The Mauryas

Chandragupta Maurya The Great (चन्द्रगुप्त मौर्य महान) (321-297 BCE)

In the history and chronology of Indian rulers, there have been two major anchors which settle down a lot of ambiguity surrounded around the ancient chronology of India. The first anchor is the identification of Greek Sandocottus with Chandragupta Maurya and second the dating of Ashoka with respect to his contemporaneity with various western kings. Taking the same line, R K Mookerji tells that Chandragupta Maurya is the first and the ancient most king whose historicity can be assigned to space and time. All other ancient kings are mere names and legends.

William Jones’ identification of Chandragupta Maurya with Sandrocottos or Androkottos of the Greek classical writers  marked the first anchor in the Indian history. This placed Chandragupta Maurya contemporaneous with Alexander the Great. Jones writes, “This discovery led to another of greater moment; for Chandragupta, who, from a military adventurer, became, like Sandracottus, the sovereign of Upper Hindustand, actually fixed the seat of his empire at Pataliputra, where he received ambassadors from foreign princes; and was no other than that very Sandracottus who concluded a treaty with Seleucus Nicator.”

There has been so much written about the Mauryas in the annals of history that there is probably no need for doing this again here. Then why a new attempt, and here I quote Romila Thapar. In her words, “With so much evidence of various kinds available, it is not to be wondered at that many historians have as it were been lured into writing on the Mauryan period. But this abundance of historical research should, we feel, not deter other historians from attempting new interpretations which may successfully answer the many questions on the Mauryan period which still remain unanswered. We believe that a reinterpretation of existing facts can still be made with every validity; owing to variations of historical approach. These variations are not only possible but are indeed necessary because history is a living discipline.”

Therefore, my intention here is not to frame a romantic story about the ancient Indian hero but cleary point down various theories and postulates gathered around his personality in a simpler manner. Like any other historiography, the major sources taken into consideration are inscriptions, literature and numismatic resources.

There is not much historical information available him, besides that he is mentioned in various legends and stories. These legends and stories are from different periods and times and have recalled details about his life and time. We have to be very cautious while deriving historical data out of these legends, as these do not always represent real history or events. Also, legends in themselves do not agree upon various matters.


A Modern Statue of Chandragupta Maurya


Xandrames & Sandrocottus -There have been suggestions from few scholars that these two personalities mentioned in different Greek accounts are one and the same person. However, this is not the case. Xandrames of Diodorus or Agrammes of Quintus are the one and same person as both writers narrated same events connected with them. This person was a contemporary of Alexander as he was ruling India when Alexander attacked.

Sandocottus of Strabo, Arrian and Justin, or Sandrokoptos of Athenaeus or Androcottus of Arrian and Plutarch is the same person. He is a different person than Xandrames as the former ruled after Alexander left India whereas the latter was a contemporary of Alexander.

D R Mankad citing references from Puranas suggests that Sandrocottus should be identified with Samudragupta and Xandrames with Chandragupta I of the Gupta dynasty. He relied too much on various literary evidences and in the last he turns all the evidences in favor of his theory, but fails to convince. He does not stop here and suggests that the inscriptions of Piyadasi are in fact the inscriptions of Samudragupta. As we now know that these inscriptions which mention Piyadasi are of Ashoka, hence his theory falls flat.

Birth – We will see later that it is clear that Chandragupta was born in a humble life. There have been few accounts found in legend about his early life.

  • Mahavamsa-tika – Chandragupta was born of the queen of the Moriya clan and was raised by a herdsman in Pataliputra.
  • Parishishtaparva – Chandragupta was born to the daughter of the village chief, in a small village near Pataliputra.
  • Justin – He mentions that Chandragupta was born in humble life.

All the above three references point that Chandragupta was not born in a royalty but in humble life and therefore was raised in poverty.

The Name – There have been few legends on how Chandragupta was named. But these are mere legends and can be set aside from historicity.

  • Mahavamsa-tika – As a boy, he was protected by a bull named Chanda, therefore the boy was named Chandagutta.
  • Parishishtaparva – The mother of Chandragupta, during his pregnancy, had a craving to drink chandra (moon). Chanakya fulfilled this craving. Thus when the boy was born, he was named Chandragupta.

Base Origin (Low Caste Birth) – It is popularly (by popularity I do not mean historians but general public) believed that Chandragupta Maurya belonged to some low caste. Let us see how far this perception is true?

  • The Greek accounts – Greek classical writers, except Justin, are silent over the birth or lineage of Chandragupta.
    • Justin tells that Chandragupta was born in humble life and was aspiring after royalty. Does the phrase ‘humble life’ refer to base birth?
  • Mahavamsa-tika – It connects the Mauryas with a Kshatriya Shakya clan, the Moriyas, who settled in Himalayas in a city, Moriya-nagara, the city called so due to peacock-like decoration over houses there.
    • Historicity of Moriyas can be checked as Mahaparinibbana-sutta mentions Moriyas of Pipphalivana as a claimant for the relics of the Buddha as they, like Buddha, were kshatriyas
  • Puranas – All the Puranas are silent over the caste and origin of Chandragupta.
    • Vayu Purana states that the Shudra kingship started with the Nandas.
    • Does this mean that all the dynasties following the Nandas were Shudras? The Kanva dynasty, which is mentioned after the Nandas in the Puranas were Brahmans.
    • Similarly, when the Puranas mention the Mauryas as a new dynasty, neither connecting them with the Nandas nor calling them Shudra, then it is clear that it recognize them as Kshatriya, which normally denotes royalty.
    • There have been some later period commentaries where more information is found. R K Mookerji tells about a commentary which explains the derivation of the tern “Maurya” as originating from Mura where the latter is said to be a wife of the last Nanda king. But the commentator does not say anything about the caste of Mura.
      • R K Mookerji explains that the word Maurya cannot be derived from Mura using any existing rule of the Sanskrit grammar.
  • Mudrarakshasa –  Vrishala (वृषल), a phrase used in this drama has been much of controversy. This phrase can be interpreted in two ways, first “son of a shudra”, and second, “bull among the kings”. It is to be seen that which one applies in this drama.
    • Chanakya refers Chandragupta as Vrishala in this play. Could it be accepted that Chanakya would address the then king in any derogatory manner? If not, then in that case, the meaning of the phrase should be taken as, “bull among kings”.
    • Dhundhiraja, an eighteenth century commentator of Mudrarakshasha, connects Chandragupta with the Nandas. He mentions that a certain Sarvarthasiddhi has two sets of children, nine Nandas from his wife Sunanda and Maurya by his junior wife Mura. This lady, Mura, was a child of a vrishala (shudra). Chandragupta was the son of this Mura therefore was shudra. Can we accept an eighteenth century commentator when all earlier sources are silent over this matter?
  • Jain Sources – These mention Chandragupta as a boy from the lady belonging to the chief of a village of peacock rearer. This explains the humble origin of Chandragupta but not of his low caste.
  • Asokavadana – It puts Bindusara as the son and successor of Nanda, omitting Chadragupta from the genealogy at all. This statement, however, can safely be rejected. But in the same work, Ashoka told to his queen that he is Kshatriya.
  • Kathasaritsagara – Indradatta, after getting imprisoned inside the body of Nanda, said to Vyadhi, “Though a Brahman by birth, I have become a Shudra, what is the use of my royal fortune to me though it be firmly established?” This suggests that Nanda is taken to be a Shudra.
  • H C Seth gives few interesting interpretations. Rejecting the Shakya Kshatriya theory and Nanda connection theory, he explains that Chandragupta originally belonged to north-western India.
    • He forms his hypothesis based upon comments from Appian that Chandragupta was ruling near Indus, Dr. Spooner’s observation that Chandragupta’s palace was very much similar to the palaces in Persepolis, and Greek accounts that Chandragupta was in north-west when Alexander invaded India.
    • As per Seth, all this suggests that Chandragupta was of north-western origin, and suggests that he was same as Sasigupta, the ruler of Hindukush region, whom Alexander appointed as satrap of Assakenois. Therefore, Chandragupta belonged to the Kshatriya tribe of Ashvakas (Ashmakas).
    • For the derivation of Maurya, Seth points to Koh-i-More (Meros of Greek and Meru of Sanskrit). As Chandragupta belonged to this region, therefore the dynasty formed by him was called Maurya.
    • H C Raychaudhury rejects claims made by Seth. Raychaudhury tells that it clearly evident from the Greek accounts that there were two separate persons, Sisikottos and Sandrokottos and were treated differently as well. Therefore the identification of Sisikottos of Chandragupta does not hold water.
    • Seth finds support for his theory that Chandragupta was from Gandhara region from scholars like B M Barua, J W McCrindle, D B Spooner, Hari Ram Gupta, Ranjit Pal, Gur Ratan Pal Singh, Kirpal Singh
  • A suggestion was made (Indian Historical Quarterly vol XIII) that Vrishal is used for the Greek word, ‘basileus’, which means a king.
    • K A N Sastri tells that this word is never used in any other Sanskrit literature ever hence it should not assumed that it is used in this play in the meaning of a king.
  • Every legend, except Mudrarakshasa, agree with the base birth of the last Nanda sovereign. The legends also agree to a degree that Nanda king was despised by his people. His low base birth might be a  reason behind this. If Chankya, wanted to uproot Nanda and install Chandragupta on the throne, in that case, how come Chandragupta can think himself as a claimant of the throne if he is originated also in a base birth?
  • Opinion of various scholars
    • Kshatriya – P L Bhargava, R K Mookerji, R C Majumdar, D C Sircar
    • Low Caste – D N Jha, V A Smith, J M Macphail
  • Conclusion – It was only a later commentator, and the drama also probably, of Mudrarakshasa who made Chandragupta of base origin. But all other legends are silent over this. In this case, we can simply reject the base birth theory. If Chandragupta was not a base birth origin, then to which class he belong to?
    • Buddhist and Puranas agree that Mauryas belong to Kshatriya clan. Mahavamsa connects them with the Moriyas of Himalaya region.

The Nanda Connection – This is generally believed that Chandragupta Maurya was either the son of the last Nanda ruler or somehow connected with him. Let us see how far this perception carry?

  • Justin – Sandrokottus (Chandragupta) by his insolent behavior offended Nandrus (Nanda) and was ordered to put to death by the king. He sought his safety by a speedy flight.
  • Kathasaritsagara – Vyadhi told Indradatta to be cautious of Sakatala as his intention is to make Chandragupta, the son of the previous Nanda, king.
  • Mudrarakshasha  – Dhundhiraja, an eighteenth century commentator of Mudrarakshasha, connects Chandragupta with the Nandas. He mentions that a certain Sarvarthasiddhi has two sets of children, nine Nandas from his wife Sunanda and Maurya by his junior wife Mura. He also mentions that Chandragupta lived in the court of the then Nanda king.
  • Chanakya took vow to exterminate the whole Nanda family, in that case why would he leave Chandragupta who was connected to Nanda, and moreover install him on the throne?
  • Opinion of scholars
    • Connected – P L Bhargava,  V A Smith, J M Macphail
    • No connection – R K Mookerji, H C Raychaudhury
  • Conclusion – From above points it can be safely said that Chandragupta was not connected to the Nanda family. However, he might have been serving in the court of the last Nanda king at some point of time probably.

Meeting of Chandragupta & Chanakya – At some point of time, during his early life, Chandragupta met Chanakya and both started their mission to uproot the then Nanda king. This meeting have been mentioned in few legends.

  • Mahavamsa-tika – Chandragupta, in his village, used to play the “game of royalty” with other kids of the village, in which he played the role of the king. Once passing through that village, Chanakya watched Chandragupta playing this game and was amazed on his justice, swiftness and bravery.
  • Parishishtaparva – Chanakya spotted Chandragupta in a village where the latter was playing the game of royalty in which he played the part of a king.
  • Conclusion – As both, Buddhist and Jain, accounts agree that Chanakya spotted Chandragupta while the latter was playing with other kids, therefore it can taken as true.

Chandragupta’s meeting with Alexander – There is only one account which mentions that Chandragupta met Alexander. All other accounts are silent on this matter.

  • Plutarch – “Androkottos himself, who was then but a youth, saw Alexander himself”.
  • But why would he meet Alexander? It is known from all accounts, that it was Chanakya who made Chandragupta the king of Magadha. Does this mean that first Chandragupta met Chanakya and then both met Alexander? However there is no mention of Chanakya in Greek accounts.
  • Was Chandragupta already aspiring for the Magadha throne even before meeting Chanakya? This means that Chandragupta already had big ambitions and probably to satisfy those he met Alexander. But when Alexander suddenly left India, Chandragupta lost his support and started searching again for someone who can help him. In this search, he was spotted by Chanakya or met him by accident.
  • Opinion of scholars
    • Yes – J M Macphail
    • No –

Frontiers to Pataliputra – Here we try to find out whether Chandragupta first conquered the frontier states and then moved to Pataliputra of vice-verse.

  • Mahavamsa-tika
  • Parishishtaparva
  • Opinion of scholars
    • Frontier to Pataliputra – P L Bhargava, H C Seth, R C Majumdar, G Bhagat, Mahesh Vikram Singh, Brij Bhusan Srivastava
    • Pataliputra to Frontiers – V A Smith, E J Rapson, J M Macphail, Krishna Reddy

Battle with Nanda – It is generally believed and true that Chandragupta defeated Nanda and rose to the throne of Pataliputra. Let’s see what all is there in legends.

  • Greek Accounts – These are silent over the end of Nandas. But it mention that Chandragupta ran over India and ascended the throne of Pataliputra.
    • Justin mention that Chandragupta met two warriors in the west who helped him in his wars of future.
  • Milind-panho – There is a mention between a battle between Chandragupta and the army of Nanda, headed by his general, Bhaddasala.
  • Mahavamsa-tika – Nanda was killed in the battle.
  • Parishishtaparva – Nanda was defeated in the battle. While he was leaving the city with his two wives and a daughter, his daughter, enamored over Chandragupta, got married to Chandragupta.
  • Mudra-rakshasha – The last Nanda king was called Sarvarthsiddhi, who after his defeat, left the town of Pataliputra to lead a life of a recluse.
  • Opinion of scholars – There are two divided opinions, first goes that Nanda was killed and another states that he left in exile after his defeat.
    • Killed –
    • Exiled – J M Macphail

Accession – There have been various theories formed out of many legends. However, there is no need to go to legends to answer this as an Ashokan inscription shows contemporaneity with various western kings and  this settles the age of Ashoka, thus of Chandragupta and Bindusara. However history is not a piece of cake, therefore, below are provided various opinions coming from scholars over this matter. One main reason of difference is the factor whether he conquered western frontier states first and then Pataliputra or vice-verse. Inclusion of legends are just for information as nothing to be derived out of those.

  • Mahavamsa – Ashoka’s coronation happened 218 years after nirvana of Buddha
    • Chandragupta ruled for 24 years and Bindusara for 25, 28 or 27 years as per different sources
    • By above statement, it can be inferred that Chandragupta ascended the throne ~168 years after nirvana of Buddha
  • Parishishtaparva – 155 years after nirvana of Mahavira
  • Kahavali of Bhadreshvara – 155 years after nirvana of Mahavira
  • Vicharashreni of Merutunga – 215 years after nirvana of Mahavira & 255 years before the Vikarama era
    • 255 years before Vikrama era = 313 BCE
  • 324 BCE
    • R K Mookerji
    • H C Raychaudhuri
    • D C Sircar
  • 322 BCE
    • V A Smith (Early History of India)
    • R G Bhandarkar
    • R C Majumdar
  • 321 BCE
    • D N Jha
    • J M Macphail
    • R S Tripathi
    • E J Rapson
    • Romila Thapar
    • Krishna Reddy
  • 317 BCE
    • G M Bongard-Levin
  • 313 BCE
    • P L Bhargava
    • N K Bhattasali
    • M D Mahajan

Defeat of Seleucus – Seleucus, surnamed Nicator, who became king of Babylon after the death of Alexander, crossed Indus river in 305 BCE to revive the dream of Alexander, conquest over India. A battle was fought between Chandragupta and Seleucus at some unspecified location in which the latter was defeated and compelled to withdraw his forces out of India. As per Macphail, it was one of the decisive battles of the world.

  • Strabo – Seleucus crossed Indus and waged war against Chandragupta. Seleucus gave away Arachosia, Paropanisadae and Gedrosia satrapies in order to enter into a matrimonial alliance with Chandragupta and the latter gifted five hundred elephants in exchange to Seleucus.
  • Pliny – Seleucus had to give away the satrapies of Aria (Herat), Arachosia (Kandhar), Paropanisadae (Kabul Valley) and Gedrosia (Baluchistan).
  • Appian – Chandragupta gave five hundred elephants to Seleucus.
  • Smith does not doubt in the defeat of Seleucus as 500 elephants do not suffice the satrapies lost by Seleucus and why will a Greek commander like Seleucus would enter in such a non-profitable treaty until he had not been defeated or no other option left but he said that the legend of Chandragupta marrying a daughter of Seleucus is unwarranted.
  • R S Tripathi does not feel comfortable in accepting the fact that Seleucus was defeated by Chandragupta.
  • Tarn suggests that only those parts of three satrapies, Paropamisadae, Arachosia and Gedroisa, were given away by Seleucus which were lying along the Indus.
    • K A N Sastri disagree with Tarn
  • Tarn throws light on the number of 500 elephants ceded by Chandragupta to Seleucus. He suggests that the real number would have been lower than 500, as 500 was a general number used by Indian to denote a large number of quantity.
  • Hartmut Scharfe suggests that devanam-priya was not the title of a sovereign, but of a vassal. He points that devanam-priya is a translation of the hellenistic court title which translates to ‘friend of the kings’. Alexander the Great had brought with him the system of the close friends of the king who formed his political council. He thus came to a conclusion that the Maurya kings were not sovereigns but vassals of the Macedonian kings, Alexander and later of Seleucus.  Scharfe suggets that Selecus put Chandragupta as the vassal of India province after they made a friendly alliance. Chandragupta’s giving of 500 elephants is under the agreement where vassals supply troops and regiments to their sovereigns for war related purposes.

Family – There have been few references about the family members of Chandragupta.

  • Vayu-Purana-tika – Mura is mentioned as the mother of Chandragupta
  • Various Puranas – Bindusara is mentioned as the son and successor of Chandragupta
  • Parishishtaparva – mentions a queen of his named Durdhara.

Megasthenes’ Account –  Strabo mentions that Seleucus sent Megasthenes as an ambassador to the court of Chandragupta. Megasthenes wrote down his observations in his book Indika which has only survived in fragments as references of the later writers.

  • Megasthenes mentions Pataliputra (Palibothra) as the greatest city in the dominions of the Prassians, situated where the streams of  the  Erannaboas (Hiranyavaha/Son) and the  Ganges  unite. He informs us  that the city stretched in the inhabited quarters to an extreme length on each side of 80 stadia (about 14 km), and that its breadth was 15 stadia (about 2.5 km).
  • The city was defended by a massive timber palisade and surrounded by a deep moat, six plethora (600 feet) in breadth and thirty cubits (60 feets) in depth. There were 64 gates and 570 watch towers across this palisade. The royal camp in the city was estimated to contain 400,000 souls.
    • L A Waddell was the first one to suggest the the mound at village Kumhrar near present Patna could be the location of the Mauryan palace. D B Spooner’s excavation here in 1912-15 have exposed the basement of a royal palace or hall supported on an aisle of pillars. The superstructure was made of timber which probably burned down in later times.
  • Megasthenes tells us that the king and his courtesans lived in luxury and splendor. The king’s palace was built in midst of an extensive park, and was beautified by gilded pillars, artificial fish-ponds and shady avenues. He admired this palace above the palaces of Memnonian Susa and Ekbatana. He further tells that the pillars of the palace were clasped all around with vines embossed in gold and adorned with most exquisite silver figures of various birds.
  • The city was governed by a commission of thirty, divided into six boards of five members each. The first board takes care of industrial arts and artisans being regarded as servant of state. Second board takes care foreigners in their sickness and other needs. The third board is for registering deaths, births and revenues. The fourth board takes care of trade and commerce and regularize usage of weights and measures. The fifth board takes care of regulations of manufactured goods, indigenous or imported. And the last and sixth board takes care of collection of taxes over sales.
  • The army had six offices consisting of thirty members. The first was admiralty, in charge of ships and river ships. Second was in charge of transports, third was infantry, fourth was cavalry, fifth was in charge of elephants and sixth was to take care of chariots. The army of Chandragupta was consisted of 600,000 infantry, 300,000 cavalry, 9,000 elephants and a multitude of chariots.

Bosworth claims that Megasthenes visited Indian when the Mauryan empire was not yet founded. Two dynasts then stood head and shoulders above the rest, Porus on Indus and Chandragupta on Ganges, but neither could claim supremacy. Bosworth relies on comment from Arrian that Megasthenes met Chandragupta, a greater king than Porus. However he suggests that the original reading is that Megasthenes visited Chandragupta, and also Porus, who was yet greater than him.

The only authority which associated Megasthenes with Seleucus is Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria. However, he does not say any of his connection with Chandragupta. Arrian mentions that Megasthenes was an associate of Sibyrtius, the satrap of Arachosia, and that he often claims to have visited Chandragupta.

Taxes – Taxes during the ancient period have been an interesting subject among scholars. It is generally believed that the Indian kings were very much lenient in terms of taxes and levying duties on their subjects, however, few scholars have opinion that there was much more credulity on this front hidden under the carpet rather then what is generally believed and accepted. Scholars coming with the Marxist philosophy always criticized the Indian kings for levying unnecessary duties and taxes.

  • Opinion of scholars
    • R S Sharma – distinguishing feature of Maurya economy is the state control of agriculture, industry and trade and levy of all varieties of taxes from the people
    • D N Jha – the governance of the vast territory with the help of an ever increasing bureaucracy and huge standing army obviously involved heavy expenditure. New and permanent sources of income to the imperial exchequer, therefore, had to be found. This seems to have been the guiding principle of the Maurya state in undertaking and regulating numerous economic activities which brought in profits. The state functioned on the basis of powerful cash economy.

Last Breadth

  • Rajavalikatha (The Rajavalikatha written by the Jain court poet Devachandra in around 1858) – Chandragupta was a Jain and abducted at the time of a great famine and repaired to Mysore where he died.
  • Parishishtaparva – It mentions that Bhadrabahu died in the sixteenth year of Chandragupta’s reign.
    • In this case, can the story of Rajavalikatha be accepted?
  • Few medieval inscriptions in Sravanbelgola mention about Chandragupta and Bhadrabahu who lived there and passed away in Jain fashion.  Inscrip– Srirangapatnam no 147 & 148 (EC III),
  • Opinion of scholars about the Jain story
    • Yes – V A Smith (says in absence of any other account of his last days, Jain story should be accepted), Krishna Reddy
    • No – J M Macphail

Empire – Mahavamsa mentions that Chandragupta ruled over whole Jambudvipa. A second century CE inscription of Rudradaman (Epigraphia Indica vol VIII) in Gujarat mentions lake ‘Sudarshan’ which was built during the reign of Chandragupta and repaired by Ashoka. The inscription proves that Gujarat was under the rule of Chandragupta. Four Satrapies given away by Seleucus were located north-west of Gujarat and it would have been the western boundary of Chandragupta’s empire.

As per Jaina traditions mentioned in Rajavali Katha, Chandragupta embraced Jainism in later period of his life and left the throne for his son. Chandragupta left to south with his preceptor Bhadrabahu. Rice mentions a late period inscription in Sravanbelgola suggesting its conquest by Chandragupta.

Presence of Ashoka’s inscription in Mysore region suggests that it was under his rule. As Kalinga was the only conquest of his, so it is very probable that this region was conquered by Chandragupta and handed over to his successors. Smith award the conquest of South India to Bindusara, the son and successor of Chandragupta.

Aiyangar tells that Mulnamer, an ancient Tamil saint, refers to advances of Mauryas up to Tinnevelly district in early times however he did not mention any name of the king.But he did mention that it was a new dynasty, and in that case he might be referring to Chandragupta or his successor Bindusara.

Raychaudhuri tells that the southern part of India was conquered by the Nandas and Chandragupta got it when he ascended the throne of Magadha. The empire of Chandragupta was extended to modern Afghanistan in the west, Hindukush ranges in the north, West Bengal & Bangladesh in the east and Mysore in the south.

Reign – Vayu Purana and Mahavamsa, both assign a rule of 24 years to Chandragupta and it is accepted by all scholars unanimously.


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