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The Mauryan Empire (321-184 BCE)
Chandragupta Maurya (ruled from 321 to 297 BCE), began a new period in India’s history. He and his son Bindusara (ruled from 287 to 273 BCE) and grandson Ashoka (ruled from 268 to 232 BCE) were destined to forge the first large empire in India’s history, one that would inspire the imagination of later empire builders in South Asia. The Mauryan Empire included most of the subcontinent and lasted for 140 years.
Under the Mauryas, internal and external trade, agriculture, and economic activities thrived and expanded across South Asia due to the creation of a single and efficient system of finance, administration, and security.
Chandragupta Maurya (ruled from 321 to 297 BCE)
Chandragupta was taught by the ancient Indian teacher and philosopher Chanakya.
According to several legends, Chanakya traveled to Magadha, a kingdom that was large and militarily powerful and feared by its neighbors, but was insulted by its king Dhana Nanda, of the Nanda Dynasty. Chanakya swore revenge and vowed to destroy the Nanda Empire. He made a plan to dethrone Nanda, replacing him with Chandragupta, his son by a lesser queen or concubine.
Chanakya encouraged the young Chandragupta Maurya and his army to take over the throne of Magadha. Using his intelligence network, Chandragupta gathered many young men from across Magadha and other provinces, who were upset over the corrupt and oppressive rule of King Dhana, as well as the resources necessary for his army to fight a long series of battles.
Chandragupta, under the tutelage of Chanakya, created a new empire based on the principles of statecraft, built a large army, and rapidly expanded his power westwards across central and western India by conquering the satraps left by Alexander the Great.
The Greco-Roman writer Plutarch stated, in his Life of Alexander (a book about Alexander the Great), that the Nanda king was so unpopular that had Alexander tried, he could have easily conquered India. After Alexander ended his campaign and left, Chandragupta’s army conquered the Nanda capital and by 317 BCE the empire had fully occupied northwestern India.
Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander’s Macedonian generals and the founder of the Seleucid Kingdom we talked about in the last chapter, brought Persia and Bactria under his own authority, putting his eastern front facing the empire of Chandragupta.
Seleucus and Chandragupta waged war until they came to an understanding with each other. Seleucus married off his daughter to Chandragupta to forge an alliance and received five hundred elephants in return.
Chanakya was concerned about Chandragupta’s safety and developed elaborate techniques to prevent assassination attempts. Various sources report Chandragupta frequently changed bedrooms to confuse conspirators. He left his palace only for certain tasks: to go on military expeditions, to visit his court for dispensing justice, to offer sacrifices, for celebrations, and for hunting. During celebrations, he was well-guarded, and on hunts, he was surrounded by female guards who were presumed to be less likely to participate in a coup conspiracy. These strategies may have resulted from the historical context of the Nanda king who had come to power by assassinating the previous king.
The empire built a strong economy from a solid infrastructure such as irrigation, temples, mines, and roads. He also started and completed many irrigation reservoirs and networks across the Indian subcontinent to ensure food supplies for the civilian population and the army, a practice continued by his dynastic successors.
After 26 years of rule, Chandragupta became a monk and abdicated his kingdom to his son Bindusara. There isn’t much written about Bindusara, but he was the father of the very famous Ashoka, the 3rd ruler in the Mauryan Dynasty.
Ashoka (ruled from 268 to 232 BCE)
As a young prince, Ashoka was a brilliant commander who crushed revolts. As monarch he was ambitious and aggressive, re-asserting the Empire’s superiority in southern and western India.
But it was his conquest of Kalinga which proved to be the pivotal event of his life. Although Ashoka’s army succeeded in overwhelming Kalinga forces of royal soldiers and civilian units, an estimated 100,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in the furious warfare, including over 10,000 of Ashoka’s own men. Hundreds of thousands of people were adversely affected by the destruction and fallout of war.
As he ventured out to roam the city, all Ashoka could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. After witnessing the devastation, he decided to embrace the teachings of Buddhism, and renounced war and violence.
We know far more about Ashoka because he left behind a fascinating record. He had edicts inscribed on rocks throughout the realm and on sandstone pillars erected in the Ganges heartland, He then placed them in populous areas where people usually gathered, so that his officials could read them to his largely illiterate subjects.
On one of these rocks it states Ashoka’s remorse over the Kalinga War:
“His Majesty felt remorse on account of the conquest of Kalinga because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death, and taking away captive of the people necessarily occur, whereas His Majesty feels profound sorrow and regret.”
In his edicts, he proclaimed to his subjects that the sound of the drum would be replaced by the sound of the dharma. In ancient India, dharma meant universal law. For the Brahmin priests, for example, dharma meant a society and religious order founded on Vedic principles and the caste system. For Buddhists, dharma consisted of the truths taught by the Buddha. For kings, dharma was enlightened governing and just rule. Thus, Ashoka was proclaiming that he would now rule by virtue, not force.
Ashoka’s kingly dharma was shaped by his personal practice of Buddhism. This dharma consisted of laws of ethical behavior and right conduct fashioned from Indian traditions of kingship and his understanding of Buddhist principles. To gain his subject’s willing obedience, he sought to inspire a sense of gratitude by presenting himself in the role of a father looking out for his children. He told his subjects that he was appointing officers to tour his realm and attend to the welfare and happiness of all. Justice was to be impartially administered and medical treatment provided for animals and humans.
Ashoka implemented principles of nonviolence by banning hunting and violent sports activity and ending indentured and forced labor (many thousands of people in war-ravaged Kalinga had been forced into hard labor and servitude). While he maintained a large and powerful army, to keep the peace and maintain authority, Ashoka expanded friendly relations with states across Asia and Europe, and he sponsored Buddhist missions. He undertook a massive public works building campaign across the country. Over 40 years of peace, harmony and prosperity made Ashoka one of the most successful and famous monarchs in Indian history. He remains an idealized figure of inspiration in modern India.
Ashoka was followed for 50 years by a succession of weaker kings and the empire lost many territories. Since loyalty to the ruler was one element of the glue that held the centralized bureaucracy together, weak kings may explain why the political leaders of provinces pulled away and the empire fragmented into smaller states. Furthermore, the Mauryan court’s demand for revenue sufficient to sustain the government and a large standing army may have contributed to discontent. In 184 BCE, the last king was assassinated by his own Brahmin military commander, and India’s first major imperial power came to an end.
Let’s review the history of India up to this point:
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Next: The Celts