THE GREAT ANCIENT EMPIRES

Alexander’s campaign probably made an indirect impact on the further political development of India. Not much is known about the antecedents of Chandragupta Maurya, but it is said that he began his military career by fighting against the outposts which Alexander had left along the river Indus.

By: Ganesh Dutt

Posted on: 13/10/2020 View : 106

THE GREAT ANCIENT EMPIRES

The foundation of the Maurya empire

Alexander’s campaign probably made an indirect impact on the further political development of India. Not much is known about the antecedents of Chandragupta Maurya, but it is said that he began his military career by fighting against the outposts which Alexander had left along the river Indus. How he managed to get from there to Magadha and how he seized power from the last Nanda emperor remains obscure. Indian sources, especially the famous play Mudrarakshasa, give the credit for Chandragupta’s rise to his political advisor, the cunning Brahmin Kautalya, author of the Arthashastra.

At any rate Chandragupta seems to have usurped the throne of Magadha in 320 BC. He used the subsequent years for the consolidation of his hold on the army and administration of this empire. There are no reports of his leading any military campaigns in this period. But in 305 BC Seleukos Nikator, who had emerged as the ruler of the eastern part of Alexander’s vast domain, crossed the Hindukush mountains in order to claim Alexander’s heritage in India. Chandragupta met him at the head of a large army in the Panjab and stopped his march east. In the subsequent peace treaty Seleukos ceded to Chandragupta all territories to the east of Kabul as well as Baluchistan. The frontier of the Maurya empire was thus more or less the same as that of the Mughal empire at the height of its power about 2,000 years later. Chandragupta’s gift of 500 war elephants appears to be modest in view of this enormous territorial gain. But this Indian military aid is supposed to have helped Seleukos to defeat his western neighbour and rival, Antigonos, in a decisive battle some four years later.


European knowledge about India was greatly enhanced by the reports which Seleukos’ ambassador, Megasthenes, prepared while he was in Pataliputra at Chandragupta’s court. The originals have been lost but several classical authors have quoted long passages from Megasthenes’ work and, therefore, we know a good deal about what he saw while he was there. Two parts of his report have attracted special attention: his description of the imperial capital, Pataliputra, and his account of the seven strata of Indian society which he observed there.

He reported that Pataliputra was fortified with palisades. This fortification was shaped like a parallelogram measuring about 9 miles in length and about 1.5 miles in breadth and it had 570 towers and 64 gates. The circumference of Pataliputra was about 21 miles and thus this city was about twice as large as Rome under Emperor Marcus Aurelius. If this report is true, Pataliputra must have been the largest city of the ancient world. There was an impression that Megasthenes may have exaggerated the size of the capital to which he was an ambassador in order to enhance his own importance. But the German Indologist D.Schlingloff has shown that the distances between the towers or between a tower and the next gate as derived from Megasthenes’ account closely correspond to the distance prescribed for this kind of fortification in Kautalya’s Arthashastra (i.e. 54 yards).

Megasthenes’ description of the society of Magadha seems to be equally accurate. As the first estate, he mentioned the philosophers, by which he obviously means the Brahmins. The second estate was that of the agriculturists. According to Megasthenes, they were exempt from service in the army and from any other similar obligations to the state. No enemy would do harm to an agriculturist tilling his fields. For their fields they paid a rent to the king because ‘in India all land belongs to the king and no private person is permitted to own land. In addition to this general rent they give one quarter of their produce to the state’. Megasthenes then named the herdsmen who lived outside the villages, then the traders and artisans ‘who get their food from the royal storage’. The fifth estate were the soldiers who, like the war horses and war elephants, also got their food from the royal storage. The sixth estate was that of the inspectors and spies who reported everything to the emperor. The seventh estate was that of the advisors and officers of the king who looked after the administration, the law courts, etc., of the empire.

Although these seven social strata were not listed in any Indian text in this fashion (which does not seem to pay attention to any hierarchical order), there are references to each of them in Indian texts, too. The general impression we get from Megasthenes’ report is that of a centrally administered, well-organised state. Of special interest are his categorical assertions that all land belonged to the emperor, that artisans and soldiers were supported directly by the state and that spies reported on everything that went on in the empire. Perhaps these observations were applicable only to the capital and its immediate hinterland which was the area which Megasthenes knew well. But Kautalya’s famous account of the proper organisation of an empire also talks about espionage.

The political system of the Arthashastra

The Arthashastra which is attributed to Kautalya, the Prime Minister and chief advisor of Chandragupta, provides an even more coherent picture of a centrally administered empire in which public life and the economy are controlled by the ruler. Ever since this ancient text was rediscovered and published in the year 1909 scholars have tried to interpret this text as an accurate description of Chandragupta’s system of government. There is a consensus that Kautalya was the main author of this famous text and that he lived around 300 BC, but it is also accepted that parts of this text are later additions and revisions, some of which may have been made as late as AD 300.

Kautalya depicts a situation in which several small rival kingdoms each have a chance of gaining supremacy over the others if the respective ruler follows the instructions given by Kautalya. In ancient Indian history the period which corresponds most closely to Kautalya’s description is that of the mahajanapadas before Magadha attained supremacy. Thus it seems more likely that Kautalya related in normative terms what he had come to know about this earlier period than that his account actually reflected the structure of the Mauryan empire during Chandragupta’s reign. Thus the Arthashastra should not be regarded as a source for the study of the history of the empire only but also for the history of state formation in the immediately preceding period. The relevance of the Arthashastra for medieval Indian politics is that the coexistence of various smaller rival kingdoms was much more typical for most periods of Indian history than the rather exceptional phase when one great empire completely dominated the political scene.

The central idea of Kautalya’s precept (shastra) was the prosperity (artha) of king and country. The king who strove for victory (vijigishu) was at the centre of a circle of states (mandala) in which the neighbour was the natural enemy (ari) and the more distant neighbour of this neighbour (enemy of the enemy) was the natural friend (mitra). This pattern of the rajamandala repeated itself in concentric circles of enemies and friends. But there were certain important exceptions: there was the middle king (madhyama) who was powerful enough that he could either maintain armed neutrality in a conflict of his neighbours or decide the battle by supporting one side or the other, and finally there was the great outsider (udashina) whose actions were not predictable because he did not belong to one of these power circles but was able to interfere with it. He was to be carefully watched.