Biography of Chandragupta Maurya, Founder of the Mauryan Empire

Chandragupta Maurya

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Chandragupta Maurya (c. 340–c. 297 BCE) was an Indian emperor who founded the Maurya Empire, which rapidly expanded across much of India into modern-day Pakistan. Maurya did battle with Alexander the Great, who invaded the Indian kingdom in 326 BCE, and prevented the Macedonian king from conquering the far side of the Ganges. Maurya went on to unite almost all of what is now India and defeat Alexander's successors.

Fast Facts: Chandragupta Maurya

  • Known For: Maurya united ancient India under the Maurya Empire in 322 BCE.
  • Born: c. 340 BCE
  • Died: 297 BCE in Shravanabelagola, Maurya Empire
  • Spouse: Durdhara
  • Children: Bindusara

Early Life

Chandragupta Maurya was reportedly born in Patna (in the modern-day Bihar state of India) sometime around 340 BCE. Scholars are uncertain of some details about his life. For example, some texts claim that both of Chandragupta’s parents were of the Kshatriya (warrior or prince) caste, while others state that his father was a king and his mother a maid from the lowly Shudra (servant) caste.

It seems likely that Maury's father was Prince Sarvarthasiddhi of the Nanda Kingdom. Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka the Great, later claimed a blood relationship to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, but this claim is unsubstantiated.

We know almost nothing about Chandragupta Maurya’s childhood and youth before he took on the Nanda Empire, which supports the hypothesis that he was of humble origin—no records about him exist until he founded the Maurya Empire.

Maurya Empire

Chandragupta was brave and charismatic—a born leader. The young man came to the attention of a famous Brahmin scholar, Chanakya, who bore a grudge against the Nanda. Chanakya began to groom Chandragupta to conquer and rule in the place of the Nanda emperor by teaching him tactics through different Hindu sutras and helping him raise an army.

Chandragupta allied himself to the king of a mountain kingdom—perhaps the same Puru who had been defeated but spared by Alexander—and set out to conquer the Nanda. Initially, the upstart’s army was rebuffed, but after a long series of battles Chandragupta’s forces laid siege to the Nanda capital at Pataliputra. In 321 BCE the capital fell, and 20-year-old Chandragupta Maurya started his own kingdom. It was named the Maurya Empire.

Chandragupta’s new empire stretched from what is now Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar (Burma) in the east, and from Jammu and Kashmir in the north to the Deccan Plateau in the south. Chanakya served as the equivalent of a prime minister in the fledgling government.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, his generals divided up his empire into satrapies so that each of them would have a territory to rule, but by about 316, Chandragupta Maurya was able to defeat and incorporate all of the satrapies in the mountains of Central Asia, extending his empire to the edge of what is now Iran, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Some sources allege that Chandragupta Maurya may have arranged for the assassination of two of the Macedonian satraps: Philip, son of Machatas, and Nicanor of Parthia. If so, it was a very precocious act even for Chandragupta—Philip was assassinated in 326 when the future ruler of the Maurya Empire was still an anonymous teenager.

Conflicts With Southern India and Persia

In 305 BCE, Chandragupta decided to expand his empire into eastern Persia. At the time, Persia was ruled by Seleucus I Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Empire, and a former general under Alexander. Chandragupta seized a large area in eastern Persia. As part of the peace treaty that ended this war, Chandragupta gained control of that land as well as the hand of one of Seleucus’s daughters in marriage. In exchange, Seleucus received 500 war elephants, which he put to good use at the Battle of Ipsus in 301.

With as much territory as he could comfortably rule to the north and west, Chandragupta Maurya next turned his attention to the south. With an army of 400,000 (according to Strabo) or 600,000 (according to Pliny the Elder), Chandragupta conquered all of the Indian subcontinent except for Kalinga (now Odisha) on the east coast and the Tamil kingdom at the southern tip of the landmass.

By the end of his reign, Chandragupta Maurya had unified almost all of the Indian subcontinent. His grandson Ashoka would go on to add Kalinga and the Tamils to the empire.

Family Life

The only one of Chandragupta’s queens or consorts for whom we have a name is Durdhara, the mother of his first son Bindusara. However, it is believed that Chandragupta had many more consorts.

According to legend, Prime Minister Chanakya was concerned that Chandragupta might be poisoned by his enemies, and therefore started introducing small amounts of poison into the emperor’s food in order to build up a tolerance. Chandragupta was unaware of this plan and shared some of his food with his wife Durdhara when she was pregnant with their first son. Durdhara died, but Chanakya rushed in and performed an emergency operation to remove the full-term baby. The infant Bindusara survived, but a bit of his mother’s poisoned blood touched his forehead, leaving a blue bindu—the spot that inspired his name.

Little is known about Chandragupta’s other wives and children. Chandragupta's son Bindusara is likely remembered more because of his son than for his own reign. He was the father of one of India’s greatest monarchs, Ashoka the Great.

Death

When he was in his 50s, Chandragupta became fascinated with Jainism, an extremely ascetic belief system. His guru was the Jain saint Bhadrabahu. In 298 BCE, the emperor renounced his rule, handing over power to his son Bindusara. He then traveled south to a cave at Shravanabelogola, now in Karnataka. There, Chandragupta meditated without eating or drinking for five weeks until he died of starvation in a practice known as sallekhana or santhara.

Legacy

The dynasty that Chandragupta founded would rule over India and the southern part of Central Asia until 185 BCE. Chandragupta's grandson Ashoka would follow in his footsteps in several ways—conquering territory as a young man and then becoming devoutly religious as he aged. In fact, Ashoka's reign in India may be the purest expression of Buddhism in any government in history.

Today, Chandragupta is remembered as the unifier of India, like Qin Shihuangdi in China, but far less bloodthirsty. Despite a paucity of records, Chandragupta’s life story has inspired novels, movies such as 1958's “Samrat Chandragupt,” and even a 2011 Hindi-language TV series.

Sources

  • Goyal, S. R. "Chandragupta Maurya." Kusumanjali Prakashan, 1987.
  • Singh, Vasundhra. "Maurya Empire." Rudra Publishers & Distributors, 2017.