Political History of Magadha Empire in India!

The emergence of Magadha, one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas, as a dominant kingdom between the 6th century BC and the 4th century BC heralded the beginning of a new era in the evolution of society, economy, polity and culture of the subcontinent of India.

As history is a process and transition, we notice a transition: from pre-state society to state system, rural to urban, sacrificial ritual to individual meditation, from oral tradition to script and writing to record permanently, contributions in the realms of philosophy, science and literature, and minting of coinage with standard weight in metal, backed by legal and political sanction as exchange value of commodities which led to the growth of trade and commerce.

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These multiple factors are the cause and the effect of changes that shaped the material and intellectual milieu of Indian society.

Of the sixteen Mahajanapadas, only Magadha could play a seminal role at that time because of certain advantages: Geographically, Magadha had in its vicinity large tracts of alluvial soil suitable for producing agricultural surplus. The earliest capital Rajagriha was located in a strategic position in a compara­tively isolated region, close to the availability of iron ore.

The later capital of Magadha was located at Pataliputra, which was situated at the confluence of several rivers like Ganga, Gandak and Son, which makes it a waterfort or Jaladurga. This enabled the Magadha rulers to command effectively the Uttarapatha that is to the north of the river Ganga along the foothills of the Himalayas. The river Ganga helped them to stay connected with other regions and to develop transport on the river.

These natural advantages made Magadha a dominant power. Further, recent studies have brought to light Magadha’s access to iron ore, which enabled it to manufacture weapons for offensive and defensive use as well as implements necessary for agricultural operations. The alluvial soils of the Gangetic plain and adequate rainfall were very conducive for the expansion of agriculture.


This enabled Magadha to generate sustainable surplus to meet the growing needs of the state system in the form of taxes. Growth of towns and the use of metal currency encouraged large-scale trade and commerce. The taxes collected by the state machinery enabled the Magadhan rulers maintain a strong army. Their use of elephants gave them an added advantage over their enemies.

Further, the racial admixture created an unorthodox social base that fostered solidarity among the inhabitants. All these factors encouraged Magadha to launch expeditions for territorial expansion. Magadha became a dominant kingdom under the Saisunagas and the Nanda political power structure became, what Romila Thapar calls “a Metropolitan state” under Mauryan rule.

A critical study of the available primary literary sources of the Buddhists – Tripitakas and the Jatakas, Divya Vadana, Mahavamsa, Dipa Vamsa and the Jaina texts Acaranga Sutra and Sutra Kritama. Classical writings in Greek and Latin, Megasthene’s Indica that came to us through the quotations of Strabo, Deodorus and Arrian, Herodatus’s account, Kzutilya’s Arthasastra, numismatic, and epigraphic evidences, and excavations help us in reconstructing the process of transition that took place during the pre-Mauryan and the Mauryan age.

Bimbisara, Ajatasatru and Udayin laid the foundation for the Magadhan supremacy. The Saisunagas and the Nandas continued the policy of acquiring new territories. It was during the rule of the Nandas that the Macedonian ruler Alexander invaded North-Western India in 326 BC. Alexander’s invasion of India did not lead to any permanent political set-up but it initiated cultural contacts between India and Greece. Evidences show that the Nandas developed contacts with the South and the Deccan, and the Nanda political power structure ended by BC 321.


Traditional accounts record that Chandragupta Maurya overthrew the oppressive rule of the Nandas in alliance with Kautilya or Chanakya. In spite of the dynastic fluctuations, Magadha continued to be a centre of political power by its location and natural advantages well into the medieval period.

The founding of the Mauryan Empire by Chandragupta Maurya ushered a new era in the history of India. Not much reliable authentic data about the antecedents of Chandragupta is available. Mudrarakshasa, a play of the 6th century AD, records that he rose to political power with the help, blessings and cooperation of Kautilya the celebrated author of Arthasastra. The early years of Chandragupta’s reign appear to be obscure.

The Maurya was considered to be ‘a low caste’ or of ‘tribal origin’ by most of the historians. Classical sources also describe them as of low caste. The Puranas also describe them as Sudras but Buddhist literature mentions that Chandragupta was a member of the Moriya clan of Pippalivana, who are distantly related to the tribe of the Sakyas who are Kshatriyas. There is also a view that the Mauryas were Vaisyas as Chandra had ‘Gupta’ at the end of his name and Asoka married the daughter of a merchant of Vidisa.

It may be concluded that the caste affiliations of the Mauryas remain obscure. The rise of Chandragupta Maurya to the throne proves beyond doubt that in spite of the dictates of the Varnasrama model the society and Dharma of the times accepted anyone who showed potential as a ruler. It may also be explained that the impact of heterodox sects on Magadha was so powerful that they could ignore the Varnasrama model. Whatever may be the reason, the accession and acceptance of Chandragupta, as a ruler appears to be revolu­tionary, though it is an isolated instance and not a general rule?

All the available sources record that Chandragupta overthrew the last of the Nanda kings and ascended the Magadha throne in or around 321 BC. Yet, there is no definite evidence regarding the year in which Chandragupta routed the Greeks and defeated the Nandas. Now, there is a general agreement that these two events must have taken place by 321 BC.

Another important victory attributed to Chandragupta was the victory over Seleucus by 303 BC. This victory signifies that the territorial foundations of the Mauryas were well estab­lished within the Gangetic plains. Based on the later evidences, there is also a view that he conquered western India and Deccan too.

The Jaina tradition proudly claims that he became a votary of Jainism and abdicated the throne and went south with a Jaina saint Bhadrabahu. Chandragupta spent the rest of his life at Sravana Belagola in Karnataka and ended his life performing Sallekhana, a Jaina way of attaining Nirvana. His son Bindusara succeeded Chandragupta. He is said to have ascended the Mauryan throne in 297 BC. Neither Indian nor classical sources furnish any useful historical information about him. Classical sources call him Amitraghata. He had contacts with the Selucid king of Syria, Antiochous I.

The Buddhist work of Taranatha, a very late source of the 16th century AD, recounts his war-like activities. Some scholars consider the thundering of the Mauryan chariots over the length and breadth of the territory depicted by early Tamil poets as reference to Bindusara’s conquests. There is also a view that it was Bindusara, who firmly established Mauryan rule in the Deccan and the Mysore plateau as Asoka is said to have conquered Kalinga and then given up conquests.

Though Binduasara had the title of Amitraghata, we are not sure of the foes killed by him and why he killed them. Bindusara appears to have been a follower of the Ajivika sect. The Buddhist texts are certain that he died around 273-272 BC, as there is a gap of three or four years before the crowning of Asoka; it is surmised that a succession war might have taken place among the sons of Bindusara aspiring for the throne.

Asoka’s reign of more than three decades is the first fairly well documented period of the early history of India. Asoka left behind a series of major and minor rock edicts along with pillar edicts which enable us to know fairly well about his reign and deeds. Except the epigraphs at Maski and Sannati, none of the edicts refers to his name as Asoka.

Epigraphs describe him as Devanampiya or beloved of the gods and Piyadaso. Till 1837, when James Princep desciphered these epigraphs and identified Devanampiya with Asoka Maurya with the corroborative evidence of other sources, Asoka was not a well-known historical figure of the early history of India. A stupa was discovered at Kanaganahalli, a tiny hamlet on the left bank of the river Bhima, 3 kms south of Sannati.

The importance of this discovery is that an anthropomorphic representation of Emperor Asoka with his queen, with a legal in Brahmi reading ‘Raya Asokasa’ making a donation. It is quite interesting to come across an anthropomorphic representation at a far-off place from his core area and that too in a peripheral area. It makes one question: What could be the reason for this representation at Kanaganahalli with his queen? Perhaps, it could be to impress the people of this area about his attention for them that he and his queen made a donation.

If that could be so, what could be the special reason? We have not yet found such a representation anywhere else. Perhaps, one of the beneficiaries of Asoka’s deeds of charity out of gratitude or admiration might have been responsible for the anthropomorphic representation of Asoka at Kanaganahalli.

Asoka attained eternal fame as ‘Asoka the great’ in the history of mankind because he happened to be the first ruler to give up ‘Digvijaya’ concept and start ‘Dharma Vijaya’ and to usher in a rule based on of Dharma. Because of this unique policy, the independent Republic of India selected Asoka’s lion pillar as the emblem of the state.Asoka started his political apprenticeship as the Governor of Taxila during his father’s reign. He is credited to have successfully curbed the rebellions in the state. For some time, he also was the Governor of Ujjain.

The exact date and the precise circumstances in which he succeeded his father cannot be authentically proved. Nevertheless, the Buddhist sources are sure that Asoka ruthlessly eliminated his many brothers and declared himself the ruler in 269-270 BC. We may agree with Eggermont that this story was invented by the Buddhists to prove their point that prior to his transformation as ‘Pious Asoka’ he was wicked-minded and power-hungry. However, we may not subscribe to the Buddhist viewpoint, Asoka not being a Yuvaraja or heir apparent is certain and the war of succession appears to be a fact. Only Asoka’s success in the war of succession made him the Mauryan ruler.

We have evidence to believe that Asoka’s predecessors Chandragupta Maurya and Binduasara had intruded into the South and the Deccan and perhaps conquered parts of Kalinga, but still it had to be brought under their effective control. Asoka’s first priority was the conquest of Kalinga as it controlled routes to South India both by land and by sea and as such, it was strategically important to have a firm sway over it. Around 260 BC, Asoka directed armies against Kalinga. The 13th Rock edict, Asoka vividly describes the conquest of Kalinga. Curiously, this epigraph is silent about the name of the defeated ruler but refers to the territorial entity of Kalinga.

The edicts are categorical that a hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished. The edict further records remorse expressed by Asoka over this loss of human lives and his urge for spiritual conquest or Dharma Vijaya. Based on this statement it was believed that he became a devout Buddhist immediately after the war.

However, this is unlikely, as the Bhabru epigraph clearly states that it was only after two and a half years’ gap after the war, that he became a staunch supporter of Buddhism under the influence of Upagupta, Buddhist monk. Asoka undertook a 256-day long Dharmayatra or holy pilgrimage to all the Buddhist holy places in northern India. Eggermont opines that after returning, Asoka celebrated a great festival of the Buddhist Sangha and began his extensive mission of propagating Buddhist doctrines, and convened the third Buddhist council at Pataliputra in 250 BC. However, curiously, none of his epigraphs refers to this event, or to the ‘Enlightened One’. Perhaps, Asoka realized that in the larger interests of his empire, he should observe a clear-cut distinction between his personal faith and the polity, and should be unbiassed as the emperor as his subjects professed different religious faiths and beliefs.

Asoka does not appear to be a simple visionary or an idealist but quite practical and pragmatic in his approach. In order to propagate what he believed to be good for his populace and to translate those thoughts into action, in 257 BC, he ordered for large edicts to be cut in the frontier regions of his empire. The idea behind this order was that his message should reach the masses. The script employed by him was Brahmi and the language followed was the regional variations of Prakrit, known to all the common men. His target audiences were not the highly qualified literate groups but ordinary common folk. This displays his genuine concern for the moral well-being of the people. So far, eight versions of these edicts have been noticed.

In all these edicts Asoka ordered all the citizens of his empire to put into practice non-violence, by not killing animals for food. He also prohibited illicit and immoral activities of people. He stressed the need for right conduct on their part and deputed messengers to spread this principle among his citizens.

He himself put into practice this principle by being amicable with his neighbouring regions of the Cholas, Pandyas, Satyaputras, Keralaputras and Sri Lanka in the South and with King Antiyoka of Syria and his neighbours in the West. In addition to these measures, he instructed his officers to tour regularly to see that the people followed the rules of right conduct. This shows that Asoka was not simply a preacher but he also thought about the measures to implement his preaching.

Asoka must have understood and realized that to bring about the required attitudinal change in the perception is not an easy task and needs constant observation and super­vision by himself as well as by his officers. There is every reason to believe that right from the beginning; Asoka seems to have faced resistance to his ideas and orders. This can be inferred from the indirect evidence available to us from the inscription issued in the 13th year after his coronation.

The epigraph reads as follows: “Virtuous deeds are difficult to accomplish. He who tries to accomplish them faces a hard task”. Asoka appointed Dharmamahamatras in that year, to teach the principles of right conduct and to supervise the people. These new officers were ordered to travel widely and to report to him directly the outcome of their efforts. In the same year, he despatched Dutas or ambassadors to the distant countries in the west to propagate his Dhamma or philosophy as is known from the 13th rock edict.

The epigraph records “where reigns the Greek King named Antiyoka and beyond the realm of that Antiyoga in the lands of the four Kings Tulamaya, Antekina, Maka, and Alikyashudata”. These rulers are identified as Antiochus II Theos of Syria, the grandson of Seleucus Nicator; Ptolemy II of Philadelphus of Egypt; Antigonus Gonatices of Macedonia; Magas of Cyrene and Alexander of Epirus. Asoka, thus once again started contacts and communications deliberately to promote understanding based on mutual respect with the kingdoms beyond the subcontinent. Curiously, while the east was comparatively less explored, contacts with the west were carried on and we notice exchange of envoys. This resulted in the growth of mutual contacts and interests between the Hellenistic kingdoms and India.

The location of various rock edicts, and pillar edicts through which Asoka propagated his philosophy of Dhamma gives us a fair idea of the extent of the Magadhan territory under Asoka. There are 14 major rock edicts, seven pillar edicts and some minor rock epigraphs. The major rock edicts are located at Shabazgarhi and Manshera near Peshawar, Kalsi near Dehradun, Sopara in Thana district, Girnar near Junagarh in Kathiawar, Dhauli near Bhubaneswar and Jaugada in Ganjam district of Orissa. The minor rock edicts appear at Siddhapura, Jatinga Rameswara and Brahmagiri in Karnataka. Other, minor, rock edicts are also found at Rupanath near Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, Sahasram in Bihar, Bairat near Jaipur in Rajasthan and Maski in Karnataka.

The pillar inscriptions of Asoka are found originally at Topra near Ambala Meerut, which are now located at Delhi, Kausambi in Uttar Pradesh, Lau Araraj, Lauriya Nandangarh and Rampurva in Bihar, Sanchi near Bho Saranth near Benaras, and Rumindei in Nepal. The edicts were placed deliberately after careful consideration on important trade routes linking trade and road traffic. Recent studies of the Mauryan period establish that the motivation penetration of their rule appears to be a desire to have direct access to n materials particularly of the Peninsula.

The Magadhan Empire reached the greatest heights of territorial expansion under Asoka. Asoka’s reign witnessed the expansion of empire and at the same time cessation of war as a means to expand the empire. Asoka’s policy of non-violence as a state policy was never tried either prior to Asoka or by later rulers anywhere in India at any given time. Asoka made conscious efforts to unite under one umbrella the divergent populace, as one united entity’, in the longer and larger interests of the security and stability of the Mauryan kingdom. As long as he lived and ruled, the empire remained intact but 50 years after his death, the Mauryan kingdom went into oblivion.

The rule of the first three Mauryas, viz., Chandragupta, Bindusara and Asoka, i.e., the first ninety years of the dynasty, was very impressive. The Mauryan rule is notable for drawing together the largely diverse elements of India under one umbrella. The Mauryans were the first to give expression to a vision of a politically unified India that influenced all political power structures in subse­quent centuries. Only a few rulers could succeed in achieving the Mauryan ideal.

The available literary texts do not provide us definite information about the successors of Asoka. A sort of confusion can be noticed about what happened after Asoka. We come across various names like Kunala, Dasaratha, Samprati, Salisuka, Devavarman, Satadhanvan and Brihadradha and all of them are identified as the sons of Asoka. At this juncture with the available sources it very difficult to determine the precise dates or period of their rule.

Most probably, the fragmentation of the empire into two parts, western and eastern, while frequent succession of rulers has hastened the process of disintegration of this first empire. It is suggested that Kunala ruled the western part and Samprati, who had to face the opposition of the Bactrian Greeks in the northwest, and Satavahanas in the northern Deccan.

The eastern part of the empire was ruled by Dasaratha, Samprati, Salisuka, Devavarman, Satadhanvan and Brihadratha successively. His commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra Sunga, the founder of Sunga rule, killed the last of the Mauryas, Brihadratha.Many causes are offered as an explanation for the disintegration of Mauryan rule.

They are:

(a) Weak successors and division of empire,

(b) Failure to have a firm grip over administrative apparatus,

(c) Corrupt and oppressive bureaucracy,

(d) Failure of the spy system,

(e) Asoka’s policy of Dhamma and non-violence,

(f) Financial constraint, and

(g) The rise of local polities in the north and south.

We may conclude that directly or indirectly all the above causes contributed to the disintegration of the Mauryan polity. The Mauryans are credited with the establishment of the first centralized monarchical state apparatus supported by an established and efficient bureaucratic set-up. Kautilya’s Arthasastra, Megasthenes’ India and the Asokan edicts furnish an idea of the Mauryan administrative system.