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The Mauryan Empire – Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)

The Mauryan Empire – Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)



Classical Greek sources speak of a young Indian named Sandrocottus-identified with Chandragupta Maurya-who sided with the Greeks. Plutarch states that Sandrocottus advised Alexander to advance beyond the Beas and attack the Nanda emperor of Magadha, who was so unpopular that his people would rise in support of an invader. The Latin historian Justin adds that later Sandrocottus offended Alexander by his boldness of speech, and the conqueror ordered that he should be put to death; but he escaped, and after many adventures succeeded in expelling the Greek garrisons and gaining the throne of India.

Both Indian and Greek sources agree that Chandragupta overthrew the last of the Nandas (Dhanananda) and occupied his capital, Pataliputra; the latter add that after Alexander’s retreat Chandragupta subdued the north-west, driving out the Greek garrisons. According to all Indian traditions he was much aided in his conquests by his Brahman adviser, called variously Kautilya, Chanakya and Vishnugupta. Indeed in Visakhadatta’s play, Mudrarakshasa (6th century A.D.), the king Chandragupta Maurya is depicted as a weak and insignificant young man, the real ruler of the empire being Chanakya. The Arthashastra, a treatise which contains genuine Mauryan reminiscences, was written by Chanakya. Chandragupta probably ascended the throne around 322 B.C.

Soon the Greeks were again at the doors of India. Alexander’s general Seleucus Nicator had succeeded in gaining control of most of the Asiatic provinces of the short-lived Macedonian empire, and turned his attention to the east. About 305 B.C. he met Chandragupta in battle, and seems to have suffered a defeat, and was compelled to yield parts of Afghanistan to Chandragupta, receiving in exchange only 500 elephants. The peace was concluded by a matrimonial alliance, the exact nature of which is uncertain; but possibly some Greek princess came to the Mauryan family.

Seleucus sent an ambassador, Megasthenes, to the Mauryan court, and the envoy wrote a detailed account of India entitled Indica. Unfortunately no manuscript of Indica has survived, but many Greek and Latin authors have referred to and quoted from it abundantly, and from their works it may be partially reconstructed. The Indica is important as the first authentic and connected description of India by a foreigner.

According to Indica and Arthashastra, the Mauryan empire had developed a highly organised bureaucratic administration, which controlled the whole economic life of the state. It had a very thorough espionage system, which was active among all classes from the highest ministers to the lowest classes in the towns.

Megasthenes much admired Emperor Chandragupta for his energetic administration of justice, which he presided over personally in open darbar. His enormous palace at Pataliputra, though built wholly of wood, was of great beauty and splendour. Chandragupta is said to have changed his bedroom every day because of constant fear of assassination. The capital was a large and fine city, surrounded by a wooden wall.

Chandragupta is also believed to have conquered Gujarat, Kathiawar and some parts of the Deccan. According to Jain tradition, Chandragupta abdicated his throne in about 300 B.C. and starved himself to death in around 298 B.C. at Sravanabelagola near Mysore.


Chandragupta was succeeded after a reign of 24 years by his son Bindusara. Bindusara maintained friendly ties with the Hellenic west. A Greek envoy, Deimachos, was at his court. According to Athenacus, Bindusara requested Antiochus I, the Seleucid king of Syria, to send a present of figs, wine and a sophist. Antiochus sent figs and wine, but replied that Greek philosophers were not for export. Bindusara not only held the great empire intact but probably also added to it in the Deccan. He was succeeded in about 269 B.C., probably after four years of his death by his son Asoka.


According to Buddhist sources, Ashoka usurped the throne, killed all possible rivals (99 brothers), and began his reign as a tyrant, but this story is not borne out by Asoka’s own inscriptions. Asokan edicts are in the nature of official pronouncements of policy, and instructions to his officers and subjects. They contain many personal touches, and the drafts were probably composed by the emperor himself.

Before he came to the throne, Asoka was viceroy of Taxila and Ujjain. He was also known as ‘Devanampiya’-beloved of the gods-and ‘piyadassiof pleasing appearance.

Asoka probably fought only one war–the Kalinga War (261 B.C.) and thereafter he embarked on conquest by righteousness (Dhamma Vijaya) rather than by use of force. He claims to have won many victories by righteousness, even among the five Hellenic kingsAntiochus II Theos of Syria, Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia, Magas of Cyrene, and Alexander of Epirus.

In domestic affairs the new policy was felt in a general relaxation of the stern government of earlier times. Asoka declared that all men were his children, and more than once reproved his local governors for their failure to apply this precept thoroughly. He strongly supported the doctrine of ahimsa, then rapidly spreading among religious people of all sects, banned animal sacrifices at least in his capital, and regulated the slaughter of animals for food, completely forbidding the killing of certain species. He proclaimed that he had reduced the consumption of meat in the palace to negligible proportions-only two peacocks a day. Thus Asoka’s encouragement was in part responsible for the growth of vegetarianism in India.

But Asoka was not a complete pacifist. The wild tirbesmen of hills and forests were a constant source of danger to the more civilised villagers, and earlier kings had kept them in check by ruthless campaigns of extermination. Asoka clearly intended to civilise them, but he was also ready to repress them by force if they continued their raids on the more settled parts of his empire. He makes no mention of reducing the army, and if, under the influence of Buddhism, he had done so, he would surely have taken pride in pronouncing it. Despite his remorse at the conquest of Kalinga, he did not restore it to its original rulers; he continued to govern it as an integral part of his empire. For all his humanitarianism he maintained the death penalty, and merely granted a stay of execution of three days to men condemned to death, so that they might prepare their minds for the next world.

Asoka improved the communication system of his empire by planting fruit-trees along the roads to provide shade and food, digging wells at intervals, and setting up rest-houses for weary travellers. He developed the cultivation of medicinal herbs, which, with other drugs, were supplied to men and animals alike. To ensure that his reforms were put into effect he inaugurated a new class of officials, the “Officers of Righteousness” (dharmamahamatras), who, taking their instructions directly from the centre, were ordered to investigate the affairs of all the provinces, to encourage good relations betwen man and man and to ensure that the local officials carried out the new policy. Thus Asoka’s reforms tended towards centralisation rather than devolution of power.

After his change of heart due to the great bloodshed in the Kalinga War, if not before, Asoka’s personal religion was Buddhism. Some authorities believe that he even entered the Buddhist order. But the inscriptions show that he was no metaphysician, and he probably had little interest in or understanding of the finer points of Buddhism. Although he never mentions Buddhist nirvana, he speaks frequently of heaven. In fact the Dhamma officially propagated by Asoka was not Buddhism in itself but a system of morals consistent with the tenets of most of the sects of the empire and calculated to lead to peace and fellowship in this world. A streak of puritanism in the emperor’s character is to be inferred from the edict banning rowdy popular fairs and allowing religious gatherings only.

Tradition unanimously ascribes the conversion of Ceylon to Mahendra, Asoka’s son or brother, who had become a Buddhist monk. King Devanampiya Tissa of Ceylon was his first convert. Though Aryans may have settled in Ceylon more than two centuries before Asoka, it was only now that the culture of the island began to develop under the influence of Buddhism.


It seems that Asoka died about 232 B.C. There was a disputed succession after him. The empire began to fall apart on his death when the governors of the great provinces, usually members of the royal family, established their virtual independence. Asoka had three sons-Kunala, Tirana and Jaluka. According to V.A. Smith none of them succeeded Asoka as Kunala was blind and the other two became Buddhist monks. Thus, it was Asoka’s grandson, Dasarath, who became the king of the eastern part of the empire, while another grandson, Samprati, ruled the western part, with their respective capitals at Pataliputra and Ujjain.

The last king according to most historians was Brihadratha who was assassinated by his senapati Pushyamitra in 185 B.C. and a new dynasty was founded by him known as the ‘Sunga dynasty’.


Several factors are listed as having brought about the decline of the Mauryan empire. Asoka’s patronage of Buddhism and his anti-sacrificial attitude is said to have affected the income of the brahmanas. They thus developed some kind of antipathy towards Asoka. Another reason put forward is that the revenue from agrarian areas was not sufficient to maintain such a vast empire as booty from war was negligible. The oppressive rule of the provincial governors angered the people and they revolted. It is also argued that Asoka’s non-violent policy affected the military strength of the empire. The immediate cause could have been the invasion of the Bactrian Greeks and the murder of Brihadratha by Pushyamitra Sunga. The most likely cause is that the successors of Asoka were too weak to keep together such a large centralised empire.


Though Chandragupta was a great warrior, he was also an accomplished administrator. Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Megasthenes’ Indica give us a fair idea of the administration during his reign.

The king was the highest authority of the state. (He could in those days be elected but hereditary kingship was the established practice.) He had unlimited powers. He led his army in war and was the supreme authority in the administration of justice as well. The administration was highly centralised.

A council of ministers assisted the king. According to Kautilya, “Sovereignty is possible only with assistance”. They were consulted regarding the state-affairs from time to time. All of them were appointed by the king on merit and could also be dismissed by him. Each minister had free access to the king but in policy matters they advised the king as a body.

The Mauryan administration was carried on by an organised, efficient and highly centralised bureaucracy. Important functionaries were called tirthas. These officials were sannidhata (head of treasury), samaharta (collector of revenue), purohita (chief priest); senapati (commanderin-chief); pratihara (gatekeeper of the royal palace); antaryamisika (head of the harem-guards); durgapala (head of the fort); antahalas (head of the frontier); paur (governor of the capital); amatyas (executive officers) and others. According to the Arthashastra, 27 adhyakshas (superintendents) were appointed by the state to regulate economic activities.

Provincial administration

The Mauryan empire was divided into a number of provinces. In each province there was a governor or viceroy who was sometimes a prince of royal blood. The princes when appointed as viceroys were called kumar-mahamatras, while the rest of the viceroys were known as mahamatras. The number of provinces during Chandragupta’s period is not clear but Asoka definitely had at least four provinces directly ruled by the king. These provinces were the province of Magadha with capital at Pataliputra, the North-western Province with capital at Taxila, the Western Province with capital at Ujjain and the Southern Province with capital at Swarnagiri. Another province of Kalinga was also there with its capital at Tosali. The mahamatras were assisted by the yuta (tax collector); rajuka (revenue collector), sthaniks (district officers). The provinces were further divided into districts. The village was the smallest unit of administration and was placed under an officer known as gramika

Municipal administration

City administration was looked after in its minutest detail. There was a committee of thirty members for carrying on the day-to-day administration of the city. The committee was divided into six boards of five members each. One board looked after the arts and crafts, another after foreigners, a third after the registration of births and deaths, a fourth after trade and commerce, a fifth after manufactured articles in the town, and lastly one after the collection of salestax on the sold goods at the rate of 1/10 of the selling price. Each part of the city was placed under the supervision of a sthanika.


The chief source of revenue of the government was land tax. It varied from 1/4 to 1/6 of the total produce according to fertility of the land. Another important tax was that on sold goods which was 1/10 of the selling price.


Laws were terribly severe and punishments rather harsh. Punishment of cutting hands and feet or other bodily limbs was quite common. This made theft and robbery a rare event.


According to both Megasthenese and Kautilya there was a network of spies throughout the country. Next to the army the spies were the chief support of the king. Women were also appointed as spies.

Military Administration

The mauryas kept a large and powerful army. Pliny who based his statement on Megasthenese, put the strength of Chandragupta’s force at 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry and 9,000 elephants. The administration of the army was also looked after by six departments with five members each. These departments were admiralty, transport, infantry, cavalry, war-chariots, and war-elephants.

Asoka’s Reforms

The basic structure of administration as established by Chandragupta was retained by Asoka. However, he ordered rajukas, yutas and mahamatras to remain on constant tour within their administrative areas with a view to keep watch on their subordinate officials so that they did not fail in their duty of providing justice and seeing to the welfare of the people. He also appointed new classes of officers called dhamma-yutas. dhamma-mahamatras and stri-adhyaksha-mahamatras. Their primary duty was to make efforts for the moral and spiritual uplift of the subjects. Also, the rajukas were given judicial power so that the people could have easy and convenient access to justice. Asoka also decided that people would be treated as equals before law.


Megasthenese writes that people were very honest and their moral standard was very high. They were happy and led a simple life. The standard of living was also very high as the state had become prosperous due to good administration and increase in trade. They enjoyed meals of different kinds and used gold and silver ornaments as well.

The caste system had become very rigid and the whole Hindu society was based on this evil practice. To change one’s caste was almost impossible. According to Megasthenese the Indian society comprised of seven castes or classes. This idea of Indian society is not wholly correct as the division was based on occupation and not on caste. In the reign of Asoka the caste system had become somewhat loose and lost its strictness. The position of women had also undergone a change. Though they were respected they had to face certain discrimination. Purdah system was not yet known but the practice of sati had commenced, though only in rare cases. Polygamy was prevalent among the royal family members. Further, Megasthenese writes that the slave system was not known. But some historians do not agree with Megasthenese on this point: they say that slavery was present in India but it differed in form and nature from that in Greece, Rome, etc. The Arthashastra mentions that slaves were employed in agriculture.


Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were the popular religions at the time and there existed some rivalry between them. However, on the whole, religious toleration was the order of the day. Hinduism underwent changes. Krishna, Balaram, Shiva, Indra and rivers like Ganga, Yamuna were worshipped as gods and goddesses. Yajnas were performed but animal sacrifices had lost much of their importance. Image worship was still not in vogue


Ashoka’s personal religion was Buddhism as he has admitted in the Bhabru edict but he did not thrust it on the population. In fact, he evolved an ethical code which was the essence of all religions and propagated it as ‘Dhamma’. The Dhamma consisted of such principles as respecting and obeying one’s elders and teachers, treating the young with affection, maintaining good relations with neighbours, treating animals kindly, tolerating others’ religions, adhering to truth, practising charity, simplicity and piety, leading a virtuous life.


There was all-round progress in agriculture, trade and industry. Basically, the economy was agrarian and the majority of the population were agriculturists. They were also engaged in animal-husbandry and cattle breeding which meant additional income to peasants and the state. In the sphere of trade and industry the state had monopoly over mining and the production of many trade articles such as liquor and arms. Indian silk and cotton was in much demand in western countries. The existence of senis (guilds) which managed both internal and external trade, many industries and the banking system also proves that trade and industry were not only well organised but were also conducted on a large scale. There were coins of different metals for the purpose of exchange. The most popular amongst them were mishka, a gold coin, purana, a silver coin and karshapana, a copper coin.

The economic organisation was characterised by heavy taxation by the state. The peasants paid land revenue and irrigation tax called haramva, taxes on their cattles, etc. There was one religious tax called bali. The trade-tax ranged from 1/3 to 1/25 of the prices of various articles

Roads helped in trade and transportation. The royal highway between Taxila and Pataliputra was the ancestor of the Grand Trunk Road of today. Pataliputra was also connected to the eastern port of Tamralipti.


Om seeing the royal palace, a Chinese traveller remarked, “These palaces are so beautiful and excellent that they appear to be the creation of God rather than of men”. Chandragupta Maurya built his capital and palace, apparently of wood, at Pataliputra. Asoka further improved the walls and buildings of the capital and built attractive edifices. The palace is said to have been destroyed by a fire.

The Mauryas introduced stone masonry on a large scale. A palace, remains of which have been found at Kumrahar near Patna, probably had an 80-pillared hall, and the stumps of pillars testify to the skill of polishing attained by the artisans of the time.

It was during Ashoka’s reign that the art of sculpture and rock-cutting attained great heights. The four rock. cut sanctuaries on the Barabar hills and three on Nagarjuni hills near Gaya, Bihar bear testimony to this The seven sanctuaries are among the earliest examples of rock-cut architecture and sculpture in India. Ashoka’s pillars represent the best of Mauryan art. These are built out of single rocks and bear capitals decorated with animal, bird or human figures. The Ashokan pillar at Sarnath from which India has adopted its emblem is a major one. Asoka also constructed stupas or solid, domelike structures of rock or brick for preserving the relics of Buddha. Some of the stupas survive to this day. Mauryan art is also represented in caves built during the period. Caves were constructed out of hard, refractory rock and used as assembly halls or on religions occasions. It was in the Mauryan times that burnt bricks were first used in north-eastern India.


Chandragupta and Bindusara favoured Sanskrit and brahmanical learning, but Asokan inscriptions were composed mainly in Prakrit language and in Brahmi script though he also used Kharoshthi and Greek scripts in the north-west. Works such as Arthashastra of Kautilya, the Kalpasutra of Bhadrabahu and the Buddhist scripture Katha Vathu belong to this period.


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