340 (?) -298 BC
Unifying and Defending India, Creating a Barrier to the Westby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
A historic meeting took place around Takshila (modern-day Pakistan) in 326 BC. Although King Porus had been defeated by Alexander the Great, he was restored by the Macedonian for his bravery. However, a youth called Androcottus, or Sandracottos by the Greeks, was nearly made the new king by Alexander.
"Androcottus, when he was a stripling, saw Alexander himself, and we are told that he often said in later times that Alexander narrowly missed making himself master of the country, since its king was hated and despised on account of his baseness and low birth."
—Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Life of Alexander
Androcottus is more commonly known as Chandragupta Maurya, who did become master of the country.
Classical era India, an Aryan Hindu society, was fractured and spread far and wide across the Indian peninsula. Many tribes ruled over much of the area. One of the dominant tribes was the Magadha. They had ruled northern India for more than 200 years. Chandragupta met Alexander the Great as he (Alexander) was headed to India. The Greeks called Chandragupta, Sandracottos. He tried to persuade Alexander to pursue his campaign further into India, challenging the Nandas. However, Alexander’s troops were on the verge of revolting, having been away from Greece for many years. Alexander sailed down the Indus River out of western India (modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) leaving it in a terrible political state that Chandragupta was able to take advantage of and achieve a coup.
Sketchy and mythical details of Chandragupta’s birth and childhood come mostly from classical Sanskrit literature. One version states that he was the illegitimate son of a Nanda king. Another myth says that he was a poor boy in Takshila, playing in the street, when he was observed by a Takshila University teacher, who was impressed by his intelligence and adopted him. This teacher is known to history as Kautilya, Chandragupta’s main political advisor.
Chandragupta became an army commander for Dana Nanda, the last king of the Nanda dynasty, which was part of the Magadha tribe. Although he had formerly supported the monarchy, he led an unsuccessful coup which forced him to briefly flee, only to later return (circa 320 BC) and conquer the Nanda dynasty’s empire at about the age of 20.
Chandragupta had noticed from watching the Greeks that a strong central army was needed to be able to defeat the encroaching westerners. He gathered a large army and trained them, using them conquer much of India. This centralized army vanquished most of the tribes on the Indian peninsula. Chandragupta enlarged the Nanda territory into a thriving empire, the first in classical India. He pushed the boundaries into the Punjab region and eastern Afghanistan. Chandragupta built defenses on his outer western boarder. He knew the destruction that the Greeks could cause and wanted to protect the Indian people from Hellenization.
One of the Diadochi (Alexander’s successor generals), Seleucus, thought that India was still weak and divided twenty years after Alexander’s departure. He underestimated or was unaware of Chandragupta’s hold over most of modern day India. When Seleucus Niktor marched into India around 305 BC, he was met by a terrible surprise. Chandragupta and his professional army fought off Seleucus, forcing the Greek general into a marriage treaty. Seleucus relinquished his claims on Afghanistan and Pakistan in exchange for five hundred war elephants, which he then used in his Persian battles against other Diadochi. He agreed to marry one of Chandragupta’s daughters.
Also included in the treaty was an exchange of ambassadors. Chandragupta sent an ambassador to the Seleucid court in Persia and a Greek ambassador came to India. The ambassador that came to India was named, Megasthenes.
Megasthenes was not only the Greek ambassador to India but also a historian. He had been born in Ionia and made several embassies to India. While in India, he collected a lot of data on the culture of the country. Once he had collected stories and facts from the locals (much like Herodotus), he organized them into four books, which he called the Indica or Indika. For centuries, it was the best western account of India. Historians today only know of the book through references by other historians. The book was sadly lost.
Chandragupta had unified India and defeated Seleucus, but he wouldn’t have been able to do this without his political adviser, Kautilya. Kautilya was from Takshila and lived with a simple life style. He was a top religious leader, a Brahmin. His most famous works is the Arthasastra. It is a treatise on how to run an empire. The book has been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince. The book has fifteen sections explaining his ideas on government and power, and includes concepts about espionage!
Chandragupta led a life that left a mark on history. He is known know as a unifier and a defender. Under him, a disparate India became centralized. Maintaining the Aryan caste system, he organized the many battle captives into government slaves, who worked on large building projects. Chandragupta abdicated his throne to his son, Bindusara, and became a Jain.
Bindusara expanded his father’s unified empire even farther, beyond Narmada. Later, Bindusara’s son, Chandragupta’s grandson, took control. His name was Asoka. Asoka was the most famous classical Indian king. He was known to be ruthless, cruel, and even heartless. However, he converted to the teachings of Buddha later in his life and radically changed into a peace-loving man.
Chandragupta lived out the remainder of his life in southern India, pursuing the Jain religion. Although, he starved to death in practice of his religion, he will always be remembered as the strong, insightful king who seized an opportunity and turned a scattered, dysfunctional India into an empire and defended it against the west.
The spread of Hellenism by Alexander, followed by the Roman trade routes towards the east, paved the way for Christianity to be offered in Asia. Although the India that was united by Chandragupta and Asoka largely rejected the doctrines of Roman Catholic Christianity as in the early centuries after Christ, India became strong enough to partly resist the brutal Islamic invasion that happened a millennium after the reign of Chandragupta. India had largely rejected Buddhism, in favor of retaining Hinduism, and that accompanying caste system kept India weak and ripe for British colonialism. Our most recent century has witnessed the rise of radical Hindu nationalism and, in stark contrast, the turning to Christianity by Dalits who reject their Hindu status as untouchables. It is interesting to trace how the decisions of Alexander the Great and Chandragupta helped India resist Islam and become the world's largest democracy.
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