Factors in the Decline of the Mauryas

Control over large portions of these territories diminished under the successors of Ashoka. There also seems to have been a partition, with the eastern part passing under the control of Dasharatha and the western part under Kunala. Scholars have suggested several reasons for this weakening of control.

  • It is often stated that the pro-Buddhist policies of Ashoka and the pro-Jaina policies of his successors alienated the Brahmins resulting in the revolt of Pushyamitra, the founder of the Shunga dynasty.
  • The second argument blames Ashoka’s emphasis on non-violence for weakening the empire and its military strength. But both these arguments are rather simplistic. Pushyamitra’s usurpation of the throne cannot be seen as a Brahmana revolt because by that time the administration had become so ineffective that officials were willing to accept any viable alternative. Thus, Brahadratha could easily be assassinated while inspecting the army.
  • The second proposition does not take into account the nature of the policy of nonviolence. There is nothing in the Ashokan inscriptions to suggest demobilisation of the army or that Ashoka followed the policy of non-violence in its literal sense.
  • Ashoka’s message was that of forgiveness rather than of punishment. But he could be a stern monarch and this is clear from his threatening stance towards the frontier people and forest tribes. Similarly, capital punishment continued. The emphasis was on the number of animals killed for food to prevent elimination of species. There is nothing to suggest that the killing of animals stopped completely.
  • Another reason put forward by some historians is there was considerable pressure on the Mauryan economy under the later rulers leading to heavy taxation. This opinion is again one sided and is not corroborated by archaeological data.
  • Excavations at sites like Hastinapura and Sisupalgarh have shown improvement in the quality of material used. There is distinct improvement in the workmanship on objects such as beads, terracottas, etc. and town and house-planning became a regular feature in the later Mauryan period.

Thus the decline of the Mauryan empire cannot be sought in a single factor, such as military inactivity, brahmana resentment or economic pressure. It has to be found in the way in which the state and its administration was structured. The Mauryan empire, with its epicentre at Magadha, encompassed a vast territory and included different groups of people. Reference is made to hunters and gatherers and forest tribes in the inscriptions.

An important feature of the Mauryan period was that the state derived its revenues from taxing a variety of resources – agriculture, trade, mineral deposits, pastoral groups, etc. These resources would have to grow and expand so that the administrative apparatus of the state could be maintained. Unfortunately the Mauryas made no attempt to expand the revenue potential or to restructure and reorganise the resources. Indeed they were content to tap whatever surplus was available. This inherent weakness of the Mauryan economy, coupled with other factors, led to the collapse of the Mauryan empire.

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