Not only Chandragupta Maurya was a great conqueror and an able empire-builder, but also he was one of the strongest administrators the history of India saw.
His administrative system, later on modified by a humane touch of Ashoka, provided ample proof that the ancient Indian monarchy and polity were the products of wise statesmanship and practical considerations.
Luckily enough a clear picture of that administration is derived from two most important sources of history, namely, Kautilya’s Arthasastra and the Indika of Megasthenes which has survived in fragments in shape of extracts in the writings of other classical writers. Some scholars suggest that the Arthasastra was written at a much later time.
Some even doubt if Kautilya was the real author of that work. But, traditions associate the name of Chanakya or Kautilya with the name of Chandragupta so closely, that their names are almost inseparable in that great enterprise of empire making. The deep-rooted tradition, resting on several literary sources, has also shown Chanakya as the Prime Minister of the Maurya Empire. There are reasonable evidences to show that Chanakya lived in the time of Chandragupta, and in his other name of Kautilya, was the author of Arthasastra.
A great work such as Arthasastra could have been only the work of a vastly wise and practically experienced man like Kautilya. In ages to follow, other writers might have added something more on the body of the original Arthasastra to create doubt about its actual time. Similarly, Kautilya’s omission of some essential names of the time might have been for the fact that he was writing the Arthasastra not to describe the Mauryan polity, but as a standard guideline for all rulers and states of all times.
From the Arthasastra, and the accounts of the Greek writers, and from other historical sources, the system of the Maurya administration, as under Chandragupta, had been more or less ascertained. The following were the important features of the Maurya administration.
The Maurya king was the head of the State and of the administration as in most ancient monarchies. The Nanda kings before Chandragupta were powerful monarchs. The legacy of that power continued. But, under new conditions, Chandragupta’s kingship had to rest on greater powers.
The kings of ancient India under Hindu polity enjoyed limited power. They ruled in accordance with the principles of Dharma, social customs and usages. They worked as the guardians of the Law, but were not the law-givers themselves. But in Chandragupta’s time monarchy assumed a new character. According to Kautilya: “Dharma, contract, custom and royal decree are the four legs of law. Of these, each later item is of superior validity to its predecessor.” This means that the King’s order or decree was above all other forms of Law.
The earlier kings before the Maurya era ruled over small kingdoms. Chandragupta ruled over a vast empire. The empire contained many types of people with different social customs and usages. It was necessary, therefore, that the king should become the fountain-source of Law and of the unity of administration. It was the size of the empire which made the kingship of Chandragupta more powerful. The king was the centre of a great administrative system, and was required to shoulder huge responsibilities.
Though the king was absolute in power, yet he did not claim divinity like the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt or even like Alexander the Great who asked his generals and soldiers to believe that he was the son of the Greek God Zeus. At the best, the Maurya monarch, especially Asoka, could claim himself as Devanam-priya or the Beloved of the Gods.
With unlimited powers, the Maurya king nevertheless followed the moral principle of ancient Indian kingship that ” In the happiness of his subjects lies the happiness of the king; in their good is his own good, and not in what is pleasing to him. He must find his pleasure in the pleasure of his subjects.”
The king, according to Kautilya, was the government itself. He appointed his ministers, priests, officers and servants. The king was required to trust nobody, and, therefore, he was to employ spies to know about the conduct of the officers and of the people. The Maurya intelligence department was thorough and efficient, with its network of secret informers everywhere.
It is known both from Kautilya, and Megasthenes that the Maurya administration paid highest attention to the safety of the person of the king. Whenever the king went out of the palace, the routes of his journey were guarded by armed forces. Kautilya describes the safety measures which were adopted both inside and outside the palace.
The king’s food was tasted by a number of persons before it was served to him to avoid the risk of poisoning. Even the king’s dresses and ornaments were checked and inspected by trusted maid-servants before use. Megasthenes informs that Chandragupta Maurya was guarded inside the palace by women body guards. To avoid attacks on life, the king slept in different rooms in different nights. The king lived in pomp and splendour. He was carried in golden palanquins and used richly decorated elephants while going out on hunting.
The King’s Palace and the Capital Administration:
The palace of Chandragupta Maurya symbolised the wealth and power of his empire. According to the Greek sources, the splendour of the palace of Pataliputra excelled that of the Persian palaces of Susa and Ekbatana. ” The palace is adorned with gilded pillars clasped all round with a vine embossed in gold, while silver images of those birds which most charm the eye diversify the workmanship.”
There were a number of apartments for the king, members of his family, bodyguards and archers, kinsmen and ministers, and the armed soldiers. Centuries after, the Chinese traveller Fa-hien saw the Maurya palace in excellent condition and beauty, and could not believe that it was built by human beings. He wrote: ” The King’s palace in the city, with its various halls, all built by spirits who piled up stones, constructed walls and gates, carved, designed, engraved and inlaid, after no human fashion, is still in existence.” The capital of the Maurya Empire, Pataliputra, was the centre of the imperial administration. It was build at the confluence of the two rivers, the Ganges and the Sone.
Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta described the capital in the following words:
“At the Junction of this river (Ganges) with another is situated Palibothra, a city of eighty stadia (14.72 kilometers) in length and fifteen stadia (2.72 kilometers) in breadth. It is of a shape of a parallelogram and is girded with a wooden wall, pierced with loopholes for the discharge of arrows. It has a ditch in front for defence and for receiving the sewage of the city. This ditch, which encompassed it all round, is 600 feet in breadth and 30 cubits in depth, and the wall is crowned with 570 towers and has four and sixty gates.”
The capital, being the headquarters of the entire central government, required a special administration of its own. The Greek ambassador Megasthenes, who spent his time there, left behind him a vivid picture of that administration. The city of Pataliputra was in charge of a Commission with 30 members.
They were divided into 6 Boards of 5 members in each board. Collectively, all the members worked like a Municipal Body to manage the affairs of the capital. Separately, the 6 Boards were in charge of six separate departments, such as, industrial affairs and wages, foreigners, births and deaths, trade and commerce, manufactures, and the collection of taxes.
The Structure of Central Administration:
The central administration of the Mauryas represented a comprehensive system. “Administration cannot be work of one man, just as one wheel cannot drive a chariot.” says Kautilya. It was necessary, therefore, that the king should depend on the advice of the ministers or Mantrins, and the help of state officers or Amatyas. Kautilya prescribed four tests for the officers for fitness for employment, namely, fear, virtue, wealth and law.
Evidences show that Chandragupta ruled with the advice of a Council of Ministers or Mantri Parishad. The size of the council, as recommended by Kautilya, could be only three or four, or as many as the king required according to his need. The number of the state officials or Amatyas could be much more.
The central administration was divided into several departments. Kautilya mentions of a large number of departments which looked after such important subjects as Revenue, Exchequer, Stores, Armoury, prisons, Accounts, Agriculture, Mines, Metals, Mint, Salt, Forests, Cattle, Pastures, Passports, Shipping, Ports, Commerce, Trade-routes, Customs, Frontiers, Excise, Weights and Measures, Spinning and Weaving, Religious institutions, and Intelligence Service, etc. The department of finance was given greater attention since, according to Kautilya, “All undertakings depend upon finance. Hence, foremost attention shall be paid to the Treasury.” The rich were required to pay more as a matter of principle.
The Mantri Parishad conducted its business in all seriousness. The king and even the provincial viceroys consulted the ministers in matters of administration. There was a secretary in charge of the office of the ministers, known as the Mantri-Parishad- Adhyaksha.
It was the work of the central government of discharge welfare duties for the benefit of the unemployed, widows, destitute and orphans, and even of musicians and dancers. There were elaborate functions for the department of works and construction all over the empire.
The Maurya Empire possessed a large army. In the days of Chandragupta, it contained 6, 00,000 infantry, 30,000 horsemen, 36,000 men for elephants, and 24,000 men for chariots. The total number of the fighting force thus came to nearly 6, 90,000, besides many thousands of helpers and attendants. The empire required this big army to maintain internal peace and to face external threats.
This army required a sound system of management. Megasthenes, who observed the Maurya military power from close quarters, left an account of its administration. According to him, there was a War-Office or War Council having 30 members, divided into 6 Boards of 5 members each. The army was divided into six departments each under the control of one Board. The six departments were (1) The Infantry, (2) The Cavalry, (3) The War-Chariots, (4) The War-Elephants, (5) The War-Transport, and (6) The Fleet.
From Kautilya’s accounts it is known that the army was accompanied to the battle fronts by troops of doctors and nurses with medicines, healing oils, surgical instruments and bandages to treat the wounded and give confidence to the fighting soldiers.
The Arthasastra mentions that the entire army worked under the control of the Senapati or the commander-in-chief. This supreme commander was required to be in possession of necessary military qualification to run the army and conduct battles. There were other army officers of rank next to the Senapati. Among them were the Prasasta, the Nayaka, and the Mukhya.
In battles, the soldiers, elephants and horses were all protected by defensive armour. The soldiers were arranged in squads of ten, companies of hundred, and battalions of thousand men in each. The elephants and chariots usually carried the archers. Various arms like big swords, spears and javelins, and bows and arrows were used, besides some advanced weapons like the Sataghni or the ‘Slayer of a hundred’.
Chandragupta Maurya, as the ruler of a great empire, made the administration of justice thorough. The Law was binding on all and carried the fear of punishment for the breakers of Law.
At the top of the judicial system were the king as the highest court of appeal, and the king’s court. Kautilya defined the duty of the king as a judge in the following way: “He shall, therefore, personally attend to the business of gods, of heretics, of Brahmanas learned in the Vedas, of cattle, of sacred places, of minors, the aged, the afflicted, the helpless, and of women, all this in order or according to the urgency or pressure of those works. All urgent calls he shall hear to once.”
There were smaller courts of justice right from the village tribunals at the bottom. The village headman and the village elders usually looked into smaller disputes within their local areas.
The higher courts were of two kinds, civil and criminal. The civil courts were termed as the Dharmasthiya courts. The criminal courts were called the Kantakasodhana courts (removel of thorns or dangers). In the first category of courts, three Amatyas worked as the judges, assisted by three learned Brahmins. These courts dealt with such cases of dispute as on marriage, divorce, dowry, inheritance of property, houses, lands, boundaries, contracts, debts, etc. An appeal could be taken on any judgment to the court of the king.
The criminal courts worked under three Amatyas, assisted by a number of spies and agents. These courts tried traitors to the country, political offenders, and harmful officers. They also tried murderers, thieves, violators of Law, bandits, cheats, and criminals.
The Maurya system of punishment was severe. Methods of torture could be applied to get confessions. There were various types of punishment depending on the nature of the crime. Fines, forced labour, whipping, mutilation, and execution were included in the chart of punishment. Kautilya refers to a number of prevailing modes of torture, and suggests that “Those whose guilt is believed to be true shall be subjected to torture.”
The newly built empire demanded of the people their fear for Law and justice. Chandragupta had to create a respect for the state and the government by his judicial system. It was in the time of Asoka that much of the severity of administration was reduced, and a paternal disposition towards the subjects was worked out.
The extensive Maurya Empire was divided into some big provinces. The administration of the provinces was placed either in hands of governors or the princes of the royal house acting as viceroys, and called as Kumaras.
The exact number of the provinces at the time of Chandragupta is not known. The Asokan Inscriptions refer to the headquarters of some provinces. They were Kausambi, Ujjayini, Takshasila, Suvarnagiri, and Tosali. Since Kalinga with its capital Tosali was the only territory conquered by Asoka, it is most probable that except Tosali the other four places were the provincial capitals of Chandragupta’s empire.
It is also probable that there could have been some more provinces, but not mentioned. The Junagadh Inscription of Rudradaman mentions that Saurashtra was governed by Pushyagupta as a Rashtriya under Chandragupta Maurya. That area could have been an administrative unit like a proving.
The Maurya province was administered by several classes of officials. Among them were the Pradesikas. Some historians regard them as revenue officers with police functions. According to some others, they were in charge of the divisions of a province. Some even regard them as provincial governors.
It is obvious that provinces were administered according to the directions from the centre. By the time of Asoka, the provincial administration became more elaborate for the welfare of the people.
The provinces were divided into districts or Janapadas, having their administrative officers.
The Village Administration:
The Indian villages from time immemorial managed their internal affairs in a smooth and orderly manner. At the time of Chandragupta the same traditional village system continued. Every village had a headman named usually as the Gramika. He was assisted by the village elders in looking to the disputes among villagers and keeping peace in the village. They enjoyed the confidence of the people because of their impartiality and devotion to truthful deeds. The village headman was not an officer of the government, but was the chosen leader of the villagers. A number of villages also formed themselves into groups under a superior headman called Gopa. Many villages constituted a Janapada managed by state officers.
Thus that India under Chandragupta Maurya enjoyed a strong and sound administration based on valid principles, systematic organisation and the rule of Law. No doubt the king was the chief executive, the supreme law-maker and the fountain of justice, yet he was only the head of a governmental structure which stood on the foundations of ancient traditions and the needs of the time.
Death of Chandragupta Maurya:
The Jaina traditions of a later time maintain that Chandragupta, in the later part of his political career, renounced his kingdom, abdicated the throne in favour of his son, and became a Jaina monk. Thereupon he proceeded to the far south, and lived at a place named Sravana Belgola. There, after a few years, he invited death by starvation in accordance with the extreme Jaina method to attain salvation.
Chandragupta ruled for twenty-four years. He was succeeded by his son Bindusara in about the year 299 B.C.
An Estimate of Chandragupta Maurya:
Chandragupta Maurya was one of the greatest and most successful rulers of Indian history. As a hero, a soldier, a conqueror, an empire- builder, and an administrator he earned his distinction for greatness. His rise was timely when India needed a deliverer of her frontier territories from the yoke of foreign servitude. Rising from humble origin and while in his youth, he could defy and offend no less a man than Alexander the Great in his own camp. By extraordinary will and efforts he could organise an army to drive out the Greeks and to overthrow the Nanda monarchy. No mere adventurer, he was capable enough to build up the first great Indian empire, and one of the strongest empires of all history.
He conquered far and wide to give to geographical India a political unity. Unlike Alexander, he conquered to consolidate. In that work of consolidation he proved himself one of the ablest of administrators. He was indeed the first Chakravarti King of India from the Himalayas to the seas.
His victory over Seleukos Nikator proved the superiority of the Indian army under him over the armies of the West. He was the rare Indian monarch to rule over territories outside the geographical frontiers of India which he so defended and organised that his successors ruled over them without threat to their power
By giving India a strong dynasty, he opened a new era in the annals of his country. It was an era of greatness and glory, marked with the high tide of political and cultural resurgence.
The legacies left by this first Indian emperor influenced the future in a substantial way. To unite India in the Maurya way became the political goal of succeeding empire-builders and their dynasties in times of disintegration and decay.
More than two thousand years after Chandragupta Maurya, when the Western Orientalists in nineteenth century identified his name with the name Sandrocottus of the description of the Western classical historians and writers, the imagination of the educated Indian youth was stirred to a sense of pride at the heroic deeds of India’s earliest great emperor. The history of his greatness inspired patriotism and nationalism in the mind of the modern Indians in an age of foreign domination when India was gaining national consciousness to shake off the alien yoke.
Accounts of Megasthenes on Indian People:
The Greek ambassador Megasthenes had many words of praise for the Indian people in general. He saw the population divided into seven classes, with the philosophers forming the highest class and enjoying the highest honour, though small in their number. He saw the Indian ascetics who “live in the forests on leaves of trees and wild fruits and wear garments made from the bark of the trees. They do not also marry.” These people among the philosopher class were the most honoured and respected.
The Indians laid great emphasis on truth and virtue. Theft was rare in the society. The people lived a simple and happy life. They did not drink liquor except in religious sacrifices.
Megasthenes appreciated the simplicity of the laws of India. The people very seldom went to the law courts.
The general condition of the people was prosperous. They used costly and comfortable dresses. They wanted to appear handsome and beautiful.
Megasthenes also refers to weakness of the Indian people. One such weakness was that they married many wives. The Indian families were big, with many children. There was also the caste seclusion. Nobody could marry outside his own caste.
The social conditions of the Maurya period are known from such accounts, though the information are scanty. Had Indika survived, much could have been known about the Indian society of that time.