The Maurya Empire

Rise of the Maurya Empire

Chandragupta Maurya founded the Maurya Empire in 322 BCE when he conquered the kingdom of Magadha and the northwestern Macedonian satrapies.

Learning Objectives

Understand the history and significance of the Maurya Empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Maurya Empire was founded in 322 BCE by Chandragupta Maurya, who had overthrown the Nanda Dynasty and rapidly expanded his power westward across central and western India in order to take advantage of the disruptions of local powers in the wake of the withdrawal by Alexander the Great ‘s armies.
  • According to legend, the teacher Chanakya convinced his disciple, Chandragupta Maurya, to conquer the the kingdom of Magadha (the Nanda Empire ) when he was insulted by its king Dhana Nanda.
  • Chandragupta Maurya expanded the Maurya Empire north and west as he conquered the Macedonian Satrapies and won the Seleucid-Mauryan war.
  • In its time, the Maurya Empire was one of the largest empires of the world.

Key Terms

  • Chandragupta Maurya: The founder of the Maurya Empire; he lived from 340-298 BCE.
  • Nanda Empire: The kingdom led by Dhana Nanda; it was conquered by Chandragupta Maurya in 321 BCE.
  • Chanakya: Maurya’s teacher and loyal advisor during the foundation and expansion of the Maurya Empire.
  • Takshashila: An early city in modern-day Pakistan that was believed to be one of the earliest global settings of learning and culture. It is now modern-day Taxila.

The Maurya Empire was a geographically extensive Iron Age historical power in ancient India, ruled by the Maurya dynasty from 322-185 BCE. Originating from the kingdom of Magadha in the Indo-Gangetic Plain (modern Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh) in the eastern side of the Indian subcontinent, the empire had its capital city at Pataliputra (modern Patna). The empire was the largest to have ever existed in the Indian subcontinent, spanning over 5 million square kilometres at its zenith under Ashoka.

The Empire was founded in 322 BCE by Chandragupta Maurya, who had overthrown the Nanda Dynasty, and rapidly expanded his power,with Chanakya’s help, westward across central and western India. His expansion took advantage of the disruptions of local powers in the wake of the withdrawal westward by Alexander the Great’s armies. By 316 BCE, the empire had fully occupied Northwestern India, defeating and conquering the satraps left by Alexander. Chandragupta then defeated the invasion led by Seleucus I, a Macedonian general from Alexander’s army, and gained additional territory west of the Indus River.

In its time, the Maurya Empire was one of the largest empires of the world. At its greatest extent, the empire stretched to the north along the natural boundaries of the Himalayas, to the east into Assam, to the west into Balochistan (southwest Pakistan and southeast Iran) and into the Hindu Kush mountains of what is now Afghanistan. The Empire was expanded into India’s central and southern regions by the emperors Chandragupta and Bindusara, but it excluded a small portion of unexplored tribal and forested regions near Kalinga (modern Odisha), until it was conquered by Ashoka. It declined for about 50 years after Ashoka’s rule ended, and it dissolved in 185 BCE with the foundation of the Shunga Dynasty in Magadha.

Conquest of Magadha and foundation of the Maurya Empire (c. 321 BCE)

According to several legends, Chanakya traveled to Magadha, a kingdom that was large and militarily powerful and feared by its neighbors, but was insulted by its king Dhana Nanda, of the Nanda Dynasty. Chanakya swore revenge and vowed to destroy the Nanda Empire.

The Nanda Empire originated from the region of Magadha in ancient India during the 4th century BCE, and lasted until between 345-321 BCE. At its greatest extent, the empire ruled by the Nanda Dynasty extended from Bengal in the east, to the Punjab region in the west, and as far south as the Vindhya Range. The rulers of this dynasty were famed for the great wealth that they accumulated.

Chanakya encouraged the young Chandragupta Maurya and his army to take over the throne of Magadha. Using his intelligence network, Chandragupta gathered many young men from across Magadha and other provinces, who were upset over the corrupt and oppressive rule of King Dhana, as well as the resources necessary for his army to fight a long series of battles. These men included the former general of Taxila, accomplished students of Chanakya, the representative of King Porus of Kakayee, his son Malayketu, and the rulers of small states.

Maurya devised a strategy to invade Pataliputra, the capital of the Nanda Empire. A battle was announced and the Magadhan army was drawn from the city to a distant battlefield in order to engage Maurya’s forces. Meanwhile, Maurya’s general and spies bribed the Nanda’s corrupt general, and created an atmosphere of civil war in the kingdom, which culminated in the death of the heir to the throne.

Upon the civil unrest in the kingdom, Nanda resigned and disappeared into exile. Chanakya contacted the prime minister, Rakshasa, and convinced him that his loyalty was to Magadha, not to the Nanda Dynasty, and that he should remain in office. Chanakya reiterated that choosing to resist would start a war that would severely affect Magadha and destroy the city. Rakshasa accepted Chanakya’s reasoning, and Chandragupta Maurya was legitimately installed as the new King of Magadha in 321 BCE, at the age of 21. Rakshasa became Chandragupta’s chief advisor, and Chanakya assumed the position of an elder statesman.


Statue of Chandragupta Maurya at the Birla Mandir Hindu temple, Delhi: Chandragupta Maurya conquered the kingdom of Magadha to found the Maurya Empire in 231 BCE, at the age of 21.

Northwest Expansion

With his new seat of power in Magadha, Chandragupta Maurya defeated the remaining Macedonian satraps, and consolidated his reign of the new Maurya Empire. He rapidly expanded his power westward across central and western India, taking advantage of the disruptions of local powers in the wake of the withdrawal westward by Alexander the Great’s Greek armies. By 320 BCE, the empire had fully occupied Northwestern India. Chandragupta Maurya would become the first emperor to unify India into one state, creating one of the world’s largest empires in its time, and the largest ever in the Indian subcontinent.

The empire covered Northern India, as well as portions of modern-day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and China.

The Maurya Empire c. 320 BCE: The Maurya Empire when it was first founded by Chandragupta Maurya c. 320 BCE, after conquering the Nanda Empire when he was only about 20 years old.

Expansion of the Maurya Empire

After winning the Seleucid-Mauryan war, the Maurya Empire expanded into the southern Indian subcontinent under the rule of Ashoka the Great.

Learning Objectives

Understand the expansion of the Maurya Empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Seleucid Empire tried and failed to reconquer the northwestern part of the Maurya Empire during the Seleucid-Mauryan war, from 305-303 BCE.
  • As part of the peace offering, the Maurya Empire gained five territories in exchange for 500 war elephants.
  • Several Greeks remained at the Mauryan court as ambassadors to the Hellenistic world.
  • Chandragupta Maurya was succeed by his son, Bindusara, in 298 BCE, and then by Bindusara’s son, Ashoka the Great, in 272 BCE.
  • Under Ashoka the Great, the Maurya Empire expanded into the southern part of the Indian subcontinent.
  • Ashoka erected the Edicts of Ashoka, which state his policies and accomplishments, and which were written in both Greek and Sanskrit.

Key Terms

  • satrapies: The governors of the provinces of the ancient Median and Achaemenid (Persian) Empires, and several of their successors, such as the Sasanian Empire and the Hellenistic empires.
  • Ashoka the Great: Lived 304-232 BCE. As the king of the Maurya Empire, he conquered the Indian subcontinent.
  • Seleucus: The king of the Seleucid Empire who tried to reconquer northwestern Indian, but lost the Selecucid-Mauryan War.
  • Edicts of Ashoka: Stone edicts that depicted the policies and accomplishments of Ashoka the Great, and were written in both Greek and Sanskrit.

The Seleucid-Mauryan War

In 305 BCE, Emperor Chandragupta Maurya led a series of campaigns to retake the satrapies left behind by Alexander the Great when he returned westward. Seleucus I fought to defend these territories, but both sides made peace in 303 BCE.

Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals, received Babylonia and, from there, expanded his dominions to include much of Alexander’s near eastern territories. Seleucus established himself in Babylon in 312 BC, the year used as the foundation date of the Seleucid Empire. He ruled not only Babylonia, but the entire enormous eastern part of Alexander’s empire. The Seleucid Empire was a major center of Hellenistic culture. In the areas where a Greek-Macedonian political elite dominated (mostly urban), it maintained the preeminence of Greek customs.

In 305 BCE, Seleucus I tried to reconquer the northwestern parts of India in order to claim them for the growing Seleucid Empire. Little is known of the campaign in which Chandragupta fought with Seleucus over the Indus Valley and the region of Gandhara—
a very wealthy kingdom that had submitted decades earlier to Alexander the Great.

Seleucus lost the Seleucid-Mauryan War, and the two rulers reconciled with a peace treaty. The Greeks offered a Macedonian princess for marriage to Chandragupta, and several territories, including the satrapies of Paropamisade (modern-day Kamboja and Gandhara), Arachosia (modern-day Kandhahar), and Gedrosia (modern-day Balochistan). In return, Chandragupta sent 500 war elephants, a military asset which would play a decisive role in Seleucus’ victory against western Hellenistic kings at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE.

The empire expanded farther west to modern-day Afghanistan.

The Maurya Empire c. 305 BCE: Chandragupta extended the borders of the Maurya Empire toward Seleucid Persia, after defeating Seleucus c. 305 BCE.

In addition to this treaty, Seleucus dispatched two Greek ambassadors, Megasthenes and, later, Deimakos, to the Mauryan court at Pataliputra. Later, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, sent an ambassador named Dionysius to the Mauryan court. Thus, continuing ties between the Hellenistic world and the Mauryan Empire.

Expansion Under Bindusara

Chandragupta Maurya ruled from 322 BCE until his voluntary retirement and abdication, in favor of his son, Bindusara, in 298 BCE. Bindusara (320-272 BCE) was the son of Maurya and his queen, Durdhara. During his reign, Bindusara expanded the Maurya Empire southward, with Chanakya as his advisor. He brought 16 states under the Maurya Empire and thus conquered almost all of the Indian peninsula. Bindusara ignored the friendly Dravidian kingdoms of the Cholas, ruled by King Ilamcetcenni, the Pandyas, and Cheras. Apart from these southern states, Kalinga (modern-day Odisha) was the only kingdom in India independent from Bindusara’s empire.

The empire grew farther South so that it covered most of modern-day India.

The Maurya Empire c. 290 BCE: Bindausara (ruler 298-272 BCE) extended the borders of the empire southward into the Deccan Plateau c. 290 BCE.

Ashoka the Great

Bindusara died in 272 BCE, and was succeeded by his son, Ashoka the Great (304-232 BCE). As a young prince, Ashoka (r. 272-232 BCE) was a brilliant commander who crushed revolts in Ujjain and Taxila. As monarch, he was ambitious and aggressive, reasserting the Empire’s superiority in southern and western India. But it was his conquest of Kalinga (262-261 BCE) that proved to be the pivotal event of his life. Although Ashoka’s army succeeded in overwhelming Kalinga forces of royal soldiers and civilian units, an estimated 100,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in the furious warfare, including over 10,000 of Ashoka’s own men. Hundreds of thousands of people were adversely affected by the destruction and fallout of war. When he personally witnessed the devastation, Ashoka began feeling remorse. Although the annexation of Kalinga was completed, Ashoka embraced the teachings of Buddhism, and renounced war and violence. He sent out missionaries to travel around Asia and spread Buddhism to other countries.

The empire grew to cover all of modern-day India.

Extent of the Maurya Empire at its height in 265 BCE: Ashoka the Great extended into Kalinga during the Kalinga War c. 265 BCE, and established superiority over the southern kingdoms.

As ruler, Ashoka implemented principles of ahimsa (the principle of “to not injure”) by banning hunting and violent sports activities, and ending indentured and forced labor (many thousands of people in war-ravaged Kalinga had been forced into hard labor and servitude). While he maintained a large and powerful army to keep the peace, Ashoka expanded friendly relations with states across Asia and Europe, and sponsored Buddhist missions. He undertook a massive public works building campaign across the country. Among these works were the construction of stupas, or Buddhist religious structures, containing relics. One notable stupas created during the reign of Ashoka was The Great Stupa, which stands in Sanchi, India. Over 40 years of peace, harmony, and prosperity made Ashoka one of the most successful and famous monarchs in Indian history. He remains an idealized figure of inspiration in modern India.

The Edicts of Ashoka

Perhaps one of the greatest-known accomplishments of Ashoka was his creation of his edicts, which were erected between 269 BCE and 232 BCE. The Edicts of Ashoka, set in stone, are found throughout the Subcontinent. Ranging from as far west as Afghanistan, and as far south as Andhra (Nellore District), Ashoka’s edicts state his policies and accomplishments. Although predominantly written in Prakrit, two of them were written in Greek, and one in both Greek and Aramaic. Ashoka’s edicts refer to the Greeks, Kambojas, and Gandharas as peoples forming a frontier region of his empire. They also attest to Ashoka’s envoys’ travels to the Greek rulers in the west as far as the Mediterranean. Ashoka’s edicts also mentioned social and cultural attributes of his empire, emphasizing Buddhism, though not condemning other religions. For this, the Edicts of Ashoka are known as an early document that promoted religious tolerance.


An Edict of Asoka: Bilingual inscription (Greek and Aramaic) by king Asoka, from Kandahar. Kabul Museum

Centralization in the Maurya Empire

The Mauryan Empire encouraged economic prosperity through political stability and a unified central government.

Learning Objectives

Describe the significance of the political stability offered by the Mauryan Empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Mauryan Empire was divided into four provinces, each governed by the  Kumara, who served as the king’s representative.
  • Emperor Ashoka maintained a massive standing army to protect the Mauryan Empire and instill stability and peace across West and South Asia.
  • Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka’s grandfather, had established a single currency across India, a network of regional governors and administrators, and a civil service to provide justice and security for merchants, farmers and traders that continued throughout the Mauryan Dynasty.
  • The Mauryan international network of trade extended to the Greek states and  Hellenic  kingdoms in West Asia and into Southeast Asia.

Key Terms

  • Khyber Pass: A strategically important trade stop on the modern boundary of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • Arthashastra: An ancient Indian treatise on government, statecraft, military, and economy.
  • Kumara: A royal prince who oversaw the Mauryan provinces on behalf of the emperor.
  • standing army: A permanent army composed of full-time soldiers that is not disbanded during times of peace.

Employing a carefully organized bureaucratic system, the Maurya Empire was able to maintain security and political unity across large parts of western and southern Asia. This included a common economic system supporting stable agriculture in its vast landholdings, as well as successful trade and commerce. Through this centralized authority, which included a powerful military, the rulers of the empire bound together the previously fractured regions of the Indian Subcontinent.

Unification and Military

Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Empire, ruled from 324-297 BCE, before voluntarily abdicating in favor of his son, Bindusara, who ruled from 297 BCE until his death in 272 BCE. This led to a war of succession in which Bindusara’s son, Ashoka, defeated his brother, Susima, and rose to the throne in 268 BCE, eventually becoming the greatest ruler of the Maurya Dynasty.

Before the Mauryan Empire, the Indian subcontinent was fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms. These were ruled by powerful regional chieftains with small armies that engaged in internecine warfare. The Mauryan Army eliminated regional chieftains, private armies, and even gangs of bandits, who sought to impose their own supremacy in small areas.

The Mauryan Army, the largest standing military force of its time, supported the expansion and defense of the empire. According to scholars, the empire wielded 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 war elephants, while a vast espionage system collected intelligence for both internal and external security purposes. Although Emperor Ashoka renounced offensive warfare and expansionism, he maintained this standing army to protect the empire from external threats and maintain stability and peace across Western and Southern Asia.


The Mauryan Empire was divided into four provinces, with the imperial capital at Pataliputra, near the Ganges River in the modern state of Bihar in India. The Edicts of Ashoka, a collection of inscriptions made during Ashoka’s reign from 268-232 BCE, give the names of the Maurya Empire’s four provincial capitals: Tosali in the east, Ujjain in the west, Suvarnagiri in the south, and Taxila in the north.

The organizational structure began at the imperial level with the emperor and his Mantriparishad, or Council of Ministers. The head of the provincial administration was the Kumara, or royal prince, who governed the provinces as the king’s representative, with the assistance of Mahamatyas, who were essentially regional prime ministers. Through this sophisticated system of bureaucracy, the empire governed all aspects of government at every level, from municipal hygiene to international trade.

The map shows the empire covering all of modern-day India, as well as portions of modern-day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, and China.

Maurya Empire at its greatest extent (dark orange), including vassal kingdoms (light orange), 265 BCE: The Maurya Empire provided political stability with a unified central government, which in turn encouraged economic prosperity.

Centralization and Taxation

Chandragupta Maurya, the father of the dynasty, established a single currency across India, a network of regional governors and administrators, and a civil service to provide justice and security for merchants, farmers, and traders.

Through the disciplined central authority of the Mauryan Empire, farmers were freed of tax and crop collection burdens from regional kings. Instead, they paid a nationally administered system of taxation that was strict but fair. The system operated under the principles of the Arthashastra, an ancient Indian treatise on economic policy, statecraft, and military strategy. Written in Sanskrit and adhering to Hindu philosophies, the Arthashastra includes books on the nature of government, law, civil and criminal courts, ethics, and economic topics, including markets and trade, agriculture, mineralogy, mining and metals, forestry, and others.

Although regimental in revenue collection, the Mauryan Empire funded numerous public works projects to enhance productivity. Like his father and grandfather, Ashoka sponsored the construction of thousands of roads, waterways, canals, rest houses, hospitals, and other types of infrastructure.

Under continued Mauryan rule, political unity and military security encouraged a common economic system, increased agricultural productivity, and enhanced widespread trade and commerce for the first time in West and South Asia.


Coins of the Maurya Empire: Chandragupta Maurya established a single currency across India, including these silver punch mark coins with symbols of wheel and elephant, 3rd century BCE

Trade and Commerce

The Maurya Empire’s political unity and internal peace encouraged the expansion of trade in India. Under the Indo-Greek friendship treaty during Ashoka’s reign, the Mauryan international network of trade saw great expansion.

The Khyber Pass, on the modern boundary of Pakistan and Afghanistan, became a strategically important point of trade and interaction with the outside world. Greek states and Hellenic kingdoms in West Asia became trading partners. Trade also extended through the Malay Peninsula into
Southeast Asia. India’s exports included silk, textiles, spices, and exotic foods. The outside world gained new scientific knowledge and technology through expanded trade with the Mauryan Empire.

Ashoka’s Conversion

Mauryan emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga War, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the effects of Ashoka the Great’s conversion to Buddhism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While the early part of Ashoka’s reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha’s teachings after his conquest of Kalinga.
  • According to a contemporary text, the Edicts of Ashoka, Ashoka converted to   Buddhism because he “felt remorse on account of the conquest of Kalinga because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death, and taking away captive of the people necessarily occur.”
  • In one source, his conversion is presented as a gradual process coming from intense personal anguish, rather than spurred by a specific event.
  • As a Buddhist emperor, Ashoka believed that Buddhism is beneficial for all human beings, as well as animals and plants, so he built a number of stupas. He also well spread Buddhism to neighboring kingdoms.

Key Terms

  • Dharma: Cosmic law and order, behaviors that are considered to be in accord with the order that makes life and the universe possible, including duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues, and ‘‘right way of living.” Also specifically signifies the teachings of the Buddha.
  • Edicts of Ashoka: A collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as boulders and cave walls, made by the Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire during his reign, from 269 BCE to 232 BCE.

Background: Conquest of Kalinga

While the early part of Ashoka’s reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha’s teachings after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the present-day states of Odisha and North Coastal Andhra Pradesh. Kalinga was a state that prided itself on its sovereignty and democracy. With its monarchical parliamentary democracy, it was quite an exception in ancient Bharata where there existed the concept of Rajdharma. Rajdharma means the duty of the rulers, which was intrinsically entwined with the concept of bravery and dharma. The Kalinga War happened eight years after his coronation. From Ashoka’s 13th inscription, we come to know that the battle was a massive one and caused the deaths of more than 100,000 soldiers and many civilians who rose up in defence; over 150,000 were deported. When he was walking through the grounds of Kalinga after his conquest, rejoicing in his victory, he was moved by the number of bodies strewn there and the wails of the bereaved.

Conversion to Buddhism

Edict 13 on the Edicts of Ashoka Rock Inscriptions reflect the great remorse the king felt after observing the destruction of Kalinga:

His Majesty felt remorse on account of the conquest of Kalinga because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death, and taking away captive of the people necessarily occur, whereas His Majesty feels profound sorrow and regret.

The edict goes on to address the even greater degree of sorrow and regret resulting from Ashoka’s understanding that the friends and families of deceased would suffer greatly too.

Legend says that one day after the war was over, Ashoka ventured out to roam the city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. The lethal war with Kalinga transformed the vengeful Emperor Ashoka into a stable and peaceful emperor, and he became a patron of Buddhism. According to the prominent Indologist, A. L. Basham, Ashoka’s personal religion became Buddhism, if not before, then certainly after the Kalinga War. However, according to Basham, the Dharma officially propagated by Ashoka was not Buddhism at all. Nevertheless, his patronage led to the expansion of Buddhism in the Mauryan empire and other kingdoms during his rule, and worldwide from about 250 BCE.

After the Kalinga War and Ashoka’s conversion, the Empire experienced nearly half a century of peace and security. Mauryan India also enjoyed an era of social harmony, religious transformation, and expansion of the sciences and of knowledge. Chandragupta Maurya ‘s embrace of Jainism increased social and religious renewal and reform across his society, while Ashoka’s embrace of Buddhism has been said to have been the foundation of the reign of social and political peace and non-violence across all of India.

Buddhist Kingship

One of the more enduring legacies of Ashoka Maurya was the model that he provided for the relationship between Buddhism and the state. Throughout Theravada Southeastern Asia, the model of rulership embodied by Ashoka replaced the notion of divine kingship that had previously dominated (in the Angkor kingdom, for instance). Under this model of “Buddhist kingship,” the king sought to legitimize his rule, not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha. Following Ashoka’s example, kings established monasteries, funded the construction of stupas, and supported the ordination of monks in their kingdom. Many rulers also took an active role in resolving disputes over the status and regulation of the sangha, as Ashoka had by calling a conclave to settle a number of contentious issues during his reign. This development ultimately led to a close association in many Southeast Asian countries between the monarchy and the religious hierarchy, an association that can still be seen today in the state-supported Buddhism of Thailand, and the traditional role of the Thai king as both a religious and secular leader. Ashoka also said that his courtiers always governed the people in a moral manner.

As a Buddhist emperor, Ashoka believed that Buddhism is beneficial for all human beings, as well as animals and plants, so he built a number of stupas, Sangharama, viharas, chaitya, and residences for Buddhist monks all over South Asia and Central Asia. According to the Ashokavadana, he ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas to house the Buddhas relics. In the Aryamanjusrimulakalpa, Ashoka takes offerings to each of these stupas, traveling in a chariot adorned with precious metals. He gave donations to viharas and mathas. He sent his only daughter, Sanghamitra, and son, Mahindra, to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then known as Tamraparni).

An image of a stupa built by Ashoka, a large dome building with images etched in the sides.

Stupa: Great Stupa (3rd century BC), Sanchi, India. Ashoka ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas to house the Buddhas relics.

Debate About Ashoka’s Conversion and Rule

The use of Buddhist sources in reconstructing the life of Ashoka has had a strong influence on perceptions of Ashoka, as well as the interpretations of his Edicts. Building on traditional accounts, early scholars regarded Ashoka as a primarily Buddhist monarch who underwent a conversion to Buddhism and was actively engaged in sponsoring and supporting the Buddhist monastic institution. Some scholars have tended to question this assessment. The only source of information not attributable to Buddhist sources are the Ashokan Edicts, and these do not explicitly state that Ashoka was a Buddhist. In his edicts, Ashoka expresses support for all the major religions of his time: Buddhism, Brahmanism, Jainism, and Ajivikaism. His edicts addressed to the population at large (there are some addressed specifically to Buddhists, which is not the case for the other religions) generally focus on moral themes that members of all the religions would accept.

However, the edicts alone strongly indicate that he was a Buddhist. In one edict he belittles rituals, and he banned Vedic animal sacrifices; these strongly suggest that he at least did not look to the Vedic tradition for guidance. Furthermore, many edicts are expressed to Buddhists alone; in one, Ashoka declares himself to be an “upasaka,” and in another he demonstrates a close familiarity with Buddhist texts. He erected rock pillars at Buddhist holy sites, but did not do so for the sites of other religions. He also used the word “dhamma” to refer to qualities of the heart that underlie moral action; this was an exclusively Buddhist use of the word. Finally, he promoted ideals that correspond to the first three steps of the Buddha’s graduated discourse.

Interestingly, the Ashokavadana, presents an alternate view of the familiar Ashoka. In this source, his conversion has nothing to do with the Kalinga War or his descent from the Maurya dynasty. Instead, Ashoka’s reason for adopting non-violence appears much more personal. The Ashokavadana shows that the main source of Ashoka’s conversion, and the acts of welfare that followed, are rooted instead in intense personal anguish, from a wellspring inside himself rather than spurred by a specific event. It thereby illuminates Ashoka as more humanly ambitious and passionate, with both greatness and flaws. This Ashoka is very different from the “shadowy do-gooder” of later Pali chronicles.

Decline of the Maurya Empire

The Sunga Dynasty usurped the Maurya Dynasty, and parts of the empire were incorporated into the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

Learning Objectives

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

Key Takeaways

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 Ind0-Greek Kingdom.

Key Terms

  • Buddhism: A religion encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs, and spiritual practices largely based on teachings attributed to the Buddha.
  • 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.
  • Demetrius: The Greco-Bactrian king who established the Indo-Greek kingdom when he conquered parts of northwestern India, around 180 BCE.
  • Sunga: The dynasty founded by the general Pusyamitra Sunga after he staged a coup against the Maurya dynasty in 185 BCE.

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.

The map shows that the Shunga Empire covered portions of modern-day northeast India, as well as portions of modern-day Bangladesh and Nepal.

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.