Perhaps no South Asian ruler has inspired as much fascination and adulation as Ashoka Maurya. Across the political spectrum, historians and political leaders compete to claim that he was one of their own – an enlightened ruler. Proof that India was ‘united’ in some primordial past, and that ‘dharma’, conveniently interpreted, can and should be the guiding ideology of the 21st century nation-state.
But many of these ideas are castles in the air. Recent archaeological studies of the Mauryas question everything we confidently believe about them, revealing a much more fascinating ancient world.
To Indian nationalists and freedom fighters in the 20th century, especially Jawaharlal Nehru, Ashoka was an emblem of past unity when the contemporary political landscape was fractured by hundreds of princely states. His ‘dharma’ was seen as similar to emerging concepts of secularism, desperately needed by a nation reeling from Partition and the conflation of religious and political identities.
Further, Ashoka’s association with the spread of Buddhism seemed ‘proof’ that India’, loosely and conveniently defined, had always been the ‘centre’ from which ideas flowed to the rest of Asia. This dovetailed with the need for national pride as well as with Nehru’s attempts to create a postcolonial bloc of nations.
It is no wonder, then, that much of independent India’s architecture and iconography were inspired by the Mauryas.
But many of these assumptions are based on shaky evidence. Strictly speaking, ‘dharma’ cannot be interpreted as ‘secular’ when Ashoka is frequently at pains to present himself as a Buddhist layman, at a time when Buddhism was an aggressively proselytising new faith.
Further, the heyday of Buddhist transmission outside the subcontinent began well after his death, and it was driven by local market demand rather than vague notions of India’s superiority. And, as established by the rapid decline of Maurya’s power after his death, simply erecting edicts had little to do with actual political control.
Clearly, there are deep flaws in how we think about the Mauryas. In Questions of Intended Meaning and the Aśokan Edicts, archaeologist Namita Sugandhi argues that colonial historians translated Ashoka’s words in excessively grandiose ways. This led to fanciful interpretations of the structure of the Maurya polity. For example, she notes, scattered references to royal princes have been used to claim that the empire was divided into north, south, east, and west provinces.
Similarly, merely the presence of a Mauryan inscription is taken as proof of ‘control’ or ‘influence’ – by which logic we might as well conclude that 14th century Tamil merchants, who built a temple in Guangzhou, ruled China. Or that the Shailendra kings of Java, who donated to a Buddhist monastery in the 11th century at Nagapattinam, ruled Tamil Nadu.
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Did the Mauryas “unite India”?
Once we strip away the assumptions, the Mauryas emerge as much more challenging individuals. They were the culmination of a nearly 300-year-long process of political consolidation within the Gangetic Plains, which had been characterised by ruthless violence both within and between polities. Throughout this time, religious and commercial networks also grew more extensive, and South Asia became more closely connected to West Asia. The arrival of a marauding Greek army in Punjab in 326 BCE and the establishment of Hellenic cities in Afghanistan are examples of this.
Developments were also afoot in the Deccan, where the Iron Age was well in progress. In a 2021 interview, professor Sugandhi pointed out that the people of the Deccan were using advanced metallurgical techniques, trading and warring between small settlements, and even indulging in international trade – all without having cities, states, or extensive agriculture.
It is in this world that the Maurya dynasty ruled, conquered, and died. It is impossible to reconstruct precisely how they rose to power, a problem that historian Devika Rangachari addresses in her recent book, The Mauryas, using later legends and literary works. All that can be stated with certainty is that the Mauryas did seize control of the Gangetic Plains and undertook wide-ranging expeditions to maintain their dominion. They were aware of their growing geopolitical horizons, exchanging embassies with the Mediterranean world.
But claims of Mauryan ‘conquest’ or ‘control’ over the subcontinent at large, thus making them the ‘first Indian empire’, are exaggerated and based on fragmentary evidence. The Mauryas were not even the first Gangetic empire, having been preceded by the relatively successful Nanda dynasty.
All claims of Mauryan authority in the Deccan and beyond ignore one crucial question: why would the Mauryas care? We often hand-wave hard questions of logistics, profit, and productivity in the search for dramatic historical narratives. But no modern or premodern polity survives without them. Nearly the size of France, the Deccan approaches the Gangetic Plains in scale and outstrips it in sheer geographical diversity. It was by no means profitable for Gangetic empires to invest in military and administrative infrastructure to control what was then a vast and sparsely populated region.
In Interpreting the Mauryan Empire, historian Himanshu Prabha Ray made the case that there is no archaeological evidence of such infrastructure at all. Indeed, ‘Mauryan’ inscriptions in the Deccan seem to mostly be copies of one of Ashoka’s minor rock edicts, located near smaller religious sites rather than major population centres. This suggests that the primary audience were not ‘subjects’ of the Mauryas but people whom they wished to impress and perform in front of. But who could have commissioned the edicts and why?
Professor Sugandhi, in Between the Patterns of History, examined archaeological evidence from Tekkalakota, a Neolithic/Iron Age site in the southern Deccan. There is an Ashokan edict there, and a few North Indian silver coins were found during excavations. But overwhelmingly, Tekkalakota’s material culture was almost identical to its neighbourhood, with barely any ‘influence’ from the distant Gangetic empire aside from, perhaps, trade.
Agents of the Mauryas in this region were probably local elites seeking links to new subcontinental networks rather than ‘officers’ appointed by Ashoka. Or they may have been merchants or Buddhist monks from the Gangetic Plains, penetrating new markets with the support of a state aggressively looking outwards.
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‘Integration’ beyond politics
Rather than seeing Ashoka and the Mauryas as the protagonists, we now have a more compelling model of early Indian history as resulting from the activities of many networks, many power centres, and many people. It was through such activities that Buddhism, the subcontinent’s first great cultural ‘export’, spread into the rest of the world – and it makes intuitive sense that this is how it spread through the subcontinent too. After all, much as we like to pretend that we are exceptional, South Asia is governed by the same fundamental historical forces as any other part of the globe.
What makes the Mauryas so important is not that they were Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the third century BCE, or even that they led dramatic lives that continued to echo through religious texts for centuries. Rather, they are important because they are among the few named individuals that we know of from a most remarkable period: one where the Gangetic Plains became a great, outward-looking centre of global culture and commerce for the first time.
As we’ll see in future editions of Thinking Medieval, this would catalyse a series of remarkable changes through the subcontinent and beyond.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.
This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)