The Maurya Empire
The Maurya Empire was the largest and most powerful political and military empire of ancient India. Originating from the kingdom of
Magadha in the Indo-Gangetic plains of modern Bihar and its capital city of Pataliputra (near modern Patna), the Empire was founded in
321 BCE by Chandragupta Maurya, who had overthrown the Nanda Dynasty and began expanding his power across central and western
India. The Empire stretched to the north along the natural boundaries of the Himalayas and to the east, stretching into what is now Assam
and Bangladesh. To the west, it reached beyond modern Pakistan and included significant portions of modern Herat and Kandahar in
Afghanistan and Baluchistan. The Empire was expanded into India's central and southern regions by Emperor Bindusara, but excluded a
small portion of unexplored trial and forested regions near Kalinga. Following the conquest of Kalinga in a major war, Ashoka ended the
military expansion of the empire. The kingdoms of Pandya and Chola in southern India thus preserved their independence, accepting the
supremacy of the Mauryan emperor. The Mauryan Empire was perhaps the greatest empire to rule the Indian subcontinent until the arrival
of the British. Its decline began fifty years after Ashoka's rule ended, and it dissolved in 185 BCE with the foundation of the Sunga Dynasty
Under Chandragupta, the Mauryan Empire liberated the transindus, which was under macedonian occupation. He then defeated the
invasion led by Seleucus I, a Greek general from Alexander's army. Under Chandragupta and his successors, internal and external trade,
agriculture and economic activities thrived and expanded across India, with the creation of a single and efficient system of finance,
administration and security. After the Kalinga War, the Empire experienced half a century of peace and security under Ashoka. Under him,
India was a prosperous and stable empire of great economic and military power whose political influence and trade extended across West
and Central Asia and Europe. Mauryan India was also exposed to an era of social harmony, religious transformation and expansion of the
sciences and knowledge. Chandragupta Maurya's embrace of Jainism increased social and religious renewal and reform across society,
while Ashoka's embrace of Buddhism was the foundation of the reign of social and political peace and non-violence across India. Ashoka
sponsored the spreading of Buddhist ideals into Sri Lanka, South East Asia, West Asia and Mediterranean Europe.
Chandragupta's minister, Kautilya Chanakya wrote the Arthashastra - the greatest collection of treatises exploring economics, politics,
foreign affairs, administration, military arts, war, religion in the East, often compared to the medieval-era Italian expert Niccolo Machiavelli's
The Prince. Archaeologically, the period of Mauryan rule in South Asia falls in the Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW). The
Arthashastra and the Edicts of Ashoka are the greatest sources of written records of the Mauryan times. The Mauryan empire is
considered one of the greatest periods in Indian history. The Lion Capital of Asoka at Sarnath, is the emblem of India.
When Alexander the Great conquered the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent in 326 BCE, he allied with king Ambhi of Taxila
(called Taxiles or Omphis in Greek sources), and with his support managed to subdue king Porus of Pauravas, a state of eastern Punjab,
defeating him at the Battle of the Hydaspes River. Alexander thereafter established vassal states (satrapies), headed by the previous kings
Ambhi and Porus, and founded several garrison towns. A Greek satrap named Philippus controlled a Macedonian occupation force. After
his assassination he was replaced by the Thracian Eudamus. Alexander's steady inroads into the Indian subcontinent caused instability and
panic amongst the small kingdoms who did not possess the strategic resources to forestall the invaders. Like Ambhi, several kings allied
themselves with the Alexander to prevent their destruction and rub out regional competitors.
Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya
Following Alexanders' advance into Punjab, a brahmin named Kautilya Vishnugupta Chanakya travelled across the kingdoms of India's
central regions in an attempt to build a coalition that would resist Alexander's forces. But he faced odds that rendered his mission futile: the
kingdoms lacked resources and leadership to form the radical concept of a coalition. Chanakya traveled to Magadha, a kingdom that was
large and militarily powerful and feared by its neighbors, but was again dismissed by its king Dhana, of the Nanda Dynasty. However, the
prospect of battling Magadha in a major war was one of the factors that caused the refusal of his troops to go further east, Alexander
returned to Babylon, and redeployed most of his troops west of the Indus. When Alexander died in Babylon soon after in 323 BCE, his
empire fragmented, giving rise to Indo-Greek kingdoms across northwest India led by his erstwhile generals.
Chandragupta Maurya's rise to power is complemented by origins shrouded in mystery and controversy. On the one hand, a number of
ancient Indian accounts, such as the drama Mudrarakshasa (Poem of Rakshasa - Rakshasa was the prime minister of Magadha) by
Visakhadatta, describe his royal ancestry and even link him with the Nanda family. On the other, his fortune is often accounted to a twist of
fate wherein his preceptor, Chanakya, is said to have observed this village boy's leadership of his peers, and a promising toughness of
character. Supposedly the son of a peacock tamer (hence the name Maurya), he was given an advanced education by Chanakya.
Chandragupta first emerges in Greek accounts as "Sandrokottos". As a young man, he is said to have met Alexander, angered him, and to
have made a narrow escape. Chanakya's original intentions were to train a guerilla army under Chandragupta's command. Gathering young
men and ex-soldiers from across central India, the guerilla forces attacked the demoralized and retreating Greek forces and defeated the
Macedonian garrisons. Under principles outlined in the Arthashastra, Maurya built an extensive intelligence network, the first of its kind in
India - of spies and informers who betrayed enemy plans and mis-informed them of Maurya's design
Conquest of Magadha
Alexander's exit and death created a power vacuum and instability in Northwestern India. Chanakya thus encouraged Chandragupta and
his army to take over the throne of Magadha. Using his intelligence network, Chandragupta gathered many young men from across
Magadha who were upset from the corrupt and oppressive rule of king Dhana, and resources necessary for his army to fight a long series
Preparing to invade Pataliputra, Maurya then hatched a plan devised by his preceptor. A battle was announced and the Magadhan army
drawn from the city to a distant battlefield to engage Maurya's forces. But upon arrival, the army under the command of Magadha's prime
minister, Rakshasa, found no enemy. Maurya re-directed his forces to sneak up on the city, and conducted a secretive and swift raid on the
royal buildings, killing the monarch, loyal aides and royal officials. His army overpowered the city guard (weakened by the absence of the
army). When the Magadhan army turned around towards the city, Chanakya made a diplomatic effort to make peace. He informed
Rakshasa that his king was dead and re-assured him that the city was safe. He encouraged him to understand that his loyalty was to
Magadha, not its dynasty, and insisted that he continue as prime minister. Chanakya also reiterated that choosing to fight would start a war
that would severely affect Magadha and destroy the city. Rakshasa accepted Chanakya's efforts, and Chandragupta Maurya was
legitimately installed as the new King of Magadha. While Rakshasa became Chandragupta's chief advisor, Chanakya assumed the position
of an elder statesman.
Building India's first Empire
Becoming the king of one of India's most powerful states, Chandragupta invaded the Punjab, after one of Alexander's satraps, Peithon of
Media had tried to raise a coalition against him. He managed to conquer the Punjab capital of Taxila, one of ancient India's most important
cities, increasing his power and consolidating his control.
Chandragupta was again in conflict with the Greeks, when Seleucus I, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, tried to reconquer the northwestern
parts of India which had been lost, during a campaign in 305 BCE. He defeated Seleucus and then the two rulers exchanged a peace
treaty, Chandragupta received the daughter of the Seleucid king Seleucus I and the satrapies of Paropamisadae (Kamboja and Gandhara),
Arachosia (Kandhahar) and Gedrosia (Balochistan) and Seleucus I received 500 war elephants that were to have a decisive role in his
victory against western Hellenistic kings at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE. Diplomatic relations were established and several Greeks, such
as the historian Megasthenes, resided at the Mauryan court. Chandragupta established a strong centralized state with a complex
administration at Pataliputra, which, according to Magasthenes, was "surrounded by a wooden wall pierced by 64 gates and 570 towers—
(and) rivaled the splendors of contemporaneous Persian sites such as Susa and Ecbatana."Chandragupta's son Bindusara extended the rule
of the Mauryan empire towards central and southern India. He also had a Greek ambassador at his court, named Deimachus (Strabo
Chandragupta's great grandson Ashokavardhan Maurya, better known as Ashoka (273- 232
BCE), is considered by contemporary historians as perhaps the greatest of Indian monarchs, and certainly one of the greatest throughout
As a young prince, Ashoka was a brilliant commander who subjugated Ujjain and Taxila into the Empire. As monarch, he was ambitious
and aggressive, re-asserting the Empire's superiority in southern and western India. But it was his conquest of Kalinga which proved to be
the pivotal event of his life. Although Ashoka's army succeeded in overwhelming Kalinga forces of royal soldiers and civilian units, an
estimated 100,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in the furious warfare. Hundreds of thousands of people were adversely affected by the
destruction and fallout of war. When he personally witnessed the devastation, Ashoka began feeling remorse. Although the annexation of
Kalinga was completed, Ashoka embraced the teachings of Gautama Buddha, and renounced war and violence. For a monarch in ancient
times, this was a historic feat.
Ashoka implemented principles of ahimsa by banning hunting and violent sports activity and ending indentured and forced labor (many
thousands of people in war-ravaged Kalinga had been forced to labor and servitude). While he maintained a large and powerful army to
keep the peace and maintain authority, Ashoka expanded friendly relations with states across Asia and Europe, and sponsored Buddhist
missions. Embarking on a massive public works building campaign across the country, over 40 years of peace, harmony and prosperity
made him one of the most successful and famous monarchs in history. He remains an idyllic figure of inspiration in modern India.
The Edicts of Ashoka, set in stone, some of them written in Greek and Aramaic, refer to the Greeks, Kambojas and Gandharas as a
people forming a frontier region of his empire and also attest that Ashoka sent envoys to the Greek rulers in the West as far as the
Mediterranean. The edicts faultlessly name each of the rulers of the Hellenic world at the time such as Amtiyoko (Antiochus), Ptolemy,
Antigonos, Magas and Alexander.
The Empire was divided into four provinces with the imperial capital at Pataliputra. From Ashokan edicts, the name of the four provincial
capitals are Tosali (in the east), Ujjain in the west, Suvarnagiri (in the south), and Taxila (in the north). The head of the provincial
administration was the Kumara (royal prince) who used to govern the provinces as king's representative. The kumara was in turn assisted
by Mahamatyas and council of ministers. This organizational structure was reflected at the imperial level with the Emperor and his
Mantriparishad (Council of ministers).
Accordingly, historians theorize that the organization of the Empire was in line with the extensive bureaucracy described by Kautilya in the
Arthashastra. As such, a sophisticated civil service governed everything from municipal hygiene to international trade. The expansion and
defense of the empire was made possible by what appears to be the largest standing army of its time. According to Megasthenes, the
empire wielded a military of 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 war elephants. A vast espionage system collected intelligence for
both internal and external security purposes. Having renounced offensive warfare and expansionism, Ashoka continued to maintain this
large army to protect the Empire and instill stability and peace across West and South Asia, where it was an influential entity.
For the first time in South Asia, political unity and military security allowed for a common economic system and enhanced trade and
commerce, with increased agricultural productivity. Hundreds of kingdoms, small armies, powerful regional chieftains and internecine
warfare gave way to a disciplined central authority. Farmers were liberated of tax and crop collection burdens from regional kings, paying
heed to a nationally-administered, strict but fair system of taxation as advised by the principles in the Arthashastra. Chandragupta Maurya
established a single currency across India, and a network of regional governors, administrators and a civil service provided justice and
security for merchants, farmers and traders. The Mauryan army wiped out many bands of bandits, regional private armies and powerful
chieftains who sought to impose their own supremacy in small areas. Although regimental in revenue collection, Maurya also sponsored
many public works and waterways to enhance productivity, while internal trade in India expanded greatly due to newfound political unity
and internal peace.
Under the Indo-Greek friendship treaty and during Ashoka's reign, an international network of trade expanded. The Khyber Pass on the
modern boundary of Pakistan and Afghanistan became a stategically important post of trade and intercourse with the outside world. Greek
states and Hellenic kingdoms in West Asia were important trade partners of India. Trade also extended through the Malay peninsula into
South East Asia. India's exports included silk goods and textiles, spices and exotic foods. The Empire was enriched further with an
exchange of scientific knowledge and technology with Europe and West Asia. Ashoka also sponsored the construction of thousands of
roads, waterways, canals, hospitals, rest houses and other public works. Easing many rigorous administrative practices, including on
taxation and crop collection, helped increase productivity and economic activity across the Empire.
Emperor Chandragupta Maurya became the first major Indian monarch to initiate a religious transformation at the highest level when he
embraced Jainism, a religious movement resented by orthodox Hindu priests that usually attended the imperial court. At an older age,
Chandragupta renounced his throne and material possessions to join a wandering group of Jain monks. However his successor, Emperor
Bindusara preserved Hindu traditions and distanced himself from Jain and Buddhist movements.
Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260-218 BCE).But when Ashoka embraced Buddhism following the Kalinga War, he
renounced expansionism and aggression, and the harsher injunctions of the Arthashastra on the employ of force, intensive policing and
ruthless measures for tax collection and against rebels. Ashoka sent a mission led by his son and daughter to Sri Lanka, whose king Tissa
was so charmed with Buddhist ideals that he adopted it himself and made it the state religion. Ashoka sent many Buddhist missions to West
Asia, Greece and South East Asia, and commissioned the construction of monasteries, schools and publication of Buddhist literature across
the empire. He is believed to have built as many as 84,000 stupas across India, and increased the popularity of Buddhism in Afghanistan.
Ashoka helped convene the Third Buddhist Council of India and South Asia's Buddhist orders near his capital, that undertook much work
of reform and expansion of the Buddhist religion.
While himself a Buddhist, Ashoka retained the membership of Hindu priests and ministers in his court, and maintained religious freedom and
tolerance, although the Buddhist faith grew in popularity with his patronage. Indian society began embracing the philosophy of ahimsa, and
given the prosperity and law enforcement, crime and internal conflicts reduced dramatically. Also greatly discouraged was the caste system
and orthodox discrimination, as Hinduism began inculcating the ideals and values of Jain and Buddhist teachings. Social freedom began
expanding in an age of peace and prosperity.
The reign of Ashoka was followed for 50 years by a succession of weaker kings. Brhadrata, the last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty, ruled
territories that had shrunk considerably from the time of emperor Ashoka, but he was still upholding the Buddhist faith. He was
assassinated in 185 BCE during a military parade by the commander-in-chief of his guard, the Brahmin general Pusyamitra Sunga, who
then took over the throne and established the Sunga dynasty.
The assassination of Brhadrata and the rise of the Sunga empire led to a wave of persecution for Buddhists, and a resurgence of Hinduism.
The fall of the Mauryas left the Khyber unguarded, and a wave of foreign invasion followed. The Greco-Bactrian king, Demetrius,
capitalized on the break-up of Pan-Indian power and conquered Southern Afghanistan and parts of Northwestern India around 180 BC.
The Greeks would maintain holdings on the trans-indus and make forays into central India for about a century. However, the extent of their
domains and the lengths of their rule are subject to much debate. Numismatic evidence indicates that they retained holdings in the
subcontinent right up to the birth of Christ. Although the extent of their successes against indigenous powers such as the Shungas,
Satavahanas, and Kalingas are unclear, what is clear is that Scythian tribes brought about the demise of the Indo-Greeks and retained lands
in the trans-indus and Gujarat.
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