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Ashoka's Dutch fans

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The first biographical novel on appeared in in the Nazi era. Its creation and translation into English are stories in themselves.

In the 1930s a middle-aged schoolteacher in the town of Groningen in the Netherlands set out to compose a fictionalised life of Ashoka, the emperor of India. It took a decade and a half to write and publish the three volumes of his magnum opus. Now, more than 60 years later, the Dutch original is available in a thousand-page English-language edition, translated by another Groningen local named J Elisabeth Steur.

The book and the people around it are intriguing for a number of reasons. There is the fact that Keuning gave up his job as a headmaster in 1937 to focus on Ashoka. He was writing in a German-occupied nation, under German censors, during the Second World War. Of the three volumes of the life, the third is the least warlike and most pacifistic, and was published in 1948, soon after the war; it is the only volume that was never reprinted and, so it appears, sank almost without trace. Until Steur resurrected it.

Steur is in her early 70s now, warm, friendly and at once confiding and self-possessed over the phone. She retired in 1995 after 30 years as a child psychologist who worked with troubled — psychotic, criminal — youngsters. Before that she seems to have had an admirably free-spirited life, crossing the Iron Curtain to visit Hungary in 1959, spending a faintly bohemian time in a “dangerous” borough of New York City during the 1970s, being taken up with spiritualism and in India during the 1980s... The way she tells it, her path to Keuning and Ashoka was lit by a series of spiritual experiences, beginning when she was a teenager.

Since retirement, Steur says, she has spent half of every year in India. In the mid-1990s, Ashoka took centre-stage in her life, as Steur wondered how to bring about an English translation of Keuning’s trilogy. She could do a simple translation, but would that be enough? How accurate was Keuning’s work? Would anyone want to read it?

She got in touch with Keuning’s descendants, including his younger son Frits, now in his 90s. It turned out that Keuning was an odd fish when it came to Ashoka. The family, including a grandson whom Keuning used to take for long, educational nature walks, had known nothing about their father’s interest in an ancient Indian king. Frits told Steur that Keuning used to shut himself in his study to write. Even after the books were published, the family took little interest in them. They did not have a copy of the third volume, which Steur tracked down with difficulty at an antiquarian bookseller’s. “I was only 13 years old when he died [in 1957, aged 81] and never spoke with him about the backgrounds of his books,” says Hubert Keuning, son of Keuning’s older son Klaas, via email.

To add to this air of mystery, the historical Ashoka was unknown until about 1915 when European scholars were able to connect a hitherto obscure name in a king-list with the famed “Devanampiya Piyadassi” (“beloved of the gods, who regards all with affection”) of the unusual rock and pillar edicts scattered around India and its neighbour countries. Suddenly the Buddhist tales of a great king and peaceful champion of the Sangha looked like they were founded in fact. But between 1915 and the late 1920s, when Keuning’s interest in Ashoka must have been provoked, there can hardly have been a flood of literature.

“There was a Sanskrit faculty at Groningen University before the war,” Steur says, not without pride, though she adds that “Most of the literature the author had used was German. In the first half of the 20th century, Germany was very active in translating Buddhist stuff.” So Keuning must have used German sources. Consider that the German-Swiss novelist Hermann Hesse published his persistently popular Siddhartha, on a young spiritual seeker in the time of the Buddha, in 1922. Hesse dedicated the book to Romain Rolland, the French literary giant who befriended Tagore and was influenced by Vedanta philosophy. Something was in the air, even in quiet Groningen.

Was it the war that helped shape Keuning’s Ashoka? In the first two volumes the young king-to-be is perfectly ready to fight against rebels and for the throne — historically, there was a four-year-long, fratricidal succession war — but also to discourse at (occasionally tiresome) length with Hindu and Buddhist sages; by the time he takes over from his father Bindusara as the emperor, Ashoka is reluctant to use violence, and after his bloody victory over Kalinga he eschews violence in favour of moral force.

“There might be a relationship with the war,” says Steur. “Late in his life, Keuning was interviewed, he said he was intrigued by times of change in history. Not just Ashoka, but such a time as we were in in the late 1930s and ’40s.” Steur was a child during the war: “For me, the war is still very nearby.”

Which is one reason Ashoka is an attractive figure even today. It’s not just his late attitude towards war. There is an old tradition in Western political culture of writings on the ideal state and ruler (see Machiavelli’s The Prince for the hard edge). India has the Arthashastra by Chanakya, who advised Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta. One can see how Ashoka might appeal to scholars from Protestant lands, with what Keuning depicts as his rejection of ritual-bound Brahmanism in favour of humanistic Buddhism (though this is not strongly supported by surviving facts). Ashoka is also in the curious position of being both better known and more obscure than other ancient rulers — his edicts are in his own words and reflect his own thoughts, yet facts about his 37-year reign are few. No wonder there are liberal Ashoka Fellows and books on Ashoka and modern policymaking, such as Bruce Rich’s To Uphold the World: The Message of Ashoka & Kautilya for the 21st Century (Penguin 2008).

For a book written early in the era of Ashoka studies, Keuning’s novel covers all the historical bases. Most of the facts are in it, and some of the legend. Read it for this reason. Yet it is hagiographical. Ashoka does no wrong, makes hardly a mistake. The book is an artifact of its times. Today, a fictionalised biography would focus far more on complexity of character and be less eager to “teach”.

Ashoka the Great was important in the lives of its writer and translator. If you read it as a shishya you can share in that sense of mission. If not, it is a historical curiosity.


ASHOKA THE GREAT
Author: Wytze Keuning
Translator: J E Steur
Publisher: Rupa
Pages: xx + 1,060
Price: Rs 995

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