August 20, 2017

The Indian Ceasar: The Life of Chandragupta Maurya, India’s First Emperor

In its long and storied history, the land that we today call India has been ruled by countless rulers. Some of these were indigenous to the land, others were foreigners. Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, Turkic Muslims and the British have all had their time overseeing parts of India within their respective empires. However, it’s important not to forget the first and possibly greatest of these Indian empires. We’re talking here about the Mauya Empire, founded by none other than Chandragupta Maurya.

Chandragupta’s Early Life

The great king and emperor whom some call the “Indian Caesar” is believed to have come from relatively humble origins. One story is that he was born into a noble but destitute family of a minor king and a low-caste woman (possibly the daughter of a barber). Some believe that he may have even been the bastard son of such a king. A Buddhist account is that he was of the Sakya clan, the same one that Gautama Buddha was descended from. This though may have just been a legend since Chandragupta’s famous grandson, Asoka, was major Indian champion of Buddhism. Regardless, Chandragupta’s father died when he was a young boy, leaving him and what remained of his family without a protector or any income.

Seizing Power and Expansion

What we do know is that in 321 or 320 BCE, Chandragupta seized the throne of the Nanda Kingdom of Magadha in what is today the eastern Indian state of Bihar. In order to help rally the nobles and other clans around him, Chandragupta attacked the Macedonian garrisons that had been left by Alexander the Great and were under the control of one of his most capable generals and successors, Seleucus I Nicator.

The Macedonians and Greeks of course had just recently come onto the scene, and with Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 BCE, had little true control over the provinces on their periphery. Nevertheless, the brazen attack and success against what was then the empire of the god-king Alexander must have inspired other Indian tribes to follow him. Chandragupta soon granted himself the title of emperor, the first Indian in history known to do so.

Marriage of Chandragupta and the daughter of Seleucus

The great Emperor then went on to conquer whatever else remained of Alexander’s Indian possessions, though this time, Seleucus is believed to have personally launched a counteroffensive. In the end though the Macedonian and his armies were soundly defeated and the two sides came forth to discuss terms, which were arguably in Chandragupta’s favor. In return for peace, Seleucus was forced to hand over control of several Indian provinces and marry his daughter to Chandragupta. In return, the new Indian emperor gave Seleucus 500 elephants as a wedding present, which was not a bad exchange for those days. Seleucus later used these elephants to his advantage in campaigns against his enemies to the West.

The peace between the two generals-turned emperors seems to have lasted. Perhaps Seleucus realized that he had bitten of more than he could chew. According to the Roman historian Appian, Seleucus had absorbed or conquered “Mesopotamia, Armenia, ‘Seleucid’ Cappadocia, Persis, Parthia, Bactria, Arabia, Tapouria, Sogdia, Arachosia, Hyrcania, and other adjacent peoples” that were once part of Alexander’s realm into his new empire. 1 With such a large domain, the largest of any of Alexander’s successors, he could afford to lose a few lands on his eastern end.

After the campaign against Seleucus, Chandragupta pushed further south into the Indian subcontinent and all the way to the Deccan Plateau. His sons would later expand that realm to the borders of what is today the state of Tamil-Nadu.

Chandragupta’s Maurya Kingdom

After establishing peace, Seleucus sent a man named Megasthenes as his ambassador to the new Maurya Empire. Megasthenes was a keenly observant man and recorded much of what he saw take place within Chandragupta’s realm. Though his original documents haven’t survived, passages borrowed from him by other ancient and classical authors have. In these, Megasthenes describes a highly efficient state with a fearsome army as well as a highly-developed civil service apparatus.

As mentioned before, Chandragupta was of relatively humble origins. However when you’re the emperor of the greatest Indian empire of that time, you can afford to indulge on some luxuries. The emperor set up his capital at Pataliputra, today the city of Patna. He himself lived in an ornately-decorated and large stone palace with golden columns. He also claimed that Chandragupta never appeared in public without wearing the finest clothes and being carried in a gold palanquin or atop an elephant covered in golden garments. There is also mention that he possessed a harem with dancing girls.

Though he had a cabinet filled with advisors, the emperor held absolute power and was the final decision maker of all major issues. As ruler of the state, he was also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces which reportedly consisted of 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry and 9,000 elephants. 2 Chandragupta was believed to have been a fair but also a stern ruler. He could be generous to his allies and friends, but to his enemies, he was merciless.

Interesting Death of Chandragupta

Despite living the opulent life of an emperor, Chandragupta died, like in his birth, a very humble (some could say ascetic) man. The most popular tradition states that in 297 BCE, he abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Bindusara, and took the vows of a Jain monk. He lived out his last days as an ascetic and ended his own life by committing the Jain practice of sallekhana, or suicide by fasting to death.

However Chandragupta really met his end, it is safe to say that the dynasty which he founded, the Maurya, was the first true political unification of much of what we today call India. It also led to the golden or classical age of Hinduism as well as the spread of what was originally its offshoot, Buddhism. In a sense, Chandragupta played the dual role in India’s history of both Caesar and saint. While India has had many different rulers over the millenniums, only one, Chandragupta Maurya, first established it as a state with borders similar to what we see today. While the Vedas may have given India its soul, Chandragupta gave it its land.

Further Reading and Sources:

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  1. Appian, History of Rome, The Syrian Wars
  2. Canning, John. 100 Great Kings and Queens of the World