Ancient India

The Age of Mauryas

Chandragupta Maurya

THE MAURYA dynasty was founded by Chandragupta Maurya, who seems to have belonged to some ordinary family. According to the brahmanical tradition he was born of Mura, a shudra woman in the court of the Nandas. But an earlier Buddhist tradition speaks of the existence of a kshatriya clan called Mauryas living in the region of Gorakhpur adjoining the Nepalese terai. In all likelihood, Chandragupta was a member of this clan. He took advantage of the growing weakness and unpopularity of the Nandas in the last days of their rule. With the help of Chanakya, who is known as Kautilya, he overthrew the Nandas and established the ruie of the Maurya dynasty. The machinations of Chanakya against Chandragupta’s enemies are described in Retail in the Mudrarakshasa, a drama written by Vishakhadatta in the ninth century. Several plays have been based on it in modern times.

Justin, a Greek writer, says that Chandragupta overran the whole of India with an army of 600,000. This may or may not be true. But Chandragupta liberated north-western India from the thraldom of Seleucus, who ruled over the area west of the Indus. In the war with the Greek viceroy, Chandragupta seems to have come out victorious. Eventually peace was concluded between the two and in return for 500 elephants Seleucus gave him eastern Afghanistan, Baluchistan and the area west of the Indus. Chandragupta thus built up a vast empire which included not only Bihar and good portions of Orissa and Bengal but also western and northwestern India and the Deccan. Leaving Kerala Tamil Nadu and parts of north-eastern India the Mauryas ruled over the whole of the subcontinent. In the north-west they held sway over certain areas which were not included even in the British empire.

Imperial Organisation

The Mauryas organized a very elaborate system of administration. We know about it from the account of Megasthenes and the Arthashastra of Kautilya. Megasthenes was a Greek ambassador sent by Seleucus to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. He lived in the Mauryan capital of Pataliputra and wrote an account not only of the administration of the city of Pataliputra but also of the Maurya empire as a whole. The account of Megasthenes does not survive in full, but quotations occur in the works of several subsequent Greek writers.

These fragments have been collected and published in the form of a book called Indika, which throws valuable light on the administration, society and economy of Mauryan times.

The account of Megasthenes can be supplemented by the Arthashastra of Kautilya. Although the Arthashastra was finally compiled a few centuries after the Maurya rule, some of its books contain material that is genuine and gives authentic information about the Maurya administration and economy. On the basis of these two sources we can draw a picture of the administrative system of Chandragupta Maurya.

Chandragupta Maurya was evidently an autocrat who concentrated all power in his hands. If we believe in a statement of the Arthashastra, the king had set a high ideal. He stated that in the happiness of his subjects lay his happiness and in their troubles lay his troubles. But we do not know how far the king acted up to these norms. According to Megasthenes the king was assisted by a council whose members were noted for wisdom. There is nothing to show that their advice was binding on him, but the high officers were chosen from the councillors.

The empire was divided into a number of provinces and each province was placed under a prince who was a scion of the royal dynasty. The provinces were divided into still smaller units and arrangements were made for both rural and urban administration. Excavations show that a large number of towns belonged to Maurya times. Pataliputra, Kaushambi, Ujjain and Taxila were the most important cities. The administration of Pataliputra, which was the capital of the Mauryas, was carried CHI by six committees, each committee consisting of five members: These committees were entrusted with sanitation, care of foreigners, registration of birth and death, regulation of weights and measures and similar other functions. Various types of weights belonging to Maurya times have been found at several places in Bihar.

In addition to all this the central government maintained about two dozen departments of the state, which controlled social and economic activities at least in the areas which were near the capital. The most striking feature of Chandragupta’s administration is the maintenance of a huge army. According to the account of a Roman writer called Pliny, Chandragupta maintained 600,000 foot-soldiers, 30,000 cavalry and 9000 elephants. Another source tells us that the Mauryas maintained 8000 chariots. In addition to this it seems that the Mauryas also maintained a navy. The administration of the armed forces, according to Megasthenes, was carried on by a board of 30 officers divided into six committees, each committee consisting of five members. It seems that the six wings of the armed forces  the army, the cavalry, the elephants, the chariots, the navy and the transport  were each assigned to the care of a separate committee. The Mauryas military strength was almost three times that of the Nandas. This happened apparently on account of much larger empire and far more resources. How did Chandragupta Maurya manage to meet the expenses of such a huge army? If we rely on the Arthashastra of Kautilya it would appear that the state controlled almost all the economic activities in the realm. The state brought new land under cultivation with the help of cultivators and shudra labourers. The virgin land which was opened to cultivation yielded handsome income to the state in the form of revenue collected from the newly settled peasants. It seems that taxes collected from the peasants varied form one-fourth to one-sixth of the produce. Those who were provided with irrigation facilities by the state had to pay for it. In addition to this in times of emergency-peasants were compelled to raise more crops. Tolls were also levied on commodities brought to town for sale and they were collected at the gate. Moreover, the state enjoyed a monopoly in mining, sale of liquor, manufacture of arms, etc. This naturally brought money to the royal exchequer. Chandragupta thus established a well-organised administrative system and gave it a sound financial base.

Ashoka (273-232 BC)

Chandragupta Maurya was succeeded by Bindusara, whose reign is important for continued links with the Greek princes. His son, Ashoka, is the greatest of the Maurya rulers. According to Buddhist tradition he was so cruel in his early life that he killed his 99 brothers to get the throne. But since the statement is based on a legend, it may well be wrong. His biography, prepared by Buddhist writers, is so full of fiction that it cannot be taken seriously.

Asimhmi teriptions

The history of Ashoka is reconstructed on the basis of his inscriptions. These inscriptions, numbering 39, are classified into Major Rock Edicts. Minor Rock Edicts, Separate Rock Edicts. Major Pillar Edicts and Minor Pillar Edicts. The name of Ashoka occurs only in copies of Minor Rock Edict I found at three places in Karnataka and at one in Madhya Pradesh. All the other inscriptions mention only devawmpiya piyadasi, dear to gods and leave out the word Ashoka. The Ashokan inscriptions are found in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Altogether they appear at 47 places and their total versions number 182. They were generally placed on ancient highways. Composed in Prakrit, they were, written in Brahmi script in the greater pail of the subcontinent. But in its north-western part they appeared in Aramaic language and Kharoshthi script and in Afghanistan they were, written in both Aramaic and Greek scripts and languages. He is the first Indian king to speak directly to the people through his inscriptions which carry royal orders. The inscriptions throw light on the career of Ashoka, his external and domestic polices and the extent of his empire.

Impact of the Kalinga War

The ideology of Buddhism guided Ashoka’s state policy at home and abroad. After his accession to the throne, Ashoka fought only one major war called the Kalinga War. According to him, 100,000 people were killed in this war, several lakhs perished and 150,000 were taken prisoners. These numbers are exaggerated, because the number a hundred thousand is used as a cliche in Ashokan inscriptions. At any rate it seems that the king was moved by the massacre in this war. The war brought to the brahmana priests and the Buddhist monks great suffering, which caused Ashoka much grief and remorse. So He abandoned the policy of physical occupation in favour of a policy of cultural conquest. In other words, bherighosha was replaced with dharnrnaghosha. We quote below the words of Ashoka from his Thirteenth Major Rock Edict:

When he had been consecrated eight years the beloved of the Gods, the King Piyadassi, conquered Kalinga. A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished. Afterwards, now that Kalinga was annexed, the beloved of the Gods very earnestly practised dhamma, desired dhamma and taught dhamma. On conquering Kalinga the beloved of the Gods felt remorse, for when an independent country is conquered the slaughter, death and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the beloved of the Gods and weighs heavily on his mind. What is even more deplorable to tire beloved of the Gods, is that those who dwell there, whether brahmanas, shramanas.

or those of other sects, or householders who show obedience to their teachers and-behave well and devotedly towards their friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, slaves and servants all suffer violence, murder and separation from their loved ones Today if a hundredth or a thousandth part of those people who were killed or died or were deported when Kalinga was annexed were to suffer similarly, it would weigh heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods The Beloved of the Gods considers victory by dhamma to be the foremost victory.

Ashoka now made an ideological appeal towards the tribal people and the frontier kingdoms. The subjects of the independent states in Kalinga were asked to obey the king as their father and to repose confidence in him. The officials appointed by Ashoka were instructed to propagate this idea among all sections of his subjects. The tribal peoples were similarly asked to follow the principles of dhamma (dharma).

Ashoka no longer treated foreign dominions as legitimate areas for military conquest. He tried to conquer them ideologically. He took steps for the welfare of men and animals, in foreign lands, which was a new thing considering the condition of those days. He sent ambassadors of peace to the Greek kingdoms in West Asia and Greece, All this can be said on the basis of Ashoka’s inscriptions. If we rely on the Buddhist tradition it would appear that he sent missionaries for, the propagation of Buddhism to Sri Lanka and Central Asia. As an enlightened ruler Ashoka tried to enlarge his area of political influence through propaganda.

It would be wrong to think that the Kalinga war made Ashoka an extreme pacifist. He did not pursue the policy of peace for the sake of peace under all conditions. On the other hand he adopted a practical policy of consolidating his empire. He retained Kalinga after its conquest and incorporated it into his empire. There is also nothing to show that he disbanded the huge army maintained from the time of Chandragupta Maurya. Although he repeatedly asked the tribal people to follow the policy of dharma, he threatened them if they violated the established rules of social order and righteousness (dharma). Within the empire he appointed a class of officers known as the rajukas, who were vested with the authority of not only rewarding people but also punishing them, wherever necessary. The policy of Ashoka to consolidate the empire through dharma bore fruit. The Kandhar inscription speaks of the success of his policy with the Hunters and fishermen, who gave up killing animals and possibly took to a settled agricultural life.

Internal Policy and Buddhism

Ashoka was converted to Buddhism as a result Of the Kalinga war. According to tradition he became a monk, made huge gifts to the Buddhists and undertook pilgrimages to the Buddhist shrines. The fact of his visiting the Buddhist shrines is also suggested by the dhamma yatras mentioned in his inscriptions.

According to tradition the third Buddhist council (Sangiti) was held by Ashoka and missionaries were sent not only to south India but also to Sri Lank, Burma and other countries to convert the people there. Brahmi inscriptions of the second and first centuries B.C. have been found in Sri Lanka.

Ashoka set a very high ideal for himself and this was the ideal of paternal kingship. He repeatedly asked his officials to tell the subjects that the king looked upon them as his children. As agents of the king, the officials were also asked to take care of the people. Ashoka appointed dhammamahamatras for propagating dhamma among various social groups including women. He also appointed rajukas for the administration of justice in his empire.

He disapproved of rituals, especially those observed by women. He forbade killing certain birds and animals and completely prohibits the slaughter of animals in the capital. He interdicted gay social functions in which people indulged in revelries.

But Ashoka’s dhamma was not a narrow dharma. It cannot be regarded as a sectarian faith. Its broad objective was to preserve the social order. It ordained that people should obey their parents, pay respect to the brahmanas and Buddhist monks and show mercy to slaves and servants. These instructions can be found in both the Buddhist and brahmanical faiths.

Ashoka taught people to live and let live. He emphasised compassion towards animals and proper behaviour towards relatives. His teachings were meant to strengthen the institution of family and the existing social classes. He held that if the people behaved well they would attain heaven. He never said that, they would attain nirvana, which was the goal of Buddhist teachings. Ashoka’s teachings were thus intended to maintain the existing social order on the basis of tolerance. He does not ‘seem to have preached any sectarian faith.

Ashoka’s Place in History

It is said that the pacific policy of Ashoka mined the Maurya empire, but this is not true. On the contrary Ashoka has a number of achievements to his credit. He was certainly a great missionary paler in the history of the ancient world. He worked with great zeal and devotion to his mission and achieved a lot, both at home and abroad.

Ashoka brought about the political unification of the country. He bound it further by one dharma, one language and practically one script called Brahmi which was used in most of his inscriptions. In unifying the country he respected such scripts as Brahmi, Kharoshthi, Aramaic and Greek. Evidently he also accommodated such languages as Greek, Prakrit and Sanskrit and various religious sects. Ashoka followed a tolerant religious policy. He did not try to foist his Buddhist faith on his subjects. On the other hand he made gifts to non-Buddhist and even anti-Buddhist sects.

Ashoka was fired with zeal for missionary activities. He deputed officials in the far-flung parts of the empire. This helped the cause, of administration and also promoted cultural contacts between the developed Gangetic basin and the backward distant provinces. The material culture, typical of the heart of the empire, spread to Kalinga and the lower Deccan and northern Bengal.

Above all Ashoka is important, in history for his policy of peace, non aggression and cultural, conquest. He had no model in early Indian history nor did such an example exist in any country except Egypt where Ashoka had pursued a pacific policy in the fourteenth century B.C. But it is obvious, that Ashoka was not aware of his Egyptian predecessor. Although Kautilya advised the king to loe always intent on physical conquest, Ashoka followed just the reverse policy. He asked his successors to give up the policy of conquest and aggression, which had been followed by the Magadhan princes till the Kalinga war. He counselled them to adopt a policy of peace, which was badly needed after a period of aggressive wars lasting for two centuries. Ashoka consistently stuck to his policy. Although he possessed: sufficient resources and certainly maintained a huge army, he did not wage any war after the conquest of Kalinga. In this sense Ashoka was certainty far ahead of his day and generation.

However, Ashoka’s policy did not make any lasting impression on his viceroys and vassals, who declared themselves independent in their respective areas after the retirement, of the king in 232 B.C. Similarly, the policy could not convert his neighbours, who swooped on the northwestern frontier of his empire within 30 years of Ashoka’s exit, from power in 232 B.C.


  1. Explain the meaning of the following terms and concepts: Dharnrna, Rajuka, Bherighosha, Dhammaghosha, Dhammamahamatra.
  2. How did Chandragupta establish the rule of the Maurya dynasty? What was the impact of the Kaiinga war?
  3. Describe the administrative system of the Mauryan empire.
  4. How did Ashoka promote Buddhism? Discuss his concept of dhamma?
  5. Describe the technological progress made in the Mauiyan period. Make an assessment of emperor Ashoka.
  6. What are the main sources of the history of the Mauiyas? Write a note on each of the sources.
  7. On a outline map of India, indicate the extent of Ashoka’s empire and mark the places mentioned in the text.
  8. Discuss the significance of the political changes that the establishment of the Maurya empire marked in India.

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