4 Causes for the Decline of the Mauryan Empire

India came to enjoy a proud position and became the nucleus of diffusion of its civilization in the world under the Mauryas. However, the anti-climax came immediately after Ashoka and the Mauryan Empire disintegrated within fifty years of his death. It collapsed as suddenly as it had risen; but the suddenness of its collapse is not as startling as its longevity. In those early times with the primitive mode of transport and communication, to hold together different and diverse social, political, and cultural groups in a country as vast as India for even a century and a half was virtually a task of political geniuses and not dreamers as the Mauryan kings have sometimes been accused to have been.

Decline of the Mauryan Empire

1. Ashoka’s Policies

Ashoka has been sometimes held responsible for the downfall of the empire. The end of the dynasty at the coup of Pushyamitra Shunga was considered Brahmanical revolt against the pro-Buddhist policy of Ashoka. But there is no support for this contention. Ashoka never allowed his personal religion to come into conflict with his state religion (Dharma). A king who never felt tired of teaching his subjects the virtues of religious toleration, and who encouraged the different religious demonstrations all over his empire could not be blamed of religious intolerance. As aptly observed by one critic, “His general policy was neither specifically pro- Buddhist nor anti-Brahman. It was open to acceptance or rejection by all or any”. Moreover, the Brahmanical dynasty founded by Pushyamitra Shunga, the annihilator of the Mauryas, was itself overthrown by another Brahmanical dynasty of the Kanvas. Thus political and not religious causes were at the root of this change in dynasty accentuated no doubt by the vastness of the country.

One should also not overlook another factor. Ashoka by preaching his Dhamma had unwittingly deprived monarchy of its traditional strength based on the claims of divinity. This irresistably led to one inevitable outcome. “Gradually Dharma replaced the idea of a state. Even a divine was no longer infallible, because an unrighteous king could be removed.” (Romila Thapar)

2. Political Factors Responsible for Disintegration

History of India is a continuous interplay of centrifugal (i.e., breaking away from the centre) and centripetal (i.e., on a centre) tendencies, when the former are on the ascendence regionalism and disintegration assert themselves as was the case after Ashoka, and when the latter manifest themselves, the political unification becomes a natural sequence. The nature and scope of the unification depends on the personality of the unifier. The Mauryan Empire was not an exception to his historical phenomenon.

Ashoka’s eschewing of war and its substitution by dharmavijaya (conquest by religion) of course did not lead to the disbanding of the army; nor was his advocacy non-violence of such an unrealistic nature. It could likely have dimmed the moral and spirit of the army and farsightedness of his successors. It is because of this that the rise of powers and new political combination of the Bactrians and Parthians across the Hindukush were overlooked, and frontiers were left inadequately guarded. This very dynastic empire had its inherent weakness of too much dependence on the personality of the king and when the supply of equally capable monarchs were exhausted, all the evils of centrifugal tendencies like rise of factions in the court, assertion of independence by the provincial governors and viceroys in the distant regions, and the resulting foreign invasions manifested, themselves. The Mauryas, in spite of creating a permanent cadre of administrative service under the name Mahamatras could not check these tendencies, mostly because of the weak successors of Ashoka.

3. Successors of Ashoka

Notwithstanding any high sounding theoretical basis claimed of monarchy in ancient India, Mauryan kings in practice were more or less despots. And as you know quite well no despot however, efficient, benevolent or conscientious and who knows his obligation to his subject, can despite his best efforts assure that his successors would follow his footsteps. There is no certain method by which he can pass on his virtues and qualifications to his successors. Thus most frequently – and the history of India is replete with innumerable such instances – a good and benevolent king is succeeded by a worthless, profligate and inefficient successor. This is the chief bane of almost every personal rule. The same thing happened when Ashoka died. His successors, by and large, were weak and irresponsible despots who wasted much of their time, energy and expense in dissipation at the cost of the subjects’ welfare and “thus the dominion of Dharma (Dharma-Chakra), the kingdom of Righteousness which Ashoka sought to establish, could not survive after him because it was not broadbased upon the people’s will through a democracy which is independence of the personal factor in a monarchy.” (R.K. Mukherjee).

4. Economic Factors

We should never ignore the economic cause which precipitated the downfall and disintegration of the Mauryan Empire. The cumbersome and expensive Mauryan bureaucracy despite its excellent record of efficiency under Chandragupta and Ashoka, tended to be lax, indifferent and parasitic. The cost of administration increased phenomenally. But the resources remained almost static. The debasement of currency in the latter part of the Mauryan rule was indicative of the new trend towards economic stagnation. Growing weakness of the economy had its inevitable impact on administrative efficiency and this coupled with the weakness of the rulers who succeeded Ashoka unavoidably led to the early dissolution of the once powerful Mauryan Empire.


Thus, it may be said that the weakness of Ashoka’s successors was the main cause of the downfall of the Mauryan Empire. Ashoka’s responsibility (in terms of his pacifist policy) was indirect while that of his weak successors was immediate and direct. The economic and political factors, too, had a role to play in the disintegration of the empire.

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