Common section

Gloria Maurya
c320–200 BC


ALTHOUGH SEVERAL of those who marched east with Alexander wrote of their travels, and although other contemporaries and near-contemporaries compiled lives of Alexander and geographies based on his exploits, none of these survives. Such accounts were, though, still current in Roman times and were used by authors, including Plutarch, the first-century AD biographer, and Arrian, the second-century AD military historian, to compile their own works on Alexander. These do survive. They do not always agree; scraps of information gleaned from other later sources are included indiscriminately; and when describing India, they often dwell on fantastic hearsay. To the gold-digging ants of Herodotus were now added a gallery of gargoyle men with elephant ears in which they wrapped themselves at night, with one foot big enough to serve as an umbrella, or with one eye, with no mouth and so on.

Allowing for less obvious distortions, these accounts yet provide vital clues to the emergence after Alexander’s departure of a new north Indian dynasty, indeed of an illustrious empire, one to which the word ‘classical’ is as readily applied as to those of Greece and Rome – and with good reason, in that it has since served India as an exemplar of political integration and moral regeneration.

In 326 BC, when Alexander was in the Panjab, ‘Aggrames’ or ‘Xandrames’ ruled over the Gangetic region according to these Graeco-Roman accounts. His was the prodigious army at which Alexander’s men had balked; and his father was the low-born son of a barber and a courtesan who had founded a dynasty with its capital at Pataliputra. ‘Andrames’ was therefore a Nanda, probably the youngest of Mahapadma Nanda’s sons. And since, unusually, these Graeco-Roman accounts agree with the Puranas that Nanda rule lasted only two generations, he was the last of his line. Immensely unpopular as well as dismally documented, the second Nanda was about to be overthrown.

According to Plutarch, Alexander had actually met the man who would usurp the Magadhan throne. His name was ‘Sandrokottos’ (‘Sandracottus’ in Latin) and in 326 BC he was in Taxila, perhaps studying and already enjoying Taxilan sanctuary as he prepared to rebel against Nanda authority. No such person, however, is known to Indian tradition, the voluminous king-lists in the Puranas containing no mention of a ‘Sandrokottos’ sound-alike. Although from other Greek sources, especially the account of Megasthenes, an ambassador who would visit India in c300 BC, it was evident that someone called Sandrokottos had indeed reigned in the Gangetic valley, it was still not clear to which if any of the many listed Indian kings he corresponded, nor whether he ruled from Pataliputra, nor whether he could be the same as Plutarch’s Sandrokottos. Like Porus and Omphis, it looked as if Sandrokottos was either a minor figure or else someone whose name had been so hopelessly scrambled in its transliteration into Greek that it would never be recognisable in its Sanskritic original.

It was Sir William Jones, the charismatic father of Oriental studies and pioneer of Indo-Aryan linguistics, who in another flash of inspiration rescued the reputation of Sandrokottos. ‘I cannot help mentioning a discovery which accident threw my way,’1 he told members of the Bengal Asiatic Society in his 1793 annual address. In the course of exploratory forays into Sanskrit literature he had earlier worked out that Sandrokottos’ capital could indeed have been the Magadhan city of Pataliputra. He had now come across a mid-first-millennium AD drama, the Rudra-rakshasa, which told of intrigues at the court of a King Chandragupta who had usurped the Magadhan throne and received foreign ambassadors there. The flash of inspiration, the ‘chance discovery’, was that ‘Sandrokottos’ might be a Greek rendering of ‘Chandragupta’. This was later established by the discovery of an alternative Greek spelling of the name as ‘Sandrakoptos’. The ‘Sandrokottos’ of Plutarch and of Megasthenes, and the Chandragupta of this play and of occasional mention in the Puranas, must be the same person. Crucially and for the first time, a figure well known from Graeco-Roman sources had been identified with one well-attested in Indian tradition.

At the time, the late eighteenth century, the excitement generated by this discovery stemmed from its relevance for Indian chronology. Very little was yet known of Chandragupta or the empire he had founded; the latter would only be recognised as an exceptional creation following even more exciting discoveries in the nineteenth century. In Jones’s day his breakthrough was applauded solely because it at last made possible some cross-dating between, on the one hand, kings (with their regnal years) as recorded in thePuranas and, on the other, ascertainable dates in the history of western Asia. Thus, for instance, if Chandragupta was planning his rebellion against the Nandas when Alexander was in the Panjab, if according to Indian tradition he ruled for twenty-four years, and if Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of ‘Sandrokottos’, could not have been sent until after 305 BC, it followed that Chandragupta’s revolt must have started soon after 326 BC and have lasted three to four years, so that he then reigned from his many-pillared palace in Pataliputra from approximately 320 to 297 BC. That meant that his successor, Bindusara, ruled from 297 to 272 BC, and that Bindusara’s successor, an enigmatic figure who had yet to be clearly identified (let alone accorded universal recognition as ‘one of the greatest monarchs the world has ever seen’2), must have acceded (after a four-year interregnum) in about 268 BC.

These dates have since been further substantiated by cross-reference with later Buddhist sources. Buddhist and Jain texts have much to say about the dynasty they call ‘Maurya’ and, along with surviving extracts of the report written by ambassador Megasthenes, plus a truly remarkable series of inscriptions, they constitute important sources for the period. But what would make the early Mauryan empire potentially the best-documented period in the entire history of pre-Muslim India was the discovery of that classic of Indian statecraft, the immensely detailed if almost unreadable text known as the Arthasastra. For it would appear that Kautilya, the steely brahman to whom the work is credited, was none other than the instigator, operative, ideologist and chief minister of the self-same Chandragupta. In fact orthodox tradition has it that Kautilya was the kingmaker, and Chandragupta little more than his adopted protégé. Kautilya’s great compendium, therefore – with its exhaustive listing of the qualifications and responsibilities required of innumerable state officials, its schema for the conduct of foreign relations and warfare, its enumeration of the fiscal and military resources available to the state, its ruthless suggestions for law enforcement and the detection of dissent, its advocacy of state intervention in all aspects of social and economic activity, and its rules-of-thumb for just about every conceivable political eventuality – such a work should indeed supply uniquely well informed and authoritative insights into the workings of the Mauryan state.

There are, though, grounds for caution. The full text of the Arthasastra is comparable in size and excruciating detail to the Kamasutra but, though cited ‘sometimes eulogistically and sometimes derisively’3 in other ancient works, it was only discovered in 1904. For Dr R. Shamasastry, the then government of Mysore’s chief librarian, as for Sir William Jones, the discovery was accidental. An anonymous pandit simply handed over the priceless collection of palm leaves on which it was written, and then disappeared. Happily, Shamasastry quickly divined the importance of his acquisition; he was also well qualified to undertake its organisation and elucidation. His English translation was published in 1909, since when other editions have appeared and controversy may be said to have raged.

It now seems fairly certain that the work in its present form dates, at the earliest, only from the second century AD, five hundred years after Chandragupta. Moreover, a computer-generated statistical analysis of the frequency with which certain linguistic particles appear in the text would seem to prove that the work was not written by a single author but is an accretion of earlier texts. It may have been compiled by a single person, but it ‘has no one creator’, writes the American scholar Thomas Trautmann.

I believe it true to say that the ‘author’ of the Arthasastra is his predecessors, and that his personality as inferred from the work is a composite picture to which three or four different individuals have contributed, one a nose, the other the hair, another the eyes.4

Who these individuals were and when they lived is unknown; but Kautilya, though not (as the work implies) its compiler, could well have been one of them. A wily master of intrigue and deception who is elsewhere described as physically deformed, he could have been the eyes. Much of the Arthasastra might still be his eye-witness account of the Mauryan state.

But there is another difficulty. Ancient Indian compendia, like the Kamasutra, the Manu-smriti (the legal Code of Manu) or the Arthasastra, none of which was compiled in its present form until the early centuries AD, may not be very reliable guides to actual practice. They were certainly based on observation, but just as it is inconceivable that any swain could have observed all the rules, contrived all the occasions, and mastered all the technical demands of love-making as recorded in the Kamasutra, so it seems unlikely that any state can ever have been so minutely organised, so determinedly interventionist, and so uncomfortably vigilant as that in the Arthasastra. The latter is, as it says, ‘a guide not only for the acquisition of this world but of the next’. Like the Ten Commandments or the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, it was a counsel of perfection. Such works should be seen as exercises in comprehending, rationalising and idealising important human activities which, in practice and by implication, may often have been conducted impromptu with inconsistent and unsatisfactory results. Thus if only parts of the Arthasastra relate to the Mauryan state, only parts of these parts may be taken to be a statement of how government actually operated under Chandragupta Maurya.


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.’5 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.



In 1837, following years of conjecture and study by numerous other ‘Orientalists’, James Prinsep, the assay-master at the British mint in Calcutta, made what remains the single most important discovery in the unravelling of India’s ancient history. From inscriptions in an unknown script found on the stone railings of the great Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, he managed to identify two letters of the alphabet. One was ‘d’, the other ‘n’; when added to other letters already tentatively identified, they suggested words which convinced him that the language being used in these inscriptions was Pali. Pali was a Prakrit, one of several derivatives of Sanskrit, that was popular in Magadha in the Buddha’s time and was subsequently appropriated as the sacred language of much Buddhist scripture. Armed with his insight into the likely language, plus much of the alphabet, Prinsep proceeded to make the first ever translations from the neat ‘pin-man’ script now known as Ashoka Brahmi. He translated the short Sanchi inscriptions – they recorded the donation of the stupa’s individual stones and the names of their donors – and he began to tackle a series of much longer inscriptions.

Copies of these longer inscriptions had come from puzzled antiquarians as far afield as Orissa, Gujarat, Allahabad and Delhi. ‘The memorial in question,’ wrote James Tod in 1822 of the Girnar (Gujarat) inscription, ‘is a huge hemispherical mass of dark granite which, like a wart upon the body, has protruded through the crust of mother earth, without fissure or inequality, and which, by the aid of the iron pen, has been converted into a book’.8 Some of the inscriptions were engraved on cliff faces, others on colossal cylindrical pillars; and an odd thing about all of them was that, though found dotted over the length and breadth of the subcontinent, they seemed to contain similar phrasing and even the same message. It was as if, in Europe, chapter-length runes were to be found identically etched, squiggle for squiggle, in the marble of Carrara, the granite of the Grampians, a pillar in the Rhineland and the rock of Gibraltar. Given the obvious antiquity of both script and find-sites, curiosity about their significance was intense. The Harappan civilisation was not as yet even suspected. These looked to be India’s earliest monuments and, whatever their message, they must be of enormous historical importance. Some saw parallels with the Egyptian hieroglyphics; others were reminded of the Ten Commandments as found by Moses on Mount Sinai.

Announcing his translation in 1837, an exhausted and dying Prinsep also saw parallels with Moses: ‘we might easily cite a more ancient and venerable example of thus fixing the law on tablets of stone.’9 For, contrary to expectations, these were not obscure Vedic invocations of unfathomable import but hard statements of policy, and so historical documentation of an immediacy as yet unknown in India. Henceforth called Edicts, rather than Commandments, the inscriptions clearly announced themselves as the directives of a single sovereign. ‘Thus speaks Devanampiya Piyadassi’ was how most began. The formula, echoing that of Persian inscriptions (and later popularised by the Nietzschean ‘Thus spake Zarathrustra’), may indeed have been influenced by Achaemenid practice. Some of the pillars carrying the inscriptions still retained fluted, bell-shaped capitals crowned with an animal image, both of which features are anticipated in the monumental sculpture found at Persepolis.

Yet the confident modelling of these animal figures, the incorporation of subsidiary motifs like the Buddhist wheel, and the lustrous finish imparted to the sandstone have no foreign counterparts. Moreover, the restrained use of honorific titles in the Edicts themselves and, when fully comprehended, the extraordinarily humane sentiments expressed in them, could scarcely have been more Indian. ‘Devanampiya Piyadassi’ unmistakably belonged to the land of the Buddha and Mahavira. A Gandhian ring would be detected in his emphasis on human values, non-violence and moral regeneration; and to Nehru it would be self-evident that the exquisite capital of one of these inscribed pillars should serve as the national emblem of the republic of India. As usual it mattered not that, featuring a four-faced lion rather than a tiger, it bespoke the Mauryas’ associations with regions of the subcontinent now largely in Pakistan.

But who was this ‘Devanampiya Piyadassi’? Unfortunately for Prinsep no king called anything like that was to be found in the king-lists in the Puranas. But from Sri Lanka one of Prinsep’s contemporaries, who was working on the Buddhist chronicles preserved in that still Buddhist island, reported that there had been a Sri Lankan king called Piyadassi, and then that the same name had also been that of a famous Indian sovereign. Indeed this Indian king was a figure of gigantic standing and copious legend in Buddhist sources. He had championed Buddhism in India, had sent his own son to convert Sri Lanka, and was otherwise gloriously known as Ashoka.

‘Devanampiya’, meaning ‘The Beloved of the Gods’, is now thought to have been an honorific title, like ‘His Majesty’. ‘Piyadassi’ means something like ‘gracious of mien’ and may have been the name assumed when Ashoka was enthroned in c268 BC. That this man was indeed the third Maurya, the grandson of Chandragupta, who would rule for nearly forty years, became self-evident from his listing as Asoka in the Purana king-lists.

Information on Ashoka’s early life is available neither from the Puranas nor from his inscriptions, and must therefore be sought mainly in those Sri Lankan Buddhist chronicles. Of Bindusara, his father (and Chandragupta’s son), little is known. Greek sources call him Amitrochates and testify to further exchanges of ambassadors and gifts between Pataliputra and Alexander’s successors in Egypt and Syria. The name ‘Amitrochates’ has been identified with a Sanskrit title meaning ‘slayer of enemies’. This could imply that he extended his father’s conquests. Additionally he is thought to have patronised the heterodox Ajivika sect in much the same way as his father did the Jains and his son the Buddhists. Clearly considerations of policy, as well as of conscience, may have dictated Mauryan alignment with the new sects; their lay followers were mainly drawn from the rising mercantile and industrial classes and, statecraft being principally about taxation (Artha-sastra literally means ‘the science of wealth’ or ‘economics’), their support was to be cultivated.

Bindusara ruled for twenty-five years and was probably at least into his late fifties when he died. Ashoka, evidently one of several sons, therefore had the opportunity to become closely involved in imperial affairs during his father’s reign. His first appointment seems to have been to Taxila, where he successfully dealt with a revolt against the local Mauryan administration. Perhaps on the strength of this, he was sent to Ujjain as governor. He stayed there until his father’s death. Ujjain nestled beside the Sipra river, a tributary of the Chambal, in the heart of the rolling and well wooded uplands of west central India. Now a major city of pilgrimage, it was then the capital of one of the five main divisions of the Mauryan empire. As the principal power centre in Avanti, or Malwa, it was also well sited to control traffic and trade moving between Broach, the principal west coast port, and either Pataliputra (by way of the Narmada valley) or the upper Gangetic regions (by way of the Chambal and the old Daksinapatha ).

However, of Ashoka’s sojourn there what was thought most worthy of note by Buddhist chroniclers was his love affair with the daughter of a local merchant. The lady in question was Devi or Vidisha-mahadevi, the lovely ‘goddess of Vidisha’. She was not apparently married to Ashoka nor destined to accompany him to Pataliputra and become one of his queens. Yet she bore him a son and a daughter. The son, Mahinda, would head the Buddhist mission to Sri Lanka; and it may be that his mother was already a Buddhist, thus raising the possibility that Ashoka was drawn to the Buddha’s teachings while still in Avanti. In that Vidisa, about 120 kilometres east of Ujjain and near the modern Bhopal, is where stand the glorious monuments of Sanchi (including the great stupa whose inscriptions so enlightened Prinsep), it was clearly home to an important Buddhist community in Mauryan times. But its earliest viharas (monastic halls) and stupas probably date from after 275 BC. It therefore seems just as probable that, instead of Vidisa converting Ashoka, it was Ashoka who converted Vidisa. Mindful of its romantic associations in his youth, he may, in later life as emperor and a lay Buddhist, have retained a soft spot for this peaceful mound in its then sylvan setting near the headwaters of the Betwa river, and by lavish endowment have ensured its religious celebrity.

As with earlier subscribers to the Buddha’s teachings like Ajatashatru of Magadha, Buddhist sources tend to represent Ashoka’s pre-Buddhist lifestyle as one of indulgence steeped in cruelty. Conversion then became all the more remarkable in that by ‘right thinking’ even a monster of wickedness could be transformed into a model of compassion. The formula, if such it was, precluded any admission of Ashoka’s early fascination with Buddhism and may explain the ruthless conduct attributed to him when Bindusara died. Not only is he said to have killed all rival claimants to the throne, notably ninety-nine of his brothers, but also to have paid a visit to hell so that he could construct on earth something similar, equipped with the very latest in instruments of exquisite torture, for all who incurred his displeasure. This ‘Hell-on-Earth’ evidently became quite a curiosity: nine hundred years later a Chinese visitor, while touring the locations associated with early Buddhism, records the site, which was then marked with a pillar.

That Ashoka was not his father’s chosen successor and that there was indeed a succession struggle is certain. It helps to account for the four-year gap between Bindusara’s death and Ashoka’s enthronement as also for the fact that only one brother of many (though surely not a hundred) receives further mention; according to one source, the name of this brother was Vitashoka and he became a Buddhist monk, a career move no doubt dictated as much by self-preservation as self-abnegation. If not a monster, Ashoka undoubtedly evinced the Kautilyan ruthlessness essential to gaining the throne and the Kautilyan cunning essential to retaining it.

Eight years after his enthronement, so in c260 BC, there occurred the only campaign that can certainly be attributed to the Mauryas, one which was nevertheless the outstanding event of the reign and the turning point in the life of the emperor. Ashoka conquered, or reconquered, Kalinga (roughly Orissa). The conquest is recorded in the most important of his Edicts, the thirteenth of the fourteen Major Rock Edicts (as opposed to the eight Minor Rock Edicts and Inscriptions, and the seven Major Pillar Edicts). And though the Edict says nothing of the military arrangements, it tells in detail of the human suffering involved – 100,000 slain, ‘many times that number perished’ (presumably afterwards from wounds and famine) and 150,000 deported. More famously, it also records the emperor’s reaction.

On conquering Kalinga the Beloved of the Gods felt remorse, for, when an independent country is conquered, the slaughter, death and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods and weighs heavily on his mind … Even those who are fortunate to have escaped, and whose love is undiminished, suffer from the misfortunes of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives … Today if a hundredth or a thousandth part of those people who were killed or died or were deported when Kalinga was annexed were to suffer similarly, it would weigh heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods…

This inscription of dhamma has been engraved so that any sons or great-grandsons that I may have should not think of gaining new conquests, and in whatever victories they may gain should be satisfied with patience and light punishment. They should only consider conquest by dhamma to be a true conquest, and delight in dhamma should be their whole delight, for this is of value in both this world and the next.10

‘Herein lies the greatness of Ashoka,’ writes R.K. Mookerji. ‘Even as a mere pious sentiment this is hard to beat; at least no victorious monarch in the history of the world is known to have ever given expression to anything like it.’11 In just such a ‘History of the World’ H.G. Wells made the same point: ‘He would have no more of it [the cruelty and horror of war]. He adopted the peaceful doctrines of Buddhism and declared that henceforth his conquests would be conquests of religion … Such was Ashoka, greatest of kings.’12

Renouncing violence, abjuring war, and advocating the elusive but admirable concept of dhamma, Ashoka turned statecraft on its head. Not the least of those confounded was Kautilya, whose Arthasastra makes the conquest of neighbouring territories one of the sacred duties of a king. It lists several kinds of war, goes into immense logistical detail on armies and battle plans, and includes four handy hints on conquering the world. To a society accustomed to such cynical sentiments, Ashoka’s change of heart must indeed have appeared revolutionary.

Whether it was quite as benign as it seems may, though, be questioned. One wonders why, for instance, if the emperor was so overcome with remorse, he did not arrange for the repatriation of all those deportees? Or why the Edict in question is pointedly omitted from the only rock inscriptions in Kalinga itself, inscriptions which otherwise conform with those in the rest of the country. In its stead are two separate Edicts ordering imperial representatives to conciliate the natives with lenient policies and exceptional diligence so that such wayward people may come to think of Ashoka as their father. Policy as much as conscience dictated this approach. Whatever lessons he chose to draw, in reality Ashoka’s treatment of the subjugated Kalingans was exactly as prescribed by theArthasastra : ‘having acquired new territory the conqueror shall substitute his virtues for the enemy’s vices and where the enemy was good, he shall be twice as good. He shall follow policies that are pleasing and beneficial by acting according to his dharmaand by granting favours and exemptions, giving gifts and bestowing honours.’13

One wonders, too, about those astronomical casualty figures. Megasthenes describes the Mauryan army as a permanent and professional body, recruited, trained and maintained at state expense, and which scarcely impinged on the agricultural masses. ‘It therefore not unfrequently happens that at the same time, and in the same part of the country, men may be seen drawn up in array of battle, and fighting at the risk of their lives, while other men close at hand are ploughing and digging in perfect security.’14 But if this was the case, how were so many non-combatants affected by the Kalingan war? Megasthenes actually gives a figure for the Kalingan army. In Chandragupta’s time it was sixty thousand strong. The Mauryan forces were obviously far more numerous but, unless they suffered a disproportionate number of casualties, it is hard to explain how the total of those slain in battle can have come to anything like 100,000.


There was nothing unusual, of course, about conflating enemy losses. Perhaps Ashoka exaggerated so as to make his revulsion more plausible. But equally he may, like most victors, have done so principally to magnify his victory and so discourage others from defying his authority. Contrary to popular opinion, he never specifically abjures warfare, nor is there any mention of his disbanding units of the Mauryan army. This is not to say that his remorse was insincere. The Kalinga war had indeed troubled his conscience, and since, according to the Arthasastra, ‘the king encapsulates the constituents of the state,’ his unease seemed to reflect the wider ills of society as a whole. The cure, though, was not the balm of a disastrous pacifism but the bracing tonic of what he called dhamma.


Few rulers have summed up their life’s work in a single word, but that was obviously how Ashoka wanted it. Not for conquests, prosperity or majesty did he wish to be remembered, only for dhamma. To say the word features prominently in his Edicts is an understatement. Nearly all mention it, some many times, and there are several attempts at defining it:

Thus speaks the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi: There is no gift comparable to the gift of dhamma, the praise of dhamma, the sharing of dhamma, fellowship in dhamma. And this is: good behaviour towards slaves and servants, obedience to mother and father, generosity towards friends, acquaintances and relatives, and towards sramanas and brahmans, and abstention from killing living beings. Father, son, brother, master, friend, acquaintance, relative, and neighbour should say, ‘this is good, this we should do.’ By doing so, there is gain in this world, and in the next there is infinite merit, through the gift of dhamma. [Eleventh Major Rock Edict]15

Elsewhere dhamma is equated with ‘mercy, charity, truthfulness and purity’. In English it is variously rendered as ‘piety’, ‘duty’, ‘good conduct’ or ‘decency’. Ashoka clearly thought it anything but anodyne, and practised it, preached it, and legislated for it with missionary zeal. It was a panacea not just for India but for the world – this one and the next. The glad tidings were to be carried beyond his frontiers, even to his fellow rulers in the west. The mention of some of their names – including an Egyptian Ptolemy and an Alexander (of Epirus) – provides vital chronological corroboration.

At home, something like a parallel administration was set up to promote and monitor dhamma’s dissemination. The Edicts embodying it were promulgated, proclaimed, and then encapsulated for all time by that laborious process of gouging them into the very bedrock of India. ‘I have done this,’ Ashoka announced when, after twenty-seven years on the throne, he issued his last Edict, ‘so that among my sons and great grandsons, and as long as the sun and moon shall endure, men may follow dhamma’ [Seventh Pillar Edict].16

It is the tone as much as the content which sends a shiver down awe-struck spines. Ashoka is not just India’s first defined historical personality but, rarer still for such a remote age, he is an intelligible personality. Quite probably the Beloved of the Gods did indeed speak just thus. The language is personal and intimate, not stilted or formalised as is more usual with official directives, and neither condensed for the purposes of inscription nor artfully organised for easy memorising. Occasionally repetitive, it slips from third person to first and from direct speech to indirect, just as one might expect of something dictated and recorded verbatim.

Almost certainly the Edicts first circulated as palm-leaf texts and were then engraved. Literacy not being a widespread skill in the third century BC, they were meant to be read out aloud to the people. At Shahbazgarhi near Peshawar on the edge of the badlands of the north-west frontier, and at Mansehra in the Himalayan foothills north of Taxila, they were written in Kharosthi, the local script derived from Aramaic in Achaemenid times. Further west beyond the Khyber Pass and at Kandahar in the deserts of southern Afghanistan a shortened Edict is in Aramaic with a translation into Greek; had it been discovered earlier, it could, like a Rosetta Stone, have made Prinsep’s task redundant. Although the many inscriptions found deep in the Deccan betray no knowledge of Tamil, elsewhere the adoption of local scripts and languages shows Ashoka appealing directly not only to his own people but to other peoples beyond his frontiers, and to other generations beyond his times. It is this above all, the directness of his directives, which, transcending the millennia, gives them even now such awesome immediacy.

But if the tone is still arresting, one can hardly say the same for the contents. Why, one wonders, lavish so much love, labour and authority on a set of fairly obvious humanitarian injunctions? Assuming they had no political relevance, many historians have portrayed Ashoka more as a religious reformer, another Buddha or Christ, than as an empire-builder. In religious terms his clear preference, as shown in a number of minor inscriptions, was for the Buddhist community; given ‘the rank growth of legend which has clustered round the name of Ashoka’ in Buddhist tradition,dhamma has often actually been equated with Buddhism. This link appears to be borne out by dhamma’s emphasis on non-violence, on preserving life in all its forms, and on ‘right conduct’ towards one’s fellow human beings. The Third Buddhist Council is supposed to have met under Ashoka’s patronage at Pataliputra. At least one of his dhamma agents, his son Mahinda, was more missionary than emissary. And Ashoka, instead of combining tours of his kingdom with the traditional pastime of a royal hunt, insists that his peregrinations were enlivened only by pilgrimage. Just such a tour, embracing the Buddha’s birthplace and the site of his parinirvana, is commemorated in a series of pillars erected in situ and dated to the twentieth year of his reign, so 248 BC.

However, the tradition that Ashoka actually became a Buddhist monk is now discredited. The inscriptions never mention the Buddha and show no awareness of his ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ or any other Buddhist schema. Even the idea of ‘conversion’ is suspect, since codes like those of the Buddhists and Jains were not seen as exclusive. Religion as creed, doctrine as dogma, and faith as truth are equations with little validity in pre-Islamic India. Most subscribed to the inexorable cycle of rebirth and to the notion that there were various ways of effecting eventual escape from it. The propitiation of a particular deity could help, but was more commonly a means of warding off disease and pestilence. Even brahmanical orthodoxy demanded no profession of faith, merely an acceptance of brahman authority and a high degree of caste conformity. There was indeed competition, especially amongst the heterodox sects, for adherents and for patronage. There was also ferocious debate which, on at least one occasion, required Ashoka’s intervention. But conversion, in the sense of renouncing one set of doctrines for another, was meaningless.

Instead Megasthenes divided India’s ‘philosophers’ not into like-minded sects but into ‘Bramanes and Sarmanes’, a distinction also made by Ashoka when referring, as above, to ‘Sramanas and brahmans’, or elsewhere to ‘Sramanas and householders’. ‘Sramanas’ denoted ‘renunciates’ and included all those who followed the mendicant and monastic habits of the heterodox sects as well as itinerant devotees of traditional deities. In other words, the crucial distinction was not between different belief systems but between different lifestyles. The individual was defined purely by his relationship to the rest of society. Not doctrine but conduct was what mattered.

Just so for Ashoka. He attempted no philosophical justification of dhamma, nor was he much given to rationalising it. It was not a belief system, not a developed ideology, just a set of behavioural exhortations. But because behaviour, conduct, was of such defining importance, any attempt to alter it was indeed revolutionary. Ashoka therefore needed a good reason for introducing his dhamma ; and it should perhaps be sought in the need to promote a more united and uniform society.

Unprecedented solutions were required for an empire of unprecedented extent. In addition to the vast area roughly defined by the Rock Inscriptions (extending from Orissa to Mysore, Bombay, Junagadh, Kandahar, Peshawar and Dehra Dun), it seems fairly certain that the Kashmir valley was also included, and probably that of Nepal. The terrain varied from jungle to mountain, desert and flood-plain, and the population from nomadic hunter-gatherers to slash-and-burn tribesmen, pastoral herdsmen, fishing communities, arable and dairy farmers, craft villages, urbanised guilds, maritime and overland traders, and the highly sophisticated hierarchical societies of the major cities. Pataliputra itself, according to Megasthenes, lay within a walled and heavily fortified parallelogram of roughly fifteen kilometres by two and a half; its palace rivalled that of the Achaemenids, and even in decay made such an impression on a Chinese traveller that he thought it the work of spirits.

To preserve this empire intact, the Mauryan administration, if one may judge from what Megasthenes says and the Arthasastra expands, was one of the most elaborate on record. Government was construed as being largely about collecting taxes and administering justice. In each of these spheres the emperor and his mainly advisory council of ministers headed a hierarchy of officials which reached down through divisional and district officers to the toll-collector, the market overseer and the clerk who recorded the measurement and assessment of fields. The entire apparatus was subject to regular checks by a staff of inspectors who reported direct to the emperor, while a more sinister system of undercover informants provided a further check. All were appointed, directly or indirectly, by the emperor and had instant access to him.

This system was replicated by the four provincial administrations based at Suvarnagiri (near Kurnool in what is now Andhra Pradesh), Ujjain (Avanti/Malwa), Taxila (Panjab) and Tosali (thought to have been near Bhubaneshwar in Orissa). Each was headed by a governor, usually a son or brother of the emperor, although how much autonomy these local administrations enjoyed is questionable. Megasthenes paints a picture of a highly centralised, indeed personalised, administration, but he may have been generalising from conditions in Magadha itself. Centralisation was certainly the intention. The Greek ambassador’s enthusiasm for India’s roads is more than matched by Ashoka’s insistence in one of his Edicts that they be lined with shade trees, clearly marked with milestones, and provided with frequent wells, orchards and rest-houses. Communications were vital for trade; like instant access to the emperor, they were also essential to an effective despotism.

Another declared priority was standardisation. An Ashokan directive on ‘uniformity in judicial procedure and punishment’ is echoed in the Arthasastra, where taxes, duties and pay scales are all represented as standard. More generally, the whole structure of the administration and the use of standard proclamations and inscriptions were intended to knit the empire together. Caste, whether as the four-tier varna or the professionbased jati, scarcely receives a mention in the Edicts, but sectarian differences were much on the imperial mind. ‘The Beloved of the Gods,’ according to the twelfth Major Rock Edict, ‘honours all sects and both ascetics and laymen with gifts and various forms of recognition.’ But these benefits, Ashoka says, are unimportant compared to ‘the advancement of the essential doctrine of all sects’. The context here is that of a plea for toleration between the sects. No one is to disparage someone else’s teachings – or only mildly and on certain occasions. Concord is the ideal, and this is best realised by developing a recognition of a doctrinal essence that is common to all.

Although not specifically equated with dhamma, this supposed doctrinal essence seems to be the genesis of Ashoka’s big idea. The word ‘dhamma’ is a Prakrit spelling of the more familiar ‘dharma’, a concept difficult to translate but imbued with positive and idealised connotations in both orthodox Vedic literature and in the heterodox doctrines of Buddhists, Jains and Ajivikas. Invoking a natural order within which all manner of creation had its place and its role, it was something to which no one, be he brahman or Buddhist, emperor or slave, could reasonably take exception.

Dharma did, nevertheless, have different meanings for different sects, and Ashoka’s dhamma seems therefore to have sought common ground, borrowing from one what was least objectionable to the others. The emphasis on a respect for life in all its forms and on providing medical facilities for animals as well as men was clearly derived from Jain teachings. It appears that all live sacrifices were forbidden, and even the killing of animals for food was to be discouraged. The emperor was setting an example, in that his kitchen now required only two peacocks and the occasional deer, and ‘even these three animals will not be killed in future’. Such injunctions have often been taken to imply a ban on sacrificial extravaganzas and so a provocative swipe at those who derived their prestige and income from conducting them, namely brahmans. But, given a list elsewhere of the prohibited species, it seems that this rule may have applied only to wild creatures, not farm animals. Goats, sheep and cattle, the species most obviously in demand for both ritual and culinary purposes, are protected only when nursing their young. They must otherwise, therefore, have been exempt. Similarly, though adamant that ‘it is good not to kill human beings’, Ashoka seems to have retained capital punishment just as he retained the option of warfare. Dhamma was carefully formulated so that essential interests should not be prejudiced while sectarian concerns were being accommodated.

As well as conciliating the Jains, we know from an inscription in a cave in Orissa that Ashoka continued his father’s policy of patronising the Ajivikas. As for his Buddhist sympathies, they have already been mentioned. They found ample expression in dhamma, especially in injunctions about right conduct towards relatives, friends and colleagues. He makes, though, a significant addition by adding to the list of such beneficiaries the brahmans. Ashoka had no intention of slighting orthodox society or its deities. ‘The Beloved of the Gods’ would keep in with the gods, whatever his personal sympathy for the Buddhist sangha (monastic community).

It would appear that Ashoka aimed at creating an attitude of mind among his subjects in which social behaviour had the highest relevance. In the context of conditions during the Mauryan period, this ideology may have been viewed as a focus of loyalty and a point of convergence for the existing diversities of people and activities.17

‘Yet,’ continues Romila Thapar, ‘the ideology of dhamma died with the death of the emperor [in 231 BC].’ Others have conjectured that dhamma may even have been the undoing of the empire; perhaps it invited defiance, perhaps it provoked defiance. During his last ten years on the throne Ashoka had no further Edicts inscribed, and his empire may already have been falling apart. Mauryas would continue to rule from Pataliputra for another fifty years but their writ seldom ran beyond Magadha. The provinces, centred on Ujjain, Taxila, Suvarnagiri and Tosali, rapidly broke away as Ashoka’s successors proved unworthy of their inheritance and incapable of his vision. If dhamma was supposed to hold the empire together, it was an unmitigated failure.

Yet a policy that failed became an intimation that endured. The Ashokan legacy of an empire which stretched from sea to sea and from the mountains to the peninsula was promptly mislaid and would remain so for a couple of millennia. Likewise Ashoka’s historicity. But tradition cherished his memory; Indian historians insist that the ideal of a pan-Indian empire was never forgotten; and nor, more certainly, was the spirit of humanity embodied in his Edicts. The innovation which he pioneered of appealing across the barriers of sect, caste and kin to the community of India would be revived by a host of other reformers, not least Guru Nanak of the Sikhs and eventually Mahatma Gandhi.

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