The Mauryan Empire

The Mauryan Empire | History


Literary Sources

Kautilya’s Arthasastra

  • This book in Sanskrit was written by Kautilya a contemporary of Chandragupta Maurya.
  • Kautilya was also called ‘Indian Machiavelli’.
  • The manuscript of Arthasastra was first discovered by R. Shama Sastri in 1904.
  • The Arthasastra contains 15 books and 180 chapters but it can be divided into three parts
  • The first deals with the king and his council and the departments of government
  • The second with civil and criminal law
  • The third with diplomacy and war

Visakadatta’s Mudrarakshasa

  • The Mudrarakshasa written by Visakadatta is a drama in Sanskrit.
  • Although written during the Gupta period, it describes how Chandragupta with the assistance of Kautilya overthrew the Nandas.
  • It also gives a picture of the socio-economic condition under the Mauryas.

Megasthenes Indica

  • Megasthenes was the Greek ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya.
  • His book Indica has survived only in fragments.
  • His account gives details about the Mauryan administration particularly the administration of the capital city of Pataliputra and also the military organization.

Other Literature

  • Apart from these three important works, the Puranas and the Buddhist literature such as Jatakas provide information on the Mauryas.
  • The Ceylonese Chronicles Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa throw light on the role Ashoka in spreading Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Edicts of Ashoka

  • The inscriptions of Ashoka were first deciphered by James Princep in 1837.
  • They are written in Pali language and in some places Prakrit was used.
  • The Brahmi script was employed for writing.
  • In northwestern India, Ashokan inscriptions were found in Karoshti script.
  • There are fourteen Major Rock Edicts.
  • The two Kalinga Edicts are found in the newly conquered territory.
  • The major pillar Edicts were erected in important cities.
  • There are minor Rock Edicts and minor pillar Edicts.
  • These Edicts of Ashoka deal with Ashoka’s Dhamma and also instructions were given to his officials.
  • The XIII Rock Edict gives details about his war with Kalinga.
  • The Pillar Edict VII gives a summary of his efforts to promote the Dhamma within his kingdom.

Chandragupta Maurya (322 – 298 B.C)

  • Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the Mauryan Empire.
  • At the young age of 25 captured Pataliputra from the last ruler of the Nanda dynasty Dhanananda.
  • He was assisted by Kautilya, who was also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta.
  • After firmly establishing his power in the Gangetic valley, he marched to the northwest and subdued the territories up to the Indus.
  • He moved to central India and occupied the region north of Narmada river.
  • In 305 B.C., he marched against Selukas Niketar, who was Alexander’s General controlling northwestern India.
  • Chandragupta Maurya defeated him and a treaty was signed.
  • By this treaty, Selukas Niketar ceded the trans – Indus territories – namely Aria, Arakosia and Gedrosia – to the Mauryan Empire. He also gave his daughter in marriage to the Mauryan prince.
  • Chandragupta made a gift of 500 elephants to Selukas.
  • Megasthenes was sent to the Mauryan court as Greek ambassador.
  • Chandragupta embraced Jainism towards the end of his life and stepped down from the throne in favour of his son Bindusara. Then he went to Sravana Belgola, near Mysore along with Jain monks led by Bhadrabhagu and starved himself to death.

Bindusara (298 – 273 B.C.)

  • Bindusara was called by the Greeks as “Amitragatha” meaning slayer of enemies.
  • He is said to have conquered the Deccan up to Mysore.
  • Taranatha, the Tibetan monk states that Bindusara conquered 16 states comprising ‘the land between the two seas’.
  • The Sangam Tamil literature also confirms the Mauryan invasion of the far south.
  • The Mauryan Empire under Bindusara extended up to Mysore.
  • Bindusara received Deimachus as ambassador from the Syrian king Antiochus I.
  • Bindusara wrote to Antiochus I asking for sweet wine, dried figs and a sophist. The latter sent all but a sophist because the Greek law prohibited sending a sophist.
  • Bindusara supported the Ajivikas a religious sect.
  • Bindusara appointed his son Ashoka as the governor of Ujjain.

Ashoka the Great (273 – 232 B.C.)

  • Ashoka acted as Governor of Ujjain and also suppressed a revolt in Taxila during his father Bindusara’s reign.
  • There was an interval of four years between Ashoka’s accession to the throne (273 B.C.) and his actual coronation (269 B.C.).
  • The Ceylonese Chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa state that Ashoka captured power after killing his ninety-nine brothers including his elder brother Susima.
  • The youngest brother Tissa was spared.
  • According to Taranatha of Tibet, Ashoka killed only six of his brothers.
  • Ashoka’s Edict also refers to his brothers acting as officers in his administration.
  • It is clear that the succession of Ashoka was a disputed one.
  • The most important event of Ashoka’s reign was his victorious war with Kalinga in 261 B.C.
  • There is no detail about the cause and course of the war, the effects of the war were described by Ashoka himself in the Rock edict XIII: “A hundred and fifty thousand were killed and many times that number perished…” After the war, he annexed Kalinga to the Mauryan Empire.
  • Another most important effect of the Kalinga war was that Ashoka embraced Buddhism under the influence of Buddhist monk Upagupta.

Ashoka and Buddhism

  • Ashoka became a Sakya Upasaka (lay disciple) and two and a half years later a Bhikshu (monk). Then he gave up hunting, visited Bodh – Gaya and organized missions.
  • He appointed special officers called Dharma Mahamatras to speed up the progress of Dhamma.
  • In 241 B.C., he visited the birthplace of Buddha, the Lumbini Garden, near Kapilavastu.
  • He also visited other holy places of Buddhism like Sarnath, Sravasti and Kusinagara.
  • He sent a mission to Sri Lanka under his son Mahendra and daughter Sangamitra who planted there the branch of the original Bodhi tree.
  • Ashoka convened the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra in 240 B.C. in order to strengthen the Sangha.
  • It was presided over by Moggaliputta Tissa.

The extent of Ashoka’s Empire

  • Ashoka’s inscriptions mention the southernmost kingdoms – Cholas, Pandyas, Satyaputras and Kerala putras – as border states.
  • According to Rajatarangini, Kashmir was a part of the Mauryan Empire.
  • Nepal was also within the Mauryan empire.

Ashoka’s Dhamma

  • Although Ashoka embraced Buddhism and took efforts to spread Buddhism, his policy of Dhamma was a still broad concept.
  • It was a way of life, a code of conduct and a set of principles to be adopted and practised by the people at large.
  • His principles of Dhamma were clearly stated in his Edicts.
  • The concept of non – violence and other similar ideas of Ashoka’s Dhamma are identical with the teachings of Buddha.
  • He did not equate Dhamma with Buddhist teachings.
  • Buddhism remained his personal belief. His Dhamma signifies a general code of conduct.
  • Ashoka wished that his Dhamma should spread through all social levels.
  • Ashoka was “the greatest of kings” surpassing Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and other renowned Emperors of the world.
  • According to H.G. Wells ” Amidst the tens and thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, the name of Ashoka shines and shines almost alone a star”.
  • Ashoka was true to his ideals.
  • His central idea was to promote the welfare of humanity.

Mauryan Administration

Central Government

  • The ascendancy of the Mauryas had resulted in the triumph of the monarchy in India.
  • Other systems like republics and oligarchies that were prevalent in the pre – Mauryan India had collapsed.
  • Kautilya the foremost political theorist of ancient India supported the monarchial form of government, he did not stand for royal absolutism.
  • He advocated that the king should take the advice of his ministry in running the administration.
  • A council of ministers called Mantriparishad assisted the king in administrative matters.
  • It consisted of Purohita, Mahamantri, Senapati and Yuvaraja.
  • There were civil servants called Amatyas to look after the day-to-day administration.
  • The method of selection of Amatyas was elaborately given by Kautilya.
  • Ashoka appointed Dhamma Mahamatras to supervise the spread of Dhamma.

Revenue Department

  • Samharta, the chief of the Revenue Department, was in charge of the collection of all revenues of the empire.
  • The revenues came from
  • land
  • irrigation
  • customs
  • shop tax
  • ferry tax
  • forests
  • Mines
  • pastures
  • license fee
  • from craftsmen
  • fines collected in the law courts
  • The land revenue was normally fixed as one-sixth of the produce.
  • The main 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 were paid in cash.
  • Kautilya refers to the salaries of different ranks of military officers.
  • According to Greek author Pliny, the Mauryan army consisted of
  • six lakh infantry
  • thirty thousand cavalry
  • nine thousand elephants
  • eight thousand chariots
  • In addition to these four wings, there were the Navy and Transport and Supply wings.
  • Each wing was under the control of Adyakshas or Superintendents.
  • Megasthenes mentions six boards of five members each to control the six wings of the military.

Department of Commerce and Industry

  • This department had controlled the retail and wholesale prices of goods and tried to ensure its steady supply through its officers called Adyakshas.
  • It also controlled weights and measures levied custom duties and regulated foreign trade.

Judicial and Police Departments

  • Kautilya mentions the existence of both civil and criminal courts.
  • The chief justice of the Supreme Court at the capital was called Dharmathikarin.
  • 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.
  • Police stations were found in all principal centres.
  • Both Kautilya and Ashokan Edicts mention about jails and jail officials.
  • The Dhamma Mahamatras were asked by Ashoka to take steps against unjust imprisonment.
  • Remission of sentences is also mentioned in Ashoka’s inscriptions.

Provincial and Local Administration

  • The Mauryan Empire was divided into four provinces with their capitals at Taxila, Ujjain, Suvarnagiri and Kalinga.
  • The provincial governors were mostly appointed from the members of the royal family.
  • The district administration was under the charge of Rajukas.
  • He was assisted by Yuktas or subordinate officials.
  • Village administration was in the hands of Gramani and his official superior was called Gopa who was in charge of ten or fifteen villages.
  • Both Kautilya and Megasthanes provided the system of Municipal administration.
  • Arthasastra contains a full chapter on the role of Nagarika or city superintendent.
  • Megasthenes refers to the six committees of five members each to look after the administration of Pataliputra.
  • These committees looked after
  • Industries
  • Foreigners
  • Registration of birth and deaths
  • Trade
  • Manufacture and sale of goods
  • Collection of sales tax.


  • The taking of Census was regular during the Mauryan period.
  • The village officials were to number the people along with other details like their caste and occupation.
  • They were also to count the animals in each house.
  • The census in the towns was taken by municipal officials to track the movement of the population both foreign and indigenous.
  • The data collected were cross-checked by the spies.
  • The Census appears to be a permanent institution in the Mauryan administration.

Mauryan Art and Architecture

  • The monuments before the period of Ashoka were mostly made of wood and therefore perished.
  • The use of stone started from the time of Ashoka.
  • Even of the numerous monuments of Ashoka, only a few have remained.
  • His palace and monasteries and most of his stupas have disappeared.
  • The only remaining stupa is at Sanchi.


  • The pillars erected by Ashoka furnish the finest specimen of the Mauryan art.
  • Ashokan pillars with inscriptions were found in places like Delhi, Allahabad, Rummindai, Sanchi and Saranath. Their tops were crowned with figures of animals like lion, elephant and bull.
  • The Saranath pillar with four lions standing back to back is the most magnificent.
  • The Indian government adopted this capital with some modifications as its state emblem.


  • Ashoka built a number of stupas throughout his empire but the majority of them were destroyed during foreign invasions.
  • Only a few have survived.
  • The best example is the famous Sanchi stupa with massive dimensions.
  • It was originally built with bricks but later enlarged after the time of Ashoka.


  • The caves presented to the Ajivikas by Ashoka and his son Dasaratha remain important heritage of the Mauryas. Their interior walls are polished like mirror.
  • These 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 Mauryas

  • The causes for the decline of the Mauryan empire have been widely debated by scholars.
  • The traditional approach attributes the decline to Ashoka’s policies and his weak successors.
  • Another approach holds the inadequate political and economic institutions to sustain such a vast empire.
  • It was said that Ashoka’s pro – Buddhist policies antagonized the Brahmins who brought about a revolution led by Pushyamitra Sunga.
  • Ashoka was never acted against Brahmins.
  • Ashoka’s policy of non – violence reduced the fighting spirit of his army was another charge against him.
  • Asoka had never slackened his control over his empire despite following a pacifist policy.
  • There are multiple causes for the decline of the Mauryan empire such as weak successors, the partition of empire and administrative abuses after Ashoka’s reign.

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