In this article we will discuss about the causes of the downfall of the Maurya empire and the responsibility of Asoka towards it.
Scholars have expressed different opinions regarding the downfall of the Mauryas and some of them have put the blame on Asoka.
According to the view of one school of writers the religious policy of Asoka was primarily responsible for it. Dr Har Prasad Sastri states that Asoka’s patronage of Buddhism, his disregard to ritualism and sacrifices, his appointment of Dhamma-mahamatras and deliberate humiliation of the Brahamanas, the framing of law s by the Sudra Maurya rulers (as Brahamanas regarded them), etc. gave rise to a reaction which was carried to success by the Brahamana commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra.
But this view is not accepted by majority of scholars. There is no adequate ground to believe that Asoka ill-treated the Brahamanas, and there is also no evidence that the Brahamanas unitedly rose against the Mauryas. Asoka pursued no policy against the Brahamanas. On the contrary, there are sufficient references in his stone-inscriptions which prove that Asoka respected the Brahamanas and gave them donations.
The appointment of Pushyamitra as commander of the Maurya-army also is a proof that the Maurya rulers were not anti-Brahamanas. Pushyamitra acted neither as the leader of the Brahamanas nor that of the general public. He was the Commander-in-Chief of the army and he utilised his position to seize the throne from his weak king. There is no evidence of a popular revolt because-of any reaction of the Brahamanas.
Another school of historians points out that the basic cause of the downfall of the Maurya Empire was Asoka’s policy of Ahimsa or non-violence which reduced the martial spirit of soldiers and thereby, the fighting strength of the army which, ultimately, made it incapable to fight against the Greek invaders or suppress the revolts of provincial governors. Dr H.C. Raychaudhary has supported this view.
He argues that the military weakness of the Mauryas made them incapable not only of facing foreign aggressions but also of making the governors of the provinces responsible-for good administration which resulted in revolts of the people at various places.
Therefore, it weakened the empire and led to its downfall. But this view has also not been accepted by the majority of historians. Of course, Asoka’s policy of non-violence must have adversely affected the morale of the army of the Mauryas and therefore, partly contributed to the downfall of the empire. But, it was not the primary cause. We do not find any evidence to justify that Asoka had reduced the strength of the army or had reduced the fear of law and punishment amongst his subjects.
Therefore, the policies of Asoka can not be regarded as primarily responsible for the downfall of the Mauryas even though these contributed to it partly.
According to Dr Kosambi, the primary cause of the downfall of the Maurya Empire was its financial weakness. The Mauryas had a vast empire and it was maintained with the help of a large army and bureaucracy which meant huge expenditure by the state. The Mauryas put heavy financial burden on their subjects in the form of taxes to meet the ever-growing expenditure of the state.
Yet, they could not succeed in their attempt and were forced to issue coins of inferior metal. All this affected agriculture, trade and commerce adversely bringing about hardships to the people and financial insolvency to the state. Thus, the financial difficulties both of the rulers and the ruled brought about the downfall of the empire.
But the view of Dr Kosambi is also not acceptable to the majority of modern historians who largely accept that both the rulers and the ruled were economically prosperous during this period and therefore, economic problems were not primarily responsible for the downfall of the empire.
Though, of course, many among them have opined that, during the later Mauryas, the economic conditions had definitely deteriorated. Even Emperor Asoka participated in increasing the financial burden of the state. Asoka kept a large standing army though there remained no use of it because he had stopped aggressive wars. He also appointed several other officials and, thus, increased the strength of bureaucracy which meant additional financial burden to the state.
He also spent huge amount of money on public welfare schemes as well. Thus, Asoka added burden to the state treasury without increasing resources of the state. That must have adversely affected the strength of the state and weakened it during the rule of his successors.
Dr Romila Thapar puts forth another view. She argues that the highly centralized bureaucracy and the absence of the ideal of one state or that of one nation were responsible for the downfall of the Mauryas. She writes, “The decline of the Maury an empire cannot be satisfactorily explained by quoting military inactivity, brahamana resentment, popular uprising, or economic pressure. The causes were far more fundamental and included a much wider perspective of Mauryan life than any of those mentioned above.”
She contends that the success of the Mauryas depended on the efficiency and loyalty of a highly centralized and most extensive bureaucracy but they failed to find out proper means for he employment of the members of such a bureaucracy which could be both efficient and loyal.
There were no representative assemblies at that time and no attempt was made to separate the executive and the judiciary. Thus, there was no difference between the state and the emperor and everything depended on the power and capacity of the emperor.
Therefore, such a system was bound to fail. Besides, there were wide economic and cultural differences amongst the subjects which were detrimental to the ideas of one nation or state. Therefore, she concludes, “The causes of the decline of the Mauryas must in large part be attributed to a top heavy administration where authority was entirely in the hands of a few persons and an absence of any national consciousness.”
The argument of Dr Thapar seems to be perfectly logical from the point of view of an historian, who is conscious of ideas and circumstances of the modern age. Yet, we have to think that national consciousness is a modern concept and it could not be expected from the people of that age in their specific circumstances.
It was also not possible to have representative bodies of the subjects at that time. Therefore, there was no alternative to the personal rule of a king or that of a centralized bureaucracy. Therefore, it seems difficult to accept the absence of national consciousness and a centralized bureaucracy to be the primary causes of the downfall of the Mauryas.
Dr R.K. Mookherjee has taken a practical view in analysing the causes of the downfall of the Mauryas. He draws parallels and says that empires rose and fell in India both before and after the Mauryas and there were certain natural causes at work in all these causes. All empires up to the medieval period in India broke up due to, more or less, the same causes and the Maurya empire proved no exception.
He says that weak successors, the spirit of local autonomy which resulted in repeated revolts by provincial governors, lack of means of communications, oppressive rule of local chiefs, palace-intrigues and treachery of officials, remained some of the general causes of the downfall of different empires in India.
And, so was the case with the Mauryas. Dr Romila Thapar also agrees that the division of the empire between Kunal and Dasarath after the death of Asoka, the ambitions of different princes to acquire state power and rebellions of different provincial governors certainly contributed to the downfall of the Mauryas. Therefore, it is accepted by the majority of historians that the breakup of the Maurya empire was mostly because of these causes and Asoka was only partly responsible for it.