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READ: The Mauryan and Gupta Empires

The Mauryan and Gupta empires of India united large areas of the subcontinent. Ashoka’s reign spread Buddhism far and wide, and under the Guptas, India’s arts and sciences flourished.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What event allowed a large, centralized empire to form on the Indian subcontinent?
  2. What does the author say is one of Ashoka’s most lasting legacies?
  3. This article mentions Ashoka’s pillars, which you read about earlier in this lesson. Here, you have a full quote from the pillars. Is this quote an attempt by Ashoka to use religion to increase his authority as ruler? Why or why not?
  4. Why did trade improve under the Mauryan Empire?
  5. What type of women had higher status in these empires? What system governed this hierarchy?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. You read an article about authority and control in empires. What are some methods of control mentioned in that article that you see reflected in the Mauryan and Gupta Empires? Did these empires use any methods of control that weren’t mentioned in the earlier article?
  2. You’ve read some definitions and characteristics of empires. What aspects of these empires seems characteristic of all empires? What seems unique?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Mauryan and Gupta Empires

Photograph of a carved stone rectangular pillar. Both sides are carved in great detail featuring many people with their hands together in a prayer position.
By Rosie Friedland
The Mauryan (322-185 BCE) and Gupta (320-550 CE) empires of India united large areas of the subcontinent. Ashoka's reign spread Buddhism far and wide, and under the Guptas, India's arts and sciences flourished.


Before the Mauryan Empire, the Indian subcontinent was fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms that were ruled by powerful regional chiefs. Small armies, lots of wars. In 327 BCE, Alexander of Macedon and his troops entered India and overran the divided kingdoms in the Punjab region. He left after only two years, but his destruction of the regional powers opened the opportunity for other groups to seize control. The first of these dominating states to emerge, the kingdom of Magadha, was the center of two religions—Buddhism and Jainism. This state had survived the Macedonian invasion by being just out of Alexander's reach. Alexander reached the borders of Magadha, but his exhausted troops threatened mutiny rather than continue. After Alexander's retreat, the rulers of Magadha controlled trade networks through the Ganges valley to the sea routes in the Bay of Bengal, using a mixture of military force and the power of religion to win people over to their side.


Not too long after the Magadha gained control of the area from the Ganges to the Bay of Bengal, Chandragupta Maurya took control of the kingdom. His conquests transformed the Magadha kingdom into the Mauryan Empire. He expanded to the west, conquering northwestern India and Bactria (modern Afghanistan). Chandragupta Maurya successfully unified the divided communities of the northern and central Indian subcontinent under one empire.


Chandragupta ruled from 324 to 297 BCE and used his army to expand the empire. In 305 BCE Seleucus I Nicator, the emperor of the Seleucids, waged war against Chandragupta. Seleucus was one of several of Alexander's generals who proclaimed themselves emperor after Alexander died unexpectedly with no heir. The Seleucid Empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea all the way to northwestern India. They ruled for over three centuries after Alexander's death, until 63 BCE. The Seleucids ruled a mighty empire, but Chandragupta raised an army to challenge their power. The Mauryan army had 600,000 infantry (foot soldiers), 30,000 cavalry (soldiers on horseback), and 9,000 war elephants (weaponized pachyderms that were basically tanks with legs). Facing this show of strength, Seleucus failed to conquer India. Chandragupta signed a treaty with Seleucus, who gave his daughter to Chandragupta in marriage and left India with 500 elephants as his consolation prize.
Chandragupta adopted the Persian model of satrapies (provinces) to administer his empire. He also read and applied the teachings of Kautilya, one of his trusted advisors, in the book Arthashastra, which translates to "the science of politics". The Mauryans used vast spy networks to collect intelligence for both internal and external security purposes.
A sculpture of the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta Maurya. He is holding a book in one hand and wears a faint smile.
Chandragupta Maurya. Public domain.
Toward the end of Chandragupta's reign, the Indian subcontinent was hit by famine. The emperor felt so badly for his starving subjects that he gave up the throne and fasted. His son Bindusara took over, and after Chandragupta died from fasting in 297 BCE, Bindusara expanded the borders of the empire. Bindusara died in 272 BCE, and his son Ashoka became emperor in 268 BCE. Ashoka further extended the boundaries of the Mauryan Empire, but after a particularly violent battle in the Kalinga region (modern-day Orissa, a state of India), he renounced war in favor of "conquest by dharma". One of Ashoka's most lasting legacies was encouraging the spread of Buddhism and the principles of dharma (performing good deeds to reach enlightenment) throughout the empire.
Map of the Mauryan Empire shows the very large number of cities ruled by the Mauryan empire.
Map of the Mauryan Empire, 250 BCE. By Avantiputra7, CC BY-SA 3.0.
If you're an emperor, there are a lot of ways to get people to do what you want. Using swords and soldiers has always been a popular option, but Ashoka's conquest by dharma was a revolutionary concept. This man was a warrior, known for his ferocity in battle. He was transformed by his conversion to Buddhism and his horror at the death and suffering he caused. The new, gentler Ashoka promised to never seek military conquest again and instead devoted the rest of his rule to spreading the Buddhist faith and seeing to the welfare of his people. He personally traveled the empire spreading his message, and he erected Buddhist structures across the empire. One of the most significant aspects of his conquest by dharma was his support of Buddhist missionaries. Ashoka sent missionaries to neighboring regions, helping begin the spread of Buddhism far outside the Indian subcontinent.
Like all empires, the Mauryan Empire could not last forever, and indeed it only survived Ashoka by fifty years. But three centuries later, the Gupta Empire emerged in the same region. Sri Gupta founded this empire between 240 and 280 CE. His successors expanded their territory through conquest and marriage. Under Chandragupta II, who reigned from 380 to 415 CE, the Gupta Empire extended across northern India. Like Ashoka, Chandragupta II made Pataliputra the capital of his empire and centralized the government there. He used tribute money from allies to fund government projects and salaries. However, he did not rely on a network of spies as the Mauryans had. He let regions make their own decisions about administration and local governance. The Gupta Empire was a golden age in India, marked by peace and public safety as the arts and sciences flourished.
Map of the region ruled by the Gupta empire.
Gupta Empire, map based upon the work of D. Rothemund’s A History of India (2004). By Avantiputra7, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Even before Ashoka's conversion, religion played an important role in the Mauryan Empire. Chandragupta's spiritual advisor predicted that the empire would face a famine. When this prediction came true, Chandragupta embraced the beliefs of Jainism and retreated to a life of fasting. Jainism is one of the oldest belief systems in India along with Hinduism and Buddhism. Many of its practices are similar including non-violence, asceticism (fasting and renouncing earthly possessions), vegetarianism, and rebirth.
After Ashoka gained control of the empire, he converted to Buddhism and spread those beliefs throughout the empire. Ashoka is perhaps best known for his construction of pillars that were inscribed with edicts (proclamations), and places of meditation and importance in the life of the Buddha called stupas. The pillars feature the teachings of both Ashoka and the Buddha and concentrate on respecting all life. Here are some examples:
"Rock Edict VII, King Priyadarsi wishes members of all faiths to live everywhere in his kingdom. For they all seek mastery of the senses and purity of mind. …Kalinga Edict II, King Priyadarsi says: …All men are my children. Just as I seek the welfare and happiness of my own children in this world and the next, I seek the same things for all men. Unconquered peoples along the borders of my dominions may wonder what my disposition is toward them. My only wish with respect to them is that they should not fear me, but trust me; that they should expect only happiness from me, not misery; that they should understand further that I will forgive them for offenses which can be forgiven; that they should be induced by my example to practice Dharma; and that they should attain happiness in this world and the next" (Ashoka, 51-53).
Photo of a tall pillar surrounded by small brick ruins. Resting on the top of the pillar is a sculpture of a lion.
Ashoka pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India. By Bpilgrim, CC BY-SA 2.5.
These were the public pronouncements of a man who, at the beginning of his rule, had been known for his cruelty and deadly conquests. Ashoka's conversion had lasting effects on how he ruled, on the Indian subcontinent, and in the transformation of Buddhism into a world religion.


Regional and long-distance trade flourished under the rule of India's ancient empires. Chandragupta Maurya established a single currency across India, a network of regional governors and administrators, and a civil service to provide justice and security for merchants, farmers, and traders. Farmers were no longer burdened by a regional kings' tax or crop collection. Instead, they paid through a centrally administered tax system. The Mauryan and Gupta Empires' political unity and internal peace encouraged the expansion of trade networks in India. During Ashoka's reign, the government built major roadways, and the Mauryan international network of trade expanded. India's exports to places like Bactria and Persia included silk, textiles, and spices.

Women and society

Much of Indian society was governed by a strict class system—known as the caste system—that divided people by their family's professions and background. Caste often determined the rights and responsibilities people had in society.
Caste played a large role in shaping the lives of women. Women in both Mauryan and Gupta India were most often confined to roles as wives and mothers. Women's legal and property rights were restricted, though many women maintained some rights to hold property, such as bride gifts from their families and husbands. Most upper-caste Indian women were secluded in the home, meaning they often had less freedom of movement than women from lower castes. Since they needed to work outside the home to provide for their family, women of lower castes often enjoyed more freedom of movement than those in the nobility. Many of these women worked in the textile industry and contributed to both the family and imperial economy. Their work generated revenue for their families, and traded their surplus goods at market. The labor of these women textile workers produced many of the export goods of both empires.
As Buddhism spread throughout India under the reign of Ashoka, many women joined Buddhist nunneries. Buddhists sought to escape the caste system by teaching how a person could overcome desire and achieve personal salvation through enlightenment. These teachings were appealing to many women living under the restrictions of India's caste system.


After Ashoka's death, the Mauryan Empire dissolved and local rulers began to take charge of smaller regions, which were strategically placed along trade routes. The future leaders of the Gupta dynasty arose out of these small kingdoms a few centuries later. They conquered many regions of the former Mauryan Empire and forged alliances with kingdoms that chose not to fight against them. The Gupta Empire ended with the invasion of pastoralist tribes from Central Asia, at the end of the fifth century CE. The age of empires in India came to an end after the fall of the Gupta Empire. Several regional kingdoms ruled India until the sixteenth century CE, when the Mughal Empire conquered the subcontinent.
Author bio
Rosie Friedland is a content contributor at Khan Academy. She has created materials for a variety of Khan Academy's test prep offerings, including free SAT prep in partnership with College Board. She has also worked on course materials for Grammar, World History, U.S. History, and early-grade English Language Arts.

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