Chapter 6: RISE OF MAURYANS
Foundation of Mauryan Empire opened a new era in
the history of India.
Kauntilya's Arthashastra gave a glimpse of
this period. Megasthenes was a noble in the court of
Selekus Nikator, a general appointed by Alexander to govern over
his conquered provinces in the subcontinent.
After Nikator was defeated but Chandragupta,
Megasthenes came to Chandragupta’s court. He wrote a book called
“Indica”. It had detailed account of Mauryan
Edicts of Ashok: the fourteen
major edicts are in Pali, Prakrit language and in Brahmi and
They also give information about Ashok and Mauryan
He was the founder of the Empire. He defeated the
last Nanda king and ended the dynasty. He also defeated
Alexander’s general Selekus Nikator. Nikator ceded Alexander’s
conquered territories to Mauryan Empire.
Chandragupta also captured central Indian
territories up to Narmada. At the end of his life he embraced
Jainism moved to Shravan Belgola and starved to death.
He was called the slayer of enemies. He conquered
Deccan up to Mysore. He appointed Ashok as governor of Ujjain. He
supported Ajivikas, a religious sect.
He was the most powerful and famous Mauryan emperor.
He embraced Buddhism after the Kalinga war.
He appointed officers to spread Dhamma.
He convened the third Buddhist council at Patliputra.
He sent his son to Sri Lanka. The southern most states of Cholas,
Chera, and Pandya were borders to it but outside his Empire.
Asoka was credited with having conquered only Kalinga. Kalinga in Odisa was considered to be strategic importance as it controlled routes to South India both by land and by sea.
Rock Edict - 13 describes the Kalingan war. It is said to have taken place 8 years after the coronation of Asoka. The war was a destructive one where nearly 1 lakh perished and many times more were injured.
The Edict goes on to state that though Asoka was victorious, he regretted the destruction and moved towards Buddhism and adopted the policy of Dhamma Viyaya.
He was the first emperor to have a welfare state
for the people.
Dhamma concept of Buddha was a social code.
It was wider than Buddhism which Ashok treated as his personal
belief. He didn’t equate Dhamma and Buddhism. His concept of
Dhamma is written on the rock edicts. The edicts were written in
Pali, Prakrit, and Greek and in Brahmi and Kharoshti script.
Due to weak successors and Bactrian invasions in
north the Mauryan Empire collapsed. Other reasons attributed to
the decline of later mauryans were administrative and political
Mauryan was a monarchy. But the king took
advice of his ministers. The kingdom had a well defined civil
The army was well maintained. Revenue
administration imposed taxes and levies.
Civil and criminal courts were present and
torture, mutilation, death were given.
Census was carried out. Village
administration was well defined.
The currency of Mauryans was accepted
- The use of stone for architecture and sculptures
started from this period. However only the Sanchi Stupa
survives till today. Other palaces, monasteries have perished.
- The pillars were the finest specimen of Mauryan
architecture. The pillars had animals on top.
- Stupa's were destroyed by foreign invaders.
- Caves were given by Ashok to the Ajivikas sect.
The inner walls of the caves are polished like mirrors.
- Mauryan period saw the height of pillars, stupa
architecture. Post Mauryans saw height of sculptures.
- During Mauryan period only viharas existed after
that both chaityas and viharas.
Fig 1: Mauryan empire during Ashok's reign
In the excavations, different types of sickles, tools , axes and other implements were found. That these were essential to the practice of intensive agriculture in the heavy and loamy soil of the Gangetic valley. These tools also made the task of clearing the heavy forests of the eastern Ganges valley very easy.
Numerous small heaps of iron slages were found at different places all over the iron belt of south bihar. This shows that iron smelting was not of a high quality. Local furnaces were discovered which probably symbolised the availability of iron smelting to local population.
The point of interest is that the use of iron smelting did not diffuse to other parts of the country from the Ganges valley. The importance of iron was recognised by the state as is evident from Arthashastra which advocates that the king should maintain a monopoly over certain kinds of mining. This perhaps also showed the need for mining to satisfy military operations.
For the agrarian economy to expand new labor intensive rice cultivation techniques were found. Arthashastra suggested that shudras were to be used for labor or agricultural work. Thus they formed a majority of the manual labor community.
The people were deported from highly populated areas to deserted areas to encourage permanent settlements there. The deserted areas identified for repopulation were highly fertile. This process was known as Janapadanivesa. The repopulation involved forceful deportation of shudras or subjects of defeated kingdoms to new areas.
the newly formed villages were called Sita lands. There existed a separate department in the kingdom to supervise over these lands. The villagers of these areas were provided cattle and agricultural implements and offered tax remissions.
The Mauryans thus controlled manpower and raw materials and this made the agrarian expansion possible. The state also provided irrigation facilities in areas of scanty rainfall and levied a cess for irrigation. The, agrarian systems in areas outside the Ganges valley was operated by Gahapatis. They maintained a system of agriculture laborers. The state of these laborers was pitiful. The Arthashastra mentions rules for land and building sales. This means small areas were allowed to owned for cultivation.
the land revenue system was organised to extract maximum surplus from the people. The land tax or Bhaga was high and would be around one sixth of the agricultural produce. The share cropping system was also encouraged and the share croppers were provide with lot of agricultural inputs. The state then would levy a higher tax on the final produce i.e. around half.
A tax called Pindakar had to be paid by practitioners of animal husbandry. Often the villagers had to share a part of their produce with the army passing through their territories and this too was an additional burden.
The system of taxes from land made it easier for maintenance of government machinery and the army. The Arthashatra also talks about other taxes like Bali a vedic era known tax which was continued by the mauryans. Hinanya - which literally means gold and was probably collected in Gold from the peasants.
Prananya was a voluntary tax which was to be gifted by the cultivators to the sovereign. The arthashastra talks about tax which had to be levied during emergencies when the revenue of the sovereign was less. These taxes became a burden for the peasants. The Arthashatra also talked about taxes which were levied depending on the soil fertility and type of village. Sometimes farmers were forced to cultivate multiple crops. This system of agrarian taxation was found atleast in the core areas of the Empire.
The agrarian economy gave a boost to the Mauryan empire and created a solid economic foundation. But it was the trading activities that created a scope for the empire to expand to other regions.
The strategic location of the Mauryan capital of Patliputra along the trade routes made it advantageous for the Mauryans.
The major land and river routes passed through the ganges and the valley around it. Uder state initiative this was cleared and further opened up newer routes for economic activity.
Mauryan kings especially Bindusara and Asoka followed a policy of peaceful relations with the Greeks and this policy led to enhancement of trading relations.
The trade was carried out by merchants and artisans. In the Mauryan times, it was found that artisans worked in guilds. They were organised by their trades and lived in closely knit communities. The art of their work also was passed from father to son. This gave rise to specializations. The communities of artists now collectively dealt with merchants. This reduced the competition an artist might have from another of the same art.
Similar to artisans the merchants were also separated along their guilds. These guilds were organised along different artisans. each merchant guild dealt with a particular artisan guild. The merchants too formed heir communities and lived in close knit localities. Thus, the merchant and artisan guilds helped trade flourish in the Mauryan empire.
From the point of view of revenue collection it was easier for the administration to collect revenue.
The Mauryan state also controlled profitable activities of trade directly. This was done through a system of directly employing artisans by the state. The state would then deal with other kingdoms and profit from the economic activity. To take advantage of the well organised distribution and transportation system of private traders, the state was associated with them too. The state also maintained a system of supervisor over all activities that yielded profit. There were superintendents of commerce for fixing prices of commodities, superintendents of markets who safeguarded the markets against practices of traders, superintendents of ships, tolls, liquor shops and weights and measures were also present.
Maintenance of state monopoly over mining activities allowed the state to control the manufacture of arms and armaments used for the army. The other significant features of the empire were emergence of cash economy and urbanisation.
The government officers were paid salaries in cash. Especially silver coins were used to make payments of salaries and in trading. The maximum number of relics of punch marked silver coins were found at the nucleus of the empire in UP and Bihar.
Urbanisation was important as the tribes in the forests were not in the control of the state. Yet to ensure that the trade routes were protected, the state had to intervene to ensure that the tribes would remain controlled. this was done by progressively bringing them under a system of private land ownership and settled agriculture.
The society was based on the varna caste system which was rigidly followed in the society. This rigidity created tensions.
Emergence of an urban center demanded a more flexible social organization. Tribes and people from outside the varna system came into contact and resided in these urban centers. Their accommodation into the existing social fabric also presented a problem.
Besides them the vaishyas also accumulated wealth due to their trading activity. Through their contacts with trading guilds they controlled urban institutions. They were however denied a position of respect in the society. Their resentment towards brahmanism also led to their devotion towards other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.
Shudras were also tired and resented towards the brahmans and hence they indulged in criminal activities. They also turned to arious heterodox sects. This led to a conflict with the traditional domination of brahmins over the society.
Buddhism flourished during the time before Ashokas rule. After the third buddhist council, it was decided to send emissaries to other areas in the subcontinents to spread buddhism. This growth of buddhism wasnt matched by Jainism. The Arthashastra mentions buddhism but not Jainism. Ashoka refers to Jains in his literary works.
More prominent than Jainism was Ajivikas sect which was started by Makkali gosala who was a contemporary of Buddha. Thus buddhism, Ajivikas and Jainism remained rooted in the society during the Mauryan rule. however, it was a challenge to the traditional vedic brahmins and so social tensions could have been high.
It was against this background that Ashoka sought to pursue his policy of Dhamma to spread harmonious relationship between diverse elements in his society. He also wanted to eliminate social tensions and sectarian conflicts. Dhamma was Ashokas private beliefs and his own perceptions about how to resolve conflicts in the society.
Dharma in Sanskrit was translated to Dhamma in Prakrit and in todays interpretation means Religion but for Ashoka it had a much wider connotation. For him it was an ethical code aimed at building an attitude of general responsibility in his people. It focused on harmonious relationships between parents and children, abstinence of violence, harmony between various religious sects and excessive concern for the general welfare of the people. Ashoka belived in tolerance - tolerance of other peoples religious beliefs and ideas so as to promote a harmonious way of life.
However he banned all religious processions and gatherings and allowed only state sponsored ones. This may be due to the fear of conflict due to diverse groups of people in the society. He was also against unnecessary sacrifices and ceremonies and undermined the role and position of priests in the society.
Ashoka abjured violence and banned animal sacrifices. After the Kalinga war he refrained from further bloodshed. The ban on animal slaughter only applied to religious ceremonies and not for other purposes. The brahmins who earned their livelihood from animal sacrifices were affected due to this. Ashoka however recognised the use of violence for dealing with troublesome forest tribes.
Ashoka also started conducting tours every ten years throughout his empire. This would mean he could come into contact with the people and solve their problems. The officials were encouraged to conduct such tours. Dhamma Mahamantas were appointed to oversee the propagation of Dhamma and bring welfare to the people. These special officials were responsible for propagation of dhamma even in the remote areas of the empire. Some were appointed specially to take care of Buddhists, Jains, Ajivikas and Brahmins. Ashok also propagated his ideas through his rock edicts.
The Mauryan administration was vast with a king at the center and support of a huge army of 400000. No other ruling house in ancient India had such a large army. The presence of a vast army gave the King coercive power to control peoples lives according to his will. Even the Arthashastra stated that authority of the king superseded all other rulings including Dharma which could be interpreted by the King with the context of changing times. The indisputable proofs of all embracing power of the kings is furnished in Ashokan edicts which sought to regulate even social and religious life of the people.
Arthashastra claimed that the king owed nothing to anyone and his only role was to rule effectively. It also stated that the king should not make expenses that don't generate additional revenue in return. However, Ashoka was an exception to this as he claimed that his role was welfare of the people and he worked to pay his debt to all living beings. Ashoka also aimed to create a welfare state for his people and build ashrams, guesthouses, havens for travellers etc.
However Ashoka was an absolute monarch inspite of his aims and teachings. He believed himself to be beloved by the Gods. This may have been an attempt to emphasize the relationship between monarchy and divine power. He also worked to remove the importance of intermediaries i.e. brahmins and priests from the society.
The Parishad was the advisory body or a council of ministers for the king. The Arthashastra tells about the qualifications and qualities of council of ministers. The larger the council the more beneficial it is. There also was an inner cabinat known as mantris. Their role was being consulted in times of immediate needs. The role of council of ministers was also to see that the decisions of the king were implemented.
Kautilyas Arthashastra lists 21 types of taxes that were imposed on the public. The cities paid their own revenues in the form of sales tax, income tax on the rich, tax on liquor etc. From rural areas the revenue was obtained from land revenue, tax on orchards, agriculture produce, ferrying charges etc.
Mineral wealth was an important source of wealth for the state as mining was a monopoly of the sovereign.
Taxes were also imposed on import and export. Taxes were imposed on travellers who came to the kingdom. Merchants paid tax when their weights were certified by the officials.
Treasury was under the supervision of the official named as Sannidhata. Major source of outflow was expenditure to maintain the army and the administrative machinery.
The kingdom was divided into four provinces whose capitals were suvarnagiri, taxila, ujjain and tosali. The head of the provinces was a kumar who used to govern as the kings representative. The kumaras were inturn assisted by the Mahamatyas and the council of ministers.
The duty of the council of ministers were to act as advisors to the kumaras. They also were responsible to the monarch and acted a a check on the kumaras.
Amatyas were also important officials. They held special powers and it was against them that the people of taxila revolted during the reign of Bimbisara and Ashoka.
Each district had many villages in them. The district had its own system of administration and the village also had its own system of administration. Villages also had autonomy in managing their affiars to some extent.
A district had a Pradeshtha who was the highest official in the village. He would manage the village affairs and perform functions related to recording and assessing land revenue, maintaining law and order etc.
At the village there was Gramika who was appointed amongst the people in the village. There wasnt a uniform procedure to elect the Gramika and his election varied according to local conditions.
There were officials that acted as intermediaries between the village and the city administration. The Rajukas were officials at the district level that had been granted powers by the Emperor Ashoka to perform certain welfare duties for the district. This was observed in the Fourth Pillar Edict of Ashoka.
Mauryan empire ended 50 years after the death of Ashoka as his successor Brihadutta was killed in a coup by his commander in chief Pushyamitra Shunga. The Brahman general sought the opportune moment to overthrow the monarch.
Reasons behind the disintegration of the empire could be many. It was believed the Ashoka pro buddhist policies angered the brahmanical class and provoked a rebellion. However, the policies were neither pro buddhist nor anti brahmanical and so reasons for provoking a rebellion are without basis.
A second cause is stated that Ashoka with his policies on non violence could have created a atmosphere of weakness. This too is without basis as Ashoka did not put an end to violence when dealing with forest tribes or enemies of the Empire. Even death penalty and torture were continued against prisoners.
The Mauryan empire was a centralised empire and after the death of Ashoka, there were a succession of weak rulers who ruled for a short time. This caused the imperial bureaucracy to split and the empire weakened. The decreasing content of silver in the currency also indicate that the royal treasury was depleting and it was not possible to maintain a central administration and bureaucracy. The famine and floods in the Ganges river valley which was the heart of the empire created a loss of lives and revenue. The agrarian economy needed iron for flourishing and this demand couldn't be met by the state alone. This was because the state had a monopoly over mining. As magadha reserves of iron depleted, it was necessary for mining in newer areas such as Odisa and Andhra pradesh. But this was dificult as local chiefs had to be suppressed.