The Maurya empire, an Iron Age historical power reigned the Indian subcontinent from 322 BC to 185 BC. The weaknesses of the last Nanda ruler of Magadha Empire paved the way for Chandragupta Maurya to establish his kingdom in Magadha. He overthrew the last Magadha king with the help of Chanakya and laid the foundation of Maurya Empire. Chanakya, also known as Kautilya was the political adviser and teacher of Chandragupta Maurya. It is said that Dhana Nanda, the last ruler of Magadha Empire once insulted Chanakya. As a repercussion of this, Kautilya advised Chandragupta to usurp the Nanda dynasty.
The Maurya Empire was a geographically extensive power in ancient India. It originated in the Indo-Gangetic plain in the eastern side of the Indian subcontinent. The capital of Maurya Empire was in Pataliputra(modern Patna) of present Bihar. Later on the area of Chandragupta’s kingdom expanded rapidly westward across central and eastern India. The empire stretched to the north along the Himalayas, to the east into Assam, to the west into Baluchistan and into the Hindu Kush mountains.
Rulers of the Mauryan Empire
We can take into account the names of three great rulers of the Maurya dynasty – Chandragupta Maurya, Bindusara and Ashoka. However other rulers like Dasharatha, Samprati, Shalisukha, Devavarman, Shatadhanvan and Brihadratha ruled the Maurya Empire. Brihadratha was the last Mauryan ruler. He lost his Kingdom to Pushyamitra Shunga in 185 BCE.
Chandragupta Maurya (322 BC – 298BC)
Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the Maurya dynasty. His name came to be known as Maurya because he was born of Mura, a shudra women. Mura was a worker in the court of the Nandas. However earlier buddhist traditions speak of the Mauryas as the ruling class of the republic of Pipphalivana in Gorakhpur.
Around 322 BC, Chanakya visited the Magadha kingdom, but the then king of Magadha, Dhana Nanda insulted him. In order to take revenge Kautilya advised Chandragupta to snatch the kingdom from Dhana Nanda. Using the advantage of oppressive and corrupt rule of Dhana Nanda, Chandragupta overthrew Dhana and took over the throne of Magadha. This was the start of the historical empire of the Mauryas. With Chanakya’s help and guidance Chandragupta expanded his kingdom westward across central and western India within a very short time.
It is worth-mentioning here that during the rise of Chandragupta, another great leader of that time Alexander the Great withdrew his army from the west. This led to some kind of disruption in local power. Taking this as an advantage Chandragupta left no stone unturned to expand his kingdom. By 320 BC, he occupied the Northwestern India along with the satraps left by Alexander.
Chandragupta liberated north-western India from Seleucus. He fought a war with the Greek and came out victorious. To bring peace in the region both the leaders reconciled with a peace treaty. Chandragupta received the daughter of Seleucus for marriage , 500 elephants, eastern Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and the areas west of the Indus from Seleucus. Selucus also sent Megasthenes as his ambassador to the court of Chandragupta.
Thus Chandragupta built a vast empire that includes areas of Bihar, Odisha, Bengal , parts of north-eastern India, western and north-western India, areas of the south, and the Deccan. The Maurya’s ruled over virtually the entire subcontinent.
Chandragupta’s political organization
Chandragupta was an autocratic king by nature. However, he is said to be a king with ideals in Arthashastra of Kautilya. According to Arthashastra , he stated that in the happiness of his subjects lay his happiness and in their troubles lay his troubles. A council of members noted for wisdom used to assist him in decision making.
The empire was divided into a number of provinces. The provinces were further divided into smaller units. A prince was assigned to rule each such provinces. The capital of the Mauryas, Pataliputra was administered by six committees. The central government controlled about 24 departments, which controlled the social and economic activities of the state. Chandragupta had a huge army. It is said that he maintained about 600,000 foot soldiers, 30,000 cavalrymen, 9000 elephants and 8000 chariots.
In 298 BCE Chandragupta Maurya was succeeded by his son Bindusara.
Bindusara(298BC – 272 BC)
In 298 BC Bindusara acquired the throne of Maurya kingdom from Chandragupta Maurya. Chanakya continued as a minister in Bindusara’s court. Bindusara appointed his eldest son Sumana as viceroy of Taxila and Ashoka that of Ujjain.
He continued his father’s expansionist policy and conquered the Deccan upto Mysore. Bindusara brought 16 states under the Maurya Empire. He conquered almost entire Indian Peninsula except some states in the south and Kalinga of Odisha. Bindusara is known to continue friendly relations with the Greeks established by his father. Dionysius, an ambassador of Egypt came to the court of Bindusara. After his death Ashoka succeeded the throne of Maurya Kindom.
Ashoka (272 BC – 232 BC)
Ashoka succeeded his father in around 272 BC. Many scholars stated that Ashoka was a very cruel person and he killed his 99 brothers to acquire the throne. He was the first king in India who has left his historical records engraved on stones. His history can be reconstructed on the basis of his inscriptions. There are many inscriptions classified into Major Rock Edicts, Minor Rock Edicts, Seperate Rock Edicts, Major Pillar Edicts, and Minor Pillar Edicts. Ashoka’s name has been found engraved in four Minor Rock Edicts. However his adopted title devanampiya piyadasi, occurs in several places.
Ashoka is known to have fought only one major war that turned out to be a turning point of his life. He won the Kalinga war where 100,000 people were killed, several lakhs died, and 150,000 were taken prisoners. The war brought great sufferings to the brahmana priests and buddhist monks, and this in turn filed Ashoka’s heart with grief and remorse. He therefore changed his ideology from bherighosha to dhammaghosha.
After the Kalinga war, Ashoka became a changed emperor with a policy not to occupy in favour of cultural conquest but to follow the path of dharma while ruling his subjects. He even asked his tribal subjects to follow the priciples of dhamma(dharma). He no longer treated foreign dominions as legitimate areas of millitary conquest. In the later part of his life he got converted to Buddhism and became a monk. Ashoka brought about political unification of the country. He bounded the country by one dharma, one language, and virtually one script called Brahmi.
Ashoka retired in 232 BC and handed over his kingdom to Dasharatha.
Dasaratha Maurya (232 BC – 224 BC)
Dasaratha was the grand son Ashoka. He succeeded as the imperial ruler of India in 232 BC. He actually ruled a declining imperium after the death of Ashoka. During Dasaratha’s reign several territories started breaking away from the central rule. All the distant governments like the areas in the south broke away and reasserted their independence. The provinces of Surashtra, Maharastra, Andhra, Mysore and even the Mahameghavahana dynasty of Kalinga broke away from imperial rule. Dasaratha died in 224 BC and was succeeded by his brother Samprati.
Samprati(224 BC – 215 BC)
Samprati is said to have ruled from 224 BC to 215 BC. He was another grandson of Ashoka. During his rule he succeeded to regain the provinces of Surashtra, Maharashtra, Andhra and the Mysore region that broke away from the empire shortly after Ashoka’s death.
Some other ruler’s of the Maurya Empire were Shalisukha, Devavarman, Shatadhanvan and Brihadratha. After the death of Ashoka, the Maurya Empire started declining and reached to an end when one of it’s general assassinated the last Mauryan emperor Brihadratha in 185 BC. The new successor of the kingdom was Pushyamitra Shungha. He killed Brihadratha and founded the Shunga dynasty.
Features of Maurya Empire
Administration and Polity
The king was the head of the Mauryan administration. He used to issue ordinances called ‘Sasana’. The king was assisted by a council of ministers called the ‘Mantriparishad‘. There were officers in charge of various sections of the administrations. Rajukas were the officer in charge of land measurement and Yukta that of revenue. The pradeshika was the head of the district administration. The village head was known as Gramika.
In the Mauryan empire most of the functionaries were paid in cash. The mantrins(minister), purohits(high preist), senapatis(commamder-in- chief) and yuvaraja(princess) were paid as high as 48,000 panas., while lower official were paid only 10 -60 panas.
The administration of the Maurya’s was backed by an elaborate system of espionage. A good and well placed network of spies used to collect intelligence report about enemies(foreign or local) and kept eyes on the officials.
According to Arthashastra of Kautilya, there were twenty-seven superintendents to regulate the economic activities of the state. They controlled and regulated agriculture, trade and commerce, crafts mining and the like.
Most of the people were farmers and lived in villages. A wide range of crops like rice, wheat, sesame, pepper, saffron, mustard, linseed, vegetables, fruits etc were cultivated by them. The state constructed water reservoirs and dams for agricultural activities. Irrigation facilities were provided by the state for the benefits of the farmers. The state helped the subjects to bring new areas under agriculture to produce surplus crops.
Arthasashtra quoted that slaves were employed in the agricultural fields during the Maurya period. However, Megasthenes did not notice any slaves in India. But it seems that about 150,000 prisoners brought by Ashoka from Kalinga to Pataliputra may have been engaged in agriculture.
Trade and Commerce
During the rule of Ashoka, the Mauryans developed an International network of trade. The Khyber Pass was one of the strategically important point of trade with foreign land. The main trading partners were the Greek and the Hellinic Kingdoms. The states of southeast Asia were also connected to Maurya kingdom through the Malay Pass.
There was an efficient tax machinery for assessment, collection and storage during the Maurya rule.Different types of taxes like the land tax, toll tax, manufacturing tax etc were collected from artisans, traders and peasants. The samaharta was the highest officer in charge of assessment and collection. The sannidhata was the chief custodian of the state treasury and storehouse.
The imperial currency of the Mauryas was the punch-marked silver and copper coins. The coins were engraved with the symbols of peacock and crescented hill. Besides the punch-marked silver and copper coins, cast copper coins and die-struck coins were also issued.
Art and Architecture
According to Megasthenes, the Mauryas had great contribution to art and architecture. Mauryan artisans achieved high technical skill in carving out pillars and stumps from fragments of stone. They were experts in polishing stone structures and turn them into shiny surfaces. The erection of polished stone pillars throughout India shows the superior technical knowledge of the Mauryans in converting single stone into beautiful structures.
Besides these, hand modeled terracottas were produced on a large scale during Maurya era. They generally represented animals and women. Some exemplary examples that portrays the art and architecture of Mauryans are-the remains of the Maurya palace at Pataliputra, 84-pillared hall at Kumrahar on the outskirt of patna, Ashoka’s pillars, the rock cut Barabar caves near Gaya and the stone statue of Yakshini in the form of beautiful women found in Didarganj, Patna.
The Mauryan period saw a rapid development of material culture especially in the Gangetic plains. The material culture was basically based on an intensive use of iron, the prevalence of writing, punch-marked coins, pottery called Northern Black polished ware, the introduction of burnt bricks and ring wells and the existence of towns in north-eastern India. Due to access of iron ores of south Bihar, people used more and more iron. Some iron implements like the socketed axes, hoes, spades, sickles and ploughshares were all made of iron. Besides these the spoked wheel also came into existence in that period.
Causes of the Fall of Maurya Empire
The Maurya empire was such a large and powerful empire that one might not foresee such a kingdom disintegrating in the future. The empire had seen the start of it’s fall after the exit of Ashoka in 232 BC. The rulers after Ashoka could not continue the uprise of their kingdom as their forefathers did. Though the actual cause cannot be known, the historians have given several views in this regard.
The Maurya’s had maintained a large army. They had to spent a huge amount of money in the salaries of the bureaucrats and the soldiers. Despite imposition of taxes on the people, those were not sufficient to meet the expenses of such a huge superstructure. So financial crisis may be one of the factors in the fall of the kingdom.
Oppressive rule may be one of the factors behind the fall of the empire. It is reported that oppressive rule from the side of the bureaucrats were prominent from the days of Bindusara. He had to appoint Ashoka to control the wicked bureaucrats. However the same problem was prevalent during the rule of Ashoka too. Ashoka had to ask his officers not to tyrannize the people without any reason. He used to rotate the duties of officers in Taxila, Ujjain and Tosali. But no strategy could stop such oppressions on the common people.
The Maurya empire produced only three rulers with exceptional leadership qualities. Chandragupta Maurya, Bimbisara and Ashoka expanded their kingdom and added new glories to their title. However later Mauryan leaders proved to be incapable of handling the mighty kingdom. Because of these nearby provinces started moving away from the imperial rule and formed new states. This led to disintegration of the Maurya empire.
Vastness of the kingdom
The total area of Maurya empire was very vast. It included areas of Bihar, Odisha, Bengal , parts of north-eastern India, western and north-western India, areas of the south, and the Deccan. They also ruled in eastern Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and the areas west of the Indus. So literally controlling such a large area through a centralized form of government was a mammoth task. The rulers after Ashoka were too weak to handle such a large kingdom. They lacked in strategy to rule the entire empire from the centre.
Formation of Independent provinces
The administrations of Chandragupta, Bimbisara or Ashoka had very good strategies of ruling the provinces that were gained through expansion. But after Ashoka’s death, power in the centre started to lose. Insufficient power and weak authority on the provinces helped the rulers to gain authority over their provinces and finally they declared themselves as independent states.
The policies of Ashoka were contrasting with that of Bramanas. Ashoka, especially after the Kalinga war had laid down certain policies that were clearly against the principles of the Brahmanas. He issued his edicts in Prakrit and not in Sanskrit. Ashoka porihibited hunting or killing of any living thing. He was against the tradition of sacrifice in pujas of deities. Ashoka did not allow discrimination based on varnas. These steps made the Brahmanas unhappy and they got infuriated. In 185 BC the Maurya empire was destroyed by a brahmana Pushyamitra Shunga.
Spread of Knowledge in the Outlying Areas
The kingdoms that rose in the ancient time were basically based on certain advantages of new knowledges. The Magadha kingdom rose along the Ganga Basin as they learnt to use the nature in their favour. For example they were capable of using the materials like iron ore to manufacture weapons. The Mauryan people along with iron, used coins made of copper or silver, construted stone structures etc.
With the expansion of the kingdom, the knowledge of material culture also spread simultaneously. These ignited the minds of people in the adjacent areas or provinces to use material culture in their favour and establish new kingdoms themselves.
Neglect of North-West Frontier
Ashoka after Kalinga war was deeply engaged with missionary activities. He paid little attention to the passes of north-western frontier. These passes posed serious danger to the settled kingdoms in India. The Greeks that settled their kingdom in north Afghanistan invaded India through the north-western fronteir in 206 BC.
Internal revolt can be regarded as one of the major factor for final dismantling of the Maurya kingdom. Taking advantage of the weak ruler, internal revolt started evolving under the leadership of the commander-in-chief of Maurya army Pushyamitra Shunga. Finally around 185 BC he killed his king Brihadratha with the help of his army and took over the throne of the Maurya empire. Thus Pushyamitra Shunga established the Shunga dynasty.