Ancient India

Significance of the Mauryan Rule

State Control

THE Brahmanical law-books again and again stressed that the king should be guided by the laws laid down in the Dharmashastras and by the customs prevalent in the country. Kautilya advises the king to promulgate dharma when the social order based on the varnas and ashramas (stages in life) perishes. The king is called by him dharmapravartaka or promulgator of the social order. That the royal orders were superior to other orders was asserted by Ashoka in his inscriptions. Ashoka promulgated dharma and appointed officials to inculcate and enforce its essentials throughout the country.

Assertion of royal absolutism was a natural culmination of the policy of military conquest adopted by the princes of Magadha. Anga, Vaishali, Kashi, Koshala, Avanti, Kalinga, etc. were annexed to the Magadhan Empire one by one. The military control over these areas eventually turned into coercive control of all aspects of life of the people. Magadha possessed the requisite power of sword to enforce its overall control.

In order to control all spheres of life the state had to maintain a vast bureaucracy. In no other period of ancient history we hear of so many officers as in Maurya times.

The administrative mechanism was backed by an elaborate system of espionage. Various types of spies collected intelligence abut foreign enemies and kept an eye on numerous officers. They also helped the collection of money from credulous people through deliberate resort to superstitious practices.

Important functionaries were called tirthas. It seems that most functionaries were paid in cash. The highest functionaries were minister (mantrin), high priest (purohita), commander in-chief (senapati) and crown prince (yuvaraja), who were paid generously. They received as much as 48 thousand panas (pana being a silver coin equal to three-fourths of a tola). In sharp contrast to them the lowest officers were given 60 panas in consolidated pay although some employees were given as little as 10 or 20 panas. Therefore, it would seem that there were enormous gaps between the highest and the lowest category of government servants.

Economic Regulations

If we rely on the Arthashastra of Kautilya it would appear that the state appointed 27 superintendents (adhyakshas) mostly to regulate the economy of the state. They controlled the agriculture, trade and commerce; weights and measures, crafts such as weaving and: spinning, mining and so on. The state also provided irrigation and regulated water supply, for the benefit of agriculturists. Megasthenes informs us that in the Maurya Empire the officials measured the land as in Egypt and inspected the channels through which water was distributed into smaller channels.

According to the Arthashastra of Kautilya, a striking social development of the Maurya period was the employment of slaves in agricultural operations. Megasthenes states that he did not notice any slaves in India. But there is no doubt that domestic slaves were found in India from Vedic times onwards. It seems that in the Maurya period slaves were engaged in agricultural work on a large scale. The state maintained farms, on which numerous slaves and. hired labourers, were employed. 150,000 wax-captives brought, by Ashoka from Kalinga to Patallputra may have been engaged in agriculture, but the number one and a half lakhs seems to be exaggerated. However, ancient Indian society was not a slave society. What the slaves did in Greece and Rome was done by the shudras in India. The shudras were regarded as the collective property of the three higher varnas. They were compelled to serve them as slaves, artisans, agricultural labourers and domestic servants.

Several reasons suggest that royal control worked oyer a very large area, at least in the core of the empire. This was because of the strategic position of Pataliputra, from where royal agents could sail up and down the four directions. Besides tills, the royal road ran From Pataliputra to Nepal through Valshali and Champarari. We also hear of a road at the foothills of the Himalayas. It passed from Valshall through Champaran to Kapilavastu, Kalsi (in Dehradun district), Hazra and eventually to Peshawar. Megasthenes speaks of a road connecting northwestern India with Patna. Roads also, linked Patna with Sasaram and from there they went to Mirzapur and central India, The capital was also connected with Kalinga by a route through eastern Madhya Pradesh and Kalinga in its turn was linked with Andhra and Karnataka, All this facilitated transport in which horses may have played an. important part In the northern plains the Ganga and other rivers were routes of communication.

The Ashokan inscriptions appear on important highways. The stone pillars were made in Churiar near. Varanasi from where they were transported to north and south India. The Maurya control over the settled parts of the country may have matched that of the Mughals and perhaps of the East India Company. Medieval transport improved due to more settlements on the highways and the use of striped horses. The company used the gun which was reinforced by steam navigation from early 1830s onwards.

The Maurya rulers did not have to deal with a large population. All told, their army did not exceed 650,000 men. If ten per cent of the population was recruited, the total population in the Gangetic plains may not have been more than six and a half million. Ashokan inscriptions show that royal writ ran all over the country except the extreme east and south. Nine Ashokan inscriptions have been found in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka but rigid state control may not have proved effective much beyond the middle Gangdtic zone owing to difficulty in the means of communication.

The Maurya period constitutes a landmark in the system of taxation in ancient India. Kautilya, names many taxes to be collected from peasants, artisans and traders. This required strong and efficient machinery for assessment, collection and storage. The Mauryas attached greater importance to assessment than to storage and depositing. The samaharta was the highest officer in charge of assessment and the sannidhata was the chief custodian of the state treasury and store-house. (The harm done to the state by the first is thought to be more serious than the harm caused by the second) In fact, elaborate machinery for assessment first appears in the Maurya period. The list of taxes mentioned in the Arthashastra is impressive and if these were really collected very little would be left to the people to live on.

We have epigraphic evidence for the existence of rural store-houses, which shows that taxes were also collected in kind and these granaries were meant for helping local people in times of famine, drought, etc.

It seems that the punch-marked silver coins, which carry the symbols of the peacock and the hill and crescent, formed the imperial currency of the Mauryas. They have been discovered in large numbers. Without doubt they helped the collection of taxes and payment of officers in cash. Further, because of its uniformity, the currency must have facilitated marked exchange in a wider area.

Art and Architecture

The Maury as made a remarkable contribution to art and architecture. They introduced stone masoniy on a wide scale, Megasthenes states that the Maurya palace at Pataliputra was as splendid as that in the capital of Iran. Fragments of stone pillars and stumps, indicating the existence of a 80 pillared hall, have been discovered at. Kumrahar on the outskirts of modern Patna. Although these remains do not recall the magnificence mentioned by Megasthenes, they certainly attest the high technical skill attained by the Maurya artisans in publishing the stone pillars, which are as shining as Northern Black Polished Ware. It must have been a difficult task to carry the huge blocks of stone from the quarries and to polish and embellish them when they were placed erect. All this seems to be a great feat of engineering. Each pillar is made of a single piece of buff coloured sandstone. Only their capitals, which are beautiful pieces of sculpture in the form of lions or bulls, are joined with the pillars on the top. These polished pillars were set up throughout the country, which shows that technical knowledge involved in their polishing and transport had spread far and wide. The Maurya artisans also started the practice of hewing out caves from rocks for monks to live in. The earliest examples are the Barabar caves at a distance of 30 km from Gaya. Later this kind of cave architecture spread to western and southern India.

Spread of Material Culture and State System

On the one hand the Mauryas created for the first time well-organized state machinery, which operated in the heart of the empire. On the other hand their conquest opened the doors for trading and missionary activities. It seems that the contacts established by administrators, traders and Jaina and Buddhist monks led to the spread of the material culture of the Gangetic basin to the areas situated on the periphery of the empire. The new material culture in the Gangetic basin was based on an intensive use of iron prevalence of writing, plenty of punchmarked coins, abundance of beautiful pottery called Northern Black Polished Ware, introduction of burnt bricks and ring wells and above all on the rise of towns in north-eastern India. A Greek writer called Arrian states that it is not possible to Record with accuracy the number of cities on account of their multiplicity. Thus the Maurya period witnessed rapid development of material culture in the Gangetic plains. On account of easy access to the rich iron ores of south Bihar, people used more and more of iron implements. This period shows socketed axes, sickles and ploughshare. The spoked wheel also carpe to be used. Although arms and weapons were the monopoly of the Mauryan state, the use of the other iron tools was not restricted to any class. Their use and manufacture must have spread from the Gangetic basin to the distant parts of the empire. In the Maurya period burnt bricks were used for the first time in north-eastern India. The Maurya constructions made of burnt bricks have been found in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Houses were made of both bricks and timber which was available in plenty because of thick vegetation in ancient times. Megasthenes speaks of the wooden structure at the Maurya capital Pataliputra, Excavations show that logs of wood were also used as an important line of defence against flood and foreign invasion. The use of burnt bricks spread in the outlying provinces of the empire. Because of moist climate and heavy rainfall it was not possible to have lasting and large structures made of mud or mud-bricks as we find in the dry zones. Therefore, the, diffusion of the use of burnt bricks proved to be a great boon. Eventually, it led to the flowering of towns in the different parts of the empire. Similarly, the ring wells which appeared first under the Mauryas in the Gangetic plains spread beyond the heart of the empire. Since ring wells would supply water, to people for domestic use it was no longer imperative to found settlements on the banks of rivers. They also served as soak pits in congested settlements.

The elements of the middle Gangetic material culture seem to have been transferred with modification to northern Bengal, Kalinga, Andhra and Karnataka. Of course the local cultures of these regions were also developing independently. In Bangladesh, where we find the Mahasthana inscription in Bogra district in Maurya Brahmi, we find NBPW at Bangarh in Dinapur distrit NBPW sherds have also been found at some places, such as Chandraketugarh in the 24 Parganas, in West Bengal. Gangetic associations can be attributed to settlements at Sisupalgarh in Orissa. The settlement of Sisupalgarh s ascribed to Maurya times in the ihird century B.C. and it contains NBPW and iron implements and punch-marked coins. Since Sisupalgarh is situated near Dhauli and Jaugada, where Ashokan inscriptions have been found on the ancient highway passing along the eastern coast of India, material culture may have reached this area as. a result of contact with Magadha. This contact may have started in the fourth century B.C., when the Nandas are said to have conquered Kalinga. But it deepened after the conquest of Kalinga in the third century B.C. Possibly as a measure of pacification after the Kalinga war, Ashoka promoted some settlements in Orissa, which had been in corporated into his empire.

Although we find iron weapons and implements at several places in Andhra and Karnataka in the Maurya period, the advance of iron technology was the contribution of the megalith builders, who are noted for various kinds of large stone burials including those of a round form. But some of these: places have Ashokan inscriptions as well as sherds of NBPW belonging to the third century B.C. For example, Ashokan inscriptions have been found at Amaravati and other sites in

Andhra and at several places in Karnataka. It, therefore, appears that from the eastern coast ingredients of the material culture percolated through Maurya contacts into the lower Deccan plateau.

The art of making steel may have spread through Maurya contacts in some parts of the country. Steel objects belonging to about 200 B.C. or to an earlier date have been found in the middle Gangetic plains. The spread of steel may have led to jungle clearance and the use of better methods of cultivation in Kalinga; this could create conditions for the rise of the Cheti kingdom in that region. Although the Satavahanas rose to power in the Deccan in the first century B.C., yet in some ways their empire was a projection of the Maurya empire. They adopted some of the administrative units of the Mauryas. Their state followed the Maurya pattern in several respects.

It seems that stimulus to state formation in peninsular India came from the Mauryas not only in the case of the Chetis and the Satavahanas but also in the case of the Cheras (Keralaputras), Cholas and the Pandyas. According to Ashokan inscriptions, all the three last peoples together with the Satyaputras and the people of Tamraparni or Sri Lanka lived on the borders of the Maurya Empire. They were, therefore, familiar with the Maurya state. The Pandyas were known to Megasthenes who visited the Maurya capital. Ashoka called himself dear to the gods a title which was translated into Tamil and adopted by the chiefs mentioned in the Sangam texts.

The existence of inscriptions, occasional NBPW potsherds and punch marked coins in parts of Bangladesh, Orissa, Andhra and Karnataka from near about 300 B.C. shows that in the Maurya period, attempts were made to spread elements of the middle Gangetic basin culture in distant areas. The process seems to be in accord with the instructions of Kautilya. Kautilya advised that new settlements should be founded with the help of cultivators, who were apparently vaishyas and with that of shudra labourers who should be drafted from overpopulated areas. In order to bring the virgin soil under cultivation, the new peasants were allowed remission in tax and supplied with cattle, seeds and money. The state followed this policy in the hope that it would get back what it had given. Such settlements were necessary in those areas where people were not acquainted with the use of the iron ploughshare. This policy led to the opening of large areas to cultivation and settlement.

How far the Maurya towns facilitated the diffusion of the material culture of the Gangetic plains into the tribal belt of Central India, extending from Chotanagpur in the east to the Vindhyas in the west, cannot be said. But it is quite clear that Ashoka maintained intimate contacts with the tribal people, who were exhorted to observe dhamma. Their contact with the dhammamahamatras appointed by Ashoka must have enabled them to imbibe rudiments of higher culture prevalent in the Gangetic basin. In this sense Ashoka launched a deliberate and systematic policy of acculturation. He states that as EL result of the diffusion of dhamma men would mingle with gods. This implies that tribal and other people would take to the habits of a settled, taxpaying, peasant society and develop respect for paternal power, royal authority and for monks priests and officers who helped enforce his authority. His policy succeeded. Ashoka claims that hunters and fishermen had given up killing and practised dhamma. This means that they had taken to a sedentary agricultural life.

Causes of the Pall of the Mauryan Empire

The Magadhan empire, which had been reared by successive wars culminating in the conquest of Kalinga, began to disintegrate after the exit of Ashoka in 232 B.C. Several causes seem to have brought about the decline and fall of the Maurya empire.

Brahmanical Reaction

The brahamanical reaction began as a result of the policy of Ashoka. There is no doubt that Ashoka adopted a tolerant policy and asked the people to respect even the brahmanas. But he prohibited killing of animals and birds and derided superfluous rituals performed by women. This naturally affected the income of the brahmanas. The anti-sacrifice attitude of Buddhism and of Ashoka naturally brought loss to the brahmanas, who lived on the gifts made to them in various kinds of sacrifices. Hence in spite of the tolerant policy of Ashoka, the brahmanas developed some land of antipathy to him. Obviously they were not satisfied with his tolerant policy. They really wanted a policy that would favour them and uphold the existing interests and privileges. Some of the new kingdoms that arose on the ruins of the Maurya empire, were ruled by the brahmanas. The Shungas and the Kanvas, who ruled in Madhya Pradesh and further east on the remnants of the Maurya empire were brahmanas. Similarly the Satavahanas, who founded a lasting kingdom in the-western Deccan and Andhra, claimed to be brahmanas. These brahmana dynasties performed Vedic sacrifices, which were neglected by Ashoka.

Financial Crisis

The enormous expenditure on the army and payment to bureaucracy, created a financial crisis for tire Maurya empire. As far as we know, in ancient times the Mauryas maintained the largest army and the largest regiment of officers. Despite the kinds of taxes imposed on the people, it was difficult to maintain this huge, superstructure. It seems that Ashoka made large grants to the Buddhist monks, which left the royal treasury empty. In order to meet expenses in the last stage they had to melt the images made of gold.

Oppressive Rule

Oppressive rule in the provinces-was an important cause of the breakup of the empire. In the reign of Bindusara the citizens of Taxila bitterly complained against the misrule of wicked bureaucrats (dushtamatyas). Their grievance was redressed by the appointment of Ashoka. But when Ashoka became emperor, a similar complaint was lodged by the same city. The Kalinga edicts show that Ashoka felt very much concerned about oppression in the provinces and, therefore, asked the mahamatras not to torture townsmen without due cause. For Oils purpose he introduced rotation of officers in Tosali (in Kalinga), Ujjain and Taxila. He himself spent 256 nights on a pilgrimage tour which may have helped administrative supervision. But all this failed to stop oppression in the outlying province and after his retirement Taxila took the earliest opportunity to throw off the imperial yoke.

New Knowledge-in the Outlying Areas

We have seen how Magadha owed its expansion to certain basic material advantages. Once the knowledge of the use of these elements of culture spread to central India, the Deccan and Kalinga as a result of toe expansion of the Magadhan empire, the Gangetic basin which formed the heart of the empire lost its special, advantage. The regular use of iron tools and-weapons in the peripheral provinces coincided with the decline and fall of the Maurya empire. On the basis of material culture acquired from Magadha, new kingdoms could be founded and developed. This explains the rise of the Shungas and Kanvas in central India, of the Chetis in Kalinga and that of the Satavahanas in the Deccan.

Since Ashok was mostly preoccupied with missionary activities at home and abroad, he could not pay attention to the safeguarding of the passage on the north-western frontier. This had become necessary in view of the movement of tribes in Central Asia in the third century B.C. The Scythians were in a state of constant flux. A nomadic people mainly relying on the use of horse they posed serious dangers to the settled empires in China and India. The Chinese ruler Shill Huang Ti (247-210 B.C.) constructed the Great Wall of China in about 220 B.C to shield his empire against the attacks of the Scythians. Such measures were not taken by Ashoka. Naturally when the Scythians made a push towards India, they forced the Parthians, the Shakas and, the Greeks to move towards India. The Greeks had set up a kingdom in north Afghanistan which was known as Bactria. They were the first to invade India in 206 B of This was followed by a series of invasions which continued till the beginning of the Christian era.

The Maurya Empire was finally destroyed by Pushyamitra Shunga in 185 B.C. Although a brahmana, he was a general of the last Maury a king called Brihadratha. He is said to have killed Brihadratha in public and forcibly usurped the throne of Pataliputra. The Shungas ruled in Pataliputra and central India and they performed several Vedic sacrifices in order to mark the revival of the brahmanieal way of life. It is said that they persecuted the Buddhists. They were succeeded by tire Kanvas who were also brahmanas.


  1. Explain the meaning of the following terms and concepts: dharamparavarttaka, Orthos, pana, samoharta, sannidhata. Describe the economic measures adopted by the Maury a rulers. Describe the developments in material culture during the Maurya period. How did the Maurya empire help the spread of material culture, to different parts of the country?
  2. Why did Maurya rulers maintain a vast bureaucracy?
  3. Describe the Maurya contribution to Indian art arid architecture.
  4. In what ways did the Maurya emperors encourage trade and commerce?
  5. Discuss the causes of the decline of the Maurya empire.
  6. Assess the significance of the Maurya empire in the history of India. On an outline map of India, mark the places where Ashokan inscriptions have been found.

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