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Prof. Irfan Habib

Professor Emeritus at Aligarh Muslim University. Prof Habib has worked on the historical geography of Ancient India, the history of Indian technology, medieval administrative and economic history, colonialism and its impact on Indian historiography.



“For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others in reality, inflicts the severest of injury on his own sect.” These words of Emperor #ashoka chiseled into stone over two millennia ago resonate with a remarkable level of relevance in our present day.

In his #inscriptions, Ashoka admits his violent past and informs us about his spiritual transformation. He comes across as a benevolent and caring ruler, whose concerns extend far beyond the political and territorial realms. He sees the welfare of his subjects and not just human subjects but also the animals as his responsibility. He wants the people to live up to a high moral standard for their own good not just in this life but also in the afterlife. In his #edicts he demands uniformity in law and uniformity in sentencing and argues for kindness to prisoners, talks of planting shady trees and digging fresh water wells, building shelters and medical facilities for men and animals, and so much more. He claims to be a "father" to his subjects that he see as his children. It is hard not to imagine the times under him as a long lost golden age!

And yet like anything that sounds too good to be true, there are reasons to doubt this view of Ashoka as an ideal statesman. We are shown a very different side of Ashoka by the Sanskrit text Ashokavadana from Mathura, the Buddhist chronicle Mahavamsa from Sri Lanka and other contemporary and later sources.

They tell us about the brutal religious persecutions unleashed by Ashoka against #Jains, #Ajivikas and those he considered to be "heretical" #buddhist . They share tales about him executing concubines, burning dissidents alive, his torture cells and his executioners, the multiple uprisings and their brutal repressions. The picture that comes across is not of a righteous ruler of a glorious empire but a cruel and unpopular tyrant who presided over a police state.

So we at Argumentative Indians decided to put the question to one of India’s most eminent historians - Prof Irfan Habib. Does Ashoka deserve the epithet "Great" conferred on him in modern times?


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