THE MAURYAN EMPIRE (325 TO 185 BC):
The Mauryas occupy an important place in Indian History for three reasons. First, because it was the first true home-spun empire. Second, at its peak, its boundaries included parts of present day Afghanistan, the whole of northwestern and much of the eastern India as well as the Deccan plateau. Only the Deep South was not part of the empire and only the Mughals during their heyday and, of course, the British, controlled more land under one administration. (Please refer to the map). Third and perhaps most poignantly, this dynasty produced a ruler who was ruthless as a warrior but attained greatness once he began ruling through winning hearts rather than battles. This was the 3d Maurya ruler, the Emperor Ashoka "the Great"
The Maurya dynasty was founded by Chandragupta Maurya after he overthrew the Nanda kingdom of Magadha. His next major campaign and one that was crucial in the foundation of the empire was a war with the Greek General, Seleucus 1 Nicator in the Trans-Indus region in the year 305 BC. Seleucus was one of Alexander’s generals who founded the Seleucid dynasty in Iran. This war ended in a treaty in which Seleucus gave up the Tran-Indus provinces to Chandragupta and in return received 500 elephants. Both Chandragupta and Seleucus had a lengthy and fruitful alliance and many of the written observations of the Maurya kingdom came from some of Seleucus’ envoys. One such envoy, Megasthenes wrote a book entitled “Indica”
In addition to this work, a major contribution came from Chandragupta’s Prime Minister Chanakya (or Kautilya); this was called “Artha-Shastra”. It dealt with both political and economic matters of importance. For many centuries, additions were continually made to this influential compilation.
The second monarch of the Maurya dynasty, Bindisara ascended the throne when Chandragupta abdicated to follow the strict teachings of Mahavira and Jainism. His rule was not noted for any significant achievements but he did extend the empire southward, up to the present day Karnataka.
ASHOKA THE GREAT: (272-235 BC):
In Ashoka we find the pinnacle of the Mauryan Dynasty in terms of both its physical reach and its influence and stature in world states. The fateful event that stopped Ashoka’s campaign of empire building by war and launched his conquest of the heart of both his subjects and subjects of foreign lands occurred in 260 BC. In Kalinga, a southeast kingdom, a fierce battle was waged. While he was victorious in the battle, the slaughter of 100,000 soldiers and injury of a further 150,000 shocked Ashoka. He gave up military campaigns and decided to pursue the practice of Dharma according to the teachings of the Buddha. He sent emissaries to various neighboring and distant countries to spread this message. There is ample written evidence that he kept in touch with the contemporary Greek rulers such as Antiochus II Theos of Syria, Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, Magas of Cyrene as well as the Egyptian monarch Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Through erecting edicts all across India and the southern neighbor Sinhala (Sri Lanka) he was instrumental in spreading Buddhism all across the subcontinent
The Mauryan Government, Economy and Society:
This empire was a centralized bureaucracy with the Emperor at the helm. Through his ministers, his extensive travels throughout his empire and through the edicts, Ashoka kept in touch with his subjects. The main source of income was the land revenues and to a lesser extent, from trade. Both the land and the produce of the land were taxed. The society was structured around endogamous castes - philosophers( which included the priests and monks and religious teachers), soldiers, herdsmen, artisans, magistrates and councilors) and the professions were considered hereditary.
The empire was divided into four provinces, each ruled by a prince. These provinces were then divided into smaller denominations, which were headed by local officers. The most powerful local officer in a city was the City Superintendent (“nagaraka”).
The Ashoka Pillars:
During this golden age of Indian civilization, Ashoka is remembered for many an innovation, which would make any contemporary Indian ruler proud. Across his empire Ashoka had constructed wide roads lined on either side by shade trees (avenues) and for the tired and thirsty traveler wells and stored water were provided at stations. He constructed hospitals for caring for the sick (by any standard, a very enlightened measure that few other ancient monarchs in world history can boast) and warned against wanton destruction of forests as that would spell ecological disaster.
All the above accomplishments pale in significance to the role he played in spreading Buddhism throughout India and the rest of Asia. And in this process, a prominent role was played by his famous edicts inscribed on the pillars that he erected all across India. These pillars are now known as Ashoka Pillars, they were made of polished sandstones and were erected on bases which are called Stupas. The most famous of these is the one at Sarnath, sporting the heads of four lions on top. These images have been immortalized by modern India as the National Emblem (see our link at the beginning of “Historical India”). Also, immortalized was the “Wheel of Dharma” found on the base holding the animals as it is now in the middle of the Indian flag. The pillars were virtual emissaries from Ashoka as they carried inscriptions in “Prakrit” form of Sanskrit on the practice of Dharma (variously interpreted as one’s duty, universal law, the social order or righteousness). Very few of these pillars still survive but each sported the image of at least one animal’s head on top; besides lions, elephants and bulls were other examples.