Mauryan Empire Rises in India

The Mauryan Empire was the first indigenous centralized state in India: politically united, economically prosperous, militarily strong, and culturally vibrant.

Summary of Event

The social origin and early life of Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan Dynasty, are obscure. Hindu literary tradition, notably the Purāṇas (anthologies of Hindu thought compiled in the fourth-sixth century c.e.) and Viśākhadatta’s play Mudrārākṣasa (possibly fourth century c.e. or later; Mudraraksasam, 1900), describe him as the eldest son of Maurya, a prince of the Nanda Dynasty, who was the son of King Sarvarthasiddhi by his a mistress named Mura, most probably the daughter of a Persian resident of Pataliputra. However, two Buddhist texts based on earlier traditions—the Mahāvamsatīkā (compiled c. seventh-tenth centuries c.e.) and Upatissa’s Mahābodhivamsa (c. tenth century)—describe Chandragupta as a Kṣatriya (member of the caste of nobles and warriors) hailing from the clan of the Moriyas, kinsmen of the Śakyas. According to these accounts, his father, the clan chief, died in a border fracas and left his family destitute. His widow, helped by her brothers, escaped to Pushpapura (Pataliputra), where she gave birth to a son, Chandragupta. The fatherless boy was taken by his maternal uncles to a cowherd’s home to be raised in safe anonymity. At the age of seven or eight, the boy was sold by his foster father to a hunter to work at the latter’s cattle ranch. As the story goes, once when the little boy was playing a “king-game” (rajakilam) at the village common with his companions, he was spotted by Kauṭilya, a wise, ambitious Brahman from Taxila and a former officer of the Magadhan court. Chandragupta Maurya
Alexander the Great
Seleucus I Nicator

The Nanda kings, reputed to be base born, ruled the empire of Magadha (343-321 b.c.e.) with an iron hand. Kauṭilya had visited the Pataliputra court of Dhanananda (probably a nickname, literally meaning “opulent” Nanda; also known as Chandramas Nanda and as Agrammes or Xandramas in Greek accounts), the youngest of the five Nanda brothers. He had been placed in charge of the royal alms office but had lost the job because of his homely visage and arrogant manners. Deeply incensed at this insult, Kauṭilya had vowed to end Nanda rule and had escaped from Pataliputra in the guise of an Ājīvika ascetic. It was during his wanderings as an ascetic that he chanced on Chandragupta and noticed in the boy’s speech and demeanor a potential for a royal career.

Following his education at Taxila, Chandragupta worked with Kauṭilya to begin assembling a coalition of forces to address the Greek domination of parts of northern India and then the Nandas of Magadha. Alexander the Great had crossed the Khyber Pass, entered the region of what is modern-day Pakistan, and defeated the Indian prince Porus at the Battle of Hydaspes (326 b.c.e.). However, the Greek conqueror faced multiple problems in holding on to his Indian conquests. The republican peoples (arattas, or arastrakas, kingless peoples) of the Punjab region had proved especially intractable. Moreover, Alexander was never sure of the areas that he had conquered, which were threatened by rebellions among both the Greeks and Indians. Sometime before 323, Alexander divided his Indian possessions into six satrapies, three on the west of the Indus, which he placed under Greek governors, and three on the east of the Indus, which he placed under Indian governors.

The Greek biographer Plutarch (c. 46-after 120 c.e.) states in his account of Alexander that the young Chandragupta visited Alexander with the intention of inducing the Macedonian emperor to attack Magadha and depose the tyrant Dhanananda. Reportedly, Alexander was upset at the young Indian leader’s proposal and ordered that he be killed. Under Kauṭilya’s mentorship, Chandragupta began recruiting followers with a view to creating a coalition of powerful Indian rulers against the foreign rule of the Macedonian Greeks and subsequently ousting the Nandas from the throne of Magadha. Though the details of this Kauṭiya-Chandragupta enterprise are not available, doubtless Chandragupta found his ardent followers from among the arastraka peoples of the Punjab, who had opposed the Greek presence in their land. In 326 b.c.e., when Alexander was busy with his military advance into the interior of the Indian subcontinent, Qandahār raised the standard of rebellion under an Indian chief known as Samaxus in the Greek accounts, and the Ashvayana people killed the Greek governor Nicanor. His replacement, Philip, an experienced army commander, was also assassinated. The Greek position was weakened further with Alexander’s untimely death in Babylon in 323. By 321, the Greeks withdrew from Indian territories, and as the historian Justin (second century c.e.) reports, Chandragupta liberated the Greek-occupied regions of India.

Chandragupta’s next mission, battle with the Nandas, began in earnest but ended in failure because of his strategic blunder of trying to take over the interior of the country without first conquering the frontiers. After this failure, he completed the conquest of the frontier regions, stationing garrisons to protect them against rebellions. He then led his vast force toward Magadha, besieged Pataliputra, and following a grim, pitched battle with the Magadhan commander, Bhaddasala, either deposed or killed the incumbent ruler Dhanananda in 321 b.c.e.

Having conquered Magadha and extended his sway over the Punjab region up to the Indus, Chandragupta dealt with Seleucus I Nicator, Alexander’s famous general who had become the ruler of Babylon by about 305 b.c.e. Intending to recover the Indian regions from Chandragupta’s control, Seleucus crossed the Indus around 305-304. His expedition, however, led to a settlement with Chandragupta in which the Greeks ceded the satrapies of Qandahār, Kabul, Herāt, and Bluchistan to the Indians and Chandragupta presented five hundred war elephants to Seleucus. A diplomatic relation between the two former adversaries was established following the appointment of Megasthenes (c. 342-282 b.c.e.) by Seleucus as his official ambassador at the court of Magadha. Plutarch provides a vivid description of Chandragupta’s further conquests south of the Vindhya range and writes that the emperor of Magadha subdued the whole of India.

Two sources—Megasthenes’s celebrated account Indica (third century b.c.e.; original lost, fragments translated as Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian, 1877) and Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra (dates vary, c. fourth century b.c.e.-third century c.e.; Treatise on the Good, 1961)—provide detailed descriptions of the Mauryan administration and government as well as the social and economic condition of India under Chandragupta’s reign. The Jain traditions speak of Chandragupta’s conversion to Jainism and his abdication of his throne in his late middle age. He became a disciple of the Jain saint Yatindra Bhadrabahu of the Digambara sect, who, following a famine in Pataliputra, led a migration of the Digambara Jain residents of Magadha toward Mysore. The Mauryan emperor is believed to have ended his life at Sravana Belgola, following the Jain practice of fasting to death.


The Mauryan Empire (c. 321-c. 185 b.c.e.) was the first united, centralized state in post-Buddhist India and was characterized by a sort of benevolent despotism that was efficient and effective. In his Treatise on the Good, Kauṭilya described the structure of government and administration during Chandragupta Maurya’s reign, and Megasthenes commented on the prosperity, security, and all-round cultural fecundity of the land at the time.

Further Reading

  • Bhargava, Purushottam L. Chandragupta Maurya: A Gem of Indian History. New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 1996. Straightforward, popular, but dependable biography.
  • Chattopadhyaya, C. D. “Early Life of Chandragupta Maurya.” In Vol. 1 of B.C. Law Volume, edited by Devdatta R. Bhandarkar et al. Calcutta, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1945. A deeply scholarly investigation by a renowned expert.
  • Dikshitar, V. R. Ramachandra. Mauryan Polity. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1993. A standard study of administration and government under the Mauryan Dynasty.
  • McCrindle, John W. McCrincle’s Ancient India: As Described by Megasthenes and Arrian. 1877. Reprint. New Delhi: International Books and Periodicals Supply Service, 1984. Classic sourcebook of ancient accounts of the reign of Chandragupta Maurya.
  • Mookerji, Radha K. Chandragupta Maurya and His Times. 4th ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1999. A truly magisterial study, first published in 1943.
  • Pradhan, Sita N. Chronology of Ancient India from the Times of the Rigvedic King Divodasa to Chandragupta Maurya with Glimpses into the Political History of the Period. 1927. Reprint. Varanasi: Bharatiya Publishing House, 1979. Helpful political history of the period. A sound background of the history of the Mauryan regime.
  • Raychaudhuri, Hemchandra. Political History of Ancient India from the Accession of Parikshit to the Extinction of the Gupta Dynasty. Commentary by Bratindra N. Mukherjee. 7th ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996. A classic work, first published in 1923.
  • Sastri, K. A. Nilkanta, ed. A Complete History of India. Vol. 2. Bombay: Orient Longmans, 1957. Superb history by an acknowledged master. Especially good in respect to the history of Mauryan rule in the south.
  • Smith, Vincent A. The Early History of India from 600 b.c. to the Muhammadan Conquest: Including the Invasion of Alexander. 4th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962. Standard scholarly account in spite of some criticism by postcolonial scholars of India.

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