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The rise of empires in India

In the late 4th century BCE, the Maurya Empire under Chandragupta conquers most of North India. His son Bindusara continues the conquest into the south. Bindusara's son Ashoka (Asoka) takes the empire to its furthest extent, but then turns to a life of Buddhism and nonviolence. He is considered one of the prime catalysts for the spread of Buddhism.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] We're now going to talk about the Maurya Empire, which is not just one of the greatest empires in Indian history, and really the first truly great empire. It's also one of the great empires of world history. And just for a little bit of context, we can see where it fits in in the large arc of ancient Indian history, and in particular we see here the life of Buddha, and the actual dates of Buddha's life are under some debate. But we can see that his, his life and his teachings were roughly 150 to 200 years before the establishment of the Maurya Empire which lasts for another 150 or so years. And this is important to keep in mind, because as we'll see, Buddhism has a strong influence on the Maurya Empire, and maybe just as important, the Maurya Empire has a very large influence on spreading Buddhism in a very significant way. So let's zoom in on what the Indian subcontinent looked like near the end of the fourth century BCE. So, in most of north India you have control by the Nanda Empire, which had its capital at the city Pataliputra, which was in the region, or the kingdom, of Magada, which is this ancient region that has been the seat of power in north India for some time. You also have other kingdoms, like Kalinga. You have several kingdoms in south India, as well. There are counts of a kingdom potentially quite powerful in Bengal named the Gangaridai. You also might remember in our videos on Alexander the Great that it was around this time, around 326, that Alexander came and conquered much of modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and was at the borders of the Nanda Empire in India. And you might also remember that that was about the time that Alexander the Great and his soldiers decided to stop. They were tired, some accounts are that they were fearful of trying to conquer another empire, especially that far from home. So it was also around the time that Alexander the Great decided to turn back, and leave the region under the control of some of his governors and generals. And it was in that context that the Maurya Empire emerges. And the actual events of how it emerges are still shrouded in history a little bit. But what eventually happens is a conqueror by the name of Chandragupta Maurya is able to conquer the Nanda Empire, and then not just the Nanda Empire, but as Alexander the Great retreats, he is able to conquer some of the territory former, formerly conquered by Alexander the Great. And so this here is a statue of what Chandragupta Maurya may have looked like, and you can see by within a decade of establishing the empire, it had conquered most of the Nanda Empire, and had even reclaimed a significant amount of land from the Greeks from what would eventually become the Seleucid Empire. Remember, Seleucus was one of Alexander's generals, who essentially sets up a dynasty in Persia, the Middle East, after the death of Alexander. And Chandragupta Maurya actually fights several battles with Seleucus, and is victorious, and he actually marries one of Seleucus' daughters. But this is what essentially establishes the Maurya, sometimes referred to or as, the Mauryan Empire. Now Chandragupta Maurya in 297, or roughly in 297, he, he decides to become a more devout Jain, and in other videos we'll talk about Mahavira and the Jain religion. But he essentially becomes an ascetic and leaves the kingdom, or the empire, in the hands of his son Bindusara. Now, Bindusara is able to conquer more of India, in particular he starts growing the empire into the south. But Bindusara is not able to conquer the kingdom of Kalinga. Bindusara dies in around 273, or 272 BCE, and then a civil war erupts for who should take charge, and the civil war is essentially amongst the sons of Bindusara. But the son who is victorious ends up being Ashoka. Now Ashoka is one of, if not, the most significant historical character in the history of India. So, Ashoka is able to take power roughly around 270 BCE, after as legend has it, a fairly bloody civil war. Early in his life he is viewed as a potentially cruel figure, killing many of his brothers in order to come to power, and he is set on conquering the kingdom of Kalinga. So, in 262, 261, he has a significant war, and he is able to successfully conquer the kingdom of Kalinga, which is this area right over here. Now, that ends up, according to historical records and really Ashoka's own accounts, ends up becoming a significant turning point in the life of Asoka, and potentially in the life of India or the world, because here are his direct accounts of his feelings about what happened in Kalinga. And we get this account from what are known as Ashoka edicts. As the Maurya Empire expanded under Ashoka, it had peace and prosperity. He put his edicts throughout the empire on what are often known as Ashoka pillars, where he wrote what his beliefs and the things that he did. He would also write them on rocks and stone throughout the empire. But this is the one where he talks about the conquering of Kalinga, and it's pretty interesting. Beloved of the Gods King Piyadasi, and he refers to himself as beloved of the Gods King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. And so you see he was coronated roughly in 270. He conquers roughly in 262. 150,000 were deported, 100,000 were killed, and many more died from other causes. After the Kalingas had been conquered, beloved of the Gods came to feel, he's talking about himself, beloved of the Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma. So Dhamma is the same word that we use today, dharma. And dharma you could ref, you can, you can view it as the cosmic order of things. It also, to a Buddhist, refers to the teachings of Buddha, or the Buddhist religion. So, beloved of the Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma, and for the instruction in Dhamma. Now beloved of the Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas. So this is really interesting. You don't have a lot of conquerors, especially in ancient history, after killing several hundred thousand, or maybe being responsible for the death of several hundred thousand, for feeling remorse about it, and writing about it. And so not only is this profound to be coming from a conqueror, but also reminds us how bloody some of these ancient wars were. But this is a turning point for him. He turns to Buddhism, and he really then becomes anti violence, not just towards humans, but even towards animals. He becomes a devoted Buddhist, and sponsors Buddhist temples throughout his empire. He sends Buddhist missionaries throughout the world, and is viewed as one of the main people responsible for the spread of Buddhism from Europe all the way to the far east. We already talked about his edicts of Ashoka. He started doing a bunch of public works projects, digging of wells, hospitals, and public gardens, education including for women. During his reign you have the maximum extent of any empire that ever ruled over India. 50% larger than modern, than the modern day country of India. There were roughly 50 million people under the Mauryan Empire under his rule. Now, eventually after his death, the empire goes under weaker and weaker rulers, and by about 184, 185 BCE, it falls to another less significant dynasty in the whole scope of history. But just to appreciate what a big deal Ashoka is in the scope of history, here is a quote by H.G. Wells from his Outline of History. "Ashoka worked for the real needs of men. Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, the name of Asoka, or Ashoka, shines, and shines almost alone, a star. From the Volga to Japan his name is still honored." A lot because of his spread of Buddhism. "More living men cherish his memory today than have ever heard the name of Constantine or Charlemagne." And just to appreciate the impact of Ashoka, even on modern day India, and this right over here is called the Ashoka chakra, and if you look at the flag of India, the Ashoka chakra sits at the center of it, and this is actually part of the, the modern day emblem of the republic of India, because after his turn to becoming a more benevolent ruler, he's considered as the model, ideal ruler in Indian history, and by many historians in all of history.