The First Indian Empire

Edited By: Robert Guisepi 


     By the end of the Later Vedic Age about 500 B.C., a thousand years after

the collapse of the Indus civilization, the Aryan invaders of India had

established sixteen major kingdoms and tribal oligarchies in northern India,

stretching from modern Pakistan to Bengal. The shock of Alexander the Great's

invasion of India provided the spark that led to the unification of India.


     In 326 B.C. Alexander the Great, continuing his conquest of the Persian

Empire (see ch. 2), brought his phalanxes into the easternmost Persian satrapy

in the Indus valley, defeating local Punjab rulers. When his weary troops

refused to advance further eastward into the Ganges plain, Alexander

constructed a fleet and explored the Indus to its mouth. From there he

returned overland to Babylon, while his fleet skirted the coast of the Arabian

Sea and reached the Persian Gulf.


     After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., the empire he had built so rapidly

quickly disintegrated, and by 321 B.C. his domain in the Punjab had completely

disappeared. But he had opened routes between India and the West that would

remain open during the following Hellenistic and Roman periods, and by

destroying the petty states in the Punjab he facilitated - and perhaps

inspired - the conquests of India's own first emperor.


Chandragupta Maurya, India's First Emperor


     In 322 B.C., shortly after Alexander's death, a new era began in India.

In that year Chandragupta Maurya seized the state of Magadha in the Ganges

valley. Over the next twenty-four years Chandragupta conquered northern India

and founded the Maurya Dynasty, which endured until about 185 B.C. At its

height the empire included all the subcontinent except the extreme south.


     India's first empire reflected the imperial vision of its founder. He

created an administrative system whose efficiency was not surpassed until the

advent of British rule in the nineteenth century. Chandragupta was also a

brilliant general and administrator. He was responsible for the first military

victory of the East over the West; in 305 B.C. he defeated Seleucus, the

general who had inherited the major part of Alexander's empire and had crossed

the Indus in an attempt to regain Alexander's Indian conquests. Seleucus gave

up his Indian claims in return for five hundred war elephants and established

friendly diplomatic relations with the Indian emperor.


Life In The Mauryan Empire


     Seleucus' ambassador to the court of Chandragupta, whose name was

Megasthenes, wrote a detailed account of India, fragments of which have

survived. They give a fascinating picture of life in the empire. Pataliputra,

Chandragupta's capital known today as Patna, covered eighteen square miles and

was probably the largest city in the world. Outside its massive wooden walls

was a deep trench used for defense and the disposal of sewage.


     The remarkably advanced Mauryan empire was divided and subdivided into

provinces, districts, and villages whose headmen were appointed by the state.

The old customary law, preserved and administered by the Brahmin priesthood,

was superseded by an extensive legal code that provided for royal interference

in all matters. A series of courts ranging from the village court presided

over by the headman to the emperor's imperial court administered the law. So

busy was Chandragupta with the details of his surprisingly modern

administration that, according to Megasthenes, he had to hear court cases

during his daily massage.


     Two other agencies were very important in holding the empire together.

One was the professional army, which Megasthenes reports was an incredibly

large force of 700,000 men, 9000 elephants, and 10,000 chariots. The other was

the secret police, whose numbers were so large that the Greek writer concluded

that spies constituted a separate class in Indian society. So great was the

danger of conspiracy that Chandragupta lived in strict seclusion, attended

only by women who cooked his food and in the evening carried him to his

apartment, where they lulled him to sleep with music.


     Complementing this picture of an efficient but harsh bureaucracy is a

remarkable book, Treatise on Material Gain (Arthashastra), written by

Chandragupta's chief minister, Kautilya, as a guide for the king and his

ministers. Kautilya exalts royal power as the means of establishing and

maintaining "material gain," meaning political and economic stability. The

great evil is anarchy, such as had existed among the small warring states in

northern India. To achieve the aims of statecraft, Kautilya argues, a single

authority is needed that will employ force when necessary. Like Machiavelli,

the Renaissance Italian author of a famous book on statecraft (The Prince),

Kautilya advocates deception or unscrupulous means to attain desired ends.


     The Mauryan state also controlled and encouraged economic life.

Kautilya's treatise, which is thought to reflect much actual practice, advises

the ruler to "facilitate mining operations," "encourage manufacturers,"

"exploit forest wealth," "provide amenities" for cattle breeding and commerce,

and "construct highways both on land and on water." Price controls are

advocated because "all goods should be sold to the people at favorable

prices," and foreign trade should be subsidized: "Shippers and traders dealing

in foreign goods should be given tax exemptions to aid them in making

profits." Foreign trade did flourish, and in the bazaars of Pataliputra were

displayed goods from southern India, China, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor.

Agriculture, however, remained the chief source of wealth. In theory, all land

belonged to the state, which collected one fourth of the produce as taxes.

Irrigation and crop rotation were practiced, and Megasthenes states that there

were no famines.


Ashoka, India's Greatest King


     Following Chandragupta's death in 297 B.C., his son and grandson expanded

the empire southward into the Deccan Peninsula. However, Chandragupta's

grandson Ashoka (269-232 B.C.), the most renowned of all Indian rulers, was

more committed to peace than to war. His first military campaign was also his

last; the cruelty of the campaign horrified him, and he resolved never again

to permit such acts of butchery. Soon thereafter he was converted to Buddhism,

whose teachings increased his aversion to warfare.


     Throughout his empire, Ashoka had his edicts carved on rocks and stone

pillars. They remain today as the oldest surviving written documents of India

and are invaluable for appreciating the spirit and purpose of Ashoka's rule.

For example, they contain his conception of the duty of a ruler:


     He shall ... personally attend the business ... of earth,

     of sacred places, of minors, the aged, the afflicted, and

     the helpless, and of women .... In the happiness of his

     subjects lies his happiness. ^2


[Footnote 2: Quoted in Vincent Smith, The Oxford History of India (Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 131]


     Although a devout Buddhist, Ashoka did not persecute the Brahmins and

Hindus but proclaimed religious toleration as official policy:


     The king ... honors every form of religious faith ... ;

     whereof this is the root, to reverence one's own faith and

     never to revile that of others. Whoever acts differently

     injures his own religion while he wrongs another's. ^3


[Footnote 3: Quoted in Charles Drekmeier, Kingship and Community in Early

India (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962), p. 175]


     Ashoka was a successful propagator of his faith. He sent Buddhist

missionaries to many lands - the Himalayan regions, Tamil Land (India's far

south), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma, and even as far away as Syria and Egypt -

and transformed Buddhism from a small Indian sect to an aggressive missionary

faith. Modern Indians revere his memory, and the famous lion on the capital of

one of his pillars has been adopted as the national seal of the present Indian



Fall Of The Mauryan Empire


     Almost immediately after Ashoka's death in 232 B.C., the Mauryan Empire

began to disintegrate. The last emperor was assassinated about 185 B.C. in a

palace revolution led by a Brahmin priest. Some five centuries of

disintegration and disorder followed. Northern India was overrun by a series

of invaders, and the south broke free from northern control.


     The sudden collapse of the powerful Mauryan state, and the grave

consequences that ensued have provoked much scholarly speculation. Some

historians have felt that the fall of the Mauryas can be traced to a hostile

Brahmin reaction against Ashoka's patronage of Buddhism. Others believe that

Ashoka's doctrine of nonviolence curbed the military ardor of his people and

left them vulnerable to invaders. More plausible explanations for the fall of

the Mauryan state take into account the communications problems facing an

empire than included most of the Indian subcontinent, the difficulty of

financing a vast army and bureaucracy, and the intrigues of discontented

regional groups within the empire.


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