Read this article to learn about the history of Mauryan Empire in India !

Foundation of the Mauryan Empire:

The foundation of the Maurya Empire in 321 B.C. by Chandragupta Maurya was a unique event in history.

Particularly in view of the fact that it was found shortly after Alexander’s victorious campaigns in North-West India during 327 B.C. – 325 B.C.

There is no unanimity with regard to the ancestry of the Mauryas. The Puranas describe them as Sudras and uprighteous probably due to the fact that the Mauryas were mostly patrons of heterodox sects.


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The Buddhist works (e.g. Mahavamsa and Mahavamshatika) have attempted to link the Mauryan dynasty with the tribe of the Sakyas to which the Buddha belonged. In the Divyavadana, Bindusara, the son of Chandragupta, is described as Kshatriya Murdabhishikta or annointed Kshatriya.

According to the Buddhist writers, the region from which the Mauryas came was full of peacocks (Mayura in Sanskrit and Mora in Pali), and hence they came to be known as the Moriyas (Pali form of Mauryas). It is obvious from this that the Buddhists were trying to elevate the social position of Asoka and his predecessors.

Jain tradition given in Hemachandra’s Parisisthaparvan relates Chandragupta as the son of a daughter of the chief of a village of peacock-tamers (Mayura-Poshaka). The use of the term ‘Vrishala’ and ‘Kula-hina’ in the Mudrarakshasa of Vishakadatta for Chandragupta probably means that Chandragupta was a mere upstart of an unknown family.


The Greek classical writers, such as Justin, describes Chandragupta Maurya as a man of humble origin, but does not mention his exact caste. The Junagarh Rock Inscription of Rudradaman (150 A.D.) mentions the Vaisya Pusyagupta as the provincial governor of the Maurya king Chandragupta. There is a reference to Pusyagupta being the brother-in-law of Chandragupta which implies that the Mauryas may have been of Vaisya origin.

In conclusion, we can say that the Mauryas were of comparatively humble origin belonging to the Moriya tribe and were certainly of a low caste.

Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 B.C.):

Chandragupta Maurya succeeded to the Nanda throne in 321 B.C. after dethroning the last Nanda ruler (Dhanananda) at the age of 25. He was the protege of the Brahmin Kautilya, also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta, who was his guide and mentor both in acquiring the throne and in keeping it.

The acquisition of Magadha was the first step in establishing the new dynasty. Once the Ganges valley was under his control, Chandragupta moved to the north-west to exploit the power vacuum created by Alexander’s departure. The areas of the North-West fell to him rapidly.


Moving back to Central India he occupied the region north of the Narmada River. But 305 B.C. saw him back in the north-west involved in a campaign against Seleucus Nikator (Alexander’s general who gained control of most Asiatic provinces of the Macedonian empire) which Chandragupta finally won in 303 B.C. Both signed a treaty and entered into a marriage alliance.

Who married whose daughter is not clearly known? But it seems that Chandragupta made a gift of 500 elephants to the Greek general and ob­tained the territory across the Indus viz., the Satrapies of Paropanisadai (Kabul), Aria (Herat), Arachoisa (Kandahar), and Gedrosia (Baluchistan). Seleucus’s ambassador, Megasthenes, lived for many years at the Maurya court at Pataliputra and travelled extensively in the country.

According to Jaina sources (Parisistaparvan), Chandragupta embraced Jainism towards the end of his life and stepped down from the throne in favour of his son, Bindusara. Accompanied by Bhadrabahu, a Jaina saint, and several other monks he is said to have gone to Sravana Belgola near Mysore, where he deliberately starved himself to death in the approved Jaina fashion (Sallekhana).

Kautilya and Arthashastra:

Kautilya was the Prime Minister of Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta found the Mauryan Empire with his help. Arthashastra was written by him. It is the most important source for writing the history of the Mauryas and is divided into 15 adhikarnas or sections and 180 Prakaranas or subdivi­sions. It has about 6,000 slokas. The book was discovered by Shamasastri in 1909 and ably trans­lated by him.

It is a treatise on statecraft and public administration. Despite the controversy over its date and authorship, its importance lies in the fact that it gives a clear and methodological analysis of economic and political conditions of the Mauryan period.

The similarities between the administrative terms used in the Arthashastra and in the Asokan edicts certainly suggests that the Mauryan rulers were acquainted with this work.As such his Arthashastra provides useful and reliable information regarding the social and political conditions as well as the Mauryan administration.

1. King:

Kautilya suggests that the king should be an autocrat and he should concentrate all powers into his own hands. He should enjoy unrestricted authority over his realm. But at the same time, he should give honour to the Brahmanas and seek advice from his ministers. Thus the king though autocrat, should exercise his authority wisely.

He should be cultured and wise. He should also be well-read so as to understand all the details of his administration. He says that the chief cause of his fall is that the king is inclined towards evil. He lists six evils that led to a king’s decline. They are haughtiness, lust, anger, greed, vanity and love of pleasures. Kautilya says that the king should live in comfort but he should not indulge in pleasures.

2. Ideals of Kingship:

The major ideal of kingship according to Kautilya is that his own well-being lies in the well-being of his people of only the happy subjects ensure the happiness of their sovereign. He also says that the king should be ‘Chakravarti’ or the conqueror of different realms and should win glory by conquering other lands.

He should protect his people from external dan­gers and ensure internal peace. Kautilya maintained that the soldiers should be imbued with the spirit of a ‘holy war’ before they march to the battlefield. According to him, all is fair in a war waged in the interest of the country.

3. About the Ministers:

Kautilya maintains that the king should appoint ministers. King without ministers is like a one-wheeled chariot. According to Kautilya, king’s ministers should be wise and intelligent. But the king should not become a puppet in their hands.

He should discard their improper advise. The ministers should work together as; a team. They should hold meetings in privacy. He says that the king who cannot keep his secrets cannot last long.

4. Provincial Administration:

Kautilya tells us that the kingdom was divided into several provinces governed by the members of the royal family. There were some smaller provinces as Saurashtra and Kambhoj etc. administered by other officers called ‘Rashtriyas’. The provinces were divided into districts which were again sub-divided into villages. The chief administrator of the district was called the ‘SthaniK while the village headman was called the ‘Gopa’.

5. Civic Administration:

The administration of big cities as well as the capital city of Pataliputra was carried on very efficiently. Pataliputra was divided into four sectors. The officer incharge of each sector was called the ‘Sthanik. He was assisted by junior officers called the ‘Gopas’ who looked after the welfare of 10 to 40 families. The whole city was in the charge of another officer called the ‘Nagrika’. There was a system of regular census.

6. Spy Organisation:

Kautilya says that the king should maintain a network of spies who should keep him well informed about the minute details and happenings in the country, the provinces, the districts and the towns. The spies should keep watch on other officials. There should be spies to ensure peace in the land. According to Kautilya, women spies are more efficient than men, so they should, in particular, be recruited as spies. Above all the kings should send his agents in neighbouring countries to gather information of political significance.

7. Shipping:

Another significant information that we gather from Kautilya is about shipping under the Mauryas. Each port was supervised by an officer who kept vigil on ships and ferries. Tolls were levied on traders, passengesand fishermen. Almost all ships and boats were owned by the kings.

8. Economic Condition:

Kautilya says that poverty is a major cause of rebellions. Hence there should be no shortage of food and money to buy it, as it creates discontent and destroys the king. Kautilya therefore advises the king to take steps to improve the economic condition of his people. Kautilya says that the chief source of income was the land revenue in villages while the tax on the sale of goods was the chief source in the cities.

Bindusara (297-272 B.C.):

In 297 B.C., Chandragupta was succeeded by his son Bindusara, known to the Greeks as Amitrochates (Sanskrit, Amitraghata, the destroyer of foes). Bindusara campaigned in the Deccan, extending Mauryan control in the peninsula as far south as Mysore.

He is said to have conquered the land between the two seas’, presumably the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Kalinga (modern Orissa) on the eastern coast, however, remained hostile and was conquered in the succeeding reign by Bindusara’s son Ashoka.

In foreign affairs, Bindusara maintained the friendly relations with the Hellenic west established by his father. He is said to have had contacts with Antiochus I Soter, king of Syria, son of Seleucus Nikator whose ambassador, Deimachos was said to have been at his court.

A man of wide tastes and interests, he requested Antiochus I to send him some sweet wine, dried figs and a sophist; the last being not meant for export, however, could not be sent. Pliny mentions that Ptolemy Philadelpus of Egypt sent Dionysius as his ambassador to India. The Ashokavadana informs us that a revolt took place in Taxila during the reign of Bindusara, when the citizens objected to the oppression of the higher officials. Bindusara sent Asoka to put an end to the revolt, which he did successfully.

Ashoka (268-232 B.C.):

Bindusara’s death in 272 B.C. led to a struggle for succession among his sons. It lasted for four years and in 268 B.C. Ashoka emerged successful. According to Asokavadana, Subhadrangi was the mother of Ashoka and it describes her as the daughter of a Brahman of Champa.

The Divyavadana version largely agrees with that of the Ashokavadana. She is called Janapadakalyani, or in other version of the same source Subhadrangi. In the Ceylonese source, Vamsatthapakasini the Queen mother is called Dharma.

According to legend, Ashoka as a young prince was given charge of the Viceroyship of Ujjain. Buddhist texts inform us that a revolt took place in Taxila during the reign of Bindusara and Ashoka was sent to quell it. This he did without antagonising the local populace. Corroboration for this may be sought in an Aramaic inscription from Taxila which refers to Priyadarshi the viceroyor governor.

During his Viceroyalty of Ujjain he fell in love with the daughter of a merchant of Vidisa, referred to as Devi or Vidisamahadevi or Sakyani. Ashoka’s two other well-known queens were Karuvaki and Asandhimitra. The second queen, Karuvaki is mentioned in the Queen’s Edict inscribed on a pillar at Allahabad, in which her religious and charitable donations are referred to. She is described as the mother of Prince Tivara, the only son of Asoka to be mentioned by the name in the inscription.

As regards Ashoka’s accession to the throne there is a general agreement in the sources that Ashoka was not the crown prince but succeeded after killing his brothers. There is, however, no unanim­ity in the texts either regarding the nature of the struggle or the number of his brothers.

In one place the Mahavamsa states that Asoka killed his elder brother to become king whereas elsewhere in the same work and also in the Dipavamsa he is said to have killed ninety-nine brothers. The Mahavamsa states that although he put ninety-nine brothers to death, Asoka spared the life of the youngest of these, Tissa who was later made vice-regent (He retired to a life of religious devotion having come under the influence of the preacher Mahadhammarakkhita and then known by the name of Ekaviharika). It seems that though there was a struggle, a lot of descriptions of it are plain exaggerations.

After ascending the throne, Ashoka according to Taranatha spent several years in pleasurable pursuits and was consequently called Kamasoka. This was followed by a period of extreme wicked­ness, which earned him the name of Candasoka. Finally his conversion to Buddhism and his subse­quent piety led him to be called Dhammasoka.

The most important event of Ashoka’s reign seems to have been his conversion to Buddhism after his victorious war with Kalinga in 260 B.C. Kaling con­trolled the routes to South India both by land and sea, and it was therefore necessary that it should become a part of the Mauryan Empire.

The 13th Major Rock Edict vividly describes the horrors and miseries of this war and the deep remorse it caused to Ashoka. In the words of the Mauryan emperor, ‘A hundered and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished…………. It has been stated in the past that he was dramatically converted to Buddhism immediately after the battle, with its attendant horrors.

But this was not so, and as one of his inscriptions, viz., Bhabra Edict, states it was only after a period of more than two years that he became an ardent supporter of Buddhism under the influence of a Buddhist monk, Upagupta.

He also states his acceptance of the Buddhist creed, the faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the Samgha. Written specifically for the local Buddhist clergy, he also refers to himself as the ‘king of Magadha’, a title which he uses only on this occasion.

The Buddhist church was reorganised during his reign with the meeting of Third Buddhist council at Pataliputra in 250 B.C. under the chairmanship of Mogalliputta Tissa but the emperor himself does not refer to it in his inscrip­tions.

This stresses the point that Asoka was careful to make a distinction between his personal support for Buddhism and his duty as emperor to remain unattached and unbiased in favour of any religion. The Third Buddhist Council is significant because it was the final attempt of the more sectar­ian Buddhists, the Theravada School, to exclude both dissidents and innovators from the Buddhist Order.

Furthermore, it was at this Council that it was decided to send missionaries to various parts of the sub-continent and to make Buddhism an actively proselytizing religion.

Ashoka mentions various of his contemporaries in the Hellenic world with whom he exchanged missions, diplomatic and otherwise in his 13th Major Rock Edict. These have been identified as Antiochus II Theos of Syria, (Amtiyoga)the grandson of Seleucus Nikator; Ptolemy III Philadelphus of Egypt (Tulamaya); Antigonus Gonatus of Macedonia (Antekina); Magas of Cyrene (Maka) and Alexander of Epirus (Alikyashudala).

Communications with the outside world were by now well developed. Asokan inscriptions corrobo­rated by archaeological data are a reliable guide to the extent of the Mauryan Empire.

Magadha was the home province of the Mauryas and the city of Pataliputra its capital. Other cities mentioned in the inscriptions include Ujjain, Taxila, Tosali near Bhubaneshwar, Kausambi and Suvarnagiri in Andhra Pradesh.

According to tradition, Kashmir was included in the Ashokan Empire and that Ashoka built the city of Srinagar. Khotan in Central Asia was also supposed to have come under Mauryan sway.

The Mauryans had close connections with the areas of modern Nepal since the foothills were a part of the empire. One of Ashokan’s daughter is said to have married a nobleman from the mountains of Nepal.

In the east, Mauryan influence extended as far as the Ganga delta. Tamralipti or modern Tamluk was an important port on the Bengal coast from where the ships sailed for Burma, Sri Lanka as well as for South India. Another major port on the west coast was Broach at the mouth of the Narmada.

Kandahar formed the western-most extension of the Mauryan Empire and Ashokan inscriptions mention the Gandharas, Kambojas and the Yonas as his borderers. Through the north-west the Mauryas maintained close contacts with their neighbours, the Seleucid Empire and the Greek kingdoms.

Mauryan relations with Sri Lanka were very close and Asoka sent his son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra to preach Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Asokan inscriptions in the south mention several people with whom he was on friendly terms – the Cholas, Pandyas, Satiyaputras and Keralaputras (Major Rock Edict II.)

Disintegration of the Empire:

Towards the end of his reign Asoka’s grip over the imperial organisation became weak. The Maurya Empire began to decline with the death of Asoka in 232 B.C., soon after it broke up. The evidence for the later Mauryas is very meagre.

The Puranas, besides Buddhist and Jaina literature, do provide us with some information on the later Mauryas, but there is no agreement among them. Even among the Puranas, there is a lot of variance between one Puranas and another. The one statement on which all the Puranas are in agreement is that the dynasty lasted 137 years.

Ashoka’s death was followed by the division of the empire into western and eastern halves. The western part including the north-western province, Gandhara and Kashmir was governed by Kunala (one of the sons of Ashoka) and then for a while by Samprati (according to Jaina tradition he was a grandson of Ashoka and a patron of Jainism).

It was later threatened from the north-west by the Bactrian Greeks, to whom it was practically lost by 180 B.C. From the south, the threat was posed by the Andhrasorthe Satavahanas who later came to power in the Deccan.

The eastern part of the Maurya Empire, with its capital at Pataliputra, came to be ruled by Dasaratha (probably one of the grandsons of Ashoka). Dasaratha apart from being mentioned in the Matsya Purana is also known to us from the caves in the Nagarjuni Hills, which he dedicated to the Ajivikas.

According to the Puranas, Dasaratha reigned for eight years. This would suggest that he died without an heir old enough to come to the throne. The same sources speak of Kunala ruling for eight years.

He must have died at about the same time as Dasaratha; so that Sampriti now ruling in the west may have successfully regained the throne at Pataliputra, thus uniting the empire again.

This event occurred in 223 B.C. However, the empire had probably already begun to disintegrate. Jaina sources mention that Samprati ruled from Ujjain and Pataliputra. After Dasaratha and Samprati came Salisuka, a prince mentioned in the astronomical work, the Gargi Samhita, as a wicked quarrelsome king.

The successors of Salisuka, according to the Puranas, were Devavarman, Satamdhanus and finally Brihadratha. The last prince was overthrown by his commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra, who laid the foundations of a new dynasty called Sunga dynasty.

Causes for the Decline of the Mauryas:

The Magadhan Empire, which had been reared by successive wars culminating in the conquest of Kalinga, began to disintegrate after the death of Ashoka in 232 B.C. The reason given by historians for such, rapid declines are as conflicting as they are confusing.

Some of the very obvious and other controversial causes for the decline of the Mauryan Empire are discussed below:

1. One of the more obvious reasons for the decline was the succession of weak kings after Ashoka.

2. A further and immediate cause was the partition of the empire into two, the eastern part under Dasaratha and the western part under Kunala. Had the partition not taken place, the Greek invasions of the north-west could have been held back for a while, giving the Mauryas a chance to re-establish some degree of their previous power. The partition of the empire disrupted the various services as well.

3. Scholars have suggested that the pro-Buddhist policies of Ashoka and the pro-Jaina policies of his successors alienated the Brahmins and resulted in the revolt of Pushyamitra, the founder of the Shunga dynasty. H.C. Raychaudhuri maintains that Asoka’s pacifist policies were responsible for undermining the strength of the empire.

The second argument blames Ashoka’s emphasis on non­violence for weakening the empire and its military strength. Haraprasad Sastri holds the view that the decline of the Mauryan Empire was the result of the Brahmanical revolt on account of ban on animal sacrifices and undermining the prestige of the Brahmanas. Both these arguments are rather simplistic.

Pushyamitra’s usurpation of the throne cannot be seen as a brahmana revolt because by that time the administration had become so ineffective that officials were willing to accept any viable alternative.

The second proposition does not take into ac­count the nature of the policy of non-violence. There is nothing in the Ashokan inscriptions to suggest demobilization of the army. Similarly capital punishment continued. The emphasis was on the reduc­tion of species, and numbers of animals killed for food. There is nothing to suggest that the killing of animals stopped completely.

4. Another reason put forward by some historians such as D.D. Kosambi is that there was consid­erable pressure on the Mauryan economy under the later rulers leading to heavy taxation.

This opinion is again one-sided and is not corroborated by archaeological data. Excavations at sites like Hastinapura and Sisupalgarh have shown improvement in the material culture.

5. The organization of administration, and the conception of the state or the nation, were of great significance in the causes of the decline of the Mauryas. The Mauryan administration was of an extremely centralized character which necessitated a king of considerable personal ability.

In such a situation the weakening of the central control leads automatically to a weakening of the administration. With the death of Ashoka and the uneven quality of his successors, there was a weakening at the centre, particularly after the division of the empire.

6. The Mauryan state derived its revenues from taxing a variety of resources which would have to grow and expand so that the administrative apparatus of the state could be maintained.

Unfortunately the Mauryas made no attempt to expand the revenue potential or to restructure and reorganise the resources. This inherent weakness of the Mauryan economy when coupled with other factors led to the collapse of the Mauryan Empire.

7. The spread of material culture of the Gangetic basin to the outlying areas led to the formation of new kingdoms.

Sungas and Kanvas:

With the fall of the Mauryas in 180 B.C. Indian history for the time being lost its unity. Political events in India became diffuse, involving a variety of kings, eras and people. Whereas the people of the peninsula and south India were seeking to define their personality, northern India found itself caught up in the turmoil of happenings in Central Asia. The second century B.C. saw the sub-continents divided into a number of political regions, each with its own ambition. 6.13.1 Sungas (185-73 B.C.)

In Magadha and the neighbouring provinces the immediate successors of the Mauryas, according to the Puranas were the Sungas who are usually regarded as a Brahmana family belonging to the Bharadvaja clan. The Sungas came from the region of Ujjain in western India, where they were officials undor the Mauryas.

The GargiSamhita, the Mahabhashya of Patanjali, the Divyavadana the Malavikagnimitra of Kalidasa and the Harshacharita of Bana furnish many details about the Sungas. The later Sunga history is brightened by inscriptions from Ayodhya, Vidisa and Bharhut and the coins found at Kausambi, Ayodhya, Ahichchhatra and Mathura.

Pushyamitra Sunga (185-149 B.C.):

The founder of the Sunga dynasty was Pushyamitra a general of the last Mauryan king Brihadratha, who succeeded in usurping the throne by slaying his master. He did not take regal titles, but was throughout his reign referred to by the simple title Senapati, or general. Pushyamitra was a supporter of the orthodox brahmanical faith, and revived the ancient Vedic sacrifices; including the horse-sacrifice.

Buddhist literature portrays him as a persecutor of Buddhists and destroyer of their monasteries and places of worship especially those which had been built by Ashoka. This was clearly an exaggera­tion, since archaeological evidence reveals that Buddhist monuments at this time were being renewed.

Although a regicide, Pushyamitra must be given the credit of defending the Magadhan Empire against the invasion of the Bactrian Greeks and restoring its old power and prestige to a considerable extent.

He performed two Asvamedha sacrifices (Ayodhya inscription), in course of which his valiant grandson Vasumitra rescued the sacrificial horse from the Yavanas (Greeks) after a bitter fight on the banks of the Sindhu River.

When Pushyamitra died in about 149 B.C. after a reign of 36 years, he was succeeded by his son, the crown Prince Agnimitra who had governed the southern provinces during the lifetime of his father. Agnimitra ruled for 8 years. He is the hero of Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitra.

Agnimitra was succeeded by weak successors. Bhagvata, who is identical with King Bhagabhadra of the Besnagar Pillar inscrip­tion, was a prominent Sunga King. It was to his court that Heliodorus was deputed as an ambassador by the Greek King Antialkidas.

It not only shows that the Sungas maintained a close relationship with the Indo-Greek kings but also demonstrates the vitality of the Indian culture when Heliodorus suc­cumbed to the Bhagvata religion. Bhagvata was succeeded by Devabhuti, who was overthrown by his Brahmin minister Vasudeva who founded the Kanva dynasty in 75 B.C.



Significance of the Sungas Rule:

1. The Sungas fought a number of wars. They campaigned against the kingdom of Vidarbha (Berar) in the northern Deccan. In the north-west they fought against the Greeks. The Sungas dominions comprised the entire Gangetic valley and extended to the river Narmada. The cities of Pataliputra, Ayodhya, Vidisha, Jallandur and Sakala (Sialkot) were included in the Sunga kingdom.

2. Pataliputra continued to be graced with the presence of the sovereign, but it had a rival in the city of Vidisha, modern Besnagar in Eastern Malwa, where the crown prince Agnimitra held his court.

3. The Sunga period ushered in a new age in the art of buildings. The great stupa of Sanchi was enlarged under the Sungas and the railings which enclose it belonged to the Sunga period. The Bharhut railings have made the Sunga period immortal.

3. Patanjali, born at Gonarda in central India, was a contemporary of Pushyamitra and in his Mahabhasya he states that he officiated at one of Pushyamitra’s sacrifices.

Kanvas (73 B.C. – 28 B.C.):

The minister Vasudeva who usurped the throne after murdering the last Sunga Devabhuti, founded a new royal dynasty known as the Kanva or Kanvayana in Magadha. Bhanumitra, successor of Vasudeva was followed by his son Narayana. Narayana was succeeded by his son Susarman. According to the Puranas, the Kanva dynasty had four kings who ruled for 45 years. In the Puranas it is stated that the Kanvas were overthrown by the Andhras or Satavahanas.