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Chapter 14 – Chandragupta

We have sketched in the opening chapters the political divisions of India at the time of the rise of Buddhism. We know, whether from native or foreign sources, very little of what happened during the century and a half that followed after the Buddha’s death. When the curtain rises again it shows considerable changes in the picture. But the new picture is in harmony with the old; the principal figures and most of the minor ones are the same; and the changes in their position can be fairly understood in the light of their previous relations.

In the middle of the seventh century B.C., the paramount power was the great kingdom of Kosala, then at the height of its prosperity, under Pasenadi’s father, the Great Kosalan (Mahakosala), whose dominions extended from the mountains to the Ganges, and from the Kosala and Ramaganga rivers on the west to the Gandak on the cast. West and south of it a number of small kingdoms maintained their independence. Eastward Kosala had already extended its suzerainty over the Sakiyas; but was stopped in

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its further advance by the powerful confederation of the Licchavis. South of these, again, a death-struggle was going on between the two smaller kingdoms of Magadha and Champa. This was decided in the time of the Buddha’s boyhood by the final victory of Magadha. And the rising of this new star in the extreme south-east was the most interesting factor in the older picture.

The new picture, as shown to us in the Ceylon Chronicles and in the Greek accounts of India, especially in those fragments that have survived of the Indika of Megasthenes (300 B.C.), shows us Magadha triumphant. The free clans and the great kingdom of Kosala have been absorbed by it. One by one the kingdoms to the south and west of what had been Kosala have acknowledged its supremacy. In distant Punjab and Ujjen viceroys from Magadha administer the government. And for the first time in the history of India there is one authority from Afghanistan across the continent eastward to Bengal, and from the Himalayas down to the central Provinces.

We shall probably never know – unless the ancient sites in India shall one day, like those in Assyria And Egypt, be excavated and explored – how these great changes came actually to be brought about. But the two sets of authorities just referred to (which are quite independent one of another, and yet confirm one another in the most important matter’s) are conclusive evidence that the changes had actually taken place.

Taken separately, each of these authorities is

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open to serious objections. The Chronicles have all the advantages, but also all the disadvantages, that belong to chronicles written by monks, whether in the East or the West. And the Greek accounts are in various ways rendered less useful than they might otherwise have been.

The work of Megasthenes has been lost. The fragments that survive in quotations by later authors have been collected by Schwanbeck, and translated in Mr. McCrindle’s excellent work, Ancient India. Where what is evidently intended to be a quotation from the same paragraph of Megasthenes is found in more than one of the later Greek authors, the various presentations of it do not, in several cases, agree. This makes it certain that these quotations do not always give the exact words of Megasthenes, and throws considerable doubt on the correctness of those quotations which, being found in one author only, cannot be so tested. A number of these quotations contain statements that are glaringly absurd – accounts of gold-digging ants, men with ears large enough to sleep in, men without any mouths, without noses, with only one eye, with spider legs, or with fingers turning backwards. Strabo calls these stories mendacious. But they are evidence, rather, of the small amount of critical judgment possessed by Megasthenes; and also, be it said, by the other Greek writers who chose precisely these foolish puerilities as the portions of Megasthenes they thought it important to repeat. There remain a few pages which, when the mistakes have been corrected, afford a residuum of sober information, all of

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it interesting, and some of it not found elsewhere. Perhaps the most important is the all-too-short description of Pataliputta, the capital of Magadha, at which Megasthenes resided.

“The greatest city in India is that Which is called Palimbothra, in the dominions of the Prasians, where the streams of the Erannoboas [this a Greek corruption of Hirannavati] and the Ganges unite. ... Megasthenes informs us that this city stretched in the inhabited quarters to an extreme length on each side of So stadia [nearly to miles], and that its breadth was fifteen stadia [nearly 2 miles], and that a ditch encompassed it all round, 600 feet in breadth and 30 cubits in depth, and that the wall was crowned with 570 towers and four-and-sixty gates. The same writer tells us this remarkable fact about India, that all the Indians are free, and that not one of them is a slave352.’’

These particulars about the size and the fortifications of Pataliputta in 300 B.C. are new; and are, no doubt, also true. The number of towers allows one to every seventy-five yards, so that archers, in the towers, could cover the space intervening between any two. The number of gates would allow one to each 660 yards, which is quite a probable and convenient distance. The extent of the fortifications is indeed prodigious. Ten miles, along the river, is just the distance from the Tower of London to Hammersmith Bridge; or, if taken in a straight line, is the distance from Greenwich to Richmond; and from the river at the Chelsea Embankment to the Marble Arch is just two miles, south to north. All of

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London from the Tower to the Houses of Parliament, and from the river to the Hampstead Hills, would occupy about the same space. But, as we have seen, the native records confirm the impression that then, as now, Indian towns tended to cover a vast extent. And we may probably accept the estimate made by Megasthenes of the size of the city wherein he dwelt.

The statement about slavery is odd. The distinct and unanimous testimony of all the Indian evidence is decisive that the status of slavery was then an actual factor of Indian life, though not a very important one. When the Greek writer states, so emphatically, the contrary, one can only say that he is mistaken in the main fact; and that his evidence only shows how very little the sort of slavery then existing in India would strike a foreigner accustomed to the sort of slavery then existing in Greece.

Then Megasthenes says that the population of India was divided into seven classes as follows:

1. Philosophers.

2. Husbandmen.

3. Herdsmen.

4. Artisans.

5. Soldiers.

6. Spies.

7. Councillors.

“No one is allowed to marry out of his own class, or to exercise any calling or art except his own353.

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A soldier, for instance, cannot become a husbandman, or an artisan a philosopher354.”

Here again Megasthenes is inaccurate. There were customs of endogamy and exogamy, and of a man following his father’s trade; but not those that he specifies. He has got his classes all wrong. There were mar.y others he does not mention; and those he does did not form real groups, either according to the marriage customs of India, or according to the habits of the people as to occupation. The true account of the matter has been given above at page 55. It is precisely in the details of such a subject that a foreigner, especially if he could not speak the language, is likely to have gone astray. With the official life, on the other hand, he would probably be better acquainted. And this is what Megasthenes says on that point:

“Of the great officers of state some have charge of the market, others of the city, others of the soldiers. Some superintend the rivers [canals?], – measuring the land as is done in Egypt, – and inspect the sluices by which water is let out from the main canals into their branches, so that everyone may have an equal supply of it.

“The same persons have charge also of the huntsmen [surely only the royal huntsmen], and are entrusted with the power of rewarding or punishing them according to their deserts.

“They collect the taxes, and superintend the occupations connected with land [that is, no doubt, look after the royal dues arising out of them], as those of woodcutters, carpenters, blacksmiths, and miners. They construct

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roads, and at every ten stadia set up a pillar to show the byroads and distances355.

“Those who have charge of the city are divided into six bodies of five each. The members of the first look after everything related to the industrial arts.

“Those of the second look after the entertainment of foreigners. To these they assign lodgings; and they keep watch over their modes of life by means of those persons whom they give to them as servants. They escort them on the -way when they leave the country; or, in the event of their dying, they forward their property to their relatives. They take care of them when they are sick, and, if they die, bury them.

“The third body consists of those who inquire when and how births and deaths occur, with a view not only of levying a tax, but also in order that births and deaths among high and low may not escape the cognisance of Government.

“The fourth class superintends trade and commerce. Its members have charge of weights and measures, and see that the products, in their season, are sold by public notice356. No one is allowed to deal in more than one kind of commodity unless he pays a double tax.

“The fifth class supervises manufactured articles, which they sell by public notice. What is new is sold separately from what is old; there is a fine for mixing the two together.

“The sixth and last class consists of those who collect

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the tenths of the prices of the articles sold. Fraud in the payment of this tax is punished with death.”

There follows in the quotations a superficial account of the organisation of the army which is scarcely worth quoting. But the figures given are interesting: “The king [of the Palibothri] has in his pay a standing army of 60,000 foot soldiers, 30,000 cavalry, and 8000 elephants; whence may be formed some conjecture as to the vastness of his resources.” Pliny, in what is evidently an echo of the same paragraph, gives the numbers as 600,000, 30,000, and 9000. But the first of these is clearly a mistake, and very probably only a copyist’s error357. The same writer has preserved a tradition as to the numbers of the armies of other Indian kings at the same period. It is, no doubt, derived from Megasthenes, and the numbers as follows:

Foot Horse Elephants
Kalinga 60,000 10,000 700
Talukta 50,000 4,000 700
Andhra 100,000 2,000 1,000

It will be noticed that with a curious equality in infantry, the forces of Magadha show a great superiority in cavalry, and in elephants-of-war. This is probably correct, as the unanimous testimony of the Indian records ascribes the pre-eminence in the training of horses to the districts in the extreme north and west, which then belonged to Magadha, and the pre-eminence in the training of elephants to the east, which is precisely Magadha. This use

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of elephants in war, I may observe in passing, may have been an important factor in the gradual rise of Magadha to the supreme power.

It would, of course, be a very serious error to regard Chandragupta as the founder of this supremacy of Magadha. When Alexander invaded the north-west of India he was informed that the then emperor at Magadha (who must have been Dhana Nanda, the predecessor of Chandragupta) had an army of 200,000 foot, 20,000 cavalry, 2000 war-chariots, and 4000 elephants-of-war358. It hal certainly then already absorbed Kosala, and probably also other kingdoms to the south and west of Kosala. Chandragupta added the Panjab and the provinces along the Indus down to its mouth. It was from the Panjab that he, favoured by the disorder resulting from Alexander’s invasion, recruited the nucleus of the force with which he besieged and conquered Dhana Nanda. Whether the southern Indus provinces were then also under his sway we do not know, but Pliny, doubtless referring to his time, says that the Magadha empire extended right up to the river359. He may have subdued them afterwards, at the same time as he conquered the peninsula of Gujarat, where, as we learn from Rudra-daman’s inscription, a viceroy of his was in possession. The ancient kingdom of Avanti, with its capital Ujjeni, had probably, before his time, been already incorporated into the Empire.

Chandragupta thus found himself strong enough

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to withstand even the Greeks. At the end of the fourth century B.C. Seleukos Nikator, then at the height of his power, attempted to rival Alexander by invading India. But he met with a very different foe. Alexander found a succession of small kingdoms and republics, whose mutual jealousies more than counterbalanced the striking bravery of their forces, and enabled him to attack and defeat them one by one. Seleukos found the consolidated and organised empire of Magadha, against which all his efforts were in vain. After an unsuccessful campaign he was glad to escape by ceding all his provinces west of the Indus, including Gedrosia and Arachosia (about equal to the Afghanistan of to-day), and by giving his daughter in marriage to the victorious Emperor of India in exchange for five hundred elephants-of-war.

It was then that Megasthenes was sent as ambassador to Pataliputta. And with the princess and her suite, and the ambassador and his, not to speak of the Greek artists and artisans employed at the court, there must have been quite a considerable Greek community, about 300 B.C., at the distant city on the southern bank of the Ganges, whose foundations, as a mere fort, were being laid by the brahmin minister of the then king of Magadha, when the great Indian Teacher was starting on his last journey a few months before his death. But the Greek community cared little for these things; and, so far as we know, Megasthenes, in his account of India, has not a word about the Buddha or his system.

The deep impression made by Chandragupta’s

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marvellous career, in which he worked his way up from the position of a robber chief on the frontier to the mightiest throne then existing in the world, is reflected in the legendary nature of all the accounts that have reached us – Greek, Buddhist, and Hindu. He has suffered the fate of other great conquerors and rulers; and like Alexander and Charlemagne, has become the” hero of popular romance.

The reader will recollect how such popular romance has woven a story about our King Alfred the Great, when a defeated refugee, and a peasant woman and her cakes. Just such an anecdote has been told of Chandragupta in the commentary on the Great Chronicle of Ceylon:

“In one of these villages a woman [by whose hearth Chandragupta had taken refuge] baked a chupatty360 and gave it to her child. He, leaving the edges, ate only the centre, and, throwing the edges away, asked for another cake. Then she said, ‘This boy’s conduct is like Chandagutta’s attack on the kingdom.’ The boy said, ‘Why, Mother, what am I doing, and what has Chandagutta. done?’ ‘Thou, my dear,’ said she, ‘throwing away the outside of the cake, eatest the middle only. So Chandagutta, in his ambition to be a monarch, without beginning from the frontiers, and taking the towns in order as he passed, has invaded the heart of the country ... and his army is surrounded and destroyed. That was his folly361.’”

And Chandragupta overheard, and learnt the

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lesson, and prospered. So also the future sovereign is made to owe his success, throughout the long series of adventures, defeats, and victories, of intrigues, murders, and treasons, which led him to the throne, to the constant advice and aid of a brahmin, nicknamed Chanakya, as deformed in body as he was depraved at heart (or, perhaps, we should rather say that he was, like the gods, not so much immoral as unmoral). Justin (xv. 4), on Greek authority, tells two graceful stories of the effect upon animals of the marvellous nature of the king. Once, when, as a fugitive from his foes, he lay down overtaken, not by them, but by sleep, a mighty lion came and ministered to him by licking his exhausted frame. And again, when Ile had collected a band of followers, and went forth once more to the attack, a wild elephant came out of the jungle, and bent low to receive Chandragupta on his back.

It is curious that in the extant priestly literature Chandragupta is completely ignored for about ten centuries. In spite of his friendship with the brahmin Chanakya, Ile belonged to, and indeed had the insolence to found, the hated Moriya dynasty, to which, later on, Buddhism owed so much. But the memory of him, or at least of the popular romance attached to him, must have been kept very much alive among the peoples of India. For in the eighth century of our era, a layman, the author of a famous Sanskrit drama, the Mudra-rakshasa, takes that romance as his plot. He gives a number of details out of which Lassen already, half a century ago, tried, with the help of other traditions, to unravel the

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.nucleus of historic fact362. He succeeded very well in doing so, but perhaps the most suggestive fact we may learn from the play is, that in spite of the Brahmins, the memory of Chandragupta had survived, in the people’s hearts, all through that long interval of priestly silence – another proof, if any were needed, that it is not very wise to trust altogether exclusively to brahmin evidence.


352. Arrian, Ind., ch. x.

353. Strabo, xv. 49, has in place of this last clause, “or to exchange one profession for another, or to follow more than one business. An exception is made in favour of the philosopher, who for his virtue is allowed this privilege.”

354. Diodorus Siculus, iii. 63.

355. Ten stadia is 2022½ yards. This is, within a few yards, the sixth part of a yojana, the common Indian measure of length at that time.

356. This is very obscure. The words seem to imply either that sale was usually not by private barter, but by auction, or that sales took place through advertisement. Neither of these statements would be correct. See Chapter VI. on economic conditions.

357. Pliny, Hist. Nat, vi, 21, 9–23. See the statement below.

358. Diod. xvii. 93; Curtius, ix. 2; Plutarch, Alex. 62.

359. Hist. Nat. vi. 22. 5.

360. Literally “a frying-pan-cake,” (kapalla puva). See Jat. I. 345–7.

361. Mahavamsa Tika, p. 123 (Colombo edition, 1895).

362. Indische Altherthumskunde, 2nd Ed., pp. 205–222.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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