Chandragupta Maurya, known to the Greeks as Sandrakottos, had a huge impact on Indian history when he founded the Maurya Dynasty which existed from the 4th century to the 2nd century BCE and set up the first Indian empire. With the help of his mentor and then minister Chanakya or Kautilya (c. 4th century BCE), he was able to create an expansive centralized empire, which is well documented in Kautilya's Arthashastra with details of its working, social structure, military, and economic system.
Mauryan Empire Timelines
- Chandragupta (322–297 BCE)
- Bindusara (297–272/268 BCE)
- Ashoka (272/268–232 BCE)
- Dasharatha (232–224 BCE)
- Samprati (224–215 BCE)
- Shalishuka (215–202 BCE)
- Devavarman (202–195 BCE)
- Shatadhanvan (195–187 BCE)
- Brihadratha (187–180 BCE)
Chandragupta Maurya (c. 321 - c. 297 BCE) | Mauryan History and Timelines
Also Read: Bhimbetka Rock Shelters - UNESCO World Heritage Site
Ancient Greek, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts offer varying details regarding the life and accomplishments of Chandragupta. There is a wide range of detail in the historical sources which provide information on the life of Chandragupta Maurya. According to records, the life of Chandragupta began around 340 BC and ended around 295 BC. In order to create a chronological account of his life, his main biographical sources are as follows:-
- The earliest known surviving records that mention Chandragupta Maurya or circumstances related to him are Greek and Roman sources.
- Hindu texts such as the Puranas and Arthashastra; later composed Hindu sources include legends in Vishakhadatta's Mudrarakshasa, Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara and Kshemendra's Brihatkathamanjari.
- Sources of Buddhist teachings that are dated to the fourth century or after, including the Sri Lankan Pali texts Dipavamsa (Rajavamsa section), Mahavamsa, Mahavamsa tika and Mahabodhivamsa, are seen as valid sources to be used in Buddhism.
- Shravanabelgola holds an immense historical significance due to the Jain inscriptions that date between the 7th and 10th century. The Brhatkathakosa of Harisena, a 10th-century Jain monk, contains an interpretation of a Digambara text which is thought to reference the Maurya emperor, while the full Jain narrative about Chandragupta is found in the 12th-century Parisishtaparvan by Hemachandra.
Based on the account of one medieval commentator, Chandragupta was said to have been the son of one of the wives of the Nanda dynasty, named Mura. In addition to the current sources, other sources have also mentioned that Mura was a concubine of the king. Mudrarakshasa, another Sanskrit dramatic text, refers to Chandragupta as Vrishala and Kula-Hina, meaning not from a recognized family or clan.
The term Vrishala can be interpreted in two ways, one of which is the son of a Shudra. An individual who commented on the issue at a later time used the previously accepted interpretation to suggest that Chandragupta may have had a Shudra heritage. Despite the proposed theory, historian Radha Kumud Mukherjee suggested that the word be interpreted as "the best of kings".
The Kashmiri Hindu tradition of the 11th-century, as evidenced by the texts Kathasaritsagara and Brihat-Katha-Manjari, references the Nanda lineage, which was apparently short-lived. Purva-Nanda, the elderly Nanda leader based in Ayodhya, had a son named Chandragupta who went on to do great things. Across the many Hindu sources, the common idea is that Chandragupta was originally from a very humble background, but with the help of Chanakya, he became a revered king who was beloved by his people due to his commitment to dharma.
Influence of Chanakya
There are various interpretations of how Chandragupta and Chanakya first crossed paths as described in Hindu and Buddhist sources. Chandragupta, who was quite young at the time, created a replica of a royal court in the Vinjha forest, which he and his cowherd friends then used as the basis for a game. Chanakya observed him as he was giving orders to the others and then decided to purchase him from the hunter, thus bringing Chandragupta into his family. Chanakya took him under his wing and accepted him as a student at Taxila to learn the Vedic scriptures, the art of warfare, laws and other sciences.
Following the journey to Taxila, Chandragupta and Chanakya decided to move to the eastern Magadha kingdom of India, in particular the renowned capital of Pataliputra, which was also known for its historic significance as a learning centre. It was at that place where they met Nanda, as documented in Hindu sources, and Dhana Nanda, as documented in Pali-language Buddhist sources.
According to Roman historian Justin, Chandragupta was appointed commander of the Nanda army, however he managed to anger the Nanda king (Nandrum or Nandrus) who issued a death sentence for him. According to another version, it was the Nanda monarch who was publicly embarrassed by Chanakya. In their mission to overthrow the Nanda king, Chandragupta and Chanakya became rebels who had escaped and planned to take away his power. After being humiliated and disrespected by the Nanda King, Chanakya vowed to bring an end to the Nanda dynasty.
Following Chandragupta's completion of his education at Taxila, the Buddhist text Mahavamsa Tika records that Chandragupta and Chanakya recruited soldiers from a variety of sources in order to build a formidable army. Chanakya appointed Chandragupta as the head of the military forces. According to the Digambara Jain text Parishishtaparvan, Chanakya raised an army with coins he minted, and then formed an alliance with Parvataka. Justin reported that Chandragupta had organized an army.
At first, Justin's expression was interpreted as "body of robbers" by the initial translators, however Raychaudhuri argues that the phrase used by Justin could have indicated a mercenary soldier, hunter, or robber. According to the Buddhist Mahavamsa Tika and Jain Parishishtaparvan, Chandragupta's army made an attempt to overtake the Nanda capital, but their efforts proved to be unsuccessful.
Chandragupta and Chanakya launched a campaign at the frontier of the Nanda empire, gradually taking control of multiple territories on their way to the Nanda capital. By constructing garrisons in the territories he had taken, he went on to refine his strategy, and eventually launched a successful siege at Pataliputra, the Nanda capital.
Nanda Empire Conquest
Plutarch, a writer of Greco-Roman origin, highlighted in his text, Life of Alexander, that the Nanda king had generated such a lack of popularity that Alexander could have taken India without difficulty if he had wanted to. When Alexander the Great completed his campaign and withdrew from the area, Chandragupta Maurya's army, under the guidance of Chanakya, was able to take control of the Nanda capital Pataliputra in around 322 BCE.
Unfortunately, there is no trustworthy information about Chandragupta's journey to Pataliputra and the only knowledge is based on folklore which was written many years after the event had taken place. It is said in Buddhist texts like Milindapanha that the Nanda dynasty ruled Magadha and Chandragupta, with the aid of Chanakya, was able to defeat them. Before Chandragupta and Chanakya's army could invade Pataliputra, they had to first conquer the Nanda outer territories.
According to Buddhist sources, the campaign was an easy victory, however Hindu and Jain texts tell a different tale, indicating that the Nanda dynasty had a well-trained and experienced army that put up a significant fight. Mudrarakshasa fictionalised the conquest and it is believed that Chandragupta first gained control of Punjab, with the assistance of the advice provided by Chanakya, and formed an alliance with a local king, Parvatka, before he launched his attack on the Nanda Empire. By utilizing guerrilla warfare tactics, with the aid of troops from recently conquered territories, Chandragupta laid siege to Kusumapura (present-day Patna), which was the capital of Magadha.
According to the historian P. K. Bhattacharyya, the empire was constructed through a gradual process of taking over the provinces following the initial establishment of Magadha. The success of Chandragupta and his advisor Chanakya, according to Hemachandra's interpretation of the Digambara Jain version, was brought to a halt by a Nanda town that was unwilling to capitulate. In order to conceal his identity, Chanakya disguised himself as a beggar and was able to locate seven mother goddesses (saptamatrika) within. It was determined by him that these goddesses were providing protection for the people of the town.
The townspeople asked the disguised mendicant for advice on how to bring an end to the army that had blockaded their town. Hemachandra's writings indicated that Chanakya was able to deceive the people into taking away the mother goddesses from their land. By taking away the protective goddesses, the townspeople made it easier for their opponents to gain victory over the town.
Following their alliance, Chandragupta and Parvataka assembled an immense army and marched against the Nanda kingdom and the city of Patliputra. The Nanda king was unable to overcome his adversaries due to his lack of funds within the treasury, his exhausted merit, and his inadequate intelligence.
According to the myths, though the Nanda king was defeated, he was still permitted to leave Pataliputra with a chariot full of the items that his family needed for their livelihood. According to Jain sources, the moment Chandragupta and his daughter saw each other they immediately fell in love and decided to get married. Following the defeat of Nanda, Chandragupta Maurya was able to establish the Maurya Empire in antiquity in India.
North-west regions Conquest
Alexander the Great's Indian campaign concluded prior to the rise of Chandragupta to power. Alexander the Great left India in 325 BCE and had appointed Greek governors to oversee the territories of the North-western Indian subcontinent. The early relationship between these governors and Chandragupta is shrouded in mystery, with its nature unknown.
Justin highlighted Chandragupta as a rival of Alexander's successors in northern and western India. He claims that after Alexander the Great passed away, Chandragupta Maurya liberated the Indian territories from the Greek rulers and put some of the governors to death.
Boesche suggested that Chandragupta and Chanakya had recruited mercenaries for their war with the north western territories, and that this war may have led to the downfall of two of Alexander the Great's governors, Nicanor and Philip. Megasthenes was appointed as a Greek ambassador and served in the court for a period of four years.
The exact boundaries of Chandragupta's empire and the details of his military campaigns are not documented in any records. By looking at the interpretations of Greek and Roman historians along with religious Indian texts written centuries after his death, we can make assumptions about this individual's life and times. Alexander the Great's empire extended to the North-West of present-day Afghanistan due to the ceding of Kabul, Kandahar, Taxila and Gandhara by Seleucus I Nicator.
His grandson Ashoka left a major mark by inscribing the Kandahar rock edict and other edicts in the Greek and Aramaic languages in these areas. Ashoka's inscription in Junagadh attests to Chandragupta's rule in the west, over present-day Gujarat.
About 400 years later, Rudradaman chose the same rock to inscribe a more lengthy text, thought to have been written sometime around the mid-second century. Rudradaman's inscription reveals that the Sudarshana lake was created during the rule of Chandragupta, with the assistance of his governor Vaishya Pushyagupta, and was further improved with conduits added during the reign of Ashoka through the guidance of Tushaspha.
The inscription on the rock further confirms the Mauryan control of the region, indicating that Chandragupta was in control of the Malwa region in Central India, which lies between Gujarat and Pataliputra. The conquests of Chandragupta in the Deccan region of southern India remain uncertain and much speculation has been made about the other feats he may have achieved.
When Chandragupta's grandson Ashoka assumed power, the Mauryan Empire stretched as far south as the current-day state of Karnataka, thus it is unclear if the southern conquests were accomplished by Chandragupta or his son Bindusara. If the accepted Jain belief that Chandragupta Maurya ended his life as a renunciate in Karnataka is true, then it can be assumed that Chandragupta was the one who initiated the southern conquest. Through their partnership, Maurya and Chanakya were able to construct one of the greatest empires to ever exist on the Indian subcontinent.
The empire of Chandragupta extended from Bengal to central Afghanistan, taking up most of the Indian subcontinent aside from the parts that are now known as Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Odisha.
Rule, reforms and administration
After unifying much of India, Chandragupta and Chanakya passed a series of major economic and political reforms. Chandragupta established a strong central administration from Pataliputra (now Patna). Chandragupta applied the statecraft and economic policies described in Chanakya's text Arthashastra.
There are varying accounts in the historic, legendary, and hagiographic literature of various Indian religions about Chandragupta's rule, but Allchin and Erdosy' are suspect; they state, "one cannot but be struck by the many close correspondences between the (Hindu) Arthashastra and the two other major sources the (Buddhist) Asokan inscriptions and (Greek) Megasthenes text".
The Maurya rule was a structured administration; Chandragupta Maurya had a council of ministers (amatya), with Chanakya was his chief minister. The empire was organised into territories (janapada), centres of regional power were protected with forts (durga), and state operations were funded with treasury (kosa). He had councillors for matters of justice and assessors to collect taxes on commercial activity and trade goods.
He routinely performed Vedic sacrifices, Brahmanical rituals, and hosted major festivals marked by procession of elephants and horses. His officers inspected situations requiring law and order in the cities; the crime rate was low.
According to Megasthenes, Chandragupta's rule was marked by three parallel administrative structures. One managed the affairs of villages, ensuring irrigation, recording land ownership, monitoring tools supply, enforcing hunting, wood products and forest-related laws, and settling disputes.
Another administrative structure managed city affairs, including all matters related to trade, merchant activity, visit of foreigners, harbors, roads, temples, markets, and industries. They also collected taxes and ensured standardized weights and measures. The third administrative body overlooked the military, its training, its weapons supply, and the needs of the soldiers.
Chanakya was concerned about Chandragupta's safety and developed elaborate techniques to prevent assassination attempts. Various sources report Chandragupta Maurya frequently changed bedrooms to confuse conspirators. He left his palace only for certain tasks: to go on military expeditions, to visit his court for dispensing justice, to offer sacrifices, for celebrations, and for hunting.
During celebrations, he was well-guarded, and on hunts, he was surrounded by female guards who were presumed to be less likely to participate in a coup conspiracy. These strategies may have resulted from the historical context of the Nanda king who had come to power by assassinating the previous king. During Chandragupta's reign and that of his dynasty, many religions thrived in India, with Buddhism, Jainism and Ajivika gaining prominence along with other folk traditions.
Art and Architecture
The information about the arts and architecture during the reign of Chandragupta is mainly sourced from ancient texts such as those written by Megasthenes and Kautilya. It is generally assumed that the edict inscriptions and carvings on monumental pillars belong to the grandson of Ashoka. The texts appear to allude to the presence of cities, public works, and buildings that indicate a prosperous existence, yet the truth of these statements is uncertain.
In 1917, the now iconic Didarganj Yakshi was excavated from the banks of the Ganges and demonstrated the high level of skill and craftsmanship that characterized the art of ancient times. Several scholars dated the site to third century BCE, however, several other suggested dates such as the Kushan era (1st-4th century CE) have also been brought forward. In contrast to this idea, various theories suggest that art associated with Chandragupta Maurya's period was acquired through knowledge imparted by the Greeks and West Asian regions when Alexander the Great was in the midst of warfare.
The Mudrarakshasa utilizes the Sanskrit term vrishala as a way to denote Chandragupta, who is a someone else who has gone against the Brahminical rules. Both historical records and the general opinion of people point to the fact that Chandragupta Maurya eventually embraced Jainism in his later years. Historical records from Karnataka from the period of 5th to 15th centuries CE have mentioned Chandragupta in connection with the Jaina saint Bhadrabahu.
It is likely that Chandragupta Maurya abdicated his throne, embracing a life of asceticism during which time he accompanied Bhadrabahu to Karnataka, with his life culminating in the ritual of Sallekhana, which involved fasting until death. After ruling for 24 years, Chandragupta Maurya was succeeded by his son Bindusara, the father of the revered Ashoka the Great, who ruled from 268-232 BCE.
The state had a massive army that was capable of achieving their goals. The state was responsible for recruiting, training, and equipping the troops (maula). Many communities and forest tribes (atavika) were renowned for their martial abilities and held in high esteem due to their impressive military skills. In addition to the large numbers of mercenary forces (bhrita), there were also corporate guilds of soldiers (shreni) that could be brought in when needed.
The army was made up of four main divisions - infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants - which formed the basis of the Chaturanga. A war office was created with 30 members, six boards of which were responsible for the different arms and the navy and transport. Pliny, a Roman writer between the years of 23 - 79 CE, mentioned that Chandragupta commanded a force of 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 elephants. It was estimated that the number of chariots was around 8,000.
The commanders used the gathered details about the land and the composition of the armies to form a battle strategy, and then deployed the troops in a vyuha formation. There was a great deal of attention paid to the training of both men and animals. Both the king and princes were highly trained in battle strategies as well as the attributes of a great leader. Showing courage was expected of them and they would often take the lead of their armies and assist in the defense of the fortifications.
The navy instituted by Chandragupta Maurya was primarily responsible for providing coast guard services, safeguarding the vast commercial activities taking place on the waterways of the empire. Warriors would bring to the battlefield bows, arrows, swords, double-handed broadswords, oval, rectangular or bell-shaped shields (created from hides), javelins, lances, axes, pikes, clubs and maces. As a general rule, the soldiers either went without shirts or donned jackets made of quilted cotton material.
The Mauryans had a large and strong military due to the great expanse of their empire and the resources they had access to. All economic activities were under the control of the state, leading to a substantial revenue and plenty of financial resources.
Chandragupta's legacy has been preserved in the Arthashastra, a legacy which has stood the test of time. His ambition and courage in building up an empire was astonishing, and not only that, but he also worked tirelessly to create sound principles for its governance and ensure its growth. His extraordinary achievements have made him a legendary ruler in ancient India and have earned him a place in folklore that is almost mythical.
The legacy of Chandragupta Maurya still lingers today, as his reign as an exceptional ruler had a powerful impact on the history of India. Starting from a rather humble and unassuming beginning, he eventually ascended to power and consequently established one of the most powerful empires in Indian history, the Mauryan Empire. Under Chandragupta's powerful military leadership and innovative administrative reforms, he was able to create a unified and prosperous empire whose legacy was still remembered and honored for centuries after his death.
Chandragupta's legacy is marked by his successful expansion of the boundaries of the empire. His victorious wars against near-by states allowed him to increase the size of the empire from modern-day Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal.
The immense size of the empire was maintained and kept intact through a meticulous and well-organized administrative structure, with Chandragupta Maurya taking the initiative to split the empire into various provinces and appointing governors to each one for supervision. This system was created to guarantee the smooth running of the empire whilst also providing it with the strength to cope with any internal or external pressures it encountered.
Chandragupta was known to be a great supporter of the arts and sciences, and his court was filled with renowned scholars and intellectuals that he had invited. He was a passionate supporter of Jainism, a faith that emphasizes the importance of non-violence and compassion for all living creatures. Chandragupta worked to spread the message of Jainism and to ensure that his subjects followed a peaceful and ethical lifestyle.
Leaving a permanent mark on Indian history, Chandragupta Maurya was a remarkable leader who had a far-reaching vision. His expertise in military tactics, implementation of successful reform measures and patronage of the culture, made him an iconic ruler of his time. Over the centuries, his legacy has been kept alive and he continues to be a source of inspiration for countless individuals.