The Mauryan Empire (321-185 BC)
  • Empire
  • The Mauryan Conquests
  • Material Basis of the Mauryan Empire
  • Land Revenue
  • The Urban Economy
  • Society and Religion
  • Ashoka's Policy of Dhamma
  • Mauryan Administration
  • Relations with Other Powers
  • The Downfall
Source Material
The major source material for the Mauryan period are two very interesting literary works.
One is the Arthasastra written by Kautilya, or Chanakya, the Prime Minister of Chandragupta Maurya , which explains how good government should be organized.
The other source is lndica written in Greek by Megasthenes. the ambassador of Seleucus Nicator at the court of Chandragupta.
Megasthenes wrote not only about the capital city of Pataliputra. but also about the Maurya empire as a whole and about the society.
The Mauryan Conquests
Chandragupta Maurya
Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the dynasty and under him the whole of northern India was united.
He conspired with Chanakya, the Minister of the Nandas, to overthrow the last of the Nanda kings and occupy their capital Pataliputra.
This success is linked with his accession to the throne around 321 BC. It has been suggested that the political rise of Chandragupta was followed by the invasion of Alexander in the north-west.
Chandragupta negotiated with Seleueus Nicator. the Greek Viceroy of Alexander who ruled over the area west of the lndus. Seleucus was forced to concede eastern Afghanistan, Baluehistan. and the area west of the Indus.
A marriage alliance was also concluded. Further, Seleucus sent an Ambassador called Megasthenes, who lived in the court of Chandragupta for many years.
Bindusara : Son of Chandragupta
Bindusara, is said to have ascended the throne in 297 BC.
In the classsical sources, he is referred to as Amitrochates, and that he had contacts with the Seleucid king of Syria,Antiochus I.
It is believed that Bindusara extended the kingdom further and conquered the South as far as Mysore.
Buddhist sources put the death of Bindusara around 273 to 272 BC. After his death, there was a struggle for succession among his sons for about four years.
Ultimately, around 269 to 268 BC, Ashoka was crowned Bindusara's successor.
Ashoka is credited with having conquered only Kalinga (Orissa). Kalinga was of strategic importance as it controlled routes to South India both on land and sea.
Ashoka, in Rock Edit-XIII describes his conquest of Kalinga which is said to have taken place eight years after his coronation, i.e. around 260 BC.
In the war, Though on the battlefield Ashoka was victorious, the inscription goes on to describe his remorse which then ultimately turned him towards Buddhism and adopting his policy of Dhamma Viyaya.
In the east, the empire of the Mauryas seem to have included north and south Bengal. The Magadh empire thus reached its greatest territorial expansion under Ashoka.
Material Basis of the Mauryan Empire
Uses of Iron
In the excavation carried out in the Ganges valley, different types of iron tools, like socketed axes, sickles and possibly ploughshares, have been found.
That these were essential to the practice of intensive agriculture in the heavy and loamy soil of the Ganges valley cannot be over-emphasized.
Numerous small heaps of iron slag have been found scattered all over the iron belt of south Bihar.
Sophisticated techniques for making different kinds of iron were also known as can be understood front the Arthasastra.
Agrarian Economy
For the agrarian economy to expand, greater stress was laid on bringing new land under cultivation. In the newly settled tracts, a new technique of paddy cultivation was adopted which was labour intensive.
In the Arthasastra it is suggested that the shudras were to settle in these areas. They, in any case, formed the bulk of agricultural and other types of manual labour community.
Settling of new groups were probably done by transferring them from over-populated areas or deporting them from a defeated kingdom . This was probably the case with 1,50,000 people who were deported after the Kalinga war.
Other groups like carpenters and merchants were also probably settled in a similar manner. The settlement of permanent villages in such a manner called Janapadanivesa, ensured a sound and stable resource base for the State.
Land Revenue
System of Taxation
The system of taxation under the Mauryan rule constitutes a landmark in ancient India. The land revenue collection was efficiently organised so as to appropriate the maximum possible surplus from the people.
Land tax (bhaga), the main item of revenue was quite high and was levied at the rate of one sixth of the produce, though the Greek account puts them at the rate of one fourth.
There was a large number of customary dues that the peasants had to pay. For example, a tax called Pindakara was paid by those practicing animal husbandry .
There was another tax known as Hiranya, the exact nature of which is not known. But it was probably a tax paid in cash because Hiranya literally means gold .
The Urban Economy
The development of the agrarian economy had given a solid economic basis to the Mauryan empire, particularly in the Ganges valley .
Internal trade was considerably benefitted because river transport had improved and the forests around the valleys had been cleared under State initiative.
The State's policy, particularly under Bimbisara and Ashoka to have peaceful and friendly relations with the Greeks gave fillip to foreign trade.
State goods (Rajapanya) were to be normally sold by state servants. The assistance of private traders was also sought as their network of distribution was Well organized and widespread.
The superintendent of tolls (sulkadhyaksha) collected from the traders custom dues ranging from 1/5 to l/25th of the value of goods.
Monopoly of Mining and Metallurgy
An important aspect of the Mauryan economy which increased royal power and assisted in the maintenance of the vast empire was the monopoly of mining and metallurgy .
The Arthasastra clearly provides for a superintendent of mines (akaradhy-aksha), his chief function being prospecting for new mines and reopening old and misused ones.
The state sold a great deal of metal to traders, artisans, guilds, goldsmiths and individual manufacturers, thereby, making a lot of money.
Another significant development was the use of currency which had begun in an earlier period, but became fairly common in the Mauryan period because of the development of commerce.
Money was used not only for trade, even the government paid its officers in cash.
Salaries ranging from 60 to 48,000 panas per year were significant. The state functioned on the basis of a powerful cash economy.
The largest number of punch-marked (mostly silver) coins which have been found can be assigned to the Mauryan period come from eastern UP and Bihar which constituted the nucleus of the empire.
The process of urbanisation which had begun in the Mauryan period witnessed further growth.
The urban economy characterised by the activities of the manufacturers of goods, merchants and a system of exchange began to spread from the Ganges valley to other areas of western and central India, Deccan and southern India.
The development and administration of towns was given much importance by the Mauryans, and the taxes received from towns paid rich dividends to the state.
Society and Religion
Varna System
The social organisation was based on the Varna system, with the four traditional Varnas becoming endogamous, and therefore, rigid.
The vaishyas were also Dvijas (twice-born) like the brahmanas and the kshatriyas, but were socially inferior to them.
The lower orders, the shudras, were no less hostile to the upper classes. They were dissatisfied with the conditions of their life and hence indulged in criminal activities.
Religious Ideas
The existence of several religious sects may have also contributed to tensions and conflicts within the society. Despite the growing influence of Buddhism and Jainism, the Vedas did not completely loose their hold on the people.
Kautilya extolled the Vedic way of life and there are indications in the Arthsastra that several deities were worshipped in temples.
By the fourth century BC, Buddhism had however emerged as a distinct religion with potential for expansion.
The third Buddhist council at Pataliputra also decided to send missionaries to various parts of the subcontinent.
Jainism and Ajivikism were held in contempt by the brahmanas, whose social position they must have undermined.
Ashoka's Policy of Dhamma
Dissemination of Dhamma
It was against this background that Ashoka expanded his famous policy of Dhamma to eliminate social tension and sectarian conflicts and to promote a harmonious relationship between the diverse elements of the empire.
Dhamma is the Prakrit equivalent of the Sanskrit word Dharma, translated as religion in modern times. But the term used in the Ashokan edict has a much wider connotation.
Ashoka's insistence on abstinence from killing, on considerate relationships between parents and children, elders, and young people, friends, masters and servants, and various religious sects.
It was a plea for the ineulcation of virtuous behaviour transcending all social, religious and cultural barriers.
Ashoka's Dhamma Emphasized Upon Toleration
Toleration of people and of their religious beliefs and ideas so as to promote a harmonious life both in the family and community.
However, contrary to his emphasis on toleration, Ashoka banned festive meetings or gatherings (perhaps due to the fear of conflict arising out of the differences of opinion).
Ashoka denounced all 'useless ceremonies and sacrifices' held under the influence of superstition.
Ashoka's Dhamma also emphasized upon non-violence. After the Kalinga war, Ashoka is said to have renounced all further bloodshed.
Ashoka also tried to propagate his policy through his edicts inscribed on rocks or monolithic pillars. Many of these edicts have come to light.
Mauryan Administration
The Mauryan state had a vast administrative set-up with the king at the Centre. Megasthenes puts the total number of the Mauryan army at 4,00,000.
No other ruling house in ancient India maintained an army bigger than that of the Mauryas. It gave the State immense coercive power and enhanced the prestige and glamour of the Mauryan king.
Simultaneously, Ashoka reached a totally new and inspiring ideal of kingship, when he asserted 'All men are my children', and 'whatever exertion I make, I strive only to discharge the debt that I owe to all living creatures.
There are also references to an inner council, Mantris, a small group of ministers who would be consulted on issues which needed immediate attention.
An orderly legal system was established to maintain social order, smooth functioning of the administrative system and flow of revenue to the state.
Kautilya has listed different resources from where revenue flowed into the state treasury; the treasury was looked after by an official called Sannidhata.
The cities paid its own revenue in the form of fines, sales tax, (sulka) excise on sale of liquor, a kind of income tax imposed on the rich, etc. In fact, the Arthasastra lists 21 such taxes collected by the Durga.
From rural areas the state derived its revenue in the form of income from crown lands (Sita), land revenue (Bhaga) from cultivators, taxes on orchards, ferry charges, etc.
Taxes were levied on merchants travelling by road or water ways. Taxes were also levied on exports and imports.
Most of the revenue collection which went to the State treasury had their outflow in the form of expenditure on army, administration, salaries, king, etc.
Public Works
The State took considerable interest in irrigation because it was a major source of revenue. To this effect it built dams, ponds, canals, etc.
There were certain regulations regarding the use of water resources and breaking these was a state offence. The state also helped its citizens during natural calamities like floods, famines, etc.
The Arthasastra mentions that the king should look after orphans, unattended women, etc.
An important aspect of public works was the laying down and repair of roads and opening of inns. Thus, it can be said that the State did spend a certain amount from its revenues on public works.
This must have increased during the time of Ashoka due to his concern for public welfare and paternal attitude towards his subjects.
Provincial Administration
The kingdom was divided into four provinces. From Ashokan edicts, we get the name of four provincial capitals
  1. Tosali (in the east)
  2. Ujjain (in the west)
  3. Suvarnagiri (in the south)
  4. Taxila (between the Indus and Jhelum rivers in the north).

The head of the provincial administration was the kumara (royal prince) who used to govern the provinces as the king's representative.
The kumara was in turn assisted by Mahanmtyas and a council of ministers.
From the Ashokan edicts, we understand that the Mahamatyas were performing various activities like looking after the border areas, judicial work, etc.
Another category of high officials was that of Amatyas. This category too must have held special powers, for it was against their arbitrary actions that the people of Taxila revolted during the reigns of Bimbisara and Ashoka.
District and Village Level Administration
The administrative units included a set-up at the district level consisting of a number of villages. Each village had its own administrative unit.
Officials listed at the district level during this period were pradeshta, rajuka and yukta, the first being the overall incharge of the district.
Their functions included survey and assessment of land, tours and inspections, revenue collection and maintenance of law and order, etc.
The official at the village level administration was Gramika, usually a local person though the set-up at this level must have varied according to local conditions.
But we do find Gopa and Sthanika, two types of officers acting as intermediaries between the district and village level administration.
Relations with Other Powers
Relation Maintenance

With regards to the Mauryan relations with other powers, it can be said that after the Mauryan expansion reached its limits, the emphasis shifted to consolidation and having friendly relations not only with immediate neighbours but with far-off countries.

In Rock Edict XIII, Ashoka has referred to five contemporary rulers
  • Antiyoka (Antiochus II of Syria)
  • Turmaya (Ptolemy ll Philadelphus of Egypt)
  • Antikini (Antigonas of Macedonia)
  • Maka (Magas of Cyrene)
  • Aliksudaro (Alexander of Epirus)

The reference to these rulers is in the context Dhamma Vijaya indicating that missions were sent to these rulers with the message Dhamma.
Sri Lanka remained another friendly neighbor again due to the policy Dhamma.
The Downfall of the Mauryan Empire
Reasons of Mauryan Downfall
The Mauryan Empire broke up 50 years after the death of Ashoka (231 BC). Brihadratha was the last ruler in the main line of the Mauryas.
He is said to have been slain by his brahmana general Pushyamitra Shunga, who founded an independent dynasty.
According to another group of scholars, Ashoka's policies, his supposed obsession with non-violence is said to have led to the weakening of the Mauryan army.
The large amounts of money spent under Ashoka on public works and also his tours and that of his officials meant a further strain on the treasury.
The gradual weakening of royal finances, a quick succession of rulers after Ashoka, in a highly centralised administration, led to the speedy collapse of the empire.
Mauryan Art
Stupas and Sculptures
Stone masonry was introduced on a wide scale. The ruins of a 80 pillared hall have been discovered at Kumrahar, on the outskirts of Patna, undoubtedly a part of Chandragupta's palace but probably rebuilt by his grandson, Ashoka.
Ashoka's contribution to Indian art is a number of monolithic pillars, most of them bearing his inscriptions, which have been found in widely separated parts of the subcontinent.
The animals: lions, an elephant, a bull and a pair of quadruple adorned lions which form the crowning feature of these columns comprise the first important group of Indian sculpture.
Ashoka is also associated with a small number of excavated cave shrines in the Barabar Hills, just north of Bodh Gaya.
The great Stupa at Sanchi near Vidislia in Central India, was also first built by Ashoka.
This chapter sums up the key findings of this study on the reign of Aśoka Maurya and the collapse of the Mauryan dynasty. It describes the place of Aśoka against the background of the third century BC in India and the distinction between Aśoka the man and Aśoka the monarch. It suggests that Aśoka's greatness lay in the fact that he was equipped both by his own endeavour and by circumstances, to understand the culture to which he belonged and its then rapidly changing requirements. It also clarifies a popular misconception about the Mauryan period which describes it as one which was politically decentralised and individually democratic; whereas in fact it was the beginning of political centralisation and it also saw the triumph of a social order which did not permit of much individual liberty
This quiz has been prepared with questions related to Indian History-Mauryas. These question were asked in various competitive exams across India. You can practice these questions to gain more knowledge.

Start Quiz Next Slide