The first recorded empire of South Asia is the Maurya Empire (ca. 321-181 B.C.E.). Five hundred years after the Mauryas, another indigenous imperial dynasty, the Guptas, tried unsuccessfully to establish a universal empire over India. Indeed, no truly pan-Indian empire ever duplicated the reign of the earlier Maurya emperors until the Mughals succeeded almost two thousand years later.

Chandragupta Maurya 

Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror, invaded the upper plains of the Indus River and its tributaries in 326 B.C.E., defeating the Indian king Puru at the Battle of the Hydaspes, before he was persuaded to turn back from India by his mutinous army. After he died in Egypt in 323 B.C.E., his extensive Asian conquests were inherited by his generals, who divided up his dominions among themselves. The Greek garrisons in northwestern India were controlled by prefects, who were engaged in mutual dissensions and were plagued by revolts of the local populace against their rule.

Taking advantage of the power vacuum in the region, an ambitious and able Indian leader of obscure origin, Chandragupta Maurya, asserted himself and succeeding in driving out the Greeks from India. Then, Chandragupta deposed the powerful Nanda king of Magadha (in the lower course of the Ganges River) and established his own dynasty in ca. 321 B.C.E. with his capital at Pataliputra (modern Patna). In course of further campaigns, he extended his kingdom over most of northern and upper central India from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal.

Indo-Greek War and Peace 

In ca. 305 B.C.E., when Seleucus I Nicator (a former general of Alexander and then the emperor of Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Persia) invaded India to recover the territories lost by the Greeks, Chandragupta turned his forces back. Seleucus was obliged, in return for several hundred elephants, to give away his daughter in marriage to Chandragupta and cede to him extensive territories that now comprise most of Afghanistan and the Baluchistan region of Pakistan. Cordial diplomatic relations were established between the Maurya and Seleucid Empires, and Megasthenes, the Greek envoy at the court of Pataliputra, wrote a fascinating and insightful account of the Maurya realm in his Indica. According to one Indian tradition, the emperor Chandragupta, at an advanced age, converted to Jainism, abdicated his throne, and died in ca. 292 B.C.E. as a pauper hermit in southern India.


Chandragupta Maurya was succeeded by his son, Bindusara (ca. 292-272 B.C.E.), who consolidated his empire, and even extended it southward as far as the Mysore plateau. Bindusara also maintained the amicable diplomatic and commercial ties with the Hellenic rulers beyond India, including Antiochos I Soter of Syria, the son of Seleucus. Upon Bindusara's death, one of his sons, Ashoka, who had suppressed a revolt in a Maurya province in the northwestern frontier, seized the throne after a bloody war of succession in which he eliminated several of his brothers. The independent and prosperous kingdom of Kalinga (modern Orissa) on the northwestern coast of the Bay of Bengal was subjugated by Ashoka in ca. 260 B.C.E. with great slaughter. The Battle of Kalinga proved to be the turning point in Ashoka's reign and had a profound impact upon the course of subsequent history of Asia.

In recognition of the changes in his kingship after the Kalinga conflict, Ashoka has been regarded as the greatest king to rule India. The death and disruption of the Kalingans in that conflict aroused in the victorious king great remorse. Converting to Buddhism, a repentant Ashoka eschewed violence and conquest for the rest of his life, and ceaselessly strived to propagate Buddhism in his empire as an ethical state ideology.

With the conquest of Kalinga, too, the Maurya Empire had come to cover the entire Indian subcontinent, with the exception of its southernmost and easternmost parts, and no further imperial consolidation was deemed necessary after that. The Tamil country, which lay unconquered at the south, and the intractable forest lands that stretched unabsorbed in the east, would have posed serious problems in political assimilation and control from the imperial core situated in the Ganges plains.

Having conquered Kalinga and most of India, and his own mind stricken by the brutality of warfare, Ashoka changed the nature of his reign. He now devoted himself intensely to "conquest by piety" rather than domination by force, and a rule of virtue and morality rather than of governance by coercion and exploitation. In the new spirit of peace and forbearance, the traditional policy of aggression and aggrandizement was relinquished. A new policy of spiritual conquest became the order of the day, as the zeal of a new convert made Ashoka propagate Buddhism as a way of life throughout his empire, and export Buddhism as an official imperial faith to the neighboring realms in the south and the west.

Triumph of Piety 

The great extent of Ashoka's dominions, and his policy of fostering the rule of justice and morality among his subjects and peace and fraternity with other countries, resulted in ushering in an age of clemency and nonviolence, unprecedented in Indian history. Ashoka converted to Buddhism, then the most dynamic religion of the land, although the vast majority of his subjects remained Brahminical Hindus. Ashoka extended good will and religious toleration to all; this and the content of his ethical injunctions were eminently secular.

Ashoka aimed his policy of Dharma (morality and piety) at making all his subjects virtuous, prosperous, and happy. He styled himself "Beloved of the Gods," and regarded all subjects as his "children," and their commonweal his foremost duty. Every tenth year, Ashoka made an extensive tour of his entire empire, mingling with the poor, common people, and personally instructing them in the way of Dharma. He requisitioned the service of many provincial functionaries of the justice and treasury department to set them out on tours every five years to publish his prescripts on ethics, and instruct the general populace on piety.

Gradually, in personal life, the king became a vegetarian, abolished the rituals of animal sacrifice, and discontinued royal hunts and jousts. The fierce frontier tribesmen were put under the gentle care of the preachers of morality; the royal exchequer promoted and financed many philanthropic projects, like the building of roads, wells, inns, and houses of charity and medicine; and bountiful donations were extended to temples, priests, and monks of all religious orders. Ashoka also created a new class of high religious officials who were to ensure that no one was exploited or persecuted, and that all faiths were accorded proper patronage and reverence. The royal officials were to dedicate themselves to the spiritual uplift and material welfare of people of every class, caste, and creed.

The reign of Ashoka is remarkable for the great array of inscriptions found throughout the extent of his empire bearing detailed instructions to his subjects on the subject of morality in everyday life. These injunctions were mostly derived from Buddhist doctrines, and Ashoka tirelessly propagated his new faith. Yet his edicts were almost entirely devoid of any sectarian dogmatism. The royal prescripts were impressed upon many pillars, tablets, and domes erected all over India.

The moral fiats of the great king urged people of all ages and walks of life to lead a life of altruism, service, and contentment. The cardinal virtues and values emphasized were tolerance, generosity, benevolence, and nonviolence. People were asked to be truthful, industrious, and nurturing--obedient toward parents, compassionate to servants, considerate and forgiving to peers. Considering that ethics is the essence of all religions, Ashoka endorsed a stable society where virtues of the heart abounded, and proclaimed the cause of justice, peace, and harmony among the diverse elements comprising the population of his far-flung empire. The Maurya state, under Ashoka, became a pacifist, welfare state dedicated to the spiritual progress of its citizens and slaves, and divorced from the predatory power politics of its day.

Successors of Ashoka 

Ashoka had a long and rather uneventful reign. Personally, he was a devout Buddhist, and took great care in upholding the catholicity of the doctrine and the integrity of the monastic order. Although he led a life of great piety and enjoined his successors to renounce military conquests, he maintained a somewhat impotent army to guard his vast empire.

The imperial Mauryas stretched from the Hindu Kush Mountains to the Mysore plateau, and from the Helmand to the Brahmaputra Rivers. After Ashoka's death in ca. 232 B.C.E., a succession of weak rulers meant decay and decline of the once mighty realm. The external invasions of the Bactrian Greeks from the northwest into the northern plains of the empire further compounded the problem of internal weakness. Consequently, the Maurya Empire after Ashoka dwindled and disintegrated rapidly, and in ca. 181 B.C.E. the main line of the Mauryas became extinct as the last scion of the imperial house, Brihadratha, was assassinated in a military coup led by his general, Pushyamitra Sunga. The succeeding dynasty, the Sungas, brought about a brief period of Brahminical Hindu reaction.

Impact of Ashokan Policy 

Ashoka's religious policy might be interpreted as a failure if the fate of his own successors were only to be taken into account. It is also true that his missions to the Hellenic world were not successful, as evident in the later forays of the Greek princes into the tottering Maurya Empire.

But, without doubt, Ashoka was instrumental in the transformation of Buddhism from a small protestant sect in the Gangetic plains to a pan-Asiatic religion--a truly universal faith, not confined predominantly to adherents inhabiting the country of its origin. Ashoka's policy of conquest by Dharma resulted in a very successful export of the religion to distant lands. From Central Asia, Buddhism spread gradually to China, Korea, and Japan; from Ceylon, it spread to all the countries of Southeast Asia.

Of course, due to various historical factors, Buddhism is not a dominant religion in India itself, but after its independence, the Republic of India in 1950 chose the four-lion capital of an Ashokan pillar as the official national emblem, and the Ashokan inscription of the Buddhist wheel of the sacred law as the centerpiece of its national flag.

Central Administration 

In the process of founding an empire, the astute Brahmin minister, Chanakya or Kautilya, assisted Chandragupta Maurya, himself a skillful military commander. Kautilya wrote a celebrated work on statecraft called the Arthashastra, or the Treatise on Polity. The book dealt, in a pragmatic and cynical manner, with the theory and practice of contemporary government. It laid down strategies of administration, diplomacy, and warfare, as well as tactics of acquiring and retaining power for a king. Like Machiavelli's Prince, it advocated the principle that power is an end in itself, and that a ruler should undertake every means possible and necessary to accomplish the political objectives of the state.

From the works of Megasthenes and Kautilya we know much about the Maurya capital and administrative system. We know that Pataliputra was a grand fortified capital with magnificent palaces, thoroughfares, and parks. The emperor used to be accessible to his host of ministers and spies at any time of the day, protected by a legion of amazons, and his public appearances were marked by great pomp and pageantry. The emperor led a huge army to war, and some exaggerated Greek estimates put the strength of the army at nearly a million with a large park of elephants, war-chariots, a navy, and a commissariat.

The government of the Mauryas was a highly organized, full-fledged autocracy in which the emperor had unlimited authority in matters of dictating the highest policies of the state, and conducting its foreign policy, both in peace and war. He appointed the most important state officials, issued the imperial prescripts for government, and was the supreme arbiter of justice. He was assisted by a council of advisers mostly in times of emergency, and the ministers enjoyed, in their turn, the competent service of a corps of trained administrators, assisted by an army of clerks, scribes, and reporters. The servants of the state were selected irrespective of religion, caste, or even nationality. The chief officers of the state were the crown-prince, the premier, the high priest, and the commander-in-chief. Various departments of the state, and the army administration, were under superintendents, while the judiciary, both in the cities and in countryside, were under royally appointed judges who dispensed a uniform but stern code of criminal law, until moderated later by Ashoka.

Provincial Administration 

Provincial governments were under viceregal governors or high crown officials, and there was an efficient class of district officials and city commissioners. The emperor was entitled to one-sixth of the land revenue. Revenue officials measured and assessed land and property and supervised irrigation works, while treasury officials also collected sales tax, transit duties, and extra assessments and tithes. We have already seen how the class of high religious officials created by Ashoka served both spiritual and temporal functions in his time.

The Maurya Empire, besides, is known to have installed many hydraulic and highway projects--an imperial infrastructure mainly built by Ashoka. Artisans and architects with civil and military contracts, herdsmen and hunters entrusted with deforestation and wildlife-control, and philosophers and religious ascetics were entitled to royal patronage. From native and foreign accounts we know that the Maurya administration was a centralized system, an efficient government that fulfilled the role of the state as a preserver of order and extractor of revenue.

Material Legacy 

Finally, you should note that just as Ashoka's missionary activities represented the most successful aspect of the Maurya state policy, the great highways constructed by the Maurya administration to facilitate transportation and commerce remained the most enduring physical legacy of the empire. The Maurya Empire lasted less than a hundred and fifty years, and it fell into fragments within fifty years of Ashoka's death. Nevertheless, the roads survived and served as arteries by which the great religion propagated by Ashoka spread across the subcontinent, and beyond into Afghanistan and the outskirts of Central Asia.

The empire was divided into provinces and districts, colonies and garrisons, each under civilian or military governors, and with specifically demarcated functions and boundaries of jurisdiction. The land revenue levied from the citizen peasantry and the tribute extracted from subjects and vassals provided the material foundation of an imperial system. Not only was the administration of the state and the luxury consumption of the imperial court maintained, but great capital cities also were designed to glorify state authority and express the imperial style in grandiose architecture. The administrative capitals experienced, as a result of state patronage and political peace, many artistic endeavours, intellectual enterprises, and leisurely activities. A new range and style of arts, crafts, literature, philosophy, and entertainment came to express the high culture of the state, as well as its ethos and way of life.

Similarly, the state ideologies became the canons that dominated the world-view of the inhabitants of empires. To consolidate the imperial control permanently over all subjects, emperors sought to legitimize their own authority by adapting different belief systems as state religions and thus impose cultural uniformity throughout their empires. The official missionaries made use of the improved roadways to spread the value system of the elite throughout all parts of the empire among all classes and peoples of the society. We will deal with a few significant examples of such religions as official cults: Buddhism in Mauryan India, Legalism in Ch'in China, paganism in pre-Christian Rome, Islam in Mali, and sky-worship among the medieval Mongols.

Gradually, with the territorial expansion of the empires, their boundaries came to collide with one another. One remarkable fact of ancient history is that full-scale and prolonged warfare among neighboring empires occurred relatively infrequently. The main results of empires coming together as politically unified civilizations were diffusion of inter-continental trade, the spread of crafts and religions, and the intermingling of cultural influences. Notable examples of these were the Silk Road linking the Roman and Han Chinese empires through Central Asia, the spread of Buddhism from India to the rest of Asia, and the joint impact of Chinese and Indian cultures on Indochina (Southeast Asia).

Now let us look briefly at the nature of their decline and downfall. Reading history we know that all empires have fallen sooner or later, the Communist empire of Soviet Russia being the latest example. It is interesting to examine the similarities in the process of how the empires degenerated and dissolved. Generally, almost no dynasty in history has consistently produced competent civil-military rulers, and the fate of dynastic empires often depended upon the quality of personal rule. Ineffective sovereigns were frequently responsible for a dwindling empire (despite occasional revival by some rulers that temporarily arrested the fall). Empires were also weakened, in many cases, by the challenge to imperial authority by the feudal aristocracy or the military commanders, as well as the general erosion of the efficiency and power of the bureaucracy. Ancient empires were authoritarian, revenue-extorting systems dependent on successful agriculture and strong armies. Thus, anything that had a damaging impact upon the resources or military power of the state, in turn, undermined the prestige of the ruling dynasty and made the fabric of the empire deteriorate. Furthermore, natural disasters, such as floods, famines, epidemics, and the like, disrupted several empires seriously before their final collapse.

Like the civilizations in crisis before them, many declining empires faced political challenges from within and beyond. Rebellions, civil wars, coups, assassinations, and foreign invasions crumbled the empires until their cores were finally overwhelmed. Two classic cases of this pattern were the Gupta Indian and Byzantine empires. Some empires, like the Kushan (northwestern India) and Roman, collapsed and were succeeded, in their turn, not by large states but small kingdoms. In some others, like ancient Egypt and China and medieval India (the Delhi Sultanate), dynasties were replaced but the territories did not significantly diminish. Remember, though, that both strong (the Aztec) and weakened (the Inca) empires have collapsed in the face of sudden and overpowering foreign attack. Similarly, empires that have faced either no previous decline (Ch'in China) or some decline (Sui China) are known to have been overthrown by domestic rebellions. Finally, despite their eventual dissolution into smaller states, empires have proven to be a resilient and enduring institution, and their rise and fall affected the great ebbs and flows in the current of political history.

This article was originally published by the University of Minesota (U.S.A)  in the site as IDL (Independent and Distance Learning). Now is not available anymore. This copy was saved by LC in March, 2002 and edited to be posted.