Decline of the Mauryas in the Time of Asoka!

Two noteworthy theories have been advanced by some historians regarding the sudden decline of the Maurya power.

These are, first, the pacifist policy of Asoka, and secondly, the Brahmanical reaction against Asoka’s administration.

In both the theories, their authors make Asoka responsible for the decline of the Mauryas. But both the theories have been challenged and criticised as unhistorical by other historians who trace the causes of the downfall of the first great Indian empire to other factors.


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Regarding Asoka’s pacifist policy, it is said that Asoka abandoned the royal tradition of fighting wars after his Kalinga War. By his pacifism, he silenced the war-drum or the Bheri-ghosha and practised the Call of Peace or Dharmaghosha. He even asked his successors to abstain from new conquests by bloody battles. As a result of this, it is said, the Maurya army and its generals lost their martial vigour and their desire for aggression. This weakened the army, and prepared path for the downfall of an extensive empire which chiefly rested on its military power.

But the critics of this theory point out that though Asoka was a visionary for a new idealism of universal brotherhood and peace, he was also a most practical monarch to preserve the unity and integrity of his empire. He preached non-violence against violence in order to establish the Rule of Right over the Rule of Might.


But he never meant to give up might in the larger interest of his people. He wanted all states to live in peace, instead of fighting wars. But it did not mean that any state would go down in internal turmoil because of its peace policy. He, therefore, ruled as a powerful emperor even if a pacifist, and kept the Maurya Empire as powerful as ever before in spite of paternal benevolence. Defending Asoka, historian Radha Kumud Mookerji rightly says:

“There is no evidence that Asoka disbanded his invincible Army, destroyed the military machine that came down to him from his grandfather, and did not care for the vast empire he had acquired by his India-wide military conquests already narrated. Asoka administered a distinct and emphatic warning to the turbulent tribes and rude forest folks (Atavikas) of his empire that they must know that, although he stood for utmost forbearance (Kshama), he would not tolerate violence on their part, their violation of morality which he would check and punish with all his force. Thus the imperial military machine was quite intact and ready to meet challenge of violence. Asoka did not at all encourage the dismemberment of an empire which he had built up on new foundations as a kingdom of Righteousness, abjuring aggression. He abstained from extending its territory by any new military conquests, but was anxious to extend its moral or cultural conquests by the spread of the ideals of Peace and Goodwill for which it stood under his leadership.”

Evidences do not suggest that Asoka made his army or administration, in any way, weak. As long as he lived, the Maurya Empire stood on its strong foundations in every respect. There was no challenge to its existence from any source. Regarding the Brahmanical reaction against his administration, it is pointed out that Asoka by his zeal for Buddhism and for Pro-Buddhist policy became unpopular with the priestly Brahminic class who therefore worked against him. Asoka’s non-violence which prohibited the slaughter of animals for sacrifices went against the vested interests of the Brahmins.

His appointment of Dharma-Mahamatras or the Superintendents of Morals also gave a blow to the supremacy of the Brahmins in religious matters, and affected their hereditary rights. Similarly, Asoka’s principle of equality of all men before law and justice made the Brahmins angry. By his Vyavahara-Samata, Asoka wanted to regard all his subjects equal in Law. And, by his Danda-Samata he wanted ‘equality of punishment’ irrespective of caste and creed.


Since the Brahmins enjoyed certain privileges in earlier times both in law and punishment, Asoka’s new regulations annoyed them greatly. Advancing all these reasons, historian Haraprasad Sastri (Mahamohapadhyay) advocated that it was a Brahminical reaction against such works and policies of Asoka which brought about the downfall of the Mauryas when the Brahmana General Pushyamitra Sunga killed the Maurya King Brihadratha, and captured power.

But this thesis has been rejected by many historians as historically unsound. Asoka’s regulation against animal sacrifice was in true line of Upanishadic philosophy of the Hindus. Since the days of Buddha and Jina, popular opinion was against such barbaric sacrifices. There is nothing to show that Asoka’s Ahimsa was directed against the Brahmins as a caste. It was a universal doctrine of the ancient Indian faith. Similarly, Asoka’s respect for the Brahmins as a class was deep-rooted.

He always mentioned Brahmanas before Sramanas while showing respect to them. His policy of Sumata or equality was a higher principle of politics. It was not intended to take away the rights of the Brahmins. Brahmins enjoyed highest positions in the Maurya administration, so much so that Pushyamitra Sunga who was himself a Brahmin, was appointed by Asoka’s successors as the commander-in-chief. Finally, Pushyamitra’s capture of power was a military coup d’etat. He did not lead a popular revolt of the militant Brahmins. Also, he came to power nearly fifty years after Asoka.

Thus, neither Asoka’s policy of no war nor his policy of equality in administration was responsible for the decline of the Mauryas. The theories of military weakness and Brah manic reaction are discarded as unhistorical.