The origin of Chandragupta is obscure, and documentation on it comes from varied sources: Greek and Roman historians, the Puranas, Pali chronicles from Sri Lanka, and Jain and Buddhist tradition.

Even the Sanskrit play Mudrarakshasa contains reference to him as being vrishala (of low birth, a sudra); however, this term can also mean a Kshatriya who broke away from Brahmanical traditions.

Justin describes Sandracottus (Chandragupta) as being of “low origin”, and both he and Plutarch claim he had an encounter with Alexander. According to Jain tradition, Chandragupta was born of a family which raised peacocks. On the other hand, Buddhist tradition says he from a Kshatriya clan called Moriyas, derived from the word for peacock. *

This tradition says his father, chief of his tribe, died in a border skirmish, after which the widow sought refuge in Pataliputra, where she gave birth to Chandragupta. In his childhood he was abducted by a cowheard who later sold him to a hunter. In turn he was purchased by Chanakya (also known as Kautilya), a political adviser, for 1,000 karshapanas.

The story goes that Chanakya had offered his services to the Nanda king of Magadha but had been rudely and summarily turned down. One day he happened upon some children who were playing a game in which one of them (Chandragupta) pretended to be the king. Chanakya saw potential in the young “king”, bought him from the hunter, took him to Taxila and taught him the art of kingship. As a child, then, Chandragupta would have been in Taxila at the time Alexander passed through; so it is entirely possible that he may have seen him, if not have actually had a personal encounter with him. One version of the encounter is that he offended Alexander and was sentenced to die, but escaped.

(Chanakya would later be remembered in history as an early day Machiavilli and the author of the Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft. )

In the Buddhist text, Mahavatsa-tika, Chanakya, following the completion of Chandragupta’s education, raised an army and put Chandragupta in command of it. Justin’s version has it that his army was a band of robbers. It is more likely that Arrian’s description of the recruits as persons from republican, or king- less, tribes (known as Arashtrakas), then found in the Punjab.

Chandragupta, with his new-found army, fought against the Greeks following the departure of Alexander. To quote Justin:

“India, after Alexander’s death, as if the yoke of servitude had been shaken off her neck, had put this Prefect (Philip) to death. Sandracottus was the leader who achieved this freedom . . . . He was born in humble life . . . . Having collected a band of robbers, he instigated the Indians to overthrow the existing government . . . He was thereafter prepared to attack Alexander’s Prefects, mounted on an elephant which fought vigorously in front of the army. ”

* It is noteworthy that the family crest of Asoka, Chandragupta’s grandson, contains a peacock.

Following his success in the Punjab against foreign rule, Chandragupta turned his attention to Magadha which was the under the corrupt rule of the Nandas.

He marched on the capital, Pataliputra, but in doing so, committed serious errors. In the Buddhist version:

“In his ambition to be a monarch, without beginning at the frontier and taking towns as he passed, he invaded the heart of the country and found his army surrounded by people on all sides and routed: like a child eating the middle part of a cake and not eating from the edges, which were thrown away. ”

He tried a second time and made a second mistake. He began operations from the frontiers and conquered several states, but neglected to post garrisons to hold his conquests.

On his third try he succeeded, posting garrisons along the way. He conquered Pataliputra in a great battle, seized the government of Magadha and put its king, Dhanananda, to death.

The Jain version of this campaign reads:

“Like a child burning his finger which he greedily puts in the middle of a dish, instead of eating from the outer part which was cool, Chanakya had been defeated because he had not secured the surrounding country before attacking the stronghold of the enemy. Profiting by this advice, Chanakya went to Himatvatuka and entered into an alliance with Parvataka, the king of the place . . . . They opened the campaign by reducing the provinces. ”

The kingdom of Magadha, now ruled by Chandragupta, extended roughly from the Punjab to Bihar and as far south as the Tinnevelli district. Tamil tradition speaks of a “Mauryan upstart” who advanced that far.

In 304 B. C. Seleukos, one of Alexander’s generals, tried to reconquer India. Chandragupta defeated him in battle and in the treaty of peace acquired Parapondisadae (Kabul), Aria (Herat), Arachosia (Kandahar) and Gedrosia (part of Afghanistan and modern Baluchistan). For his part, Seleukos acquired 500 elephants and was authorised to place a Greek ambassador named Megasthenes in the court of Chandragupta.

Between the writings of Chanakya and Megasthenes, we are given a a fairly clear picture of India during the early years of the Mauryan Empire. (Only fragments of Megasthenes’ writings are extant, but he was widely quoted by other later writers. )The kingdom was divided into provinces, each with its own adhipati (governor). The smallest unit of government was the grama (village) ruled by a gramani and groups of 10, 20, 100, and 1,000 villages were ruled by dasi, vimsi, satesa and sahasresa. These officials collected revenue and enforced the laws. The villages were largely self-governing and functioned like republics. Every ten villages were served by a market town called a samgrahana, and every 300 or 400 villages had their county towns called kharvataka and dronamukha.

Megasthenes gave a vivid description of the city of Pataliputra and said that the king was carried in a golden palanquin adorned with tassels of pearls. He was attended by armed female guards.

The principal royal sport was the hunt, and popular sports consisted of fights of bulls, rams, elephants, rhinos and ox races. The reign of Chandragupta lasted about 24 years. According to Jain tradition, toward the end Chandragupta abdicated, converted to the religion of Mahavira and lived out his last days in Sravana Belgola in Karnataka. This tradition is contradicted by Greek writers who say he never lost his taste for the hunt.

He died in 296 B. C. and was succeeded by his son, Bindusara, known to the Greeks as Amitraghata, “the Slayer of Foes”.

Chandragupta was the first ruler to bring much of India into one kingdom, but his mighty empire would last only a few generations.

Suggested Further Reading

  • McCrindle, John Watson, 1825-1913.
    Ancient India as described in the classical literature. — Westminster : Constable, 1901.
    xii, 226 p. ; 23 cm.
  • Nilakanta Sastri, Kallidaikurichi Ayah Aiyar.
    The age of the Nandas and the Mauryas. — Banaras: Motilal Banarsidas, 1952.
    xii, 438 p. : plates, fold. maps ; 23 cm.