‘AN INDIAN JULIUS CAESAR’

Chandragupta had defeated the remaining Macedonian satrapies in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent by 317 BCE.

Chandragupta Maurya’s origins were probably undistinguished; they certainly remain so. Buddhist texts claim that he was related to the Buddha’s Sakya clan, others that he was related to the Nandas. Both may be taken as fairly transparent attempts to confer lustre and legitimacy on a new dynasty whose founder was of humble caste, possibly a vaisya. If not born in the Panjab, he seems to have spent some time there, as suggested by Plutarch and as confirmed by a legend, found in both Indian and Graeco-Roman sources, associating him with the lion. Tigers were widely distributed throughout India, but the Indian lion, now retaining a clawhold only in a corner of Gujarat, seems never to have roamed further east than Rajasthan and Delhi.

At some point in his youth the self-possessed Chandragupta was adopted as a promising candidate for future glory by Kautilya (otherwise known as Chanakya), a devious and disgruntled brahman who had been slighted at the Nanda court. Kautilya sought his revenge by exploiting the unpopularity of the Nandas; and, disqualified from kingship himself because of deformity (possibly only the loss of his teeth), he championed the ambitions of Chandragupta. An early attempt to overthrow Nanda power in Magadha itself was a failure. Perhaps Kautilya hoped to achieve his ends by a simple coup d’état but failed to win sufficient support. The pair resolved to try again, and took their cue from a small boy who was observed to tackle his chapati by first nibbling round its circumference. This time, instead of striking at the heart of Nanda power, they would work their way in from its crusty periphery, exploiting dissent and enlisting support amongst its dependent kingdoms before storming the centre.

A good starting place may have been the Panjab, where Alexander’s departure had left a potential power vacuum. Settlements founded by the Macedonian seem not to have prospered, and their garrisons to have trailed home or gravitated to older power centres like Taxila. While in western Asia Alexander’s successors disputed his inheritance, the Indian satrapies reverted to local control. Ambhi and Porus, designated governors for the region by Alexander, had no love for the Nandas and may, under the circumstances, have felt themselves entitled to endorse Mauryan ambitions. Troops from the gana-sangha republics, of which there were still many in the north-west, are also said to have joined Chandragupta, along with other local malcontents. So, more certainly, did a powerful hill chief with whom Kautilya negotiated an offensive alliance.

Overrunning the satellite states and outlying provinces of the Nanda kingdom, the allies eventually converged on Magadha. Pataliputra was probably besieged and, aided no doubt by defectors, the allies triumphed. The last Nanda was sent packing, quite literally: he is supposed to have been spared only his life, plus such of his legendary wealth as he could personally crate and carry away. The hill chief, with whom Kautilya seems previously to have agreed on a partition of the spoils, was then poisoned, probably at Kautilya’s instigation, and Chandragupta Maurya ascended the Magadhan throne in, as has been noted, c320 BC.

Of his reign very little is known for certain. There are hints that pockets of Nanda resistance had to be laboriously stamped out, and there is ample information in the Arthasastra that could be used, and usually is, to flesh out the policies and methods on which Mauryan dominion was founded. Firm evidence of the extent of this dominion comes mainly from later sources. But since few named conquests can definitely be credited to his successors, it seems likely that Chandragupta, adding the Nandas’ vast army to his own, found ample employment for it. He may reasonably be considered the creator as well as the founder of the Mauryan empire, indeed ‘an Indian Julius Caesar’ as nationalist historians call him (though chronologically speaking Caesar should, of course, be ‘a Roman Chandragupta’).

The suggestion has also been made that Chandragupta derived the very idea of an empire based on military supremacy from his observation of Alexander’s conceit. Yet unlike Alexander, whose campaigns progress from one victorious encounter to the next, he cannot certainly be credited with winning a single battle. The Mauryan empire was probably the most extensive ever forged by an Indian dynasty; even the Mughals rarely achieved a wider hegemony. Yet we have positive knowledge of only one campaign undertaken by a Mauryan ruler – and we know of that only because the man responsible chose publicly to express his remorse. All of which may say more about relative attitudes to the past and about the variable nature of the source materials than about Mauryan imperialism.

In assessing Chandragupta’s conquests it would be helpful to know the extent of the empire to which he succeeded when he overthrew the Nandas. We can only presume that, as well as Magadha and Anga, it included most of the erstwhile Gangetic states (Koshala, Vatsya, Licchavi, etc.) and reached south across the Vindhya hills to central India and the Narmada river; beyond that river the Deccan preserves only highly doubtful hints of any Nanda presence.

From a later inscription found in Kalinga, the modern Orissa, it is evident that that region had also formed part of the Nanda empire. It may have been retained by Chandragupta, but must subsequently have slipped from Mauryan control since it would have to be reconquered by his grandson. A thousand miles away, on the other side of India at Girnar in Junagadh (Gujarat), another inscription refers to the repair of a local dam which, it says, had originally been built under the direction of Chandragupta’s governor in the region. Nanda power may have reached as far west as Avanti (Malwa), but is unlikely to have reached Gujarat. It is therefore assumed that Chandragupta conducted a successful campaign in western India and probably also reached the Bombay region. The Mauryan empire thus became the first to stretch from sea to sea – from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. The object, however, may not have been ‘to unite India’, an unlikely ambition at a time when geographical, let alone national, horizons were still hazy. More probably its westward extension was intended to engross that lucrative maritime trade, pioneered by the Harappans, in timbers, textiles, spices, gems and precious metals between the ports of India’s west coast and those of the Persian Gulf.

In the Panjab and the north-west Chandragupta’s successes were no less extensive, as is coyly acknowledged by those Graeco-Roman sources. From these we know that, after a prolonged struggle, Seleucus Nikator, one of Alexander’s generals, succeeded to the eastern half of his empire. Much of it had to be reclaimed, and it was not until 305 BC that Seleucus turned his attention to India. There it seems that Chandragupta had already ‘liberated’ (as one Latin source has it) the Panjab. Seleucus, nevertheless, crossed the Indus, and possibly the Jhelum too, before he came to terms with Chandragupta and retired. It may be inferred that Seleucus, like Alexander, had to fight his way forward and that, like Alexander’s men, he soon thought better of the venture. Perhaps he was roundly defeated. The terms on which he withdrew certainly suggest so. Chandragupta presented him with five hundred war-elephants, which would prove decisive in further struggles with his main rivals in the west, although they can scarcely have dented Mauryan resources. In return Seleucus ceded to Chandragupta not only the Panjab but also Gandhara and all of what is now Afghanistan save Bactria (the northern region between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus). The treaty may have been sealed with a matrimonial alliance by which Chandragupta, or his son, received a daughter of Seleucus as a bride.

To cement their friendship further, Seleucus appointed an ambassador to the Mauryan court at Pataliputra. This was Megasthenes, whose account of ‘Sandrokottos’ and his empire, as viewed from its capital, survives only in fragments quoted or paraphrased by later authors. As a first-hand description of anywhere in fourth/third-century BC India east of the Panjab, these fragments are nevertheless valuable. Indeed Megasthenes, in his emphasis on the bureaucratic and absolute nature of Mauryan rule and on the structure of its standing army, goes some way towards vindicating the utility of the Arthasastra as a possible source material. Back home in Greece, his work was seen as vindicating those who dismissed all descriptions of India as a pack of lies. To the floppy-eared and umbrella-footed monstrosities already on record were added such palpable fantasies as reeds which yielded syrup and trees that grew wool. Rocking, no doubt, with Attic mirth, his readers confidently rubbished such early accounts of sugarcane and cotton production as more tall stories from the impossible East.

Although Chandragupta certainly left his successor an empire which reached from Bengal to Afghanistan and Gujarat, there is no clear indication of how far south it extended. Jain tradition insists that, when he abdicated in favour of his son, Chandragupta retired to a Jain establishment in Karnataka. At Sravana Belgola, a picturesque little town nestling in the cleavage between two steeply swelling hills west of Bangalore, the emperor is said to have passed his final days in austerity and devotions. The pinnacle of one of the hills comprises a massive nude sculpture of Gomateshwara, an important Jain teacher; mostly free-standing and nearly twenty metres high, it is one of the sights of south India – ‘nothing grander or more imposing exists anywhere out of Egypt and even there, no known statue surpasses it in height.’ But it is on the other hill, the less sensational Chandragiri, that Chandragupta is supposed to have resided. Inscriptions and reliefs dating back to the fifth century AD record his presence; and a low cave amidst the granite scarps is said to be where, in the ultimate act of Jain self-denial, the emperor finally starved himself to death.

Scholarly doubts, of course, remain, particularly since the imperial lifestyle as recorded by Megasthenes amidst the splendour and luxury of Pataliputra seems the very antithesis of Jain asceticism. But abnegation was not uncommon in Mauryan society and, in the light of subsequent evidence of Mauryan authority in the south, the story ‘may be accepted as proof of his acquisition of this part of the peninsula’.6

That it probably represented the frontier of his empire is evident from the prologue to the story. The emperor had chosen to abdicate (c297 BC) after receiving information about an imminent famine from the revered Bhadrabahu, who was reputedly the last Jain monk to have actually known the Jain founder Mahavira Nataputta. (Just such a famine is anticipated in two very early inscriptions, engraved on copper plates found in Bengal and UP, which have been dated to Chandragupta’s reign; and unless Bhadrabahu was extraordinarily long-lived, his connection with Mahavira, the Buddha’s contemporary, may be further evidence in favour of the Buddhist ‘short chronology’.) As a result of this prophecy not only Chandragupta but an entire Jain congregation is said to have migrated south. In what, judging by remarks in the Arthasastra, was a continuing pattern of settlement in lands newly conquered or on the margins of existing settlement, the Jains journeyed south till they reached Karnataka. There, where a stream slid between the twin hills of Sravana Belgola, they stopped and stayed, nourishing the legends beloved of generations of pilgrims and patrons whose donations would enable them to dig a fine tank, build a dozen neat temples, and whittle their granite surroundings into megalithic images of the starkest abstraction. The Jains have been there ever since; and to this day they tell much the same story of the emperor Chandragupta.

Such continuities are not uncommon in India. Sir William Jones had likened first meeting his brahman informants to discovering an isolated community of Greeks who, two thousand years on, still wore toga and sandals, worshipped Zeus, recited Homer, and stood guard over a written archive reaching back to the Stone Age. Even now historians of India continue to scrutinise their own surroundings and society for clues to the past. In one of the most compelling exercises in modern historical writing D.D. Kosambi, armed with his notebook and a stout stick (‘fitted with a chisel ferrule for prying artefacts out of the surface … it also serves to discourage the more ambitious village dogs’), conducts his reader on a short walk from his home on the outskirts of Pune (Poona). Chance finds, encounters with neighbouring social groups, careful scrutiny of domestic routines and patient enquiries about local images reveal a three-thousandyear panorama of settlement patterns, trade contacts, and Sanskritic acculturation. ‘There is no substitute for such work in the field for the restoration of pre-literate history,’ writes Kosambi.7 Most of India’s history prior to the arrival of Islam fits his definition of pre-literate; and no society retains a more rewarding consciousness of the past than India’s. Legend and oral tradition, when credible, may be quite as reliable as authentic contemporary documentation.

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