Decline of the Maurya Empire

Learning Objective

  • Describe the factors that contributed to the decline of the Maurya Empire

Key Points

  • Ashoka the Great’s rule was followed by 50 years of weak kings who did not retain strong central authority. This eventually led to the dissolution of the Maurya Empire.
  • General Pusyamitra Sunga staged a coup against the Maurya Dynasty in 185 BCE. As a result, he ascended the throne and founded the Sunga Dynasty.
  • In 180 BCE, the Greco-Bactrian King Demetrius conquered the northwestern Indian territories and founded the Indo-Greek Kingdom.
  • Buddhism lost favor when the Sunga Dynasty gained power, but remained dominant in the Indo-Greek Kingdom.


Khyber Pass

A mountain pass connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan; it has been an important trade route between Central Asia and South Asia, and a strategic military location.


The Greco-Bactrian king who established the Indo-Greek kingdom when he conquered parts of northwestern India, around 180 BCE.


The dynasty founded by the general Pusyamitra Sunga after he staged a coup against the Maurya dynasty in 185 BCE.


A religion encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs, and spiritual practices largely based on teachings attributed to the Buddha.

A 50-year succession of weak kings followed the reign of Ashoka the Great, the Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who died in 232 BCE. As Ashoka’s highly centralized government lost power, the Maurya Empire lost control over its territories. The different cultures and economies began to break apart, although the kings maintained Buddhism as the state religion.

Sunga Coup and Rule

Brihadratha, the last ruler of the Maurya Dynasty, was assassinated in 185 BCE. The commander-in-chief of his guard, Brahmin General Pusyamitra Sunga, killed Brihadratha during a military parade and ascended the throne. He established the Sunga Dynasty, which prospered from approximately 187 to 78 BCE. Pusyamitra was succeeded after 36 years by his son, Agnimitra, beginning the dynasty of ten Sunga rulers overall. They conducted wars with both foreign and indigenous powers, including the Kalinga, the Satavahana Dynasty, and the Indo-Greek Kingdom. The Sungas were succeeded by the Kanva Dynasty around 73 BCE.

Sunga rulers helped establish the tradition of royal sponsorship of education and the arts at a time when some of the most important developments in Hindu thought were taking place. The Mathura art style took hold during this time, and many small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures, and architectural monuments from the Sunga period are still in existence.


Sunga Royal Family, c. 150 BCE. Art and learning prospered under Sunga patronage, as seen in this terracotta tablet of the Sunga Royal family.

Sunga and Buddhism

The Sungas favored Hinduism over Buddhism. Buddhist sources, such as the Ashokavadana, an Indian Sanskrit text describing the birth and reign of Ashoka the Great, mention that Pusyamitra was hostile towards Buddhists and allegedly persecuted members of the Buddhist faith. A large number of Buddhist monasteries, called viharas, were allegedly converted to Hindu temples in such places as Nalanda, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, or Mathura. Some historians argue, however, that Buddhist accounts of Sunga persecution are largely exaggerated.


Sunga Empire, c. 185 BCE. The Sunga Dynasty was established following a coup by General Pusyamitra Sunga, marking the end of the Maurya Empire.

Indo-Greek Kingdom

In the east, the fall of the Mauryas left the Khyber Pass unguarded, and a wave of foreign invasion followed. The Greco-Bactrian king, Demetrius, capitalized on the break-up and conquered southern Afghanistan and parts of northwestern India around 180 BCE, forming the Indo-Greek Kingdom. The Indo-Greeks maintained territorial holdings for about a century in the Trans-Indus Region, in what is now Pakistan and parts of central India.

Demetrius, who lived from 175 to 140 BCE, founded the city of Sirkap, combining Greek and Indian influences without signs of segregation between the two cultures. The Greek expansion into Indian territory may have been intended to protect Greek populations in India, as well as to protect the Buddhist faith from the alleged religious persecutions of the Sungas.


Seated Buddha statue showing Greek influences. Buddhism was favored in the Indo-Greek Kingdom. Many statues of Buddha from this period display Greek stylistic elements including Greek clothing.

Demetrius was succeeded by Menander, who conquered the largest territory and was one of the most successful Indo-Greek kings. His coins that have been discovered are the most numerous and widespread of all the Indo-Greek kings. According to Buddhist literature, Menander converted to Buddhism and is sometimes described as the Milinda Panha. He helped Buddhism flourish and established the new capital of Sagala.


Coin depicting Menander I. Described in both Greek and Indian accounts, Menander I became the most important of the Indo-Greek rulers. He converted to Buddhism and expanded the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

In Indian literature, the Indo-Greeks are described as “Yavanas” in Sanskrit, or “Yonas” in Pali, which are both thought to be transliterations of “Ionians.” The Buddhist scripture, Majjhima Nikaya, explains that in contrast with the numerous Indian castes, there were only two classes of people in Indo-Greek culture: the Aryas, translated as the masters; and Dasas, the servants.

Indo-Greek Fall

Throughout the first century BCE, the Indo-Greeks progressively lost ground to the Indians in the East, and the Scythians, the Yuezhi, and the Parthians in the West. About 20 Indo-Greek kings are known during this period, including last known Indo-Greek ruler, Strato II, who ruled in the Punjab region until around 55 BCE.