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The Government System of Mauryan India.
The best account of the Mauryan administration that we have are the writings of the Seleukid diplomat Megasthenes, who was sent to the court of the first Mauryan emperor Chandragupta, on behalf of Seleukos Nikator. His book, the Indika, is unfortunately lost, but by collecting fragments, and citations from other ancient authors, many of whom used and cited Megasthenes, much of the text has been recreated. The central figure of the Mauryan Empire would obviously have been the emperor himself, who reigned from his palace in Pataliputra, in the Mauryan homeland of Magadha on the eastern Ganges. As the Mauryan Empire was heavily influenced by the Achaemenid Empire, the latter having ruled northwestern India for nearly 200 years, the customs and organisation of the court was clearly Persian in its form. According to Rawlinson, this might be due to the fact that Chandragupta Maurya, in his youth, resided in Taksashila, which then was the center of Persian culture in India (Rawlinson 1971). That Persian ways very much influenced India is not solely attested to by the customs of the court: many Indian kings of the period, apparently not only the Mauryan emperor, carried the title Maharajadhiraja, which is basically a direct translation of the Persian Shahanshah, i.e. king-of-kings (Stein 1998). However, one should note that some historians, such as Sagar (1992),cast doubt over this version of events, and claim that these titles were an independent Indian development, based on their usage in early native sources. The fact that these sources were often not written down until much later could however mean that they made their way into the sorces as the words became ever more naturalised in the language, so the evidence is by no means conclusive. This meant that outlying regions, although under imperial suzerainty, were in fact ruled by the local governor, who often styled himself Raja as well (Majumdar 1960). Often, this was a hierarchic system, similar to a feudal society, where the local king in his turn ruled a group of subordinate chiefs, satraps or rulers (Stein 1998). These local kings often had their own governing organisation, and, if powerful enough, were able to raise a private army, with which they would come to the Maharajadhiraja’s aid when called for.
The clearest example of this within the Mauryan Empire would have been the division of the realm into five regions, or viceroyalties. The viceroy’s court would have acted as a provincial government, and they were often located in the major city of the area which they were to govern. Thus, beside the imperial capital at Pataliputra, the four viceroy’s courts would have been located at Tosali, Suvarnagiri, Ujjain and Taksashila (Keay 2000). The region of Pataliputra was the only one under direct imperial control, and the emperor’s control of the other provinces was probably fairly nominal. The viceroys seem to have been titled Uparaja (Rapson 1955), and from their respective courts they managed the administration of their allotted provinces on behalf of the emperor. It appears as though the viceroys were often close relatives of the emperor, such as a son or a brother, called Kumara in the texts, which would serve to make him more loyal towards the central power (Tripathi 1967). This would not always be the case, though. According to the Arthashastra, a treatise on how to govern a state written by one of Chandragupta's highest ministers, one Kautilya, a native of Taksashila, a ruler always lived in fear of his relatives. A famous quote from the work, on that very subject reads: “Princes, like crabs, have a notorious tendency of eating their parents” (Arth. 1.17). Megasthenes also confirms that Chandragupta often changed the bedroom in which he slept in order to avoid assassination attempts.
On a side note, the Arthashastra describes in some detail how a kingdom ought to be ruled; however, it is unlikely that any kingdom was actually governed according to all the rules that are described therein. It has previously been considered a description of how the Maurya Empire was governed, but the consensus today is that it in fact describes an “ideal” state from a ruler’s perspective. In a sense, it can be likened to a handbook of despotic governance. Stein (1998) likens it to an ancient Indian version of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, and this is most likely not far from its original intention. Boesche makes another conclusion, though, and argues that even though the state described in the Arthashastra is idealised, Kautilya would probably have relied to quite some extent on his own theories in his position as prime minister (Boesche 2003). At any rate, most seem to agree that even though there might be discrepancies, the Arthashastra is reliable enough to use as an approximation of the system of government in Mauryan times.
Unfortunately, we have no clear sources regarding how the viceroyalties were governed. However, several scholars seem to agree that they were ruled in much the same fashion as the imperial province (Keay 2000; Rawlinson 1971; Smith 1914). The head would thus have been the emperor or the viceroy, who had a number of ministers, advisors, and other officials around him. These officials would have been organised into a number of councils, each of which was assigned to a certain area of official affairs, such as a trade council, an agricultural council, a military council, etc. (Keay 2000; Smith 1914). The members of these councils were appointed by the emperor himself (Keay 2000). We can then suspect that the situation was the same in the viceroyalties. One of the biggest concerns of the governmental machine would have been the collection of taxes. This would have been run by a huge bureaucratic organisation which was rigidly controlled by various officials in the emperor’s service.
We shall now further investigate some of the various official titles which existed in the Mauryan Empire. The first, and the most important, of these would obviously be the emperor. Megasthenes and other ancient authors describe the emperor as living in incredible luxury. Inspired by the Persians' customs, he lived in seclusion in his palace, and appeared publicly only on major official events, such as the famed “Hair-washing festival”, which occurred on the emperor’s birthday (Smith 1914). This was evidently inspired by the very similar ceremony among Persian kings, and further emphasises the profound influence of Achaemenid culture and traditions on India (Sagar 1992). However, more interesting than the peculiar customs of the court is the role that the emperor played in the governmental machine. The emperor acted as judge in legal matters, and the king often commanded the army in the field (Majumdar et al. 1960). Despite this, it appears as though the emperor was in no way an absolute monarch, and administrative decisions were instead often made by the ministers and their councils, although the emperor had to officially accept the proposals before they could be implemented (Altekar 1962). Still, the emperors were considered divine, although not necessarily in the same manner as certain Hellenistic rulers. Stein (1998) argues that their sacredness was more due to the righteousness of their rule, rather than their actual social position. That the councils could indeed revoke propositions made by the emperor for review (Altekar 1962) is a clear sign of the fact that the decision-making in the Mauryan Empire, and other Indian empires of the time, was far less despotic than what is usually the case with divine royalty. Nevertheless, the rulers often carried bynames with religious connotations which were meant to emphasise their connection with the gods. For example, Aşoka, apart from carrying the imperial title of Chakravartin, literally “Wheel-Turner”, in his edicts never referred to himself by name, but rather in first person, or by his title, which reads Devanampiya Piyadassi (Keay 2000). This title translates roughly into “beloved by the gods and of gracious appearance”, and shows that even Aşoka, who was otherwise inclined to follow the teachings of the Buddha, retained an image of having a divine personality. The imperial title was hereditary, and was handed over to the Yuvaraja, or Heir Apparent, upon the death or abdication of the previous ruler. The Yuvaraja apparently also had ministerial duties (Rapson 1955).
Considering the various ministers, there exist references to them in several sources, from old Vedic text to much later inscriptions and treatises on statecraft. However, few of them are mentioned in such a context that it is possible to clearly discern their respective areas of responsibility or their official titles. The foremost of the ministers, however, was the prime minister, who was, in many aspects, the second-most important person in the empire, next to the emperor. Indeed, Chandragupta’s minister Kautilya, may actually have been the driving force behind the formation of the Mauryan Empire (Keay 2000). His duties seem to have been to oversee the administration of the empire, and they thus held immense power, but it also appears as though this minister could be the head of any given part of the administration at the same time (Altekar 1962). In the Arthashastra, the official title of this minister seems to be Mantrin (Majumdar et al. 1960). The eleventh-century writer Şukra, however, assigns this name to the foreign minister. Whatever the name of this latter official, his duties would have been to handle diplomatic relations with foreign states, and larger empires might even have had several foreign ministers (Altekar 1962).
Another important minister was the war minister, or supreme commander, who in Mauryan times was referred to as the Senapati (Altekar 1962; Majumdar et al. 1960). Apparantly, the Senapati was charged with managing and overseeing military forces and installations. He seems to have been trained in the art of war (Altekar 1962), however, it is uncertain whether he was expected to command forces in battle. This seems unlikely, given the emperor’s earlier mentioned propensity to personally command the forces in the field, and the Senapati was probably more of a military advisor and administrator who assisted the emperor in his military deliberations (Tripathi 1967). The only account of the war minister commanding the loyalty of the army himself dates approximately to the year 181 BC when the Senapati of the last Mauryan emperor Brhadratha, one Pushyamitra Şunga, murdered his master and brought the Mauryan dynasty to an end, thereby instigating the less famous Şunga dynasty of Magadha, which would nevertheless reign for more than a century (Majumdar et al. 1960; Keay 2000). The leading ministers of the empire made up a council called the Parisad (Tripathi 1967).
The various levels of regional administration are well known, and it is therefore possible to make a rather detailed description of how this worked. It will be sufficient to present a more simplified view here, however. It seems as though the administrative layout was based on a very bureaucratic system, divided up into several levels, going from the headman of every village up to the emperor himself. It generally seems as though the basic “building-block” of Indian administration would have been the village, and in particular, the person or persons who governed it. Often, each village was headed by an official called the Gramani, which was a hereditary title (Altekar 1962). The Gramani was responsible for both the judicial and financial administration of the village, and he also commanded the local militia in times of crisis. The Gramani had a council of village elders, called Gramavriddhas, to assist him in his administrative duties (Tripathi 1967). These villages would then be grouped into units of 10, 20, 200, and so on, up to district level (Altekar 1962). Each of these districts were administered by an official titled Rajjuka (Majumdar 1960; Altekar 1962). These would apparently have had certain judicial powers, at least under the rule of Aşoka (Tripathi 1967; Altekar 1962). These rajjukas, in their turn, were subordinated to officials called Pradesikas, who were assigned to govern divisional areas of the realm of each viceroyalty (Altekar 1962). These Pradeshikas were most likely directly responsible to the Viceroy of the given province, and would thus have been rather high ranking officials. The Viceroy, ultimately, was responsible for the entire province, and most likely reported to the emperor himself.
This system seems to imply that the viceroys enjoyed at least some degree of autonomy. To prevent plots and rebellious behavior, the emperor kept an eye on officials, and no doubt viceroys, through specially assigned “overseers”, who were de facto imperial spies. The viceroys probably had similar spies in their service, to be their “eyes and ears” in their domains (Rawlinson 1971). Despite this, the hypothesis that the viceroys’ loyalty towards the emperor was questionable can perhaps not be rejected, given that the four viceroyalties quickly broke free and became independent following the death of the emperor Aşoka in 231 BC (Keay 2000). This is also implied by the fact that according to an ancient legend, before he became emperor, both Aşoka and one of his brothers, on separate occasions, were forced to go with an army to Taksashila, in order to quell rebellions that had flared up there (Smith 1964).
The exact extent of each viceroyalty’s domains are not certain, and can only be estimated. Their geographical locations, however, give us some idea of how this division would have been organised. The imperial court, situated in Pataliputra, would, as stated earlier, have had control over Magadha and most other parts of the Gangetic Plain, which was the heartland of the empire and thus controlled its northeastern part. The location of Tosali is not certain, but most likely it was in the modern province of Orissa, on the eastern coast of the Indian subcontinent (Keay 2000). Suvarnagiri was located in the Deccan, and was thus the southernmost of the viceroyalties, while Ujjain was located in western central India, in what once was the ancient kingdom of Avanti. The final, and the one which is, from our point of view, the most interesting, was Taksashila. The area that would have been controlled by the viceroy of Taksashila would have consisted of Gandhara and the Punjab, and in addition thereto, the Indian provinces on the western side of the Indus (Smith 1914). This would then mean that besides the northern Indus, the provinces on the far side of the Hindu-Kush, i.e. Paropanisadae, Arachosia and possibly parts of Gedrosia. These regions must have been part of the Mauryan Empire at some point, as Aşokan edicts have been found both at Kandahar and in the vicinity of Kabul. Smith, however, argues that these might in fact have been controlled by another viceroy, whereof no reference in the Aşokan edicts exists (Smith 1964). That these parts were part of the empire in 272 BC is likely, as the only known conquest of Aşoka was Kalinga, and we know from ancient sources that these areas were gifted to Chandragupta by Seleukos Nikator in approximately 305 BC (Tripathi 1967). Thus, as they were clearly part of Aşoka’s empire, we must assume that they were retained throughout this period. Sources mention that new viceroys were named during the reign of Aşoka, so the extent of the administrative regions may have fluctuated. For example, we find that upon the death of Aşoka, his son Jalauka reigned independently in Kashmir (Tripathi 1967). This could possibly be interpreted as Jalauka being the viceroy in this area at the time, but controlling a much smaller area than the one originally administered by the local viceroy.
What the situation of the viceroyalties, and the empire as a whole, would have been in 272 BC is not certain. Indeed, the previous emperor Bindusāra died in 273 BC, and the next emperor on the throne would have been his son Aşoka. However, Aşoka’s coronation did not occur until 269 BC, implying a four-year interregnum, which might possibly have been due to internal struggles for succession. Although the grossly exaggerated myths that Aşoka slew 99 of his 100 brothers before ascending the throne are obvious cock-and-bull stories, these may well be based on a true event, where Asoka fought against one or more brothers in a civil war following their father’s death. What the stance of the Viceroy of Taksashila would have been in this conflict remains purely hypothetical. (One could possibly imagine that Taksashila, given its history of rebelliousness, could have taken the opportunity to attempt to break free). As Susima Maurya, eldest son of Emperor Bindusāra was headed there to quell a rebellion at the time of the emperor's death, it is even quite possible that he used the northwest, and hence Taksashila, as a base during the civil war that followed.
How much power and authority the viceroys, and indirectly the emperor, had over these provinces is not certain, though. Much of the infrastructure of the empire was based on the large royal roads, which in Persian fashion ran between the major cities of the empire. For example, the northern road, or “Uttarapatha”, went from Taksashila all the way to Pataliputra and beyond (Stein 1998). These roads were of excellent quality, both for trade and for quickly marching an army to anywhere there might be a foreign threat or a rebellion. Most likely they were inspired by the Persian royal roads (Sagar 1992). Thus, along these routes the emperor and his viceroys had full control and were able to impose their rule. However, Stein (1998) argues that it is not possible to assess whether or not their rule over the regions beyond the roads and cities was anything other than nominal.
Megasthenes: Indika (fragments).
Rawlinson, H.G. (1971) Intercourse between India and the Western World.
Stein, B. (1998). A History of India.
Sagar, K.C. (1992). Foreign Influence on Ancient India
Majumdar, R.C., Raychaudhuri, H.C., and Datta, K. (1960). An Advanced History of India.
Keay, J. (2000). India – A History.
Rapson, E. (ed). (1955). Cambridge History of India (CHI).
Smith, V.A. (1914) The early history of India from 600 b.c. to the Muhammadan conquest, including the invasion of Alexander the Great.
Altekar, A.S. (1962). State & Government in Ancient India.
Tripathi, R.S. (1967). History of Ancient India.
From Europa barbarorum.