Volume - 4 : Issue - 1

Published : Jan. - Mar. 2005

Group : History





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By Prem Matlani

Alexander the Great invaded the Indus Valley in 327 B.C. He entered through the Khyber Pass, after having plundered Iranian empire. For Greeks, India was an exotic land, as to most foreigners. There were extraordinary and incredible beasts like elephant; wool grew on trees (cotton); and Indian reeds were gigantic (bamboo). The country also produced a white crystal that tasted sweeter than honey (sugar). Rivers of fabulous size (even when compared to the Nile) with swift currents, unexplored lengths and unplumbable depths impressed its invaders, who lived by what Indian would call rivulets. The fields miraculously yielded two or three bumper crops a year with minimum toil, whereas the Greeks had to work hard to get one harvest out of stony hillsides. Indians didn’t practice the institution of slavery, without which even Plato could not imagine a viable city-state. Indians were used to honouring their word, in the absence of any written commitment.

The area, which roughly constitutes present day Pakistan, had been the satrapy of the Persian empire since 512 B.C., when Darius conquered it. It had to pay an annual tribute of 360 talents of gold dust, roughly close to nine tons. The principal trade city of the area was Charsada, known to Greeks as Peukelaotis. It was termed as Pushkaravati in those times. It means the artificial lotus pond and is traced to the Indus culture. A coin of this city of Indo-Greek times preserves ancient memory, showing an Indian humped bull on one side, while the mother goddess Ambi, bearing a lotus in her hand, appears on the other side. The well-known city of Taxilla (previously called Taksha-Shila) lies towards the east of Indus.

Alexander had to complete the conquest of Achaemenid empire of Persia upto its last frontier, the Indus River. Ambhi, the king of Taxila, didn’t put up any fight and meekly surrendered before the Greek forces. He even fought side-by-side the Greek invaders against his own neighbours. The Indians of the times were inferior, as far as armament and war technology was concerned. They still used chariots, which were helpless against the 21-foot long Lances (Sarissa) of the Macedonian cavalry. The Greeks wore bronze armour, whereas shortage of metal led Indians to fight with no other protection than a shield and leather cuirass with perhaps a metal helmet. Indian had the benefit of elephants, but in case and elephant got wounded in the war, it could trample down men of its own side. Indians were superior with bow, a fathom-long weapon, whose irresistible shot would drive an arrow though the shield and breastplate to kill the Greek soldier. It was an Indian arrow, which had cast near fatal injury to Alexander by penetrating his armour to lodge deep into a rib.

King Puru was one such monarch, who had faced the invading army of Greeks. He had put the largest single army in the field to oppose Alexander in his Indian venture. Alexander crossed river Jhelum (Greek Hydaspes) by a feint and the Puru aristocracy who raced in their chariots to intercept the invaders were wiped out in one sharp cavalry action. The gigantic Indian King Puru had to surrender as he was severely wounded and hopelessly overmatched in the battlefield. Plutarch, a Greek historian had conceded that the fight against Puru had taken edge out of the Macedonian courage and stayed their further progress into India. Alexander was told that the King of East was waiting with 80,000 horses, two lakh foot soldiers, 8,000 armed charioteers and 6,000 fighting elephants. Alexander created a new Satrapy on the Indian side of the Indus, under Porus. He rafted down the Indus and slaughtered anyone who dared his charging forces. But the adventure left his disgusted and exhausted, as he had to go back along the deadly coast of Iran to Babylon and lost well half of his soldiers in the desert. Hard drinking and malaria brought an end to the chequered life of Alexander, at an early age in Babylon.

Within five years after Alexander left the shores of India, Chandragupta Maurya took the whole of upper Indus empire, including Gandhara. He not only halted the advances of Seleukos Nikator but even subdued him. The latter had to give his daughter in marriage to Bindusara, the son of Chandragupta Maurya. This happened in 305 B.C. One cannot say with certainty that the Greek girl who married Bindusara was the real mother of emperor Ashoka or his step mother.

First Chandragupta, then his son Bindusara overran the whole of India, as far as the terrain allowed. The ports of Sopara and Broach with their precious overseas trade were under Magadhan control. This made Pataliputra (present day Patna) into an international port. Sea trade was extended up to Burma, Indonesia and many more far-eastern destinations. The furs of Balakh, as well as silk of China came by overland route. Mediterranean coral exported through Alexandria was also in great demand in the Magadhan capital. Western imports of silver could not meet the increased demand for currency purpose; hence it was also tapped from Assam.

Taxila and Ujjain were developed as subsidiary capitals for administrative purposes. Ashoka, as viceroy under his father Bindusara, is said to have doused the popular revolt at Taxila. It had produced a great grammarian Panini, a great and outstanding name in the study of linguistics. The main source of information about Magadhan policy and management is the ‘Arthashastra’, a book in Sanskrit rediscovered in 1905. The author Chankya or Kautalya was a Brahmin minister of Chandragupta Maurya, at the end of fourth century B.C. It is said that, he being a master of intrigue was the force behind Chandragupta, putting the family on the throne of Magadha. Chanakya treats strife for the throne as a minor occupational hazard of kingship. Regard for morality or filial piety is never questioned. He quotes a predecessor’s theory : ‘Princes, like crabs, are father-eaters.’ Magadhan empire looked after orphans, the aged, infirm, widows and pregnant women, who had no else to fend for them. It was equivalent of a master’s care for his cattle than of a father for his children.

The agricultural lands fell into two distinct categories : those paying ‘rashtra’ taxes and the ‘sita’ lands settled as well as farmed directly under crown supervision. The ‘Arthashastra’ gives all the tricks of the trade for aggressions against neighbouring kings, international alliances, war, poison, the fomenting of rebellion and internal subversion.

The traditional main tax of the Mauryans, though the exact period of charge is unknown, was sixth of the harvest to the King. Magadhan state functioned on a powerful cash economy. It used to control all mining in its domains. The state monopoly is reflected in Chanakya’s dictum : ‘the treasury is based upon mining, the army upon treasury, he who has army and treasury may conquer the whole earth.’ There are brief directions in ‘Arthashasthra’ for reducing and smelting ores and it is nowhere mentioned, that the state would make tools, utensils or ornaments. Much of it was sold to individual manufacturers. Even silver coins could be made by a private person, but subsequently checked and stamped by the state, after which the coin would become legal tender. Counterfeiting involved drastic punishment. Prostitution was neither a crime nor a sin; the regulations for public women were as complete as for services of other kind. When they had earned a certain amount they could retire and become respectable, as the profession was not so dishonoured as it became later. Wines, too, had a separate ministry, that looked after the entire operation from manufacture to sale. All gambling houses were also run by the state under a particular head.

Emperor Ashoka, son of Bindusara and grandson of Chandragupta Maurya assumed the imperial throne about 270 B.C. He had killed his half brothers to clear his way for the imperial throne and ruled with despotic rigour for eight years. The legendary ‘hell on earth’ refers simply to Magadhan jails, where torture was added to hard labour. Another Ashoka also existed in fifth century B.C. and is therefore referred to as ‘Kalaasoka’, or the ancient Ashoka. The Mauryan Ashoka called himself Piyadasi (Beloved of the gods). In Buddhist records (Sanskrit, Pali and Chinese), the name has become immortal and legendary because of the emperor’s conversion to Buddhism. Ashoka himself speaks of revulsion after the blighting Kalinga (Orissa) war, eight years after his coronation. More than a lakh of people perished in the war and a larger number lost their lives due to the collateral affect of his campaign. The war mellowed him down with the result, that he began to listen to Magadhan religious teachers and became a Buddhist himself. Often his conversion is compared to that of the Roman emperor, Constantine to Christianity in 325 A.D., but is different as it did not create an organized church associated with the state, nor did it put an end to other Indian religions in the same way as Christianity wiped out Paganism in the Roman empire. The fundamental change was not religious as much as the attitude of the Indian monarch towards his subjects. It was strikingly new and an inspiring idea of kingship, completely strange to earlier Magadhan rule, where the king symbolized the state’s absolute power. Ashoka is credited with building countless stupas, over the Buddha’s ashes with other monuments at sacred places. His pillar and rock edicts were placed at important crossroads on major contemporary trade routes. The edicts go much deeper than personal liking for Buddhism, for they indicate a totally changed basic policy on the part of the state. Chinese travelers, who visited India in 400 A.D. had found the ruins of Ashoka Palace at Patna, as impressive and grand to the extent that they visualized it to have been built by supernatural powers. Ashoka had established hospitals all over the empire for men and beasts with free medical attendance at the state’s expense. Shady groves, wells with steps leading down to the water, fruit orchards and resting places were systematically laid out on all major trade routes at a distance of five to nine miles.

Chanakya is said to have retired in the early years of Bindusara. In Ashoka’s reign, serious changes were made in Chanakyan administration. Ashoka, himself would make a complete tour of inspection throughout his domains every five years. He had created a new post of plenipotentiary supervisors, called Dharma-Mahamatra or ‘High Commissioner of Equity’. Its duties were to examine the complaints of all law-abiding groups and sects, to see that they were treated fairly.

Ashoka did not forbid all killing; only a special list of animals and birds were protected. The ox, cow and bull were not protected, except the Sandaka bull. The emperor set the example of vegetarianism in his own palace. Burning down of forests to clear the land was prohibited. It was not a Buddhist tenet, but a necessity to conserve the natural resources. It is quoted of Ashoka, that after his rule by equity, his army was used only for ceremonial parades and public festivities. The country was divided into three regions : the Indus valley area, which can roughly be equated with separate local commands; the Gangetic heartland neede not army as long as the western India had not hostile occupation; and the peninsula, which could not be grown as agricultural lands a la Magadhan sita lands. Ashoka’s developmental works brought back a lot of money into circulation. The King and an ordinary citizen found common ground in newly developed regions. We can even say that Indian national character received the stamp of ‘dharma’ from the time of Ashoka. It meant a sort of religious equity, professed by the emperor himself.

A lesson to the governments of today!

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