By 326BCE, India was a land of many languages and cultures. Hindu rajas ruled small but often rich kingdoms. The wealth of the rajas attracted the army of Alexander the Great, a young Greek general who amassed the largest empire of his era.
Shortly after Alexander’s death in 323BCE, a young soldier of a low caste named Chandragupta Maura led a rebellion that drove out the Greek invaders. By 305BCE, Chandragupta’s Mauryan Empire stretched from the Bay of Bengal in eastern India across the northern portion of the subcontinent through the Hindu Kush into modern-day Afghanistan. For the first time in history, one state ruled most of the subcontinent.
It was not the size of India, but rather its cultural diversity that made the Mauryan Empire difficult to govern. To make his empire more easily managed, Chandragupta divided it into smaller regions called provinces—each ruled by a prince and his royal family. Chandragupta’s administration of the provinces was so efficient that later conquerors of India kept parts of his system intact for centuries.
Chandragupta skillfully controlled his vast realm. He employed spies who provided him with secret reports on events in the provinces. The emperor’s servants tasted his meals for poison and the emperor slept in different beds every night.
Later in his life, Chandragupta Maura sought enlightenment by becoming a Jain. Jainism is an ancient Indian philosophy that combines elements of Hinduism and Buddhism. Jainism and Buddhism were popular with Indians who—like Chandragupta—had no status in the caste system. Legends tell us that Chandragupta eventually gave up his power and lived the last years of his life as an ascetic—a holy person who has given up all material pleasures and comforts.
Ashoka was Chandragupta’s grandson and a ferocious warrior. Upon the death of his father, Ashoka is believed to have massacred his brothers and sisters in order to seize control of the Mauryan Empire.
Once in power, Ashoka built an elaborate palace filled with flowers, trees, and ornaments. Deep inside the palace, however, was a torture chamber where the emperor imposed cruel punishments upon anyone who challenged his authority.
Ashoka’s army defeated the rival kingdom of Kalinga, but thousands of soldiers on each side were killed in the ferocious battles.
Finally, as Ashoka rode out to the battlefield to rejoice in his last and greatest victory, he felt great remorse at the suffering he caused.
The emperor then had a spiritual transformation. He renounced war and became a devout Buddhist. He practiced ahimsa, the belief that one should not hurt any living thing. For the rest of his life, Ashoka refused to eat meat and banned all animal sacrifices.
Ashoka built Buddhist shrines and temples throughout Asia. The emperor sent Buddhist missionaries to foreign lands. Buddhism is no longer widely practiced on the Indian subcontinent, but it is now a major influence in China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Ashoka spent the next forty years of his rule emphasizing human charity and respect for all living things. He ignored the caste system and insisted that all of his subjects be treated as equals. He sent engineers to build roads that encouraged people to travel and trade. The engineers also dug wells and built hospitals in poor villages.
Most of what we know about Ashoka’s rule comes from stone pillars he erected throughout his empire. The writings on some of the pillars espoused Buddhist principals, while others told the story of the Mauryan Empire. Many of the monuments have survived more than 2200 years to the present day.
The emperors who followed Ashoka were weak. After the emperor’s death, Hindu priests once again reimposed the caste system as the Mauryan Empire gradually shrunk. In 185BCE, the last of the Mauryan rulers was killed, ending the dynasty that united most of the subcontinent.