47 Ancient India: The Mauryan Empire

Mauryan Empire

Ashoka riding a chariot in a relief from the Sanchi Stupa, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Dharma CC BY 2.0

Persia held dominance in northern India until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 330 BCE who marched on India after Persia had fallen. Again, foreign influences were brought to bear on the region giving rise to the Greco-Buddhist culture which impacted all areas of culture in northern India from art to religion to dress. Statues and reliefs from this period depict Buddha, and other figures, as distinctly Hellenic in dress and pose (known as the Gandhara School of Art). Following Alexander’s departure from India, the Mauryan Empire (322–185 BCE) rose under the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (r. c. 321–297 BCE) until, by the end of the third century BCE, it ruled over almost all of northern India.

Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara (r. 298–272 BCE) extended the empire throughout almost the whole of India. His son was Ashoka the Great (r. 268–232 BCE) under whose rule the empire flourished at its height. Eight years into his reign, Ashoka conquered the eastern city-state of Kalinga which resulted in a death toll numbering over 100,000. Shocked at the destruction and death, Ashoka embraced the teachings of the Buddha and embarked on a systematic program advocating Buddhist thought and principles. He established many monasteries, gave lavishly to Buddhist communities, and is said to have erected 84,000 stupas across the land to honor the Buddha.

In 249 BCE, on pilgrimage to sites associated with the Buddha’s life, he formally established the village of Lumbini as Buddha’s birthplace, erecting a pillar there, and commissioned the creation of his famous Edicts of Ashoka to encourage Buddhist thought and values. Prior to Ashoka’s reign, Buddhism was a small sect struggling to gain adherents. After Ashoka sent missionaries to foreign countries carrying the Buddhist vision, the small sect began to grow into the major religion it is today.(13)

Administratively, the Mauryan king was the head of the state and controlled the military, executive, judiciary, and legislature. He took advice from a council comprising the chief minister, the treasurer, the general, and other ministers. The kingdom was divided into provinces under governors, who were often royal princes. Provinces were further composed of towns and villages under their own district and village administrators.(14)

There were departments to govern, look after, and control almost every aspect of social life: industrial art, manufacturing facilities, general trade and commerce, foreigners, births and deaths, commercial taxes, land and irrigation, agriculture, forests, metal foundries, mines, roads, and public buildings. The empire also had a large spy network and maintained a large standing army. The king’s army was not really disbanded even after the third Mauryan king, Ashoka, gave up war. Next to the farmers, it was the soldiers who formed the bulk of the population.(14)

The Mauryan Empire declined and fell after Ashoka’s death and the country splintered into many small kingdoms and empires (such as the Kushan Empire) in what has come to be called the Middle Period. This era saw the increase of trade with Rome (which had begun c. 130 BCE) following Augustus Caesar’s incorporation of Egypt into the newly established Roman Empire in 30 BCE. Rome now became India’s primary partner in trade as the Romans also had already annexed much of Mesopotamia. This was a time of individual and cultural development in the various kingdoms which finally flourished in what is considered the Golden Age of India under the reign of the Gupta Empire (320–550 CE).(13)

Ashoka’s pillar erected in the district of Vaishali, located in the Bihar state, India.
IllustrationCC BY-SA 2.5


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