Maurya Empire

Summary

The Mauryas were a dynasty that ruled much of the Indian subcontinent from about 321 to 185 BC. C. Formed from the kingdom of Magadha and the city of Pataliputra on the Ganges plain by Chandragupta, this state subsequently expanded westward, taking advantage of the retreat of Alexander the Great”s troops, and then, under the reigns of the next two rulers, Bindusâra and Aśoka, towards the south and east of the subcontinent, without ever dominating it in its entirety. These rulers formed what is seen as the first great empire in Indian history, following a period of division of the subcontinent between several rival kingdoms. However, this political construction, whose later history is almost unknown, did not prove to be durable. The empire gradually fragmented, and its last ruler was overthrown by the founder of the Shunga dynasty around 185 B.C.

Little emphasized by Indian tradition, probably because its rulers were not adherents of Hinduism, the Maurya Empire was rediscovered by British and Indian historians essentially from three written sources: the Arthashastra, a political treatise attributed to Kautilya, who is said to have been the first minister of the dynasty”s founder; the Indica, an account of a journey to early Maurya India left by a Greek ambassador named Megasthenes; and the rediscovery and translation of the edicts of King Aśoka. For all that, Maurya India remains very poorly known, despite the progress of archaeological research. Its administrative, social and economic organization remains obscure, and architectural and artistic evidence of this period is scarce.

Nevertheless, we can detect one of the most powerful empires of his time, founded by remarkable personalities, first and foremost Aśoka who played a crucial role in the expansion of Buddhism and professed an original political ideology based on the rejection of violence. As a result, he became an important figure in Indian history, the capital of the pillar of Sarnath bearing the inscription of one of his edicts being chosen to become the national emblem of India upon its independence.

Religious traditions

If ancient India does not have a historiographical tradition as such, the texts of its various religious tendencies contain historical elements which, although written very late in the day, contain elements that may be useful for understanding the periods they evoke. Thus, in the Puranas, Brahmanic mythological texts that were compiled from the fifth century onwards, we find lists of the Mauryas rulers, which are the only source that makes it possible to name the rulers who succeeded Aśoka, as well as an account of Chandragupta”s accession to power. As the heterodox schools of thought, Jainism and Buddhism, each had their champion among the Maurya kings, namely Chandragupta for the former and Aśoka for the latter, the texts from these traditions are essential to know these characters, even if they should be taken with caution. Buddhist texts relating to Aśoka have been preserved where this religion has endured to the present day, especially in Sri Lanka and Tibet. For example, the Asokavadana (Legend of Asoka), written around the second century as one of a set of biographies of eminent personalities in Buddhist history with an edifying purpose, contains material on the life of this ruler and his participation in the rise of Buddhism. It evokes his misdeeds prior to his conversion, then his pious acts, notably the foundation of thousands of sanctuaries: these are obviously exaggerations, but may have a basis of truth. This text also claims that this ruler would have taken power after a succession dispute, which is discussed by historians.

The Indica of Megasthenes

The Indica, a description of India left by Megasthenes, ambassador of the Seleucid ruler Seleucus I to the court of Chandragupta (Sandracattos for the Greeks) around 300 BC, is a very instructive source on the Maurya Empire. This work is lost and has only been preserved by quotations by later authors, such as Strabo, Arrien and Diodorus of Sicily. Since antiquity, the veracity of the account of Megasthenes has been questioned (by Strabo in particular), and it is obvious that some information is erroneous. Nevertheless, other passages are considered more reliable by today”s historians, such as the description of the capital Pataliputra (despite exaggerations) or the organization of Indian society.

The Arthashastra of Kautilya

One of the most important sources related to the Maurya dynasty is the Arthashastra, attributed to a man named Kautilya, a political treatise rediscovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, dealing with the organization of the capital of the empire, the art of good government, insisting in particular on the qualities required of the monarch, his behavior to adopt towards his subjects and allies. Its author has been identified with Chanakya, the main adviser of Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty. Despite the fact that the latter is never mentioned in the work, the Arthashastra is often used as a main source to reconstruct the political ideology and organization of the Maurya empire. This is not without its problems, insofar as the Arthashastra does not seem to be the production of a single author, but that of several people, between the beginning of the Maurya era and the third century CE for the later passages. In any case, even though some passages seem to date from the Maurya period, it is a theoretical treatise and not a description of their state. The relevance of using this work to describe the Maurya empire is therefore highly debated.

The Edicts of Aśoka

The rediscovery of the Maurya dynasty rested largely on that of its third ruler, Aśoka, thanks to the inscriptions of several of his edicts that he had commemorated on pillars, several of which stood in major Indian cities at the beginning of British colonization, without their contents being known because their ancient script, brahmi, was not then deciphered. It was the efforts of James Prinsep (1799-1840) that allowed their translation and publication in 1836-38.

Since this period, new edicts have been brought to light, constituting a corpus of about thirty texts found on about fifty sites. They are grouped into several categories:

Most of these edicts are written in the Magadha language (prakrit) in the alphabet called brahmi, but some are in the Kharoshthi alphabet, in Aramaic, and in Kandahar two major edicts in Greek and a minor bilingual edict in Greek and Aramaic have been found. The texts are dated between the tenth year of the king”s reign and the twenty-seventh. They relate King Aśoka”s political ideals after his conversion to Buddhism and his desire to stop committing violent acts in the wake of the devastating Kalinga campaign, and his desire to rule his empire fairly. Doubts remain as to the extent to which the location of these edicts allows us to reconstruct the geography of the Maurya empire, indicating where to locate its borders, or at least the regions over which its control was strongest.

Archaeological discoveries

Archaeological excavations have allowed us to refine our knowledge of the Maurya era. It corresponds roughly to the final period of the expansion of a form of fine black pottery, Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW), which had spread among the elites of the kingdoms that preceded the Maurya Empire (the mahajanapadas). But few sites have been uncovered. In the capital, Pataliputra, covered by present-day Patna (Bihar), the exploration of the Kumrahar site has led to the discovery of the remains of a few official monuments, especially a hypostyle audience hall, but despite the discovery of sections of its wooden wall, the general plan of the city has not been established, which makes it impossible to know whether the descriptions of the city in the texts (notably Megasthenes) are reliable. Buildings of the Maurya period also seem to have been uncovered in Rajgir (Bihar), the ancient capital of Magadha, and in Bhita (Uttar Pradesh), but it is difficult to know with certainty whether they are of the Maurya period or slightly earlier. Levels attributed to the Maurya period have been identified with greater conviction at outlying sites in Pakistan, the Bhir Mound at Taxila and the fortress (Bala Hisar) at Charsadda. At other important sites of the period, such as Sisupalgarh in Odisha (the former Kalinga), it is more problematic to find the Maurya mark. Studies by archaeologists, particularly those related to the interpretation of the modes of domination of the empires, have also sought to clarify the nature of the administration of the Maurya empire and to challenge the idea of a highly centralized empire.

In the fourth century B.C., India was dominated by several political entities, which the Buddhist tradition called mahajanapadas, which had asserted themselves as real kingdoms that were increasingly better structured, at the end of an evolution that had been accompanied by an expansion of agriculture, trade and urbanization. Among these kingdoms, that of Magadha, located in the central plain of the Ganges, had become the most powerful without, however, managing to dominate the others for long. Since 345 B.C., it was dominated by the Nanda dynasty.

The other important fact of Indian history in the second half of the fourth century B.C. was the conquest of the northwestern regions by the troops of Alexander the Great in 326-325. The death of Alexander and the political unrest that followed his death created a situation of instability.

Chandragupta, founder and conqueror

It is in this context that Chandragupta Maurya took power in Magadha in 321 B.C. by overthrowing the Nanda dynasty. The origins of this character, sometimes presented as a kshatriya (positive vision), sometimes as a shudra (negative vision), are obscure, as are the conditions of his seizure of power, which would have been facilitated by his advisor Chanakya (Kautiliya). In any case, after having taken over the domination of the Nandas on the Ganges, he turned to the Indus region where the departure of the Macedonians had left a political vacuum and ousted the satrap of the Punjab, Taxilès. The generals of Alexander (the diadochs), then taken in a war of succession, could not react. It was only in 305 BC that Seleucus, who had taken over the eastern part of Alexander”s empire, led his troops against Chandragupta, but he was defeated. In 303 B.C., the two conclude peace: the Indian recovers the domination on the area of Indus and a large part of current Afghanistan, in exchange of 500 elephants of war offered to the Macedonian which was to make good use of it in its later Western campaigns, while matrimonial exchanges are concluded between the two kingdoms (perhaps within the royal families, but the sources are not explicit on this point). It is in this context of friendly relations that the Seleucid envoy to Pataliputra, Megasthenes, would have collected the information that he compiled in his Indica, which are one of the essential sources on this period. After this military and diplomatic success, the reign of Chandragupta ended around 297 BC. According to the Jain tradition, he abdicated and retired with ascetics belonging to this religious current.

Bindusara

Chandragupta”s son, Bindusara, succeeded him. Little is known about the major events of his reign. A later Tibetan text seems to attribute to him important conquests to the south, in the Deccan, perhaps as far as Karnataka. Western texts report that he would have solicited presents from the Seleucid king Antiochos I with whom the alliance had been preserved: wine, dried figs, and a philosopher with whom to discuss. He died around 272, while most of the Indian subcontinent was under his control.

Aśoka, the king turned peaceful

Aśoka, the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty, has been remembered most by posterity as an exemplary royal figure in the Buddhist tradition. In modern times, it is his numerous edicts inscribed on stone supports (notably pillars) that have revealed the power of the Maurya dynasty and the originality of his political ideology. However, here again the events concerning his reign remain generally unknown. It is not known under what conditions he ascended the throne: some scholars assume a succession war. His edicts refer mainly to his campaign in the eastern region of Kalinga (in present-day Odisha), which took place in the eighth year of his reign (c. 264-260). It resulted in a triumph, but at the cost of heavy human losses. Aśoka felt remorse at this destructive campaign, ceasing his military ventures and adopting an ideal of Buddhist non-violence:

“Eight years after his coronation the king Friend of the Gods (Devanampriya, epithet of Aśoka) with a friendly look conquered Kalinga. One hundred and fifty thousand people were deported; one hundred thousand were killed there; many times that number perished. Then, now that the Kalinga is taken, ardent are the exercise of the Law (Dhamma), the love of the Law, the teaching of the Law in the Friend of the gods. The regret holds the friend of the gods since he conquered the Kalinga. Indeed the conquest of an independent country, it is then the murder, the death or the captivity for the people: thought that the Friend of the gods feels strongly, which weighs on him.”

– Introduction of the XIIIth edict of Asoka.

In fact, the Buddhist tradition has set this ruler up as a model: he is said to have convened a council in his capital to ease tensions within the Buddhist community in 250, to have supported the proselytizing efforts of Buddhist monks towards foreign countries, and to have erected tens of thousands of places of worship.

Aśoka”s reign would have lasted 37 years, which would place his death around 232 B.C. It was under his aegis, after the conquest of Kalinga, that the Maurya empire reached its greatest extension. It is generally considered that the location of his edicts provide a fairly clear indication of the regions he dominated, which would thus correspond to most of the Indian subcontinent, from Kandahar in the west to Odisha in the east, with the exception of the extreme south where his texts mention the presence of other political entities. But this has been questioned: there would be no evidence that the places where the edicts were unearthed were actually under Aśoka”s actual administration, and they may instead indicate the most remote regions with which he had contact.

The end of the dynasty

Aśoka”s successors are virtually unknown, later authors having retained little more than their names. Their reign dates are poorly known:

This period was in any case marked by a weakening of the power of the Mauryas and the progressive fragmentation of their empire. The north-western regions thus came under the control of Greco-Bactrian kings, during the conquests of Demetrios I (c. 200-180), marking the beginning of the “Indo-Greek” kingdoms. In the south, the territories were to regain their autonomy around the same period, before the assertion of the Satavahana dynasty around 100 BC (and not a century earlier, directly after the fall of the Mauryas, as had long been thought).

The causes of this collapse are debated, but in the absence of a good knowledge of the conditions under which the great Maurya rulers exercised power (see below), these debates remain futile. In any case, the last ruler of the dynasty, Brihadratha, who was to dominate little more than the territory of ancient Magadha, perished around 185 BC, assassinated at the instigation of his army commander, Pushyamitra, who founded the Shunga dynasty.

Political ideology

The ideology of the Maurya government emerges above all from Aśoka”s edicts, which proclaim in a very paternalistic tone the manner in which he intended to rule his subjects and what image he wanted to leave to posterity. In this sense, they cannot be confined to a kind of Buddhist profession of faith, for the ruler clearly distinguished between his personal beliefs and the obligations of his office: it is indeed a political program, guided by ethical norms designated by the Prakrit term dhamma (more usually attested in the Sanskrit form dharma, a polysemic term designating a cosmic order in Indian thought). Little said about the concrete exercise of his power, Aśoka insisted above all on seeking the well-being of his subjects, mutual respect between the different components of society, which presupposes in particular a form of tolerance between religious currents (the concepts he dispenses probably suit everyone), as well as on the ideal of non-violence, preferring to conquer by persuasion, obtaining the cooperation of the submissive peoples in order to pacify the country. He gives the impression of wanting to proclaim a law that applies throughout his empire and symbolizes his omnipotence. On the other hand, the way in which the ruler designates himself does not really seek to leave an impression of great power: he presents himself in one place under the title of “raja of Magadha”, but more often under the epithets “Loved by the gods” (Devanampriya

It is difficult to reconcile the ideal of the Aśoka edicts with that of the Arthashastra, which may represent another example of Maurya-era political ideology, although this is doubtful. This political treatise, whose prescriptions are often defined as “Machiavellian,” indeed desires a highly centralized state, built by conquest, ruled by a strictly organized capital. The administration and society are strongly controlled by the sovereign, who uses brutal punishments, espionage and the encouragement of denunciation in order to preserve order. All means are used to obtain the necessary resources for the Treasury, including lies.

Administration

Beyond the ideals presented by Aśoka and Kautilya, it is difficult to know how the administration of the Maurya empire was organized in practice, insofar as the sources that are supposed to document this point are often not considered reliable testimonies to the historical reality of the time. There is every reason to believe that the Maurya administration was inspired by that of the Achaemenids, who had dominated a good part of the northwestern Indian subcontinent for several decades, and it is not insignificant that the Achaemenid influence comes out in the edicts of Aśoka, especially their external aspects (inscriptions on rocks, ornaments on pillars).

Within the central administration, the Arthashastra emphasizes the financial positions of the treasurer and the chief collector, who are responsible for managing and replenishing the royal coffers, respectively. Only the prime minister and the commander-in-chief of the armies seem to take precedence over them. Megasthenes refers to the administration of the empire in his description of the social groups of India, distinguishing two classes (the sixth and the seventh according to his classification):

“The sixth (these meddle in everything and submit the affairs of India to their inspection, and they report to the kings or, if the city to which they belong is not monarchical, to the magistrates. The seventh class is that of the councillors who deliberate on matters of public interest; they are the least numerous, but the most admired for their noble origin and for their judgment; from them come the councillors of kings, the administrators of public affairs, and the judges of disputes, and the rulers and magistrates in general are taken from them.”

– The administrative classes of Maurya India, according to Megasthenes in the Historical Library of Diodorus of Sicily.

The most important group in function (but small in number) is therefore that of the advisors, who are responsible for assisting the sovereign in the management of the kingdom, managing public finances, and administering justice, also including the provincial magistrates. The other social group, that of the inspectors (in Greek ephores), was dedicated to the administration of the empire. The third edict of Aśoka mentions these administrators, bearing the titles of yuktas, rajuka and pradisekas, whose precise duties are difficult to determine. It is their duty to make tours of three to five years, among other things, to teach the people right conduct (the Dhamma), exercising inspection of the administration, or dispensing justice. This emphasis on supervisory duties seems to echo the role of spies in Kautilya”s ideal state, and is further reflected in an edict of Aśoka, who says he wishes to be informed of everything that happens in his empire. Aśoka”s edicts also highlight the presence of princes of royal blood (kumara, aryaputra) holding the rank of viceroy in major cities of the empire (such as Tosali, Ujjain, perhaps Taxila, Suvarnagiri), where they are responsible for relaying royal directives.

The tax system was based on two agrarian taxes, one on the land (surface and quality of the soil) and the other on the quantity produced (a quarter of the harvest according to Megasthenes), but all activities seem in principle to have been subject to levies, and public chores also seem to have existed. In addition, the state sometimes had its own workshops, whose craftsmen could benefit from tax exemptions if we follow the Greek author, and it supervised commercial exchanges, at least for fiscal purposes.

The impression that emerges from the Arthashastra is that of a highly centralized empire, and this image has long been taken up by historians, even though it is only ever the result of a theoretical treatise of uncertain dating. In the present state of knowledge, there are very few architectural clues on the sites of the Maurya period that testify to a centralized empire displaying its power: only a portion of the royal palace at Pataliputra has been uncovered, evidence of a desire to plan new cities to better mark the imperial imprint is limited (perhaps at Bhita or even Sisupalgarh), and it is not certain that all of Aśoka”s edicts are located in regions directly controlled by him, or at least that they show a desire to manifest his dominance in these places. Rather, they could be the places to which his influence extends. From an archaeological point of view, the evidence for the existence of an imperial type of political construction is ultimately very limited.

It is unlikely, moreover, that strong control could have been exercised over all the regions nominally dominated by the Maurya, especially if one follows the idea that the extension of their state really coincided with the location of the edicts. This empire was too large and culturally diverse (the fact that Aśoka”s edicts are inscribed in very different languages reflects its multilingualism), and the central power probably had to deal in some indirectly controlled places with local powers (tribal organizations, urban communities, vassal kings). According to R. According to R. Thapar, one should rather consider three types of control depending on the region:

Social groups

Following the principles present in the religious and legal texts stemming from the Vedic and Brahmanic tradition, in particular the Dharmasutra written between the 6th century BC and the 2nd century BC, Indian society is governed by the principle of castes, i.e. it is divided into four main social classes, the varnas (Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, to which must be added the outcastes, “Untouchables”), which are divided into a myriad of subgroups, the jatis, to which one belongs by birth, determining the professional activity of the persons, their level of honorability and within which the members must marry. The only description of Maurya society left by Megasthenes does not really take up this organization, since he divides it into seven groups: philosophers, ploughmen, shepherds, craftsmen, soldiers, overseers, and advisors. He does mention that the members of these groups must remain in the one in which they were born and cannot take a spouse in another. The differences with the system described in the Indian texts can be explained either by a misunderstanding of Indian society by the Greek observer, or because he gives a more realistic description of it than the Indian theoretical and religious texts, whose objective is above all ritual (questions of impurity), leaving aside distinctions linked to economic or administrative functions.

The testimony of Megasthenes is nevertheless sufficiently precise for correspondences to be made with what is known elsewhere about ancient Indian societies. The category of “Philosophers” is the one considered most honorable by Megasthenes, having to perform the rituals in exchange for an exemption from any other task, which corresponds well to the Brahmins, followers of the Vedic tradition. This group must also include the Shramanas, ascetics and monks belonging to the “heterodox” currents (Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikas, etc.). The peasants, a group in which it is necessary to include especially those who cultivate the land, are in principle members of the varna of the shudras. They reside in the many villages in the countryside of the Indian subcontinent, but it does not appear that they generally owned the land they farmed. It is known that the crown owned many estates managed by stewards, which it could concede to its servants who would have them exploited by peasants. Rich landowners are also attested. These estates must also have employed slaves (which Megasthenes claims to be absent from India, even if local sources contradict him). The category of pastoralists, meanwhile, is presented by the Greek author as consisting of tribes, presumably including semi-nomadic groups, or the “Bush People” (Atavikas) mentioned in various ancient texts (including the edicts of Aśoka), presented as difficult to control people from whom better behavior is expected. Artisans are a diverse group, often organized into urban guilds (we know from Buddhist texts that wealthy landlords were drawn from this background. The merchants and money men (setthis) are on the other hand ignored by the classification of Megasthenes. As for the magistrates and advisors, they belong to the category of members of the administration, including kshatriyas and Brahmins. It is thus a hierarchical society with many dividing lines, and tensions, which would explain the calls for social concord present in Aśoka”s edicts, especially between the religious categories (Brahmanas and Shramanas).

Cities and urbanism

The Maurya period follows on from the years 600-300 B.C., which saw a development of urbanization in the Indian kingdoms. Several types of agglomerations have been identified by researchers, on the basis of archaeological discoveries but also of the Arthashastra, constituting a hierarchical urban network. At the base were villages (grama), then towns serving as administrative and commercial centers at the local level, then district and provincial capitals, up to the main cities, lastly the capital Pataliputra which, according to approximate estimates, must have covered an area of about 2,500 hectares. According to the testimony of Megasthenes and the prescriptions of Kautilya, the cities were equipped with their own administration, in charge of ensuring order, collecting taxes and supervising commercial and artisanal activities. They give the image of an efficient administration, which cannot be confirmed in the absence of complementary sources.

Following the ideal organization of a city proposed by the Arthashastra, which was intended to be a miniature representation of the cosmos, the city must be planned, quadrangular, defended by three successive earthen levees and organized around large avenues starting from the main gates, with a separation of the inhabitants according to their caste and their activities. The archaeological evidence only partially confirms this. Excavations have made it possible to recognize sections of walls, which were essential elements of the urban planning of the time, highlighted in particular in the Arthashastra. At Pataliputra, the remains of wooden walls were found; they must have originally stood on an earthen embankment. A contemporary enclosure of similar construction has been uncovered at Bulandibagh in Bangladesh. In Rajgir, on the other hand, the extension of the city, which could date from the Maurya period, is protected by two stone enclosures. The rampart of Sisupalgarh in Odisha is made of bricks. The urban planning of the cities of this period could be approached especially on the sites of Taxila and Bhita, where residential sectors have been cleared. The houses of Bhita are generally square in shape, organized around an open-air courtyard. The urban planning of Bhita seems regular, indicating a planned construction, a pattern that is not found in Taxila where the street layout is more tormented and the habitat more dense. These residential sectors also included workshops (metal, cloth, shells), confirming the manufacturing role of the urban sites, where there must have been neighborhoods specialized in certain types of production.

The monumental urban architecture of the Maurya period escapes us, apart from the hypostyle hall of Kumrahar at Pataliputra, the only testimony of the royal palace. It consisted of 80 pillars supporting a roof which must have been made of wood. The origin of this type of building is commonly considered to be Western because the architecture recalls that of the Achaemenid apadanas and the capitals take up elements of Greek art, but the modalities of the diffusion and reception in India of these artistic influences escape us.

The religious currents

The period before the Maurya era had seen important developments in the religious landscape of India. The dominant thought was derived from the traditional Vedic religion, which culminated in the sacrificial rite prescribed by the sacred texts, the Vedas, and was performed by the brahmins, who enjoyed unparalleled social prestige. This “orthodox” religious thought was more and more contested in the circles of the shramanas, wandering ascetics who lived on the fringe of society, and developed several “heterodox” currents of thought which popularized in particular the idea of the cycle of reincarnations (samsara) and liberation from it (thus a search for salvation). Among these tendencies, it was Buddhism and Jainism, which appeared in the 6th century B.C. or in the 5th century B.C. (many specialists agree to date the disappearance of Gautama Buddha around 400 B.C.), It is not surprising that some of these religions, such as the one called Ajivika, had a certain echo in Antiquity, but they had the most important posterity, to the point of progressively constituting themselves as independent religions with their own monastic organization and their own corpus of traditional texts. It is perhaps in reaction to these criticisms that devotion (bhakti) to secondary deities of the Vedic era developed during the second half of the first millennium B.C. and progressively became preeminent (in particular Vishnu and Shiva), causing this “orthodox” religion to evolve into a new form, which is commonly called “Brahmanism” (which later became “Hinduism”). This evolution would seem to be asserted from the Maurya period, but it triumphed thereafter.

Later religious traditions have made the three great Maurya rulers followers of heterodox currents. The Brahmanical currents do not seem to hold them in esteem, and this undoubtedly explains why they did not have the prestige of their distant Gupta successors, who were fervent followers of the great Hindu gods. Thus, Chandragupta would have been a follower of Jainism, and would have spent the last years of his life in company of Jain ascetics after having left his power to his son Bindusara. The latter, in turn, is said to have been attracted to ajivika thought. Aśoka, left in obscurity by Hindu authors, was celebrated by the Buddhist tradition as a model king. His edicts and his proclamation of non-violence, an important concept in Buddhism, seem to confirm this inclination, but these inscriptions should not be limited to the proclamation of Buddhist beliefs, for they are more broadly part of a search for social concord. Moreover, Aśoka does not seem to have been hostile to other religious tendencies, repeating in his edicts that he wished to see Brahmins and ascetics of other religious currents cohabit in peace. The texts of the Buddhist traditions nevertheless make him a major actor of the propagation of the religion. They attribute to him the foundation of numerous places of worship (a whopping 84,000 stupas according to the Chinese pilgrims of the medieval Faxian and Xuanzang periods) and the active participation in the diffusion of this religion. He is also said to have sponsored the Council of Pataliputra, which was the occasion for doctrinal disputes and the sending of proselytizing missions to foreign countries (including his own son to Sri Lanka). While these accounts are clearly made up of exaggerations, it is generally accepted that Aśoka”s reign was decisive in the expansion of Buddhism.

Stupas

The erection of Buddhist shrines at Aśoka”s instigation probably played a role in the development of religious architecture in India. Several of his pillars were erected at places connected with the life of the Buddha: for example, he erected one of these columns at Lumbini (Nepal), the birthplace of the Buddha, which he visited during his twentieth year of rule (c. 259 B.C.), and where a temple was erected. This is probably not the first development of Buddhist monuments, but since these were the first buildings of this type to be constructed of stone and brick, the earliest examples that have survived to the present day date from this period. They are, however, very few in number. Thus, Aśoka is the origin of the construction of many stupas, brick mounds enclosing a relic of the Buddha. But these were later rebuilt and enlarged, no longer having their original form. It is assumed that they were simple structures of hemispherical shape. A Maurya-period state could be spotted during excavations at Vaisali: initially a simple earthen structure, it was quickly equipped with a baked brick lining, probably from the reign of Aśoka. There are, however, no traces of monasteries dating from this period, probably because they were not yet structures built to last in time but temporary places of retreat.

Caves

On the other hand, the first examples of places of worship built in caves seem to date back to the Maurya period. This is perhaps the case of the Son Bhandar cave near Rajgir. The Barabar Caves in the Barabar and Nagarjuni hills (Bihar) are dated by inscriptions to the time of Aśoka and his grandson Dasaratha, and seem to have been used by various ascetics of the heterodox currents (Ajivikas especially). They consist of vaulted or domed rooms cut into the rock. One of these caves, that of Lomas Rishi, has preserved a sculpted façade in the form of a double arch decorated with a frieze representing elephants. The first examples of temples dedicated to Hindu deities seem to date from this period, which is an innovation since Vedism ignored monumental architecture.

Religious art

The religious art of the period is, however, not well known, especially because the dating of the few sculptures that some attribute to this period is disputed, the most remarkable being a statue of a yakshini from Didarganj (Bihar). Several terracotta statuettes and plaques from the period, often in fragmentary condition, depict female deities (described by art historians as “mother goddesses”) and clearly have a religious context. The first examples of Buddhist art to be dated with certainty, notably the sculptures from the Bharhut sanctuary (Madhya Pradesh), date back to the Shunga period, which directly follows the Maurya period.

If the Maurya Empire achieved a remarkable influence during the reign of its principal rulers, there is little evidence that they were particularly celebrated by their successors. There is thus no indication that the Guptas attempted to place themselves in their continuity, even though their first ruler bore the name Chandragupta, and another king of the dynasty, Samudragupta, left an inscription on an Aśoka pillar at Prayagraj (Allāhābād). After the fourth century CE, the texts of the Aśoka inscriptions, although visible on pillars placed in several major Indian cities, were no longer read because their writing was no longer understood. The memory of this king was preserved in Buddhist texts, but the disappearance of this religion in India meant that he was forgotten in his own country, outside the monarchical lists preserved by the Puranas. The Brahmanic tradition seems to have sought rather to marginalize this dynasty, which showed a preference for heterodox currents.

The deciphering of the brahmi in the first half of the nineteenth century by James Prinsep and then the rediscovery of the Aśoka inscriptions on the contrary gave the Maurya Empire great visibility in Indian history from the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. British historians made it the equivalent of the other great ancient empires, perceiving their rulers rather as autocrats. The ideal of peace and tolerance advocated by Aśoka was celebrated by some, while others saw in it the seeds of the fall of his empire, demilitarized by the will of his ruler. Indian nationalist writers took it as a model for Indian independence, as it was an empire founded by an Indian dynasty that had dominated much the same territory as the Indian Empire. Nehru referred to Aśoka several times in his speeches, because he was a great figure in whom the nascent Indian nation could recognize itself, and in particular a figure advocating an ideal of harmony between religious currents that he hoped would triumph at the time of India”s independence. The statue of the four lions on the pillar of Aśoka in Sarnath was chosen in this context to be the emblem of the Indian Republic, and the wheel (chakra) sculpted on it appears on the country”s flag.

Art and archaeology of ancient India

Other

Sources

  1. Empire maurya
  2. Maurya Empire
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