Ancient India
The Mauryans, 321-185 BC

Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BC)

   He was an adventurer rather than a king. Like Alexander, he began with almost no army whatsoever; with this army he seized the region of Magadha just south of the lower Ganges, and then steadily conquered the whole of the Ganges basin. Chandragupta Maurya had started his empire. When Alexander the Great departed from Gandhara, a power vacuum was left in western India which Maurya took advantage of. Marching westward, he quickly conquered the whole of the Indus Valley, and eventually gained Gandhara and Arachosia (the mountainous region west of the Indus) after defeating the Greek rulers of Persia and Bactria, the Seleucids.

   Hand in hand with this ambitious conqueror was a shrewd and calculating Brahman named Kautilya. While Chadragupta Maurya built his empire by the force of his arm, Kautilya designed the government. Together they created the first unified state in Indian history. The government Kautilya and Chandragupta created strictly regulated economic activities. The laws were harsh and the death penalty was applied to a myriad of offenses.


Bindusara (297-272 BC)

   Chandragupta's son Bindusara extended the conquests even further by setting his sights south to the Deccan. By the end of Bindusara's reign, the Mauryan Empire included at least a third of the peninsula and stretched all the way from Bangladesh to the Hindu Kush mountains.


Asoka (272-232)

   Of the great conquering kings of the Maurya Empire, the only one we know much about is Asoka, for it is in the reign of Asoka that the first samples of Indian writing since the fall of Harappa appear. Asoka kept careful records of his edicts, so we have an excellent source for the history of his reign.

   He seems to have been forged from the same mold as his illustrious fathers. Once he rose to the throne, he began an aggressive campaign to conquer the remainder of the subcontinent. The last major regions yet to be conquered were the Dravidian regions in the far south and the Kalinga in North India.

   The conquest of Kalinga, which extended Mauryan rule to its farthest boundaries, seems to have been a tremendous shock to Asoka. War and conquest are always bloody and cruel, and the experience of massive homicide is always an experience that shakes people to their very souls. Asoka was so troubled by the conquest that he underwent a religious conversion. In the latter years of the Brahmanic period, several religious movements arose in reaction to the power and abuse of power by the Brahmans. The most significant of these religious reactions was Buddhism, which is discussed in more detail in the chapters on the religious history of ancient India. Buddhism was really much less of a religion and more of a philosophy or, better yet, a philosophical therapy. Its founder, Siddhartha Guatama, the "Buddha," or "Awakened One," was the son of a noble who, when he first encountered death and sickness, resolved to find a way to end human suffering. After years of struggle and meditation, he "awakened" to the truth of things: that all human suffering is caused by human desire and that human desire can be quenched when one understands the impermanence of all things including the self. Unlike Brahmanism, Buddhism eschews elaborate rituals and magic; unlike the Rig Veda, Buddhism advocates a non-striving, non-coercive and meditative life.

   The Buddhist way of life was a way out of the crisis that Asoka was in. He converted to Buddhism and strove to achieve the Buddhist "middle way" between extremes. He became a vegetarian, renounced all warfare, and attempted to build a state based on Buddhist principles. First and foremost, the state would strive for nonviolence, or ahimsa; in place of violence, the state would rule by "law" or "right" (dharma).

   Asoka, of course, could not put all of these reforms into practice. He found that some level of violence and retribution was necessary and declared as much. Although he made the laws less harsh, they still involved physical punishment and, in some cases, execution. Still, Asoka began a process of transformation in Indian society. He represented first and foremost the possibility of exemplifying religious idealism in a lived life rather than in a formal position. Although he took the vows of Buddhism and even joined the order, he chose to remain active in the real world and exemplify his religion in his actions as king. He also demanded religious toleration; under Asoka, all competing religious systems were allowed to co-exist peacefully. The stunning ability of Indian culture to tolerate competing religions throughout its history begins with Asoka. Finally, although he could never really fully translate Buddhist ideals into government, he began a process of cultural transformation that would completely remake India. By the start of the Gupta dynasty, the bulk of Indian society had become vegetarian and no laws carried the death penalty.

   His greatest achievement, however, was cultural. For he was dedicated to his new religion and fervently patronized its expansion. Under Asoka, Buddhist monks were sent in every compass direction: to Burma, Tibet, Nepal, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Israel. The eastern evangelical missions were extremely successful; Buddhism spread very quickly from Nepal and Burma into Tibet and China where it was fervidly embraced. The western missions, however, were less successful. But, Buddhism left traces in Middle Eastern and even European culture. For instance, one of the Catholic saints of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was Barlam whose life is based on that of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Not only is this Catholic saint the Buddha, but one of the stories of Barlam is the conversion of a cruel king, Iosaphat; this king, in many ways, corresponds to Asoka who is presented as intolerant and cruel before his conversion in the Indian epic, Asokavadana . So there is tantalizing evidence that Buddhism has some influence on Christianity, but we are not quite sure to what extent.

   Needless to say, the spread of Buddhism under Asoka greatly influenced the religious history of Asia. Asoka's conversion also produced the first written literature in India; it was not Vedic literature, but the Buddhist scriptures that were first committed to writing. Finally, Asoka's zeal in spreading Buddhism beyond the borders of India ensured its survival, for when the Muslims defeated the Hindus and took control of India, Buddhism is destroyed as an organized religion.

   Asoka was the last of the great kings of the Mauryan dynasty. His successors were less energetic and capable; in 184 BC, the last of the Mauryan kings was assassinated and the first empire of India came to an end.


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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-9-97