With the rise of the Mauryas to power, India entered into a splendid and glorious epoch of her history.
For the first time, almost the whole of India became united as a great empire and came under one imperial administration. For the first time also, the political power of India was felt by the foreign powers outside with the victory of Indian forces over them.
It was not merely the military power of the Mauryas which made India great, but her subsequent moral role in spreading the Indian religion and culture outside which made her greater still.
The civilizing mission of the third Maurya, Asoka,opened a new chapter in the history of Asian civilisation, and prepared path for the spread of Buddhism far across the frontiers of India.
Under three great emperors of the Maurya dynasty, India enjoyed a strong and sound administration as well as a phase of peace and prosperity. There was a tremendous cultural upsurge in various spheres, such as, religion, philosophy, literature and architecture which made the epoch memorable. The legacies of the Maurya age continued to influence the Indian thought for a long time to come.
The Maurya period was rich in sources of history, both Indian and foreign, literary and epigraphic. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, though the identity of its author as well as the time of its writing remains disputed, provides much information about the Mauryan state.
The Indika of Megasthenes, though lost in its original form, and its extracts available only in fragments in the accounts of other Western classical writers, gives invaluable information about the Indian affairs of that time. The accounts of the foreign writers, and the inscriptions of Asoka throw much light on the time of the Mauryas. History appears in bright shape and chronological order becomes well established.
From every point of view, the age of the Mauryas was an age by itself. Rightly does V.A. Smith sum up the character of the age, saying:
“The advent of the Mauryan dynasty marks the passage from darkness to light for the historian. Chronology suddenly becomes definite, almost precise; a huge empire springs into existence, unifying the innumerable fragments of distracted India, the Kings who may be described with justice as Emperors, are men of renown, outstanding personalities whose qualities can be discerned, albeit dimly, through the mists of time; gigantic worldwide religious movements are initiated, of which the effects are still felt; and the affairs of secluded India are brought into close touch with those of the outer world.”
The Origin of the Mauryas (Moriya in Pali):
The ancestry of the first Maurya Emperor, Chandragupta, is shrouded in mystery. Because, different literary sources give different accounts of the origin of the Mauryas. The earliest account of the Mauryas is derived from the ancient Buddhist text, Mahaparinirvana sutta.
This most ancient text describes the Moriyas as Kshatriyas, ruling over a small territory named Pippalivana, situated between Buddha’s birth place and the place of his death, namely Kusinagara. As early as 6th century B.C. the Moriyas ruled over Pippalivana and belonged to the clan of the Sakyas to which Buddha himself belonged. Chandragupta is said to have come from that clan which was under the Nanda rule in 4th century B.C.
According to Jaina tradition, Chandragupta was the son of a daughter of the head of a village of Mayura Poshaka or the peacock tamers or peacock breeders. The Mayura or peacock was dear to the Maurya dynasty as is known from the Mauryan sculptures. Coming from among the Mayura Poshaka people, Chandragupta carried the dynastic name of Maurya.
The Classical Greek and Latin writers also refer to the origin of the Mauryas, though indirectly. According to Justin, Chandragupta ‘was of humble origin’. This obviously meant that the founder of the Maurya dynasty did not come of any royal family.
The famous Sanskrit writer of a later time, Visakhadatta, described Chandragupta in his drama Mudrarakshasa as Mauryaputra or the son of Maurya. But, the name Maurya of that drama has been interpreted by some later commentators as coming from the name Mura, the daughter of a Sudra. Similarly, the commentators of the Vishnu Purana describe that Chandragupta was the son of a Nanda King by a wife named Mura. These sources being of very late origin, and not historical in character, are rejected as of no value.
The Buddhist sources being the earliest, the accounts contained in them are taken as genuine. In one such source the Mauryas are described as the Kshatriyas of the Solar race by virtue of their being connected with the Sakya clan. Interestingly enough, some medieval inscriptions also refer to the Mauryas as of the Solar race. In spite of diverse accounts, it is historically reasonable to believe that Chandragupta Maurya came from the Moriyas of Pippalivana.