Prior to the rise of the Maurya, numerous states, large and small, covered northern India. This was the classical age of the history of ancient India, a time of religious ferment when two new faiths, Buddhism and Jainism, appeared.
One of the largest of these states was Magadha. It was located in the eastern part of the Ganges plain, on the periphery of the Aryan cultural area. At this stage in Indian history other states apparently regarded Magadha as semi-barbarous. Perhaps its position on the frontiers of the Aryan world meant that its people were not too strict in their commitment to the old Vedic religion of northern India. It is certainly the case that the two non-orthodox faiths of Jainism and Buddhism flourished here in their early days, and found patrons amongst the Magadha kings.
Gradually, over a century or more, Magadha extended its borders. Then, under a line of kings of the Nanda dynasty (reigned c. 424-322 BC), the kingdom dramatically expanded, to cover a large part of northern India.
The Mauryan period of ancient Indian history was really inaugurated by the conquest of northwest India by Alexander the Great, in 326 BC. This seems to have destabilized the political situation amongst the Aryan states in the region, allowing the first great conqueror in Indian history, Chandragupta Maurya (reigned 322-298 BC), to rise to power.
Chandragupta – Statue of a standing young man in red stone.
Chandragupta seized control of the throne of Maghada from the last Nanda king, and then proceeded to conquer that part of northern India which still remained outside Magadha’s borders. He drove out the Seleucids, Alexander’s successors, from the Indian subcontinent, and went on to conquer the easternmost provinces of Alexander’s former empire, reaching into Afghanistan and eastern Iran.
Internally, building on foundations laid by the Nanda kings, his reign saw the establishment of a strong central government. This was the work of his highly capable chief minister, Chanakya.
Chandragupta was succeeded by his son, Bindusara (reigned 298-272 BC). He continued his father’s conquests by extending Mauryan power down into central India.
Bindusara was followed by his son, Asoka (reigned 272-232 BC). Asoka proved to be one of the most remarkable, and attractive, rulers in the history of India, and indeed the whole of world history.
After a bloody war against Kalinga, in eastern India, Asoka renounced warfare and converted to Buddhism. He determined that henceforward he would reign in peace.
Indian relief from Amaravati, Guntur. Preserved in Guimet Museum. Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0
He actively promoted the spread of Buddhism; and sent missions abroad, to Sri Lanka (headed by his son, Mahinda) and South East Asia. Here they laid the foundations for Buddhism’s later triumph as the predominant faith. He also sent missions to the Greek-speaking kingdoms to the west, which had carved up Alexander the Great’s conquests between them. Here they seem to have made little impact.
We can still see the pillars Asoka erected around his empire, on which were inscribed royal edicts and encouragements to his subjects to live in harmony with one another. These edicts and exhortations give an insight into Asoka’s mind. What comes across is a compassionate, tolerant but firm ruler, seeking justice and well-being for all his subjects.
There seems little doubt that one of the main architects of Mauryan power was Chandragupta’s chief minister, Chanakya. He is widely regarded as the author of a political treatise called the Arthashastra, a down-to-earth manual on how to rule. Although most scholars agree that this work was in fact written a long time after the Maurya had left the stage, many think it does reflect conditions from that time. In any case, Chanakya seems to have organized an efficient military and civil administration, on which the Mauryan kings could build a solid power.
The king was advised by a council of advisors, and was served by an elaborate administrative structure. The empire was divided into provinces, each governed by a member of the royal family. Under them, local rulers seem to have been kept in place, if they were loyal to the Maurya and forwarded the taxes from their domains promptly to the imperial treasury in the capital. Their activities, however, were checked on by senior royal officials, through regular inspections, and also watched by Mauryan spies, secretly. The Mauryan regime had an extensive espionage system, which Chandragupta in particular used to great effect.
The cities of the empire were directly administered by a hierarchy of royal officials, responsible for the upkeep of such public facilities as roads and wells, and for the maintenance of justice.
Mauryan power rested ultimately on its formidable army, which Greek and Roman authors regarded (probably wrongly) as the largest in the world at that time. One claimed that it included 700 elephants, 1000 horses and 600,000 infantry, surely an exaggeration.
The Mauryan government and the economy
As with most ancient administrative systems, the Mauryan bureacracy’s main purpose was to collect taxes. These consisted primarily of the land tax. Since this depended on agricultural prosperity, the government sponsored the reclamation of large amounts of land from forests and wastelands (it seems to have been illegal for private persons to clear land). Irrigation projects were undertaken to increase productivity.
Taxes were also levied on trade, and trade was officially encouraged. The construction of a network of roads, certainly as much for military as commercial purposes, will have significantly affected trade for the better; and such measures as the planting of roadside trees for shade; and the construction of rest houses every few miles, illustrates the government’s concern in this area.
The Mauryan period, particularly during the reign of Asoka, was one of the very few times in Indian history when the population as a whole experienced an extensive period of peace. As always, peace encouraged prosperity, and as we have seen, the government actively sponsored agriculture and trade. Trade routes would have been more secure than at any time before in ancient India, and indeed for most periods since. This would have made long-distance commerce easier.
Silver punch mark coin of the Maurya empire, with symbols of wheel and elephant. 3rd century BC
The archaeological record suggests that the standard of living rose appreciable under Mauryan rule. Iron implements came into wider use, which would have helped the reclamation of land for farming, and led to greater productivity for farmers. Metal coinage became more widespread, which would have stimulated trade. The expansion of trade is reflected in the spread of northern pottery styles into south India. Palitpura, the Mauryan capital, was a large and imposing city.
The Mauryan government was in regular diplomatic relations with the Greek-speaking kingdoms to its west. This was of course specially true for the Seleucid empire, the nearest, but contacts with Macedonia, Egypt and other kingdoms of the Hellenistic world are also mentioned. One of the Seleucids’ ambassadors to the Mauryan court was an official called Megethsenes, from whose account, the Indica, we can glean much information about India at the time of the Mauryan empire. There seem to have been marriage alliances between the Seleucid and Mauryan royal families.
These diplomatic relations also involved trade missions, and under Asoka, missionary expeditions as well. In 251 BC Asoka’s son, Mahinda, led a missionary expedition which introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
Buddhism flourished under the Maurya. Some scholars believe that it was in this period of ancient India, especially under Asoka, that Buddhism became established as a major religion within the Indian sub-continent. Jainism also flourished, especially amongst the merchants of the cities – who, as we have seen, were experiencing a time of prosperity. The merchants were to some extent on the margins of the early Hindu scheme of society. They would probably have been less patient than other social groups with the traditional Brahmin dominance over religious matters, and hence more attracted to the new heterdox faiths of Buddhiam and Jainism.
Fifty years or so after Asoka’s death, perhaps sooner (there is very little evidence from the later Maurya period), the huge empire began to crumble. Outlying provinces fell away, and by the mid-2nd century BC the empire had shrunk to its core areas.
Why did this decline set in, and why was it so rapid?
Asoka has sometimes been blamed for sowing the seeds of decline by his too-gentle rule. He might have left unchecked destabilizing forces, which came to full power after he was gone.
For this idea there is no evidence; indeed the edicts scattered around the empire suggest a firm and vigorous ruler. The causes of decline probably lie elsewhere, and can be summarized as follows:
Causes of decline
First, Asoka seems to have been followed by a succession of weak rulers, who could not exert their will over such a large empire.
This is related to the second reason, the Maurya’s failure to develop robust imperial institutions. Unlike the Han empire in China, which continued to run smoothly for almost 400 years, even when the emperors were nonentities, the effectiveness of Mauryan rule was always directly dependent upon the personal ability and energy of the king.
Later experience from around the world – for example, from China and the Roman empire – shows that, unless there is a well-working system for selecting and promoting capable and comparatively honest officials, a bureaucracy can soon become fragmented amongst the followers of over-powerful ministers and provincial governors. Something like this may well have occurred in late Maurya times, culminating in the breaking-away of large provinces from the empire.
Finally, the fragmentation of the Mauryan empire was, to some extent, a product of its very success. During the peace and unity the Mauryan kings had brought ancient India, Aryan culture had spread throughout much of the sub-continent. Towns and cities had sprung up – normally as centres of Mauryan administration – in places distant from the old seats of civilization. Economic development had come to areas which were previously the abode of forest peoples, of nomads and hunter-gatherers. All this had put in place the economic and administrative foundations upon which new, independent states could be built; and, with the firm hand of the early Mauryan kings gone, such states soon appeared.
In later Indian records, the Mauryan empire appears only as an entry in the long list of kingdoms that made up the vast and complex history of India; no special significance was attached to it.
No magnificent architecture was left – the towns where the Maurya carried out most of their building work continued to be lived in right up to the present day, and so Mauryan remains are buried under streets and buildings used by later generations.
Apart from a few brief mentions in some accounts, this great empire was all but forgotten – an astonishing fact given the great importance accorded by peoples in other parts of the world to their ancient empires.
In the 19th century, however, some British officials began to wonder, who built those mysterious pillars dotted around India? How come they are hundreds – thousands – of miles apart from one another? What do the inscriptions on them mean?
Then the truth about the Maurya gradually began to emerge. When it was realised that these pillars were the work of one king, Asoka, whose realm covered a vast area of India and beyond, it was realised that here was a phenomenon of huge significance for the history of ancient India.
The Mauryan empire was the first great empire of the history of ancient India, and that in itself gives it major importance in world history.
Mauryan architecture in the Barabar Mounts. Grottoe of Lomas Richi. 3rd century BCE.
The spread of Indian civilization
The Mauryan empire spread Aryan culture throughout most of India. It stimulated the economic development of then-peripheral regions, as these were incorporated into Aryan society. In accomplishing this, the Mauryan empire vastly expanded the horizons of ancient Indian civilization, and so made it a more powerful force in world history.
In due course, southern India, which only under the Maurya began to be drawn into what we today think of as Indian culture, would play a pivotal role in the development of Indian Ocean trade networks, and act as a bridge for goods and ideas between the Middle East and South East Asia.
The spread of Buddhism
The Mauryan empire played a key role in the spread of Buddhism. It is quite possible that it was the Mauryan period which saw Buddhism’s establishment as a major religion within ancient India – a development encouraged by official policy under Asoka. This will have helped establish the sub-continent as a base from which Buddhism could later spread to other parts of Asia.
Moreover, the Maurya directly promoted Buddhist missions to other regions, and although in most cases it was only later that the peoples of many of these countries became Buddhist to any large extent, these Maurya missions seem to have been directly responsible for the conversion of the ruling class of at least one country, Sri Lanka.
In any case, the fact that China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia all now have large Buddhist populations is in some part owing to the great Maurya king, Asoka.
A saintly ruler
Asoka offers a rare example in world history of a saintly yet capable ruler. Although his outstanding personality was hidden in the historical records until the 19th century, since then it has given all those who study world history pause for thought. As world history becomes a subject of more widespread study, his example can only become more widely known.
Nevertheless, there is a negative side to the Maurya’s role in world history: their failure to create an empire that endured for more than a century. This meant it did not play in Indian history the role that the Han empire played in Chinese – that is, act as a powerful model for a unified government system which future generations would set about recreating, and leaving to them the institutional means by which they could do that.
Unlike in Chinese history, the history of India is not one of a succession of great empires under which the sub-continent was united under a single regime. It is interesting to ponder the question – had the Mauryas succeeded in creating a tradition of unity, and Indian history had been more like China’s, with a series of great empires providing unity and strength for the nation as a whole, how would world history have been different?
It would be one and half millennia before India again came near to unification, under the Delhi Sultanate – and then only very briefly. Likewise the Moguls and the British after them achieved brief moments of unity; but there was no ingrained habit of unity, no urge to merge, which rulers could draw on – a situation so different in Chinese history, where the only truly legitimate rulers are those who govern the entire (or at least the bulk) of that giant country.