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MAURYAN ADMINISTRATION

With the establishment of the Mauryan Empire in


322BCE, it became one of the greatest empires in
Indian history. It was based in Magadha and was
founded by Chandragupta Maurya. Our knowledge
on the Mauryan administration is based on three
main sources. There is the Arthashastra, a
theoretical treatise, not composed in its entirety in
the Maurya period, which talks of a potential state
within the framework of an established tradition of
scholarship on statecraft. Second, there are
different versions of fragments of a lost text,
Megasthenes’ Indica, replete with several
discrepancies and inaccuracies. The third major
source, Ashoka’s inscriptions, have the advantage
that they are securely dated to the reign of Ashoka,
but as they mostly deal with Ashoka’s dhamma,
they offer only fleeting, incidental references to
administration. The political implications of the
numismatic finds and the archaeological evidence
have not yet been properly explored. Though these
sources are available still due to the certain
problem of sources they aren’t absolute in nature.
Mauryan Empire was considered to be highly
centralized in nature based on the reading of
Arthashastra, which presents a state that controls its
people, produce, and resources across its domain.
Scholars counter this argument stating that, given
the extent of the empire and the communication
networks of the time, the Maurya Empire could not
possibly have been centralized. Maurya rule was
superimposed over a number of existing political
units, which must have been allowed to continue to
exercise varying degrees of autonomy.
Romila Thapar initially presented the Maurya
Empire as a new form of government marked by
centralized control and planning. Later she revised
her argument saying that the Maurya Empire was
not a homogeneous whole, and that it contained
different sorts of economies, polities, and life-
ways. Thapar suggests that the empire consisted of
metropolitan, core, and peripheral areas. Magadha
was the metropolitan state. The core areas included
existing states, areas of developing state formation,
and centres of trade. The peripheral areas included
a number of pre-state societies. The relationship
between the metropolitan state and the core and
peripheral areas varied, but the nature of the
relationship was exploitative. It is not actually
necessary to label the Maurya Empire as
‘centralized’ or ‘decentralized’. The empire must
have had some element of centralized control, but
given its extent, there must also have been a
significant amount of delegation of authority to
functionaries at provincial, district, and village
levels.
The Maurya period was marked by administrative
changes and innovations. Within this period,
Ashoka’s reign saw an important shift in the
priorities of governance.
Now, the Arthashastra is the first Indian text to
define a state. Its concept of the saptanga rajya
considers the state as consisting of seven inter-
related elements (prakritis)—svami (the king),
amatya (ministers), janapada (the territory and the
people), durga (the fortified capital), kosha (the
treasury), danda (justice or force), and mitra (ally).
The idea of the saptanga rajya was accepted, with
minor modifications, in many Dharmashastra texts,
the Puranas, and the Mahabharata.
The Maurya state was a monarchy with a powerful
king at the centre of the political system. Monarchy
is assumed to be the norm in the Arthashastra, and
its teaching is addressed to the king. The text
intensifies the position of the svami, i.e., king, in
relation to the other prakritis. Ashoka’s inscriptions
leave no doubt about the king being the central
focus of power in the empire. Ashoka describes
himself in one of the minor rock edicts as the raja
of Magadha. But his inscriptions often give him the
title of Devanampiya and Piyadassi. The former
suggests an attempt to proclaim a connection
between the king and the gods. The king is said to
live in a vulnerable world and has to exercise
extreme vigilance to safeguard his life and position.
Kautilya gives detailed instructions on how the
palace should be provided with multiple secret
emergency exits and how all things going in and
out of the palace complex must be carefully
examined. All food and drink consumed by the
king must be first tested. He should have a personal
guard of female archers and must surround himself
with people whom he can trust. Ministers have to
be subjected to frequent tests of loyalty. Elaborate
arrangements are suggested to guard him. Spies in
disguise should fan out to all parts of the kingdom
to find out about any act of treason. The danger of
assassination always looms large, especially at the
hands of those closest to him—his wives and sons.
Arthashastra also emphasis on the moral
obligations of kingship by elaborating on the king’s
duties and obligations. These include protecting the
person and property of his subjects and ensuring
their welfare and prosperity. The ideal of
paternalistic rule is also reflected, it states that the
king should be a father figure for all thereby
favouring the weak and troubled. Protection of the
social order is also an important duty of the king.
Ashoka’s ideals of kingship partially match those
of the Arthashastra. It includes, ensuring the
welfare of all beings and his subjects in this world
and the next. The paternalistic ideal is reflected in
his rock edicts. Ashoka speaks of the debt he owes
to all living beings, and his concern for people who
lived beyond the borders of his kingdom. He
sought to ensure peoples’ welfare by planting trees
along roads, digging wells, providing medical care
for men and animals, and above all, by instructing
people in dhamma, which would lead to their
happiness in this life and the next. Paternalism
included looking after the subjects’ welfare, but it
also included the sternness of king towards the
unconquered people living on the borders that they
should understand that king would only forgive that
offence which could be forgiven.
The second prakriti in Kautilya’s Arthashastra is
amatya. This umbrella term included all high-
ranking officials, counselors, and executive heads
of department. Mantrin (minister) seems to have
been a more specific term, referring to the king’s
advisors or counselors. There seem to have been
two consultative bodies; a small consultative body
of mantrins called the mantra-parishad and other
was a larger body of called the mantri-parishad,
which included executive heads of department.
Ashoka’s rock edict states that the parishad is to
direct the officers known as yutas (yuktas) in the
discharge of certain duties, the edicts also state that
the king should be informed immediately if any
dispute arises among members of the parishad in
the course of their deliberations. These officials
played an important role in the political domain of
the empire. It was also ensured that the king was
always available for his counselors at all time.
Apart from the king and his consultative bodies,
there were a number of high officials in charge of
important portfolios. The Arthashastra mentions
the samahartri (chief collector of revenue, who was
in charge of maintaining accounts) and samnidhatri
(treasurer, in charge of the royal stores). It also
mentions officers such as the dauvarika (chief of
the palace attendants), the antaravamshika (chief of
the palace guard), and a large number of
adhyakshas (departmental heads). The akshapatala
office was the records-cum-audit office. The
Arthashastra emphasizes the importance of the
purohita (royal priest). It states that he should be of
high character, should belong to a reputed family,
should be thoroughly trained in the Vedas,
Vedanga, the interpretation of divine signs and
omens, and the science of politics (arthashastra),
and should be capable of counteracting divine and
human calamities by means of Atharvan practices.
Kautilya advises the king to follow the purohita
diligently. Ashoka’s inscriptions mention many
kinds of mahamatas. Specific types of mahamatas
mentioned in the inscriptions include the anta-
mahamatas (mahamatas in charge of the frontier
areas) and the dhamma-mahamatas, a new cadre of
officials created by Ashoka for propagation of
dhamma.
The inscriptions suggest that the Maurya Empire
was divided into 4 provinces under governors with
the imperial capital at Pataliputra. From Ashokan
edicts, the names of the four provincial capitals
are Tosali (in the east), Ujjain (in the
west), Suvarnagiri (in the south), and Taxila (in the
north). The head of the provincial administration
was the Kumara (royal prince), who governed the
provinces as king's representative. The kumara was
assisted by Mahamatyas and council of ministers.
This organizational structure was reflected at the
imperial level with the Emperor and
his Mantriparishad. Ashokan inscriptions suggest
that the pradeshika, rajuka, and yukta were
important officers at the district level. The term
rajuka may come from rajju, meaning rope, and the
reference may be to the measurement of land using
ropes. Though land measurement may have been
their main duty, in Ashoka’s time, the rajukas seem
to have been high-ranking officers who were
associated with public welfare measures along with
judicial functions and dhamma propagation.
The Arthashastra suggests an elaborate
administrative structure where it suggests the ruler
to establish headquarters in districts and villages,
known as sthaniya and so on. The sthanika was an
officer in charge of the administration of large units
similar to districts. Under the sthanika were the
gopas, in charge of units ranging from 5 to 10
villages. At the village level, it refers to the village
headman (gramika), and emphasizes the important
role of village elders.
Ashoka’s inscriptions refer to the pativedakas and
pulisani, who were responsible for keeping the king
informed of public opinion. The former seem to
have been spies, while the latter had a higher rank
and wider mandate. The inscriptions tell us about
the espionage and counter espionage.
Megasthenes’ account of city administration
probably applied specifically to Pataliputra. It
mentions six committees of five members each, in
charge of the following aspects: industrial arts; the
entertainment and surveillance of foreigners;
maintaining records of births and deaths; trade and
commerce; supervising the public sale of goods;
and the collection of taxes on merchandise sold in
the market. In this context, the Arthashastra
mentions an officer called the nagaraka who had
sthanikas and gopas under him.
The Arthashastra attaches a great deal of
importance to the kosha (treasury), the fifth
element of the saptanga rajya, and lists agriculture,
animal husbandry, and trade as the peoples’ main
occupations. Land was the most important resource
and source of revenue for the state. The
Arthashastra recognizes privately owned and state-
owned land, the latter under an officer known as
the sitadhyaksha. Kshetra (land) is listed among
items of property, the sale of which is subject to
certain regulations. The kshetrika (owner of the
field) is distinguished from the upavasa (tenant). In
the case of land disputes, the text states that if
neither side can prove its claim to the property, it
should go to the king. But there is no reference to
land being taken away from farmers in case they
were unable to pay taxes. Ancient Indian texts,
including the Arthashastra, mentions certain taxes
that were to be paid the king’s share of the produce
(bhaga) at 1/6th kara (water rate), bali (1/5th-1/3rd
of the produce) and udaka-bhaga (for use of
irrigation works). The actual rate of land taxes
varied over the Maurya Empire. Urban taxes
included shulka—duties on imported and exported
goods and excise duty on local manufactures.
Taxes were realized in cash and kind. Protection of
land was given importance. Kautilya describes
forests, pastures, and mines as state property.
Mines, under an officer called the akaradhyaksha,
were considered especially important. The king
granted land unsuitable for agriculture for the study
of the Veda and the performance of soma
sacrifices. Land grants were also made to
Brahmans and priests such as the ritvig, acharya,
and purohita.
Kautilya talks of strict control over markets and
trade. State-run manufacturing units in charge of
trade, the price fixation and sale of goods produced
an officer called the panyadhyaksha. The
sansthadhyaksha was the superintendent of
markets, the rupadarshaka the inspector of coins,
and the pautavadhyaksha was in charge of ensuring
the use of standardized weights and measures. The
Arthashastra advocates strict state control over
artisans’ guilds. It prescribes a scale of wages for
different types of artisans and lays down
punishments for artisans failing to deliver proper
goods. The Kautilyan state was also an
entrepreneur. No ancient state could have exercised
the sort of overarching and complete control over
the economy and society visualized by Kautilya.
The fact that he could even imagine such a thing
must have been partly rooted in the existence of a
powerful state in the Maurya period.
Durga (fortified capital) was the fourth element of
the seven-limbed state. Kautilya recommends a
series of frontier posts placed under officials
known as antapalas. He gives detailed directions
for the construction of the main fort in the capital
city. He recommends a mud wall with stockades of
brick or stone, and suggests that troops be stationed
along approaches to the fort. The fort walls should
be surrounded by not one but three channels filled
with lotuses and crocodiles. The fort should be
provided with plenty of supplies to tide over sieges
and should have secret escape routes. The garrison
should consist of elephants, chariots, cavalry, and
infantry, each under more than one officer.
Kautilya refers to a standing army, recruited and
maintained by the state. The four divisions of the
army—infantry, cavalry, chariots, and elephants—
should be placed under officers known as the
patyadhyaksha, ashvadhyaksha, rathadhyaksha, and
hastyadhyaksha respectively. The senapatis and
nayakas were important military officers. Kautilya
recommends that the army should be recruited from
all four Varnas. He emphasizes the importance of
training the army well and also discusses weapons
and magical practices that could be used against
enemies. Megasthenes mentions six committees of
five members each for defense purposes; these
were in charge of the navy, supervision of
equipment and transport, the infantry, cavalry,
chariots, and elephants. Ashoka’s inscriptions
mention about a change in policy after the Kalinga
war Ashoka was horrified at the grievous results of
warfare, and initiated a policy of dhamma-vijaya
(victory through dhamma).
Danda, the sixth prakriti, can be understood as
force or justice. The Arthashastra deals with the
administration of justice in detail. Judges are called
dharmasthas, and there are references to the
pradeshtris as officers responsible for the
suppression of criminals. Punishments for crimes
range from fines to mutilation of limbs to death.
The nature of the punishment depended on the
nature, gravity, and circumstances of the crime, and
also on the Varna of the offender and plaintiff. For
most crimes, the higher Varnas were given lighter
punishment than the lower ones.
Ashoka’s inscription doesn’t mention the
dharmasthas but they refer to the judicial functions
of the city mahamatas. It urges them to be impartial
and sympathetic and to ensure that no one was
imprisoned or tortured without good reason. It
states that every five years, the king would dispatch
a gentle officer on a tour of inspection to ensure
that this was being done. Pillar edicts contain
Ashoka’s claim that he had introduced samata in
judicial procedure. This has been interpreted as
uniformity all over the empire or as an abolition of
Varna distinctions. The same edict refers to a three-
day respite for those condemned to death, in order
to give relatives time to appeal the decision,
console the condemned man, and to fast and offer
gifts on his behalf for his happiness in the next life.
This indicates that this ahimsa- loving king did not
abolish the death penalty.
Mitra (ally) is the seventh element. Kautilya’s
discussion of inter-state policy is from the point of
the vijigishu—the would-be conqueror—and takes
into account all possible circumstances. He talks
about the circle of kings, the four principal players
in which were the vijigishu, ari (enemy),
madhyama (the middle king), and udasina (the
neutral king). He also lists six policies (shad-
gunya) that the king should follow in different
circumstances. If one is weaker than the enemy, the
policy of sandhi (making a peace treaty) should be
adopted. If one is stronger than the enemy, then the
policy of vigraha (hostility) should be followed. If
one’s power is equal to that of the enemy, then it is
a good idea to follow the policy of asana (keeping
quiet). If one is much stronger than the enemy, then
yana (marching on a military expedition) is the
right policy. If one is very weak, then it is best to
follow the policy of samshraya (seeking shelter
with another king). And if one can fight the enemy
with the help of an ally, then the double policy of
dvaidhibhava (sandhi with one king and vigraha
with another) is the best course of action. Kautilya
refers to three kinds of conquerors. One is demonic
as he seizes the land, riches, sons, and wives of the
enemy and kills him. Second is motivated by greed
for land and riches. Third, dharmavijayin is the
righteous conqueror, who makes conquest out of a
desire for glory and is satisfied with mere
submission.
Now, Kautilya’s discussion is based on the
pragmatic realities of inter-state relations and
power play. We cannot interpret it as a blueprint
followed diligently by the Mauryas. Chandragupta
Maurya seems to have been the king responsible
for most of the Maurya military successes, but we
do not know the details of his campaigns, nor what
exactly happened to the defeated people. Ashoka is
notable for having given up warfare. Such a stand
goes completely against the philosophy of the
Arthashastra. Although both the Arthashastra and
Ashokan edicts speak of dharma, they understand
this term differently. In the Arthashastra, military
conquest was an important activity of the state and
righteous conquest was its most noble form. For
Ashoka, on the other hand, dhamma-vijaya was
based on a renunciation of military conquest.
Kautilya refers to the diplomats that the Mauryans
entertained from various Hellenistic kingdoms,
Megasthenes, the ambassador of Seleucus Nikator.
The dhamma missions and Buddhist missions
dispatched by Ashoka to other kingdoms reflect
other kinds of interaction with neighboring
kingdoms.