Various Sources of Information for the Study of Mauryas

The Mauryas came to prominence after the overthrow of the Nanda dynasty in the later part of the fourth century BCE. The history of their rule can be reconstructed with fairly authentic evidences from many sources.

1. Accounts of classical writers – Greek and Roman

The most valuable account has been left by Megasthenes, ambassador of Seleukas to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. His original work ‘Indica’ is unfortunately lost. But few extracts from his work have been extensively found incorporated in the writings of many subsequent Greek and Roman writers. In addition to Megasthenes, we have an account of the voyage between the Persian Gulf and the Indus by Nearchus, one of the great naval commanders of Alexander. Then there was Deimachose who was sent by the Syrian court to Amitrachates, i.e., Bindusara. Similarly, the Egyptian courts sent an envoy named Dionyius to Pataliputra. Though somewhat later, the account left by Patrocles, one of the governors of Seleukas Nikator and Antiochus I of the region lying between the Indus and the Caspian sea, and Erastosthenes, the President of Alexandrian Library (296 to 249 BCE) provide us with geographical and political data of considerable value.

It must be kept in mind that accounts of the classical writers are not uniformly reliable because even a man like Megasthenes included in his work much that was based on secondary information of which he had no personal knowledge. Nonetheless, the observations and comments of these foreigners have served us fairly reliable information and have also provided valuable corroborative evidence to indigenous sources of India. All these accounts studied with care have yielded information which has been ably utilized by many scholars and historians.

2. Jain and Buddhist Literature

Traditions also throw a flood of light on the Mauryan Age. The Jains claim that Chandragupta Maurya in the later part of his career became a Jain. Ashoka, as you know, was personally a Buddhist. A work known as Jain Kalpasutra by a Jain writer Bhadrabahu of about 4th century BCE imparts some useful information about the Mauryas. Sanskrit Buddhist texts like the Divyayadana, Lalitavistara and the Mahavastu also provide valuable information for the period. Likewise, the Jataka stories of previous births of Lord Buddha or Bodhisattvas – compiled in the second or third century BCE also provide some useful data about the social economic and religious condition of India during this age. The Pali chronicles of Ceylon the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa (the former being older of the two) most probably completed in the fifth century CE – throw some light on Mauryan India.

3. Kautilya’s Arthasastra and Vishakadatta’s Mudrarakshasa

Another valuable source of information for this age is the treatise on statecraft, the Arthasastra, generally ascribed to Kautilya (also known as Vishnugupta or Chanakya), who was a councillor of Chandragupta. This work may be “used as a general guide to Mauryan polity”. An historical play written in about 500 CE by Vishakadatta named Mudrarakshasa also yields useful data about the history of the Nandas and early Mauryan rule.

4. Ashokan Inscriptions

Last but not the least, we have those remarkable inscriptions of Ashoka engraved or rocks and pillars which notwithstanding the ravages of time, have supplied us with authoritative details of inestimable value.

All these sources of information have certainly increased our knowledge about almost every aspect of the life of our countrymen during the Mauryan Age and also explain why, as graphically described by one scholar “the advent of the Mauryan Dynasty marks the passage from darkness to the light for the historian” as chronology comparative to the previous ages becomes more definite.

The much coveted ideal of Ekrat Sarvabhaum since the Later Vedic period was given the political reality for the first time in the history of India by the Mauryas. The authors of this political reality, Chandragupta, his son Bindusara and his grand son Ashoka, in a real sense, for the first time brought about political and administrative unity of Indian sub-continent.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *