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Mauryan Empire and King Ashoka

Mauryan Empire and King Ashoka

By CarolUpdated Mar. 11, 2022

The Mauryan Empire (322–185 BC) was one of the world's greatest empires that has ever existed. It was the first empire to unify most the Indian subcontinent under one ruler. The empire was formed in 322 BCE by Chandragupta Maurya when he defeated the earlier Nanda Empire.

During the empire's peak under King Ashoka's rule, the vast empire's territory extended over 5 million square kilometers (2 million square miles), stretching over parts of modern-day Iran and throughout the Indian subcontinent, except the southern peninsular tip.

"India's" economy and agriculture thrived during this period as efficient systems of finance and administration were put in place. Important trade routes were also established during this dynasty.

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The Territory of the Mauryan Empire

In the beginning, the empire started with a relatively small territory in northern India. It prospered and continued to grow in size as Chandragupta Maurya defeated the surrounding kingdoms.

By the rule of his grandson Ashoka, the empire covered most of the Indian subcontinent. The Kalinga Kingdom on the east coast was the last addition to the empire, after which the empire did not expand anymore. After Ashoka, the empire gradually lost territory until it was defeated in 185 BCE.

History of the Mauryan Empire and Its Emperors

Interestingly, Alexander the Great played a significant role in the rise of the Mauryan Empire. He travelled east during his military campaign and conquered the modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan areas. However, he decided not to go further after battle confrontations with the Nanda Empire in northern India, and instead retreated.

When Alexander the Great withdrew from the region, he had caused disruptions in the local powers. It was during this time of instability that the Mauryan dynasty emerged under Chandragupta Maurya's leadership in 322 BC.

Unfortunately, this once glorious empire only lasted until 185 BCE. Subsequently the region was ruled by smaller kingdoms, and was not united again until much later in the 16th century AD by the Mughal Dynasty.

These are the emperors of the Mauryan Empire:

Chandragupta Maurya (ruled 322–297 BCE)

Chandragupta Maurya founded the Mauryan Empire when he overthrew the Nanda Empire in 322 BCE. He was assisted by Chanakya, his royal advisor. They then expanded westwards across the regions left behind by Alexander the Great, and also defeated Seleucus, Alexander's satrap.

After 25 years of rule, Chandragupta Maurya converted from being a Hindu to become a Jain monk and left the kingdom to his son, Bindusara.

Bindusara (ruled 297–272 BCE)

Chandragupta Maurya's son, Bindusara is credited for consolidating the empire he inherited and expanding the empire southwards. However, he failed in his conquest of the Kalinga Kingdom on the east. After the death of Bindusara, his son Ashoka seized the throne by killing his brothers.

Ashoka (ruled 272–232 BCE)

Having taken the throne through fratricide, Ashoka was initially seen as a cruel and ambitious figure. However, this changed completely after he conquered the Kalinga Kingdom.

Casualties from the conquest of the Kalinga Kingdom were numerous. Out of 150,000 deployed, 100,000 were killed, and many more were injured. This war caused him deep regret.

After this, he turned to embrace Buddhism and adopted good policies and values that benefit the populace. The Mauryan Empire enjoyed peace and prosperity under his rule.

After Ashoka (232–185 BCE)

Unfortunately, Ashoka's successors were unable to hold the empire together and it slowly disintegrated. After only 47 years from Ashoka's death, the reigning Mauryan emperor was killed by his general, who started the Shunga Dynasty.

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Ashoka, the Greatest King of the Mauryan Empire

While Ashoka was only one of the emperors during the glorious reign of the Mauryan Empire, he was undoubtable the most remembered and respected emperor. Even the modern emblem of the modern Republic of India has adopted the symbol of the Lion Capital of Ashoka.

Ashoka, The Young Emperor

Ashoka was a ruthless young ruler when he won the throne after his father's death by killing his brothers. The kingdom he inherited was very large due to the massive expansions by his forefathers. He was aggressive and asserted the Empire's authority by successfully crushing revolts.

Ashoka's Turning Point — the Battle for the Kalinga Kingdom

However, there was a kingdom to the east called the Kalinga Kingdom that his father, Bindusara, failed to conquer. On the eighth year of his reign (265 BCE), Ashoka decided to conquer the kingdom and was successful.

The war was especially bloody and long, and this sent Ashoka into deep remorse. The casualties from the battle were numerous. Out of 150,000 deployed, 100,000 were killed. This became a turning point of Ashoka's life.

After the battle against the Kalinga Kingdom, Ashoka converted to Buddhism. He became a different person as his life perspective was altered.

Ashoka, The Benevolent Emperor

Ashoka did not attack other kingdoms anymore, but instead focused his energy on ruling his large empire. Ashoka reinforced policies based on Buddhist principles, which were beneficial to the welfare and happiness of the people.

He built pillars throughout his kingdom with inscriptions of his edicts. He implored the people to live according to Dharma (Buddhist ‘truth' or ‘order'), which includes living in harmony, avoiding violence, religious tolerance, and respect for elders, parents, and teachers.

These good intentions for his people and his status as a fatherly figure in his empire is reflected in one of Ashoka's edicts: "All men are my children. As for my own children, I desire that they may be provided with all the welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, so do I desire for all men as well."

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The Spread of Jainism

Jainism is an ancient Indian religion tracing back to at least 2,800 years ago. It shares overlapping ideas with Hinduism such as the cycle of rebirth and karma. Non-violence is one of its main principles.

Chandragupta Maurya's embrace of Jainism triggered social and religious reforms across South Asia. Later, Buddhism took over as the main religion during Ashoka's rule, but Ashoka's grandson, Samprati, also patronized Jainism.

He built many Jain temples and sent out missionaries to regions as far as Greece, Persia, and the Middle East. These two emperors of the Mauryan Empire are credited for the Spread of Jainism in South India.

The Spread of Buddhism

After Ashoka converted to Buddhism, Buddhist principles became the guiding principles in his imperial edicts. Not only was the Mauryan Empire influenced by Buddhism, but it also played a very important role in spreading the teachings of Buddha, who died only about one and a half centuries before the beginning of the empire in c. 483 BCE.

Ashoka sent out Buddhist monks to Sri Lanka, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Egypt, and Hellenistic Europe. He even sent two of his own children, his son Mahinga and daughter Samghamitta, as missionaries to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka's official religion today is Buddhism, owing to the legacy of Ashoka's two children.

Ashoka also built numerous stupas within his region and even in Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Buddhism thrived after Ashoka's death for nearly 600 years before it was almost annihilated and replaced by Hinduism. See more on Hinduism vs Buddhism — 3 Major Similarities and 4 Major Differences.

Even though now there are not many Buddhist followers in India, the religion took deep root in other parts of Asia. Not only in Sri Lanka, but also in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, Buddhism has become deeply imbedded in national culture. This is probably Ashoka's most lasting legacy.

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The Most Popular Mauryan Architectures

There are still remains of various Mauryan architectures that can be found in the Indian subcontinent. The most significant are:

Ashokan Pillars

Much of what is known about the Mauryan Empire is derived from inscriptions on the Ashokan pillars found across the Mauryan territory, in today's India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. These are 12–15 meters (40–50 feet) high standstone pillars topped with lion sculptures.

Ashokan pillars provide an invaluable insight into Ashoka's edicts, ideas, and life events. A great place to see an Ashokan pillar is in Sarnath, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Sanchi Complex

Sanchi Complex is an ancient Buddhist complex in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, known for its Great Stupa. The Great Stupa was the first commissioned by Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, and still remains as one of the oldest stone structures in India. This hemispherical brick structure was built to house the relics of Buddha.

One of Ashoka's pillars with his edicts inscribed on it can also be seen in this complex. Like many of his other pillars, the pillar is crowned by a statue of four lions. 

The Ruins of Pataliputra

The capital city of the Mauryan Empire was in Pataliputra, modern-day Patna. The writings of a Greek diplomat, Megasthenes, suggest that Pataliputra was a city of splendor during its time, with numerous gates and towers. Archeological remains of this great ancient Indian city can be seen in Patna.

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Dharmarajika Stupa

Dharmarajika Stupa is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It is an ancient Buddhist stupa located in Taxila in Pakistan, built to house fragments of Buddha's bones. Surrounding it is a large monastery complex.

While the current stupa is believed to have been built in the 2nd century by the Kushan dynasty, it is said that it had been built over the remains of an older stupa built by Ashoka in the 3rd century BC.

Explore India with Asia Highlights

Learning more about the Mauryan Dynasty through its legacy of architecture (like the Ashokan pillars and stupas) and culture (Jain and Buddhist roots) is best done in India. With our customizable tours, you can discover India your way more deeply and in comfort.

We also create tailor-made tours from customers' ideas, so you can have your own unique journey across this enchanting country.

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