The Mauryan Empire in India: Rulers & Edicts

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  • 0:02 Three Great Emperors
  • 2:10 Government
  • 3:09 Trade & Agriculture
  • 4:05 Religion
  • 5:33 Decline & Disappearance
  • 6:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study India's Mauryan Empire. We will learn about its rulers, explore its government and economy, delve into its religious life, and examine its decline and disappearance.

Three Great Emperors

In 326 BCE, Alexander the Great crashed into India in his quest for world domination. He found a collection of small and large states ruled by independent kings and governors. Although he never progressed further than India's northwest corner (Alexander died in 323 BCE), his presence was enough to upset India's proverbial apple cart and make way for the rise of a powerful new Indian dynasty. That dynasty was waiting in the wings in the person of Chandragupta Maurya, who knew an opportunity when he saw one and reached out to grasp it.

Chandragupta was the ruler of the Magadha region in the northeast, but with the help of his shrewd political adviser, Kautilya, he marched across India, drove Alexander's successors out of the region, and established his domain in 321 BCE. Soon, he was the emperor of nearly five million square miles of land and between 50 and 60 million people. Chandragupta's son, Bindusara, ascended to the throne in 298 BCE and reigned until 272. During this time, he extended the empire even further, taking the lands of central India. Even areas not under his direct control paid him tribute. Even this, however, was not quite enough for the next emperor, Bindusara's son, Ashoka, who reigned from 272 to 232 BCE.

Ashoka soon proved to be a brilliant and brutal military leader bent on extending his empire south and east, and he didn't much care who died or was destroyed in the process. About 261 BCE, Ashoka's army marched against the eastern coastal kingdom of Kalinga, which refused to pay him tribute. By the end of the campaign over 100,000 residents of Kalinga were dead, and another 150,000 were homeless. Even more died from starvation and disease after the battle. Ashoka looked at what he had done and was horrified. He converted to Buddhism and renounced all war, adopting the principles of non-violence, respect, and tolerance.


These three emperors—Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Ashoka—created an efficient central government that allowed their empire to prosper and expand. They gathered a council of advisers and established a bureaucracy to handle day-to-day affairs in the great capital city of Pataliputra. They divided the empire into provinces and sent members of the royal family to govern them, administer justice, collect taxes, and build up public works, like hospitals, wells, and roads. They kept a close eye on all of this activity through frequent inspections and, more importantly, a network of spies.

The emperors also maintained a massive army. Ancient sources describe the Mauryan military as consisting of thousands of infantry soldiers, cavalrymen, and even war elephants. The Mauryans knew how to intimidate their foes, and their forces were large enough to conquer and hold vast areas of land and millions of people.

Trade and Agriculture

Because the Mauryan emperors maintained a stable, organized government, their empire benefited from many opportunities for trade and agricultural growth. Transportation networks with good roads and waterways, well-maintained rest houses, and the secure protection of the military allowed merchants to move through the empire and beyond, trading their spices, textiles, and silks. The emperors also maintained a common currency throughout India, which helped merchants and traders maintain consistent fees and profits.

Farmers, too, had much to be grateful for under Mauryan rule. The government sponsored projects to help them clear land and build irrigation systems, and agriculture prospered accordingly. Farmers also appreciated the central system of taxation, which eliminated multiple taxes and crop sharing with regional rulers and allowed them to keep more of their money and crops for their own use or to sell to others.


Religion was another key element of the Mauryan Empire. The emperors recognized and allowed multiple religions, including the traditional Hinduism as well as new faiths like Buddhism and Jainism. Chandragupta was a Hindu who converted to Jainism, while Bindusara seems to have maintained his Hindu roots. Ashoka, however, was probably the most religious of the three emperors. He converted to Buddhism after the Kalinga War and promoted his new faith widely, sponsoring the building of temples, schools, universities, and stupas (sites of prayer and Buddhist relics), and encouraging (but not requiring) his subjects to embrace his new faith.

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