Mauryan Dynasty

The Mauryan Empire was the first major empire in the history of India and ruled the land from 322 BC to 185 BC. Important rulers of this dynasty were Chandragupta Maurya, Bindusara, and King Ashoka. This empire reached its peak under King Ashoka. However, this mighty empire crumbled rapidly, under its own weight, soon after the death of Ashoka.


Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the Mauryan Empire. The origin of Chandragupta is shrouded in mystery. It is not clear if he belonged to the upper caste or the lower caste. At that time, Magadh was ruled by the Nanda dynasty whose rule was unpopular. Chandragupta founded the Mauryan Empire by overthrowing the Nanda dynasty with the help of Chanakya (also Kautilya) who was an important minister in the court of the Nanda rulers. Chanakya was ill treated by the Nanda king and he vowed to destroy their kingdom. He met the young Chandragupta in the Vindhya forest. As Chanakya was well versed in politics and the affairs of the state, he groomed Chandragupta and helped him raise and organize an army. Thus, with the help of Chanakya, Chandragupta overthrew the last Nanda ruler and became the king. Chanakya became the chief minister in the court of Chandragupta.

The invasion of the northwestern part of India by Alexander in 326 BC and the subsequent establishment of the rule of Seleucus Nikator (one of Alexander's general) was a thorn in the eyes of Chandragupta. Chandragupta firstly stabilized his power in Magadh and then began his campaign against Seleucus.
After a prolonged struggle, Chandragupta was able to defeat Seleucus in 305 BC and annexed the entire Punjab and areas across the Indus River. According to the peace treaty with Seleucus, Chandragupta also got Kabul, Gandhara, and parts of Persia and married his daughter. In this way, Chandragupta became the undisputed ruler of Northern India. His fame was so widespread that rulers from far off kingdoms send their envoys to his court. Chandragupta also conquered parts of Central India and united the whole of northern India under Mauryan rule. After ruling for about 25 years, he became a Jain ascetic and left his throne to his son Bindusara (296 BC-273 BC).

Most of our knowledge about the Mauryan period in general and the rule of Chandragupta in particular is obtained from two important literary sources: the Arthashastra, written by Chanakya, and Indica, written by the ancient Greek writer Megasthenes (who was an ambassador of Seleucus Nikator and had come to the court of Chandragupta).

The Arthashastra talks about the principles of governance and lays down rules of administration. It also discusses in detail the role of the king, his duties, rate of taxation, use of espionage, and laws for governing the society. The Indica of Megasthenes, on the other hand, gives a vivid description of the Mauryan society under the rule of Chandragupta. Megasthenes described the glory of the Mauryan capital of Pataliputra. He also talked of the lifestyle in the cities and villages and the prosperity of the Mauryan cities.

Chandragupta had united the whole of northern India under one rule and the Mauryan Empire was the first large, powerful, centralized state in India. The Arthashastra laid the foundation of the centralized administration of Mauryan governance. The empire was divided into administrative districts or zones, each of which had a hierarchy of officials. The top most officers from these districts or zones directly reported to the Mauryan ruler. These officials were responsible for collecting taxes, maintaining the army, completing irrigational projects, and maintaining law and order.

During Chandragupta reign, the state regulated trade, levied taxes, and standardized weights and measures. Trade and commerce also flourished during this time. The state was responsible for providing irrigational facilities, succor, sanitation, and famine relief to its masses. Megasthenes, in his writings, has praised the efficient Mauryan administration.

Chandragupta, after ruling for about 25 years, became a Jain ascetic and left his throne to his son Bindusara, who inherited a vast empire that spanned parts of modern-day Afghanistan in the northwest, to parts of Bengal in the east. It also spread through large parts of central India.

Bindusara extended the Mauryan Empire southwards in the Indian peninsula as far as Mysore. He defeated and annexed 16 small kingdoms, thus extending his empire from sea to sea. The only regions that were left out on the Indian subcontinent were that of Kalinga (Orissa) and the kingdoms to the extreme south of the Indian peninsula. As these southern kingdoms were friendly, Bindusara did not annex them, but the Kingdom of Kalinga was a problem for the Mauryan Empire.

The administration under Bindusara functioned smoothly. During his reign, Mauryan Empire had good relation with Greeks, Syrians, and Egyptians.

ASHOKA (273 BC-232 BC)
Bindusara was succeeded by his son Ashoka, the most famous of the Mauryan Kings. The Mauryan Empire reached its peak under the rule of Ashoka. He undertook military campaign against Kalinga and, after defeating it in a bloody war, annexed it. However, the sight of the large-scale carnage moved Ashoka, and he embraced Buddhism. The war of Kalinga was the turning point in the life of Ashoka to the extent that he shunned all forms of violence and became a strict vegetarian. For the rest of his life, Ashoka preached the principles of Buddhism not only in his vast empire, but also sent missions abroad. Ashoka built a number of rock edicts and pillars to spread the gospel of Buddhism.

Before the Kalinga war, the Mauryan administration under Ashoka was not different from that of his predecessors. Ashoka, like previous Mauryan kings, was at the head of the centralized administrative system. He was helped by a council of ministers that was in charge of different ministries like taxation, army, agriculture, justice, etc. The empire was divided into administrative zones, each one having its hierarchy of officials. The top most officers at the zonal level had to keep in touch with the king. These officers took care of all aspects of administration (social welfare, economy, law and order, military) in the different zones. The official ladder went down to the village level.

The war with Kalinga transformed Ashoka both on a personal as well as public level. He made a number of changes in the administration. Ashoka introduced a new cadre of officials, by the name of Dhamma Mahamatta, who were sent across the empire to spread the message of Ashoka's Dhamma (dharma).

As Ashoka became a devout Buddhist, he began to spread the teachings of Buddha by issuing edicts, which not only propagated religion but also his ideas on society and governance.
These edicts were sent to different parts of the empire, where they were engraved on rocks or pillars, for the common people to see and read them.These edicts were written in different scripts. Most of them were in Brahmi, which was common in most parts of the empire. The language was generally Prakrit (ancient language), as it was spoken by the common people, whereas Sanskrit was spoken by educated upper caste people. Some inscriptions were also written in Greek and Aramaic (an Indo-Persian language). As Ashoka wanted his message to reach all his subjects, he used the language they understood.

Ashoka believed in high ideals, which, according to him, could lead people to be virtuous, and peace loving. This he called Dhamma (which is a Prakrit form of the Sanskrit word Dharma). His rock edicts and pillar inscriptions propagated the true essence of Dhamma. Ashoka asked the different religious groups (Brahmins, Buddhist and Jain) to live in peace. His lofty ideals also included shunning violence and war, stopping animal sacrifice, respect for elders, respect of slaves by their masters, vegetarianism, etc. Above all, Ashoka wanted peace in his empire.

Ashoka believed that the King should look upon his subjects as a father treats his children. He took care of his subjects in various ways and was responsible for carrying out a lot of welfare activities during his reign like building of roads, planting of trees along these roads, wells, rest houses for travelers, hospitals for the sick, etc. The Dhamma Mahamattas (officers responsible for promoting the policy of Dhamma) looked after these welfare activities across the empire.

Ashoka had a friendly relation with his neighbors and sent and received envoys to/from them. He sent his son Mahendra to Sri Lanka to preach Buddhism there. He also propagated Buddhism to Chola and Pandya kingdoms, which were at the extreme southern part of the Indian peninsula. He also sent Buddhist missions to Burma and other Southeast Asian countries.

The great Mauryan Empire did not last long after the death of Ashoka and ended in 185 BC. Weak kings on one hand and the unmanageability of a vast empire on the other caused the rapid decline of the Mauryas. A number of small kingdoms emerged from the edifice of the Mauryan Empire.