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The Religion of Mauryan Emperors

Updated on December 20, 2013
Chandragupt Maurya, Founder of Mauryan Dynasty
Chandragupt Maurya, Founder of Mauryan Dynasty
Ashokan Pillar at Vaishali, the Birth Place of Mahaveer and activities of Gautam Buddha
Ashokan Pillar at Vaishali, the Birth Place of Mahaveer and activities of Gautam Buddha
Footsteps of Chadragupt Maurya at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, South India
Footsteps of Chadragupt Maurya at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, South India | Source

Chandragupt Maurya was the founder of Mauryan Empire which was geographically one of the biggest empire in South Asia. It was spread all over India excluding Kalinga, a part of present day Orrissa and some parts of present day Tamil Nadu.

Before Mauryans, Dhananand, a mighty King from Nanda Dynasty was ruling over a big part of India. Previous to Nanda Dynasty, Shishunag Kings were rulers of Magadh. Shrenik, also known as Bimbisar, a famous king of Shishunag Dynasty was contemporary of Mahaveer. He was the Chief lay disciple of Mahaveer and many of his sons became Jain ascetics with permission of the king.

Pataliputra, now known as Patna in Bihar was the main capital of both the Nand and Mauryan empire. Bihar was known as Magadh at that time. So the emperors from these dynasties were called as Magadhan Emperors also.

Magadh or Bihar was a great land of activities for Jainism and Buddhism. Jainism and Buddhism were two dominant religions of ancient India. Both the religions were related to ancient Shramanic tradition, distinct from Vedic tradition. The Great Gautam Buddha, a Prince from Shakya clan founded Buddhism in 6th Century BCE. Jainism was prevalent there and Mahaveer, a prince of Nath clan and a senior contemporary of Gautam Buddha was promoting it with some reforms in this part of India i.e. present day Bihar, Jharkhand and Eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh.

Beside these two great religious movements, Ajivakism of Makkhali Goshala was another prominent cult in this region.

These three religions enjoyed a great support from masses and royal patronage from Emperors and kings of their dependent states. For many Queens, Generals, Ministers etc. these were their own religions.

Now let us see what religion were the Mauryans following.

There are a lot of literary and archaeological evidences supporting the widespread of Jainism and Buddhism in Mauryan era.

Chandragupt Maurya, the founder of Mauryan dynasty was a follower of Jainism. That is why he has a special status in Jain literature. Megasthenes, an ambassador of Greeks in the court of Chandragupt Maurya supports affiliation of the emperor with Jainism. In entire history of this era, we can see dominance of Jain faith. Sunanda, a queen of Chandragupt was daughter of Dhananand and follower of Jainism. As I have written in my article Who Was Chanakya, a teacher of Chandragupt was also a follower of Jainism. In later period of life, Chandragupt became a naked Jain ascetic and migrated to South India with his Guru Bhadrabahu. There he promoted Jainism and in last days of his life he adopted voluntary death, a Jain way of death by starvation which is known as Sallekhana. (Read more about Chandragupt Maurya at: Emperor Chandragupt Maurya: A Royal Ascetic )

Bindusar, was son of Chandragupta and became ruler of the empire after Chandragupta retired from throne and became a Jain ascetic. We do not know much about him. However he is said to be follower of Ajivak sect. After Chandragupt, Chanakya worked as a minister of Bindusar for few days and then he too became a Jain ascetic. Although we do not have concrete information on the personal religion of Bindusar, he might be follower of his father's religion or Ajivakism.

Ashok, a son of Bindusar and Grandson of Chandragupt was follower of Jainism and in later part of his life he became a Buddhist. His edicts spread all over Indian subcontinent are an evidence of his being secular emperor with an affection to Shramanic religions, i.e. Buddhism, Jainism and Ajivikism in personal life.

Kunal was son of Ashok born from his Jain queen. He was made blind by one of his step mothers. So Samprati, son of Kunal became the ruler of Mauryan Dynasty Samprati was staunch follower and supporter of Jainism. Under the guidance of his teacher Suhasti, Samprati sent Jain missionaries to remote areas of India, including south India for promotion of Jainism. Samprati enjoys a special status in Jain history, and have same position like Ashok in Buddhist literature.

Brihadrath was last emperor of Mauryan Dynasty. He was a staunch follower of Buddhism. He was assassinated by his General Pushyamitra Shrung, who was a Vedic Brahmin.

The assassination of Brihadratha was the end of Jainism, Buddhism and Ajivikism as Pushyamitra Shring had a hatred towards religions of Shramanic tradition as Mauryans never supported Vedic sacrifices and rituals. As he became the ruler, he started to persecute ascetics and lay followers of these three religions. In his reign many ascetics were killed, many migrated to other parts of India. Many lay followers got converted to religions of Vedic fold. Staunch lay followers of Jainism and Buddhism were migrated to other parts, and many went to jungles. Today they are known as tribal (Adivasis).

-Mahavir Sanglikar


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