Chandragupta Maurya: Emperor to Ascetic (324-297 BCE)
From ‘low born’ to king of kings, Chandragupta Maurya ruled at a pivotal point in the subcontinent’s history. A contemporary of Alexander, he built one of India’s greatest empires only to give it all up, at the height of his power. Here’s his riveting story pieced together by historians across the ages
It may have been somewhere in Taxila, literally the ‘city made of stone’, only 32 km from modern-day Islamabad, that two young men came face to face more than 2,300 years ago. One was the Macedonian king Alexander, aged 30, who had recently defeated Persian Emperor Darius III and conquered the Achaemenid Empire a few years earlier. After that, he spent a year bringing Syria and the whole of Egypt under his control. The other young man, Chandragupta, aged around 20, had come from a village close to Pataliputra, 1,500 km south. He had spent the last few years following a gruelling schedule of studies in this university town, under the watchful gaze of his teacher, Kautilya.
Alexander would have barely acknowledged the young man; he was a nobody. Chandragupta, on the other hand, would have been watching Alexander closely, wondering how long it would take him to acquire the fame, aura and power of the Macedonian conqueror.
He didn’t have to wait long. Within the next few years, the ambitious young Chandragupta would pick up from where Alexander had left off, cash in on the confusion after the Macedonian’s departure and death (Alexander died in 323 BCE) and head south to take over the kingdom that the Greek army had been so reluctant to face – that of the Nandas in Magadha.
Over the next two decades, he would go on to establish the subcontinent’s largest empire – that of the Mauryas. Then he would do the unthinkable – give it all up.
Ironically, the story of the amazing Chandragupta, his possible meeting with Alexander and his escapades in and around Taxila, would have probably been lost to us if it hadn’t been for two chance discoveries which connected so many dots. One was by eminent jurist, linguist and orientalist, the great Sir William Jones in Calcutta in 1793, and the second by renowned Sanskrit scholar Rudrapatna Shamasastry in Mysore in 1905.
In his 1st century CE work on Alexander, Greek biographer Plutarch wrote about how Alexander had met a young man, Sandrokottos, who would eventually defeat the Nanda ruler Agrammes or Xandrames (Dhanananda, the last of the Nanda kings) and claim the Magadha crown. Other Graeco-Roman accounts also made references to this ‘Sandrokottos’, who historians in India could not place.
The question – who was Sandrokottos – flummoxed many.
A Sanskrit scholar and linguist, William Jones, chanced upon the answer when he came across a Sanskrit play, Mudrarakshasa, written between the 4th and 8th centuries CE by Vishakhadatta. The play narrated the story of the ascent of King Chandragupta Maurya and how he had defeated the last Nanda ruler. Jones, who founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal, in Kolkata, in the late 18th century CE, put two and two together and concluded that the ‘Sandrokottos’ of Greek records was none other than Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan Empire.
This was a landmark discovery because, for the first time, it helped connect the chronology of India’s past with the West and the Middle East. It also opened up the era of the Mauryan Empire, and scholars began to piece together the story through the Puranas, Buddhist and Jain texts and now even Graeco-Roman accounts.
Another critical piece in the Mauryan puzzle was solved in Mysore in 1905. The story goes that, one day, an old Brahmin from Tanjore had handed over a set of very old and frayed manuscripts to the librarian at the Oriental Research Institute Mysore – prominent Sanskrit scholar Rudrapatna Shamasastry. Shamasastry studied the manuscripts and, to his surprise, discovered that they were of immense value. While there had been many references to the great Chanakya or Kautilya and his work on statecraft, the Arthashastra in classical works, this was the first time the full treatise, in its original form, had been found. It was Shamasastry who first translated this work into English.
These two discoveries, made over a century apart, helped piece together the story of the audacious rise of a young fatherless boy who became Emperor!
Chanakya & Chandragupta
History is often coloured by the person who pens it as the angle depends on the perspective from which you view it. This is particularly true when you read about Chandragupta, where he came from and his meteoric rise.
We have three versions of this – the Buddhist, the Jain and the Brahmanical. After all, this was the era in which each of these faiths was vying for space and influence.
The Buddhists say Chandragupta came from a family of little means who were rulers of a small republic called Pipphalivanathe. The Jains say his father was a chieftain and he was of noble birth. The Puranas say he was low born. Probably the son of a Shudra woman (some say he was the son of the Nanda king’s concubine), all these accounts largely ignore him and only refer to him as ‘low born’. Instead, the Puranas turn the focus on his teacher and mentor, the Brahmin Chanakya, who is lauded as the ‘King Maker’.
All the accounts agree that he came from a humble background and rose by grit and good luck – in equal measure.
Interestingly, many folk tales and parables have been spun around the life of Chandragupta and passed on for over two millennia. Literary works too have been inspired by him (Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa) and Graeco-Roman accounts (those of Strabo, Arrian, Plutarch and Megasthenes) give us a glimpse into what Chandragupta was like.
One popular tale is how Chanakya first encountered Chandragupta. According to the Buddhist version mentioned in the Mahavamsa , Chanakya or Kautilya first saw Chandragupta as a young boy playing with his friends and bossing over them as ‘king’. He was so impressed by the boy’s authoritative demeanour that he took him under his wing.
The Buddhist version also claims that Chandragupta had been born in a royal family, but was brought up by a hunter after his father was killed. According to the texts, Chandragupta belonged to the Kshatriya clan of the Moriyas, which was associated with the Shakyas (Buddha’s clan). This account, like much of what has been written about Chandragupta, came from a later period. The Mahavamsa was probably written in the 4-5th century CE.
Both Buddhist and Jain texts speak about the antagonism between Chanakya and the last Nanda king, and how it was revenge that propelled Chanakya to ‘train’ Chandragupta to be king so that he could destroy the Nandas, who, interestingly, are looked down upon by all the sources (Buddhist, Jain and Brahmanical), even though they were a formidable power of their time and most definitely the immediate reason for the rebellion of Alexander’s army and their refusal to march forward into India.
The other famous story around Chandragupta talks of the time when he and his mentor were grappling with how to take on the Nandas. The Nanda army was far superior to the one under Chandragupta and it seems there were early setbacks, until a chance encounter. Once, when the Emperor-in-waiting was travelling, he is said to have come across a mother scolding her son who had scalded his hand trying to have a go at the centre of a piping hot chappati (flat bread). Chiding him, she pointed out how it was smarter to eat the bread outside-in. On seeing this, Chandragupta realised his folly, in attacking the Nandas at the heart of their empire. He then shifted his focus to the periphery, in the North West.
It is here that the sequence of events gets slightly foggy. The Mahavamsa also describes how Chandragupta and Chanakya set out to collect recruits from different places. There are references to how a large number of his soldiers (mercenaries) came from the republics in and around Punjab. Jain text, Parishishtaparvan, and the later play Mudrarakshasa talk of a crucial alliance that Chandragupta forged with a Himalayan king, Parvataka, and how the army that finally stormed the Nanda bastion in Pataliputra would have been composed of mostly groups of Sakas, Yavanas, Kambojas and Kiratas. Interestingly in the play Mudrarakshasa King Parvataka is mysteriously killed (probably poisoned) just as Chandragupta comes close to victory …
Historians surmise that what helped Chandragupta was the weakening Greek position in North-Western India after the retreat of Alexander. This was a period of rivalries and murders among the Greeks’ leading the eastern flank. The Nandas too were in decline and Chandragupta filled a void.
By 321 BCE, Chandragupta was on the throne of Magadha, kick-starting a reign of 24 years. Once in control of the large empire that the Nandas had left, Chandragupta also expanded its territory. Records show that he camped north of the Narmada in Central India. In 305 BCE, he was back on the North-West frontier of the subcontinent, taking on the might of the Greek King Seleucus Nicator. Chandragupta defeated him in 303 BCE, taking over the eastern provinces of Aria, Arachosia and Paropanisadee (Herat, Kandahar and Kabul) that were till then with the Greeks. There was also a matrimonial alliance with Chandragupta, who most probably took a Greek wife.
Stories, many of which are in texts written centuries later, abound on the adventures of Chandragupta and his mentor Chanakya, and how the former’s grit was matched by the latter’s cunning. According to one popular tale, Chanakya even mixed small doses of poison in the new king’s food to make him immune to poisoning attempts by the enemies!
Chandragupta, The Ruler
Early historians studying the times and reign of Chandragupta often used Chanakya’s treatise on statecraft to explain what Chandragupta’s own administration would have looked like. But subsequent research has raised serious questions about this. American historian and cultural anthropologist Thomas R Trautmann, for instance, has done a statistical analysis to see whether the author of the work was really one man. With the help of technology and looking at frequently used words, he has concluded that the Arthashastra is a product of three to four authors. However, this study has been questioned by others. Regardless, the earliest copy of the Arthashastra – the one acquired by the Oriental Research Institute Mysore in 1905 – is just 450 years old.
Nevertheless, we can piece together some bits of information about the times of Chandragupta from records. The only actual inscriptional reference to Chandragupta comes from the Junagadh rock inscription of Rudradaman from the 2nd century CE. The inscription attributes the construction of a reservoir in Junagadh, Gujarat, to the reign of Chandragupta. Graeco-Roman sources, meanwhile, are expansive about the spread of the empire under Chandragupta. Plutarch, for instance, claims that Sandrokottos took over the whole of ‘India’.
Sadly, little remains of the original work by Megasthenes but what we do have are excerpts of the ambassador’s records that have come down through the ages, albeit in fragments, and through the writings of others. German classical scholar and Indologist Dr Erwin Alexis Schwanbeck was the first to collate all the bits and pieces or Megastheneses’s Indica into a book titled Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian. This was later translated into English by Scottish philologist John Watson McCrindle, who was also the Principal of the Government College of Patna.
The account that comes through these extracts is fascinating and often unbelievable, especially for the times. But they do have some colourful nuggets that tell us about Chandragupta and how he lived in a ‘palace with gilded pillars’. He is said to have worn the finest of muslins bordered in purple and gold embroidery, and we are told he was surrounded by a personal guard of women hunters!
Chandragupta’s empire covered a vast swathe of land from present-day Afghanistan to South of the Vindhyas, and from Kathiawar in the West to Bengal in the East. A large part of the Gangetic Delta (Gangaridae to the Greeks) and Prassii (Magadha) came from the Nandas but there is evidence that Chandragupta was often on the road for conquest.
Two regions, Kalinga (Odisha) and Andhra, remained powerful centres though the former may have been part of Chandragupta’s empire for a while.
There are also some references in Tamil texts that mention an invasion by the ‘Vamba Moryar’, translated as ‘Maurya upstarts’.
Other references point to how the Mauryas may have gone up to Tirunelveli District in present-day Tamil Nadu. Many of the areas of the empire could also have been ‘protectorates’ rather than under Chandragupta’s direct control.
Chandragupta’s vast empire was divided into provinces ruled by governors and it is a testament to his skills that the empire remained intact for as long as it did – under his son Bindusara and grandson Ashoka. In fact, historian P L Bhargava, in his book Chandragupta Maurya sums it up when he writes:
“Chandragupta was no mere military adventurer and his greatness does not depend upon only his military feats…He knew how to organise as well as conquer a vast empire. His organisation was so thorough that his empire passed intact at least to his son and grandson.”
Chandragupta Maurya is said to have reigned from 324-297 BCE. Today, the material evidence of his reign is limited to the excavations at Pataliputra. The palisade excavated by archaeologist D B Spooner (1912-1915) is amazingly close to that described by Megasthenes in his Indica. At the archaeological site, there are also the remains of a multi-pillared hall and a beautiful Greek-inspired stone capital.
The Walk Down South
Go to Shravanabelagola, around 144 km from Bengaluru, and you will see a steady stream of Jain pilgrims visiting the sacred hills of Chandragiri and Vindhyagiri, where the 58-foot-tall, monolithic statue of Gommateshwara stands. It is believed that 2,300 years ago, this is where Jain monk Acharya Bhadrabahu decided to stop with his followers. One of them was Chandragupta Maurya.
According to Jain texts, Chandragupta, in his last days, renounced his throne to follow Jain ascetic Bhadrabahu, who had predicted a major 12-year-drought in his kingdom. Chandragupta and his teacher are said to have spent months meditating here.
Interestingly, a couple of copper plate inscriptions from Sohgaura (near Gorakhpur in UP) and Mahasthangarh (present-day Bangladesh) dated to the 3rd century BCE, speak of drought-relief measures taken, probably referring to this drought.
After Bhadrabahu’s death, Chandragupta is said to have followed the Jain practice of sallekhana i.e. fasting to death. While some historians have questioned the veracity of the story, penned hundreds of years after Chandragupta’s death, the legend lives on. In fact, in Chandragiri, you will find the place where Chandragupta meditated with his guru and where he passed on, into the sunset, over the hill.
It was a quiet end to a life full of action and glory for a boy who rose to become an Emperor.
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.