Rise of the Mauryans

The closeness to the source of natural resources like iron ores enabled the Magadhan princes to equip themselves with weapons, Agricultural tools of iron, which increased production and added to royal taxation alongwith the alluvial soil of Gangatic plains and sufficient rainfall which were very conducive for agricultural practices and rise of towns and use of metallic money boosted trade and commerce, which increased royal revenue, the use of elephants on a large scale in its war supplied by the eastern part of the country added to the military power and the unorthodox character of the Magadhan Society as a result of racial admixture.

Historical Sources of Mauryas

The history of Mauryas, unlike that of the earlier ruling houses, is rendered reliable by a variety   of evidences drawn from such sources as the Buddhist and the Jain traditions; the Kalpasuta of Jains and the Jatakas, Dighanikaya, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa of Buddhists respectively, The Arthashastra of Kautilya, the Greek accounts, the first decipherable inscription of Ashoka (deciphered by James Princip in 1837) and the archaeological remains. The Puranas and Mudrarakshasa of Vishakhadutta though belong to a later date, throw light on the history of the Mauryans alongwith Patanjali’s Mahabhashya.


6.1 Chandragupta Maurya

Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of Mauryan dynasty, he was also known as Sandrocottus (kind towards friends) by Greek scholars. Brahmanical sources (Mudrarakshasa) say that the name Maurya was derived from Mura; a Shudra woman in the court of Nandas, and Chandragupta was son or grandson of the woman. Vishnu Purana also mentions him of low origin i.e. a Shudra. But the Buddhist and Jain sources ascribed him a Kshatriya status. His early career is shrouded in mystery. According to Justin, a Greek writer, he overthrew Nandas between 325-322 B.C. According to Plutarch, he met Alexander in Punjab and implicitly invited him to attack Nandas but offended him by his boldness of speech.

Chandragupta occupied Magadhan throne in 321 B.C. with the help of Chanakya (Kautilya). He had allied with a Himalayan chief Parvartaka. He defeated Seleucus Nicator, then Alexander’s governor in 305 B.C. who ceded to Chandragupta the three rich provinces of Kabul, Kandahar and Heart in return for 500 elephants.

  • Seleucus probably gave one of his daughters to Chandragupta and sent his ambassador, Megasthenes to the Mauryan Court, who wrote an account (Indica) not only of the administration of the city of Pataliputra but also of the entire Mauryan Empire.
  • The Greek writer Justin calls Chandragupta’s army as a “Dacoits gang”.
  • According to the Jain work Parishista-parvan, Chandragupta converted to Jainism in the end years of his life and went to south near Sravanbelgola with his Guru Bhadrabahu. It is said that he starved himself to death here.
  • According to the same text, Chanakya made Chandragupta enter into an alliance with Paravartaka (king of Himvatakuta) and the allied armies besieged Pataliputra.
  • Vishakhadatta wrote a drama Mudrarakshasa (describing Chandragupta’s enemy) and Debi Chandraguptam in 6th century A.D.

6.2 Bindusara

Bindusara was the son of Chandragupta and was known as Amitraghata (slayer of foes), besides the master of the land between the two seas Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Succeeded Chandragupta in 297 B.C, He continued friendly links with Syrian king Antiochus I and is stated to have requested him for a present of figs and wine together with a sophist to which Antiochus sent figs and wine but replied that Greek philosophers were not for export. He also received a Greek ambassador Daimachos from Antiochus I.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt also sent an envoy Dionysius to Bindusara’s court, History credits him with the suppression of a revolt and further for the redressal of grievances against the misrule of wicked bureaucrats (dustanatyas). According to Tibetan Lama Taranath and Jain legends, Chanakya was the minister of Bindusara. There was a council of ministers of 500 members in the court of Bindusara, which was headed by Khallatak, Bindusara did not make any territorial conquest and towards the time of his death he joined the Ajivika sect.


6.3 Ashoka

Ashoka (273-232 B.C.) had served as governor of Taxila and Ujjain previously. Ashoka is called ‘Buddhashakya and Ashok’ in Maski edict and ‘Dharmasoka’ in Sarnath inscription. He was also known as ‘Devampriya’ i.e. beloved of the Gods and ‘Piyadassi’ i.e. of pleasing appearance. His empire covered the whole territory from Hindukush to Bengal and extended over to Afghanistan, Baluchistan and the whole of India with the exception of a small area in the farthest south comprising of Kerela. Kashmir and Valleys of Nepal were also included and was the first empire to do so. Assam was not included in his dominion.

Important Points

  • The Kalinga War fought in 261 B.C. and mentioned in XIII Rock Edict changed his attitude towards life and he became a Buddhist.
  • He inaugurated his Dharmayatras from the 11th year of his reign by visiting Bodhgaya.
  • In the 14th year of his reign he started the institution of Dhamma Mahamatras (the officers of righteousness) to spread the message of Dhamma.
  • During his reign the policy of Bherighosha (physical conquest) was replaced by that of Dhammaghosha (cultural conquest).
  • In course of his second tour in the 21st year of his reign he visited Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha and exempted the village from Bali (tribute) and the Bhaga (the royal share of the produce) which were reduced to one eighth.
  • He organized a network of missionaries to preach the doctrine of Buddhism both in his kingdom and beyond. He sent them to Ceylon, Burma (sent his son Mahindra and daughter Sangamitra to Ceylon) and other South-east Asian regions notably Thailand.

Ashoka’s Hellenistic contemporaries were Antiochus II of Syria, Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, Magas of Cyrene, Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia and Alexander of Epirus. These are mentioned in his thirteenth Rock Edict. Ashoka was the first Indian king to speak directly to the people through his inscriptions, which seem to be the earliest specimens of Prakrit language in India.

They are mostly engraved on rocks and found not only in Indian subcontinent but also in Afghanistan. These inscriptions communicate royal orders. These inscriptions were composed in Prakrit and were written in Brahmi script throughout the greater part of the empire. But in the north-western part they appear in Aramaic and Kharoshthi script. In his inscriptions following languages have been used: Brahmi, Kharoshthi, Aramaic, Greek, etc. The Ashokan inscriptions were generally placed on ancient highways and threw light on the career of Ashok’s policies and the extent of his empire.

Ø  Tarai pillars show Ashoka’s respect for Buddhism.

Ø  Ashoka in his fifth rock edict mentions that he had several brothers and sisters. Two of these brothers are named in Divyavadana as Susima and Vuigatasoka, whom the Sinhalese chronicles, name as Sumana and Tishya. The former was step-brother of Ashoka. Ashoka’s mother was Subhadrangi.

Ø  Ashoka does not call himself by his personal name Ashoka in any of his inscriptions except two: these are Maski and Gujarra inscriptions.

Ø  Ashoka died in 232 B.C. and with him departed the glory of Mauryan Empire.


Ashokan Edicts

1. Major Rock Edicts: These are related to administration and ethics.

1st Rock Edict: It puts prohibition on animal sacrifices in festive gatherings. Interestingly, only three animals (2 peacocks and 1 deer) could be used for the royal kitchen as well instead of hundreds of them used earlier.

2nd Rock Edict: It mentions about the medical missions sent everywhere for both men and animals by Ashoka. It mentions Chola, Chera, Pandaya and Satyaputra and has also a list of herbs and trees to be planted in different areas.

3rd Rock Edict: In the 12th year of Ashoka’s inauguration the edict enjoins a quenquennial hu- miliation.

4th Rock Edict: In the 12th year of Ashoka’s reign compares the past condition of the kingdom with that of the present.

5th Rock Edict: It, for the first time, mentions about the appointment of the Dhamma-mahamatras to look after propagation of Dhamma. They were appointed in the 13th year of Ashoka’s consecration.

6th Rock Edict: It shows his concern for the peo- ple’s grievances for round the clock consultations or any type of appeal and that the mahamattas should communicate to him all the matters concerning public business even if he is in his harem. It announces the appointment of pativedakas, custodies morum and criminal magistrates.

7th Rock Edict: It contains the kings desire to obliterate diversities of religious opinions and tells  us that Ashoka, after ten years since his consecra- tion, visited Bodhi tree, ended all pleasure tours and instead, concentrated on the Dhamma tours.

8th Rock Edict: It contrasts the carnal enjoyments of former rajas with the harmless enjoyments of the king – visits to holy places, almsgiving, respect to elders, etc.

9th Rock Edict: It shows the uselessness of all other ceremonies except the Dhamma as it includes ethical concepts within its fold. It basically continues the Dhamma discourse.

10th Rock Edict: In this edict, Ashoka shows the lack of any worldly desire except the desire to propa- gate Dhamma and to see people following it.

11th Rock Edict: It suggests to people that the gift of Dhamma is the best gift or the chiefest of charitable donations as it brings gain in this world and merit   in the next. It is at Dhauli and Girnar.

12th Rock Edict: It expresses Ashoka’s concern for the well-being of all other sects, in this he pre- fers to advance the essence of all the doctrines. He also requests all the officers to internalize this basic philosophy behind propagation of Dhamma.

13th Rock Edict: In this edict, Ashoka shows his remorse for the devastation caused by his Kalinga War. The killing of so many families made Ashoka take resort to cultural conquest (Dhammavijaya) rather than even think in the future about any war and aggrandizement. It is incomplete.

14th Rock Edict: It states that this inscription of Dhamma was engraved at the command of the beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi. It exists in abridged, medium length and extended versions for each classes has not been engraved everywhere. It summarises the preceeding and is complete in itself.

2. Separate Edicts

First Separate Edict (Dhauli and Jaugada): Ad- dressed to officers of Tosali and Samapa. One royal officer will tour every five years to see that men are never imprisoned or tortured without good reason. The prince of Ujjain shall send out a similar group   of officers, but at intervals not exceeding three years, similarly at Taxila.

Second Separate Edict: Addressed to the prince at Tosali and the officials at Samapa, it states that the officers shall at all times attend to the concilia- tion of the people of the frontiers and to promoting Dhamma among them.


3. Minor Inscriptions

Queen’s Edict: On the Allahabad pillar, the gift   of the second queen, the mother of Tivara, Karuvaki for dispensing charity or any other donation.

Barabar Cave Inscription:

(i) In 12th year the Banyan cave given to Ajivikas.

(ii) In 12th year cave in Khalitika mountain given to Ajivikas.

(iii) The king Piyadassi, consecrated since nineteen years.

Kandhar Bilingual Rock Inscription: Greek version – king refrains from eating meat and his hunters and fishermen have stopped hunting. Aramic version- very few animals were killed by Ashoka. Bhabru Inscription: The king of Magadha, Piya- dassi shows deep respect for the faith in Buddha,   the Dhamma and the Sangha, This edict confirms Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism.

Rummindei Pillar Inscription: In 20th year Pi- yadassi visited Lumbini and here exempted people from land tribute (udbalike) and fixed contribution at 1/8 (atthabhagiya).

Nigalisagar Pillar Inscription: On 14th year the stupa of Buddha Kanakamuni was enlarged to double in size.

Schism Edict: At Kaushambi (Allahabad pillar), Sanchi and Sarnath. All dissenting monks and nuns to be expelled and made to wear robes and the laymen and officials are to enforce this order on confession (upostha) days addressed to officials of Kausambi and Pataliputra.


4. Pillar Edicts

1st: On 27th regional year. His principle is to protect thorough Dhamma to administer according to Dhamma, to please the people with Dhamma to guard the empire with Dhamma.

2nd: Dhamma is good and what is Dhamma? It is having few faults and many good deeds: mercy, charity, truthfulness and purity.

3rd: One only notices one’s good deeds, does not notice one’s wicked deeds, one should notice this and think. Cruelty, harshness, anger, pride and many are indeed productive of sin.

4th: In the 26th year, appointment of Rajukas over hundreds and thousands, with independent author- ity over judgement, there should be uniformity in judicial procedure and punishment. Men who are imprisoned or sentenced to death are to be given three days respite.

5th: In the 26th year, prohibition of killing specific animals and burning forest; cattle and horses  are  not to be branded. Twenty five releases of prisoners have been made.

6th: Mention of major rock edicts, which have been issued in 12th year, to honour all sects.

7th: Only in the Delhi-Topara pillar, Rajuka, Ajivikas and Nirgrantha (Jainas) were mentioned in this edict. Dhamma is better advanced by persuasion than by legislation.


6.4 The Mauryan Empire after Ashoka

Vishnu Purana gives the names of his seven successors but with no details, probably the empire was divided into two eastern and western parts. The western being ruled by Kunal and later for sometime by Samprati where Indo-Greeks began to make early inroads, and until 180 B.C. had virtually supplanted the later Mauryas, the eastern part being ruled by Brihadratha from Pataliputra. He was the seventh king in succession from Ashoka and he was killed by his commander in chief Pushyamitra Sunga, who ascended the throne in 187 B.C. The royal dynasty founded by him is known as Sunga Dynasty.


Mauryan Administration

The vast and highly centralized bureaucratic rule with the king as fountain head of all powers, the king claimed no divine rule, rather it was paternal despotism. Kautilya called the king Dharmapravartaka or promulgator of social order. The highest functionaries at the centre called tirthas and were paid fabulously. They were Mantri, Purohita, Senapati and Yuvaraja. Besides the two chief officers at the Centre were Sannidhata (treasurer) and Samaharta (tax collector).

  • Kautilya again and again emphasized the importance of Mantriparishad.
  • Kautilya mentions 27 superintendents (adhyakshas) mostly to regulate economic activities. The famous were as follows.

Sitadhyaksha: Super-intendent of crown land.

Panyadhyaksha: Super-intendent of Commerce.

Akaradhyaksha: Super-intendent of mines.

Pautavadhyaksha: Super-intendent of weight and measures.

Sulkadhyasha: Superintendent of tolls.

Samsthadhyaksha: Super-intendent of market.

Rajuka: Superintendent to look after Justice.

Except the capital Pataliputra, the whole empire was divided into four provinces controlled by a viceroy either a prince or a member of the royal family. Provinces were sub-divided into districts and had three main officers, Pradesika responsible for the overall administration of the district. Rajuka was responsible for revenue administration and later judicial particularly in rural areas and was under Pradesika. Sub-district consisted of a group of villages numbering 5 to 10 and was administered by ‘Gopa’ (accountant) and ‘Sthanika’ (tax collector). The villages were administered by the village head man who was responsible to the Gopas and Sthanikas. The administration of capital Pataliputra has been described by six boards consisting of five members each being entrusted with matters relating to industrial arts, care of foreigners, registration of births and deaths, regulation of weights and measures, public sale of manufactured goods and the last with collecting toll on the articles sold, this being one tenth of the purchase price.

  • Mauryans had a big army and there is no evidence of its reduction even by peace loving Ashoka.
  • According to Pliny, Chandragupta maintained 600,000 foot soldiers, 30,000 cavalry and 900 elephants.
  • A striking social development was the employment of slaves in agricultural operation on a large scale. The sale of merchandise was supervised.
  • No banking system but usury prevailed. It seems that the punch-marked silver coins, which carry the symbols of peacock and hill and regent, formed the imperial currency of the Mauryas.
  • Megasthenes noticed the absence of slavery. But it is contradicted by Indian sources.
  • Kautilya recommends the recruitment of Vaishyas and Shudras in the army, but their actual enrolment is extremely doubtfull.
  • According to Megasthenese, the army was administered by six committees consisting of five members each taken from a board of 30 members. The six committees or the wings of army were: the army, the cavalry, the elephants, the chariots, the navy and the transport.
  • Industrial arts and crafts proliferated as a result of swift communication through a network of good and long roads and incentives given by the government.
  • In addition to the four regular castes, he refers not less than five mixed castes by the general name Antyavasayin who lived beyond the pale of Aryan society. The position of Shudra improved somewhat for hitherto agricultural laborers and domestic slaves. They could now own land.
  • In the Mauryan period, stone culture emerged as the principal medium of Indian arts.
  • Tamralipti was one of the most important maritime trading centres during the Mauryan times. It was situated on the Eastern coast.
  • The animals, which are carved on the Mauryan pillars, are: Bull, Lion, Elephant.
  • According to Arthashastra, a man could be slave either by birth, by voluntarily selling oneself, by being captured in war or as a result of judicial punishment. Megasthenese did not find slaves in India.
  • Puranas have called Kautilya as ‘dvijarshabh’ i.e. superior brahmana. Chanakya spent last days of his life doing meditation in the forests near Magadha.
  • Spies operated in the guise of sanyasis, wanderers, beggars, etc. and were of two types ‘Sanstha’ and ‘Sanchari’. The former worked by remaining stationed at a public place and later by moving from place to place. These spies were integral to the Mauryan administration. They collected intelligence about foreign enemies and kept an eye on numerous officers. The ‘prativedikas’ were the special reporters of the king.
  • Land revenue was the main source of income of the state. Peasants paid ¼ of the produce as Bhaga and extra tax Bali tribute. According to Arthashastra, the land belonged to the king; irrigation tax was also levied by the government.
  • Besides other taxes like Pindakara (assessed on group of villages), ‘Kara’ (levied on fruits and flower gardens), Hiranya (paid only in cash) were also collected. ‘Sishtas’ were learned men during Mauryan times.
  • The trade links between India and Egypt were so developed that Ptolemy had established a port named Bernis on the Red sea. India exported turtle skin, pearls, precious and semi-precious stones, cotton and costly wood to Egypt.

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