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The Emergence of Kingdoms and Empires, The Mauryan Empire

Mauryan dynasty, Beas River, Chandragupta Maurya, lion capital, Ganges Delta

By the 6th century bc, Indian civilization was firmly centered at the eastern end of the Gangetic Plain (in the area of present-day Bihar), and certain kings became increasingly powerful. In the 6th century bc the Kingdom of Magadha conquered and absorbed neighboring kingdoms, giving rise to India’s first empire. At the head of the Magadha state was a hereditary monarch in charge of a centralized administration. The state regularly collected revenues and was protected by a standing army. This empire continued to expand, extending in the 4th century bc into central India and as far as the eastern coast.

As political power shifted east, the area of the upper Indus became a frontier where local kings were confronted by an expanding Persian empire. These invaders had conquered the land up to the Indus River near the end of the 6th century bc. In 326 bc, after fighting the Persians and the tribes to the west of the Indus, Alexander the Great traveled to the Beas River, just east of what is now Lahore, Pakistan. Fearing the powerful and well-equipped kingdoms that lay farther east, Alexander’s army revolted, forcing him to turn back from India. What was left after his death in Babylon in 323 bc were the Hellenistic states of what is now Afghanistan; these states later had a profound influence on the art of India.

Chandragupta Maurya, the first king of the Mauryan dynasty, succeeded the throne in Magadha in about 321 bc. In 305 bc Chandragupta defeated the ruler of a Hellenistic kingdom on the plains of Punjab and extended what became the Mauryan Empire into Afghanistan and Baluchistan to the southwest. Chandragupta was assisted by Kautilya, his chief minister. The empire stretched from the Ganges Delta in the east, south into the Deccan, and west to include Gujarat. It was further extended by Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta, to include all of India (including what is now Pakistan and much of what is now Afghanistan) except the far southern tip and the lands to the east of the Brahmaputra River. The Mauryan Empire featured a complex administrative structure, with the emperor as the head of a developed bureaucracy of central and local government.

After a bloody campaign against Kalinga in what is now Orissa state in 261 bc, Ashoka became disillusioned with warfare and eventually embraced Buddhism and nonviolence. Although Buddhism was not made the state religion, and although Ashoka tolerated all religions within his realm, he sent missionaries far and wide to spread the Buddhist message of righteousness and humanitarianism. His son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta converted the people of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and other missionaries were sent to Southeast Asia and probably into Central Asia as well. He also sent cultural missions to the west, including Syria, Egypt, and Greece. Ashoka built shrines and monasteries and had rocks and beautifully carved pillars inscribed with Buddhist teachings. (The lion capital of one of these pillars is now the state emblem of India.)

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