Chandragupta Maurya: Storied Founder of the All-India Mauryan Empire

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Chandragupta Maurya: Storied Founder of the All-India Mauryan Empire

Chandragupta Maurya was an ancient Indian ruler who lived during the 4th century BC. He was the founder of the Mauryan Empire and was the first person

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Chandragupta Maurya was an ancient Indian ruler who lived during the 4th century BC. He was the founder of the Mauryan Empire and was the first person to have brought the majority of the Indian subcontinent under one ruler. Chandragupta Maurya established his empire shortly after the invasion of India by Alexander the Great. Therefore, during his early reign, Chandragupta came into conflict with Alexander’s successors in the east. Due to these conflicts, Chandragupta is mentioned in a number of classical sources. Chandragupta Maurya’s empire lasted until 185 BC, about 50 years after the death of Ashoka, Chandragupta’s famous grandson.

In the courtyard opposite Gate No. 5 of Parliament House of India, on a red sandstone pedestal, stands a symbolic bronze statue of Chandragupta Maurya, one of the greatest figures in Indian history and founder of the Mauryan Empire, who reigned from 321 BC to 296 BC. The statue inscription reads: Shepherd boy Chandragupta Maurya dreaming of the India he was to create. (Public domain /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Early Life of Chandragupta Maurya

Chandragupta Maurya  is thought to have been born around 340 BC, though this, along with many other details about his ancestry, is still uncertain. In fact, there are no records about Chandragupta’s life that precede the foundation of the  Mauryan Empire , which provides support to the theory that he was from a humble family. This theory also claims that Chandragupta had been abandoned by his parents. Nevertheless, there are several other competing theories regarding Chandragupta’s background.

According to one version of the story, for instance, Chandragupta was the illegitimate son of a king or prince of the  Nanda dynasty  (which Chandragupta would later overthrow) and a maid by the name of Mura.

Another version suggests, based on the name Maurya, that Chandragupta was a member of the Moriyas, a Kshatriya (warrior) clan based in Pippalivana, a small republic located between Rummindei, in Tarai Nepal, and Kasia in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.

Yet another hypothesis states that the Mauryas were the Muras, or Mors, who are of  Scythian, or Indo-Scythian origin.

The early childhood of Chandragupta is equally shrouded in mystery. One version of the story states that whilst he was still a young boy, Chandragupta’s family fell into poverty following the death of his father, a chief of the Mauryas, in a battle. Subsequently, Chandragupta’s maternal uncles left him with a cowherd, who brought him up as his own son. Later, however, he was sold to a hunter to tend cattle. Finally, he was purchased by  Kautilya (known also as Chanakya)  in Bihar, when the latter was on his way back to Taxila. According to another version of the story, Kautilya met Chandragupta by chance, recognized that he had the makings of a great king, and immediately took him under his wing.

In any case, Kautilya brought Chandragupta back with him back to  Taxila, and began to groom him. He would play an important role in Chandragupta’s rise to power and serve subsequently as his advisor and chief minister. Kautilya is said to have been a Brahmin (a member of the priestly class) and is traditionally credited as the author of the  Arthashastra, an ancient Indian text dealing with statecraft, military strategy, and economic policy.

Kautilya’s decision to groom Chandragupta was not only due to his recognition of the boy’s potential as a ruler, but also as part of personal vendetta against Dhana Nanda, the ruler of the Nanda Empire. Therefore, he sought to obtain his revenge by using Chandragupta to overthrow Dhana Nanda.

Artistic depiction of Kautilya or Chanakya who was Chandragupta Maura’s teacher and advisor. (Public domain)

Artistic depiction of Kautilya or Chanakya who was Chandragupta Maura’s teacher and advisor. ( Public domain )

Kautilya: Teacher, Strategist, Chandragupta Maura’s Advisor

At the time of Alexander’s invasion of India (327 – 325 BC), Kautilya was a teacher in Taxila, a great center of learning, as well as the capital of  Gandhara. Ambhi (known to the Greeks as Taxiles), the king of Gandhara, concluded a treaty with Alexander, and therefore avoided fighting him. Kautilya is said to have perceived the Macedonian invasion as a threat to Indian culture, and therefore sought other Indian rulers in the region to unite in a war against Alexander. It seems that only Parvatka (sometimes identified as Porus in Greek sources), a Himalayan king, heeded Kautilya’s call, and fought unsuccessfully against Alexander at the Battle of the Hydaspes River.

In spite of his failure to rally the Indian rulers against the Macedonians, Kautilya did not give up, but travelled further east, to Pataliputra, in Bihar. This was the capital of the Nanda Empire, which stretched from Bihar and Bengal in the east all the way to  eastern Punjab  in the west. Kautilya was hoping that Dhana Nanda, the ruler of this vast empire, would be able to defeat Alexander, and repel the Macedonian invaders.

Initially, relations between the king and Kautilya were cordial. Kautilya’s habit of speaking bluntly, however, did not sit too well with the king. Consequently, Dhana Nanda removed Kautilya from his official position, and the brahmin was thrown out of the Nanda court. Kautilya swore that he would have his revenge for the Insult he received at the hands of Dhana Nanda. According to another version of the story, Dhana Nanda had insulted Kautilya publicly, and removed him from his court, as a result of an insignificant dispute, thereby incurring the brahmin’s wrath.

As a boy, Chandragupta Maurya was taken by Kautilya to Taxila and educated in  military tactics  and the aesthetic arts. Subsequently, Chandragupta raised a mercenary army, formed an alliance with a Himalayan king (perhaps Parvatka), and attacked the Nanda Empire. Chandragupta’s initial attacks, however, were repelled, as the Nanda Empire, after all, possessed a formidable army.

Nevertheless, Chandragupta continued his war, and after many battles, his army finally arrived before the gates of Pataliputra. Chandragupta laid siege to the Nanda capital, and succeeded in capturing the city in 321 BC. According to one version of the story, Dhana Nanda abdicated, handed over power to Chandragupta, and went into exile, thus disappearing from the pages of history. The capture of Pataliputra in 321 BC by Chandragupta marks the beginning of the Mauryan Empire.

The Mauryan Empire at its highpoint covered nearly all of the Indian subcontinent. (Avantiputra7 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Mauryan Empire at its highpoint covered nearly all of the Indian subcontinent. (Avantiputra7 /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Chandragupta Maurya And The Rise Of The Mauryan Empire

Following the conquest of the Nanda Empire, Chandragupta turned his attention to the western borders of his growing empire. As mentioned earlier, Alexander had launched a military campaign into India between 327 and 325 BC. Although Alexander died in 323 BC, the northwestern part of India was still in the hands of the  Greeks.

The eastern edge of Alexander’s former empire was ruled by several satraps, and Chandragupta began to wage war against them. Chandragupta was successful in his campaign, and by around 316 BC, all the  satraps in the mountains of Central Asia were conquered and absorbed into the Mauryan Empire. Thus, Chandragupta extended his empire to the borders of present-day Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and most significantly, Iran. This area would eventually become part of the powerful  Seleucid Empire , which fought with the Mauryan Empire for dominance of the region.

The Seleucid Empire was established by Seleucus I Nicator, who had served as a general under Alexander. When Chandragupta was conquering the eastern satraps, the Seleucid Empire had not been established, and Seleucus was still not a major political player. Although Seleucus became the satrap of  Babylonia in 321 BC, he lost his satrapy in 316 BC, and fled to Egypt, where he served Ptolemy. In 312 BC, however, Seleucus had regained Babylonia, and founded the Seleucid Empire. In the years that followed, Seleucus expanded his empire aggressively, extending it all the way to the eastern frontier of the Mauryan Empire.

Consequently, war broke out between the two empires. The conflict between Seleucus and Chandragupta ended in 305 BC with a peace treaty. In exchange for his eastern territories, Seleucus received 500  war elephants  from Chandragupta. This peace treaty was strengthened by a marriage alliance, i.e., one of Seleucus’ daughters was given to Chandragupta in marriage.

Additionally, diplomatic relations were established between the two empires, and several Greeks, the best-known being the historian Megasthenes, were sent as ambassadors to the Mauryan court. Based on his experience at Chandragupta’s court, Megathenes wrote  Indika, which is a source of information regarding Mauryan India. Although the original has disappeared, parts of this work survived in later works, for instance, Strabo’s  Geography and Arrian’s  Indika.

Statue of Maurya Emperor Chandragupta Maurya and his spiritual mentor Acharya Bhadrabahu Swami at Shravanabelagola. (Jayanti Sengupta / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Statue of Maurya Emperor Chandragupta Maurya and his spiritual mentor Acharya Bhadrabahu Swami at Shravanabelagola. (Jayanti Sengupta /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Classical Sources About The First Head of the Mauryan Empire

Megasthenes, as well as those who referred to his  Indika, was not the only classical author who wrote about Chandragupta. Tales about Chandragupta can be found in the writings of other classical writers, such as Justin, and Plutarch. In Book XV of Justin’s  Epitome of Pompeius Trogus , for example, Chandragupta (referred to as Sandrokottos) is described negatively. Justin mentions that after Chandragupta liberated the eastern satrapies, he “oppressed the people whom he had delivered from a foreign power, with a cruel tyranny.” Additionally, Justin claims that Chandragupta had met Alexander on one occasion and managed to offend him with his bold speech. The encounter between the two rulers is mentioned also by Plutarch, who refers to Chandragupta as Androcottus. Moreover, Justin reports the omens that revealed Chandragupta’s greatness. The first was a lion that gently woke Chandragupta when he had fallen asleep from fatigue, and then left him, whilst the second was a wild elephant that presented itself to Chandragupta as a mount when he went to do battle with the Greeks.

Once Chandragupta had secured the western borders of his empire, he turned his attention to the south, and expanded in that direction. By the end of this campaign of conquest, the whole Indian subcontinent, with the exception of Kalinga (present-day Odisha) and the Tamil kingdoms (on the southern tip of India), was under Chandragupta’s rule.

According to tradition, when Chandragupta was in his 50s, he became interested in Jainism. He eventually embraced this belief system, thanks to the influence of the Jain sage Bhadrabahu, his spiritual guide. Bhadrabahu predicted that the Mauryan Empire would be struck by a 12-year-long famine. When the famine happened, Chandragupta initially tried to mitigate the situation. When he found that he was powerless to do anything, however, the emperor simply gave up, abdicated, and went with Bhadrabahu to Shravanabelagola, a renowned religious site in southwest India. There, Chandragupta meditated in a cave and fasted, until he died of starvation five weeks later. Chandragupta died around 297 BC.

Asokan pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India, built by Emperor Asoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, in about 250 BC, and still standing. (mself / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Asokan pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India, built by Emperor Asoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, in about 250 BC, and still standing. (mself /  CC BY-SA 2.5 )

From Chandragupta to Bindusara to the Great Emperor Ashoka

Chandragupta was succeeded by his son, Bindusara. According to one legend, Kautilya was worried that Chandragupta might be poisoned by his enemies, and therefore secretly introduced small amounts of poison into the emperor’s food to build up his tolerance.

One day, Chandragupta, who was himself unaware of Kautilya’s plan, shared his food with Durdhara, one of his queens/consorts. Incidentally, Durdhara is the only queen/consort of Chandragupta whom we know of by name. After consuming the poisoned food, Durdhara died. At the time, she was pregnant with her first child, who fortunately, survived, as Kautilya performed an emergency operation to save him. A bit of Durdhara’s poisoned blood touched the baby’s forehead, leaving a blue bindu (bindi) mark, hence his name, Bindusara.

Unlike his father Chandragupta, Bindusara is much less well-known today. As a matter of fact, he is perhaps most famous for being the father of Ashoka, the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire. It was Ashoka who conquered Kalinga. Although the Tamil kingdoms were not directly under Ashoka’s rule, they were on friendly terms with the Mauryan Empire.

Ashoka is perhaps most famous, however, for his adoption and propagation of Buddhism. This conversion is supposed to have happened after the war with Kalinga, as Ashoka witnessed for himself the devastation caused by his violent actions. In contrast to his grandfather, Ashoka did not renounce the throne after his conversion, but continued to rule, though according to Buddhist principles. Moreover, Ashoka used his position as emperor to spread Buddhism.

Ashoka’s death in around 232 BC marks the beginning of the decline of the Mauryan Empire. In the 50 years that followed, the Mauryan throne was occupied by a series of weak rulers. Several other factors also contributed to this decline, such as the weakening of the military as a result of Ashoka’s non-violent policies, and the provinces seizing the opportunity of weak leadership at the empire’s center to assert their independence.

The Mauryan Empire came to an end in 185 BC, when Brihadratha, the last Mauryan emperor, was assassinated. The assassin was one of the emperor’s own generals, Pushyamitra Shunga, who subsequently founded a new dynasty. Unlike the Mauryan Empire, however, the Shunga Empire only ruled over a small part of the Indian subcontinent. In fact, until the arrival of the Mughals in the 16th century, the Indian subcontinent remained fragmented, and was ruled by numerous small kingdoms.

Top image: Chandragupta Maurya (founder of the Mauryan Empire) and his spiritual leader Bhadrabahu moved to Shravanabelagola, where they continued their spiritual practices related to Jainism. Chandragupta’s footsteps have been engraved in this spectacular viewpoint rock hilltop.          Source: KGBedits /  CC BY-SA 4.0

By Wu Mingren


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