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India: The Mauryan Empire

Fourth-century bce India had seen some consolidation, mostly by force of arms, of numerous small territories into a few larger kingdoms. But when Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 bce, he met armies that in equipment, organization, and tactics still closely resembled Indian armies of the earlier Vedic Age (see the Highlights box “The Battle of the Hydaspes”; see also Chapter 1). War elephants and an elite chariot corps formed both the practical and the symbolic core of such armies, intended as much as a display of the nobility and grandeur of the ruler and the warrior elites who supported him as an optimally efficient military force. This elite core was backed up by a mass of poorly trained and equipped infantry. Thus, in contrast to China in the Warring States era, continuity in arms, tactics, and, above all, the social composition of armies prevailed even as the size of military forces grew significantly and the strategic use of these armies in offensive warfare increased. This oddly static military situation owed much to the rigidly hierarchical nature of Indian society—in particular, the privileged position of warrior elites in the emerging caste system. This system seems to have become entrenched enough that centralizing efforts by ambitious Hindu monarchs could not bring about the sort of social transformation that characterized the Chinese experience. In effect, ideological barriers proved strong enough to prevent either the co-opting or the crushing of the Indian warrior elite along either Persian or Chinese lines.

Alexander’s victories and the model of his army, however, stimulated the rise of a new group of young, dynamic, and innovative military leaders. The most successful of these leaders, Chandragupta Maurya, applied the lessons of the Greek wars to construct a new military system with which he, his son, and his grandson carved out an enormous empire. But, despite its success, the Mauryan Empire would prove short-lived by Roman or Chinese standards, breaking up within 140 years of its founding. This suggests that even the powerful military machine of Mauryan expansion had a less transformative impact on Indian society than did the military systems of the other great empires.

Mauryan Expansion, 322-250 BCE

Alexander’s victories in 326 bce had disrupted the political landscape of northwestern India. The kingdom he established before he left became a major player in north Indian politics, but it was soon to be eclipsed by a rising power farther east, one that eventually created an empire that covered most of the Indian subcontinent. Our knowledge of Chandragupta Maurya and the Mauryan Empire is limited and comes overwhelmingly from a few Indian literary sources, such as the Arthashastra, and Greek writings, such as that of Megasthenes. Apparently, Chandragupta came from a noble house in the kingdom of Magadha and had distinguished himself but was limited in how high he could rise in the army of the kingdom. He observed Alexander’s victories, and at some point, though without success, he sought Alexander’s assistance in overthrowing the king of Magadha. After this rebuff, he worked to create a new army, incorporating the lessons learned from the defeats suffered at the hands of Alexander. In 322 bce, Chandragupta marched his new army into Magadha and, after a series of very bloody battles, including a siege of the capital city of Pataliputra, the king was deposed and killed.

Once having ascended the throne of Magadha, Chandragupta embarked on nearly continual campaigns of conquest. The Greeks in Sind and Punjab he considered to be his most formidable opponents, but he was prepared, and his army was for the most part better equipped and led than the earlier Indian armies that had opposed the Greeks. Also, in a major innovation, Chandragupta relied on an expanded cavalry arm, much like Alexander, with the horses being armored to an extent not seen before in India. Finally, Chandragupta greatly expanded the size of his army by supporting local militia forces and promoting guerilla warfare.

Victory over Greek forces in India led Seleucus, the Greek ruler of former eastern portions of Alexander’s empire, to dispatch a major military force in 305 to recover the lost territories and defeat the new power in north India. Once more breaking with India’s military tradition, on learning of the approaching Greek force, Chandragupta decided to meet the Greeks in battle before they had traveled far into his territory. With the Indus River to their rear, the Greeks were surprised at the sudden appearance of their adversary. Chandragupta’s victory was in large part due to the numbers he could bring into the battle (600,000 soldiers if the sources can be believed), including 20,000 well-trained cavalry.

Chandragupta and his successors devoted much of their energy toward expanding the empire and organizing the territory under their rule. The third Mauryan monarch, Ashoka (268-233 bce) engaged in a long, bloody war to subdue the small kingdom of Kalinga (in modern Orissa), after which, tradition states, he became a devotee of Buddhism and ended the expansionist wars. Whatever the reason, after the conquest of Kalinga, his government’s focus shifted from conquest to administration of the realm. By this time, Ashoka’s empire included almost all of present- day south Asia (Figure 2.3).

The Mauryan Military System

The military conquests of the Mauryans were extraordinary, made possible not only by military reforms instituted by Chandragupta but also by an efficient government administration of the empire. Much like contemporary Warring States China, most of the political and economic focus of the Mauryan government was on military affairs. Centralized control and administrative efficiency were crucial to maintaining the large military forces of the empire, which was in an almost constant state of war. The Mauryan tax system was rationalized, and a professional bureaucracy administered it. This bureaucracy also was tasked to oversee vast public works projects, improve agricultural production, promote trade, and provide transportation and communications links for the military. This bureaucracy even directed military logistics, apparently managing to supply the armies in the field, even in the treacherous terrain of southern India. Consequently, Mauryan India during the reign of Ashoka was an economically prosperous, socially progressive land that was at the same time capable of supporting enormous armies on a nearly continuous war footing.

Figure 2.3 The Mauryan Empire, c. 250 BCE


Organization and Strategy The Mauryan army was on the surface organized in a traditional Indian manner, in four sections—infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots—with each section being supervised by a government board in the capital. The military forces of the Mauryas also included a naval arm, of which we know little. The standing army of the Mauryans reportedly consisted of roughly 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, 9000 elephants, and 8000 chariots. However, it is probable that by this time chariots served more as status symbols for the elite than as vehicles in actual combat operations.

The Mauryans relied on a standing army, in which the soldiers were expected to serve for life. Recruitment into the army was not limited to those of the warrior caste, something that would often serve as a hindrance in Indian armies of later ages, when the caste system became much more rigid. Pay was reportedly quite good, and armies on campaign were accompanied by large numbers of servants and cooks, as well as artisans who built siege machines and made weapons. Generals served both as commanders in the field and as civil governors of districts. Being so critical to the prosperity and security of the empire, either trusted and proven comrades or royal family members were assigned to these posts.

Campaigns were usually carefully planned in advance, both to ensure the greatest chance of success and to keep disruption along the line of march to a minimum. Armies were not expected to live off the land, and so imperial agents went out ahead to gather such things as water, firewood, and fodder. Most other supply items were either brought along or supplied from the rear, in a system remarkably similar to that found in Warring States, Qin, and Han China. In addition, an extensive corps of spies would travel to the lands of the intended target to gather intelligence that would be relayed back to the army. At the same time, these spies worked to spread dissension and disinformation among the enemy.

Mauryan armies took full advantage of their size to overwhelm enemies. The Mauryans also broke with Indian military tradition in their willingness to engage in night fighting. The cavalry arm played a much more significant role than it had in earlier Indian armies, while chariots and elephants played a smaller role. Yet most battles were decided by the mass of infantrymen, who were almost always better trained and equipped than their opponents. Interestingly, while Chandragupta reformed his cavalry arm to more resemble that of the Greeks, he did not do the same with the infantry even though he had himself witnessed the efficacy of the Greek phalanx.

Weapons and Equipment All weapons and equipment were provided by the imperial administration. As noted above, Mauryan soldiers were considered well paid and, when in garrison, were supplied with myriad servants, as men in garrison were expected to spend most of their time in training. A vast corps of artisans was organized in the camps to make the weapons and other equipment of war. As with the army itself, recruitment into this artisan corps was not limited by caste, and a major inducement was an exemption from certain taxes. And, much as in the Achaemenid Persian system, imperial supervisors circulated through the garrisons, ensuring that training was being carried out and that officers were not abusing their positions.

Weaponry was standardized, at least officially. Each infantryman was equipped with a longbow, which when used in combat was lodged between the ground and the man’s left foot while the string was drawn back. Each infantrymen was also furnished with a small sword, and some used a long javelin rather than a bow. Many, though not all, infantrymen were also furnished a breastplate. The cavalry was equipped with lances, with the introduction of horse archery coming much later in Indian history. Finally, each elephant normally carried three archers, and sometimes additional sword and javelin-bearing riders.

Mauryan War ElephantMauryan War Elephant

Missile troops occupied the castle on the elephant’s back, while its mahout, or driver, carried a spiked club to drive into the animal’s brain in case it panicked and rampaged.


Assessing Ancient Indian Warfare

Much like the Achaemenid Persians and Alexander the Great, the Mauryan rulers sought to create a world empire. At its height, the Mauryan Empire constituted nearly the whole of the Indian subcontinent, as well as a portion of Central Asia. Except for the role of chariots, the military that was used to create this empire did not so much break from prior Indian military traditions as make them more efficient. Just as important were the administrative measures taken to efficiently govern the large empire. Without this, the large and effective Mauryan armies would not have been possible.

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