The Mauryan Empire Was the First Dynasty to Rule Most of India

Buddhist Stupas at Sanchi, Built by Ashoka
Stupas of Sanchi, UNESCO World Heritage site, built by King Ashoka, Mauryan dynasty, Sanchi, Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, North India, India, Asia. Olaf Krüger / ImageBroker / Getty Images

The Mauryan Empire (324–185 BCE), based in the Gangetic plains of India and with its capital city at Pataliputra (modern Patna), was one of many small political dynasties of the early historic period whose development included the original growth of urban centers, coinage, writing, and eventually, Buddhism. Under the leadership of Ashoka, the Mauryan Dynasty expanded to include most of the Indian subcontinent, the first empire to do so.

Described in some texts as a model of efficient economic management, Maurya's wealth was established in land and sea trade with China and Sumatra to the east, Ceylon to the south, and Persia and the Mediterranean to the west. International trade networks in goods such as silks, textiles, brocades, rugs, perfumes, precious stones, ivory, and gold were exchanged within India on roads tied into the Silk Road, and also through a thriving merchant navy.

King List/Chronology

There are several sources of information about the Mauryan dynasty, both in India and in the Greek and Roman records of their Mediterranean trading partners. These records agree on the names and reigns of five leaders between 324 and 185 BCE.

  • Chandragupta Maurya 324–300 BCE
  • Bindusara 300–272 BCE
  • Asoka 272–233 BCE
  • Dasaratha 232–224
  • Brihadratha (assassinated in 185 BCE)

Founding

The origins of the Mauryan dynasty are somewhat mysterious, leading scholars to suggest that the dynastic founder was likely of a non-royal background.

Chandragupta Maurya established the dynasty in the last quarter of the 4th century BCE (circa 324–321 BCE) after Alexander the Great had left Punjab and the northwestern parts of the continent (circa 325 BCE).

Alexander himself was only in India between 327–325 BCE, after which he returned to Babylon, leaving several governors in his place.

Chandragupta ousted the leader of the small Nanda Dynasty polity ruling the Ganges Valley at the time, whose leader Dhana Nanda was known as Agrammes/Xandrems in Greek classical texts. Then, by 316 BCE, he also had removed most of the Greek governors, expanding the Mauryan realm to the northwest frontier of the continent.

Alexander's General Seleucus

In 301 BCE, Chandragupta battled Seleucus, Alexander's successor and the Greek governor who controlled the eastern sector of Alexander's territories. A treaty was signed to resolve the dispute, and the Mauryans received Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan), Paraopanisade (Kabul), and Gedrosia (Baluchistan). Seleucus received 500 war elephants in exchange.

In 300 BCE, Chandragupta's son Bindusara inherited the kingdom. He is mentioned in Greek accounts as Allitrokhates/Amitrokhates, which likely refers to his epithet "amitraghata" or "slayer of foes". Although Bindusara did not add to the empire's real estate, he did maintain friendly and solid trade relationships with the west.

Asoka, Beloved of the Gods

The most famous and successful of the Mauryan emperors was Bindusara's son Asoka, also spelled Ashoka, and known as Devanampiya Piyadasi ("the beloved of the gods and of beautiful looks").

He inherited the Mauryan kingdom in 272 BCE. Asoka was considered a brilliant commander who crushed several small revolts and began an expansion project. In a series of terrible battles, he expanded the empire to include most of the Indian subcontinent, although how much control he maintained after the conquering is debated in scholarly circles.

In 261 BCE, Asoka conquered Kalinga (present day Odisha), in an act of terrible violence. In an inscription known as the 13th Major Rock Edict (see full translation), Asoka had carved:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas. 

At its height under Asoka, the Mauryan empire included land from Afghanistan in the north to Karnataka in the south, from Kathiawad in the west to northern Bangladesh in the east.

Inscriptions

Much of what we know of the Mauryans comes from Mediterranean sources: although the Indian sources never mention Alexander the Great, the Greeks and Romans certainly knew of Asoka and wrote of the Mauryan empire. The Romans such as Pliny and Tiberius were particularly unhappy with the huge drain on resources required to pay for Roman imports from and through India. In addition, Asoka left written records, in the form of inscriptions on native bedrock or on movable pillars. They are the earliest inscriptions in South Asia.

These inscriptions are found in more than 30 places. Most of them were written in a type of Magadhi, which may have been Ashoka's official court language. Others were written in Greek, Aramaic, Kharosthi, and a version of Sanskrit, depending on their location. They include Major Rock Edicts at sites located on the bordering regions of his realm, Pillar Edicts in the Indo-Gangetic valley, and Minor Rock Edicts distributed all over the realm. The subjects of the inscriptions were not region-specific but instead consist of repetitive copies of texts attributed to Asoka.

In the eastern Ganges, especially near the India-Nepal border that was the heartland of the Mauryan Empire, and the reported birthplace of the Buddha, highly polished monolithic sandstone cylinders are carved with Asoka's scripts.

These are relatively rare—only a dozen are known to survive—but some are more than 13 meters (43 feet) tall.

Unlike most Persian inscriptions, Asoka's are not focused on the aggrandizement of the leader, but rather convey royal activities in support of the then-nascent religion of Buddhism, the religion that Asoka embraced after the disasters at Kalinga.

Buddhism and the Mauryan Empire

Prior to Asoka's conversion, he, like his father and grandfather, was a follower of the Upanishads and philosophical Hinduism, but after experiencing the horrors of Kalinga, Asoka began to support the then fairly esoteric ritual religion of Buddhism, adhering to his own personal dhamma (dharma). Although Asoka himself called it a conversion, some scholars argue that Buddhism at this time was a reform movement within the Hindu religion.

Asoka's idea of Buddhism included absolute allegiance to the king as well as a cessation of violence and hunting. Asoka's subjects were to minimize sin, do meritorious deeds, be kind, liberal, truthful, pure, and grateful. They were to avoid fierceness, cruelty, anger, jealousy, and pride. "Do seemly behavior to your parents and teachers," he cajoled from his inscriptions, and "be kind to your slaves and servants." "Avoid sectarian differences and promote the essence of all religious ideas." (as paraphrased in Chakravarti)

In addition to the inscriptions, Asoka convened the Third Buddhist Council and sponsored the construction of some 84,000 brick and stone stupas honoring the Buddha.

He built the Mauryan Maya Devi Temple on the foundations of an earlier Buddhist temple and sent his son and daughter to Sri Lanka to spread the doctrine of dhamma.

But Was it a State?

Scholars are strongly divided as to how much control Asoka had over the regions he conquered. Often the limits of the Mauryan empire are determined by the locations of his inscriptions.

Known political centers of the Mauryan Empire include the capital city of Pataliputra (Patna in Bihar state), and four other regional centers at Tosali (Dhauli, Odisha), Takshasila (Taxila, in Pakistan), Ujjayini (Ujjain, in Madhya Pradesh) and Suvanergiri (Andhra Pradesh). Each of these was ruled by princes of the royal blood. Other regions were said to be maintained by other, non-royal people, including Manemadesa in Madhya Pradesh, and Kathiawad in western India.

But Asoka also wrote of known but unconquered regions in south India (Cholas, Pandyas, Satyputras, Keralaputras) and Sri Lanka (Tambapamni). The most telling evidence for some scholars is the rapid disintegration of the empire after Ashoka's death.

Collapse of the Mauryan Dynasty

After 40 years in power, Ashoka died in the invasion by Bactrian Greeks at the end of the 3rd c BCE. Most of the empire disintegrated at that time. His son Dasaratha ruled next, but only briefly, and according to the Sanskrit Puranic texts, there were a number of short-term leaders. The last Maurya ruler, Brihadratha, was killed by his commander-in-chief, who founded a new dynasty, less than 50 years after Ashoka's death.

Primary Historical Sources

  • Megasthenes, who as the Seleucid envoy to Patna wrote a description of Maurya, the original of which is lost but several pieces are excerpted by the Greeks historians Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Arrian
  • The Arthasastra of Kautilya, which is a compilation treatise on Indian statecraft. One of the authors was Chanakya, or Kautilya, who served as chief minister in Chandragupta's court
  • Asoka's inscriptions on rock surfaces and pillars

Fast Facts

Name: Mauryan Empire

Dates: 324–185 BCE

Location: Gangetic plains of India. At its largest, the empire stretched from Afghanistan in the north to Karnataka in the south, and from Kathiawad in the west to northern Bangladesh in the east.

Capital: Pataliputra (modern Patna)

Estimated population: 181 million 

Key locations: Tosali (Dhauli, Odisha), Takshasila (Taxila, in Pakistan), Ujjayini (Ujjain, in Madhya Pradesh) and Suvanergiri (Andhra Pradesh)

Notable leaders: Established by Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka (Ashoka, Devanampiya Piyadasi)

Economy: Land and sea trade based

Legacy: First dynasty to rule over most of India. Helped popularize and expand Buddhism as a major world religion.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Mauryan Empire Was the First Dynasty to Rule Most of India." ThoughtCo, Mar. 7, 2018, thoughtco.com/maurya-empire-4160055. Hirst, K. Kris. (2018, March 7). The Mauryan Empire Was the First Dynasty to Rule Most of India. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/maurya-empire-4160055 Hirst, K. Kris. "The Mauryan Empire Was the First Dynasty to Rule Most of India." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/maurya-empire-4160055 (accessed May 20, 2018).