The Great Mauryas

B.C. 321 TO B.C. 184

We come here to one of the landmarks of Indian History. There were

seven kings of the Maurya dynasty; of these, two gained for themselves

an abiding place in the category of Great World Rulers. Their names

are Chandra-gupta and Asoka. Grandfather and grandson, they made their

mark in such curiously divergent ways that they stand to this day as

examples of War and Peace.<
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Concerning Chandra-gupta's usurpation of the throne of the Nine

Nandas, something has already been said. It has also been mentioned

that while still almost a lad, he met with Alexander during the

latter's brief summer among the Punjab Doabs or Two-waters, so called

because they are the fertile plains which lie between the rivers.

The identification, indeed, of the Sandracottus mentioned by Greek

writers with Chandra-gupta has been of incalculable value in enabling

historians to fix other dates. It has been, as it were, a secure

foundation for a superstructure which has grown, and still grows, year

by year, and in which every new stone discovered is found to fit

accurately in its place.

At the time of this meeting, Chandra-gupta was a nameless adventurer,

a political exile from Magadha. Who he really was seems doubtful. The

illegitimate son, it is said, of one of the Nine Nandas by a beautiful

low-caste woman (from whose name, Mura, the titular designation of the

dynasty Maurya is taken), it is hard to see whence came the young

man's undoubted claim to be of the Shesh-nag, or Serpent race; for the

Nandas were as undoubtedly of low-caste origin themselves. It is

possible, therefore, that some further history of wrong may have

existed to make Chandra-gupta claim kinship with the Serpent-Kings

whom the Nandas had ousted, and hold himself, like any young

pretender, a rightful heir.

Be that as it may, he was ambitious, capable, energetic, and seized

the first opportunity given him of rising to power.

This came with the news of Alexander's death in B.C. 323. In the

instant revolt of conquered India which followed, he took a prominent

part, and found himself, in B.C. 321, with an army at his back which,

having accomplished its purpose and given its leader paramount power

in Punjab, was eager to follow his fortune elsewhere.

He led it to Magadha, and taking advantage of the Nanda king's

unpopularity, slew every male member of the family.

This was the Eastern etiquette on such occasions; the sparing of a

brother or an uncle being considered a weakness sure to bring speedy

repentance in its train.

Except in as far as the principals were concerned, this revolution

appears to have been easy and bloodless. At least so we gather from

the play called the "Signet of the Minister," which, though not

written till nearly twelve hundred years after the event, seems fairly

trustworthy in fact.

In itself it is so studiously realistic, so palpably free from all

appeal to the imagination, as to form a marked contrast to all other

dramas of the period. It is most likely the first purely political

play that ever was written, for, excluding love passages and poetical

diction, it deals entirely with the stir of plot and counterplot.

Chanakya, the wily Brahman--whose advice had been Chandra-gupta's best

weapon in gaining the throne--realising the insecurity of that throne

without the hearty support of the nobles and, above all, of the late

King's Prime Minister, sets himself by sheer diplomacy to cut the

ground from beneath the feet of his master's enemies, and, succeeding,

yields up his signet of office to the appeased Rakahasa, whose final

aside when he accepts it--"Oh! vile Chanakya--say rather, Wise

Chanakya, a mine of wisdom inexhaustible! Deep ocean stored with

excellent rare gems"--shows that he feels himself overmastered by

sheer wit.

But the whole play is well worth reading; some of it--notably the

parts in prose-reminding one of Shakspeare.

The remainder of Chandra-gupta's career, however, was anything but

bloodless. It was scarcely possible that it should be so, considering

that he began life as a nobody and ended it as undisputed Emperor of

India from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. A man of iron nerve,

born to conquer, born to rule, he went on his way undeviatingly,

holding his own despite the constant threats of his enemies, despite

the danger of constant plots; a danger which made perpetual precaution

necessary. He never occupied the same bedroom two nights in

succession; he never during the daytime slept at the same hour.

A story is told of Chanakya's wily vigilance for his master. He

noticed one day a long caravan of ants on the wall of the king's room

carrying crumbs. This was enough for Chanakya. Without an instant's

hesitation, the royal pavilion was ordered to be set on fire and, as

the plaint runs:--

"The brave men who were concealed

In the subterrene avenue that led

To Chandra-gupta's sleeping chamber, so,

Were all destroyed."

So far as one can gather, Chandra-gupta's character was not a lovable

one; but there can be no question of his power to rule men wisely and

well. Megasthenes' account of Paliputra (which applies more to the

reign of Chandra-gupta, during whose lifetime the Grecian was

ambassador to the court, than to that of any other monarch) gives us a

marvellous picture of the grip which Government kept on the people;

and kept for their good. Every department (especially the land revenue

and irrigation, both of paramount importance in an Indian State) was

legislated for with the utmost care, and though the whole system of

government was based on the personal power of the king, it was far

from being a mere arbitrary autocracy. His greatest contemporary was

Seleukos Nikator, who in addition to ceding Kabul, Herat, and Kandahar

to him, bestowed on him his daughter in marriage.

Chandra-gupta died in B.C. 297, having reigned for twenty-four years.

A short enough time in which to have accomplished so much; for at the

day of his death, the only portion of the vast continent of India

which did not acknowledge his rule was a strip of sea coast country

about Cuttack, on the Bay of Bengal, and that part of the lessening

peninsular which lay southward, beyond a line drawn through Mangalore

and Madras.

His son Bindu-sara reigned in his stead. Of him we know nothing; not

even if he was born of the Grecian princess. Only this is on record,

that he was extremely fond of figs, and, presumably, of learning; for

a letter of his to Antiochus, the son of Seleukos Nikator, asks

naively for the purchase and despatch of green figs and a professor!

To which the dignified reply is still extant that the figs shall be

procured and forwarded, but that by Grecian etiquette it was

indecorous either to buy or sell a professor!

Bindu-sara had this merit: he handed on the empire which he had

received intact to his son, after a reign of five and twenty years.

So let us pass to Asoka, who, next to Akbar the Great Moghul, was the

greatest of all Indian kings. Curiously enough, both these monarchs,

Asoka and Akbar, ruled India through its imagination. Both claimed

pre-eminence as apostles of a Faith in the Unknown; both appealed to

the people on transcendental grounds.

At the time of his fathers death in B.C. 272, Asoka was Viceroy of the

Western Province. He had previously ruled in a similar position in the

Punjab, where his headquarters had been Taxila, the Serpent City.

Chosen as Crown Prince from amongst numerous other sons on account of

his ability, he had been given this semi-independent control, partly

because of his ungovernable temper, which earned him the nickname of

"The Furious." He thus seemed to take after his grandfather,

Chandra-gupta, who, with all his many virtues, was unquestionably

cruel and arrogant. But Asoka was not to follow in his ancestor's

footsteps. Forty years afterward, when his long and peaceful reign,

marred by but one war, had come to an end, he had earned for himself

the well-deserved title of "The Loving-minded One, Beloved of the

Gods." A great change in any man's life; but nothing to the change

which his life was to bring into his world.

In B.C. 260, when he came under the mingled influence of Buddhism and

Jainism, those creeds were little more than sectarian beliefs confined

to the India which had given them birth. When he died, Buddhism had

spread through Asia, and had touched both Africa and Europe. Asoka has

been called the Constantine of Buddhism, but he was more than that.

The creed which brought him comfort was not, as Christianity was in

Constantine's time, already a power to be reckoned with, it was simply

the belief of a few enthusiasts, a few select souls who sought almost

sorrowfully for some solution of the Great Secret.

What was the cause which led the Emperor of India, in his luxurious

autocracy, to join himself to this Search? Undoubtedly it was remorse;

remorse for the numberless lives needlessly sacrificed, the needless

suffering entailed on humanity by the one war of his reign--the

conquest of Kalinga, a maritime province on the sea-board of the Bay

of Bengal. We have this remorse with us still (as we have so much of

the innermost soul and thoughts and aspirations of Asoka) in the

marvellous edicts engraven on rock and pillar, which, outlasting Time

itself, tell to wild waste and deserted ruins their story of one man's

struggle towards the light. One can almost hear the break, as of

tears, in the voice that clamours still of "the regret which the

Beloved-of-the-Gods felt at the murders and the deaths and the


This regret, then, was the cosmic touch which drove Asoka to find

comfort in preaching the doctrine of the sanctity of life. Was it

Jainism (amongst the tenets of which this takes first place) which

influenced Asoka most, or was it Buddhism? Doctors differ; only this

we know, that it was through Asoka's exertions that the latter became

the creed of one-third of the human race. For the energy of the man

was incomparable. His missionaries were everywhere. "Let small and

great exert themselves," is the cry still carven upon stone. "The

teaching of religion is the most meritorious of acts.... There is no

gift comparable to the gift of religion ... it is in the conquests of

religion that the gods takes pleasure." So his yellow-robed monks went

forth beyond the confines of his visible, tangible world, and found

their way to Egypt, to Greece, to Syria. Their influence is still to

be traced in other religions, though no record exists of their


Thus for some thirty years of his life Asoka set himself to alter the

faith of the world. Why? And how? Because he believed with a whole

heart, not in ritual or dogma, but in something which--hard to be

translated--is best rendered by the "Law of Piety." And this his

edicts explain to be "mercy and charity, truth and purity, kindness

and goodness."

A good creed even in these later days. Not to be improved upon by

conformists or non-conformists!

As to how this gospel of good-will was to be preached we learn from

these edicts also. It is by example, by tolerance, by "gentleness and

moderation in speech."

"Government by religion, law by religion, progress by religion." This

was Asoka's rule, and in it he stands alone as the only king who has

subordinated all things to a faith which must only be preached in

gentleness and moderation.

The first series of fourteen edicts were cut on rocks in various parts

of his kingdom, from Attock on the Indus to Cuttack on the Eastern

Sea, during the twelfth and thirteenth year of Asoka's reign. They

are, therefore, the first-fruits of his conversion. They range over a

vast number of subjects, but in each of them there is a personal note

which justifies the belief that they are verily the words of the king,

and not the mere drafts of some secretary.

On the other hand, the Minor Rock edicts were carven in the last year

of Asoka's reign, and thus gain an additional interest from being the

farewell of a king to the people whom he had striven so hard to lead

into the Way of Peace. In one of them he says that the truest

enjoyment for himself has been making men happy by leading them to

follow the path of religion, that "with this object he has regulated

his life"; yet, though he has "promulgated positive rules, it is

solely by a change in the sentiments of the heart that religion

makes true progress." The edict ends thus: "So spake Piyadasi,

Beloved-of-the-Gods. Wherever this edict exists on pillars of stone

let it endure to remote ages."

It has endured. The Prakrit language in which it was engraven--the

spoken language of those times--has passed; but Asoka's words are not

of Time, they are of Eternity.

He was a great builder, but few of his buildings remain to this day.

What their magnificence must have been we may judge by the topes at

Sanchi, where the eye wearies in following the intricacy of ornament,

the brain is bewildered in attempting to re-fashion in imagination the

whole stupendous structure as it must have been. But here and there

some monolithic sandstone pillar still remains, slender, perfect in

proportion and execution, still bearing in close-carven character

Asoka's message to his people, to the world.

Strange, indeed, that the West knows so little of him! Strangest of

all that the twentieth century, with its Peace Party and its

Anti-Vivesectionists, should not put Asoka's name as President in

perpetuity of their organisations. Asoka, who more than a thousand

years upheld the equal rights of animals with men to the King's care,

and openly adjured his successors to follow in his steps, and not "to

think that a conquest by the sword deserves the name of conquest."

What manner of man Asoka was outwardly, we have no means of knowing;

but those who know of his life can picture him in his yellow monk's

robe, wearied yet unwearied, pondering over his lifelong problem. "By

what means can I lead my people into the path of peace?"

Unwearied because of the spirit which inspires the words, "Work I must

for the public benefit"; wearied because, "Though I am ready at any

hour and any place to receive petitions, I am never fully satisfied

with my despatch of business."

He died in B.C. 231, leaving his empire intact, and was apparently

succeeded by a grandson. After him came five kings, all mere names.

The duration of the dynasty was 137 years, and as 89 of these belonged

to the combined reigns of Chandra-gupta, Bindu-sara, and Asoka, the

remaining six kings have but eight years apiece. Long enough, however,

to disintegrate, to dissipate the vast empire of Asoka. So much so,

that before continuing the story of what may be called the central

kings of India, it is necessary to give a side-glance at the outlying

provinces where, on the removal of Asoka's firm grip on Government,

various minor dynasties began to rise into a power superior to that of