Arising in the kingdom of Magadha, the Mauryan empire (321–185 B.C.), with its capital Pataliputra (modern Patna), was the first imperial polity in South Asia. Under the able leadership of its founder, Chandragupta Maurya (r. 321–297 B.C.), and his successors Bindusara (r. 297–272 B.C.) and Ashoka (r. 268–231 B.C.), the empire integrated several key regions of the subcontinent into a loosely structured but tightly drawn imperial network, and bequeathed a significant historical legacy to the subcontinent’s history. The sources of Mauryan history include archaeological remains, Brahmanical and Buddhist textual sources, foreign travel accounts, and most importantly, the public edicts of Ashoka.
By the middle of first millennium B.C., a number of small polities called mahajanapadas had grown up along the Ganges. The more powerful of these at the time—the kingdoms of Kashi, Koshala, and Magadha, and the more distant Vrijji confederation—were clustered in the middle Gangetic Plain, which had seen extensive development in agriculture, intensive urbanization, and the rise of new religious movements like Buddhism and Jainism. By the beginning of the fifth century B.C., Magadha had gained the upper hand over its rivals through the leader- ship of the raja (king) Bimbisara, whose line was eventually displaced by the Nanda dynasty at the beginning in the fourth century B.C. Nanda imperial ambitions might have brought them into conflict with the generals of Alexander the Great, who conquered the eastern provinces of the Achaemenid empire in northwestern India, but his usurpation by Chandragupta Maurya in 321 B.C. brought a swift end to Nanda rule.
With the Gangetic Plain largely under his dominion, Chandragupta pursued campaigns in central India and the northwest, where by the end of the fourth century B.C. he had gained territory from a Greek successor state ruled by Seleucus Nicator. An envoy of Seleucus, Megasthenes, visited the Mauryan empire and its capital at Pataliputra and left an account of it called Indika. Toward the end of his life, Chandragupta is said to have embraced the Jain faith, abdicated the throne, and migrated to Sravana Belgola in present-day Karnataka, where he fasted to death in Jain tradition. The events of the reign of Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara, are uncertain, but by the time that Ashoka inherited the kingdom in 268 B.C., the empire was considerably expanded. Knowledge of Ashoka’s reign is drawn from a series of public edicts, which reveal the specific policies and vision of the emperor, and provide crucial information about Mauryan society. The edicts of the earlier half of his reign were carved on rock surfaces and distributed widely through the empire, while those toward the end were issued mostly in its Gangetic heartland and were inscribed on polished sandstone pillars, each surmounted with a finely carved animal capital. Most of the inscriptions were issued in the Prakrit language written in Brahmi script, but in the northwest some have been found in Greek and Aramaic, written in the Kharoshti script used in Iran. Ashoka extended the influence of the empire even farther than his forefathers, with the southernmost limits of his inscriptions being found in the lower Deccan. Sometime around 260 B.C., Ashoka conquered the region of Kalinga (present-day Orissa). The devastation wrought by his campaign so impressed him that he publicly expressed remorse in his thirteenth rock edict. Judging from this edict, Ashoka seems to have curtailed further wars of expansion and maintained cordial relations with neigh- boring polities, both within the subcontinent and beyond.
Many of Ashoka’s edicts have a distinctly ethical dimension—enjoining his subjects to honor elders, show consideration to menials, refrain from hurting living beings, avoid needless ceremony, and most of all, follow dharma (right action, teaching). Many of these exhortations bear a distinctively Buddhist stamp, and indeed, Ashoka considered himself a lay convert to the faith and gave generously to its institutions. Perhaps as a concession to these principles, he deterred the performance of Vedic sacrifices that involved the killing of animals. In the Buddhist tradition, he became a legendary figure, being viewed as the paradigmatic Buddhist emperor, or cakravartin. The degree to which he actually propagated Buddhist doctrine, however, remains an open question, and it would seem that the dharma of his edicts did not refer to Buddhist doctrine as such but had a more general ethical sense. Yet the connection between Ashoka and Buddhism is undeniable, and it remains a fact that Buddhism grew into a powerful and influential religion, with imperial and universal ambitions, during the Mauryan period.
Regular agricultural revenues from the Gangetic heartland provided the basic wealth of the Mauryan empire, and punch-marked coins circulated as currency in certain sectors of the economy. Urban life continued to be important, with manufacturing and commerce forming an important source of individual and state wealth. Beyond inscriptions, another source used by scholars to understand the structure and functioning of the Mauryan empire is the Artha Shastra, a treatise on government attributed to Chanakya (Kautilya), minister of Chandragupta. While the existing text was probably not compiled in Mauryan times, certain parts may be as early, and thus provide a normative perspective on Mauryan society and polity. Ashoka’s edicts and the Artha Shastra, read together, confirm that a set of regularized ministerial offices, service cadre, judges, and revenue assessors formed the core of the state apparatus. The inscriptions themselves mark the first widespread use of written records (after the undeciphered Indus Valley script). Assessing the structure of Mauryan polity from the evidence is more difficult. Until recently, historians tended to portray the Mauryan empire as a centrally organized, uniformly administered, bureaucratic polity. Recent work has suggested, however, that such an image, driven by modern theories of state, may not be correct. It has been argued that the Mauryan empire should be seen as a metropolitan hub (Magadha) linked to a number of core and peripheral “nodes.” Cores and peripheries were not distinguished by geographical location, but by socioeconomic articulation. Core areas, typically represented by clusters of Ashokan inscriptions, were regions where the metropole significantly influenced local economy and society, while peripheral areas, less populated and developed, were largely incorporated for revenue extraction alone. Thus the empire was composed of a network of different local economies and social structures, linked through a relatively simple, but horizontal, imperial system. Although this system disintegrated not long after Ashoka’s death in 231 B.C., the Mauryan empire—with its innovations in the technology of rule and its integration of economic networks—had a lasting effect on early India, acting as a catalyst for further economic and political development in many of the empire’s core and peripheral regions.
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