Chandragupta Maurya founded the Mauryan Empire in 326 b.c.e. in northern India. His son Bindusara and grandson Ashoka (Asoka) continued his conquest that unified the entire subcontinent, with the exception of the southern tip, and part of Afghanistan into India’s first great empire. The political and cultural achievements of the Mauryan Empire inspire Indians to the present.
Indian history began to emerge from legend in the sixth century b.c.e. with the formation of large kingdoms. One was Magadha in the Ganges Valley with its capital city at Pataliputra, near modern Patna. The trend toward large state formation was also stimulated by external conquest.
The first was in 518 b.c.e., when King Darius I of Persia conquered part of northwestern India, incorporating it into his empire. The Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great, who continued marching eastward until he reached the Indus River valley and defeated King Porus and other local rulers.
Chandragupta Maurya might have been inspired by Alexander’s example. In any case, he defeated his Indian rivals, including Magadha, established his capital at Pataliputra, and then fought Alexander’s successor in Asia, Seleucus Nicator, in 305 b.c.e. The two rulers agreed to a peace treaty that settled their boundary in Afghanistan, exchanged gifts and ambassadors, and perhaps formed a matrimonial alliance.
Seleucus’s ambassador to the Mauryan court was Megasthenes, who wrote a book of his observations on India. The original is lost, but excerpts have survived in works of other ancient writers, from which we derive much firsthand information about early Mauryan India.
Chandragupta’s minister, named Kautilya, reputedly wrote a book titled Arthasastra (Treatise on polity), which dealt with the theory and practice of government, the laws, and administration. The Arthasastra described the Mauryan Empire as a centralized bureaucratic state. The ruler was supreme commander, chief administrator, and judge.
A council of ministers, civil servants, a network of spies, and a large military, reputedly 600,000 men strong, assisted Chandragupta. Megasthenes described Pataliputra as a grand city, enclosed by a wooden wall 9 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, interspersed with gates and watchtowers, and further protected by a wide moat.
The city government consisted of six boards of five men each, in charge of different functions. The ruler lived in a sumptuous palace, his hours of work and play were strictly regulated, and when he appeared in public he either rode on an elephant or was carried in a palanquin.
Chandragupta ruled for 25 years. According to Jain tradition he abdicated in 301 b.c.e., became a Jain monk, and fasted to death. His son and successor Bindusara ruled until c. 272 b.c.e. Little is known of him except that he warred to expand the empire southward and was known as the Slayer of Foes.
He also exchanged ambassadors with the Seleucid Empire, once asking King Antiochus I to send him some Greek wine, figs, and a philosopher. Antiochus sent him wine and figs and replied that philosophers were not for sale.
Bindusara’s son Ashoka succeeded around 269–268 b.c.e., perhaps after a succession struggle. Ashoka (r. 269–232 b.c.e.) was India’s greatest ruler. He waged war to expand the empire in the south, incorporating all but the southern tip of the subcontinent.
His conquest of a state called Kalinga filled him with remorse for the death and destruction and changed his personal life and state policy. Posterity knows much about Ashoka because he had many of his edicts and pronouncements carved on stone pillars and rock surfaces; 10 inscribed pillars survive.
Most of the inscriptions are in the Brahmi script, the oldest surviving post-Indus writing; it is a phonetic alphabetical script that is the antecedent of modern Hindi.
Ashoka converted to Buddhism, became a vegetarian, and dedicated the rest of his reign to spreading Buddhism, although he honored all religions. He also discouraged hunting and encouraged people to go on pilgrimages instead.
A son and daughter became Buddhist missionaries, spreading the faith to Ceylon. He also convened the Third Buddhist Council around 240 b.c.e. at Pataliputra to deal with differences within the monastic order and to finish compiling the Buddhist canons.
He denounced immoral behavior and appointed morality officers to enforce his rules. He also renounced war, stating his intention to change people through moral persuasion; but importantly, he did not disband the army.
Life under the Mauryans was prosperous. While most people lived on farms, cities grew with increasing commerce within the empire and beyond, with China in the East and Rome in the West.
The government even established a bureau that built ships and leased them to merchants. Culture flourished. Buddhist and Jain canons were completed during this period. Other writings include religious commentaries and early versions of the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana.
It appears that Ashoka lost his grip in his later years and died around 232 b.c.e. Several sons disputed his succession, and the empire began to fall apart as local governors, many royal princes, exerted their autonomy.
Little is known about his successors except their names. Perhaps the fall of the Mauryan Empire was inevitable due to its size and diversity. In 183 b.c.e. a general killed the last Mauryan ruler and established a dynasty in northern India called the Sunga. Meanwhile, Bactrian Greeks were invading the northwestern frontier.
India would be torn apart and fragmented for almost five centuries. Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of India’s first great empire, and his minister Kautilya helped establish the institutions that sustained it.
The empire grew in size, wealth, and culture under his son and grandson, reaching its zenith under Emperor Ashoka. Its legacy to modern times is the concept of unity for the subcontinent.