Chandragupta Maurya

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Chandragupta Maurya (Sanskrit: चन्द्रगुप्त मौर्य) (ruled 322 B.C.E. – 298 B.C.E.) was the founder of the Mauryan Empire. He is widely considered to be the first great emperor of India.

The Mauryan empire, whose capital was Pataliputra (modern day Patna) in Eastern India, is acknowledged to be the greatest empire in ancient India, and lasted until 185 B.C.E., fifty years after the death of Chandragupta's famous grandson, Emperor Ashoka the Great.

Prior to Chandragupta's consolidation of power, small regional kingdoms had dominated Northern and Eastern India, more or less city states. Following Alexander the Great's invasion in 327 C.E., it was apparent to Chandragupta that only a strong and larger empire could hope to defend India from external attack. In 305 he successfully defeated Alexander's successors in India.

Chandragupta is acknowledged as the greatest of ancient Indian rulers, and his kingdom, which spanned from Afghanistan in the West, Bengal in the East, the Deccan plateau in the South and Kashmir in the North, was the greatest power of its day. Ashoka became a Buddhist and renounced war for what he called 'conquest by righteousness'. Towards the end of his life, Chandragupta retired to become a Jain monk. He is this numbered amongst the few founders of great empires who did not die either a violent death, or who were still clinging on to power with their final breath. Chandrgupta, following the Hindu view that a king's rule must protect and promote the welfare of the people, was renowned for his sense of justice and for his love of his subjects, whom he did not exploit.


Origin or ancestry

The ancestry of Chandragupta is still shrouded in mystery and not known for certain.[1] There are divergent views regarding the origin, and each view has its own set of adherents.

While some Indian historians hold the view that Chandragupta was from Nanda dynasty of Magadha, other later literary traditions imply that Chandragupta was raised by peacock-tamers (Sanskrit: Mayura-Poshakha), which earned him the Maurya epithet. Both the Buddhist as well as Jaina traditions testify to the supposed connection between the Moriya (Maurya) and Mora or Mayura (Peacock).[2] Yet there are other literary traditions according to which Chandragupta belonged to Moriyas, a Kshatriya (warrior) class (Varna) of a little ancient republic of Pippalivana located between Rummindei in the Nepalese Tarai and Kasia in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh.

Claims that the Mauryas were the Muras or rather Mors and were jatt of Scythian or Indo-Scythian origin have been proposed.[3][4] Again, there is a school of scholars[5] who connect Chandragupta to Gandhara (in modern day Pakistan).[6] Based on Plutarch's evidence, other historians state that Chandragupta Maurya belonged to the Ashvaka (q.v.) or Assakenoi clan of Swat/Kunar valley (modern Mer-coh or Koh-I-Mor — the Meros of the classical writings).[7] Ashvakas were a section of the Kambojas who were exclusively engaged in horse-culture and were noted for renting out their cavalry services.[8] The chronological establishment of Indian history has been a matter of academic contention for the past two centuries. The most difficult part of this study, until now, was to construct an agreeable framework of chronology. It is to the credit of Sir William Jones (1746-1794) that a systematic study and examination of this problem was first initiated in the late eighteenth century. Western scholars have done commendable and untiring work in the field of oriental studies. The researches well-recorded by them are of utmost importance even today.

However, within decades, the political situation in India changed and this sincere study of history then became, in a way, a weapon to subjugate and win the people of India. The effects of European religio-political thought also creeped into this investigation. Despite of the honest and genuine commencement of its study, it is quite unfortunate that the western indologists misinterpreted the historical data available, intentionally or by accident, and put forth theories based merely on speculation and pre-conceived beliefs. The result was that the antiquity of many events were highly underestimated and its continuity and greatness undermined. Europeans came to believe that Indian civilization could not possibly be as old as their own, that great Empires could not have existed in antiquity outside of what was considered to be the European space (a space that embraced much of the Middle East).

A result of these biases was that even scholars like Sir William Jones could not believe in the antiquity of the Bharata War. This may also be because of his Christian faith which told him that Creation took place at 9:00 a.m., on October 23, 4004 B.C.E. Similar were the impressions of other Britishers. They did not believe in the veracity of Indian history books. Their bias prohibited the Christians from accepting the antiquity of the Indian nation.

Jones was not satisfied with the Indian sources. He tried to search the Greek and Roman accounts. These accounts supplied some information about India of the time of Alexander the Great. It mentioned seven names of three successive Indian kings. Attributing one name each for the three kings the names are Xandrammes, Sandrokottas and Sandrocyptus. Xandrammes of the previous dynasty was murdered by Sandrokottas whose son was Sandrocyptus. Jones picked up one of these three names, namely, Sandrokottas and found that it had a sort of phonetic similarity with the name Chandragupta of the Puranic accounts. According to the Greek accounts, Palibothra was the capital of Sandrokottas. Jones took Palibothra as a Greek pronunciation of Pataliputra, the Indian city and capital of Chandragupta. He, then, declared on February 2, 1793, that Sandrokottas of the Greek accounts is Chandragupta Maurya of the Puranas. Jones died on April 27, 1794, just a year after this declaration. He was unaware that Puranas have another Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty.

Later scholars took this identity of Sandrokottas with Chandragupta Maurya as proved and carried on further research. James Princep, an employee of the East India Company, deciphered the Brahmi script and was able to read the inscriptions of Piyadassana. Turnour, another employee of the Company in Ceylon, found in the Ceylonese chronicles that Piyadassana was used as a surname of Asoka, the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. The inscription bearing the name of Asoka was not found till the time of Turnour. In 1838, Princep found five names of the Yona kings in Asoka's inscriptions and identified them as the five Greek kings near Greece belonging to third century B.C.E. who were contemporary to Asoka. Also see Sandrokottas-Chandragupta Maurya Identity: Sheet anchor of Indian history

Unanswered Doubts

According to the Greek accounts, Xandrammes was deposed by Sandrokottas and Sandrocyptus was the son of Sandrokottas. In the case of Chandragupta Maurya, he had opposed Dhanananda of the Nanda dynasty and the name of his son was Bindusara. Both these names, Dhanananda and Bindusara, have no phonetic similarity with the names Xandrammes and Sandrocyptus of the Greek accounts.

In the Greek accounts, we find the statements of the Greek and Roman writers belonging to the period from fourth century B.C.E. to second century C.E. None of them have mentioned the names of Kautilya or Asoka. Kautilya's work on polity is an important document of India’s mastery on this subject. It was with his assistance that Chandragupta had come to the throne. Asoka's empire was bigger than that of Chandragupta and he had sent missionaries to the so-called Yavana countries. But both of them are not mentioned. Nor did the Greek writers did not say anything about the Buddhist Bhikkus (full-time monks) though that was the flourishing religion of that time with the royal patronage of Asoka. Roychaudhari also wonders why the Greek accounts are silent on Buddhism.

Reasons for Sandracottus to be Chandragupta Gupta:

1. The Greek records mention the kings before and after Sandracottus to be Xandramas and
Sandrocyptus. The kings before and after Chandragupta Maurya were: Mahapadma Nanda and
Bindusar. The kings before and after Chandragupta Gupta were: Chandramas and Samudragupta.
The phonetic similarity is quite apparent for Chandragupta Gupta and not Maurya.
2. Greek records are silent about important figures like: Chanakya, Ashoka (kingdom
much bigger than his Gradfather Chandragupta's.)
3. Greek records do not mention the presence Buddhist monks who were very common in Maurya time.
4. Inscription on a Greek Tomb: "Here lies Indian Sramanacharya, Shakya monk from Bodh Gaya."
Sramanacharya went to Greece with his Greek pupils. The tomb marks his death about
1000 B.C.E. Which means Buddha existed before 1000 B.C.E.
5. The names of contemporary kings found on Ashokan inscriptions are Amtiyoka,
Tulamaya, etc. Amtiyoka ruled Afghanistan around 1475 B.C.E., which then appears
to be the approximate date of Ashoka (the grandson of Maurya Chandragupta).

Western sources indicate that Chandragupta had some contacts with Alexander before his rise to power:

"Androcottus, when he was a stripling, saw Alexander himself, and we are told that he often said in later times that Alexander narrowly missed making himself master of the country, since its king was hated and despised on account of his baseness and low birth."[9]

Foundation of the Empire

Silver punch mark coin of the Mauryan empire, with symbols of wheel and elephant. Third century B.C.E.

Chandragupta Maurya, with the help of Chanakya, started to lay the foundation of the Mauryan empire. Chanakya, also known as Kautilya or Vishnugupta was a brahmin and a professor of political science at Takshashila University in Gandhara—the first university in the world and a renowned one in its time. Among his numerous illustruious students was one named Chandragupta, the future emperor of India.

It is stated that once Chanakya went to Pataliputra for learning and disputation. Apparently King Dhana Nanda, corrupted by power, insulted Chanakya and dismissed him from his court over an insignificant dispute. Thus insulted and disgraced, Chanakya took a silent vow to destroy Dhana Nanda at an appropriate time. On his way back at Takshashila, Chanakya chance-met Chandragupta in whom he spotted great military and executive abilities.[10] Chanakya was impressed by the prince's personality and intelligence, and immediately took the young boy under his wing to fulfill his silent vow. Chanakya enrolled him in at the Takshashila University to groom and school the promising youth in politics, government and law.

The shrewd Chanakya had trained Chandragupta under his expert guidance and together they planned the destruction of Dhana Nanda. The Mudrarakshas of Visakhadutta as well as the Jaina work Parisishtaparvan talk of Chandragupta's alliance with the Himalayan king Parvatka. This Himalayan alliance gave Chandragupta a composite and powerful army made up of the Yavanas, Kambojas, Shakas, Kiratas, Parasikas and Bahlikas. With the help of these frontier warlike clans from the northwest Chandragupta managed to defeat the corrupt Nanda ruler of Magadha and later, upon Aledxander's death, the Ancient Macedonian straps of Punjab and Afghanistan, thus laying the foundations of a Maurya Empire in northern India.


Megasthenes describes the size of the armies of Sandrocottus (Greek version of Chandragupta's name) at 400,000:

"Megasthenes was in the camp of Sandrocottus, which consisted of 400,000 men." (Strabo 15-1-53)[11]

When he took over Magadha, Chandragupta Maurya inherited a great army from his predecessor which he continued to build upon until it reached a total of thirty thousand cavalry, 9,000 war elephants, and 600,000 infantry:

"But the Prasii [the inhabitants of Magadha, of whom Snadracottos was king][12] surpass in power and glory every other people, not only in this quarter, but one may say in all India, their capital Palibothra, a very large and wealthy city, after which some call the people itself the Palibothri,—nay even the whole tract along the Ganges. Their king has in his pay a standing army of 600,000 foot-soldiers, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 elephants: whence may be formed some conjecture as to the vastness of his resources." (Megasthenes, quoted in Pliny)[13]

With this force, he overran all of Northern India, establishing an empire from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. He then turned his attention to Northwestern India and the power vacuum left by the departure of Alexander. Starting with the lands east of the Indus River, he then moved south, taking over much of what is now Central India.

Silver coin of Seleucus I Nicator, who fought Chandragupta Maurya, and later made an alliance with him.

The year 305 B.C.E. saw Chandragupta back in the northwest, where he encountered Seleucus I Nicator, the Macedonian satrap of Babylonia. Through a treaty sealed in 303 B.C.E., Seleucus exchanged territory west of the Indus for five hundred war elephants and offered his daughter to Chandragupta:

"The Indians occupy [in part] some of the countries situated along the Indus, which formerly belonged to the Persians: Alexander deprived the Ariani of them, and established there settlements of his own. But Seleucus Nicator gave them to Sandrocottus in consequence of a marriage contract, and received in return five hundred elephants."[14]

In addition to this matrimonial alliance, Seleucus' dispatched an ambassador, Megasthenes, to the Mauryan court at Pataliputra (Modern Patna in Bihar state). As a result of this treaty, Chandragupta's empire was recognized as a great power by the Hellenic world, and the kings of Egypt (the Ptolemies) and Syria sent their own ambassadors to his court.

Jainism and death

Towards the end of his life, Chandragupta gave up his throne and became an ascetic under the Jain saint Bhadrabahu Swami, ending his days in sallekhana (self-starvation) at Shravanabelagola, in present day Karnataka. A small temple marks the cave (called Bhadrabahu Cave) where he died.


Chanakya, also known as Kautilya or Vishnugupta, was born in Pataliputra, Magadha (modern Bihar, India), and later moved to Taxila, in Gandhara province (now in Pakistan). He was a professor (acharya) of political science at the Takshashila University and later the Prime Minister of the Chandragupta Maurya. He is regarded as one of the earliest known political thinkers, economists and king-makers. He was the man to envision the first Indian empire by unification of the then numerous kingdoms in the northern Indian sub-continent. Chanakya is perhaps less well known outside India compared to other social and political philosophers of the world like Confucius and Niccolò Machiavelli. His foresight and wide knowledge coupled with politics of expediency helped found the mighty Mauryan Empire in India. He compiled his political ideas into the Arthashastra, one of the world's earliest treatises on political thought and social order. His ideas remain popular to this day in India. A key feature of his strategy was the attempt to win over enemies rather than fighting them. He is said to have handed over the insignia of his own office to a rival, impressed by his 'loyalty to his cheif'. Thus, says Jawaharlal Nehru were laid the 'enduring foundations of a state, which had not only defeated but won over its chief enemy'. Referring to the ancient Indian convention that 'a war for a righteous cause had to be righteously conducted' in the context of describing Chanakya's work, India's first modern-day Prime Minister comments that, India 'has had a far more peaceful and orderly existence for long periods of time at a stretch than Europe had had' (141). He served as prime minister, and advisor to Chandragupta, and played an integral part in the foundation of the Mauryan Empire.


Chandragupta Maurya renounced his throne to his son, Bindusara, who became the new Mauryan Emperor. Bindusara would later become the father of Ashoka the Great, who was one of the most influencial kings of all time due to his patronage of the Buddhist religion.

Historical Comparison

While Chandragupta toppled the last Nanda king and established the Mauryan Empire, c. 321 B.C.E., the first unified Chinese empire under the First Emperor only arose a century later in 221 B.C.E. when the King of Qin, in the words of the Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, "swept up the Six States," thereby ending the Warring States Period and establishing himself as the First Emperor of China.

A comparison of the two imperial policies is not intended to suggest that the one culture or people are somehow innately superior to another but aims to illustrate how rulers opt for different policies in order to maintain social order and security. Although the Maurya and Qin both contended with vast populations and lands newly-unified by one centralized state, the rapid decline of the latter in fourteen years versus the much longer duration of the former (Maurya dynasty c.321-181 B.C.E.) may in part be explained by the brutal Legalist philosophy associated with Qin rule.

Whereas both empires recognized the ruler and his ministers as the basis of social order, the first great emperor of India recognized that he had a dharma (duty) to protect his people; his reign was not supported by brute force alone. Indeed, Emperor Ashoka the Great (the third Mauryan ruler) would be so troubled by the violent war in Kalinga that he would become a believer in Buddhism and emphasize non-violence, while endorsing freedom of religion in his empire.

Similarly, where Qin law emphasized strengthening the state by weakening the people through strict laws and punishments, Mauryan law had its basis in both protecting the people and maintaining order in the state. While Qin condemnation of individual rights would lead to hundreds of thousands of persons being forced into becoming state laborers, and hundreds more executed for engaging in prohibited scholarship, the Arthashastra of Kautilya urged conciliation as the best method to end popular unrest.

The First and Second Qin Emperors, who were neither benevolent nor conciliatory, implemented harsh laws that fomented much social unrest. Thus, Han dynasty historians, such as Sima Qian and Jia Yi, have insisted that in ruling through fear and coercion the First Emperor built both his empire's tomb and his own. In contrast, the greater order and more benign social philosophy implemented in Mauryan India may have helped stabilize the empire against severe internal and external pressures.

Notes and References

  1. H.C. Raychaudhury and B.N. Mukherjee, Political History of Ancient India (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0195643763), 236; V.D. Mahajan, Ancient India (S. Chand & Co, 2003), 284.
  2. Parisishtaparvan, p. 56, VIII239f.
  3. B. S. Dahiya I.R.S., Jats the Ancient rulers (Dahinam Publishers, Sonipat, Haryana).
  4. Ram Swarup Joon, History of the Jats (Rohtak, India, 1938, 1967).
  5. Noted Buddhist scholar B.M. Barua and others like Dr. J.W. McCrindle, Dr. D.B. Spooner, Dr. H.C. Seth, Dr. Hari Ram Gupta, Dr. Ranajit Pal and others.
  6. ”To me Candragupta was a man of the Uttarapatha or Gandhara if not exactly of Taksashila,” (B.M. Barura, Indian Culture, vol. X), 34.
  7. Was Chandragupta Maurya a Punjabi? Article in Punjab History Conference, Second Session, Oct 28-30, 1966, Punjabi University Patiala, pp. 32-35; Invasion of India by Alexander the great, p. 405; See also: The Kambojas Through the Ages, 2005, pp. 150-51, Kirpal Singh.
  8. Continuity of Indian History Retrieved June 22, 2008.
  9. Plutarch 62-3 Retrieved June 22, 2008.
  10. Depending upon the interpretation of Justin's accounts, the second version of the above story is that Chandragupta had also accompanied Chanakya to Pataliputra and himself was insulted by Dhanna Nanda (Nandrum of Justin). If this version of Justin's accounts is accepted, then the view that Chanakya had purchased Chandragupta from Bihar, on his way to Taxila, becomes irrelevant.
  11. Strabo 15-1-53 Retrieved June 22, 2008.
  12. "According to Megasthenes the mean breadth (of the Ganges) is 100 stadia, and its least depth 20 fathoms. At the meeting of this river and another is situated Palibothra, a city eighty stadia in length and fifteen in breadth. It is of the shape of a parallelogram, and is girded with a wooden wall, pierced with loopholes for the discharge of arrows. It has a ditch in front for defence and for receiving the sewage of the city. The people in whose country this city is situated is the most distinguished in all India, and is called the Prasii. The king, in addition to his family name, must adopt the surname of Palibothros, as Sandrakottos, for instance, did, to whom Megasthenes was sent on an embassy." Strab. XV. i. 35-36, p. 702. Online Text Retrieved June 22, 2008.
  13. FRAGM. LVI. Plin. Hist. Nat. VI. 21. 8-23. 11 Retrieved June 22, 2008.
  14. Strabo 15.2.1(9) Retrieved June 22, 2008.

Additional reading

  • Bhargava, Purushottam Lal. Chandragupta Maurya: A Gem of Indian History. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1996. ISBN 8124600562
  • Bongard-Levin, Grigoriĭ Maksimovich. Mauryan India. Stosius Inc/Advent Books Division, 1986. ISBN 0865908265
  • Chand Chauhan, Gian. Origin and Growth of Feudalism in Early India: From the Mauryas to AD 650. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2004. ISBN 8121510287
  • Habib, Irfan and Vivekanand Jha. Mauryan India. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2004. ISBN 8185229929
  • Keay, John. India: A History. Grove Press; 1 Grove Press edition, 2001. ISBN 0802137970
  • Kosambi, Damodar Dharmanand. An Introduction to the Study of Indian History. Sangam Books Ltd, 1999. ISBN 8171540384
  • Nehru, Jawaharlal. The Discovery of India. NY: Oxford University Press, centenary ed., 1990. ISBN 0195623592
  • Nilakanta Sastri and Kallidaikurichi Aiyah. Age of the Nandas and Mauryas. Orient Book Distributors, 1967. ISBN 0896841677
  • Swearer, Donald K. Buddhism and Society in Southeast Asia. Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Anima Books, 1981. ISBN 0890120234
  • Vishakadatta, R.S. Pandit. Mudraraksasa: The Signet Ring of Rakshasa. New Delhi: Global Vision Publishing House, 2004. ISBN 8182200091


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