Ashoka was an emperor of India who, for around two thousand years, was virtually unknown. After war-like beginnings, he became a Buddhist and began to spread Buddhist values throughout his kingdom, with the hope of conquering neighbouring territories with moral force rather than military force. There’s a certain amount of idealism about this emperor and the good works he may or may not have done, but Allen’s book does show that he seems to have been dedicated to his vision.
However, this book is less about Ashoka himself and more about the search for him — the India enthusiasts, often British people coming over to run the colonies, who hunted down the references, visited the ancient sites, and began to put things together. He’s relatively sympathetic toward those endeavours, with the attitude that if Britain did no other good for India, well, we had these clever people who helped them figure out their own history. I don’t have anything to set against that (although he does often mention local experts in languages and religion), but if you’re sceptical of a colonial narrative, I would say this verges on that territory.
It is a fascinating story, though, and doubly so to me because I know so little of India in either time period. I did sometimes wish I was better at geography, so I could draw more of it together on a mental map, but alas, I couldn’t even sketch the shape of India. Ashoka’s story is definitely worth telling, and so too that of the people who reinstated his legacy, I think.