In 326 B.C., Alexander the Great brought the Indus Valley in the northwest under Macedonian control – but left almost immediately. Soon after, a great Indian military leader, Chandragupta Maurya, seized power.
The Mauryan Empire Is Established
Chandragupta Maurya may have been born in the powerful kingdom of Magadha. Centered on the lower Ganges River, the kingdom was ruled by the Nanda family. Chandragupta gathered an army, killed the unpopular Nanda king, and in about 321 B.C. claimed the throne. This began the Mauryan Empire.
Chandragupta Maurya Unifies North India
Chandragupta moved northwest, seizing all the land from Magadha to the Indus. Around 305 B.C., Chandragupta began to battle Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Seleucus had inherited part of Alexander’s empire. He wanted to reestablish Macedonian control over the Indus Valley. After several years of fighting, however, Chandragupta defeated Seleucus. By 303 B.C., the Mauryan Empire stretched more than 2,000 miles, uniting north India politically for the first time. To win his wars of conquest, Chandragupta raised a vast army: 600,000 soldiers on foot, 30,000 soldiers on horseback, and 9,000 elephants. To clothe, feed, and pay these troops, the government levied high taxes. For example, farmers had to pay up to one-half the value of their crops to the king.
Running the Empire
Chandragupta relied on an adviser named Kautilya, a member of the priestly caste. Kautilya wrote a ruler’s handbook called the Arthasastra. This book proposed toughminded policies to hold an empire together, including spying on the people and employing political assassination. Following Kautilya’s advice, Chandragupta created a highly bureaucratic government. He divided the empire into four provinces, each headed by a royal prince. Each province was then divided into local districts, whose officials assessed taxes and enforced the law.
Life in the City and the Country
Eager to stay at peace with the Indian emperor, Seleucus sent an ambassador, Megasthenes, to Chandragupta’s capital. Megasthenes wrote glowing descriptions of Chandragupta’s palace, with its gold-covered pillars, many fountains, and imposing thrones. The capital city featured beautiful parks and bustling markets. Megasthenes also described the countryside and how farmers lived:
P R I M A RY SOU R C E
[Farmers] are exempted from military service and cultivate their lands undisturbed by fear. They do not go to cities, either on business or to take part in their tumults. It therefore frequently happens that at the same time, and in the same part of the country, men may be seen marshaled for battle and risking their lives against the enemy, while other men are ploughing or digging in perfect security under the protection of these soldiers.
~ MEGASTHENES,in Geography by Strabo
In 301 B.C., Chandragupta’s son assumed the throne. He ruled for 32 years. Then Chandragupta’s grandson, Asoka, brought the Mauryan Empire to its greatest heights.
Asoka Promotes Buddhism
Asoka became king of the Mauryan Empire in 269 B.C. At first, he followed in Chandragupta’s footsteps, waging war to expand his empire. During a bloody war against the neighboring state of Kalinga, 100,000 soldiers were slain, and even more civilians perished. Although victorious, Asoka felt sorrow over the slaughter at Kalinga. As a result, he studied Buddhism and decided to rule by the Buddha’s teaching of “peace to all beings.” Throughout the empire, Asoka erected huge stone pillars inscribed with his new policies. Some edicts guaranteed that Asoka would treat his subjects fairly and humanely. Others preached nonviolence. Still others urged religious toleration – acceptance of people who held different religious beliefs. Asoka had extensive roads built so that he could visit the far corners of India. He also improved conditions along these roads to make travel easier for his officials and to improve communication in the vast empire. For example, every nine miles he had wells dug and rest houses built. This allowed travelers to stop and refresh themselves. Such actions demonstrated Asoka’s concern for his subjects’ well-being. Noble as his policies of toleration and nonviolence were, they failed to hold the empire together after Asoka died in 232 B.C.
Asoka’s death left a power vacuum. In northern and central India, regional kings challenged the imperial government. The kingdoms of central India, which had only been loosely held in the Mauryan Empire, soon regained their independence. The Andhra Dynasty arose and dominated the region for hundreds of years. Because of their central position, the Andhras profited from the extensive trade between north and south India and also with Rome, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia.
At the same time, northern India had to absorb a flood of new people fleeing political instability in other parts of Asia. For 500 years, beginning about 185 B.C., wave after wave of Greeks, Persians, and Central Asians poured into northern India. These invaders disrupted Indian society. But they also introduced new languages and customs that added to the already-rich blend of Indian culture.
Southern India also experienced turmoil. It was home to three kingdoms that had never been conquered by the Mauryans. The people who lived in this region spoke the Tamillanguage and are called the Tamil people. These three kingdoms often were at war with one another and with other states.
The Gupta Empire Is Established
After 500 years of invasion and turmoil, a strong leader again arose in the northern state of Magadha. His name was Chandra Gupta, but he was no relation to India’s first emperor, Chandragupta Maurya. India’s second empire, the Gupta Empire, oversaw a great flowering of Indian civilization, especially Hindu culture.
Chandra Gupta Builds an Empire
The first Gupta emperor came to power not through battle but by marrying a daughter of an influential royal family. After his marriage, Chandra Gupta I took the title “Great King of Kings” in A.D. 320. His empire included Magadha and the area north of it, with his power base along the Ganges River. His son, Samudra Gupta, became king in A.D. 335. Although a lover of the arts, Samudra had a warlike side. He expanded the empire through 40 years of conquest.
Daily Life in India
The Gupta era is the first period for which historians have much information about daily life in India. Most Indians lived in small villages. The majority were farmers, who walked daily from their homes to outlying fields. Craftspeople and merchants clustered in specific districts in the towns. They had shops on the street level and lived in the rooms above. Most Indian families were patriarchal, headed by the eldest male. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and children all worked together to raise their crops. Because drought was common, farmers often had to irrigate their crops. There was a tax on water, and every month, people had to give a day’s worth of labor to maintain wells, irrigation ditches, reservoirs, and dams. As in Mauryan times, farmers owed a large part of their earnings to the king.
Southern India followed a different cultural pattern. Some Tamil groups were matriarchal, headed by the mother rather than the father. Property, and sometimes the throne, was passed through the female line.
Height of the Gupta Empire
While village life followed unchanging traditional patterns, the royal court of the third Gupta emperor was a place of excitement and growth. Indians revered Chandra Gupta II for his heroic qualities. He defeated the Shakas – enemies to the west – and added their coastal territory to his empire. This allowed the Guptas to engage in profitable trade with the Mediterranean world. Chandra Gupta II also strengthened his empire through peaceful means by negotiating diplomatic and marriage alliances. He ruled from A.D. 375 to 415.
During the reign of the first three Guptas, India experienced a period of great achievement in the arts, religious thought, and science. After Chandra Gupta II died, new invaders threatened northern India. These fierce fighters, called the Hunas, were related to the Huns who invaded the Roman Empire. Over the next 100 years, the Gupta Empire broke into small kingdoms. Many were overrun by the Hunas or other Central Asian nomads. The Empire ended about 535.
Achievements of Indian Culture
During the Gupta Empire, Indians experienced a golden age, a time of great achievements in the arts, mathematics and science.
One of India’s greatest writers was Kalidasa. He may have been the court poet for Chandra Gupta II. Kalidasa’s most famous play is Shakuntala. It tells the story of a beautiful girl who falls in love with and marries a middle-aged king. After Shakuntala and her husband are separated, they suffer tragically because of a curse that prevents the king from recognizing his wife when they meet again. Generations of Indians have continued to admire Kalidasa’s plays because they are skillfully written and emotionally stirring.
Astronomy, Mathematics, and Medicine
The expansion of trade spurred the advance of science. Because sailors on trading ships used the stars to help them figure their position at sea, knowledge of astronomy increased. From Greek invaders, Indians adapted Western methods of keeping time. They began to use a calendar based on the cycles of the sun rather than the moon. They also adopted a seven-day week and divided each day into hours. During the Gupta Empire (A.D. 320 to about 500), knowledge of astronomy increased further. Almost 1,000 years before Columbus, Indian astronomers proved that the earth was round by observing a lunar eclipse. During the eclipse, the earth’s shadow fell across the face of the moon. The astronomers noted that the earth’s shadow was curved, indicating that the earth itself was round.
Indian mathematics was among the most advanced in the world. Modern numerals, the zero, and the decimal system were invented in India. Around A.D. 500, an
Indian named Aryabhata calculated the value of pi (π) to four decimal places. He also calculated the length of the solar year as 365.3586805 days. This is very close to modern calculations made with an atomic clock. In medicine, two important medical guides were compiled. They described more than 1,000 diseases and more than 500 medicinal plants. Hindu physicians performed surgery – including plastic surgery – and possibly gave injections.