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August 28, 2011

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Home > 2011 Issues > August 28, 2011

A fictional Ashoka, the great king
Ashoka The Great, Wytze Keuning, translated into English by J E Steur, Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd., Pp 1058(HB), Rs 995.00

IT must be a connection of the past births. Otherwise, there is no logical explanation to a Dutch school teacher quitting his job to write a three-volume fictional biography of Emperor Ashoka at a time when the West was just about ‘discovering’ him. It is still a mystery how Wytze Keuning came to hear about Ashoka, how he collected resource material for writing such an exhaustive work. The English translation of the three volumes by a fellow Dutch runs into 1049 pages.

Ashoka The Great was written by Wytze Keuning between 1937-47 in three volumes called Ashoka: The Wild Prince, Book I, Ashoka: The Wise Ruler, Book II and Ashoka: The World’s Great Teacher, Book III. The book was almost forgotten as soon as it was published. All the three volumes have been translated into one book by J E Steur. The story of how she came across this book is equally interesting. She says her love for India had been blossoming because of her spiritual master. “It was in the late eighties, while in India, the name ‘Ashoka’ came through to me and started fascinating me. It had to do with the extraordinary experiences I had that year when, for the first time, I had been in the radiance of my enlightened master.” She saw the name in several places, ice-cream vends, hotels, roads, and was curious. While visiting her cousin back home (in the Netherlands) she saw the first two volumes of this trilogy. The third book was available in a local library. After reading the books, she was compelled to contribute her mite to both Ashoka the great king and the man who wrote three volumes on him. Wytze Keuning had never visited India nor was he known to have interacted with Indians. In fact J E Steur realised that even Wytze Keuning’s son was not aware that his father had written this book.

In this background it is amazing to see the details that have gone into the original book. His imagination, the reach of his understanding of the internal politics of the Mauryan empire and the emotional-dharmic dilemmas. The original book was written in out-dated Dutch using the “Thou” form. But the English translation is in easy language. J E Steur has also inserted the Ashoka Edicts. The narration is in simple conversations and engaging. One just needs to remember that it is fiction and not history.

(Rupa Publications India Pvt Ltd 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi:110 002)

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