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INDIA, EMPIRE and CHAOS (7 of 11)

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Chandragupta – Emperor and Martyr

Shortly after the passing of Alexander the Great, India's first great empire arose, ruled by Chandragupta Maurya (340-298 BCE). According to legend, Chandragupta Maurya was the son of a herdsman, and when he was a young man he met Alexander the Great. Days later, the story goes, he was awakened by a lion gently licking his body – an omen that he would become royalty.

Chandragupta's counselor and advisor was his adoptive father, Chanakya, who is said to have been learned in medicine, Hellenism and Zoroastrianism. He is said to have kept Chandragupta's youthful impulses in check and to have guided him in his kingdom's war that began in 323 and ended around 321 with Chandragupta overthrowing the Nanda dynasty that had been ruling the state of Magadha and dominating the Ganges plain.

Chanakya became Chandragupta's Prime Minister, and legend describes Chanakya (also identified as Kautilya) as the author of a book titled Arthasastra, a book that appears to have been written during the time of Chandragupta but with writings added centuries later. Arthasastra means science of property and material success, and in the book this success includes political and diplomatic strategy aimed at uniting India. It has a flavor to it similar to the Legalism that rivaled Confucianism and Taoism in China. The book advises a king to control his subjects, especially his ministers, and the Brahmins, wealthy merchants and his beautiful women. To help in this, according to the author, the king should employ an army of various artful persons as spies who keep watch at all levels of society. Arthasastra advises a king to be energetic, ever wakeful, to make himself accessible to his subjects and to guard against six enemies: anger, greed, lust, exuberance, hauteur and vanity.

Chandragupta

Chandragupta at court Chandragupta at court

Chanakya

Chanakya – more artistic imagination

Foremost is the book's advocacy of military expansion. In Arthasastra it is claimed that aggrandizement is human nature, that a power superior in strength to another power should launch a war against that power, and that war keeps a nation's blood circulation regular.

Chanakya was aware that toward the northwest, in the Indus Valley, were tribal republics and monarchies that had been weakened by war against Alexander in the mid-320s. Moreover, Alexander had demonstrated that a disciplined and strong force could conquer the region. And it appeared that an India united by a great conqueror was the best defense against a recurring foreign intrusion. Chandragupta, in accordance with the views of Chanakya, sent an army of infantry, cavalry, many chariots and elephants to the Indus Valley, extending his rule there and beyond into the Hindu Kush. The first Seleucid king, Seleucus I, a former general under Alexander, attempted to recover lands taken by Chandragupta. But in the year 305 BCE, Chandragupta turned back Seleucus' drive. Seleucus was forced to settle with Chandragupta. Chandragupta then conquered northward from Magadha, into the Himalayas, and he conquered the rest of northern India.

Chandragupta as Autocrat, Sensualist and Martyr

The agricultural lands around Chandragupta's capital belonged to Chandragupta, which he "rented" for a quarter or sometimes a half of what was produced on them. And Chandragupta made those peasants working his fields exempt from service in his military or other obligations to the state.

Chandragupta divided his empire into districts, which were administered by his closest relatives and most trusted generals. Civil servants ruled various departments such as trade, taxation, mining, roads, and irrigation canals. His  government held trade monopolies and owned slaughter-houses, gambling halls, mines, shipbuilding operations, armament factories and spinning and weaving operations. His government oversaw the standardization of weights, measures and coinage. It controlled prices and trade, including trade in liquor and prostitution. It obliged drinking places to have couches, scents, water and other amenities, and drinking places and "public houses" were not to be near each other.

But there was no attempt at nation building. There was no united India as there would be a united China created by the conquests by Qin's Shihuangdi – also in the early 300s BCE. Local princes and local peoples in India maintained their local identities and attitudes.

Meanwhile, Chandragupta feared revenge and assassins. Against these possibilities he had a  network of spies. He expected authorities in various districts to know all comings and goings. People who were considered dangerous to his rule might disappear without a trace. He had food tasters in order to avoid being poisoned. And he never slept in the same bed two nights in succession.

Eliciting confessions by torture remained a normal method in police work. Punishment depended on class: Brahmin's were not tortured, but upon conviction of a crime they could be branded, exiled or sent to work in the mines. A Greek ethnographer, Megasthenes (350-290) described a low incidence of thievery in Chandragupta's India, and this might have been a result of the punishment for such a crime. Common people were executed for theft, for damaging property of the king, breaking into someone's home, evading taxes, injuring an artisan working for the state and many other crimes. Failure to meet a contract could lead to a fine if not a harsher penalty, as could incompetence in various forms of work, from washing clothes to treating the ill.

Toward the end of his more than twenty years of rule, Chandragupta surrounded himself with dancing girls and courtesans – women who also worked as housemaids, cooks, garland makers, shampooers and who fanned Chandragupta or held an umbrella for him. He seldom left his palace, except for an occasional festival. But he remained a man of religion and concerned about his subjects. According to legend he was converted to Jainism by a sage who had predicted a twelve-year drought.

With the drought came famine in place of the affluence that Megasthenes had described. In an effort to combat the drought, Chandragupta, in 301 BCE, abdicated in favor of one of his sons, Bindusara, and he withdrew with the Jainist sage to a religious retreat in India's southwest. There, according to legend, while appealing to God for relief from the drought, he fasted to death.

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