Category Archives: 5. The Mauryan Empire

The Mauryan Dynasty

One of the largest and most influential dynasties in Indian history was the Mauryan Dynasty. It is speculated that in 321 BCE, a man named Candragupta Maurya and his army defeated the Macedonian army to seize the throne of Magadha. The previous rulers of the throne, labeled the Nanda Dynasty, had belonged to the vaisya caste. Candragupta on the other hand, is thought to have been raised by a clan of peacock-tamers in Magadha (Avari 106). In various texts Candragupta is thought to have belonged to the Sudra caste as well as the kshatriya caste, so it is not entirely certain exactly where and how Candragupta was raised. After Candragupta defeated the Nanda Dynasty and came into power, he continued across the Indian subcontinent. The civil war in Punjab, caused by one of Alexander the Great’s successors, Peithon, allowed Chandragupta the opportunity to capture the capital, Taxila, and with it the Punjab territory. After discussions with another of Alexander’s successors, Seleucus, Chandragupta was able to unite the Indus and Ganges Valley establishing a powerful empire. The capital of the Mauryan Dynasty was located at Pataliputra and was known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Candragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka are the most renowned emperors, with Asoka being the most known. Hinduism had a very strong influence throughout the Mauryan Dynasty (Habib and Jha 138). However, during the course of the Mauryan Dynasty, Vedic sacrifice began to decline in popularity (Habib and Jha 138). Although sacrificial rituals were on the decline, the worshipping of various deities was still widespread. Many of the gods and goddesses worshiped during this period are still popular amongst Hindus today; examples being Indra, Agni, and Visnu (Singh 350). During the reign of the Mauryan Dynasty, Hindu sects involved with worshipping a major deity also existed (Singh 359). These sects are seen as reform movements within Hinduism. Examples of these sects include Vaisnavism and Saivism. Both of these sects focused their devotion on one of the two most popular deities in Hinduism: Vaisnavism on Visnu and Saivism on Siva. The Arthasastra was written during Candragupta’s reign of the Mauryan Dynasty by Kautilya and outlined the duties and responsibilities of a king (Sharma 182). It encouraged a king to consider anything that pleases himself as dangerous, but whatever pleases his people should be considered good (Sharma 182). Kautilya was Candragupta’s Prime Minister during his reign and has also been referred to as Visnugupta and Canakya in various texts across different religions. The Arthasastra helped enforce Hinduism as the prevalent religion during the time. An example of how it did this was by asking, “that the king have as his most important minister a purohita, or Brahmin priest” (Singh 138).

Hinduism has remained the prevalent religion in India for many thousands of years; however, during the Mauryan Dynasty a few other religions were patronized. These religions are seen as heterodox religions as they do not follow the Hindu system. The founder of the dynasty, Candragupta, was thought to have favored Jainism. In his late and final years Candragupta performed the ritual of santhara in the city of Karnataka (Avari 107). This “fasting death” is common among people who follow the Jain tradition and “is the first significant indication of the influence that the heterodox religions were to have on the future rulers of India” (Avari 107). There is little known about the second major emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty, Bindusara, but it is thought that he favored Hinduism. The third major emperor, Asoka, is the most recognized of the three and is credited with helping spread Buddhism. It is usually thought that Asoka favored Buddhism over Hinduism; however, he believed that no religion is better than another. Asoka had been set on expansion of his empire and had done so through several wars. His second, labeled the Kalinga war, left a very deep impression on Asoka. This eventually led Asoka to Buddhism, which he promoted ahimsa (non-violence) and Dharma for the rest of his reign. A quote by Asoka shows his peaceful ways, “There will be no beating of wardrum but the drum of Dharma will be beaten” (Sharma 185).  Dharma has different meanings in the different religions. Examples of this are Buddhism and Hinduism. The Dharma that Asoka preached is not seen as a clear definition, but is seen as a “moral law independent of any caste or creed” (Sharma 222). This is due to the fact that Asoka accommodated all religious systems and did not believe one to be better than another.

Before Asoka converted to Buddhism, he had been practicing the traditional religion of his ancestors (Sharma 216).  During his first thirteen years of rule, he worshipped various gods and goddesses, his favorite being Siva. After his conversion to Buddhism, Asoka began to promote the Buddhist tradition. He did so in various ways, examples being the pillars he erected throughout his empire and the holding of the Third Buddhist Council. The chairman of the Council was Moggaliputta Tissa. The Council was held to resolve the disputes among the various monastic sects across the dynasty. The sects had different views on issues such as monastic discipline. The pillars had inscriptions on them outlining various Buddhist ideals, such as the practice of ahimsa. To this day many of the pillars still stand and scholars have been able to decipher and study the pillars to understand more about the Mauryan Empire under Asoka’s rule.

During the rule of Candragupta, a Greek ambassador by the name of Megasthenes helped introduce the knowledge of India to the western world. Megasthenes was raised in Ionia (modern day Turkey) and when he travelled to India, represented the interests of Seleukos (Avari 108). Although much of Megasthenes’ information collected and written in his diary, the Indica (which is now lost), was incorrect, he still was able to provide a good idea of Indian society during Candragupta’s rule. In his diary, he mentions the presence of seven “estates”. Although this formulation is incorrect, his description of the castes provides us with a good understanding of society during that time. At the top of his list were what he called philosophers, who can be seen as Brahmins and renouncers who “performed public sacrifices” as well as roaming about naked (Avari 109). The second estate consisted of those Megasthenes called cultivators, which were the majority of the Indian people. The third estate consisted of herdsmen and hunters and the fourth of traders and artisans. The fifth estate consisted of soldiers, who did nothing but fight, and the sixth consisted of spies and intelligence officers. The seventh and final estate contained “those who constituted the political and imperial establishment” (Avari 109).

Another piece of valuable information that was attained from Megasthenes Indica was his description of the capital city, Pataliputra (Avari 110). His description ranges from describing the business of the streets, to the peace and tranquility in the city’s royal park. Megasthenes’ description of the city coupled with the Arthasastra, makes rule under Candragupta seem as “a highly ordered and well-regulated world” (Avari 110). Megasthenes also describes the way the municipal government was set up during the Mauryan rule. He mentions that the municipal government consisted of six bodies. The first were involved with anything relating to the industrial arts (Habib and Jha 42). The second was involved with entertaining strangers, examples of this are assigning housing as well as taking care of them when sick. The third group was involved with “what time and in what manner births and deaths occur” (Habib and Jha 42). This was done not only for tax purposes, but also to try and help prevent deaths. The fourth group was involved with retail and barter by having charge of the different units of measurements for different products on the market. The fifth and final group was involved with selling articles by public notice. The markets were set up in which new items were sold apart from old ones; in which someone was charged a fine if they sold them together.

In Kautilya’s Arthasastra, he outlines the details concerning the Royal Council. The Royal Council was not founded during the Mauryan Dynasty, but was important in shaping the rule of the Mauryan Dynasty. The meetings took place in a Council Chamber, which was held at a location that was said to not be easily accessible (Sharma 196). Members selected to be on the council were to meet several criteria in order to be eligible, which are outlined in the Arthasastra. Some of these qualities include; being a native of the empire, coming from a noble family, and honesty (Sharma 197). The council’s role was to provide advice to the king. This advice did not need to be taken by the King, but he generally did use it. Some of the other roles the Council provided for the Dynasty were the control of military expeditions, as well as religious and military functions (Sharma 197). This council was a major influence within the Mauryan Dynasty.

After the death of Asoka, the Mauryan Dynasty began a slow decline. The first successor that took the throne was Kunala, one of Asoka’s three sons. Although Kunala was blind, he ruled for eight years. He was not seen as the true ruler of the dynasty, but instead as a head of state (Sharma 250). After his reign was over, his son, Samprati replaced him on the throne. Samprati was a known follower of the Jain tradition and is thought to have built many Jain temples throughout his reign. At the time of his appointment to the throne, Asoka’s vast empire had been divided into two parts. Samprati controlled the eastern portion while his brother, Dashratha, controlled the western portion (Sharma 250). The last emperor of the dynasty, Brihadratha, was eventually killed by Pushyamitra Sunga, who then established a new dynasty labeled the Sunga Dynasty.

There are many causes leading to the downfall of the Mauryan Dynasty. One of the biggest causes was the weakness of the emperors that followed Asoka. Since the territory acquired by the first three rulers of the dynasty had become so vast, its successors needed to be strong rulers like Candragupta and Asoka were. Unfortunately, the successors were not, which is said to have helped in the decline of the dynasty. Another cause of the downfall was the policy of ahimsa proposed by Asoka. Asoka’s successors continued his policy of ahimsa, thus leading to the decline of military strength. With a weak military, the dynasty was very vulnerable to incoming empires, which ultimately led to the takeover by Pushyamitra.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Avari, Burjor (2007) India: the Ancient Past. New York: Routledge.

Habib, Irfan, Jha, Vivekanand, & Society, Aligarh (2004) Mauryan India.

Sharma, S.P. (1996) History of Ancient India. New Delhi: Mohit Publications.

Singh, M.V. (1988) Society Under the Mauryas. Aurangabad: Nav Bharat Press.

Thapar, Romila (1997) Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics

Gupta Dynasty


Megastenes’ Indica

Kautilya’s Arthasastra

The Indus Valley Civilization



Asoka’s Rock Edicts



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Nathan Relke (Spring 2010), who is solely responsible for its content.

Emperor Asoka

Emperor Asoka is regarded as one of the greatest rulers in India’s history. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, ruled India for twenty-four years. It is reported that Chandragupta ascended the throne in 322 B.C. at the capital of Pataliputra by murdering the Nanda king and proclaiming the beginning of the Maurya dynasty (Smith 13). The entirety of his reign was defined by opulence and totalitarianism. Bindusara Amitraghata, Chandragupta’s son, took over the empire after Chandragupta died or abdicated and presumably began his reign in either 301 or 298 B.C, and ruled for twenty-five or twenty-eight years according to different authorities (Smith 18). He conquered much of southern India during his reign and then passed on the empire to his son Asoka-vardhana, also called Asoka, who became the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty.

Legends claim that Bindusara initially disliked Asoka as a young man due to his unattractive physical appearance. Soon after though, Asoka’s other qualities impressed Bindusara, who then appointed Asoka as a prince (Thapar 21). Asoka ascended the throne at Pataliputra in 273 B.C. It is acknowledged that his coronation was delayed for four years until 269 B.C.; the cause of the delay is still debated between scholars as some believe it to be due to an unclear succession that involved much violence, while others believe that such a struggle was not likely required to solidify the succession to such a well established throne in such a resolutely united empire (Smith 20). The events surrounding Asoka’s death are still unknown as there are no monuments to mark the location of his remains. Both the Hindu Puranas and the chronicles of Ceylon assign Asoka’s reign to be forty to forty-one years long beginning with his accession in 273 B.C. to his death at around 232 B.C (Smith 68).

Tradition states that in Asoka’s early years he followed the Brahman religion, with special adherence to Siva, and it is assumed that he led the life of a Hindu raja (king) (Smith 23). The Buddhist monks who attempted to chronicle Asoka’s reign tried to assert the emperor as a cruel monster before he converted to Buddhism. These claims, however, have no historical value and are treated as stories designed to lead the reader to think Asoka’s transformation was much greater than it actually was (Smith 23). There are no records of Asoka waging war on anyone during his early years as ruler. The first major documented event in Asoka’s reign was his bloody victory over the Kingdom of the Three Kalingas in 261 B.C. (Smith 24). Due to the horrific nature of the battle with the Kalingas, Asoka was given the name Asoka the Wicked or Asoka the Fierce. Later on he is called Asoka the Pious or Asoka the Righteous after he renounces his violent war-like conduct for a more dharmic approach to kingship. Despite his victory in the war with the Kalingas, Asoka felt great remorse for the death and suffering his actions had caused (Smith 24). As a result, there has been no reason to believe that Asoka instigated an aggressive war ever again. Asoka began to devote his life to dharma and never permitted himself to be tempted to wage unprovoked war again (Smith 26). To live a life devoted to dharma is to live righteously and moral­ly, with particular regard to religious teachings and law.

It has been determined that Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism occurred around 261-260 B.C., and that he did not always rule exactly the way a theoretical Buddhist king should. According to the Sanskrit text Asokavadana, Asoka was still very interested in maintaining his rule in the empire and had no scruples about punishing or disposing of those who opposed him in any way (Strong 43). Consequently, he is rarely referred to as a cakravartin, an ideal Buddhist king, but rather is called a balacakravartin, an armed Buddhist king who must “use or threaten physical force to become ruler of his cosmos” (Strong 50). It is widely accepted that Asoka protected, propagated and loved the teaching of dharma, which he often called the Law of Piety. The Hindu interpretation of dharma differs from Asoka’s Buddhist interpretation in the way that Hindus upheld the caste system and believed that each caste had its own dharma, whereas Asoka dropped the caste system and also placed respect for the sanctity of animal life and reverence towards elders in much higher regard than Hindu tradition (Smith 29-30). About four years after Asoka became an upasaka (a lay Buddhist), he progressed so much in his spiritual journey that he became a bhiksu (a Buddhist monk). Scholars believe “that Asoka was both monk and monarch at the same time” based on the clear testimony of the rock edicts he issued in 257 B.C. (Smith 35). It is possible, according to scripture on Buddhist ordination (upasampada), that he lived as a monk temporarily because ordination does not require lifelong vows, and therefore Asoka could have resumed a civil life after any period of time (Smith 38). Asoka’s devotion to the teachings of dharma prompted him to use his enormous imperial power to organize “the most comprehensive scheme of religious missionary enterprise recorded in the history of the world” (Smith 46). Asoka’s efforts resulted in spreading Buddhism as a dominant religion throughout India and other countries in Asia. It is important to realize that when one applies Asoka’s policy of religious tolerance and acceptance to the modern connotation of the word tolerance that in his time there were no truly diverse religions in India. In other words, the only organized religions were Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism while Jesus and Zarathustra were figures still unknown to the emperor (Smith 61).

Asoka Pillar
Asoka Pillar (Lumbini, Buddha’s Birthplace)

Asoka is most well-known for is the creation of his vast number of stupas, monuments, pillars and rock edicts. The numerous inscriptions found on these various objects were mostly recorded by Asoka and provide the leading authentic history of events during his reign (Smith 20). There exists an exaggerated legend that Asoka erected eighty-four thousand stupas, a memorial mound containing relics of important persons, within the span of three years (Smith 107). The actual number of stupas is much smaller. The most important inscriptions made during Asoka’s reign were those found on the Major and Minor Rock Edicts and the Pillar Edicts; these inscriptions defined Asoka’s policy of Dharma (Thapar 2). The dharma ethics in these edicts are Buddhist rather than Brahmanical (Smith 30). There are fourteen major rock edicts located at Kalsi, Mansehra, Shahbazgarhi, Girnar, Sopara, Yerragudi, Dhauli and Jaugada; and various other minor rock edicts located throughout the country (Thapar 5). Asoka particularly enjoyed erecting large numbers of monolithic pillars, both inscribed and uninscribed, throughout his empire (Smith 116-117). Seven major pillars exist at Allahabad, Delhi-Topra, Delhi-Meerut, Lauriya-Araraja, Lauriya-Nandangarh and Rampurva (Thapar 5). It is because of the tales inscribed on the rock edicts that scholars have been able to authentically document the earliest events in Asoka’s reign, the conquest of the Kalingas, for example, and many more of the major events that occurred during his rule (Smith 24). The third and fourth major rock edicts describe the years 257 and 256 B.C.E. as the period of Asoka’s great advance in his spiritual development and religious policy (Smith 52). The final depictions that scholars have of the historical Asoka are found on the Minor Pillar Edicts, which describe “him as the watchful guardian of the unity and discipline of the Church which he loved” (Smith 67).

There is a great deal of evidence of various types available on the history of the Mauryan dynasty, particularly on Asoka’s life and reign during that period (Thapar 11). To consider all of the legends of Asoka would be an overwhelming task for this article, as there are stories about him in many different languages from many different sources (Strong 16). Some of these sources include texts such as the Asokavadana, the Divyavadana, the Mahavamsa and the Dipavamsa, the Asokasutra, the Kunalasutra, and the Puranas. The Asokavadana is a Sanskrit text which starts with details of the life of the elder Upagupta, a Buddhist monk who later plays a major role in Asoka’s career as ruler (Strong 16). The text then goes on to tell the entire Buddhist legend of Asoka’s life and his path to becoming a dharmic king. The legend includes several variations of how Asoka was introduced to Buddhism and how he spent his last years (Thapar 35 & 192). The efforts of many scholars to establish an accurate chronology of Asoka’s reign has resulted in the conclusion that the Asokavadana itself does not explicitly date events during Asoka’s life (Strong 12). The Asokavadana is said to be part of the Divyavadana, a voluminous Sanskrit anthology of Buddhist legends: some Chinese translations of the Asokavadana claim it is a separate, independent work of the Divyavadana (Strong 16). The Kunalasutra is another text that contains the same legends found in the Asokavadana but sheds a different light on these legends (Thapar 192). Kunalasutra’s authors did not compose the text to shape Asoka’s character in a particular way, but to document the legends as they were in local tradition (Thapar 193). The Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa are Ceylon chronicles that describe in great detail the part Asoka played in expanding Buddhism in India, particularly to Ceylon (Thapar 8). It is important to note that many of the legends of Asoka written in Buddhist texts were written by Buddhist monks and therefore depict Asoka from an orthodox Buddhist standpoint.


Barua, B.M. (1968) Asoka and His Inscriptions. 2 vols. Calcutta: New Age Publishers.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1975) A History of Indian Philosophy. 5 vols. Delhi: The University Press.

Davids, T.W. Rhys (1907) “Asoka and the Buddha Relics.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,pp. 397-410.

Drekmeier, Charles (1962) Kingship and Community in Early India. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Eggermont, P.H.L. (1956) The Chronology of the Reign of Asoka Moriya. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Gokhale, B. G. (1966) Asoka Maurya. New York: Twayne Publishers.

­________ (1949) Buddhism and Asoka. Baroda: Padmaja Publications.

MacPhail, James M. (n.d.) Asoka. London: Oxford University Press.

Monier-Williams, Monier (1964) Buddhism in its Connexion with Brahmanism and Hinduism. Delhi: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.

Mookerji, Radhakumud (1972) Asoka. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Nikam, N. A., McKeon, Richard, ed and tr (1959) The Edicts of Asoka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Vincent A. (1997) Asoka: the Buddhist Emperor of India. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Strong, John S. (1983) The Legend of King Asoka. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thapar, Romila (1997) Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Chandragupta Maurya

Bindusara Amitraghata

Maurya Dynasty

The Buddha

Guatama (Historical) Buddha

The Rock Edicts

The Puranas






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Megan Hilton (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.