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5-08-2015, 23:21

Chiefs, Kings, and Castes

Government and economics in ancient India, like its different civilizations, developed with time. As the nomadic groups settled, they organized and leaders emerged. Little is known about the governments of India’s earliest civilization, the Indus. However, the organization and complexity of cities such as those uncovered at Harappa and

The complex layout of Mohenjo-Daro took careful planning that suggests an organized government.

Mohenjo-Daro suggest some sort of government existed. Leaders likely focused on securing the food supply, needing vast supplies to feed the large population. Fortunately, Mohenjo-Daro had sufficient supplies, buying food from nearby farmers and fisherman.

Archaeologists studying the sites have found no evidence of a king or queen. Instead of a single leader who controlled the wealth, the government seems to have focused on sharing the resources of the society and its people.

The Indus economy was largely agricultural. Livestock included cattle, goats, and sheep. The main crops were barley and wheat. Trade was strong at the end of the Indus period. Evidence suggests trading with several far-flung regions, including Mesopotamia and other parts of the Middle East. Indus traders exchanged textiles and items such as beads and dice for resources such as lapis lazuli gemstones and tin.


During the Vedic era, the city life of the Indus civilization gave way to a more rustic life as the Indo-Aryans focused on raising cattle. Later, they transitioned to agriculture, cutting down trees in the forest around the Ganges River to farm the land. The Rigveda, a sacred ancient Indian book, discusses the agricultural lifestyle, including how farmers used plows and harvested grain. Many Indo-Aryans settled in janas, small tribal groups. Each jana had a rajan, “chief,” and samiti and a sabha, which were ruling councils. The janas frequently fought one another, battling for property and livestock.

By 800 BCE, the janas had grown into clearly marked janapadas, small kingdoms led by a raja, or king. The raja relied on two people. The senani led the army. The purohita was a priest who acted like a shaman or medicine man by treating illnesses with spells. Tribes soon grew to become mahajanapadas. Power shifted from the countryside to urban areas.


A major shift in government highlighted the period following the Vedic era. In 321 BCE, when Chandragupta Maurya united India’s many kingdoms into an empire spanning nearly the entire subcontinent, he also created a central government. It was located in Pataliputra, the empire’s capital. Chandragupta’s system of government consisted of levels. The smallest was the village, each with a headman and a council serving as a local government. The next level was the district, which consisted of groups of villages. Provinces consisted of groups of districts. Governors were the government representatives at the province level.

This strengthening of government structure helped the economy. The Mauryan Empire had a strong and active trade—internally and externally. International trading partners included Persia and Greece. Agriculture blossomed. The booming economy included currency. Chandragupta’s thriving empire minted and used silver coins.

In approximately 297 BCE, Chandragupta gave up his position. His son, Bindusura, became emperor. Bindusura expanded and strengthened the empire. Between 273 and 268 BCE, he passed on the empire to his own son, Ashoka, who would prove even more successful.

A skilled military leader, Ashoka extended the Mauryan Empire even farther. His victories included defeating the country of Kalinga, which today is part of the northeastern Indian state of Orissa, in the 260s BCE. However, the bloody battle for Kalinga changed Ashoka. He was troubled by the pain he and his army caused. They had killed thousands in their conquest of Kalinga. He gave up fighting and converted to Buddhism.

Kautilya and Artha-Shastra

Much of Chandragupta Maurya’s success was due to his adviser Kautilya. Kautilya helped Chandragupta overthrow the Nanda dynasty and gain control of the Magadha region, which led to Chandragupta establishing an empire. Kautilya also wrote Artha-Shastra, or The Science of Material Gain, a book Chandragupta relied on to guide his rule. The text has 15 chapters, each of which addresses a facet of government. In his book, Kautilya promotes the use of assassination and spies. Although some have judged Kautilya negatively for some of the activities he recommended, he possessed great knowledge of human behavior and politics. Many historians believe Kautilya was indispensible for the Mauryan Empire to achieve its greatness.

Ashoka shared his newfound beliefs in a number of edicts, which were carved in locations throughout the kingdom and intended to inspire his people. He shares his compassion in one of them:

All men are my children. As for my own children, I desire that they may be provided with all the welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, so do I desire for all men as well.1

Ashoka’s governing reflected his faith. He changed laws made by his father and grandfather, making legislation less harsh. He banned forced labor. And he restricted the killing of animals by prohibiting hunting and limiting slaughter to only what was necessary. External efforts included strengthening connections with Asian and European countries. The Buddhist emperor was a successful leader, and the Mauryan Empire during Ashoka’s reign was peaceful, stable, and prosperous. The emperor’s devotion to his beliefs made their mark on India’s history, which has come to know him as Ashoka the Great.


Following Ashoka’s death in 232 BCE, the Mauryan Empire declined. The end of the empire brought a succession of dynasties. With each century, India moved away from the unified glory of its time under Ashoka’s thoughtful rule. That changed with the emergence of the Gupta Empire in 320 CE.


Ashoka had more than 30 edicts carved throughout the kingdom in caves and on rocks and stone pillars. In these proclamations, he shared rules for living that were moral and based on the dharma. Ashoka strived to spread Buddhism, and many edicts relate to Buddhist principles.

In addition to sharing his beliefs through edicts, Ashoka ordered the construction of many monasteries and stupas, a type of shrine. He also held a Buddhist council at Pataliputra, Maurya’s capital. Ashoka believed so strongly in his adopted faith he sent Mahindra and Sanghamitra, his twin son and daughter, to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi in the modern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh stands among a complex of related Buddhist sites. Tradition says a portion of the Buddha’s remains was buried here, along with those of another disciple. The current stupa is an enlargement of Ashoka’s older construction. Its large dome is richly decorated with carvings representing the Buddha’s life.