine kilometres and had a huge library and 10,000 students . During the Mughal invasion of North India not only was it burned down and all the books destroyed but all the custodians of that knowledge – the students were killed. One monk was travelling with one book .
650 books had survived because the Chinese Buddhist explorer Xuanzang (602-664 CE) was given them to take with him back to China. The Great Wild Goose Pagoda was built to house them . Thanks to him those books were later translated – just in time. Another book burning episode not talked enough about in the West is highlighted in my other novel Brushstrokes in Time. In 1966 Mao and Lin Biao urged Chinese teenagers to ‘destroy the old.’ They obeyed and burned books including Daoist works of art and the Buddhist books that Xuanzang had brought from India .
We are living in a more connected world -these are stories that need telling! This is picture is of the small section of the great university of Nalanda that has been uncovered.