Asoka in the Postcolonial Imagination: Contemporary Ideological Readings of India's Past

Date of Graduation

Spring 2006


Master of Arts in Religious Studies


Religious Studies

Committee Chair

John Llewellyn


The life of the ancient King Asoka of India has been of great interest to scholars and South Asians alike since his virtual rediscovery in archaeology and the study of ancient literature in the nineteenth century. The delicate balance between describing Asoka and producing his biography have been muddled increasingly in the postcolonial era, as new ideologies have fueled the process of giving Asoka meanings for the present era. Two South Asian scholars whose works on Asoka have been especially popular are Romila Thapar and Ananda Guruge. Thapar’s work reflects the Marxist view prevalent in the Indian university system with a version of Asoka’s narrative nearly devoid of any religious content. The biography of Asoka provided by Guruge is a little more than the author’s attempt to authorize a meaningful past. Endeavoring to authenticate the most ancient chronicles of Sri Lanka through Asoka, Guruge is pursuing a nationalist agenda, not just composing a biography. This thesis examines these two authors as examples of the ways modern biographies may be indicative of modern aims, which are not proper to the past they seek to describe.


religion, Asoka, India, historiography, nationalism

Subject Categories



© Johnathon Parsons