Mauryan Empire

After Alexander went back to Babylon in 324 BC, a man named Chandragupta was able to overthrow the old Aryan kingdom of Nanda and form a big new empire over all of northern India and into Afghanistan. When people asked him how he had done it, he said (according to Greek historians) that he got the idea from Alexander. Chandragupta conquered the Indus valley back from the Greeks and as part of the peace treaty he married the daughter of Seleucus, who had succeeded Alexander.

The Nanda King, Dhanananda, had by his tyrannical ways created many enemies, and one of these, a proud and fiery man of the high Brahmin class whom he had thoughtlessly insulted in Court, was to soon enough cause his ruin. This was Chanakya, who, under the pseudonym Kautilya, later wrote the famous political book 'Arthashastra'. An unforgiving opponent, he had vowed not to tie his hair in the customary Brahminical top-knot until he had avenged his insult. This didn't particularly worry Dhanananda what could a single Brahmin do anyway? He exiled him from Pataliputra and considered it the end of the matter.

Travelling in exile through the Vindya mountains afterwards, Chanakya met Chandragupta Maurya, a young man who too had deep personal grudges against the Nandas. Chandragupta Maurya's background is obscure. He was either the son of a Nanda prince and a maid-servant called Mura, or came from the Moriya Tribe of Peacock-tamers; the last might explain why the Peacock later on became his principal emblem. Anyway, whatever his origin, Chandragupta's spirited personality impresssed Chanakya and he decided that he would make a far better King than the oppressive and debauched Dhanananda.

Together they set about provoking the people of Magadha against Dhanananda and, as there happened to be many amongst the populace that Dhanananda had offended in some way, it was not long before they had managed to amass a considerable force. The new Mauryan Army was still numerically inferior to that of Dhanananda, but, under its inspired leaders, lacked neither in courage nor persistence. Which was just as well as success came only after many severe setbacks and also apparently after Chanakya overheard a mother telling her child to eat his hot meal from the sides inwards. Taking hint, the Mauryan Army stopped trying to seize Pataliputra and began attacking first the outlying regions of Magadha instead. The tide turned in their favor now. By 321 B.C. Chandragupta had succeeded the Nandas and the long reign of the Mauryans had begun.

The advent of the Mauryans brought them into conflict next with the Greek General Seleucus I Nicator, who had inherited both Alexander's Asian holdings and his Empire-building dreams. These, Chandragupta shattered in 303 B.C. The resulting treaty gave the loser 500 war-elephants and granted to the victorious Changragupta the Seleucid Provinces of Trans-Indus (Afghanistan), Seleucus's daughter Helen in marriage, and the future Court presence of the Seleucid Ambassador Megasthenes. The latter's fascinating account of his tenure, 'Indika', has survived in fragments down the centuries.

Extending from Afghanistan to Bengal to Mysore, the Mauryan Empire became the subcontinent's first centralized power and also its most extraordinarily well-administered one, guided as it was by the authoritarian State-craft philosophy of Chanakya's 'Arthashastra'. The State owned all the farms, forests, mines, and industries, maintained a standing army and efficient spy system, followed a fair if strict judicial policy and a free religious one, had trade and diplomatic relations with foreign powers like Egypt, Syria, Rome, Greece, and China, encouraged art and culture, and patronized the famous Universities of Taxila and Pataliputra. The citizens, in general, were prosperous and content, and remained so for the next 136 years.

Chandragupta was succeeded by his son Bindusara who also proved to be an able ruler and greatly extended the Empire's boundaries. His successor was Ashoka, who, according to legend, came to the throne after a fratricidal struggle for ascension and seemed initially atleast to be as much of an Empire-builder as his predecessors. However, he changed tracks after a savage war with the Kalinga Empire that took an unprecedented toll of life and property. Racked with guilt, Ashoka forswore war and adopted the tenets of Buddhism. The most religious person, they say, is the newest convert, and Ashoka was no exception to this. The rest of his reign was spent in taking comprehensive steps to propagate Buddhism throughout the Indian subcontinent and also abroad. He established tree-lined highways, rest-houses, schools, colleges, even veterinary clinics, gave alms to the poor and the sick, and did many other things that he thought would benefit his subjects. For this he is considered the greatest of the Mauryan Kings. There was a downside to all this unlimited benevolence though. By choosing Buddhism over warfare and rejecting the practical Arthashastra policies, he unfortunately weakened the kingdom for his descendants, and they, far less capable men, were unable to cope with the disintegrating forces. In 185 B.C., with the murder of the last Emperor, Brihadratha, the Mauryan Empire was no more.