Gloria Maurya, or, Mauryan Glory

The Establishment of the Mauryan Empire, c. 320 BCE.

In Which the Indians find themselves at the wrong end of some rather pointy sticks (not kebabs) which introduce them to Mediterranean culture.

There was once a man who was convinced he was a god. Others were equally convinced he was a megalomaniac, and a drunkard.

He had already conquered the largest empire in the world but he wanted more. Stories were whispered to him of a nation at the edge of the world, of a mighty river with immensely wealthy kingdoms on the banks, of naked ascetics who had attained the inner peace which he, perhaps, truly craved. So off he went, dragging his exhausted troops along, supplemented with some natives of this land of which he had heard, who had formerly fought for the Persians.


It seemed this land, India, would not be too hard to conquer: the very first king he encountered, Ambhi (Omphis) of Taksasila (Taxila) surrendered to him abjectly with gifts of gold and livestock. The god-on-earth was generous: he repaid the gifts and confirmed his new ally in his position as King. Then he crossed over into what the locals called “The Land of the Five Rivers”. And there, Alexander the Great, King of Kings, faced the deadliest battle of his career.

The Battle of the Hydaspes River

The Paurava Raja had gathered a great army intent on stopping this bloodthirsty conqueror at the river Hydaspes (Jhelum). Crossing in daylight would be suicide, as Alexander’s troops would be exposed to a hail of missiles and die before they even made contact with the enemy. So he ordered them, oddly enough, to party.

For three days and three nights, the Macedonian (Greek) camp echoed with the sound of music and feasting, while Alexander led cavalry sorties up and down river to find a crossing point. His lieutenants would draw the Raja’s attention by pretending to cross the river at the primary ford (where the majority of his army was), and pulling back at the last moment. Eventually the Raja was convinced that the Greeks were cowards and had no intention of fighting. Then, on a rainy night in 326 BC, Alexander and about 11,000 troops crossed the Hydaspes at a ford they had found.

Eventually the Raja was convinced that the Greeks were cowards and had no intention of fighting.

The shocked Indians turned their troops to face the threat. The Raja sent his son and a detachment of chariots to prevent the crossing. The river banks turned into a hell of mud and blood, the chariots were bogged down and immobilized. The prince was dragged off his chariot and slaughtered. His troops fled. The rest of the Indian army waited in grim anticipation.


Alexander at the Hydaspes. Contrast the discipline and armour of the Macedonian and Indian lines

Alexander had no intention of facing his opponent’s 200 war elephants head on. Instead, he ordered forward a detachment of horse archers to weaken the Indian left flank. Then, he personally led forward heavy cavalry and pike detachments. As the Indian left began to falter, the elephants charged Alexander’s center, inflicting heavy casualties. The mahouts drove them perpendicular to the pike phalanxes, shattering the Greek pikes. However, the beasts were soon maddened by the darts flung by Alexander’s skirmishers, and the combined effect of hundreds of twenty-foot pikes drove them insane with rage. As they turned back and charged their own lines, the rest of Alexander’s army, which had crossed under the cover of the noise of the storm and the battle, appeared to the rear of the Indian lines.

Though surrounded, the Raja refused to surrender. He ordered his army into a double phalanx, to face the enemy on both sides. In the utter butchery of the battle, the Indian discipline crumbled under the feet of mad elephants, bloodthirsty Greek cavalry, and rank upon rank of well-drilled pikemen stamping them into mud, blood and death. The army shattered and yet the Raja fought on.


Romantic 19th-century depiction of the surrender of the Paurava Raja

Then, some sources tell us, one of Alexander’s young Indian mercenaries, Sandrocottus/Sandrokoptos, rode up to the Raja’s elephant and convinced him to stand down. The King was taken to the King-of-Kings in chains. “How do you wish me to treat you?”, demanded the conqueror. “Treat me like a King!” demanded the 7-foot tall Indian. Impressed with his courage (or was it caste pride? Keay speculates all that the Raja insisted on was being treated by the Kshatriya code of honour), the Greeks installed him as the governor, or satrap, of the Punjab province. Thus did Indians first taste an organized empire, and the culture and military strategy of the Mediterranean.


An “Indian Julius Caesar”

At this point we must leave Alexander, for his story diverges from that which I wish to tell. (He died either of poison or disease, and his empire was divided amongst his generals). The mercenary Sandrocottus, though, has a fascinating life ahead of him. In case you haven’t guessed already: Sandrocottus or Sandrokoptos is merely the Greek rendering of the Indian Chandragupta

The Gangetic Plains were ruled by the Nanda dynasty of Pataliputra, by all accounts immensely unpopular with their subjects (history is written by the victors: one has to wonder if that was just how Chandragupta portrayed them to disguise his ambition). An apocryphal tale relates how Chandragupta’s initial attack was defeated, and he obtained inspiration by watching a mother scold a child who had burnt its fingers by eating its flatbread from the center and not from the edges. (The same story is told of Alfred the Great as well).

chandragupta_mauryan_empire_305_bcIrrespective of how he did it (an alliance of unhappy Nanda vassals led by his Greek-drilled troops perhaps?), Chandragupta Maurya had, like his idol Alexander’s conquest of Persia, overrun the entirety of North India in about six years. Then, he promptly uprooted the feudal structure of the older kingdom, instituting provinces, governors, and a civilian bureaucracy on a Greco-Persian model. India, then, had its first Empire; Chandragupta secured his western provinces by defeating Seleukos “Nikator” (“The Victorious”), the most powerful of Alexander’s successors, expanding the empire into Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and adding Greeks and Afghans to his rapidly-expanding repertoire of subjects.

Chandragupta’s fame is nearly equaled by that of his supposed mentor, Kautilya, whose Arthashastra is a book of cold-blooded political calculation and tenets of rule that would probably cause Machiavelli to quake in his boots. (Kautilya was actually a proven and successful administrator, whereas Machiavelli ended his career as a failed diplomat. Yet, oddly enough, Machiavelli is the global political mastermind, but outside of India, whoever heard of Chanakya/Kautilya? 😛 )

“.. Oddly enough, Machiavelli is the global political mastermind, but outside of India, whoever heard of Chanakya?”


Victorian depiction of Chandragupta Maurya entertaining his wives

Another (probably spurious) tale tells us that Chanakya aimed to protect Chandragupta from poisoning by feeding him incrementally larger doses of poison each day (which is supposedly the same thing that Mithridates VI “Eupator” of Pontus did to himself). Interesting how stories and patterns reverberate across cultures, isn’t it? One day, Chandragupta, not knowing about the poison, shared some of his food with his pregnant wife. She died, but they were able to save the child. Asphyxiation in the womb had left him with a blue mark (bindu) on his forehead, and so “Bindusara” he was named. (It is unknown what consequences Chanakya faced from the probably infuriated and/or despondent emperor).

After an illustrious career, the old Chandragupta, apparently, decided on a quiet retirement. He headed south, beyond the limits of his empire, to the Jain monastery of Sravanabelagola in Karnataka. There, after a few years of asceticism, he ritually starved himself to death. Compare this to Alexander’s death as a bloated, half-mad shell of a man: the conflict between renunciation and temporal satisfaction is an interesting and recurring theme in Indian history.


The cave where Chandragupta is supposed to have died

Bindusara “Amitraghata” (“Slayer of Enemies”) Maurya, 22, was now emperor. He maintained friendly relations with the Hellenic world (they called him “Amitrochates”).  His programme of conquest pushed the imperial borders all the way down to Tamil Nadu (the early Sangam literature, that immense corpus of Tamil poetry, mentions the white pennants of the Mauryan chariots as they thundered across the land). Governors were installed, and wealth poured into the immense capital of Pataliputra on the Ganga. Imperial highways encouraged trade and the subcontinent began to flourish. As the emperor aged, he sent his sons to govern provinces in order to prepare them to take over on his eventual death.

Two of these sons, Susima and Asoka, are especially important to the story of India. In my next post, I’ll discuss possibly the most famous of Indian rulers, and how he literally changed the world.

A Unified India?

There are a lot of websites claiming that Chandragupta was the first emperor of a United India (which I am guessing is meant to include present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan as well). Prima facie, Chandragupta’s conquests were limited to North India, and his influence in the south is questionable. Extending the timeline, it’s doubtful how much real control and/or loyalty even Asoka Maurya exerted over his territories. Having a rock carved with an edict is one thing- it could indicate anything from pockets of Mauryan territory with safe corridors between, or absolute imperial autocracy (very doubtful keeping in mind the technology of the time), or a centrally-administered core with dependent states around it. There simply isn’t enough evidence to judge.

And of course, discussing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India is extremely anachronistic at a time when control of any territory was more dependent on military might than anything else, and it is very doubtful that a national consciousness could exist. In a time of such cultural effervescence and military strife, it’s about as sensible as saying Alexander ruled a unified Greece stretching from the Balkans to India. 😛

“… It’s about as sensible as saying Alexander ruled a unified Greece stretching from the Balkans to India.”

Sequel: Pax Maurya, or, Mauryan Peace


22 thoughts on “Gloria Maurya, or, Mauryan Glory

  1. Enjoyed reading. As far as my knowledge goes Mauryan dynasty never ruled below Maharastra.
    Excellent articulation and interesting comparisons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the praise 🙂 It’s really quite debatable how much control the Mauryas exerted in South India, but they definitely did exert at the very least a hegemonic influence. Asoka’s rock edicts, for example, name vassal tribes and dependent states in South India – at least as far as Karnataka. The deep South was definitely left independent, as attested to by Asoka himself and Buddhist sources. I’ll be adding a lot of detail to the Mauryan picture in my next article, so stay tuned 🙂


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  6. Just a comment: it is not clear at all whether Kautalya and Chanakya are the same person. The text of the Arthashashtra itself was was probably not written during the Mauryan era; according to the scholar Thomas Trautmann, who has done a comprehensive statistical analysis of the textual vocabulary, the very oldest portions of this text are no older than the 2nd century BCE, while many portions were written centuries later. The text seems to have had multiple authors writing in different centuries, with the finished product that we see today probably being compiled during the Gupta era. In the Arthashastra itself, the name of the primary author is given as “Kautalya” who also seems to have gone by the name “Vishnugupta,” as both of these names are mentioned in the text. However, the name “Chanakya” is not mentioned anywhere in the text, and nowhere does the Arthashastra indicate that Chanakaya was an alias of Kautalya or Vishnugupta. The name “Chanakya” was introduced in the semi-historical play Mudrarakshasha, written by the famous playwright Vishakhadatta.. It is from this play that we get the familiar picture of Chandragupta and Chanakya joining forces to overthrow the corrupt Nanda king; the Arthashashtra itself does not mention the Mauryas or Nandas even once in any section, nor does it mention Chandragupta Maurya in any section, nor does it refer to the Greeks and their invasion of the northwestern provinces in any section. The date of this Mudrarakshahsa’s original creation is not known, but it has been dated between the 4th and 8th centuries CE, making it 600-900 years removed from the events that it portrays, and thus not a very credible historical source (though it may very well be based on actual historical events).


    • Absolutely! The Arthashastra is indeed not a consistent text, and I haven’t used it as a source in this essay. While the author(s) of the Arthashastra may or may not be the same person as Chandragupta Maurya’s prime minister, I assume from what we know of Mauryan administration and its similarity to some aspects of the Arthashastra that they are not entirely unrelated. I’ve taken care in general to point out when a historical event may just be a story, however, such as the incident where Chandragupta observes a child being scolded. Thanks for pointing that out. 🙂


  7. Great post !But slight clarification required as to whether ‘Sandracottus’ referred to Chandragupta Maurya or Samudragupta?


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