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The Mahajanpadas & The Mauryan Empire


In Indian history, the sixth century B.C. is regarded as a turning point. The formation of early governments and towns, as well as the increased use of iron and the introduction of metal coinage, occurred during this time. As different schools of thought such as Buddhism and Jainism developed, they saw a lot of human activity.

The mahajanapadas, or sixteen states, are mentioned in early Buddhist and Jain writings. Names like Vajji, Magadha, Koshala, Kuru, Panchala, Gandhara, and Avanti appear frequently on the lists, indicating that they were among the period's most important mahajanapadas.

While kings ruled over the majority of mahajanapadas, some were referred to as ganas or sanghas, with authority divided among a small group of people known as rajas. Both Mahavira and the Buddha belonged to such ganas.

The Vajji sangha was one of the few instances where rajas held land and other resources collectively. While it is difficult to reconstruct mahajanapadas due to a lack of historical sources, it is known that several of these states lasted over a century.

Capital Cities: The mahajanapadas had defended capital cities, which reflected the urbanisation movement. The cost of maintaining these fortified towns, as well as providing young armies and bureaucracy, was significant.)

The Dharmasutras, written in Sanskrit by Brahmanas, contain information on the mahajanapadas. They created rules for rulers and other social groups who were required to follow the Kshatriya varna.

Finance: It was suggested to the rulers that cultivators, merchants, and artisans collect taxes and payments. Raids in neighbouring states were also common methods of obtaining funds, indicating that this was a period of intense conflict.

Army: Some countries managed to maintain functioning administrations and permanent armies over time. Others, on the other hand, continued to rely on irregular armies made up primarily of peasants.


Magadha (in modern-day Bihar) became the most powerful of the mahajanapadas during the sixth and fourth century B.C.

Several factors appear to had a role in this development:

  • Magadha was a farming area.

  • Iron mines (in modern-day Jharkhand) were readily accessible and supplied raw materials for the manufacture of a range of tools and weaponry.

  • Elephants, a major source of the army, were discovered in the region's woods.

  • The Ganga and its tributaries offered a low-cost and handy riverine transportation system.

However, Buddhist and Jain authors who wrote about Magadha credited the city's strength to the policies of a few outstanding people. These included brutally ambitious monarchs like Bimbisara, Ajatasatru, and Mahapadma Nanda, as well as many prominent ministers who assisted in the implementation of their programmes.

Bimbisara was murdured by his son 'Ajatasatru'in Rajagriha,Bihar.

Initially, Magadha's capital was Rajagriha (associated with modern-day Rajgir in Bihar). Rajagriha was a hillside walled town. Later in the fourth century B.C., the capital was relocated to Pataliputra (modern Patna), making use of dominating river communication links along the Ganga.


Sources of Information

The Mauryas' ancestors are poorly known and very mysterious. According to the Puranas, they are mostly shudras and wicked, which may be due to their support of Buddhism rather than Brahmanism.

In comparison, classical sources also describe them as being of small start. Buddhist authors associate them with the Shakyas, a group to whom the Buddha also belonged.

The Brahmi Script as a Source

The Mauryan dynasty started with Chandragupta Maurya's assuming power of Magadha in 321 B.C. In 1837, James Prinsep translated the earliest known Indian writing, Brahmi, and derived the king's name as Devanampiya Piyadassi, or god-bearing.

The Ashokan Inscriptions

Numerous Ashokan inscriptions have been discovered throughout India, including the peninsula. They were carved from stone and strategically placed, such as along trade routes or near cities. These inscriptions are in Prakrit, with one being a combination of Greek and Aramaic.

  • Afghanistan speaks Aramaic and Greek, while northwestern Pakistan speaks Kharoshti and various parts of India speak Brahmi.

  • The fourteen major rock edicts, as well as numerous smaller rock edicts and seven pillar edicts, are all carved into stone pillars or directly into the rock.

  • The majority of them are public declarations made by the king. This is why they were written in Prakrit, rather than the academic and intellectual language of Sanskrit.

Additionally, there are two additional Ashokan Prakrit inscriptions. These are written in the third-century Brahmi script. The Sohgaura copper-plate writing in Gorakhpur district is one of them, while the Mahasthan writing in Bogra district is another. Both terms refer to relief efforts in areas afflicted by famine.

The Literary Texts

Numerous literary works from this period, both in Sanskrit and Pali, can be used to reconstruct historical events involving the Mauryas.

The Jatakas, for example, is thought to have been written between the third and first centuries B.C. They include a mention of the Mauryas and a summary of early history.

Digha Nikaya: It is more important because it describes the Buddhist concept of kingship. Despite the fact that the Sri Lankan Chronicles were written later, they contain valuable information about the spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Ashoka's role in it.

The Mahavansha was written in the fifth century A.D., while the Dipavansha was written between the third and fourth centuries B.C. and the fourth century A.D.

One of the problems with these writings is that they may contain contemporary views and beliefs because they were written decades after the events. Similarly, the Divyavadana, an Ashoka-centered collection of stories, is not available in India but has been preserved in Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist sources.

Though historians disagree on the exact date of Kautilya's Arthashastra, it is a significant religious text. In the section on genealogy and the names of kings from several kingdoms, including the Mauryas, the Puranas contain stories interspersed with religious teachings; Greek and Latin sources have preserved seven images and accounts of travellers who visited India during this time period. The most valuable of these is Megasthenes' account of his visit to Chandragupta's court and stay in Pataliputra. Unfortunately, the original letter has vanished, leaving only references in the works of subsequent authors.

Archeological Excavations

Archaeological excavations provide important information on the usage of a variety of materials. Excavations at many locations along the Ganga valley have uncovered Mauryan villages. The village built at Pataliputra, which is surrounded by a wooden wall, is the most well-known of them.

Pottery: Various varieties of pottery were employed throughout the Mauryan period, the most developed of which being northern black polished pottery. This pottery has been discovered in large quantities in the Ganga valley but it is not seen in South India.

Coinage: Coins are common in Mauryan sites, both are a part of excavations and as accidental finds and massive numbers. The first coins are believed to have been struck by the Mauryans and are referred to as cs 'punch-marked coins.' These were made of silver and had various symbols punched into them in place of tales.

According to the Arthashatra, there was a well-organized mint and officers closely supervised the coin designs.

The Mauryan Empire

Chandragupta Maurya

Greek influence over the area along the Indus decreased with Alexander's withdrawal and, more importantly, his death in 323 B.C. This condition of insecurity must have presented Chandragupta Maurya with a chance to attack and invade the northern kings' lands.

After establishing himself, he moved into central India, settling in the area north of the Narmada. However, permanent peace in the north-west was achieved only in 303 B.C. by a contract with Seleucus.

Magadha was governed at the time by the Nandas. Chandragupta is supposed to have begun his march towards Magadha with small-scale attacks on surrounding villages. This approach occurred to him after witnessing a lady punish her child for eating from the centre of the dish first, which was the hottest section, rather than the corners.

Thus, after the outer districts were controlled, he could concentrate his efforts on the central region. These victories were mainly achieved and sustained by military power. The classical texts highlight Chandragupta's role in the army and provide amazing statistics for its entire strength.


Bindusara followed Chandragupta, although nothing is known about him from literary sources. The earliest Tamil poets of the south refer to Mauryan chariots thundering over the land, their white pennants gleaming in the sunlight.

According to some academics, this reference to Mauryan expansion in the Deccan might have occurred under Bindusara's reign. Bindusara's death in 273-272 B.C. caused a succession battle among his sons.

This lasted four years, and Ashoka emerged victorious in 269-268 B.C.

The Great Ashoka

According to legend, Ashoka was not particularly handsome, but he was given control of the Viceroyship of Ujjain as a young prince, indicating that he possessed additional abilities.

  • According to Buddhist scriptures, during Bindusara's reign, a revolt broke out in Taxila, and Ashoka was dispatched to put it down. He accomplished this without endangering the indigenous population. This is confirmed by an Aramaic inscription from Taxila, which refers to Priyadarshi, the viceroy or governor. Regrettably, due to the inscription's damage, it is quite difficult to read.

  • In terms of Ashoka's throne ascension, the majority of sources agree that he was not the crown prince but ascended to the throne following the assassination of his brothers.

  • However, the sources disagree on the nature of the war and the number of his brothers. Ashoka is said to have murdered his eldest brother in order to become king in the Mahavansha, but he is also said to have murdered ninety-nine brothers throughout the book and in the Dipavansha.

While it appears as though a succession battle took place, the majority of the description of it appears to be pure fantasy.


Ashoka claims in one of his inscriptions that he became a devout Buddhist devotee after only two and a half years of rule. This is also apparent from a close examination of his inscriptions, which demonstrate an increasing interest in Buddhism during his later years.

Similarly, despite the emperor's omission from his writings, Buddhist writings connect Ashoka to the Third Buddhist Assembly, which convened at Pataliputra in the third century B.C.

This demonstrates Ashoka's careful distinction between his personal support for Buddhism and his need to be ambiguous and unbiased toward all religions in his capacity as emperor.

In his final years, Ashoka appears to have begun to lose control of the empire's government. Even though subsequent Mauryan kings ruled for another fifty years, there is no consensus regarding his successor in the records, implying an era of instability and confusion.

Finally, in the second century B.C., the dynasty disintegrated and was succeeded by the Shungas.

The Extent of the Empire

The Ashokan inscriptions, when combined with archaeological evidence, provide an accurate estimate of the Maurya empire's size.

  • Magadha was the Mauryas' home province, with Pataliputra as its capital. Other cities mentioned in the inscriptions include Ujjain, Taxila, Kaushambi, Tosali, and Suvarnagiri, which was located near Erragudi in Andhra Pradesh's Kurnool district.

  • According to unverified sources, Kashmir, as well as Khotan in Central Asia, were once part of the Ashokan empire. On the other hand, the final statement is highly improbable.

The Mauryans had strong ties to modern-day Nepal because they included the foothills in their empire. The Mauryan influence reached all the way to the eastern Ganga delta. Tamralipti, or modern-day Tamluk, was a major Bengal coast port from which ships sailed to Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and southern India.

Broach, near the mouth of the Narmada, was another significant west coast port.

According to Ashokan inscriptions, the Mauryan empire's westernmost boundary was Kandahar, and the easternmost boundaries were the Gandhras, Kambojas, and Yonas. On the other hand, the Mauryas maintained strong ties to their northern neighbours, the Seleucid empire and the Greek kingdoms.

Ashoka mentions a number of Greek rulers with whom he exchanged messengers and gifts in his inscriptions.

The Mauryan-Sri Lankan relationship was cordial, and Ashoka dispatched his son Mahindra to promote Buddhism in Sri Lanka. According to Ashokan's inscriptions, he was friendly with the southern Cholas, Pandyas, Satiyaputras, and Karalaputras.

The Mauryas do not appear to have ruled consistently over a sizable portion of the Indian subcontinent. Despite the fact that Mauryan routes ran along the perimeter of these provinces, the Mauryans did not control a large number of territories.

The Mauryas appear to have enjoyed widespread support in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.


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