From Janapadas To Empire




From later Vedic till 6th century it is! The later Vedic people started agriculture in the Ganga basin and settled down in permanent villages. Then the increased agricultural activity and settled life led to the rise of sixteen Mahajanapadas (large territorial states) in north India in sixth century BC. Magadh one of these states defeated all others to rise to the status of an empire and later the Mauryas. The Mauryan period was one of great economic and cultural progress. However, the Mauryan Empire collapsed within fifty years of the death of Ashoka. This period (6th century BC) is also known for the rise of many new religions like Buddhism and Jainism.


The Emergence Of New Religions

In this period, the centre of economic and political activity shifted from Haryana and western UP to Eastern UP and Bihar, which had more rainfall and better fertility of land.

As it was now easier to exploit the iron ore resources of Bihar and adjoining regions, people started using more and more iron tools and ploughshare to clear thick forest cover and cultivate the hard soil of this area.

The evidence of the growth of agriculture comes from the archaeological and literary sources of this period.

  • In fact, a ploughshare dated to around 500 BC has been found from Jakhera in Etah district in western U.P.
  • Many other important pieces of evidence of the use of iron in this period come from Rajghat, Kaushambi, Vaishali and Sonpur.
  • The Buddhist texts tell us how cultivation of paddy, sugarcane and mustard required utmost care and several rounds of ploughing.

Expansion of agriculture resulted in improved food supply and helped in the development of craft production, trade and urban centres.

The sixth century BC is known as an era of ‘Second Urbanisation’ in the Indian Subcontinent.

After the decline of the Harappan Towns urban centres now emerge again after a gap of more than a thousand years. However, this time towns developed in the middle Ganga basin and not in the Indus plain. It is said that more than sixty towns and cities such as Pataliputra, Rajagriha, Sravasti, Varanasi, Vaishali, Champa, Kaushambi and Ujjaini developed between 600 and 300 BC.

These cities became centre of craft production and trade, and were inhabited by a large number of artisans and merchants. The goods produced by artisans like textile, silk, jewellery, pottery etc, were carried by merchants to other towns.

  • Varanasi was a major centre of trade connected with Sravasti and Kaushambi.
  • Sravasti was also connected with Vaishali through Kapilavastu and Kusinara.
  • Jataka stories tell us that traders travelled from Magadh and Kosala via Mathura to Taxila.
  • Mathura was the transit point for travel to Ujjain and coastal areas of Gujarat also.

Development of trade is reflected in the discovery of thousands of coins known as punch marked coins (PMC). Various kind of marks such as crescent, fish, trees, hill etc. are punched on these coins, they are therefore called Punched Marked Coins. Numismatists have identified nearly 550 types of such coins, made mainly of silver and sometimes copper.

The improvement in agriculture and development of trade, money and urbanisation had an impact on the society as well. Indeed, due to these changes traditional equality and brotherhood gave way to inequality and social conflict. People wanted some kind of reprieve from new social problems like violence, cruelty, theft, hatred, and falsehood. Therefore, when new religions such as Jainism and Buddhism preached the concept of peace and social equality, people welcomed it.

These religions emphasised that true happiness does not lie in material prosperity or performance of rituals but in charity, frugality, non-violence, and good social conduct. Besides, the general economic progress had led to the rise of vaisyas and other mercantile groups, who wanted better social position than what brahmanas gave them. Therefore, they preferred to patronise non-vedic religions like Buddhism and Jainism through substantial donations.

Buddhism and Jainism were not the only religions, which challenged brahmanical dominance. According to the Buddhist sources, more than 62 sects and philosophies flourished in this period.

  • One of these sects was known as Ajivika, which was founded by Makkhali Goshal. Ajivakas were very popular in Magadh in the third century BC and Mauryan kings donated several caves in the honour of Ajivaka monks.


Doctrines Of Jainism

Vardhaman Mahavira, is regarded as the founder of Jainism. He was born in 599 BC near Vaishali in Bihar. He was twenty-fourth and the last tirthankara of Jainism.

Jainism believed that the main goal of human life is the purification of soul and attainment of nirvana, which means freedom from birth and death. This can be achieved not through rituals and sacrifices but by pursuance of triratna and panchamahavrata.

  • Triratna or three jewels (lead to liberation) are –
    • right faith,
    • right knowledge, and
    • right conduct.
  • Right conduct means observance of five great vows –
    • ahimsa (do not commit violence),
    • satya vachana (do not speak a lie),
    • asteya (do not steal),
    • brahmacharya (do not indulge in sexual act), and
    • aprigraha (do not acquire property).
  • Householders were expected to observe milder form of the practice of these virtues called anuvrata (small vows) in comparison to the monks.

So, one can notice that while the Brahmanism was a ritual oriented religion this new faith was conduct-oriented.


  • The concept of anekantavada or syadavada – It means that the truth can be viewed from aneka or various angles.
  • It emphasizes on extreme form of penance, austerity, and strict non-violence. Perhaps emphasis on strict discipline was one of the reasons why it could not attract the masses in large number.
  • Mahavira used Prakrit language to spread his message.


Just like other religions, Jainism also could not remain united for very long and later divided into two sects called the Digambara (who remain naked) and Svetambara (who wear white clothes).


Doctrines Of Buddhism

The founder of Buddhism was Gautama Buddha, who was born in 566 BC at Lumbini, located in the foothills of Nepal. He died at the age of 80 in 486 BC at Kusinara or Kusinagar near Gorakhpur in eastern UP.

One night he left his palace in search of truth and ultimately attained the true knowledge at Bodhgaya. He then began to be called Buddha or the enlightened one.

He delivered his first sermon at Sarnatha near Varanasi. This event is known as dharma-chakra-pravartana (turning of the wheel of law). He also established his sangha here.

Buddha asked his followers to avoid the two extremes –

  • indulgence in worldly pleasure and
  • the practice of strict abstinence and asceticism.

This philosophy of madhyama marga or the Middle Path is reflected in all the issues related to Buddhism.

The main teachings of Buddhism are encapsulated in the basic concept of four noble truths or arya satya and eightfold path or astangika marga.

Four Noble Truths or Arya Satya

  1. First, Buddha said that suffering (dukkha) is the essence of the world and is like an ocean of miseries;
  2. Second, dukkha samudya i.e. every suffering has a cause;
  3. Third, dukkha nirodha i.e. suffering could be extinguished;
  4. Fourth, dukkha nirodha gamini pratipada i.e. there is a path leading to the extinction of dukkha.

He said that every thing in this world like birth, old age and death leads to suffering. If one wants to get rid of suffering one has to conquer the desire. This removal of desire can be achieved through eightfold path.

Eightfold Path or Astangika Marga

  1. right faith,
  2. right resolve,
  3. right speech,
  4. right action,
  5. right living,
  6. right effort,
  7. right thought,
  8. right self concentration.

Propagation Of Buddhism

  • Buddha used Pali language spoken by masses to propagate his teachings.
  • Buddha allowed lower varnas and women to join the sangha.
  • Four Buddhist councils organised over different periods played a significant role in the propagation of Buddhism.


In the fourth council during the reign of Kanishka, Buddhism split into two major sects called Hinayana and Mahayana.

  • Mahayana adopted Sanskrit as its language and started worshipping Buddha in the form of an idol, while
  • Hinayana continued to follow Pali and treated Buddha as a guide.

Points To Note

  • Buddhism became weak by seventh century AD but the impact of Buddhism can be seen in all spheres of life in Indian history.
  • Buddhist scholars created many literary texts like Tripitaka, Milindapanho, Buddhacharita etc.
  • Buddhism became an inspiration for the promotion of art and architecture, in the form of stupas, rock-cut caves and paintings. These can be noticed at Sanchi, Bharhut, Amravati, Ajanta etc.
  • Buddhism inspired Gandhara and Mathura schools of art.
  • Buddhism by opening its door to all the classes challenged the superiority of Brahmanism and gave better social position to lower castes.


The Sixteen Mahajanapadas

The sixth century BC was not only a period of socio-economic and religious development but it also witnessed new political developments.

In the later Vedic period, people had started agriculture, which made them settle down at a particular place. These permanent settlements led to foundation of janapadas or territorial states under the control of the king.

In the sixth century BC the main area of political activity gradually shifted from Western UP to Eastern UP and Bihar. This region was not only fertile on account of better rainfall and river systems but was also closer to iron production centres. The use of better iron tools and weapons enabled some territorial states to become very large and they came to be called mahajanapadas. Most of them were situated north of Vindhyas, between Bihar in the east to the northwest frontier of the subcontinent.

List of these sixteen mahajanapadas –


Most of these states were monarchical in nature but some of them, called ganasangha, had an oligarchical system of governance. In this system unlike monarchies, where a hereditary king rules, administration was run by an elected king with the help of a large council or assemblies comprising heads of all important clans and families. This system was certainly more democratic than monarchy, though the common man had no participation in the administration.

The most important of these states was that of Vajjis with their capital at Vaishali, which was ruled by the Lichchhavis. These oligarchies mainly existed in the foothills of the Himalayas. They were gradually defeated and conquered by the Magadhan Empire.



The Rise Of Magadh

The political fight among these mahajanapadas led ultimately to one of them namely Magadh to emerge as the most powerful state and the centre of a vast empire.


The earliest important ruler of Magadh was the king Bimbisara, who ruled for 52 years from 544 BC to 492 BC. To expand the empire, he pursued a three-pronged policy, namely,

  • matrimonial alliances,
  • friendship with strong rulers and
  • conquest of weak neighbours.

Under the policy of matrimonial alliances, he married the sister of Prasenjit, the king of Kosala. She brought in dowry the territory of Kashi, which yielded a revenue of 1,00,000 coins. The control over Kashi and friendship with Prasenajit allowed Magadh to concentrate on other areas. His other wives were daughters of the chiefs of Lichchavi and Madra (middle Punjab) respectively.

He also conquered Anga by defeating its ruler Brahmadatta. Anga and specially its capital Champa were important for the inland and maritime trade. Thus, Kashi and conquest of Anga became the launching pad for the expansion of Magadh.

He was a contemporary of both Buddha and Mahavira and paid equal respect to them.

It seems that he was either killed or forced to commit suicide by his son Ajatasatru, who was eager to take over the throne himself.


Ajatasatru was an aggressive person.

  • He first came into conflict with his maternal uncle Prasenajit, who was aggrieved by the treatment meted out to Bimbisara. He asked Ajatasatru to return the territory of Kashi, which was given to his mother in dowry. Ajatasatru refused and it was only after a fierce battle Prasenajit agreed to leave Kasi with Magadh.
  • Similarly he fought with his maternal grandfather Chetak, the chief of Vaishali and after 16 long years of war Ajatasatru succeeded in breaking the might of Vaishali. Therefore, he not only retained Kashi, but also added Vaishali to Magadh.


Ajatasatru was succeeded by Udayin and his main contribution was building a fort on the confluence of river Ganga and river Son at Pataliputra or Patna. It was strategically a significant step as this site was not only centrally located but also allowed easy movement of merchant and soldiers.

Shishunaga Dynasty

Udayin was succeeded by the dynasty of Shishunaga. The most important achievement of Shishunaga was to defeat Avanti (Malwa) and make it a part of Magadh. The successor of Shishunaga was his son Kalashoka. It was during his rule the second Buddhist council was held.

Nanda Dynasty

The Shisunaga dynasty was succeeded by the kings of the Nanda dynasty. Mahapadma Nanda was its most important ruler. According to the Brahmanical texts he belonged to a low-caste or at least a non-kshatriya caste. He possessed a large army and added Kalinga to his empire. The last Nanda king was Dhannanand. He is believed to be an arrogant and oppressive ruler who imposed heavy taxes on the common man. It made them quite unpopular among the masses and ultimately Chandragupta took advantage of this public resentment and uprooted the Nanda rule and set up the Mauryan Empire.

How Magadh could establish gradually its dominance over all other states of the period?

  1. Magadh certainly benefited from numerous able and ambitious rulers, but its strength was based primarily on certain geographical factors. Its earlier capital Girivraja or Rajagir was surrounded by five hills, which helped it to provide natural fortification.
  2. Its fertile river plain provided a vast amount of agricultural surplus, which was essential for raising a vast standing army. Forests in southern areas gave it timber and elephants.
  3. Magadh had another advantage in its control over iron deposits found very near south Bihar. Such access to iron made Magadhan weapons far superior and agriculture tools more productive. It was this material background which helped Magadh to become more powerful than other mahajanapadas.


Rise Of The Mauryan Empire

The establishment of Mauryan dynasty by Chandragupta Maurya in 321 BC marks a turning point in the history of early India.

Mauryan Sources

For the first time now, we have at our disposal a number of sources which throw better light on the history of this period.

The edicts issued by Ashoka are the most important source of information and there are at least 44 such edicts which have been found inscribed on rocks and pillars. These are composed mostly in Prakrit language and are written in Brahmi script in most of the areas. These inscriptions are also the first evidence of writing in ancient India. As far as archaeological sources are concerned, punch-marked coins, remains of the palace of Ashoka at Kumharar and several pieces of sculptures are important.

The most important literary sources are Arthashastra of Kautilya and Indica of Megasthenes.

  • Arthashastra is a text on statecraft, which gives advice to kings as to how to rule his land and discharge his duties.
  • Indica is an account left by a Greek ambassador Megasthenes sent by Seleucus to the court of Chandragupta Maurya.

Two Ceylonese Buddhist texts called Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa and a play called Mudrarakshas written by Visakhadatta are other valuable source books.

Mauryan Dynasty

Chandragupta Maurya

The founder of the Mauryan dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya (321 BC – 297 BC) inherited a large army of the Nandas, which he used to conquer whole of north, the northwest, and a large part of the peninsular India.


His son Bindusara (297 BC – 269 BC) succeeded him. He promoted trade and cultural interaction with Greeks, but not much is known about him.


Ashoka (269 BC – 232 BC) succeeded his father Bindusara.

  • According to Buddhist traditions he came to throne after killing his 99 brothers, but such stories cannot be trusted without confirmation from other sources.
  • Ashoka fought a major war with Kalinga around 261 BC in which large number of people were killed or imprisoned. Perhaps this bloodshed moved his heart and he decided to abandon the policy of military expansion and declared that he would in future favour dhammaghosha (drum of dhamma) than bherighosha (war drum).
  • He spent the rest of his life in promoting and spreading the policy of Dhamma.


His successors could not keep the empire integrated and it disappeared after the last king Brihadaratha was assassinated by his military chief Pushyamitra Sunga around 187 BC.


Ashoka And His Dhamma

Ashoka is considered as one of the greatest kings in Indian history.

  • He is praised not so much for his militaristic activity as for his policy of Dhamma.
  • According to some of the scholars Ashoka was a follower of Buddhism and through Dhamma he tried to propagate the principles of Buddhism; but this does not seem to be true as Dhamma had nothing to do with the propagation of Buddhism. It was a code of conduct or ideal social behaviour common to all religions of the world, which he appealed to his subjects to follow.
  • Although Ashoka himself believed in Buddhism, he never discriminated against other faiths or religions.


Asokan Edicts

  • Basic attributes of Dhamma included –
    • compassion (daya),
    • charity (dana),
    • truthfulness,
    • purity and
    • gentleness.
  • Pillar Edict III asks subjects to control violence, cruelty, anger and envy.
  • Rock edict I call for a ban on animal sacrifice and social gatherings like samaj.
  • The Rock Edict II declares measures to be taken for the construction of hospitals, roads, inns, wells and planting of shade giving trees.
  • Third, Fourth and Twelfth rock edicts ask people to respect parents, relatives, brahmanas and shramanas (monks).

Dhamma Mahamatras

He also appointed a special type of officials called dhamma mahamatras. Their main function was to over see and supervise the peaceful function of the principles of Dhamma.

Twelfth rock edict is specially important since it says “the king Piyadassi, the beloved of the gods, respected all sects whether ascetics or householders, and he honours them with gifts and honours of various kinds…let an alien sect also be respected on every occasion.”

  • It shows clearly that neither Dhamma was Buddhism nor Ashoka was trying to convert people to Buddhism.

However, the question is why did he give so much attention to this policy?

Historians believe that by the later half of Ashoka’s rule, expansion of the empire was almost complete. It was an empire having different cultural, social and religious groups. In order to save the empire from political tensions arising out of these differences there were two ways –

  1. He could either increase the size of armed forces to seek military solutions to these conflicts, which might have needed increased taxes and in turn could lead to more resistance.
  2. Another alternative was peaceful resolution of various conflicts by cementing and welding of divergent groups. Ashoka chose the second alternative in order to promote harmony and peace in his kingdom.

Ashoka thus has an important place in Indian history because he was the first king to initiate policies of peace rather than of war and aggression.


Decline Of The Mauryas

Mauryas maintained a huge army, a vast bureaucracy and ruled over a large part of the Indian subcontinent. But soon after the death of Ashoka the empire got divided into two parts –

  • King Dasaratha controlled the eastern part of the empire,
  • the western part was under Samprati.

Why did such a large empire decline so early?

Some historians believe that Ashoka under the influence of Buddhism became a pacifist and weakened his army. It is also said that the religious policy of Ashoka antagonised the brahmanas as he banned the animal sacrifice, which affected the economic and religious activities of the brahmanas. Therefore, Pusyamitra Sunga, the brahmana chief of the army, killed the last Mauryan king. But this does not seem to be correct as the study of Ashokan inscriptions reveals that Ashoka paid full respect to brahmanas. Moreover it is true that Ashoka followed a policy of peace and harmony, but he did not disband his army and was always prepared to face any eventuality.

One of the main reasons for decline could be the succession of weak rulers. Who could not keep under check those, ministers and officials of far-flung regions, who had become oppressive and acted against the interest of the centre.

It is also possible that Mauryan rule may have suffered some kind of economic crisis. It is reflected in the debasement of some coins of that period. This crisis might have developed either due to massive donations and charity or overspending on the imperial administrative system.

In fact, the reason of decline was inherent in the structure of the vast centralized empire itself. The successors of Ashoka could not maintain the balance between the centre and the various provincial governors of the empire, and at the first possible opportunity, they made an effort to separate themselves from the centre.

However, Mauryan empire though declined had a positive effect of spreading agriculture and iron technology in the different parts of the subcontinent. It facilitated the rise of several regional kingdoms in the post-Mauryan period.


India Under The Mauryas



The Mauryas established an elaborate system of administration in which king played the chief role. He was assisted by a council of ministers but the king himself took all final decisions regarding revenue, law and order, war or any other matter related to administration. He was expected to be agile and accessible to his officials at all times.

In the one of his rock edicts Ashoka declared that even common people could meet him any time. He also declared that all his subjects were like his children and he desired their happiness in this and the other world.

The king appointed a council of ministers called mantriparishad. There were various other officials, who helped him perform his duties. These officials were known as amatyas, mahamatras and adhayakshas.

Arthasastra gives a list of 27 adhayakshas or superintendents who were responsible for running various economic departments like agriculture, mining, weaving, trade, etc.

Among all the executive officials samaharta was the most important. His responsibility was to supervise collection of taxes from all types of sources. Most of the superintendents mentioned above, functioned on his orders.

The Mauryas also employed a large number of spies. The Mauryans maintained a huge army.

  • According to Greek writer Justin, Chandragupta had 6,00,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, 9,000 elephants, 8,000 chariots. Although, it seems to be an exaggerated figure but possession of a large army by the Mauryas cannot be doubted.
  • Megasthenes reports that administration of different branches of army was carried out through six committees of five members each. An officer called antahpala was responsible for the security of frontier forts.

As far as judicial administration is concerned, the king was the supreme authority, but various civil as well as criminal courts functioned at the local level right from village to province. It seems most of the cases were disposed off at the village level by village elders.

Apart from Magadh with its capital at Patliputra, the Mauryan Empire was divided into four other provinces (put under the control of royal princes called kumara) with capitals at –

  • Taxila (northwestern India),
  • Suvarnagiri (southern India),
  • Tosali (eastern India), and
  • Ujjain (western India).

The city administration of Patliputra, according to Megasthenes, was conducted by six committees of five members each. Each committee was assigned different subjects such as industry, foreigners, birth and death registration, trade and market regulations and tax collection to look after. However, we are not sure whether the entire Indian subcontinent had similar type of city administration. It seems that while central province of Magadh was under strict supervision of the king, other far-flung areas might have witnessed varied degree of administrative control.

Economy, Society and Art

The Mauryas as mentioned above maintained a huge standing army and employed a large number of state officials. These soldiers and officials were paid in cash. As the normal taxes were not considered sufficient to meet all the needs of the state and hence the state undertook and regulated numerous economic activities to generate more and more resources.

The mainstay of economy in this period was agriculture.

  • The Mauryan state founded new agricultural settlements to bring virgin land under cultivation. People from overpopulated areas and prisoners of war were brought to these new settlements to work on the fields. These villages belonged to king and were looked after by government official called sitadhyaksha or superintendent of agriculture.
  • Besides state farms there were individual land holders who paid a variety of taxes to the state.
  • The importance of irrigation was fully realised and peasants had to pay more tax on irrigated land. The bali or land tax was the main item of revenue, levied at the rate of one sixth of the produce.
  • Peasants had to pay many other taxes like pindakara, hiranya, bhaga, bhoga etc., the exact nature of which is not clear.
  • Principal crops were various varieties of rice, barley, millet, wheat, sugarcane and most of the pulses, peas and oilseeds.

Trade and urban economy received great impetus under the Mauryas and influenced almost all parts of the empire.

  • The main centres of textile manufacturing were Varanasi, Mathura, Bengal, Gandhara and Ujjain.
  • Mining and metallurgy was another important economic activity.
  • Trade was conducted through land and river routes.
  • Patliputra was also connected through various trade routes with all parts of the subcontinent.
  • The main centre of trade in the northwest was Taxila, which was further connected with central Asian markets.
  • Tamralipti (Tamluk in west Bengal) in the east and Broach in the west were important seaports.

The Mauryas were responsible for introduction of iron on a large-scale in different parts of the subcontinent. They maintained a monopoly over production of iron, which was in great demand by the army, industry and agriculture. It was done through the official called loha-adyaksha.

Craft activities were also a major source of revenue to the state. Artisans living in towns had to pay taxes either in cash or kind or work free for the king. Traders and artisans were organised in associations called srenis or guilds.

As far as society is concerned, despite the challenge posed by Buddhism and Jainism the varna system continued to exist and brahmanas and kshatriyas dominated the social hierarchy. However, as a result of greater trade and commerce, there was improvement in the social status of vaisyas or trading communities and shudras. Now shudras could be involved in the agricultural and artisanal activities. This period also saw increase in the number of untouchables.

Overall Mauryan period

  • The Mauryan period provides the earliest examples of ancient Indian art and architercture.
  • Megasthenes has described the grandeur of the Mauryan palace at Pataliputra.
  • Some remains of this palace have been found at Kumrhar near Patna.
  • Ashokan pillars at Rampurva, Lauriya Nandangarh and Sarnath present excellent examples of stone sculptures which developed in this period.
  • Indian national emblem comes from the Asokan pillar at Sarnath near Benaras.
  • All these pillars are circular and monolithic, and are made of sand stone found at Chunar, near Mirzapur in U.P.
  • Some rock-cut architecture like Lomasa Risi cave in the Barabara hills near Gaya belonging to the Mauryan period are also found.
  • Among several stone and terracotta sculptures of this period, polished stone sculpture of a chauri-bearing female known as Didarganj Yakshini is most famous.




Bibliography : NIOS – Ancient India

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