Mauryan Empire: History, Facts & Greatest Achievements
Spanning from around 321 BC to 185 BC, the Mauryan Empire was the second Magadha dynasty. With its cultural and political hub at Pataliputra, the Mauryan Empire attained so many feats. For starters, it is most known as the first empire to cover most part of the Indian subcontinent. The Mauryan dynasty also had powerful rulers like Bindusara and Ashoka (also known as Ashoka the Great). During the latter’s reign (from c.263 BC to 232 BC), the Mauryan Empire was able to reach its peak, economically and militarily.
What else was the Mauryan Empire most known for? In the article below World History Edu explores the history, major facts, and greatest achievements of the Mauryan Empire, one of the most powerful dynasties of ancient India.
The Mauryan Dynasty: Facts
Famous people: Chandragupta, Ashoka, Bindusara
Places occupied in modern day: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan
Capital: Pataliputra (modern Patna)
Duration: c. 321 BC – c. 185 BC
Population: more than 15 million
Preceded by: the Nanda Empire
Succeeded by: The Shunga dynasty
Formation of the Mauryan Empire
The Maurya Dynasty was established by Chandragupta Maurya with the help of his guru and mentor Chanakya. King Chandragupta, a native of Taxila, defeated the Nanda Dynasty. According to the account, the Nanda Dynasty was a dominant power whose influence covered many parts of the Indian subcontinent. Chanakya was guru and a senior official of the Nandas government. Chanakya would part ways with the Nanda Dynasty after its ruler insulted him. The wise sage fled to Taxila, vowing to bring down the Nanda rulers. At Taxila, he met a vibrant young man called Chandragupta whom he quickly mentored.
The death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC created a situation where the conqueror’s generals began fighting each other for a slice of his conquered territories. The young warrior Chandragupta and his Taxila forces would go on to take full advantage of this power vacuum. With the help of his most trusted advisor, Chanakya (also known as Kauṭilya), Chandragupta was able to bring down the Nanda dynasty around 322 BC after besieging their capital Pataliputra. Depending on which account one looks at, the Nanda king was either killed by Chandragupta’s forces or exiled.
Chandragupta would then establish the Maurya dynasty and expand westward into central and western India. By the end of the 4th century BC, the young ruler had captured large parts of northwestern India and brought many of the satraps left by Alexander the Great under his control. From his power base in Magadha, Chandragupta wielded control over the Indus Valley region.
Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, benefited a lot from the wise counsel of his advisor Chanakya, who was not only a teacher, but also a military strategist, jurist, economist, and philosopher. Chanakya is credited with authoring the political treatise Arhashastra (“The Science of Material Gain”), which informs rulers on how best to administer their territories. The treatise could be described in similar light as The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.
The Seleucid-Mauryan War (305 – 303 BC).
Maurya first king and founder Chandragupta (also known as Chandragupta Maurya) is praised for conquering the Punjab region from the southeastern edges of Alexander the Great’s former empire. Fearing an imminent incursion by Chandragupta’s forces, Seleucus I Nicator, one of the generals of Alexander the Great and later founder of the Seleucid Empire, decided to invade the Maurya territories in 305 BC, and thus marking the beginning of the Seleucid-Mauryan War (305 – 303 BC).
Chandragupta’s forces were able to repel the Seleucid invasion, forcing Seleucus to fall back to the mountainous region of Afghanistan. The Seleucid and Mauryan dynasty signed a treaty in 303 BC. The two kingdoms also established diplomatic relations with each other. They also exchanged scholars, with Greek scholars and historians like Deimachus and Dionysius becoming ambassadors to the Mauryan court.
The early Mauryan Rulers and their military conquests
Chandragupta set up a centralized government in the capital Pataliputra. And from his capital, he was able to bring all of India under his control, according to the Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch. After adopting the teachings of Jain teacher Bhadrabahu, Chandragupta abdicated the throne in favor of his son Bindusara, who was around 22 years old. The Mauryan Empire at the time covered modern day India and some parts of Baluchistan and Afghanistan.
Similar to Chandragupta, Bindusara embarked upon several military conquests. He completed the conquest of the Indian peninsula. He had the benefit of receiving wise counsel from his father’s senior advisor, Chanakya. With Chanakya’s help, Bindusara was able to bring sixteen states into the Mauryan Empire. Upon his death around 270 BC, his son, Ashoka, succeeded him to the throne.
Having gained invaluable experience as the viceroy of the Ujjain Province (located in central India), Ashoka ascension to the throne augured well for Mauryan dynasty. His reign witnessed remarkable growth and expansion.
Ashoka the great was able to stretch the boundaries of the empire to never-before-seen level. It’s generally said that Maurya Empire reached its peak during Ashoka’s more than three-decade rule. He famously captured many cities, including Kalinga (modern day Odisha in eastern India), which lied on the eastern coast of India. During his conquest of Kalinga, his army killed about 100,000 people, including civilians. Ashoka did not end there; he took more than 140,000 of the city’s inhabitants. After seeing the massive devastation he had inflicted upon Kalinga and its people, Ashoka became a bit remorseful and embraced the teachings of Buddhism.
Read More: Life and Major Accomplishments of Ashoka the Great
Disintegration of the Mauryan Empire
Following Ashoka’s death in 232 BC, he was succeeded by his grandson Dasharatha Maurya, who ruled from for just a year or so. Unlike the first three kings of the Mauryan dynasty, Dasharatha, who maintained many of the policies of Ashoka, could not keep the empire united as many territories broke away from the central government in Pataliputra.
In the half a century that followed after the death of Ashoka the Great, the Mauryan Empire had gone from a massive and powerful empire to one that could barely keep its provinces united. This was the result of a series of very weak Mauryan rulers. Steadily, the empire began to disintegrate as their territories were lost to neighboring kingdoms.
The last nail in the coffin of the Mauryan dynasty came when King Brihadratha Maurya was betrayed by his Brahman commander in chief, Pushyamitra Shunga. Brihadratha was killed by Pushyamitra around 185 BC. Brihadratha thus became the last ruler of the Maurya Empire. Commander Pushyamitra Shunga would go on to seize what was left of the empire and establish the Shunga dynasty, which reigned from 185 BC to around 73 BC.
Notable achievements of the Mauryan Empire
Having struck a peace treaty with the Seleucids and secured the western side of the empire, Chandragupta turned his attention to the east and the south. He expanded the empire across northern India as well. His successors – particularly Bindusara and Ashoka – would follow in his footsteps. For example, Bindusara expanded into the Deccan and what is now Karnataka, a state in southwestern India. Ashoka, perhaps the greatest Mauryan ruler, is praised for lifting the Mauryan Empire to its greatest and largest extent, militarily and economically.
Below are some major accomplishments of the Mauryan Empire:
- The early Mauryan rulers were known for their centralized government and sound bureaucratic administration with many hundreds of provinces ruled by officials appointed by the emperor. Those things in turn helped the empire become the most dominant force on the subcontinent of India.
- The Mauryan Empire had the greatest military force in the region. With a size of close to half a million soldiers, the Mauryan emperor was able to put down revolts quickly.
- Prior to the Mauryan rulers, no dynasty was able to successfully bring the entire Indian subcontinent under control. The Mauryan dynasty was the first to unite the region. At its peak, during the reign of Ashoka the Great, the Mauryan Empire covered all of India, some parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It thus covered about 5 million square kilometers (or 1.9 million square miles). The empire had tens of millions of inhabitants.
- During the reign of Ashoka the Great, Buddhist teachings were promoted not just in Mauryan territories, but abroad. Buddhist emissaries and missionaries were sent by Ashoka to visit places in present day Burma, Nepal, China, Japan, and even Greece.
- The Grand Trunk Road was constructed during the reign of the Mauryan dynasty. The road, which is considered by many historians as one of the oldest and longest in ancient Asia, initially stretched from the capital Pataliputra to Taxila. It linked Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent. Reaching around 2,400 km (1,419 miles), the road goes through modern day countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. This is the reason why it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
- During the reigns of Bindusara and Ashoka the Great, Maurya Empire became the epicenter of art, culture and architecture in the region. Some of the most famous architectural works are the Ashoka’s Pillars, also known as Sthambhas. Those pillars were erected across the empire as a symbol of the Ashoka’s commitment to of non-violence and peaceful cohabitation. Ashoka also built several thousands of Buddhist stupas.
The peacock connection
The name “Maurya” does not appear on any of the Edicts of Ashoka, which are a set of inscriptions found on the numerous pillars (of Ashoka) across the Indian subcontinent. The name is however mentioned several centuries after the demise of the empire. For example, the name appears on the Junagadh rock inscription of Rudradaman, which is dated to around 150 AD.
It’s generally accepted that the name “Maurya” was derived from mora, the name of peacocks in Pali, a Middle Indo-European liturgical language that was native to the Indian subcontinent. The ancestors of the first rulers of the Mauryan Empire are believed to have settle in a place where peacocks were plentiful. Mora became “Moriyas”, which translates to “belonging to the site of peacocks”. The ancestors of Maurya established a city that named Moriya-nagara (“Moriya-city”).
Maurya’s association with peacocks is further given credence by the fact that peacock images appear on a number of artworks during the reign of Ashoka, including the Ashoka pillar at Nandangarh in the modern state of Bihar in eastern India.
It is likely that the peacock was the emblem of the Maurya dynasty.
More on the Maurya Dynasty
- In some accounts, it is stated that the first ruler of the Maurya dynasty, Chandragupta, once met Alexander the Great. However, there is no evidence to substantiate this.
- However, it was Ashoka, the third emperor of the dynasty, who lifted the Mauryan Empire to unprecedented heights. He became emperor around the age of 35. Image: The Maurya Empire under Ashoka
- Chanakya (375-283 BC) was ancient Indian polymath who played an instrumental role in the founding of the Mauryan dynasty. He served as the prime minister for both Chandragupta and Bindusara. His most famous work the Arthashastra (“The Science of Material Gain”) has similar themes as the political treatise of The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.
- Ashoka was succeeded by his grandson Dasharatha Maurya because all his sons were either dead or had gone abroad to spread the teachings of Buddhism. For example, his oldest son, Mahinda, had been dispatched to abroad to propagate the Buddhism. His other son, Tivala, is said to have died at a very young age.