The Mauryan Empire

The First Indian Empire

By the end of the Later Vedic Age about 500 B.C., a thousand years after the collapse of the Indus civilization, the Aryan invaders of India had established sixteen major kingdoms and tribal oligarchies in northern India, stretching from modern Pakistan to Bengal.

The shock of Alexander the Great's invasion of India provided the spark that led to the unification of India.

In 326 B.C. Alexander the Great, continuing his conquest of the Persian Empire (see ch. 2), brought his phalanxes into the easternmost Persian satrapy in the Indus valley, defeating local Punjab rulers.

When his weary troops refused to advance further eastward into the Ganges plain, Alexander constructed a fleet and explored the Indus to its mouth.

From there he returned overland to Babylon, while his fleet skirted the coast of the Arabian Sea and reached the Persian Gulf.

After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., the empire he had built so rapidly quickly disintegrated, and by 321 B.C. his domain in the Punjab had completely disappeared.

But he had opened routes between India and the West that would remain open during the following Hellenistic and Roman periods, and by destroying the petty states in the Punjab he facilitated - and perhaps inspired - the conquests of India's own first emperor.

Chandragupta Maurya, India's First Emperor

In 322 B.C., shortly after Alexander's death, a new era began in India. In that year Chandragupta Maurya seized the state of Magadha in the Ganges valley.

Over the next twenty-four years Chandragupta conquered northern India and founded the Maurya Dynasty, which endured until about 185 B.C. At its height the empire included all the subcontinent except the extreme south.


India's first empire reflected the imperial vision of its founder. He created an administrative system whose efficiency was not surpassed until the advent of British rule in the nineteenth century.

Chandragupta was also a brilliant general and administrator.


He was responsible for the first military victory of the East over the West; in 305 B.C. he defeated Seleucus, the general who had inherited the major part of Alexander's empire and had crossed the Indus in an attempt to regain Alexander's Indian conquests.

Seleucus gave up his Indian claims in return for five hundred war elephants and established friendly diplomatic relations with the Indian emperor.

Life In The Mauryan Empire

Seleucus' ambassador to the court of Chandragupta, whose name was Megasthenes, wrote a detailed account of India, fragments of which have survived.

They give a fascinating picture of life in the empire. Pataliputra, Chandragupta's capital known today as Patna, covered eighteen square miles and was probably the largest city in the world.

Outside its massive wooden walls was a deep trench used for defense and the disposal of sewage.

The remarkably advanced Mauryan empire was divided and subdivided into provinces, districts, and villages whose headmen were appointed by the state.

The old customary law, preserved and administered by the Brahmin priesthood, was superseded by an extensive legal code that provided for royal interference in all matters.

A series of courts ranging from the village court presided over by the headman to the emperor's imperial court administered the law.

So busy was Chandragupta with the details of his surprisingly modern administration that, according to Megasthenes, he had to hear court cases during his daily massage.

Two other agencies were very important in holding the empire together. One was the professional army, which Megasthenes reports was an incredibly large force of 700,000 men, 9000 elephants, and 10,000 chariots.

The other was the secret police, whose numbers were so large that the Greek writer concluded that spies constituted a separate class in Indian society.

So great was the danger of conspiracy that Chandragupta lived in strict seclusion, attended only by women who cooked his food and in the evening carried him to his apartment, where they lulled him to sleep with music.

Complementing this picture of an efficient but harsh bureaucracy is a remarkable book, Treatise on Material Gain (Arthashastra), written by Chandragupta's chief minister, Kautilya, as a guide for the king and his ministers.

Kautilya exalts royal power as the means of establishing and maintaining "material gain," meaning political and economic stability.

The great evil is anarchy, such as had existed among the small warring states in northern India. To achieve the aims of statecraft, Kautilya argues, a single authority is needed that will employ force when necessary.

Like Machiavelli, the Renaissance Italian author of a famous book on statecraft (The Prince), Kautilya advocates deception or unscrupulous means to attain desired ends.

The Mauryan state also controlled and encouraged economic life. Kautilya's treatise, which is thought to reflect much actual practice, advises the ruler to "facilitate mining operations," "encourage manufacturers," "exploit forest wealth," "provide amenities" for cattle breeding and commerce, and "construct highways both on land and on water."

Price controls are advocated because "all goods should be sold to the people at favorable prices," and foreign trade should be subsidized: "Shippers and traders dealing in foreign goods should be given tax exemptions to aid them in making profits."

Foreign trade did flourish, and in the bazaars of Pataliputra were displayed goods from southern India, China, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor.

Agriculture, however, remained the chief source of wealth. In theory, all land belonged to the state, which collected one fourth of the produce as taxes. Irrigation and crop rotation were practiced, and Megasthenes states that there were no famines.

Ashoka, India's Greatest King


Following Chandragupta's death in 297 B.C., his son and grandson expanded the empire southward into the Deccan Peninsula.

However, Chandragupta's grandson Ashoka (269-232 B.C.), the most renowned of all Indian rulers, was more committed to peace than to war.

His first military campaign was also his last; the cruelty of the campaign horrified him, and he resolved never again to permit such acts of butchery.


Soon thereafter he was converted to Buddhism, whose teachings increased his aversion to warfare.

Throughout his empire, Ashoka had his edicts carved on rocks and stone pillars.

They remain today as the oldest surviving written documents of India and are invaluable for appreciating the spirit and purpose of Ashoka's rule.

For example, they contain his conception of the duty of a ruler:

He shall ... personally attend the business ... of earth,

  • of sacred places, of minors, the aged, the afflicted, and the helpless, and of women .... In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness. ^2
  • [Footnote 2: Quoted in Vincent Smith, The Oxford History of India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 131]

    Although a devout Buddhist, Ashoka did not persecute the Brahmins and Hindus but proclaimed religious toleration as official policy:

    The king ... honors every form of religious faith ... ;

  • whereof this is the root, to reverence one's own faith and never to revile that of others. Whoever acts differently injures his own religion while he wrongs another's. ^3
  • [Footnote 3: Quoted in Charles Drekmeier, Kingship and Community in Early India (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962), p. 175]

    Ashoka was a successful propagator of his faith. He sent Buddhist missionaries to many lands - the Himalayan regions, Tamil Land (India's far south), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma, and even as far away as Syria and Egypt and transformed Buddhism from a small Indian sect to an aggressive missionary faith.

    Modern Indians revere his memory, and the famous lion on the capital of one of his pillars has been adopted as the national seal of the present Indian republic.

    [See Ashoka's Empire]

    Fall Of The Mauryan Empire

    Almost immediately after Ashoka's death in 232 B.C., the Mauryan Empire began to disintegrate.


    The last emperor was assassinated about 185 B.C. in a palace revolution led by a Brahmin priest.

    Some five centuries of disintegration and disorder followed. Northern India was overrun by a series of invaders, and the south broke free from northern control.

    The sudden collapse of the powerful Mauryan state, and the grave consequences that ensued have provoked much scholarly speculation.

    Some historians have felt that the fall of the Mauryas can be traced to a hostile Brahmin reaction against Ashoka's patronage of Buddhism.

    Others believe that Ashoka's doctrine of nonviolence curbed the military ardor of his people and left them vulnerable to invaders.

    More plausible explanations for the fall of the Mauryan state take into account the communications problems facing an empire than included most of the Indian subcontinent, the difficulty of financing a vast army and bureaucracy, and the intrigues of discontented regional groups within the empire.

    New Invaders Of India

    The Mauryan Empire was the first of two successful attempts to unify India in ancient times. The second - the work of the Gupta dynasty (A.D. c. 320-500) - will be described in chapter 8. In the five centuries between these two eras of imperial splendor, a succession of foreign invaders entered from the northwest and added new racial and cultural elements to the Indian scene

    South India

    With the exception of a short period during the Mauryan Empire, the vast tableland of south India - the Deccan - and its fertile coastal plains remained outside the main forces of political change in the north.

    The Dravidian peoples of this area, with their dark skin and small stature, differed in appearance, language, and culture from the Aryan-speaking peoples of the north.

    Gradually, however, as Brahmin priests and Buddhist monks infiltrated the south, Hinduism and Buddhism were grafted onto the existing Dravidian culture.

    Politically the south remained divided into numerous warring states, the most interesting being three Tamil-speaking (a Dravidian dialect) kingdoms in the far south.

    Tamil folk poetry, which describes the people at work and at play, is justly famous. By the first century B.C., Tamil Land had become an intermediary in the maritime trade extending eastward to the East Indies and westward to the Hellenistic kingdoms.

    When Augustus became head of the Roman world, the Tamil and Kushan rulers sent him congratulatory embassies.

    At least nine other embassies from India visited the Roman emperors, and Roman-Indian trade greatly increased. Indian birds (particularly talking parrots, costing more than human slaves) became the pets of wealthy Roman ladies, and Indian animals (lions, tigers, and buffaloes) were used in the wild beast shows of Roman emperors.

    In view of these contacts, we can understand why Ptolemy's second-century A.D. map of the world shows considerable knowledge of the geography of India.

    The peace and prosperity that the Kushans brought to much of northern India ended about A.D. 220.

    The collapse of the Kushan state was followed by a century of chaos and almost total obscurity before a new era of unified imperial rule, which rivaled that of the Mauryas, began in India under the Guptas.

    India: The Imperial Guptas


    After the fall of Rome, eight centuries passed before Europe began its transition to modernity. The civilizing process was more continuous in Asia, high cultures flourishing in both India and China between 300 and 1300. Their wealth and cultural achievements helped prepare the way for Western revival after the fourteenth century.

    [ This was a time of preservation, consolidation, and innovation for the old Asian civilizations. Earlier values and institutions were reaffirmed so effectively that the characteristic Hindu and Chinese culture patterns have endured down to modern times, despite frequent invasions of both homelands.

    Moreover, each civilization produced significant contributions to the world's common culture. India made remarkable advances in mathematics, medicine, chemistry, textile production, and imaginative literature.


    China excelled in political organization, scholarship, and the arts, while producing such revolutionary technical inventions as printing, explosive powder, and the mariner's compass.

    The preserving function of the Indo-Chinese heritage was reinforced by the roles of women.


    Although developing militarism and elitism emphasized

    masculine views and often contributed to the abuse of women as sex objects and playthings, older feminine values lingered on, particularly within families, where women continued to maintain traditional values and make important decisions.

    With the possible exception of Muslim women in India, they played more significant social roles than in Europe or the Middle East.

    Cultural growth in the old Asian centers led naturally toward diffusion into other locations and the emergence of fringe civilizations.

    In Southeast Asia, new civilizations rose as contacts with India and China increased through trade, missionary efforts, colonization, and conquest. First Korea, and then Japan after the seventh century, imported cultural bases from China.

    Similarly, Central Asian nomads - Turks, Uighurs, Mongols, and numerous other steppe peoples - who were just beginning to create urban civilizations in this period, learned as merchants, subjects, or conquerors from the Chinese.

    During their briefly maintained states, climaxed by the great Mongol Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they passed on to Arabs and Europeans many items in the expanding Asian culture stream.

    India: The Imperial Guptas

    Through most of the fourth and fifth centuries the monarchs of the Gupta dynasty ruled in what has been termed India's classical age. For a century, the land had suffered political disintegration while Buddhism partially replaced the old Vedic religion of the brahmins.

    The Guptas brought unity and fostered a revival of traditional religion, Sanskrit literature, and native art. During this period, Hindu culture spread widely through Southeast Asia,

    The Gupta State And Society

    The Gupta state began its rise with the accession to power of Chandra Gupta I (not related to Chandragupta Maurya) in 320.

    His son and grandson were successful conquerors, extending the boundaries of an original petty state in Maghada until it included most of northern India from the Himalayas to the Narbada River and east to west from sea to sea.

    Within this domain, the Gupta monarchs developed a political structure along ancient Mauryan lines, with provincial governors, district officials, state-controlled industries, and an imperial secret service.

    This centralized system was effective only on royal lands, however, which were much less extensive than in Mauryan times. With a smaller bureaucracy, the Gupta rulers depended upon local authorities and communal institutions, raising revenues primarily through tribute and military forces by feudal levy.

    Peace and stabilized government under the later Guptas increased agricultural productivity and foreign trade. Flourishing commerce with Rome in the last decades of the fourth century brought a great influx of gold and silver into the Empire.

    Hindu traders were also active in Southeast Asia, particularly in Burma and Cambodia, contributing to the emergence of civilizations there (see ch. 14). The resulting prosperity of India was reflected in the erection of great public buildings and in the luxuries of the elite, particularly at the Gupta court.

    Although the Gupta rulers generally practiced religious toleration, they favored Hinduism, providing the brahmins with imperial patronage, both in wealth and prestige.


    As it crystallized into a final form, Hinduism thus became dominant over Buddhism. By recognizing the validity of all religious experience - and particularly by incorporating basic Buddhist doctrines, such as nonviolence and respect for life - the traditional religion developed tremendous tenacity, lasting into modern times.


    The Hindu revival of this period brought a great upsurge of devotion to old gods, such as Vishnu and

    Siva, in a popular quest for personal identity and serenity.

    This new religious fervor was reflected in a wave of popular religious books, the Puranas, which emphasized in simple tales, the compassion of the personal gods. By promoting such emotional Hinduism, the Gupta monarchs gained great favor among all classes of their subjects.

    Much of our knowledge of Gupta society comes from the journal of a Buddhist monk, Fa-Hsien, who traveled in India for fifteen years at the opening of the fifth century.

    He reported the people to be happy, relatively free of government oppression, and inclined towards courtesy and charity. Other references in the journal, however, indicate that the caste system was rapidly assuming its basic features, including "untouchability," the social isolation of a lowest class that is doomed to menial labor.

    The caste system certainly provided security of status and occupation for many, but it also justified economic and social inequality. Gupta material prosperity was monopolized by the elite.

    Class inequality was matched by a growing inequality of the sexes. Gupta women still received the respect of their husbands and children; some women, particularly those of the upper class, were also active in the arts, commerce, and professions.

    Sometimes, upon the death of rulers, their queens became capable regents for infant sons. But growing wealth and power during the Gupta period steadily eroded the traditional status of women.

    Girls were contracted to arranged marriages at early ages and forced to live with the families of future husbands. Subordination of women was most evident in developing customs that denied widows the right to remarry and even encouraged them to commit suicide, in the suttee ceremony, by burning themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands.

    Gupta Scholarship And Science

    The Gupta era brought a great stimulus to learning. Old Vedic schools were revitalized, and Buddhist centers, which had spread after the Maurya period, were given new support.

    The foremost Indian university was at Nalanda, founded in the fifth century. Although Buddhist in its basic orientation, it tolerated all creeds and attracted students from all over Asia. The organization of Hindu philosophy into six orthodox systems, with a common concern for salvation, owed much to the Hindu-Buddhist dialogue in the Gupta universities.

    Accomplishments in art, literature, scholarship, and philosophy were not more remarkable than those in science. The most famous Gupta scientist was the astronomer-mathematician, Aryabhatta, who lived in the fifth century. He discussed (in verse) quadratic equations, solstices, and equinoxes, along with the spherical shape of the earth and its rotation.

    Other Hindu mathematicians of this period popularized the use of a special sign for zero, later passing it on to the Arabs.

    In addition to employing their skills in Yoga, Hindu physicians sterilized wounds and prepared for surgery by fumigation, performed Caesarean operations, set broken bones, and practiced plastic surgery.

    They used drugs then unknown in the West, such as chaulmoogra oil for treating leprosy, a practice still used today.

    Achievements in pure science were matched by practical applications. Gupta craftsmen made soap, cement, superior dyes, and the finest tempered steel in the world.