Around 321 BCE Chandragupta Maurya established himself as the ruler of the Indian kingdom of Magadha, supplanting the long- established and powerful Nanda dynasty. Although little historical evidence has survived of this conflict, it appears that Chandragupta took inspiration from Alexander the Great, whom he may even have met. His campaign against the Nanda was probably fought using popular guerrilla tactics. His forces drew a noose gradually tighter around the Magadha capital, Pataliputra (now Patna), until the overwhelmingly superior Nanda army was defeated.
Once in possession of the resources of a kingdom, Chandragupta seems to have used them to create a highly organized regular army, plentifully supplied with weaponry, chariots, war elephants, and horses. A Greek envoy to India, Megasthenes, was impressed by the high morale of Chandragupta’s soldiers, whom he described as “of good cheer”, a state of mind perhaps sustained by the high wages that they were paid in peace as in war. Although Magadha was in northeastern India, roughly in the area of modern-day Bihar and Bengal, Chandragupta extended his rule far to the west and south. He fought a war against Seleucus Nicator, Alexander’s former general, who ruled the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, taking from him an area stretching from Punjab and Kashmir north into Kandahar and Baluchistan. In later years he led his armies south into the Deccan.
Chandragupta’s armed strength can be gauged from his gift of 500 elephants to Seleucus to seal their peace agreement in 303 BCE – an astonishing number of valuable animals for a ruler to feel able to spare. In old age Chandragupta abdicated in favour of his son, Bindusara, bequeathing the most extensive empire seen in India up to that date.
When Alexander the Great withdrew from India, he left the defeated king Porus as vassal of an expanded kingdom. Porus remained loyal to Alexander and his successors, but he encouraged the Indian prince, Chandragupta, who emulated Alexander himself. Chandragupta had met Alexander and had been introduced to the Macedonian way of war, though he, and other Indian kings, preferred to continue using war elephants and chariots in a four-part division of their armies—elephant, chariot, cavalry, foot. After the death of Alexander Chandragupta raised an army and defeated the Macedonians in India. Buoyed by this success, he overthrew the king of Magadha—Magadha, centered on the Ganges and patron of the Buddha, was the most powerful state of some 120 independent kingdoms in India.
Chandragupta (reigned 321-297) expanded his power along the Ganges and into the Indus valley, where he had to contend with Seleucus Nicator in 305. The details of their battles are lost, but Seleucus ceded all territory east of the Indus and the western provinces of Arachosia and Gedrosia. In return Chandragupta presented Seleucus with 500 war elephants and took a daughter in marriage. (Seleucus was forced to keep his attention on his wars in the west and prepare for an impending battle—Ipsus—with his rivals.) Chandragupta founded the Mauryan Empire. His empire encompassed the whole of northern Indian and Afghanistan. A curious story relates that when a famine struck his kingdom, Chandragupta joined the religious sect of the Jains, abdicated, and accompanied a party of Jains south in search of better conditions. There he starved himself to death. His son (who took the title Slayer of the Enemy) increased the size of the empire and passed it on to his own son, Asoka.
Chandragupta organized his empire around the central point of his capital city, Patna. He maintained a standing army (according to contemporary reports) of 300,000-600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 elephants. By now the chariot, though still a royal status symbol, was obsolete. Indian rulers lived a life of warfare, hunting, gambling, and sports (a race between chariots pulled by combined teams of horses and oxen was popular). Chandragupta feared assassination, as he was quite ready to encourage the assassination of rival kings, and so he did not sleep in the same bedroom two nights in a row. He was an absolute monarch at the head of a fully organized and closely controlled bureaucracy. One bureau had charge of the military and was divided into six boards controlled by five men each: navy, quartermaster, infantry, cavalry, chariot, and elephant. The army was to be recruited from “robbers, mountain men, gangs, forest people, and warrior clans.” Soldiers were to receive a regular salary and their equipment, but they had to be mindful of the guiding principle of Mauryan government—the art of government is the art of punishment.
Chandragupta’s right-hand man, Kautilya, is the supposed author of a work on politics and war (the Arthasatra) that describes, summarizes, and advises on the situation of the time of Chandragupta. There are sections on the duties of the ministers of the boards of elephants, boards of chariots, and boards of infantry—to inspect the troops, to check their equipment, their proficiency in training (“in shooting arrows, throwing clubs, wearing armor, fighting seated in a chariot, controlling the team of horses”), and their pay. Among sections on organization and punishment (appropriate tortures) are chapters on when and how to attack, to make and betray allies, to feign peace, and to use spies to gather intelligence. “If you face two enemies, one strong and one weak, which should you attack first? The strong, because once he is defeated, the weak will capitulate without a fight.”
Part 10 offers advice on war. The king’s camp should be sited by the commander, an astrologer, and the engineer. It should be divided into nine parts with six roads. The quarters for the king should be surrounded by trenches, parapets, and a wall with gates. There should be a place for his harem and the harem guard, his financial officials, the gods and their priests, stables for the royal mounts (elephants and horses), quarters for infantry, chariots, cavalry, elephants, and free labor, for merchants, prostitutes, hunters, spies and guards. People should not be allowed to come and go. Drinking, parties, and gambling are prohibited. Wells should be dug in advance all along the way.
“Armies in good locations will defeat armies in bad.” The best rate of march is ten and a quarter miles a day. There are different formations for marching. Provisions and water must be supplied in advance. “Strike the enemy when he is caught in unfavorable terrain.” Deceive the enemy, feign defeat. Look for places to put ambushes. Harass the enemy at night to prevent his sleeping. Before a pitched battle the king says to his troops, “I’m being paid just like you. You and I will both profit from this conquest.” The priests encourage the army. Priests (and poets) should say that heroes go to heaven and cowards go to hell. Offer cash rewards for acts of bravery.
The army’s back should be to the sun. “When a defeated army resumes its attack, it cares not whether it lives or dies, its fury cannot be resisted; let a defeated army flee.” The different divisions of the army do better on different terrain. The best terrain for the chariot is dry ground that is firm, level, and free of wagon ruts, trees, plants, vines, and thorns. The duties of the four armies is described in detail. The order of the army arranged for battle is: the strongest troops will lead the attack from center, left, and right. Once the enemy is broken, the weaker troops in reserve will destroy the enemy. The king should station himself with the reserve. “Never fight without a reserve.”
The moral of the Arthasatra is to deceive and divide your enemies without allowing them to deceive and divide you. “When an archer shoots an arrow, he may miss his target, but intrigue can kill even the unborn.” In part the Arthasatra is a manual of organization of the army. Chandragupta relied on a core of trained men supplemented by levies of militia and by mercenaries (independent war guilds that sold their services to the highest bidder). There were mercenary corps (guilds) of elephant troops.
The elephant was now the royal mount of the kings. Elephants were armored, had neck ropes and bells, and they carried hooks and quivers, slings, and lances. Seven men rode their backs, employing the different weapons. The elephant was used to connect different elements of the army, to guard the flanks when advancing and to guard the rear in retreat. An army might have 8,000 chariots, 1,000 elephants, 60,000 horse; an ideal division of an army would have 10,000 horse, 2,000 elephants, 10,000 foot, and 500 chariots. A unit organized to care for the wounded followed the army.
Asoka (reigned 274-232) began his reign as his father and grandfather before him—an autocrat devoted to the hunt, feasts, gambling, and war—but the campaign he led against the Kalingas (a people on the middle of the southeast coast) changed his life and the life of the whole of India. He wrote (paraphrased), “I conquered Kalinga in the eighth year of my reign (261 B. C.) and had 150,000 people carried off as prisoners, I was responsible for 100,000 slain, and many times 100,000 died. Then I suffered remorse for having conquered the Kalingas because conquest of an independent country necessitates the slaughter and the capture of the people. I regret this. Now I desire that all living creatures—even the people of the forest who I wish would mend their ways—live in peace without fear.”
True conquest (according to Asoka) depended upon the conquest of men’s hearts. Among these true conquests he included disparate people in his own domains, neighbors, and the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt, Cyrene, Asia Minor, and the Seleucid empire. Such conquests win favor in the next world, too. Asoka sponsored Buddhist missions to the Hellenistic kingdoms, to Ceylon (where they rapidly converted the inhabitants), and to east and north. As the unity of the Roman Empire in the future was to contribute to the rapid spread of Christianity, so the Mauryan unity contributed to the rapid spread of Buddhism. Asoka intended to inculcate in his people—by being accessible to them and by showing them through his own example—the three virtues, reverence to authority, respect for life, and truth. After his death in 232 the empire began to disintegrate, because of both the lethargy of his successors and the increased aggressiveness of the Seleucids.
Details of specific battles do not survive, but in the epic of the battle between the Kurus and the Pandavas an elephant battle is described. Elephant was used against elephant, but in the melee an elephant would trample and crush anything that got in its way. The most feared elephant was a male in rut. Its musk glands discharged a noxious substance that warned other elephants to give it wide berth (unless they, too, were in rut). The difficulty with elephants in rut is that they are impossible to control.
THE ELEPHANT BATTLE
On both sides there arose a clamor, shouting, the blare of cow horns, beating drums and cymbals and tabors, and the two sides rushed upon each other. The prince’s shouts rose above the noise made by the thousands of neighing horses and filled the enemy with fear. Horses and elephants all lost control of their bladders and bowels. The sun himself was shrouded by the dust raised by the warriors.
Huge elephants with wounded temples attacked other huge elephants, and they tore one another with their tusks. They had castles and standards on their backs, they were trained to fight, and they struck with their tusks and were struck in turn, and they shrieked in agony. They were goaded forward by pikes and hooks, and so they fought each other, though it was not the mating season. Some elephants uttered cries like cranes and fled in all directions. Many elephants, bleeding from temple and mouth, torn by swords, lances, and arrows, shrieked aloud, fell down, and died.
One warrior turned his elephant with upraised trunk and rushed upon a chariot. The elephant in his anger placed his foot upon the yoke of the chariot and killed the four large horses, but the chariot warrior stayed on his chariot with the dead horses and threw a lance, made entirely of iron and resembling a snake, and he hit the elephant-warrior. The lance pierced his coat of mail; he dropped the hook and his lance and fell down from his elephant’s neck. The chariot warrior drew his sword, jumped down from his chariot, swung with all his strength, and hacked off the elephant’s trunk. The elephant’s coat of mail was pierced all over with arrows, his trunk was cut off, and he uttered a loud shriek and fell down and died.
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 Bud- dhism 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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