The Mauryan Empire

With the foundation of the Mauryan Empire, political unity was achieved in India for the first time. Due to the accuracy of chronology and sources, the history writing of this era also becomes clear.

  • The Mauryan dynasty was founded by Chandragupta Maurya who took advantage of the Nandas in the last days of their rule.
  • He overthrew the Nandas with the help of Kautilya and established the rule of the Maurya dynasty.

Sources of the Mauryan Empire

Literary Sources:
Kautilya’s Arthasatra:

Kautilya has written the book Arthasatra in language Sanskrit, a contemporary of Chandragupta Maurya.

  • Kautilya was also called ‘Indian Machiavelli’. His other name was Chanakya.
  • The manuscript of Arthasastra was first discovered by R. Sharma Sastri in 1904.
  • The Arthasastra contains 15 books and 180 chapters but it can be divided into three parts i.e., the first one deals with the king; the second with civil and criminal law; and the third with diplomacy and war.
  • Arthasastra is the most important literary source for the history of the Mauryans.

Mudrarakshasa the book written by Visakhadatta is a drama in Sanskrit. It is a drama in the Sanskrit language.

  • The book Mudrarakshsa was written during the Gupta period, but also it describes how Chandragupta with the assistance of Kautilya overthrew the Nandas.
  • The books also provide a picture of the socioeconomic condition under the Mauryas.

The book Indica was written by Megasthenese, the Greek ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. However, the book does not survive in full but its fragments are associated and contain very useful pieces of information.

  • The book gives details about the Mauryan administration, particularly focused on the capital city Patliputra and military organization.
  • His picture of contemporary social life is notable, but also the books consist of some unbelievable information.

Other literary sources: Apart from these books, the Puranas and Buddhist literature such as jataka also provide information on the Mauryas.

The Ceylonese Chronicles Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa also throw light on the role of Asoka in spreading Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Archaeological Sources of the Mauryan Empire:

Edicts of Asoka:

The inscriptions of Asoka were first deciphered by James Princep in 1837. These inscriptions were written in the Pali language and in some places Prakrit was used. The inscription found in Northwestern India were written in Kharoshti script.

These rock edicts of Asoka are classified into Major Rock Edicts, Minor Rock Edicts, Separate Rock Edicts, Major Pillar Edicts, and Minor Pillar Edicts.

  • The name Asoka occurs in copies of Minor Rock Edict I found at three places in Karnataka, and at one in MP. So the name Asoka together occurs four times.
  • The inscription does not carry his name mentioning only devanampiya piyadasi, meaning ‘dear to the gods’.
  • There are 14 major rock edicts.
  • The two Kalinga edicts are found in the newly conquered territory.
  • The major pillar edicts were erected in important cities.
  • These Asokan edicts consist of the instruction given by Asoka to his officials, and also deals with Dhamma.
  • The XIII rock edit gives a summary of Asoka’s efforts to promote the Dhamma within his kingdom.
  • The Asokan inscriptions remain valuable sources for the study of Asoka and the Mauryan Empire.

Important Rulers of the Mauryan Empire:

Chandragupta Maurya (322-298 BC):

Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the Mauryan Empire. He captured Pataliputra from Dhanananda, the last ruler of the Nada dynasty with the help of Chanakya or Vishnugupta.

  • Chandragupta marched to the northwest and subdued the territories up to the Indus, then he moved to Central India and occupied the region north of the Narmada river.
  • So the territories of Chandragupta were a vast empire that included not only Bihar and a substantial part of Orrisa and Bengal but also western and northwestern India, and the Deccan.
  • according to Pliny a roman writer, Chandragupta maintained 600,000-foot soldiers, 30,000 cavalrymen, and 9000 elephants.
  • Another source says that the Mauryans maintained 8000 chariots.
  • He marched against Seleucus Niketar in 305 BC. Seleucus Niketar was Alexander’s General who was controlling northwestern India.
  • Chandragupta defeated Seleucus Nikater and a treated signed between them, according to the treaty, Selukas Niketar ceded the trans-Indus territories namely Aria, Arachosia, and Gedrosia – to the Mauryan Empire.
  • Seleucus also gave his daughter in marriage to the Mauryan Prince.
  • Chandragupta has given 500 elephants to Seleucus as a gift.
  • Megasthenese was sent to the Mauryan court as a Greek ambassador.

Chandragupta embraced Jainism toward the end of his life and went to Sravan Belgola along with Jain monks led by Bhadrabahu and starved himself to death.

Bindusara (298-273 BC):

Bindusara the son of Chandragupta is said to have conquered the Deccan up to Mysore. In Greek, he was also known as ‘Amitraghata’ meaning slayer of enemies.

  • A Tibetan monk Taranatha stated that the Bindusara conquered sixteen states comprising ‘the land between the two seas’.
  • The Sangam Tamil literature also confirms the Mauryan invasion of the far south.
  • So, it is clear to assume that the Mauryan Empire was extended up to Mysore under the Bindusara.
  • Syrian king Antiochus I sent Deimachus as an ambassador to the court of Bindusara.
  • Bindusara wrote Antiochus I asking for sweet wine, dried figs, and a sophist. As Greek law prohibited sending a sophist, so Antiochus I sent all but a sophist.
  • Bindusara supported Ajivikas, a religious sect.
  • Bindusara appointed his son Asoka as the governor of Ujjain.
Asoka (273-232 BC):

Asoka acted as Governor of Ujjain and also surpassed a revolt in Taxila during the reign of his father Bindusara.

Asoka’s accession to the throne was 273 BC and his actual coronation is 269 BC, the four-year gap between these events shows there was a struggle for the throne after the death of Binduasra.

  • According to the Ceylonese Chronicle, Dipavamsa, and Mahavamsa, Asoka captured power after killing his ninety-nine brothers including his elder brother Susima. The younger brother Tissa was spared.
  • According to Taranatha of Tibet, Asoka killed only six of his brothers. Asoka’s edicts also refer to his brothers acting as officers in his administration.
  • However, it is clear that the succession of Asoka was a disputed one.
Kalinga war and its impact:

After his accession to the throne, Asoka fought only one major war called the Kalinga war. The victorious war with Kalinga in 261 BC was one of the most important events in the reign of Asoka.

In rock edict XIII Asoka described the war as “A hundred and fifty thousand were killed and many times that number perished…”.

Impact of the Kalinga war:

  • (According to Asoka “100,000 people were killed in course of the war, several lakh died, 150,000 were taken to prison” the number is exaggerated because it was a hundred thousand’ used in Asoka’s inscription.)
  • The war caused great suffering to the Brahmana priests, and Buddhist monks, and this turn brought upon Ashoka much grief and remorse.
  • Therefore, he abandoned the policy of physical occupation in favour of one cultural conquest.
  • After the war, Asoka annexed Kalinga to the Mauryan empire.
  • He asked tribal people to follow the policy of Dhamma.
  • He no longer treated foreign dominions as legitimate areas for military conquest.
  • He took steps for the welfare of men and animals in foreign lands.
  • Another important effect of the Kalinga war was that Asoka embraced Buddhism under the influence of the Buddhist monk, Upagupta.

Asoka and Buddhism:

According to some scholars, the conversion of Asoka to Buddhism was gradual, so here we see some important points related to his conversion:

  • About 261 BC Asoka became a Sakya Upasaka (lay disciple) and 2.5 years later a Bhikshu (Monk).
  • After becoming a monk he gave up hunting, visited Bodh-Gaya, and organized missions.
  • Asoka appointed special officers called Dharma Mahamatras to spread Buddhism.
  • He also visited Lumbini, near Kapilvastu in 241 BC, the birthplace of Buddha.
  • He visited holy places of Buddhism like Sarnath, Sravasti, and Kushinagar.
  • Asoka sent a mission to Sri Lanka under his son Mahendra and daughter Sangamitra who planted there the branch of the original Bodhi tree.
  • He convened the third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra in 240 BC. for the strengthened position of Sangha, which was presided over by Moggaliputta Tissa.
Dhamma policy of Asoka:

As we all know Asoka embraced Buddhism and took efforts to spread Buddhism, the policy of Dhamma had also a broad concept.

Dhamma was a way of life, a code of conduct, and a set of principles to be adopted and practiced by the people at large.

  • Dhamma signifies a general code of conduct, and Asoka wished that Dhamma should spread through all social levels.
  • In the edicts of Asoka, the principles of Dhamma were clearly stated, the main features of Asoka’s Dhamma as mentioned in his various edicts may be summed as follows:
  • The practice of Ahimsa, Service to father and mother, love of truth, reverence to teachers, and good treatment to relatives.
  • Prohibition of animal sacrifices and festive gatherings and avoiding expensive and meaningless ceremonies and rituals.
  • Efficient organization of administration in the direction of social welfare and maintenance of constant contact with people through the system of Dhammayatras.
  • Humane treatment of servants by masters and prisoners by government officials.
  • Consideration and non-violence to animals and courtesy to relations and liberty to Brahmins.
  • Tolerance among all the religious sects.
  • conquest through Dhamma instead of through war.

Mauryan Administration

Central Government:

The Mauryans established the triumph of monarchy in India, and the systems like republics and oligarchies that were prevalent in pre-Mauryan India had collapsed.

Kautilya supported the monarchical form of government, he did not stand for royal absolutism.

Mantriparishad: Kautilya advocated the king should take the advice of the ministry in administration, therefore, a council of ministers called Mantriparishad assisted the king in administrative matters.

  • The mantriparishad consisted of Purohita, Mahamantri, Senapati, and Yuvaraja.
  • The day-to-day administration was under Amatyas (civil servant).
  • Kautilya elaborated on the method of selection of Amatyas.
  • Dhamma Mahamatras were appointed by Asoka.
  • There was a well-organized civil service in the state of Asoka.
Revenue Department of Mauryas:

The chief of the revenue department was called Samharta, who was in charge of the collection of all revenues of the empire.

  • The revenue in the Maurya age came from the land, irrigation, customs, shop tax, ferry tax, forest, mines and pastures, license fees from craftsmen, and fines collected in the law courts.
  • The land revenue was one-sixth of the produce.
  • The items of expenditure of the state related to the king and his household, army, government servants, public works, poor relief, religion, etc.
  • The Mauryan army was well organized and it was under the control of Senapati.
  • The salaries of the army were paid in cash.
  • According to Greek author Pliny, the Mauryan army consisted of 600,000-foot soldiers, thirty thousand cavalries, nine thousand elephants, and eight thousand chariots.
  • In addition to these four wings, there were the navy and the transport and supply wings.
  • Each wing was controlled by Adhyakshas or Superintendents.
  • According to Megasthenes the six boards consisting five members, each to control the six wings of the military.
Department of Commerce and Industry:
  • The department of commerce and industry controlled the retail and wholesale prices of goods. The officers of this department are called Adyakshas who also ensure the steady supply of goods.
  • It also controlled weights and measures, levied custom duties, and regulated foreign trade.
Judicial and Police Departments:

Dharmathikarin: It was the chief justice of the Supreme court at the capital.

There was the existence of both civil and criminal courts. There were also subordinate courts at the provincial capitals and districts under Amatyas.

  • Different kinds of punishment such as fines, imprisonment, mutilation, and death were given to the offenders.
  • Torture was employed to extract the truth.
  • There were police stations in all principal centers.
  • There is mention of jail, and jail officials in the edicts of both Kautilyas and Asoka.
  • The remission of sentences is also mentioned in Asoka’s inscriptions.
  • There was a provision for Census on regular basis in the Mauryan age. It appears to be the permanent institution in the Mauryan administration.
  • There were village officials who records the number, caste, occupation, and other details of people. The count of animals is also in each house.
  • The municipal officers were appointed for the census in town. They were to track the movement of the population both foreign and indigenous.
  • The collected data were cross-checked by the spies.
Provincial and Local Administration:

The Mauryan empire was divided into four provinces with their capital at Taxila, Ujjain, Suvarnagiri, and Kalinga.

  • The provincial governors were mostly appointed by the members of the royal family, and they were responsible for the maintenance of law and order, and tax collection.
  • Rajukas: The position and function of Rajukas were similar to modern collectors. The administration of the district was under them.
  • Rajuka was assisted by Yuktas or subordinate officials.
  • The village administration was under the control of Gamini and his official superior Gopa who was in charge of 10 or 15 villages.
  • Municipal administration: Both Kautilya and Megasthenese described the system of Municipal administration.
  • Nagarika or city superintendent: There is a full chapter on them in Arthasastra. His chief duty was to maintain law and order.
  • Megasthenese refers to the six committees of five members each to look after the administration of Pataliputra. They look after:
    1. Industries
    2. Foreigners
    3. registration of Birth and death
    4. Trade
    5. Manufacture and sale of goods
    6. Collection of sales tax

Art and Architecture in Mauryan Empire:

The Mauryan made a remarkable contribution to art and Architecture. The artistic remains of the Mauryan period are in the following forms:

Pillars: The pillars of Asoka are the finest specimen of Mauryan art, these were found in places like Delhi Allahabad, Rummindai, Sanchi, and Sarnath.

  • The top of the pillars was crowned with figures of animals like lions, elephants, and bulls.
  • The Sarnath pillar with four lions standing back to back is most magnificent.
  • The Indian government adopted this capital with some modifications as its state emblem.

Stupas: A number of stupas were built throughout Asoka’s empire, but a majority of them were destroyed during foreign invasions.

The Sanchi stupa is the best example with massive dimensions. The Sanchi stupa was originally built with bricks but later enlarged after the time of Asoka.


Asoka and his son Dasaratha presented caves to Ajivikas. The caves remain the important heritage of the Mauryans.

  • The interior walls are polished like mirrors. These caves were meant to be residences of monks.
  • The caves at Barabar hills near Bodh Gaya are wonderful pieces of Mauryan architecture.

Causes for the decline of the Mauryan Empire:

The causes for the decline of Mauryans have been widely debated by scholars. According to the traditional approach, the main known cause for the decline can be said that “Asoka’s policies” and his weak successors.

There are multiple causes for the decline of the Mauryan empire such as weak successor, the partition of the empire, and administrative abuses after Asoka’s reign:

  • The inadequate political and economic institutions to sustain a vast empire.
  • The financial crisis was also a major cause of the decline of Mauryan. There was enormous expenditure on the army and payment to the bureaucracy which caused a financial crisis.
  • Oppressive Rule in the provinces was also an important cause of the decline of the empire.
  • The Mauryan rule was later divided into the Western part and the Eastern Part; The western part collapsed due to the Bacterian invasion. The eastern part was ruled by Dasharatha, the Grandson of Asoka.
  • Last Mauryan king Brihadratha was assassinated by Pusyamitra Sunga.


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Post-Mauryan India and Central Asian Contacts - PCSSTUDIES · January 3, 2023 at 5:58 pm

[…] successors of Asoka were not able to keep the vast Empire intact, after the death of Asoka. The provinces started […]

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