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Intro to Emergence of State and Empire


  • From the sixth century to the third century BCE, North India passed through major political and social changes.
  • Buddhism and Jainism emerged as prominent religions having a large number of followers.
  • These two religious systems were antithetical to the mainstream Vedic religion.
  • As a consequence of new beliefs and ideas propounded by Jainism and Buddhism, the social order largely centred on Vedic rituals underwent a significant change, as people of many religious faiths were part of the emerging society.
  • On the political front, minor states and federations of clans were merged through conquests to create an empire during this period, resulting in a large state, ruled by a chakravartin or ekarat (emperor or one supreme king).
  • The rise of a centralised empire in the Gangetic plains of present-day Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh changed the social, economic and administrative fabric of the region.
  • The flat plains and the availability of plentiful water from the perennial rivers, such as the Ganga and its many tributaries, were among the favourable ecological conditions which promoted the rise of a large state in this particular region.
  • Rivers also acted as major waterways for trade and travel.
  • Bimbisara, who was a contemporary of Buddha, started the process of empire building in Magadha.
  • It was strengthened by his son Ajatashatru and then by the Nandas.
  • The empire reached its glory and peaked with the advent of the Mauryan Empire founded by Chandragupta Maurya.
  • The first three Mauryan emperors, Chandragupta, Bindusara and Ashoka, were the best known.
  • After Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire went into decline.


  • The names of Chandragupta and his two successors in the Mauryan period are well known now.
  • But reconstructing their lives and careers was a laborious and difficult process for the earlier historians.
  • There are hardly any comprehensive contemporary accounts or literary works which refer to the Mauryan emperors though they are mentioned in various Buddhist and Jain texts as well as in some Hindu works like the brahmanas.
  • The Mahavamsa, the comprehensive historical chronicle in Pali from Sri Lanka, is an important additional source.
  • The scattered information from these sources has been corroborated by accounts of Greek historians who left their accounts about India following Alexander’s campaign in northwestern part of the country.
  • Archaeology and epigraphy are the tools that provide rich information for the historian to understand earlier periods of history.
  • Archaeology is particularly important because excavations reveal the nature of urban morphology, that is, layout of the city and construction of buildings.
  • They also provide concrete information about the material culture of people in the past, such as the metals that were known, materials and tools they used, and the technology they employed.
  • The archaeological finds in the Gangetic regions give us solid proof about the nature of the urban centres established in the region in course of time.
  • Epigraphical evidence is scanty for the period.
  • The most widely known are the edicts of Ashoka, which have been discovered in many parts of the country.
  • In fact, the reconstruction of the Mauryan period to a great extent became possible only after the Brahmi script of the inscriptions at Sanchi was deciphered by James Prinsep in 1837.
  • Information about other edicts in other parts of the country also became available at that time.
  • It must be remembered that these were the oldest historical artefacts found in India in the nineteenth century, until archaeological excavations unearthed the Indus valley towns of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the twentieth century.
  • All the edicts began with a reference to a great king, “Thus spoke devanampiya (beloved of the gods) piyadassi (of pleasing looks)”, and the geographical spread of the edicts make it clear that this was a king who had ruled over a vast empire.
  • But who was this king?
  • Puranic and Buddhist texts referred to a chakravartin named Ashoka.
  • As more edicts were deciphered, the decisive identification that devananampiya piyadassi was Ashoka was made in 1915.
  • One more edict when deciphered, which referred to him as devanampiya Ashoka, made reconstruction of Mauryan history possible.

Let us now turn to two later sources.

1. The first is the rock inscription of Junagadh, near Girnar in Gujarat.

  • This was carved during the reign of Rudradaman, the local ruler and dates back to 130–150 CE.
  • It refers to Pushyagupta, the provincial governor (rashtriya) of Emperor Chandragupta.
  • This is of importance for two reasons:

(i) it indicates the extent of the Mauryan Empire, which had expanded as far west as Gujarat and

(ii) it shows that more than four centuries after his death, the name of Chandragupta was still well known and remembered in many parts of the country.

2. A second source is a literary work.

  • The play Mudrarakshasa by Visakhadatta was written during the Gupta period, sometime after the 4th century CE.
  • It narrates Chandragupta’s accession to the throne of the Magadha Empire and the exploits of his chief advisor Chanakya or Kautilya by listing the strategies he used to counter an invasion against Chandragupta.
  • This play is often cited as a corroborative source since it supports the information gathered from other contemporary sources about Chandragupta.

It is important to note from both these sources that the fame of Chandragupta had survived long after he was gone and became imbibed in popular lore and memory.

They thus attest to the significance of oral traditions, which are now accepted as an additional valid source of history.

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