Many have probably read how Sanjeev Sanyal, a thoughtful historian, economist and urban planner, has torn to shreds, Ashoka’s reputation as a pacifist. In case you didn’t, here is his story of the real Ashoka. In 274BC, Bindusara, son of Chandragupta, died. The crown prince, Sushima, was on the north-western frontier fighting incursions. When he rushed back to capital Pataliputra, he found that Ashoka, one of his half-brothers, had seized control. Ashoka got Sushima killed—possibly roasted alive! In the next four years, Ashoka seems to have killed all male rivals in his family. Buddhist texts mention that he killed 99 half-brothers and only spared his brother Tissa. Having consolidated his power, he was finally crowned emperor in 270BC.
Ashoka invaded Kalinga a few years later and, shocked by the death and destruction he had wrought, converted to Buddhism and became a pacifist. Or, so we believe. Sanyal argues that the rock edicts tell us that he had converted to Buddhism more than two years earlier “and from what we know of his early rule, he was hardly a man to be easily shocked by the sight of blood.”
Sanyal argues that the main evidence of Ashoka's repentance comes from his own inscriptions. “It is very curious, however, that this ‘regret’ is mentioned only in locations far away from Odisha (such as in Shahbazgarhi in north-western Pakistan) which can’t be challenged... If Ashoka was genuinely remorseful, he would have surely bothered to apologize to the people whom he had wronged. Far from it, he doesn’t even offer to free the captives. Even the supposedly regretful inscriptions include a clear threat of further violence against other groups like the forest tribes.” It is likely that it was pure propaganda by Ashoka to counter his reputation for cruelty. Indeed, the Buddhist text, Ashokavadana, tells us of more acts of genocide perpetrated many years after he supposedly turned pacifist; Ashoka once had 18,000 Ajivikas Jains in Bengal put to death in a single episode.
The job of any good book is to surprise us with facts, especially about known situations, and weave them in a flowing narrative to support an overarching theme. The Ocean of Churn does this very well. Sanyal skilfully weaves together stories picked from thousands of years history stretching from Europe to Southeast Asia to show how culture and commerce, religion and administration, family lineages and wars, kinship and genetics across centuries interacted around the Indian ocean. But this story has hardly been told from the perspective of those who lived around the Indian Ocean. Sanyal hopes to rectify that, with this book.
He has many surprises for us about our recent past, too, such as the role played by the revolutionaries in our freedom struggle. Sanyal argues that while the Netaji Subhash Chadra Bose’s role in the last stages of India’s freedom struggle is known, it was really the culmination of a strategy that had been devised decades ago. The simplest way to throw out the British was not civil disobedience but create a mutiny among the soldiers. After all, the backbone of the British empire was not the few British people who lived here but the vast army of Indian soldiers who fought for the British in many wars across the world. This was the plan of Rashbehari Bose, Sachindra Nath Sanyal (the author’s great grandfather), Har Dayal and others from the mid-1910s, influenced by Vinayak Savarkar. Another plan included bringing in arms across the sea from the east. Unfortunately, these plans failed each time. SN Sanyal was caught and sent to Cellular jail in Andaman and Bose fled to Japan. But the idea lived on and manifested years later with the dramatic escape of Subhash Bose from house arrest in Kolkata, contacting the Germans and the Japanese, and leading the charge with an Indian army from the east. Ultimately, Indian soldiers did rise up in mutiny in 1946 (naval revolt of Bombay).
This short review only offers a flavour that the history we read is probably a deeply flawed. The stories appear more nuanced, global, richer and shaped by unsung heroes in Sanyal’s narrative, where Odiya and Omani seafarers, Chola and Chinese kings, Pallava and Portuguese warriors race through the pages. A must-read.