In this article we will discuss about the history of India from Mauryas to Guptas.
The Mauryas (322 B.C. to 185 B.C.):
The advent of the Mauryas marked the beginning of a new chapter in political and cultural history of India.
According V.A. Smith “With the foundation of the Maurya dynasty we come from darkness to light. It is from here that Indian history begins in a chronological setting. The history prior to Mauryas is dark.” Under the Mauryas for the first time the whole of the country was politically united under one head.
Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan Empire not only swept away the Greek garrisons from the Punjab and Sindh but also established a vast empire over the whole of Northern India, which continued to flourish for almost one hundred years.
The Mauryan Emperors even established their supremacy over lands beyond the natural borders of India. With the attainment of the political unity the chronology also becomes precise.
The Mauryas provided a uniform system of administration which has earned the admiration of even modern writers for its efficiency. This uniformity of administration under Chandra Gupta and his successors also brought in its train the cultural unity of the country.
The Mauryas also established political and cultural contacts with other rulers like Seleucus and Antiochus of Syria, Ptolemy of Egypt, Antigone’s of Macedonia, Tissa of Ceylon as well as the rulers’ of Nepal. Under them the Indian culture spread to the foreign lands and India became the cultural ambassador of the world.
The Indian missionaries were sent out to far off lands to spread the Indian civilization. This is known as Dharmavijaya. Asoka particularly played an important role in spreading the Indian culture abroad. He sent missions to Ceylon, Siam, Burma, China and Japan. It was mainly due to his efforts that Buddhism spread to foreign lands and became a world religion.
The peace and prosperity which India enjoyed under the Mauryas gave impetus not only to trade and commerce but also encouraged the development of literature and various arts like sculpture, painting etc. The buildings and stupas of this period made the foreigners wonder struck.
Nearly ten stupas belonging to the reign of Asoka have been discovered. In spite of the weight of years they have retained their brightness, and provide us an idea about the heights which the architecture had reached.
The Mauryan Empire was founded by Chandra Gupta Maurya, who turned out the foreigners from the soil of India. According to Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerjee, “Much romance has gathered round the origin and early life of Chandragupta Maurya, because so little is known of him. Legend grows in obscurity. It is fond of making hero of a man who rises to greatness from lowly origin.”
According to the Indian tradition Chandragupta was the son of the king of Magadha of the Nanda dynasty by a woman of the Sudra caste named Mura and hence he came to be known as Maurya. But the most acceptable view is that he belonged to the Kshatriya clan called Moriya—a well-known non-monarchical clan of the time of Gautama Buddha.
We may not believe that he spent his early life in poverty and gradually rose to greatness, but it is accepted at all hands that he received considerable help from the counsel of a Brahmana named Kautilya (also known as Visnugupta or Chankya) in the establishment of his empire.
The two great achievements of Chandragupta were the expulsion of the Greek Satraps from the soil of India and the conquest of Magadhan empire by defeating the last ruler of the Nanda dynasty. However, there is controversy amongst scholars as to which of these two preceded the other.
However, it is for certain that he ascended the throne of Magadha around 322 B.C. and consolidated his position. This must have entailed a number of military expeditions, although we do not know anything about these expeditions.
It is also not certain whether Chandra Gupta’s empire included any part of the Deccan and South India. According to certain ancient Tamil texts the Tamil country was invaded by the Moriars from the North. This according to certain scholars refers to Chandragupta, but nothing can be said for certain.
Chandragupta is also said to have defeated Seleucus, one of the successors of Alexander, who invaded India in 305 B.C. and forced him to cede the three rich provinces of Paropanisadai, Arachosia and Aria and certain areas in the regions round Kabul, Kandahar and Herat.
Chandragupta was a military genius and a constructive statesman and ranks amongst the greatest monarchs of the world. According to the Jain tradition Chandragupta abdicated the throne in favour of his son Bindusara and starved himself to death.
Chandragupta’s successor Bindusara ruled for a period of 25 years. We do not know much about his reign, but most probably he followed the policy of Chandragupta and continued the imperialist policy.
According to certain scholars he extended the empire up to the south. But others contend that south was conquered by Chandra Gupta and Bindusara did not conquer any new areas. Perhaps he went to the South to quell a rebellion. But one thing can be said for certain that he was a strong and wide-awake ruler and kept the empire intact.
Asoka, who succeeded Bindusara occupies a unique position in the annals of Indian history. His reign marked the beginning of a new epoch in the political and cultural history of India.
According to Prof. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri:
“The reign of Asoka forms the brightest page in the history of India. The ruler himself takes rank easily among the master minds of the world, and under his leadership India came to occupy the foremost place among the civilized nations of the time. Inheritor of an extensive and highly organised empire, Asoka proved fully worthy of his heritage; he was a man of unbounded energy and gave himself without stint to the tasks of perfecting the administration of his empire and ensuring the happiness of his subjects. The range of his sympathies was wide and he was by no means unwilling to adopt foreign models of administration and art to the governing needs and tasks of his country.”
Apart from providing an efficient administration, Asoka made valuable contribution to the spread of Buddhism and raised it from local religion to a world faith.
He was a votary of nonviolence and believed in Dharmnvijay instead of Dig Vijay. He approached his subjects through their souls rather than their bodies. He used State machinery to uplift the poor and the needy and tried to follow the principle that the king should behave with his subjects like a father to his son.
Asoka was succeeded by his two grandsons—Dasratha and Samprati.. These two ruled over eastern parts and western parts respectively. Their reigns were brief and devoid of any significant developments.
The last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty was Brihadratha, who was assassinated by Pushyamitra Sunga, his Commander-in-Chief in 184 B.C. With the fall of the Mauryas the political unity, which India had attained for the time being, ended. A number of petty states cropped up in India and Afghanistan.
The Sunga Dynasty (187-75 B.C.):
The foundation of the Sunga Dynasty was laid by Pushyamitra, the Commander-in-Chief of Brihadratha, the last-Mauryan ruler. He was a strong and vigorous ruler and checked the foreign invaders who had advanced to the outskirts of Patliputra.
It is difficult to say for certain as to who was this invader, but most probably he was Demetrius, the Greek adventurer. He consolidated his position and conquered Vidarbba (Berar). Pushyamitra is credited with two horse sacrifices in the Ayodhya inscription of Dhanadeva.
The performance of these sacrifices is indicative of the fact that there was peace and prosperity during his reign. According to Puranas Pushyamitra ruled for 36 years and his reign ended in 149 or 148 B.C. Pushyamitra was succeeded by his son Agnimitra who ruled for eight years.
He was succeeded by Jyesththa. The next prominent ruler of the Sunga dynasty was Vasumitra, a son of Agnimitra. Though Vasumitra had given a brilliant account of himself during his youth under Pushyamitra, he lost this martial spirit and vigour when he acceded to throne.
He buried himself in the lap of luxury. Bana tells us that he was very fond of music and dancing and was killed by Muladeva or Mitradeva, while enjoying a concert.
Another prominent king of this dynasty was Bhagabhadra. But the most prominent ruler of this dynasty was Bhagavata, who ruled for almost thirty two years. The last king of this dynasty was Devabhuti or Devabhumi.
According to the Puranas he was an incapable ruler and was given to life of ease. He was killed by his minister Vasudeva Kanva, who founded the new dynasty of Kanvas.
According to Dr. Raychaudhri, “The Sunga power was not altogether extinguished after the tragic end of Devabhumi. It probably survived in central India till the rise of so called Andharas or Satavahanas who swept away the remains of the Sunga power and probably appointed Sisunandi to govern the Vidisa region.”
The Sunga dynasty lasted for one hundred and twelve years. It not only protected the country from the invasion of the Huns but also made valuable contributions to the development of culture. The Sunga rulers encouraged the Brahman religion and literature.
As Dr. V. A. Smith says “The memorable horse sacrifice of Pushyamitra marked the beginning of Brahmanical reaction which was fully developed five centuries later in the time of Samudra Gupta and his successors.”
The Manu Samriti was also composed during this period. This Manava Dharma Sastra contained the ideals of Brahmanism and tried to re-establish these principles in society. Fine arts like architecture, painting etc. also made tremendous progress.
The stupas of Sanchi and Bharhuta belong to this period and bear testimony to the height of artistic attainments of the age. In the field of Sanskrit literature Patanjali composed the famous Mahabhasya under the patronage of the Sunga kings and thus provided an incentive to the study of the Sanskrit literature.
The Kanva Dynasty (75-30 B.C.):
The Kanva dynasty was set by Vasudeva after killing the Sunga ruler Devabhuti or Devabhumi. The dynasty lasted barely forty- five years and had four rulers in all. These four rulers were Vasudeva who ruled for nine years, Bhumirnitra who ruled for fourteen years, Narayana who ruled for twelve years and Susharma who ruled for just ten years.
The history of this period is shrouded with obscurity and we do not possess any vital source of information. However, one thing can be said with certainty that the Brahmanical reaction persisted even under the Kanvas.
After the disintegration of the Mauryan Empire the Indo-Greek rulers established their sway over Northwestern India, which they maintained for nearly two centuries. In 250 B. C. during the reign of Antiochus, the grandson of Seleukus, the provinces of Bactria and Parthia declared their independence from the Seleucid empire.
Parthia lay in the south-east of the Caspian sea, while Bactria lay further to the east and north of the Hindu Kush mountains. All the efforts of the Seleucid kings to assert their supremacy failed and it had to accept the independence of Bactria.
In course of time the Greek rulers of Bactria became very powerful and turned their attention to expansion towards India. Demetrius, ruler of Bactria, invaded India around 190 B.C. and wrested a considerable portion of the Mauryan empire in north-west.
These included Afghanistan, Sindh and major part of Punjab. While he was busy with his conquest of Indian territories Eukcratides, a military official of Demetrius, revolted in Bactria and established his independent authority. He also succeeded in conquering a part of India from Demetrius. Thus two Greek dynasties were established on the northwestern frontier of India.
While Eukcratides exercised control over West Punjab with Taxila as his capital, the East Punjab continued to be under Demetrius and his successor. These dynasties continued to rule for about 150 years and left a deep impact on the Indian culture.
The Indians learnt the art of coining from the Greeks. Henceforth the coins began to be inscribed both on the reverse and the obverse. Greeks exercised deep influence on the Indian art, sculpture, painting and architecture.
The Gandhara School of Art is the best specimen of the admixture of the ‘Indian and Greek cultures. The construction of caves was also the direct outcome of the Greek influence. The Indians learnt the art of using the chisel and hammer to give life to the stones.
The Greeks left a deep imprint on the art of astrology as well as religion. According to certain scholars the idol worship in India was the direct outcome of the Greek influence.
At the same time when Bactria severed its relations with Syria and asserted her independence, the Parthia or Persia (which formed a part of the Syrian dynasty) also declared independence under the leadership of Arsakea. This dynasty ruled for nearly five centuries. It is believed that Mithradates I, the founder king of the Parthian dynasty attempted an invasion on India and won provinces of Sindh and Jhelum.
His successor Mithradates II was a brave and courageous ruler and crushed the Sakas. The next important Parthian ruler who strove hard to maintain his authority over India was Gondophernes. It is said that St. Thomas visited India during his times with a view to spread Christianity.
However, this is not acceptable to scholars like V. A. Smith. With the death of Gondophernes the Parthian dynasty disintegrated. A number of groups cropped up which were constantly fighting against each other. Ultimately the Parthian rule was brought to an end by the Kushans.
The Sakas or Scythians:
The Sakas were nomadic tribes who were pushed towards India by the Yuehchi tribes. During the years 145 and 140 B.C. they started making advance towards India and attacked Indo-Parthians and Indo-Bactrians. They were successful in winning a victory over the deteriorating rule of the Indo- Greeks. However Mithradates II succeeded in subduing the Sakas.
Thereafter the Sakas moved towards the valley of Sindh. Some of the Saka chiefs even accepted the suzerainty of the Paxthians. After establishing themselves in Sindh the Sakas started conquering other parts of India.
Gradually they came to have sway over the areas from the west of the Yamuna to the Godavari river in the South. In Kathiawar and Saurashtra also they succeeded in establishing their authority. Thus the Sakas in India established three important kingdoms.
While two of these kingdoms had their capitals at Mathura and Taksasila respectively, the third consisted of the territories in Malwa and Kathiawar peninsula. The rulers of Mathura and Taksasila are known as Northern Satraps, while those of Malwa and Kathiawar are known, a Western Satraps.
While we possess very little information, about the Northern Satraps, we possess plenty of information about the Western Satraps. They continued to rule for over three centuries. One of the most prominent rulers of the Western Satraps was Rudradamn, We get great amount of information about him from the inscription on, a rock at Junagadh hill.
He is credited with having extended his dominions far and wide. The Western Satraps were finally crushed by Chandragupta II.
The Kushans were a section of the great nomadic race called Yuehchi. They came to India sometime in the first half of the first century A.D. under their leader Kujula and his son Vima Kadphises and established their control over North-West India.
He was succeeded by Kadphises II (78-120 A.D) who extended his empire in the Northern India. He was succeeded by Kanishka (120-162 A.D.) the most important Kushan king. His exact relationship with Vima Kadphises is not known. He is credited with victory over the Parthians and the Chinese- and the conquest of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan.
His conquest extended to Banaras in the east, Turkistan in the north, and Malwa and Gujarat in the south-west. His empire also included certain areas of Central Asia.
Purusapura (modern Peshawar) was the capital of his empire. Kanishka was also a great patron of Buddhism and the fourth General Assembly of the Buddhists is said to have been held during his reign. This Council prepared an authorized version of Buddhist scriptures. It was also during his times that Buddhism underwent transformation and Mahayanism came into existence (which had much resemblance with Hinduism).
Kanishka had three successors who ruled for almost one hundred year. These successors were Vasiska, Huviska and Vasudeva. However, nothing is known about them. The Kushana power in India suffered a decline following the rise of the two popular branches of the Naga Dynasty.
Though the Kushan rule ended in India, the Kushana kings continued to rule in Kabul and a part of the Punjab for a long time and are popularly known as Later Kushanas.
Deccan and South:
In the Deccan and South also certain empires flourished. One of the most prominent royal family was Chedi, to which belonged the famous king Kharavela. We get valuable information about him from the Hathigumpha cave in the Udayagiri Hill near Bhubaneswar.
He is depicted as a great conqueror who advanced as far as the river Krishna and overran the region around Berar and Masulipatam. He maintained friendly relations with Satavahanas in the west, but led a number of military campaigns in Northern India.
He is credited with having defeated the king of Magadha and humbled Demetrius, the Greek ruler. Kharavela also advanced in the South and defeated the Pandya king. There is no agreement amongst scholars regarding the exact period when he flourished. Most probably he belonged to the first of the second century B.C.
The kingdom of the Andhra’s existed to the west of Kalinga. We first get a mention of this kingdom in the Aitareya Brahmana,which was composed around 8th century B. C. The Andhra’s were descended from the Dravidians. During the times of Chandragupta Maurya they ruled over the territory between Godavari and Krishna rivers.
Though Chandragupta subjugated them and included them as a part of the Mauryan empire, they continued to enjoy a great deal of autonomy. After the death of Asoka, the Andhra’s threw off the Mauryan yoke and founded an independent state under Simuka, popularly known as the Satavahana dynasty.
The rulers of the Satavahana dynasty extended their kingdom and soon established their mastery over the whole of the south from sea to sea. According to the Puranas the Satavahana ruler killed the last Kanva ruler of Magadha and annexed his kingdom. However, we have no conclusive evidence to prove that the rule of the Satavahanas extended to Northern India. At the most they could reach the regions around Bhopal.
The greatest king of the Satavahana dynasty was Sacakarni I, who ascended the throne about 82 A. D. He not only defeated the Saka Satrap Nahapana and drove him out of Deccan, but also conquered a large portion of territory to the north of the Narmada.
The greatest contribution of the Satavahanas was that during the first two centuries of the Christian era they stood as “the bulwark of defence for the Deccan and were mainly instrumental in saving it from subjugation by foreign invaders”.
The last great ruler of the Satavahana dynasty was Yajna. He had four or five successors, but under them the empire began to fall to pieces. The dynasty ultimately ended around 250 A. D., although certain branch families continued to rule for some time.
A number of small kingdoms rose out of the ruins of the Andhras. These included Abhiras, the Iksvakus, the Bodhis, the Cutus, the Brhatphalayanas and Vakatakas. The last named empire played a great role in the history of Deccan between the fall of the Satavahanas and the rise of the Chalukyas in the sixth century A.D.
Pandya, Chera and Chola:
In the region lying between the south of the rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra, popularly known as South India, was also divided among several states. The three most important states in this region included Pandya, Chera and Chola. The Pandya kingdom generally associated with the Pandus of the Mahabharata covered the districts of Madura and Tinnivelly as well as certain portions of South Travancore.
The Pandya rulers excelled in trade and learning. A Pandya king is credited with having sent an embassy to the Roman Emperor Augustus in the first century B.C. The Cholas (colas) ruled over the territory of present Tanjore and Trichinopoly districts with certain other adjoining areas.
The Chola rulers were great military leaders. One of the Chola ruler Elara is said to have even conquered Ceylon. The Cera (Kerala) Kingdom covered the territory of Malabar, Cochin and North Travancore. In addition to these three prominent empires certain other smaller states also existed. But these states usually acknowledged the suzerainty of one or the other of the three leading kingdoms.
On the testimony of the Tamil literature we can say that these kingdoms were engaged in a struggle for supremacy among themselves. At times the ruler of one kingdom succeeded in establishing his supremacy viz. Karikala of the Chola dynasty, while on other occasions the ruler of the other kingdom accomplished the same feat viz. Nedunjeliyan of Cera (Kerala).