The Mauryan Empire (321 -185 B.C.E)

The Mauryan Empire was one of India’s greatest ancient states. The significance of this empire was that it extended from Bengal to the Hindu Kush. For the first time the lands of northern India were united. This marked a turning point in Indian history. This was its first imperial unification.The Mauryan Empire owes it birth to the military and political skill of Chandragupta. Starting in 321 B.C.E he embarked on a campaign to absorb northern India. His son Bindustra continued his work, conquering lands further south. While the Mauryan Empire had capable leaders, this did not prevent its fall. Although the empire no longer exists, archaeology  enable to uncover the past of one of India’s notable empires. The Great Stupa and the Lion Capitol of Ashoka are just a few structures and art works that reveal much about this ancient civilization. The reign of Ashoka  has been considered a golden age in Indian history. The empire  had many achievements which continue to fascinate modern day historians.

        The Mauryan Empire’s origins are rooted in the tribal confederacies and kingdoms that were based in the Gangetic Plain. Magadha was one of the kingdoms to become the most powerful. There were a total of sixteen kingdoms fighting for control of the north. Magadha had the power of wealth, which gave it more influence regionally. Buddhism was a unifying force in Magadha.


This religion and ethical philosophy was relatively new, but contributed to the growth of Indian culture. The kingdom’s wealth was so great its coinage could be found in the far northwest region. Taxila contained silver coinage found in from archaeological excavation. Economic health was just as important as military power. Gradually, Magadha began to dominate trans-Indo-Gangetic trade. The growth of the trade occurred during the rule Ajatasatru. Even after his death in 459 B.C.E, this emphasis on strong trade continued with the dynasties of the Nanda and Sisunaga. Thus, the foundation was made for a growing empire. There were external challenges that were threats. Alexander the Great entered India with a dream of it being part of his world empire. His targets were the Indus, in which he defeated local Punjabi leaders in 326 B.C.E. Alexander’s troops refused to go further due to battle fatigue and limited possibilities for more victories. Alexander’s actions in the Punjab created a power void after his death in 323 B.C.E, allowing for opportunities for Indian expansion. Chandragupta would emerge as a prominent leader.

Silver coins from the Magada Kingdom ( 5th century B.C.E)

 The conquest of Pataliputra  the Magadha capital ushered in the Mauryan Empire. Chandragupta was not only a skilled warrior, but an efficient administrator. This was necessary to control such a vast land.

      Chandragupta had a vision of a large empire, which was militarily powerful as well as masterful in diplomacy. His reach went beyond the Indus Valley, however there were other calculations that had to made when conquering new areas. Marching westward beyond the Indus Valley could cause a potential security risk.Chandragupta then concluded the best option was to form a treaty with Seleucus in 305 B.C.E. Seleucus was the general to inherit the western section of Alexander’s Asian conquests. The negotiations worked in the favor of the Mauryan Empire. All territories  east of Kabul were given to the empire under the stipulations of the treaty. The only exchange Chandragupta had to do was give 500 war elephants and provide ambassadors to Seleucus. One challenge was the south, which was never incorporated under his reign. Geography was in the way as well as other kings ruling those far south states. Now with new  territories a system of governance had to be established. The territories were divided into janapada. These were districts which were ruled by the relatives of the emperor or a capable general. The boundaries reflected past tribal alliances as a preventive measure against possible insurrection.

chandragupta_mauryan_empire_305_bc expansions_of_maurya_empire_1

The army was the backbone of the empire. It was organized into four major corps. This included infantry, cavalry, along with chariots, and elephants for battle. Centralization was the key to the Mauryan Empire’s success. Besides a large military, there was a large civil bureaucracy. Some of the power of the Mauryan Empire came from the ownership of mines. This meant more economic power and control for the monarchy. The emperor also had control of weaving and spinning centers. Having such control allowed for a system of working regulations that artisans and professionals had to follow. Failure to follow such regulations meant fines. A critical source known as Arthashastra provides details of this period. The book was written by Kautilya which outlines the basis for a strong state. It expounds on the best ways to govern and maintain stability. This classical text was the quintessential literature genre of the “mirrors for princes.” These were writings that gave practical advise to leaders and continued to appear in various forms around the globe. Chandragupta according to Jain accounts abdicated his throne to become a monk. He continued to follow the Jain religion until his death. His son Bindusara was to rule only briefly. There were additions during his reign which included territories south of the Vindhyas. Ashoka his son would push the empire to its greatest heights.

        Ashoka’s reign was between the years of 269 to 232 B.C.E. This was considered a golden age in Indian history. His greatness did not come from the battles he won, but his actions during peacetime. After eight years of war with Kalinga Ashoka  decided to change course from previous administrations. He decided to adopt a policy of Buddhist law ahima  or nonviolence. This probably was not done out of ethical concern, but a the possibility of soldiers becoming overexerted from battle or revolt from appearing to oppressive.  Ashoka  was known to carve out his decrees and edicts on stone pillars. Some of these pillars are still standing and the artifacts provide valuable information about the Ashoka era. First it shows how he was a strong supporter of Buddhism. This did not mean he persecuted Hindus, Jains, or Brahmans. Religious toleration was the policy of the state.

This is the Lion capital of Sarnath one of the Ashoka columns. It was part of Sarnath  the place in which Buddha gave his first sermon.  This has become so iconic that it is used as an emblem for the modern Republic of India.

  Ashoka went on a campaign of building various temples and stupas  through out the empire. Ashoka also sent missionaries to the Himalayan regions, Tamil island, Ceylon, Burma, Syria, and Egypt. Buddhism went from a small local religion to a larger faith. It was clear that this religion was a unifying force in the empire. Abandoning constant conquest allowed for the focus to be put on perfection of governance. Ashoka appointed the dhamma-mahamattas who were overseers, which were placed all over the empire to ensure the enforcement of law. Ashoka did not want to remain distant from the public. He wanted to visit various areas of  the empire. Ashoka then established the dharma yatra. This pilgrimage of religious law was to show that the emperor was divine and close to the people. He hoped that people would follow is example and be guided to a path of religious devotion. Ashoka’s actions were also designed to inspire  emissaries to go off and convert people of Burma, Ceylon, and further into South East Asia. The Mauryan Empire was becoming a major cultural center of Asia.


Ashoka was thought to have organized and hosted the Third Great Council on Buddhism at Pataliputra. This has been recorded around the period of 250 to 240 B.C.E, a time when Pataliputra was experiencing golden age of arts and culture. War was no longer a policy, instead developing the new lands was the objective. The subcontinental empire had to consolidate its holdings. Ashoka came to believe that it was possible to create a heaven on Earth. He proclaimed according to Buddhist tradition “all the people are my children” . The empire was to one large community. To do this Ashoka embarked on infrastructure projects. Reservoirs and irrigation systems were established. Part this also included the construction of more wells. Ashoka wanted to ensure trade through all regions and thus made rest houses along the roads of the empire.  Ashoka’s efforts created a period of peace and prosperity. Alas, this period achievement and advancement would not last forever.

       The Mauryan Empire would decline and then disappear. Ashoka’s death in 232 B.C.E left an enormous power void. There was also economic challenges in which coins were debased. The north and the south were drifting further apart, while facing attacks. The empire also suffered the issue of royal succession. Sources reveal that there was a battle between royal family.According to Indian sources Samprati  and Ashoka’s grandson Dasharatha  were the primary choices for official succession, but there was too much internal dispute. The bureaucracy  that kept the empire functional began to deteriorate. The year 185 B.C.E  signaled the end of the Mauryan Empire. Brihadratha the last Mauryan emperor was assassinated in an insurrection led by a brahman general Pushyamitra Shunga. This ushered in  a new royal line of  rajas  who would remain in control until 72 B.C.E.  They remained based in central India, while the rest of the empire broke into fragments. Scholars speculate the fall of the empire was due to weakening military strength, communications issues, and the decline in the quality of leadership. There was an immense legacy the Mauryan Empire left. It was the first to fully unify the Indian subcontinent; it was a product of skilled diplomacy, warfare, and cultural development.


Edgar, Robert. Civilizations Past and Present . New York : Pearson Education, 2008.

Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. New York : Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jane Birch. “India : The Mauryan Empire 321-233 B.C.” The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia. New York: Kingfisher, 1999. 56-57.


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