Mauryan Empire (324 BC-187 BC)

The Mauryan Empire was one of the largest empires in Indian history. At its greatest extent, stretched to the north along the natural boundaries of the Himalayas, to the east into Assam, to the west into Baluchistan (southwest Pakistan and southeast Iran) and the Hindu Kush mountains of what is now Afghanistan. The Empire was expanded into India’s central with boundary into southern regions by the emperors Chandragupta and Bindusara, but it excluded Kalinga (modern Odisha) until it was conquered by Ashoka. It declined for about 50 years after Asoka’s rule ended, and it dissolved in 185 BCE with the foundation of the Shunga dynasty in Magadha.

Under Chandragupta Maurya and his successors, internal and external trade, agriculture, and economic activities all thrived and expanded across India thanks to the creation of a single and efficient system of finance, administration, and security. The Mauryan built the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s oldest and longest major roads connecting the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia. After the Kalinga War, the Empire experienced nearly half a century of peace and security under Ashoka.

Mauryan India also enjoyed an era of social harmony, religious transformation, and expansion of the sciences and knowledge. Chandragupta Maurya’s embrace of Jainism increased social and religious renewal and reform across his society, while Asoka’s embrace of Buddhism has been said to have been the foundation of the reign of social and political peace and non-violence across all of India. Ashoka sponsored the spreading of Buddhist missionaries into Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, West Asia, North Africa, and Mediterranean Europe.

There is no unanimity concerning the ancestry of the Mauryans. The Puranas describe them as Shudras and up righteous probably because the Mauryans were mostly patrons of heterodox sects.

The Buddhist works (e.g. Mahavamsa and Mahavamshatika) have attempted to link the Mauryan dynasty with the tribe of the Sakyas to which the Buddha belonged. In the Divyavadana, Bindusara, the son of Chandragupta, is described as Kshatriya Murdabhishikta or anointed Kshatriya.

According to the Buddhist writers, the region from which the Mauryas came was full of peacocks (Mayura in Sanskrit and Mora in Pali), and hence they came to be known as the Moriya’s (Pali form of Mauryas). It is obvious from this that the Buddhists were trying to elevate the social position of Asoka and his predecessors.

Jain tradition given in Hemachandra’s Parisistaparvan relates Chandragupta as the son of the daughter of the chief of a village of peacock-tamers (Mayura-Poshaka). The use of the term ‘Vrishala’ and ‘Kula-hina’ in the Mudrarakshasa of Vishakhadatta for Chandragupta probably means that Chandragupta was a mere upstart of an unknown family.

The Greek classical writers, such as Justin, describe Chandragupta Maurya as a man of humble origin but do not mention his exact caste. The Junagarh Rock Inscription of Rudradaman (150 A.D.) mentions the Vaisya Pushyagupta as the provincial governor of the Maurya king Chandragupta. There is a reference to Pushyagupta being the brother-in-law of Chandragupta which implies that the Mauryans may have been of Vaisya origin.

Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 B.C.)

Statue of Chandragupta Maurya
Statue of Chandragupta Maurya

Chandragupta Maurya succeeded to the Nanda throne in 321 B.C. after dethroning the last Nanda ruler (Dhanananda) at the age of 25. He was the protégé of the Brahmin Kautilya, also known as Chanakya or Visnugupta, who was his guide and mentor both in acquiring the throne and in keeping it.

The acquisition of Magadha was the first step in establishing the new dynasty. Once the Ganges valley was under his control, Chandragupta moved to the north-west to exploit the power vacuum created by Alexander’s departure. The areas of the North-West fell to him rapidly.

Moving back to Central India he occupied the region north of the Narmada River. But 305 B.C. saw him back in the north-west involved in a campaign against Seleucus Nicator (Alexander’s general who gained control of most Asiatic provinces of the Macedonian empire) which Chandragupta finally won in 303 B.C. Both signed a treaty and entered into a marriage alliance.

It seems that Chandragupta made a gift of 500 elephants to the Greek general and obtained the territory across the Indus viz., the Satrapies of Paropamisadae (Kabul), Aria (Herat), Arachosia (Kandahar), and Gedrosia (Baluchistan). Seleucus’s ambassador, Megasthenes, lived for many years at the Maurya court at Patliputra and traveled extensively in the country.

According to Jaina sources (Parisistaparvan), Chandragupta embraced Jainism towards the end of his life and stepped down from the throne in favor of his son, Bindusara. Accompanied by Bhadrabahu, a Jaina saint, and several other monks he is said to have gone to Sravana Belgola near Mysore, where he deliberately starved himself to death in the approved Jaina fashion (Sallekhana).

Bindusara (297-272 B.C.)


In 297 B.C., Chandragupta was succeeded by his son Bindusara, known to the Greeks as Amitrochates (Sanskrit, Amitraghata, the destroyer of foes). Bindusara campaigned in the Deccan, extending Mauryan control in the peninsula as far south as Mysore.

He is said to have conquered the land between the two seas’, presumably the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Kalinga (modern Orissa) on the eastern coast, however, remained hostile and was conquered in the succeeding reign by Bindusara’s son Ashoka.

In foreign affairs, Bindusara maintained friendly relations with the Hellenic west established by his father. He is said to have had contacts with Antiochus I Soter, king of Syria, son of Seleucus Nicator whose ambassador, Deimachos was said to have been at his court.

A man of wide tastes and interests, he requested Antiochus I to send him some sweet wine, dried figs, and a sophist; the last being not meant for export, however, could not be sent. Pliny mentions that Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt sent Dionysius as his ambassador to India.

The Ashokavadana informs us that a revolt took place in Taxila during the reign of Bindusara when the citizens objected to the oppression of the higher officials. Bindusara sent Asoka to put an end to the revolt, which he did successfully.

Ashoka (268-232 B.C.)

Bindusara’s death in 272 B.C. led to a struggle for succession among his sons. It lasted for four years and in 268 B.C. Ashoka emerged successfully.

Ashoka's visit to the Ramagrama stupa
Ashoka’s visit to the Ramagrama stupa

According to Ashokavadana, Subhadrangi was the mother of Ashoka and it describes her as the daughter of a Brahman of Champa. The Divyavadana version largely agrees with that of the Ashokavadana. She is called Janapadakalyani, or in other versions of the same source Subhadrangi. In the Ceylonese source, Vamsatthapakasini the Queen’s mother is called Dharma.

According to legend, Ashoka as a young prince was given charge of the Viceroy ship of Ujjain. Buddhist texts inform us that a revolt took place in Taxila during the reign of Bindusara and Ashoka was sent to quell it. This he did without antagonizing the local populace. Corroboration for this may be sought in an Aramaic inscription from Taxila which refers to Priyadarshi the viceroy governor.

During his Viceroyalty of Ujjain, he fell in love with the daughter of a merchant of Vidisa, referred to as Devi or Vidisamahadevi or Sakyani. Asoka’s two other well-known queens were Karuvaki and Asandhimitra. The second queen, Karuvaki is mentioned in the Queen’s Edict inscribed on a pillar at Allahabad, in which her religious and charitable donations are referred to. She is described as the mother of Prince Tivara, the only son of Asoka to be mentioned by the name in the inscription.

As regards Asoka’s accession to the throne there is a general agreement in the sources that Ashoka was not the crown prince but succeeded after killing his brothers. There is, however, no unanimity in the texts either regarding the nature of the struggle or the number of his brothers. In one place, the Mahavamsa states that Asoka killed his elder brother to become king whereas elsewhere in the same work and also in the Dipavamsa he is said to have killed ninety-nine brothers.

The Mahavamsa states that although he put ninety-nine brothers to death, Asoka spared the life of the youngest of these, Tissa who was later made vice-regent (He retired to a life of religious devotion having come under the influence of the preacher Mahadhammarakkhita and then known by the name of Ekaviharika). After ascending the throne, Ashoka according to Taranatha spent several years in pleasurable pursuits and was consequently called Kamasoka. This was followed by a period of extreme wickedness, which earned him the name of Candasoka. Finally, his conversion to Buddhism and his subse­quent piety led him to be called Dhammasoka.

The most important event of Asoka’s reign seems to have been his conversion to Buddhism after his victorious war with Kalinga in 260 B.C. Kalinga con­trolled the routes to South India both by land and sea, and it was, therefore, necessary that it should become a part of the Mauryan Empire. The 13th Major Rock Edict vividly describes the horrors and miseries of this war and the deep remorse it caused to Ashoka. In the words of the Mauryan emperor, ‘A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished’.It has been stated in the past that he was dramatically converted to Buddhism immediately after the battle, with its attendant horrors.

Bhabra Edict, states it was only after a period of more than two years that he became an ardent supporter of Buddhism under the influence of a Buddhist monk, Upagupta. He also states his acceptance of the Buddhist creed, the faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the Samgha. Written specifically for the local Buddhist clergy, he also refers to himself as the ‘king of Magadha’, a title which he uses only on this occasion.

The Buddhist church was reorganized during his reign with the meeting of the Third Buddhist council at Patliputra in 250 B.C. under the chairmanship of Mogalliputta Tissa but the emperor himself does not refer to it in his inscrip­tions. This stresses the point that Asoka was careful to make a distinction between his personal support for Buddhism and his duty as emperor to remain unattached and unbiased in favor of any religion. The Third Buddhist Council is significant because it was the final attempt of the more sectarian Buddhists, the Theravada School, to exclude both dissidents and innovators from the Buddhist Order.

Furthermore, it was at this Council that it was decided to send missionaries to various parts of the sub-continent and to make Buddhism an actively proselytizing religion. Ashoka mentions several of his contemporaries in the Hellenic world with which he exchanged missions, diplomatic and otherwise in his 13th Major Rock Edict. These have been identified as Antiochus II Theos of Syria, (Amtiyoga) the grandson of Seleucus Nicator; Ptolemy III Philadelphus of Egypt (Tulamaya); Antigonus Gonatus of Macedonia (Antekina); Magas of Cyrene (Maka) and Alexander of Epirus (Alikyashudala).

Communications with the outside world were by now well developed. Ashokan inscriptions corrobo­rated by archaeological data are a reliable guide to the extent of the Mauryan Empire. Magadha was the home province of the Mauryas and the city of Patliputra it’s capital. Other cities mentioned in the inscriptions include Ujjain, Taxila, and Tosali near Bhubaneswar, Kosambi, and Suvarnagiri in Andhra Pradesh.

Ashokan Pillar at Patliputra
Ashokan Pillar at Patliputra

According to tradition, Kashmir was included in the Ashokan Empire and that Ashoka built the city of Srinagar. Khotan in Central Asia was also supposed to have come under Mauryan sway. The Mauryans had close connections with the areas of modern Nepal since the foothills were a part of the empire. One of Asoka’s daughters is said to have married a nobleman from the mountains of Nepal.

In the east, Mauryan influence extended as far as the Ganga delta. Tamralipti or modern Tamluk was an important port on the Bengal coast from where the ships sailed for Burma, Sri Lanka as well as for South India. Another major port on the west coast was Broach at the mouth of the Narmada.

Kandahar formed the western-most extension of the Mauryan Empire and Ashokan inscriptions mention the Gandharas, Kambojas, and the Yonas as his borderers. Through the north-west, the Mauryas maintained close contacts with their neighbors, the Seleucid Empire, and the Greek kingdoms. Mauryan relations with Sri Lanka were very close and Asoka sent his son Mahindra and daughter Sanghmitra to preach Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Ashokan inscriptions in the south mention several people with whom he was on friendly terms – the Cholas, Pandyas, Satiyaputras, and Keralaputras (Major Rock Edict II.)