Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, with the Great Bath in the foreground and the Buddhist Stupa in the background. / Photo by Saqib Qayyum, Wikimedia Commons
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 02.12.2017
Indus Valley Emergence and Civilization Overview
Timeline and Introduction
Timeline of the history of ancient India:
c.2800 BC: the Indus Valley civilization begins to emerge
c.1700 BC: the Indus Valley civilization vanishes
c.1500 BC: Aryan tribes begin to infiltrate into northen India from central Asia
c. 800 BC: The use of iron and alphabetic writing begin to spread to northern India from the Middle East
c. 500 BC: two new religions, Buddhism and Jainism, are founded
327 BC: Alexander the Great conquers the Indus Valley; this leads to king Chandragupta Maurya of Maghada conquering the Indus Valley from Alexander the Great’s successor (304 BC)
The Alexander Mosaic, from the House of Faun in Pompeii, c.100 BC / National Archaeological Museum, Naples
290 BC: Chandragupta’s successor, Bindusara, extends the Mauryan conquests into central india
269 BC: Asoka becomes the Mauryan emperor
251 BC: a mission led by Mahinda, Asoka’s son, introduces Buddhism to the island of Sri Lanka
232 BC: Asoka dies; shortly after, the decline of the Mauryan empire sets in
Urban civilization first appeared in ancent India with the Indus Valley civilization in the early third millennium BC, in what is today Pakistan and north-west India. This was contemporary with other early civilizations of the ancient world, in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, and is one of the earlist civilizations in world history. It is famous for its large and well-planned cities.
The Indus Valley civilization vanished in the mid-2nd millennium BC. In the following thousand years, a people known as the Aryans, speaking an Indo-European language, moved into northern India from central Asia. They came into India as pastoral, semi-nomadic tribes led by warrior chieftains. Over time, they settled down as rulers over the native Dravidian populations they found there, and formed tribal kingdoms.
This period of ancient Indian history is known as the Vedic age, as it was depicted in the earliest Indian writings, called the Vedas. It is also the formative period in which most of the basic features of traditional Indian civilization were laid down. These include the emergence of early Hinduism as the foundational religion of India, and the social/religious phenomenon known as caste.
A page from Seventy-two Specimens of Caste, 1837 / Beinecke Library, Yale University
The period lasted from around 1500 BC through to 500 BC; that is, from the early days of the Aryan migrations through to the age of the Buddha.
The tribal society of the early Aryans gave way to the more complex society of the Classic Age of Ancient India. This period saw the rebirth of urban civilization in the Indian subcontinent, and with it, a literate culture. It was one of the most creative ages in the history of India, and saw the emergence of two new religions, Jainism and Buddhism.
Painting of Indra on his elephant mount, Airavata, c.1630 / British Museum
Society and Economy
The Vedic age was a “dark age” in Indian history, in that it was a time of violent upheaval, and no written records from that period have survived to shed light on it. It was, however, one of the most formative eras of ancient Indian civilization. So far as society is concerned, the coming of Aryans into ancient India, and their establishing themselves as the dominant group, gave rise to the caste system. This divided Indian society into rigid layers, underpinned by religious rules. Originally there were just four castes, the priestly caste, the warrior caste, the farmers and traders, and the menial workers. Outside the caste system altogether, excluded from Aryan-dominated society, were the “Untouchables”.
As early Aryan society evolved into the more settled and more urban society of ancient India, these caste divisions persisted. New religious movements, the Jains and Buddhists, rebelled against it, preaching that all men are equal. However, caste was never overthrown. As time went on, indeed, it became more complex, and more rigid. It has endured right up to the present day.
In the earliest times, many hunter-gatherer groups inhabited much of the Indian sub-continent. However, the economic history of ancient India is one of agricultural advance. The use of iron spread from the Middle East from around 800 BC, making farming more productive, and populations grew. At first, this occured on the plains of northern India. However, iron-age farming gradually spread throughout the entire subcontinent. The hunter-gatherers were squeezed more and more into the forests and hills of India, eventually to take up farming themselves and being incorporated into Aryan society as new castes.
The spread of iron-age farming was a crucial development in the history of ancient India as it led to the rebirth of urban civilization in the subcontinent. Cities grew up; trade expanded; metal currency appeared, and an alphabetical script came into use.
The tribal chiefs of early Aryan society were the ancestors of the princes and kings we encounter in later Indian history. The re-emergence of cities enabled properly organized states to appear. Most of these were kingdoms, but uniquely in the ancient world outside the Mediterranean, some were republics.
The rise of the Mauryan empire to cover most of ancient India involved the creation of a provincial administration which spanned much of the subcontinent. The empire was divided into provinces, and an empire-wide tax-gathering organization was developed. Also created was an extensive espionage system. A network of roads running from south and north and east to west was maintained. Mauryan power rested ultimately on its formidable army, which seems to have been one of the largest in the ancient world.
The establishment of provinces, with strong centres of state power distributed in key locations throughout much of the subcontinent, set the stage for the next chapetr in India’s history. As Mauryan power weakened, these provinces became powerful regional kingdoms, covering a territory far greater than the ancient Aryan homeland of northern India and reaching down into southern India.
The civilization of ancient India was an astonishing seedbed of religious innovation.
Reconstructing the Indus Valley civilization’s religion is impossible, but there is strong evidence that it had a major impact on the subsequent religious history of India. In any case, the next period of ancient Indian history, the Vedic age, saw the rise of early Hinduism, from which all other Indian religious systems arose.
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, with the Great Bath in the front. / Wikimedia Commons
The Aryan belief-system revolved around a pantheon of gods and goddesses. It also came to include the concept of the “Cycle of Life” – reincarnation of the soul from one creature (including both animals and humans) to another. Later, the idea of the material world being an illusion became widespread. Such ideas were emphasised more strongly in the new teachings of Jainism and Buddhism, which both also had their origins in ancient India, in the years around 500 BC.
Jainism was founded by Mahariva (“The Great Hero”, lived c. 540-468 BC). He emphasised an aspect already present in early Hinduism, non-violence to all living things. He also promoted the renunciation of worldly desires and an ascetic way of life.
Buddhism was founded by Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha (“The Enlightened One”, lived c. 565 to 485 BC). He came to believe that extreme asceticism was not a fruitful basis for a spiritual life. However, like Jains, he believed that the release from worldly desires was the way to salvation. In daily life, Buddhists emphasised the importance of ethical behaviour.
Both Buddhism and Jainism flourished under the Mauryan empire. Some scholars believe that it was in this period, especially under Asoka, that Buddhism became established as a major religion within ancient India.
Strongly linked to these religious developments, ancient India produced a fantastically rich literature. In the centuries after coming into northern India, the Aryans developed a great abundance of poems, tales, hymns, spells and so on, in an oral tradition known as the Vedas. They were written down long after the “Vedic age”. Another body of literature that was composed towards the end of the Vedic age were the Upanishads, a collection of works of prose and poetry which explore deep religious and philosophical concepts, including the idea that the material world is an illusion, and the implications of this idea for the individual soul.
Later in ancient India’s history, religious and other ideas came to be expressed in short texts called sutras. The earliest Jain and Buddhist scriptures were in this form, setting out the sayings of their founders in a brief, pithy way. Alongside these arose a tradition of elaborate epic poetry. The most famous examples are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These retell famous incidents in semi-mythological history, far back in the Vedic age.
As well as religious writings, ancient India produced works on mathematics, medicine, and politics. The Arthashastra of the famous statesman Kautilya anticipates Machiavelli by almost 2,000 years.
All these works were written in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Aryans. This is an Indo-European language distantly related to Persian, Greek, Latin, German and other tongues. The Sanskrit script was based on the Aramaic alphabet, which came to India from the Middle East some time before 500 BC. One of the greatest linguists in world history flourished sometime in the following centuries. This was Panini. He set out highly logical rules of grammar, which formed the basis of classical Sanskrit. His underlying idea was that words should express meaning as efficiently as possible – the brief sutras in ancient Indian scriptures embody this principle. The influence of Panini’s work on the history of Indian high culture is incalculable. Much Indian education came to be based on its principles, even if not in Sanskrit; they trained Indian scholars in a rigorous logic which acted as a major stimulus to intellectual thought and debate.
Art and Architecture
Apart from figurines from the Indus Valley civilization, the earliest examples of the art of ancient India which have come down to us are from magnificent cave temples in central India. The spread of such temples – either located in natural caves which have been shaped to create a religious space, or entirely carved from rock – was originally a Buddhist innovation, which Hindus later adopted. Here, stone carvings and painted frescoes dating from ancient times have come down to us, the earliest dating from the Mauryan empire, or just after. The most famous early cave-temples are found at Ellora, in central India.
Another Buddhist innovation was the stupa, a dome-shaped monument in which religious relics were stored. The earliest of these date from Mauryan times, with the Great Stupa at Sanchi being the most famous.
Apart from cave temples, ancient Indian buildings – secular and religious – were largely made of wood and bricks. Unfortunately none have survived from this early period of India’s history. Apparently they incorporated rounded arches atop their windows and doors – in which case they preceded arched architecture in the West by several centuries.
Science and Technology
In mathematics, the scholars of ancient India clearly understood the Pythagorean theorem, that the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The religious texts of the Vedic period contain examples of simple Pythagorean triples, such as, “The rope stretched along the length of the diagonal of a rectangle makes an area which the
vertical and horizontal sides make together.”
Most importantly, Indian mathematicians developed the concept of zero as a mathematical concept (perhaps they were aided by the Hindu notion of “nothingness”), and the decimal number system which would later come to be used throughout the world.
A medical treatise called the Sushruta Samhita (6th century BC) describes 1120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants, a detailed study on anatomy, 64 preparations from mineral sources and 57 preparations based on animal sources. Cataract surgery was known to ancient Indian physicians, and was performed with a specially designed curved needle to loosen the lens and push the cataract out of the field of vision.
A statue dedicated to Sushruta at the Patanjali Yogpeeth institute in Haridwar. / Wikimedia Commons
The Legacy of Ancient India in World History
The evolution of a religious culture in ancient India, out of which Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism emerged as three distinct religions, was a development of great importance in world history. Between them, these religions today have the allegiance of billions of people. Buddhism has spread far and wide outside the Indian subcontinent (where, curiously, it has become a minority religion), and has had a deep impact upon societies in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and South East Asia. It is now spreading fast amongst peoples in the West, where by some counts it is the fastest growing religion.
The interaction between three rival but closely related faiths produced a rich and tolerant intellectual environment. This would give rise to achievements of world significance. Indian developments in mathematics laid the foundation for modern Western mathematics, and therefore for modern Western science.
The Mauryan empire played a key role in the spread of Buddhism. The fact that China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia all now have large Buddhist populations is in some part owing to the great Maurya emperor, Asoka.
The Vedic Age
The Vedic Age is the “heroic age” of ancient Indian civilization. It is also the formative period when the basic foundations of Indian civilization were laid down. These include the emergence of early Hinduism as the foundational religion of India, and the social/religious phenomenon known as caste.
This period of India’s history lasted from around 1500 BC through to 500 BC; that is, from the early days of the Aryan migration into north-west India through to the age of the Buddha.
The Aryans were a people from central Asia who spoke an Indo-European language. They brought with them into India a religion based on the worship of many gods and goddesses. This ancient religion is depicted in collections of oral poetry and prose – hymns, prayers, chants, spells and commentaries – known as the “Vedas”.
These were composed at around the time of the Aryan entry into India and in the centuries following. They were written down many centuries later, long after the “Vedic Age”, but much of what we know about this period of ancient Indian history is as a result of the faithful word-of-mouth transmission of the Vedas from one generation to another.
An early 19th-century manuscript of Rigveda (padapatha) in Devanagari / Earnes Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago
The Aryan belief-system that the Vedas reflect was distantly-related to those held by other Indo-European peoples of the ancient world, such as the Greeks and the Germans. However, some time in the centuries before they had entered India, the practice of fire ceremonies of the god Agni had become a focal part of their worship, a trait which they shared with their near-relatives, the Iranians (the word “Iranian” comes from the same root as the word “Aryan”). Another leading god was Indra, the High God. Also, the concept of the “Cycle of Life” – reincarnation of the soul from one earthly life to another – also arose in this period.
A clay goblet used in Vedic times, c.1000 BC / Wikimedia Commons
The Aryans came into north-west India as pastoral, semi-nomadic tribes led by warrior chieftains. Once in India, they settled down as rulers over the native Dravidian populations they found there, and formed tribal kingdoms.
The different kingdoms were often at war with one another, and echoes of these violent times can still be heard in one of the greatest epics of ancient India, the “Mahabharata”, which has come down to us from this period of history.
Another body of literature that was composed towards the end of the Vedic Age were the “Upanishads”. Originally, these were included in the Vedas, to which they formed commentaries; however, they were gradually separated out and assumed an identity of their own.
The 200 sections of prose and poetry of which they are composed explore concepts only dimly perceived, if at all, in the earlier Vedas. These include the idea that the material world is unreal – indeed, it is an illusion. So too are Earthly emotions such as desire and suffering.
To break the weary cycle of reincarnation which all souls have to go through, therefore, involves renouncing desire and other human feelings which bind the soul to the material world. This will allow the soul to be united with the “World Soul” (Brahma), and so achieve peace.
These ideas helped to give the religious thought of ancient India a very distinctive flavour. They have influenced Indian civilization throughout its long history, right up to the present day.
A Great Religion Takes Shape
The Vedas, the Mahabharata and the Upanishads formed the foundational writings of the Hindu religion, which was gradually taking shape in the Vedic Age. They show that the ancient Vedic religion was evolving into something different. This was probably to a large extent the result of influences from the older Dravidian populations over whom the Aryans ruled. During the course of centuries the Aryan nature deities lost much of their importance, and three new gods took their place: Vishnu, the preserver; Shiva, the destroyer; and Brahma, the creator.
An image of Vishni / By Ramanarayanadatta astri / Creative Commons
The ideas associated with the Upanishads became important, and these had a profound effect on social life. The notion that every element of creation – humans, animals, plants, rocks and so on – had a portion of the World Soul dwelling in them (“Atman”) gained acceptance within ancient Indian society. With it came a respect for all living things.
The Caste System
It was during this period of history that ancient India developed its distinctive caste system.
The tendencies towards social division had been present ever since the coming of Aryans into India. As happened at many different times and places in world history, the conquerors set themselves up as a ruling class. However, unlike in other parts of the world, where the differences between the conquerors and the conquered gradually disappeared over time, in India they solidified in the form of divisions between the castes, between whom intermarriage was forbidden.
The priestly caste – the Brahmins – were at the top of the social ladder, as being closest to Brahma. Below them came the warrior caste, the Kshatryas. Then came the Vaishyas, the ordinary Aryan tribesmen, farmers, craftsmen and traders. Finally came the Shudras, menial workers, the labourers, servants and those performing services which are ritually unclean. There were also many people outside the caste system altogether, excluded from Aryan-dominated society. These were called the “Untouchables”. They were not really regarded as human beings, and performed the most degrading tasks of all, such as dealing with human waste.
Group of Brahmanas, 1913 / From Indian Myth and Legend, Internet Archive Book Images
The Rebirth of Urban Civilization
As the Vedic Age drew to a close, the tribal society of the early Aryans gave way to a more complex social organization. The use of iron spread form the Middle East from around 800 BC. This made agriculture more productive, and populations grew. Trade expanded, both within India and with the lands to the west. From the Middle East came the use of writing, and the great oral traditions of Aryan society began to be written down. Organized kingdoms with centralised authority emanating out from the royal palaces arose in place of the looser, clan-based tribal states. Not just kingdoms, either; in some places, particularly in the mountain areas and on the fringes of the Aryan world (essentially present-day modern Pakistan and northern and north-central India), confederations of clan-chiefs arose which later generations have labelled “republics”. This makes ancient India the only place (as far as we know) in which the republican form of government flourished in the ancient world apart from in the Classical world of the ancient Mediterranean.
The Vedic Age in World History
The place of the Vedic Age in World History is as the period of ancient India which gave birth to Indian civilization – one of the great civilizations of the world. The fact that Vedic society gave pride of place to the priestly caste of Brahmins is directly related to the emergence of a religious culture which, in the following period of India’s history, would lead to the appearance of three distinct but closely-related religions – mature Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Together, these religions claim the allegiance of billions of people in the world today.
The Classic Age of Ancient India roughly corresponded, in the chronology of world history, to that of Ancient Greece – 700 BC to 350 BC.
It was preceded by the Vedic Age, in which tribal societies of Indo-European origin, dominated by warrior chiefs, had established themselves in northern India.
The Classical Age saw the rebirth of urban civilization in ancient India, and with it, a literate culture. It was an age of amazing religious creativity, with the birth of two new religions, Jainism and Buddhism. The latter would go on to become one of the great world religions, influential throughout all the countries of East Asia and of South East Asia. Within the course of later Indian history it would eventually almost die out, though not before profoundly transforming Hinduism, making it the religion it is today.
This period of Indian history ended with the rise of the first great imperial state in ancient India, the Mauryan empire, after 320 BC.
Map of India in the Classical Age, 500 BC / TimeMaps.com
Iron, Farming, Trade, and Writing
The use of iron spread into present-day Pakistan and northern India after 800 BC. Iron tools were much more effective for clearing land than were the old stone and wooden tools, and huge tracts of new land were brought into use for productive agriculture. Farming populations previously established around the fringes of the densely forested Ganges plain now moved in to colonize the heart of the river plain.
This area, with its well-watered, very fertile farmland would, over the coming centuries, become home to a huge population, and become the heartland of ancient Indian civilization. Villages grew; some became small towns, then larger towns, and then cities, as large as those in contemporary Greece and China. Trade networks gradually extended throughout India, and far beyond. The conquest of the westernmost portions of the Indian subcontinent by the mighty Persian empire must have acted as a major stimulus to trade in that direction, which crossed the mountain passes to central Asia and the Middle East, and ran along the Iranian coast to the Gulf; they also probed outwards across the sea, spanning the Indian Ocean to Arabia and East Africa. To the east, the trade routes went down the coast to the island of Sri Lanka, along the coasts of Burma and Thailand, and on into South East Asia. Metal currency was minted in ancient India during the 5th century BC, a sure sign of the importance of trade.
Image of Tirthankara Parshvanatha, 6th-7th century / Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The expansion of cities and trade led to the introduction (or perhaps re-introduction) of writing into ancient India. A script that came into wide use was based on the Aramaic alphabet which had come into widespread use throughout the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires of the Middle East at this time. This fact is evidence of the growing trade links between India and the Middle East in this period of Indian history.
With trade came walled towns and cities, and with towns and cities came organized states. By 500 BC sixteen large states covered northern and north-central India. Most of these were kingdoms, where centralised authority emanated out from royal palaces, located in the leading new cities of the region.
New States of Classical Age India / Timemaps.com
Some of these states, however, were not kingdoms, but were ruled by groups of nobles. Modern scholars have labelled these state “republics”. These tended to be established in the mountainous fringes of the Ganges plain, where, in landscapes of hills and valleys, centralised authority could not prevail against the entrenched power of local clan chiefs. These states were governed by councils of nobles, and formed the only republics to flourish in the ancient world outside the Mediterranean.
The traditional Vedic religion was a communal one, well adapted to small-scale tribal societies but less so to the larger, more complex ones that were emerging in ancient India at this period of history. A growing number of merchants, officials and other urban-base people began looking for a more personal religious experience, one which would speak to their individual need for salvation. Moreover, by the 6th century BC the old religion had become characterised by a high degree of ceremonial. This gave a dominant place to the priests of the Brahmin caste, and some leading members of the evolving society were uncomfortable and felt the need to challenge the Brahmins’ monopoly over spiritual matters.
These tensions had a profoundly creative impact on the religious life of ancient India by producing two new religions, Jianism and Buddhism. Jainism was founded by Mahariva (“The Great Hero”, lived c. 540-468 BC). He emphasised an aspect already present in early Hinduism, non-violence to all living things. The Jains also promoted the renunciation of worldly desires and an ascetic way of life, sometimes to the point of self-torture.
Buddhism was founded by Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha (“The Enlightened One”, lived c. 565 to 485 BC). He came to believe that extreme asceticism was not a fruitful basis for a spiritual life. However, like Jains, Buddhists believed that the release from worldly desires was the way to salvation. In daily life, Buddhists emphasised the importance of ethical behaviour.
Painting of Buddha (“The Englightened One”), by Otgonbayar Ershuu / Wikimedia Commons
Classical India’s Place in World History
The emergence of a religious culture in which Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism emerged as three distinct religions was a development of great importance in world history. Jainism remained a minority religion, practised only in India and never numbering more than a million or so adherents (mainly in urban, merchant communities). Hinduism also remained (until modern times) confined to the sub-continent, and is the dominant faith of a billion Indians today. Buddhism, meanwhile, has spread far and wide outside South Asia. In the course of India’s history it would cease to be a widely-practised faith within India itself, but would have a deep impact upon societies in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and South East Asia. It is now spreading fast amongst peoples in the West, where by some counts it is the fastest growing religion.
The fact that billions of people today practice religions which had their origin in ancient India is not the only significance of this period of Indian civilization. The interaction between three rival but closely related faiths produced a rich and tolerant dialogue between them. Competing speculations about both religious and (what we would call) scientific issues were freely pursued.
In time, several centuries after the close of this formative period of Indian civilization, this lively intellectual culture would produce crucially important advances in human thought. For the history of the world at large, the discoveries of mathematical concepts such as zero and decimal places would, when they spread to the Middle East and then Europe, have the most dramatic impact on scientific and technological progress.
The Mauryan Empire
Origins of the Mauryan Empire
Prior to the rise of the Maurya, numerous states, large and small, covered northern India. This was the classical age of the history of ancient India, a time of religious ferment when two new faiths, Buddhism and Jainism, appeared.
One of the largest of these states was Magadha. It was located in the eastern part of the Ganges plain, on the periphery of the Aryan cultural area. At this stage in Indian history other states apparently regarded Magadha as semi-barbarous. Perhaps its position on the frontiers of the Aryan world meant that its people were not too strict in their commitment to the old Vedic religion of northern India. It is certainly the case that the two non-orthodox faiths of Jainism and Buddhism flourished here in their early days, and found patrons amongst the Magadha kings.
Gradually, over a century or more, Magadha extended its borders. Then, under a line of kings of the Nanda dynasty (reigned c. 424-322 BC), the kingdom dramatically expanded, to cover a large part of northern India.
The Mauryan period of ancient Indian history was really inaugurated by the conquest of northwest India by Alexander the Great, in 326 BC. This seems to have destabilized the political situation amongst the Aryan states in the region, allowing the first great conqueror in Indian history, Chandragupta Maurya (reigned 322-298 BC), to rise to power.
Statue of Chandragupta Maurya, red stone / Laxminarayan Temple
Chandragupta seized control of the throne of Maghada from the last Nanda king, and then proceeded to conquer that part of northern India which still remained outside Magadha’s borders. He drove out the Seleucids, Alexander’s successors, from the Indian subcontinent, and went on to conquer the easternmost provinces of Alexander’s former empire, reaching into Afghanistan and eastern Iran.
Internally, building on foundations laid by the Nanda kings, his reign saw the establishment of a strong central government. This was the work of his highly capable chief minister, Chanakya.
Chandragupta was succeeded by his son, Bindusara (reigned 298-272 BC). He continued his father’s conquests by extending Mauryan power down into central India.
Bindusara was followed by his son, Asoka (reigned 272-232 BC). Asoka proved to be one of the most remarkable, and attractive, rulers in the history of India, and indeed the whole of world history.
After a bloody war against Kalinga, in eastern India, Asoka renounced warfare and converted to Buddhism. He determined that henceforward he would reign in peace.
Indian relief from Amaravati, Guntur, 1st century / Guimet Museum, Paris
He actively promoted the spread of Buddhism; and sent missions abroad, to Sri Lanka (headed by his son, Mahinda) and South East Asia. Here they laid the foundations for Buddhism’s later triumph as the predominant faith. He also sent missions to the Greek-speaking kingdoms to the west, which had carved up Alexander the Great’s conquests between them. Here they seem to have made little impact.
We can still see the pillars Asoka erected around his empire, on which were inscribed royal edicts and encouragements to his subjects to live in harmony with one another. These edicts and exhortations give an insight into Asoka’s mind. What comes across is a compassionate, tolerant but firm ruler, seeking justice and well-being for all his subjects.
There seems little doubt that one of the main architects of Mauryan power was Chandragupta’s chief minister, Chanakya. He is widely regarded as the author of a political treatise called the Arthashastra, a down-to-earth manual on how to rule. Although most scholars agree that this work was in fact written a long time after the Maurya had left the stage, many think it does reflect conditions from that time. In any case, Chanakya seems to have organized an efficient military and civil administration, on which the Mauryan kings could build a solid power.
The king was advised by a council of advisors, and was served by an elaborate administrative structure. The empire was divided into provinces, each governed by a member of the royal family. Under them, local rulers seem to have been kept in place, if they were loyal to the Maurya and forwarded the taxes from their domains promptly to the imperial treasury in the capital. Their activities, however, were checked on by senior royal officials, through regular inspections, and also watched by Mauryan spies, secretly. The Mauryan regime had an extensive espionage system, which Chandragupta in particular used to great effect.
The cities of the empire were directly administered by a hierarchy of royal officials, responsible for the upkeep of such public facilities as roads and wells, and for the maintenance of justice.
Mauryan power rested ultimately on its formidable army, which Greek and Roman authors regarded (probably wrongly) as the largest in the world at that time. One claimed that it included 700 elephants, 1000 horses and 600,000 infantry, surely an exaggeration.
The Mauryan government and the economy
As with most ancient administrative systems, the Mauryan bureacracy’s main purpose was to collect taxes. These consisted primarily of the land tax. Since this depended on agricultural prosperity, the government sponsored the reclamation of large amounts of land from forests and wastelands (it seems to have been illegal for private persons to clear land). Irrigation projects were undertaken to increase productivity.
Taxes were also levied on trade, and trade was officially encouraged. The construction of a network of roads, certainly as much for military as commercial purposes, will have significantly affected trade for the better; and such measures as the planting of roadside trees for shade; and the construction of rest houses every few miles, illustrates the government’s concern in this area.
Economy and Society
The Mauryan period, particularly during the reign of Asoka, was one of the very few times in Indian history when the population as a whole experienced an extensive period of peace. As always, peace encouraged prosperity, and as we have seen, the government actively sponsored agriculture and trade. Trade routes would have been more secure than at any time before in ancient India, and indeed for most periods since. This would have made long-distance commerce easier.
Silver punch mark coin of the Maurya empire, with symbols of wheel and elephant, 3rd century BC. The five symbols on this coin are: Sun symbol, six-armed (Magadha) symbol, bull on hilltop, Indradhvaja flanked by four taurines, elephant. / British Museum
The archaeological record suggests that the standard of living rose appreciable under Mauryan rule. Iron implements came into wider use, which would have helped the reclamation of land for farming, and led to greater productivity for farmers. Metal coinage became more widespread, which would have stimulated trade. The expansion of trade is reflected in the spread of northern pottery styles into south India. Palitpura, the Mauryan capital, was a large and imposing city.
Links with Other Regions of the World
The Mauryan government was in regular diplomatic relations with the Greek-speaking kingdoms to its west. This was of course specially true for the Seleucid empire, the nearest, but contacts with Macedonia, Egypt and other kingdoms of the Hellenistic world are also mentioned. One of the Seleucids’ ambassadors to the Mauryan court was an official called Megethsenes, from whose account, the Indica, we can glean much information about India at the time of the Mauryan empire. There seem to have been marriage alliances between the Seleucid and Mauryan royal families.
These diplomatic relations also involved trade missions, and under Asoka, missionary expeditions as well. In 251 BC Asoka’s son, Mahinda, led a missionary expedition which introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
Buddhism flourished under the Maurya. Some scholars believe that it was in this period of ancient India, especially under Asoka, that Buddhism became established as a major religion within the Indian sub-continent. Jainism also flourished, especially amongst the merchants of the cities – who, as we have seen, were experiencing a time of prosperity. The merchants were to some extent on the margins of the early Hindu scheme of society. They would probably have been less patient than other social groups with the traditional Brahmin dominance over religious matters, and hence more attracted to the new heterdox faiths of Buddhiam and Jainism.
Fifty years or so after Asoka’s death, perhaps sooner (there is very little evidence from the later Maurya period), the huge empire began to crumble. Outlying provinces fell away, and by the mid-2nd century BC the empire had shrunk to its core areas.
Why did this decline set in, and why was it so rapid?
Asoka has sometimes been blamed for sowing the seeds of decline by his too-gentle rule. He might have left unchecked destabilizing forces, which came to full power after he was gone.
For this idea there is no evidence; indeed the edicts scattered around the empire suggest a firm and vigorous ruler. The causes of decline probably lie elsewhere, and can be summarized as follows:
Causes of decline
First, Asoka seems to have been followed by a succession of weak rulers, who could not exert their will over such a large empire.
This is related to the second reason, the Maurya’s failure to develop robust imperial institutions. Unlike the Han empire in China, which continued to run smoothly for almost 400 years, even when the emperors were nonentities, the effectiveness of Mauryan rule was always directly dependent upon the personal ability and energy of the king.
Later experience from around the world – for example, from China and the Roman empire – shows that, unless there is a well-working system for selecting and promoting capable and comparatively honest officials, a bureaucracy can soon become fragmented amongst the followers of over-powerful ministers and provincial governors. Something like this may well have occurred in late Maurya times, culminating in the breaking-away of large provinces from the empire.
Finally, the fragmentation of the Mauryan empire was, to some extent, a product of its very success. During the peace and unity the Mauryan kings had brought ancient India, Aryan culture had spread throughout much of the sub-continent. Towns and cities had sprung up – normally as centres of Mauryan administration – in places distant from the old seats of civilization. Economic development had come to areas which were previously the abode of forest peoples, of nomads and hunter-gatherers. All this had put in place the economic and administrative foundations upon which new, independent states could be built; and, with the firm hand of the early Mauryan kings gone, such states soon appeared.
The Mauryan Legacy
In later Indian records, the Mauryan empire appears only as an entry in the long list of kingdoms that made up the vast and complex history of India; no special significance was attached to it.
No magnificent architecture was left – the towns where the Maurya carried out most of their building work continued to be lived in right up to the present day, and so Mauryan remains are buried under streets and buildings used by later generations.
Apart from a few brief mentions in some accounts, this great empire was all but forgotten – an astonishing fact given the great importance accorded by peoples in other parts of the world to their ancient empires.
In the 19th century, however, some British officials began to wonder, who built those mysterious pillars dotted around India? How come they are hundreds – thousands – of miles apart from one another? What do the inscriptions on them mean?
Then the truth about the Maurya gradually began to emerge. When it was realised that these pillars were the work of one king, Asoka, whose realm covered a vast area of India and beyond, it was realised that here was a phenomenon of huge significance for the history of ancient India.
The Mauryan Empire in World History
The Mauryan empire was the first great empire of the history of ancient India, and that in itself gives it major importance in world history.
Mauryan architecture in the Barabar Mounts. Grottoe of Lomas Richi, 3rd century BC / Wikimedia Commons
It was one of the great empires of the ancient world; in size if not in longevity it was on a par with the Persian, Roman and Han empires.
The spread of Indian civilization
The Mauryan empire spread Aryan culture throughout most of India. It stimulated the economic development of then-peripheral regions, as these were incorporated into Aryan society. In accomplishing this, the Mauryan empire vastly expanded the horizons of ancient Indian civilization, and so made it a more powerful force in world history.
In due course, southern India, which only under the Maurya began to be drawn into what we today think of as Indian culture, would play a pivotal role in the development of Indian Ocean trade networks, and act as a bridge for goods and ideas between the Middle East and South East Asia.
The spread of Buddhism
The Mauryan empire played a key role in the spread of Buddhism. It is quite possible that it was the Mauryan period which saw Buddhism’s establishment as a major religion within ancient India – a development encouraged by official policy under Asoka. This will have helped establish the sub-continent as a base from which Buddhism could later spread to other parts of Asia.
Moreover, the Maurya directly promoted Buddhist missions to other regions, and although in most cases it was only later that the peoples of many of these countries became Buddhist to any large extent, these Maurya missions seem to have been directly responsible for the conversion of the ruling class of at least one country, Sri Lanka.
In any case, the fact that China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia all now have large Buddhist populations is in some part owing to the great Maurya king, Asoka.
A saintly ruler
Asoka offers a rare example in world history of a saintly yet capable ruler. Although his outstanding personality was hidden in the historical records until the 19th century, since then it has given all those who study world history pause for thought. As world history becomes a subject of more widespread study, his example can only become more widely known.
Nevertheless, there is a negative side to the Maurya’s role in world history: their failure to create an empire that endured for more than a century. This meant it did not play in Indian history the role that the Han empire played in Chinese – that is, act as a powerful model for a unified government system which future generations would set about recreating, and leaving to them the institutional means by which they could do that.
Unlike in Chinese history, the history of India is not one of a succession of great empires under which the sub-continent was united under a single regime. It is interesting to ponder the question – had the Mauryas succeeded in creating a tradition of unity, and Indian history had been more like China’s, with a series of great empires providing unity and strength for the nation as a whole, how would world history have been different?
It would be one and half millennia before India again came near to unification, under the Delhi Sultanate – and then only very briefly. Likewise the Moguls and the British after them achieved brief moments of unity; but there was no ingrained habit of unity, no urge to merge, which rulers could draw on – a situation so different in Chinese history, where the only truly legitimate rulers are those who govern the entire (or at least the bulk) of that giant country.