The Maurya dynasty was founded by Chandragupta Maurya, who seems to have belonged to an ordinary family.
According to the brahmanical tradition, he was born of Mura, a shudra woman in the court of the Nandas.
However, an earlier Buddhist tradition speaks of the Mauryas as the ruling clan of the little republic of Pipphalivana in the region of Gorakhpur near the Nepalese terai.
In all likelihood, Chandragupta was a member of this clan. He took advantage of the Nandas in the last days of their rule. With the help of Chanakya, who is known as Kautilya, he overthrew the Nandas and established the rule of the Maurya dynasty. The machinations of Chanakya against Chandragupta’s enemies are described in detail in the Mudrarakshasa, a play written by Vishakhadatta in the ninth century. In modern times, several plays have been based on it.
Justin, a Greek writer, says that Chandragupta overran the whole of India with an army of 600,000. This may or may not be true, but Chandragupta liberated north-western India from the thraldom of Seleucus, who ruled over the area west of the Indus. In the war with the Greek viceroy, Chandragupta seems to have emerged victorious. Eventually peace was concluded between the two, and in return for 500 elephants, Seleucus gave him not only his daughter but also eastern Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and the area west of the Indus.
Chandragupta thus built up a vast empire which included not only Bihar and substantial parts of Orissa and Bengal but also western and north-western India, and the Deccan. Aside from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and parts of north-eastern India, the Mauryas ruled over virtually the entire subcontinent. In the north-west, they held sway over certain areas that did not even form part of the British empire. The Mauryas also conquered the republics or samghas which Kautilya considered obstacles to the growth of the empire.
The Mauryas organized a very elaborate system of administration. We know about this from the account of Megasthenes and the Arthashastra of Kautilya. Megasthenes was a Greek ambassador sent by Seleucus to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. He lived in the Maurya capital of Pataliputra and wrote an account not only of the administration of the city of Pataliputra but also of the Maurya empire as a whole. Megasthenes’s account does not survive in full, but quotations from it occur in the works of several subsequent Greek writers. These fragments have been collected and published in the form of a book entitled Indika, which throws valuable light on the administration, society, and economy of Maurya times.
Megasthenes’s account can be supplemented by the Arthashastra of Kautilya. Although the Arthashastra was finally compiled a few centuries after Maurya rule, some of its books contain material that provides authentic information about the Maurya administration and economy. These two sources enable us to draw a picture of the administrative system of Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta Maurya was evidently an autocrat who concentrated all power in his hands. If we are to believe a statement in the Arthashastra, the king had set a high ideal. He stated that in the happiness of his subjects lay his happiness and in their troubles lay his troubles. We do not however know how far the king acted up to these ideals.
According to Megasthenes, the king was assisted by a council whose members were noted for wisdom. There is nothing to show that their advice was binding on him, though the high officers were chosen from among the councillors. The empire was divided into a number of provinces, and each of these was placed under a prince who was a scion of the royal dynasty. The provinces were divided into still smaller units, and arrangements were made for both rural and urban administration. Excavations show that a large number of towns relate to Maurya times. Pataliputra, Kaushambi, Ujjain, and Taxila were the most important cities.
Megasthenes states that numerous cities existed in India, but he considered Pataliputra to be the most important. He calls it Palibothra. This Greek term means a city with gates. According to him, Pataliputra was bounded by a deep ditch and a wooden wall crowned with 570 towers, and had 64 gates. The ditch, timber palisades, and also wooden houses have been found in excavations.
According to Megasthenes, Pataliputra was 9.33 miles long and 1.75 miles broad. This size tallies with that of Patna even today, because Patna is all length with little breadth. Given this conformity, it is possible to trust Megasthenes’s other statements. The Greek ambassador also refers to the administration of Pataliputra, the capital of the Mauryas. The city was administered by six committees, each of which consisted of five members.
These committees were entrusted with sanitation, care of foreigners, registration of birth and death, regulation of weights and measures, and similar other functions. Various types of weights belonging to Maurya times have been found in several places in Bihar. According to Kautilya, the central government maintained about two dozen departments of state, which controlled social and economic activities at least in the areas that were in proximity to the capital.
The most striking feature of Chandragupta’s administration was its maintenance of a huge army. A Roman writer called Pliny states that Chandragupta maintained 600,000 foot soldiers, 30,000 cavalrymen, and 9000 elephants. Another source tells us that the Mauryas maintained 8000 chariots.
In addition to these, it appears that the Mauryas also maintained a navy. The administration of the armed forces, according to Megasthenes, was carried on by a board of thirty officers divided into six committees, each committee consisting of five members. It seems that each of the six wings of the armed forces, the army, the cavalry, the elephants, the chariots, the navy, and the transport, was assigned to the care of a separate committee. The Mauryas’ military strength was almost three times that of the Nandas, and this was apparently because of a much larger empire and thus far greater resources.
How did Chandragupta Maurya manage to meet the expenses of such a huge army? If we rely on the Arthashastra of Kautilya, it would appear that the state controlled almost all the economic activities in the realm. The state brought new land under cultivation with the aid of cultivators and shudra labourers. The virgin land that was opened to cultivation yielded handsome income to the state in the form of revenue collected from the newly settled peasants. It appears that taxes collected from the peasants varied from one-fourth to one-sixth of the produce. Those who were provided with irrigation facilities by the state had to pay for it.
In addition, in times of emergency, peasants were compelled to raise more crops. Tolls were also levied on commodities brought to town for sale, and they were collected at the gate. Moreover, the state enjoyed a monopoly in mining, sale of liquor, manufacture of arms, etc. This naturally brought vast resources to the royal exchequer. Chandragupta thus established a well-organized administrative system and gave it a sound financial base.