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Rise Extent and Fall of the Mauryan Empire

Updated on December 23, 2012

Greek control over the area along the Indus weakened after the withdrawal of Alexander and certainly after his death in 323 B.C. This unstable state of affairs must have provided Chandragupta with an opportunity to conquer and annex the territories of the northern kingdoms. Once established, he moved into Central India and occupied the region north of the Narmada. But lasting peace was established in the north-west only by 303 B.C. through a treaty with Seleucus.

Magadha was being ruled by the Nandas at this time. It is said that Chandragupta began his march towards Magadha by small scale attacks on outlying villages. This strategy occurred to him when he saw a woman scolding her child for eating from the middle of the dish first, which was also the hottest, rather than from the edges. Thus, once the peripheral regions had been subdued he could converge on the centre. These conquests were achieved and consolidated largely through military strength. Classical sources stress the importance placed by Chandragupta on the army and mention staggering figures for its total strength.

The origin of the Maruyas is little known and rather obscure. The Puranas refer to them as mainly shudras and unrighteous, but this may be because of their patronage of Buddhism rather than Brahmanism. Similarly, classical sources also describe them as of humble origin in contrast. Buddhist writers link them to the tribe of the Shakyas to which the Buddha also belonged. According to Jaina tradition, Chandragupta became a Jaina ascetic in the latter part of his reign. He abdicated in favor of his son, went to South India with other ascetics and monks and ended his life by deliberate slow starvation in the orthodox Jaina manner. The same source also mentions famine in Magadha which lasted for twelve years. This is corroborated by the Sohgaura and Mahasthan inscriptions.

Chandragupta was succeeded by Bindusara but very little is known of him from literary sources. Early Tamil poets of the South mention Mauryan chariots thundering across the land, their white pennants brilliant in the sunshine. Some scholars have suggested that this reference to Mauryan expansion in the Deccan could only have taken place during the reign of Bindusara. Bindusara's death in 273-272B.C. led to a struggle for succession among his sons. It lasted four years and in 269-268B.C. Ashoka emerged successful.

According to legend, Ashoka was not good-looking but obviously possessed other qualities as even as a young prince he was given charge of the Viceroyship of Ujjain. Buddhist texts inform us that a revolt took place in Taxila during the reign of Bindusara and Ashoka was sent to quell it. This he did without antagonizing the local populace. Corroboration for this may be sought in an Aramaic inscription from Taxila which refers to Priyadarshi, the viceroy or governor. Unfortunately as the inscription is damaged, the reading is somewhat uncertain.

As regards Ashoka's accession to the throne, there is general agreement in the sources that Ashoka was not the crown prince but succeeded after killings his brothers. There is, however, no unanimity in the texts either regarding the nature of the struggle or the number of his brothers. In one place the Mahavansha states that Ashoka killed his elder brother to become king whereas elsewhere in the same work and also in the Dipavansha he is said to have killed ninety-nine brothers. It seems that though there was a struggle, a lot of its description is plain exaggeration. The portrayal of Ashoka as a very wicked man suddenly converted to Buddhism and to a life of piety, may be attributed more to the imagination of Buddhist authors rather than to historical facts.

This brings us to the authenticity of the story regarding the dramatic conversion of Ashoka after the Kalinga war. A point to be emphasized is that unlike Islam or Christianity, there was no elaborate ritual for conversion in Buddhism unless one renounced the world and became a monk. For a layman, whether Hindu or of any other religion, accepting Buddhism meant giving donations and gifts to Buddhist monks and following the Buddhist way of life. In one of his inscriptions Ashoka states that only after two and a half years did he become a zealous devotee of Buddhism. This is also clear from a close study of his edicts which show that his fervor for Buddhism increased in his later years. Similarly, Buddhist texts associate Ashoka with the meeting of the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra in 250 B.C., but the emperor himself does not refer to it in his inscriptions. This stresses the point that Ashoka was careful to make a distinction between his personal support for Buddhism and his duty as emperor to remain unattached and unbiased in favor of any religion.

It seems that in his later years Ashoka began to lose his grip on the government of the kingdom. There is no unanimity in the sources regarding his successor and this would suggest instability and confusion. With the death of Ashoka, the Mauryan dynasty ceased to be a political force though later rulers continued to rule for another fifty years. Finally, in the second century B.C. the dynasty collapsed completely and gave way to the Shungas. Before we deal with the reasons for this rapid and sudden decline, we shall discuss the extent of the Mauryan empire.

Ashokan inscriptions corroborated by archaeological data are a reliable guide to the extent of the Mauryan empire. Magadha was the home province of the Mauryas and the city of Pataliputra, its capital. Other cities mentioned in the inscriptions include Ujjain, Taxila, Kaushambi, Tosali near Bhubaneshwar and Suvarnagiri which was near Erragudi in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. According to tradition, Kashmir was included in the Ashokan empire as also Khotan in Central Asia. But the latter statement seems rather improbable. The Mauryans had close connections with the area of modern Nepal since the foothills were a part of the empire. In the east, Mauryan influence extended as far as the Ganga delta. Tamralipti or modern Tamluk was an important port on the Bengal coast from where ships sailed for Burma, SriLanka as well as for south India. A major port on the west coast was Broach at the mouth of the Narmada.

Kandahar formed the western most extension of the Mauryan empire and Ashokan inscriptions mention the Gandharas, Kambojas and the Yonas as his borderers. Through the north-west the Mauryas maintained close contacts with their neighbors, the Seleucid empire and the Greek kingdoms. In his inscriptions Ashoka mentions several Greek rulers with whom he exchanged envoys and gifts. Mauryan relations with Sri Lanka were very close and Ashoka sent his son Mahindra to preach the law of the Buddha in SriLanka. Ashokan inscriptions in the south mention several people with whom he was on friendly terms, such as the Cholas, Pandyas, Satiyaputras and Keralaputras.

The foregoing discussion in no way suggests that the Mauryas had uniform political control over a large part of the Indian subcontinent. There were several areas outside Mauryan control, even though routes skirted these regions along their periphery. Thus, no Mauryan settlements have been found in Sind, north-west Rajasthan and the northern Deccan. In Andhra and Karnataka, it seems that the Mauryas successfully enlisted the support of local communities.

Control over much of these territories diminished under Ashoka's successors. There also seems to have been a partition with the eastern part passing under Dasharatha and the western part under Kunala. Scholars have suggested several reasons for the weakening of control. It is often stated that the pro- Buddhist policies of Ashoka and the pro-Jaina policies of his successors alienated the brahmins, resulting in the revolt of Pushyamitra, the founder of the Shunga dynasty. The second argument blames Ashoka's emphasis on non-violence for weakening the empire and its military strength. But both these arguments are rather simplistic. Pushyamitra's usurpation of the throne cannot be seen as a brahmana revolt because by that time the administration had become so ineffective that officials were willing to accept any viable alternative. Thus, Brahadratha could easily be assassinated while inspecting the army. The second proposition does not take into account the nature of the policy of nonviolence. There is nothing in the Ashokan inscriptions to suggest demobilization of the army or that Ashoka followed the policy of non-violence in its literal sense. Ashoka's message was on forgiveness rather than on punishment. But, he could be a stern monarch and this is clear from his threatening stance towards the frontier people and forest tribes. Similarly, capital punishment continued. The emphasis was on the reduction of species and number of animals killed for food. However, there is nothing to suggest that the killing of animals stopped completely.

Another reason put forward by some historians is that there was considerable pressure on the Mauryan economy under the later rulers leading to heavy taxation. This opinion is again one-sided and is not corroborated by archaeological data. Excavations at sites like Hastinapura and Sisupalgarh have shown improvement in the material culture. There is a distinct improvement in the workmanship of objects such as beads, terracottas, etc. and town and house planning becomes a regular feature in the later Mauryan period.

Thus, the decline of the Mauryan dynasty cannot be sought in a single factor such as military inactivity, brahmana resentment or economic pressure. It has to be studied in the way in which the state and its administration was structured. The Mauryan empire with its epicentre at Magadha encompassed a vast territory and included different groups of people. Reference is made to hunters, gatherers and forest tribes in the inscriptions.

The state derived its revenues from taxing a variety of resources, agriculture, trade, mineral deposits, pastoral groups, etc. These resources would have to grow and expand so that the administrative apparatus of the state could be maintained. Unfortunately, the Mauryas made no attempt to expand the revenue potential or to restructure and reorganize the resources. Indeed, they were content to tap whatever surplus was available. This inherent weakness of the Mauryan economy coupled with other factors led to the collapse of the Mauryan empire.


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