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.<
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
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
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
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