The Maurya Empire  322 - 185 BC

 

Sanchi Gate and Stupa, built at time of Asoka

 

In 321 BCE, exiled general Chandragupta Maurya, under direct patronage of the genius of Chanakya, founded the Maurya dynasty after overthrowing the reigning king Dhana Nanda.This period was known as the "Golden Age of India." during which Hinduism and Buddhism spread to much of south-east Asia.

 

The Mauryan Empire and the location of its capital Pataliputra

 

Originating from the kingdom of Magadha in the Indo-Gangetic plains (modern Bihar and Bengal) in the eastern side of the sub-continent, the empire had its capital city at Pataliputra (near modern Patna). The Empire was founded in 322 BCE by Chandragupta Maurya, who had overthrown the Nanda Dynasty and began rapidly expanding his power westwards across central and western India taking opportunistic advantage of the disruptions of local powers in the wake of the withdrawal westward by Alexander the Great's Macedonian and Persian armies. By 316 BCE the empire had fully occupied Northwestern India, defeating and conquering the satraps left by Alexander.

 

At its greatest extent, the Empire stretched to the north along the natural boundaries of the Himalayas, and to the east stretching into what is now Assam. To the west, it reached beyond modern Pakistan and significant portions of what is now Afghanistan, including the modern Herat and Kandahar provinces. The Empire was expanded into India's central and southern regions by Emperor Bindusara, but it excluded a small portion of unexplored tribal and forested regions near Kalinga.

 

The Mauryan Empire was perhaps the largest empire to rule the Indian subcontinent until the arrival of the British. Its decline began fifty years after Ashoka's rule ended, and it dissolved in 185 BCE with the foundation of the Sunga Dynasty in Magadha.

 

 

Under Chandragupta, the Mauryan Empire conquered the trans-Indus region, which was under Macedonian rule.Under Chandragupta and his successors, both internal and external trade, and 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.

 

2001 Indian movie about Asoka

 

Ashoka the Great   r. 273 BC-232 BC

 

Chandragupta's grandson Ashokavardhan Maurya, better known as Ashoka the Great (ruled 273- 232 BCE), is considered by contemporary historians to be perhaps the greatest of Indian monarchs . As a young prince, Ashoka was a brilliant commander who crushed revolts in Ujjain and Taxila. As monarch he was ambitious and aggressive, re-asserting the Empire's superiority in southern and western India. But it was his conquest of Kalinga  ( The Kalinga War 265-264 BC was a war fought between the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka the Great and the state of Kalinga, located on the coast of the present-day Indian state of Orissa ) which proved to be the pivotal event of his life. Although Ashoka's army succeeded in overwhelming Kalinga forces of royal soldiers and civilian units, an estimated 100,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in the furious warfare, including over 10,000 of Ashoka's own men. Hundreds of thousands of people were adversely affected by the destruction and fallout of war. When he personally witnessed the devastation, Ashoka began feeling remorse, and he cried 'what have I done?'. Although the annexation of Kalinga was completed, Ashoka embraced the teachings of Gautama Buddha, and renounced war and violence. For a monarch in ancient times, this was an historic feat.

Ashoka implemented principles of ahimsa by banning hunting and violent sports activity and ending indentured and forced labor (many thousands of people in war-ravaged Kalinga had been forced into hard labor and servitude). While he maintained a large and powerful army, to keep the peace and maintain authority, Ashoka expanded friendly relations with states across Asia and Europe, and he sponsored Buddhist missions. He undertook a massive public works building campaign across the country. Over 40 years of peace, harmony and prosperity made Ashoka one of the most successful and famous monarchs in Indian history. He remains an idealized figure of inspiration in modern India.

 

Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260-218 BC)

 

The Edicts of Ashoka, set in stone, are found throughout the Subcontinent. Ranging from as far west as Afghanistan and as far south as Andhra (Nellore District), Ashoka's edicts state his policies and accomplishments. Although predominantly written in Prakrit, two of them were written in Greek, and one in both Greek and Aramaic. Ashoka's edicts refer to the Greeks, Kambojas, and Gandharas as peoples forming a frontier region of his empire. They also attest to Ashoka's having sent envoys to the Greek rulers in the West as far as the Mediterranean. The edicts precisely name each of the rulers of the Hellenic world at the time such as Amtiyoko (Antiochus), Tulamaya (Ptolemy), Amtikini (Antigonos), Maka (Magas) and Alikasudaro (Alexander) as recipients of Ashoka's proselytism. The Edicts also accurately locate their territory "600 yojanas away" (a yojanas being about 7 miles), corresponding to the distance between the center of India and Greece (roughly 4,000 miles). The inscriptions proclaim Ashoka's beliefs in the Buddhist concept of dharma ("righteousness") and his efforts to develop the dharma throughout his kingdom. Although Buddhism and the Buddha are mentioned, the edicts of Ashoka tend to focus on social and moral precepts rather than religious practices. No mention is made of the philosophical dimension of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path. This could possibly be because Ashoka wanted to remain simple in his message to the public, because these notions may have been formalized at a later date, or some combination of the two.

 

The reign of Ashoka Maurya could easily have disappeared into history as the ages passed by, and would have, had he not left behind a record of his trials. The testimony of this wise king was discovered in the form of magnificently sculpted pillars and boulders with a variety of actions and teachings he wished to be published etched into the stone. What Ashoka left behind was the first written language in India since the ancient city of Harappa. Rather than Sanskrit, the language used for inscription was the current spoken form called Prakrit.

 

Edicts of Ashoka

 

After the Kalinga War, the Empire experienced half a century of peace and security under Ashoka: India was a prosperous and stable empire of great economic and military power whose political influence and trade extended across Western and Central Asia and Europe. Mauryan India also enjoyed an era of social harmony, religious transformation, and expansion of the sciences and of knowledge. Chandragupta Maurya's embrace of Jainism increased social and religious renewal and reform across his society, while Ashoka's embrace of Buddhism was the foundation of the reign of social and political peace and non-violence across all of India. Ashoka sponsored the spreading of Buddhist ideals into Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, West Asia and Mediterranean Europe.

Lion Capital of Asoka

 

Chandragupta's minister Kautilya Chanakya wrote the Arthashastra, one of the greatest treatises on economics, politics, foreign affairs, administration, military arts, war, and religion ever produced in the East. Archaeologically, the period of Mauryan rule in South Asia falls into the era of Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW). The Arthashastra and the Edicts of Ashoka are primary sources of written records of the Mauryan times. The Mauryan empire is considered one of the most significant periods in Indian history. The Lion Capital of Asoka at Sarnath, is the emblem of India.

 

Decline and fall of the Maurya Empire

 

The Sunga Dynasty was established in 185 BC, about fifty years after Ashoka's death, when the king Brihadratha, the last of the Mauryan rulers, was murdered by the then commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pusyamitra Sunga. The Kanva dynasty replaced the Sunga dynasty, and ruled in the eastern part of India from 71 BCE to 26 BCE. In 30 BCE, the southern power swept away both the Kanvas and Sungas. Following the collapse of the Kanva dynasty, the Satavahana dynasty of the Andhra kingdom replaced the Magadha kingdom as the most powerful Indian state.

 

Trade with Rome

 

Roman trade with India started around 1 CE following the reign of Augustus and his conquest of Egypt, theretofore India's biggest trade partner in the West.

The trade started by Eudoxus of Cyzicus in 130 BCE kept increasing, and according to Strabo , by the time of Augustus up to 120 ships were setting sail every year from Myos Hormos (a Red Sea port constructed by the Ptolemies around the 3rd century BC )  to India. So much gold was used for this trade, and apparently recycled by the Kushans for their own coinage, that Pliny complained about the drain of specie to India.

 

< Persians and Greeks                            Home                          Gupta Empire >