Indian Emperor Chandragupta lived from 340-298 BCE and was the first ruler of the Mauryan Empire. He ruled from 322-298 BCE; he was the father of Emperor Bindusara and grandfather of Emperor Ashoka, who was the third Mauryan ruler and under whose reign the Mauryan Empire reached its full power and became the largest empire ever in the Indian subcontinent and one of the world's largest empires at that time.
Before the time of Chandragupta, India was mostly composed of a number of small independent states, with the exception of the Magadha kingdom, a realm that controlled most of Northern India, which was ruled by the Nanda dynasty. Chandragupta began a process that would unify India for the first time in history.
The Liberation of India
During 326 BCE, while fighting his way into India, Alexander the Great came across the army of King Porus, the ruler of the local state of Paurava, located in modern day Punjab. After fighting to his last breath, King Porus surrendered to Alexander, who was impressed by the courage and stature of his enemy. Alexander made Porus his ally and turned him into king of all conquered India as a Macedonian tributary. Shortly after this, Alexander’s army refused to go any further into Asia; his men mutinied and thus the Macedonian army turned back and left India.
Chandragupta was a noble member of the Kshatriya caste (the warrior-ruler caste) and the main proponent for removing all fragments of Macedonian influence form India. He was related to the Nanda family, but he was an exile. Ironically enough, Chandragupta was a fugitive in the camp of Alexander the Great during the time of his exile, and it is possible that he personally met Alexander the Great.
With the help of his wise chief advisor and future prime minister Kautilya Chanakya, Chandragupta raised a small army. The military strength lacked by Chandragupta’s force was balanced out by the cunning strategies used by Kautilya Chanakya. Chandragupta entered the capital of the Magadha kingdom, Pataliputra, where he triggered a civil war using Kautilya Chanakya’s intelligence network. In 322 BCE he finally seized the throne putting an end to the Nanda dynasty, and he established the Mauryan Dynasty which would rule India until 185 BCE. After this victory, Chandragupta fought and defeated Alexander’s generals located in Gandhara, present day Afghanistan. Following these successful campaigns, Chandragupta was seen as a brave leader who defeated part of the Greek invaders and ended the corrupt Nanda government, thus gaining wide public support.
Chandragupta’s courage, coupled with Kautilya Chanakya’s intelligence, soon turned the Mauryan Empire into one of the most powerful governments at that time. Pataliputra remained the imperial capital, and the initial territory controlled by Chandragupta extended all across Northern India from the Indus River in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the East.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Eastern territories controlled by the Macedonians fell into the hands of General Seleucus, including the region of the Punjab, which today is part of Northern India and Eastern Pakistan. Seleucus was busy enough with what was happening on the western borders, so Chandragupta saw a tempting opportunity and launched an attack on Seleucus and captured a big portion of what today is Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 305 BCE, Chandragupta signed a treaty with Seleucus in which both rulers established borders, and the Punjab was given to Chandragupta in return for 500 war elephants.
The Government of Chandragupta & Imperial Expansion
During the government of Chandragupta, we find the Greek Magasthenes, an ambassador of Seleucus, who lived in the court of Pataliputra from 317-312 BCE. He wrote many different reports about India and although his original work is lost, we can piece together some information found in subsequent works. He reported that the Indians:
[...] never drink wine except at sacrifice [...] The simplicity of their laws and their contracts is proved by the fact that they seldom go to law. They have no suits about pledges and deposits, nor do they require either seals or witnesses, but make their deposits and confide in each other.
Magasthenes also reports that Pataliputra was nine miles in length and about two miles in width. Chandragupta’s palace was full of luxuries and all type of ostentatious possessions. Inside his palace, Chandragupta paid the price of ascending to power through the use of violence: he lived in it for 24 years, almost as a recluse, with very limited public exposure, solely devoted to the growth of the empire. He managed to extend his empire westwards and became the master of all Northern India. According to the reports of Magasthenes, Chandragupta’s army was composed of 600,000 foot soldiers, 30,000 horses, and 9,000 war elephants.
After becoming the master of all Northern India, Chandragupta began a campaign to conquer the southern half of the Indian subcontinent. Battle after battle, the Mauryan forces absorbed most of the independent Indian states until eventually, in 300 BCE, the borders of the Mauryan Empire extended southward into the Deccan Plateau. Chandragupta, however, failed to annex the small kingdom of Kalinga in present day Odisha in central-eastern India, on the Bay of Bengal. This pending conquest would be completed in 260 BCE by Emperor Ashoka.
Abdication & Death
In 298 BCE, Chandragupta voluntarily abdicated the throne in favour of his son Bindusara, who became the new Mauryan emperor. What we know after this point seems closer to legend than an actual historical account. It is said that Chandragupta turned into an ascetic and follower of Jainism. Jain tradition claims that Chandragupta migrated south and, consistent with the beliefs of Jainism, he starved himself to death inside a cave. This event supposedly took place in Sravana Belgola, a city about 150 kilometers away from Bangalore, which is one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Jainism.
About the Author
- Anonymous, Encyclopaedia Britannica 2013 (Focus Multimedia Ltd, 2012).
- Durant, W, Our Oriental Heritage (Simon & Schuster, 2013).
- Dutt, R. C, The History of Ancient India (Bharatiya Kala Prakashan,, 2009)