Jakarta, 12 April 2013
Section I
The Beginnings
Between the years 321 and 185 BC three generations of a dynasty carved out the first pan-Indian empire—the Mauryas. This empire covered an area of 5,000,000 square kilometres and comprised almost the entire sub-continent, and had an estimated population of 50-60 million making it one of the most populous and undoubtedly the largest empire of its time. At its zenith the empire ran along the Himalayan foothills in the north, covered almost the entire Deccan plateau to the south, bordered the south-eastern part of Iran in the west, and included Assam in the east. The Maurya dynasty was founded by Chandragupta Maurya in 321 BC, when he overthrew the ruling Nanda king, and dissolved in 185 BC when the last Maurya king was replaced by the Sunga dynasty in Magadha. Information regarding the Mauryan rule is derived predominantly from three sources—the Arthashastra; the edicts of Ashoka (third emperor of the dynasty); and contemporary Buddhist texts.
The Maurya rule (although it lasted only for 136 years) was characterised by imperial hegemony that was based on two contradictory styles of governance. First, it was founded on strong and centrally controlled bureaucratic institutions and administrative dicta that created a sense of security and belonging in the general populace, while also demanding and receiving strict obedience and loyalty to the Emperor. This remained the style throughout the Mauryan rule. However, around half-way through the rule of Ashoka he introduced a new element of a unique form of cultural coherence based on the moral and ethical values derived from those propagated by the fledgling Buddhist religion. Although strong central rule remained the foundation for the cohesiveness of the empire, Ashoka injected the ideals of civil, benign and humanitarian rule into its governance. Further, he popularised the concept of non-violent resolution of conflicting issues through exhortations and explanations publicised in the inscriptions that were constructed across the entire empire. Enforcing adherence to rules and regulations while administering a benign rule was a contradictory process for a time when most kings and chiefs relied on the strength of arms to perpetuate their rule.
Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BC)
Chandragupta’s birth, childhood and rise to power are shrouded in mystery and controversy. In all likelihood he was born around 340 BC and in some quarters it has been reported that he was the illegitimate son of Prince Sarvathasiddhi in the Nanda kingdom, born to a maid from a lower caste. [This probably true and could account for the story, mentioned below of his exile form the Nanda kingdom, but difficult to verify with any level of assurance.] However, the drama Mudrarakshasa (Poem of Rakshsa, who was then the Prime Minister of Magadha) by Visakhadatta describes Chandragupta as having royal ancestry and links him directly to the Nanda dynasty. [It is difficult to believe this and could have been a later day embellishment.] The Buddhist text Mahaparinibbana Sutta mentions that Chandragupta was from a Kshatriya tribe called Maurya, further increasing the obscurity of his origins. The fact that there is no clearly ascertainable proof of his birth can be considered as evidence of his less than royal origins. [The Greek historian Plutarch mentions the name ‘Sandrakottos’ in his writings of Alexander’s Indian adventure. However, it was only in 1793 AD that Sir William Jones, who is considered the ‘father of Oriental studies’, deciphered the name as Chandragupta. This discovery made it possible to collate a great deal of information regarding the early history of the Maurya Empire that had not been deciphered properly till then.] There is also a Jain version of the origins of the emperor—he is said to have belonged to the clan of Moriya (from the Sanskrit Mayura, meaning peacock) who were peacock tamers and owed allegiance to Magadha. Whatever the actuality of his origins, the fact is that there is no certainty regarding his birth and childhood—Chandragupta Maurya, like a number of ancient warrior-kings, remains twirled in the smoke-like stories and legends that form an inescapable part of Indian history. However, although ambiguity pervades his origins and early childhood, his youth and further achievements remain fairly well documented.
A name that has been indelibly attached to the Maurya dynasty is that of Chanakya (also called Kautilya) who is reported to have been the mentor of Chandragupta. [The complete story of Chanakya aka Kautilya and his famous treatise ‘Arthashastra’ is dealt with separately in Section IV of this part (Part 11)] Chanakya, a Brahmin, is supposed to have gone to Magadha and offered his services to king Dhana Nanda, who dismissed him without giving him either a job or any gifts. [It was customary in those days for kings and noblemen to provide food, shelter and gifts to itinerant Brahmins even if their services were not required. So there is no doubt that this action by the king was intended as an insult to the Brahmin.] Having been insulted thus, Chanakya swore revenge and went away, and is supposed to have mentored and trained Chandragupta to overthrow the Nanda dynasty.
According to Greek accounts Chandragupta (Sandrakottas) is supposed to have met Alexander in Taxila. Plutarch describes Sandrakottas as a self-possessed young prince and also reports that he criticised Alexander for not marching on Magadha after defeating Porus. Further, he is also said to have displayed ruthless ambition at a very young age. The reason for Chandragupta’s presence in Taxila, almost outside the outskirts of the Magadhan kingdom, is explained by the story that Chandragupta had angered the Nanda king for some reason [There are no sources or evidence that tell the reason for the royal displeasure—other than for stories of a young Chandragupta’s precocious intelligence and firm ability to stand up for himself when oppressed.] and either was exiled or barely managed to escape with his life to Taxila. In any case it is fairly certain that Chanakya encouraged Chandragupta to try and seize the Magadhan throne. Mahapadma Nanda, the founder of the Nanda dynasty ruling Magadha was an able king and died in 329 BC. He was succeeded by his seven sons who for some unfathomable reason decided to rule jointly, which was not only an unusual arrangement, but one that was doomed to fall prey to discord, deceit and disunity. By the time of Alexander’s Indian adventure the once powerful Magadha kingdom and the ruling Nanda dynasty were both commencing their terminal decay. The Nanda kings were notoriously harsh rulers and therefore, it was not difficult for Chandragupta to gather some of the oppressed and discontented people, especially in the outlying areas of the kingdom, and start a rebellion. He also managed to get the assistance of the chiefs of smaller states who had been brought under the vassalage of the Nanda dynasty. The Jain chronicle, Parishishtaparvan, mentions an alliance between Chandragupta and the Himalayan king Parvataka [could have been Porus]. Some other works state that Porus of Kakayee and his son Malayakatu were supporters of the rebellion. The Chandragupta-Chanakya strategy was one of sniping at the outlying areas of the kingdom, which would be less robustly defended, and gradually moving inward as the kingdom weakened. The story goes that Chandragupta devised this strategy after watching a mother scold her son for starting to eat his dinner from the centre of the plate, since the food at the outer part of the plate would be cooler as opposed to the hot central area.
The Capture of Magadha. By gradually moving towards the core, Chandragupta managed to draw the great Magadhan army outside their fortified capital Pataliputra where they would be forced to give battle on even terms. Further, he had a corrupt Magadhan General bribed by his spies to create a split in the army. [This selling out to the enemy for a price by senior military commanders continued to haunt Indian kings for centuries; for as long as independent kingdoms existed within the sub-continent.] A civil war ensued in which the heir to the Nanda throne was killed. In the meantime the wily Chanakya had turned public sentiment against the senior Nanda king who subsequently surrendered and voluntarily went into exile. Rakshasa, the Magadhan Prime Minister, was considered an able and incorruptible administrator and Chanakya prevailed upon him to continue as the Prime Minister for Chandragupta, convincing him with the advice that his loyalty should be to the kingdom and not to the dynasty. There is a different view regarding this story, with some historians believing that Chanakya himself was installed as the Prime Minister at the coronation of Chandragupta. However, it is more likely that Chanakya continued in the role of an elder statesman with oversight of almost every aspect of governance—a sort of omnipotent and omnipresent influence on the state and the king.
Together the Chandragupta-Chanakya Team went on to create an empire that surpassed all others seen till then. Chandragupta provided the royal qualities of intelligence, vision and charisma critical to founding a great kingdom and dynasty. Chanakya had a merciless experience of human affairs and a sophisticated concept and philosophy of governance—the blend of which found practical expression in the Imperial Maurya System of ruling an empire. This was an unbeatable combination.
War with the Greeks. Alexander had established outposts in all conquered areas west of the Indus where the Greek generals Eudemos and Peithon (the satrap of Media) ruled till they were defeated by Chandragupta in 316 BC. Peithon left the area taking a significant force with him. The reason that Chandragupta gave for invading and capturing the Greater Punjab was that Eudemos had treacherously killed Porus, Alexander’s appointed (and perhaps vassal) king of the region and Chandragupta’s ally and friend. [As is usual in Indian history, there is annoying uncertainty regarding the chronology—whether Chandragupta’s conquest of Magadha came first or whether the North West region was first subdued and captured before the Chandragupta-Chanakya combine went on to subjugate Pataliputra.] In 305 BC, Emperor Seleukos Nicator, one of Alexander’s more capable generals who founded the Seleucid dynasty in Iran, marched into the Punjab through the Khyber Pass with the intention of reconquering what he believed to be justly Greek territory. Unfortunately [and perhaps surprisingly, considering the Greeks’ penchant for keeping detailed records] there are no details of the campaign other than that at the end of it Seleukos had to agree to a humiliating Treaty that was heavily weighed against him. [One presumes from this that Seleukos lost the battle(s)/campaign/war. Otherwise why would he sign an almost one-sided treaty?] According to the treaty Seleukos ceded the entire trans-Indus provinces that he had so far ruled consisting of the satrapies of Paropamisade (Kambhoj and Gandhara), Arachosia (Kandahar), and Gedrosia (Balochistan); gave one of his daughters in marriage to Chandragupta (perpetuating the concept of epigamia which could mean either that the two dynasties inter-married or that the unions of Macedonians/Greeks and Indians were recognised as legal) evidenced by the fact that one of Chandragupta’s queens was called Durdhara, which could be a corruption of the Greek ‘Diodora’ [Since Seleukos himself had married an Iranian noblewoman named Apama, it is an intriguing and not far-fetched possibility that future emperors of the Mauryan line could have mingled Greek, Iranian and Indian blood in them.]; and promised to maintain friendly relations through the exchange of envoys with the Mauryan Empire. In return Seleukos was gifted 500 war elephants. These elephants played a decisive role in his victory over the Hellenic kings in the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC.
The Break-up of Alexander’s Empire
[Or The Role of Indian War Elephants in Shaping the West]
 When Alexander died in 323 BC, the only possible heir to his throne was the as yet unborn child of his Bactrian wife Roxane. While most of the generals were willing to wait for the birth, the army mutinied in favour of placing Alexander’s mentally retarded elder brother, Arrhidaeus, on the throne. Since Roxane gave birth to a boy (unsurprisingly named Alexander), a compromise was reached, with Arrhidaeus and the boy ruling as joint kings—an ‘unlikely pairing of an idiot and an infant’—obviously as puppets in the hands of the guardians. Initially Perdiccas, the general who had led the army into India through the Khyber Pass just four years previously, was the regent. He was succeeded by Antipater, Alexander’s senior diplomat. In 317 BC, Arrhidaeus’ wife tried to break out of the iron grip of the guardians and she and her husband were both murdered for her trouble. In 311 BC, Cassander, son of Antipater who had succeeded him as regent, felt sufficiently in control of the Macedonian kingdom to murder Roxane and the boy emperor.
By 310 BC, the once grand and sweeping empire that Alexander had single-handedly built had been conclusively carved into five parts by his squabbling and power hungry generals. Cassander held Macedonia; Lysimachus was king of Thrace; Ptolemy, the forebear of Cleopatra was the undisputed ruler of Egypt after having defeated an invasion by Perdiccas; Asia Minor and western Asia till the Euphrates River was ruled by Antigonus; and the Iranian lands up to the Indian and Central Asian borders were the domain of Seleukos. After his abortive invasion to the east and the subsequent Treaty of Friendship with Chandragupta, Seleukos turned to his western frontier. In 301 BC, Alexander’s successor kings met in battle at Ipsus in Asia Minor. Seleukos was victorious and Antigonus was killed in battle. The 500 Indian war elephants proved to be decisive in this victory that reduced the five successor kingdoms to four. The Indian war elephant was a critical element in shaping the post-Alexandrian world in the West!        
The Greek historian Megasthenes; who wrote the book Indica the original of which has been lost, but one that has been extensively quoted by historians like Strabo, Diodorus and Arrian in their works; was the first envoy to Chandragupta’s court.
The campaign against Seleukos was the culmination of Chandragupta’s illustrious career, one of great achievements wherein his empire had subjugated and ruled the volatile north western areas of the sub-continent; a feat not even the great Mughal emperors were able to achieve later. He had united the Indus and Gangetic valleys and laid the firm foundation of a huge empire and a dynasty that was to rule almost the entire Indian sub-continent and South Central Asia until 185 BC. Unfortunately very little is known about this Emperor outside of India, whereas based purely on his achievements his name should have resonated as a great conqueror and an equally able administrator. [The lack of acknowledgement in Western sources is perhaps the reason that some Indian historians have referred to Chandragupta as an Indian Julius Caesar, whereas by chronology and virtue of achievement Julius Caesar should have been called a ‘Roman Chandragupta’!] Information regarding Chandragupta’s administration, methods of domination and the Mauryan way of life is mainly drawn from Chanakya’s Arthashastra (analysed in greater detail in Section IV). In the past century or so Chandragupta has been proclaimed the unifier of India by the more nationalistic elements of contemporary Indian society. He certainly unified most of the sub-continent, but the fact that his dynasty lasted only a little more than 150 years detracts from this claim of unification.
Chandragupta was attached to orthodox Brahminism and abdicated the throne around 298-297 BC in favour of his son Bindusara and became an ascetic. He travelled to the south of his empire and finally fasted to death at a place called Chandragiri in Karnataka (this clearly shows the spread of his conquest and kingdom). Jain sources claim that he converted to Jainism in his later years but this is not corroborated by any other source. [The practice of fasting to death was not peculiar to the Jain sect alone and was undertaken by followers of other beliefs as well.] His last days of asceticism are in stark contrast to the opulent and imperial lifestyle as an emperor described by Megasthenes—but then self-abnegation was a common event in Mauryan life.
Bindusara Maurya (297-272 BC)
Bindusara is counted amongst the three great Mauryan emperors, but is the least known of them. From amongst Chandragupta’s many queens, only the name of Durdhara, Bindusara’s mother, is known. If she was indeed the daughter of Seleukos, then it is certain that Bindusara was of mixed India, Iranian and Greek blood. [The vagueness of Indian history and its telling makes it difficult to state this as a fact with any assurance or certainty. But in all likelihood Durdhara was indeed the daughter of Seleukos and Apama the Iranian princess.] There is a story regarding Bindusara’s birth. It appears that Chanakya was concerned about the possibility of the King (Chandragupta) being poisoned and therefore, had started to introduce small quantities of poison into the King’s food without his knowledge in order for the King to build up poison tolerance. Chandragupta was unaware of this, as was the queen who took some food from the king’s plate during a meal, when she was nearing her term of pregnancy with their first son. From here on there are two versions of the story. The first—the queen died of the poison; Chanakya rushed to the spot and performed an emergency surgery; removed the full-term baby and thereby saved the prince. During this process a drop of the poisoned blood of his mother touched the forehead of the baby leaving him with a permanent mark, a ‘bindu’ or spot, which inspired the name Bindusara. The second version is similar but a bit more gruesome. When the queen started to eat the food, Chanakya rushed in and cut off the queen’s head before she could swallow the poisoned food; surgically removed the baby and placed it inside the womb of a goat. The baby survived, but his skin was blemished with spots and hence the name ‘Bindusara’. [If these stories are to be believed, then Chanakya was also well-versed in the science of Ayurveda, the Indian practice of medicine, along with being a ‘strategist’. Irrespective of the veracity of either of the stories, what stands out is the acceptance of Chanakya’s single-minded purpose of saving the yet to be born prince and heir to the throne—a demonstration of loyalty far beyond the normal.]
Bindusara has been described as a man of broad intellectual interests, well-versed in the liberal sciences and of urbane lifestyle; also mentioned as the person who conquered the ‘land between the two seas’, obviously a reference to the peninsular Deccan Plateau. [There is a conflicting claim that it was Ashoka, his son, who conquered the Deccan, but considering the reports of wars fought and won, in all probabilities it is Bindusara who subjugated Peninsular India.] The Greeks referred to him as ‘Amitrachates’, which cannot be a Hellenic adaption of the name Bindusara, but is thought to be the translation of the epithet Amitragatha, meaning ‘slayer of enemies or foes’ (attributed to Indra, the King of Gods) that was given to Bindusara. This is also in keeping with his victories during the Deccan campaign in the Central Indian region. His southern conquests stopped near Karnataka. Bindusara continued his father’s policy of maintaining cordial relations with the Hellenistic powers of Asia and Africa. [His harem definitely contained at least one Seleucid princess and her entourage.] Megasthenes was replaced by Deimachos as ambassador in Bindusara’s court—although it is reported that Deimachos maintained extensive recordings of the functioning of the Mauryan court, very few of his observations have survived. Even after Seleukos was assassinated in 280 BC and his son Antiochos Soter took his place, the relationship continued to flourish. Ptolemy Philadelphos, who ruled Egypt from 285 to 247 BC, also send an ambassador called Dionysios to the Mauryan court. The notes kept by Dionysios regarding his experiences in Bindusara’s court, although not traceable now, were still available to Pliny during 1st century AD.
There is reference in Greek sources during Bindusara’s reign to the king of ‘Polibothra’, obviously Pataliputra, but there are no details of information regarding his 25 year reign that seems to have survived. Furhter, there are no inscriptions or monuments that commemorate any of his victories or achievements. It is almost as if the king did not want to be remembered in antiquity. However, it is certain that he was an able heir to Chandragupta and consolidated the Mauryan hold on the sub-continent through conquest and annexation. Bindusara remains a shadowy, yet prominent figure, in the glorious history of the Mauryas.                              

About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)


  1. Thanks Ajai, Much appreciated.

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