Why should an outstanding vocalist converse with a historian about a ruler from the third century BCE in 2022? The conversation took place in Nandiya Gardens at the ITC Maurya hotel on April 19 in the proximity of Meera Mukherjee’s massive bronze sculpture of an anguished Ashoka at Kalinga.

The first purpose was to explore remembrances of this singular emperor across the centuries. I had finished a book on my travels with Ashoka, Searching for Ashoka – Questing for a Buddhist King from India to Thailand (forthcoming, Permanent Black, 2022). One of my fascinations in this book is the variety of ways in which Ashoka has been remembered. In places where he had stamped his historical presence and in other spots where he had not during his lifetime.

In practically every instance, memory was at variance with history. Sanchi’s great stupa was where he delivered a stern message to the Buddhist Samgha and that is where the Buddhist community later had struck back. Instead of showcasing his power as an emperor, it had memorialised the limits of his influence.

In Sri Lanka, Ashoka was most often remembered through his children. From the shores of Sri Lanka, stories of Ashoka travelled to Myanmar and Thailand, where he seemed to have became the ideal Buddhist king worthy of emulation. None of these instances, however, reflect or touch upon his ideas of governance.

A second purpose derived from the first. While I had been looking at the ways in which the historical Ashoka had been appropriated and reinscribed, TM Krishna, through a different medium, had begun to offer a singular remembrance of the emperor. He musically reimagined the epigraphic voice of Ashoka, by singing his words. His rendering of ancient prose in song was an entirely exceptional commemoration of Ashoka. As Krishna put it, “What is said or heard has got to do with what you can draw from it, and I think music adds dimensions to what you can draw.”

This suggests a third purpose – the interpretation of Ashoka by this exemplary vocalist that is relevant in the current political context of our nation. Krishna’s invocation of the emperor is an extension of Nehruvian secularism into a domain that is obliterating the Ashoka-Mahatma Gandhi-Jawaharlal Nehru genealogy of compassionate and humane governance. Why are fellow feeling and empathy – so integral to the trinity mentioned above – at such a discount is a question that comes up in Krishna’s music and in his activism.

Another twist in this tale about Ashoka and Nehru was offered by the Burmese statesman, U Nu, a politician and prime minister, who had shared a warm personal rapport with Nehru. In his memoir, U Nu described Nehru as an incarnation of Ashoka. Both, he pointed out, ruled large states, had a marked affinity to Buddhism, and believed in a compassionate state. That a Buddhist ruler of Burma remembered an ancient Indian Buddhist ruler is telling.

What is also worth noting is that no Buddhist ruler after Ashoka recalled the emperor in India. In fact, there was a fitting memorialisation of Ashoka the ruler by an Indian ruler only in the 20th century with the erudite Nehru. In much the same way, going forward while looking backward for inspiration is what is integral to those who invoke both Ashoka and Nehru today.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation, which is part of the collaboration on the Edict Project between TM Krishna and Ashoka University. – Nayanjot Lahiri



Nayanjot Lahiri: I don’t know where to begin, but to satisfy my curiosity, tell me, what drew you to Ashoka? What is it about the words that he set in stone that inspired you to set them to music? I think this is being done for the first time ever?

TM Krishna: It would be risky to say that but, yes, probably it is the first time. I guess , as with many people in this country, my association with Ashoka has been largely a few paragraphs in a history text book and of course, Kalinga. With Ashoka, his ideals and ideas, honestly, if we are talking about memory, frankly, I had forgotten Ashoka.

I think in a democratic world we are asking these questions of ourselves: what does governance mean? What does it mean to be participate in a conversation about people, about empathy, care, ultimately all living together, all very different people, with our own baggage, our own difficulties, our own environments. But what does it mean to live together? What does it mean for a government or for a governor, so to say, to rule? What is the sensibility? These were some things I was thinking about. And honestly, it was Gopal Gandhi who, suddenly, called me one day said: “You know, just read Ashoka’s edicts.” That’s when I went back to the translations of the edicts.

Of course, his had been a different world, a different space, a different mind frame – it was almost as if, he wasn’t speaking to me but rather, I was hearing myself having those conversations. And those conflicts at some level. I felt it was relevant for us to think in that manner, bridge philosophical thought or ideation and reality. That, in many ways, is what Ashoka does. I think that’s what drew me initially to him.

I started by saying I had forgotten Ashoka, but what did Ashoka remember? What did he choose not to remember? I think that all of us , in a way, either consciously or subconsciously, play this game of remembering and forgetting, though memories do come back sometimes. So, what did Ashoka choose to remember when he spoke about himself, his past? What did he choose to leave out?

Nayanjot Lahiri: You’re quite right. In the Ashokan edicts, in his words, there is only selective recall. If I were to begin with what he chooses not to remember, whatever happened in his life prior to him becoming an emperor, doesn’t clearly figure. One would imagine that with such illustrious predecessors, his father Bindusara and then before that, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, Chandragupta, would figure in his edicts. They don’t. The circumstances that brought him to the throne – though I think he snatched the throne, he wasn’t the eldest son of Bindusara – that too doesn’t figure.

What Ashoka remembers is actually, a standard trope where he draws on the past in order to make his own engagement with the present look glorious. In the Minor Rock Edict, he says that in the past – the gods and people did not intermingle, now, because of his zeal, there was an intermingling. He also talks about the immediate past. He remembers that two-and-a-half years before, he had become a Buddhist. Then, he was not very zealous and that it was only a year or so before that he had become zealous. And the fruits of his zeal were there for all to see.

The past state of his kingdom and the past state of his mind both figure in his words to make his own reign appear to be a kind of watershed. He does that constantly. Even in his Major Rock Edicts, some of which you have rendered so exquisitely, he is actually talking about previous kings engaged in pleasure tours or vihara yatras while he undertakes dhamma yatras. He talks about “bheri ghoso”, that is the sounds of drums associated with war, and how this has now transformed into the music of dhamma.

TM Krishna: Isn’t this also a kind of break from the past? Usually, we see kings invoking their lineage and illustrious past in a way to justify the present in some manner. Here is a person who not only breaks from the past, but does it consciously. Isn’t that also a kind of a shift?

Nayanjot Lahiri: Well, one reason he probably does not want to speak about the past is that he was actually not the one who was meant to succeed his father. That maybe one reason. But you are quite right. Because he is projecting himself as this self-made emperor, he appears unlike any king before him. After all, kingship in India has a long lineage before Ashoka. Then why is it that Emperor Ashoka is the only one who is visible to us? I think that’s because he worked out an extraordinary democratic innovation which was to actually reach out to his people via his administrators in the public domain. That’s unusual…

TM Krishna: Yes, like a bridge…

Nayanjot Lahiri: And that’s what I find so attractive about him. Because I was a history student and then a history teacher, he has always been present in what I have studied and in what I have taught. When I started engaging with him academically, I discovered this extraordinarily cerebral man. And, to be in the company of somebody cerebral in antiquity, that too a ruler, was just so appealing and so seductive. I wanted to keep prolonging my engagement with him. First it was his words. Then, I went in search of the places where his words had been put down. And then, after a year or so, I set out in search of his remembrance, his remembrance not only in India but also elsewhere.

Emperor Ashoka with his queen, Sanchi Stupa. Credit: Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand, CC BY 2.0via Wikimedia Commons

TM Krishna: His remembrance, and what he remembered is one thing. But how was he remembered? Where was he remembered? Was he even remembered? Now, of course, we speak about him, our national emblem has Ashoka on it (since the dharmachakra is there) but after his time? And was he even forgotten in some places?

Nayanjot Lahiri: Here I would again say that remembrance always involves forgetting. If we look within ourselves, that holds true. And those who remembered Ashoka did it for their own reasons, and they did it selectively. He is remembered across India and in ways which are very different from what he, as a historical figure, might have projected. But he is also remembered across Southeast Asia, he is remembered in Sri Lanka.

But if you think about it, his remembrance in Sri Lanka is much more that of his children. That’s because his son, Mahathera Mahinda, actually converted Ashoka’s contemporary king Devanampiya Tissa to Buddhism while his daughter, Theri Sanghamitta, is most famously remembered for having carried a sapling of the Bodhi tree to Sri Lanka.

TM Krishna: It’s very interesting that he is remembered more as a father.

Nayanjot Lahiri: In fact, the children are much more visible in Sri Lanka, while there is nothing about them in his words. So, there is a break. In his remembrance in Southeast Asia, one of the most striking stories is from south Thailand where in Nakhon Si Thammarat, there is a medieval chronicle which talks about the Indian Ashoka sending a missive to the Thai Ashoka. There is this whole dynasty that is named after Ashoka, all these dhammarajas.

The Indian Ashoka writes to his contemporary Thai Ashoka: “I’ve built these 84,000 reliquaries but I don’t have relics to enshrine – the Buddha’s relics.” And this Thai Ashoka sends him some relics. So, whereas in Buddhist literature, it is Ashoka who actually redistributes the relics of the Buddha, in the Thai story, he is the supplicant seeking relics.

You have now remembered Ashoka in a way that will endure for a long time. So what do you think Ashoka would have thought of this form of remembrance, and do you see your singing also as a form of remembrance?

TM Krishna: That’s interesting if Ashoka were listening. One thing that you have said before and we have discussed is that, yes, Ashoka’s words are etched in stone but they were probably declared. Maybe there were regular meetings at which somebody read them out. I am imagining a scene in which somebody is standing and reading out his words to a congregation. So were his words sung? We don’t know. Was there anybody who put some melody, say, an instrumentalist who accompanied even the pronouncements, we don’t know .

As a musician, it’s fascinating for me to imagine it. When first you see an edict, you regard it as prose, as just text. So the first question arises: can it be sung, even, should it be sung? To my mind, music does something to the way we feel. Even poetry, you know, when you read a poem, it has a resonance, a memory resonance. Memory is an emotional basket, not a fact basket or a thing that refers to this or that event. This is very true for the way we remember in India. We remember through the emotional basket. Even value is an emotional idea.

So, for me when you create music, there is something else that happens. It taps into coefficients, if I can say that, which are beyond semantics in a very unusual manner. And which is why I would like to believe, if Ashoka had heard the edicts being sung, he would have even felt his own words in a way that he had never heard or read. And maybe the meanings experienced transformed, because music also allows you to, shall we say, move beyond a time context. But the melody remains. So, there is a transformation to the words and, if this is done beautifully, and I like to hope that mine is done decently, that takes the words beyond what they say, to what you can draw from them. Ultimately, what is said or heard has got to do with what you can draw. I think music adds dimensions to what you can draw from it.

The Minor Rock Edict of Maski mentions the author as 'Devanampriya Asoka', definitively linking both names, and confirming Ashoka as the author of the famous Edicts. Credit: Sudeep m, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nayanjot Lahiri: There is so much inventiveness in the way you have sung his edicts. What is the process? What does it take to convert prose into song, the technology of it, just in terms of what you had to do?

TM Krishna: The first challenge was the language. I had never heard Ashokan Prakrit. A fundamental aspect for a musician is the sound. There is a certain musicality a musician draws from the words, the consonants and vowels, and their interaction which is fundamentally, what language is, along with dialective extensions and hasva dirghas you add to it. When I first heard the words, I didn’t even know whether they could have an aesthetic identity. Could this connect? Can I say the “doka aa”, that kind of an “aa” in, for example, in Carnatic or a Ragasam. I spent a month and a half just saying the words again and again.

Nayanjot Lahiri: That is a lot of riyaaz.

TM Krishna: I didn’t sing them. Everyday I would only read. And then I tried to say “aa…aa”. I would send recordings to [Sanskrit professor] Naresh Keerthi who was helping me and ask him, “Is this okay?’ He would correct me, as for example, he would say that you sing the “aa” like the Tamil “aa”. There was much back and forth on just the sound. Then, at one point I felt I could sing the words and I started singing them.

As far as the tune goes, you can’t look at a word and say: “This is the meaning and this is the raga that’s going to work.” You can’t. You look at it and just intuitively, you sing it. That’s when the best things happen. So, the first verse I sang, initially, in Devagandhari. And I sang it and I left it for three days. After three days, I sang it in Kapi. And I just felt that it fitted.

The other aspect in this process is rhythm. When you write poetry, especially musical poetry, there is rhythm. There is alliteration, there is prosody, and that helps you create a rhythm for the words and that makes it musical. Now, that kind of rhythm I could not find in the words of Ashoka. So, how does one frame them in a rhythmic manner? Do you even need to? I felt the chosen words could be invested with rhythmic diversity. So, actually, these move in different rhythms, not only in different ragas. I think the connection with the meaning, and the shifts in the rhythm give the words varying meanings.

For three months, I just went through this process with the little fragments from the edicts. After that I sent Professor Naresh the first draft.

So, it’s a very fascinating way of investing and kind of drowning. To me, Ashoka comes from that kind of immersive experience.

Nayanjot Lahiri: Has Ashoka and the whole experience of singing his words uplifted you as a musician? Have you sung prose before?

TM Krishna: No, I have not sung prose before. Yes, there is an upliftment, and in many ways, I almost feel an emotional connection with this person. I can’t explain it. There is something about his words that just feel so close to me. And singing has brought them far closer because as a musician when you sing something, you have to basically be it. Otherwise, you can’t sing it. So, maybe it is personal. Maybe I am tapping into some nostalgia and remembering something. I almost feel as an individual, I am having a chat with him, I am actually talking to him through my music.

But I want to say another thing. Look at India. There was a time when Ashoka was a very famous name for children. Even now, Ashoka is everywhere – roads, colonies, and so on. What do you think, we have done in post-1947 and modern democratic India with Ashoka?

Nayanjot Lahiri: (laughs) I really think he is just a figurehead. But, to the extent that the first prime minister of India was deeply influenced by Emperor Ashoka, there is a strong political connect. Nehru ruled for nearly two decades. Ashoka also had a long reign. Both ruled large areas of the Indian subcontinent. Ashoka didn’t rule Tamil Nadu but Nehru did. But Nehru, unlike Ashoka, didn’t rule Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And as far as Nehru was concerned, here was someone who was trying to work out a new way of governance. That is what Nehru aimed to do. How successful he was we don’t know. Of course, in the resolution that he moved in the Constituent Assembly, he talked about the dharmachakra of Sarnath [on the flag] being a symbol that connected the modern nation state with Ashoka who was not just one of the greatest kings of India but in the world. So, there is that connect. But how do you see Ashoka in relation to the framers of the Indian Constitution?

TM Krishna: The person who immediately comes to my mind is Ambedkar, and what he thought. You wonder about his idea of dhamma in relation to the Buddhist idea of dhamma and Ashoka’s idea of dhamma. But what, I think, is very important is while Ambedkar probably never tapped directly into Ashoka but the word that you used when you spoke about the music, there is inventiveness there. And that’s where I will bring Ambedkar and Ashoka together.

In terms of the inventiveness of understanding conceptual ideas, I think Ambedkar had that inventiveness – to understand Buddhist ideas but to all see them in a larger landscape, in a larger context and give them a certain ethical grounding in a new world that he was helping to create. That genius of thought is there in both of them, not just thought because both were people of action. Ambedkar was not just giving you a philosophical framework. He said, “Show me in material life how this is going to change, and it has to change lives.” He, like Ashoka, dealt with the ideational and material.

Before we end this conversation, I would like to ask you one question. Ashoka and Kashmir, is there a connection?

Nayanjot Lahiri: In the words of Ashoka himself, there is no direct connection. But in later sources, specially Kalhana’s historical chronicle of Kashmir, Ashoka is also a ruler of Kashmir. He is mentioned as not just ruling Kashmir but the whole earth which, of course, means the Indian subcontinent. And he is mentioned as patronising different religions. Before Kalhana, you have the Chinese travellers. Xuanzang, for example, talks about Ashoka as a king of Kashmir and about his successors. There’s a connection.

And this, of course, makes me wonder whether there is something to be learnt from the way Ashoka dealt with Kalinga and his remembrance of it, and his accepting the guilt of the blood on his hands. Can the state learn from history and make a similar gesture? Or would that not make a difference to the terrible state of affairs that is there today vis-à-vis Kashmir and the government at the Centre? I wonder.

TM Krishna: Thank you Nayanjot.