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The aim of this research project is to know about the society that was in place before the
Mauryan rule. And what were the societal changes brought by Chandragupta Maurya
during his reign from 321-298 BCE.
The primary objectives behind this research project is to:
 Study the society including its economic system, caste system, existence of religions
and infrastructure development.
 Find out which crucial factors were responsible for prosperity of the economy and
what were the major revenue generating sectors in those times.
 Assess the trade system and division powers at different levels of governance.
The research methodology is analytical. The information gathered through various sources
will be analysed. The secondary sources of the project will include library research, literary
sources and the legal databases available online.
Research Questions
The following research questions will be answered through the project:
 Was there any existence of religion during the Mauryan age?
 How was the society divided whether on the basis of economic well-being or a well-
conceived caste system?
 Was there any caste division prevalent in those times?
 What were the major professions that contributed towards the prosperity of
The Mauryan Empire was founded by Chandragupta Maurya in the 321 B.C. who succeeded the last Nanda
ruler (Dhanananda) at the age of 25. He was the protégé of the Brahmin Kautilya, who was also known as
Chankaya. Some accounts point out that Chandragupta started by harassing the outer areas of the Nanda
Kingdom gradually moving towards the centre. Once he captured the Ganga Plain he further expanded he
kingdom towards the north-west to exploit the power vacuum created by the exit of Alexandra. Moving back
to Central India he occupied the region north of the Narmada River. But in 305 B.C., in the north-west region
he got involved in a campaign against Seleucus Nikator, who was Alexander’s general who gained control
of most Asiatic provinces of the Macedonian empire which Chandragupta Maurya finally won in 303 B.C.
Both signed a treaty and entered into a marriage alliance. The Mauryan empire was spread over the whole
of subcontinent extending from present day Afghanistan to the south India.

Caste System
Society was based on the Chaturvarna system which divided it among four principal caste (varnas) that is
Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras together with many other lower castes (avara-varna). There were
also a number of mixed castes (antarala) in the society which were the result of inter-caste marriages.
Brahmanas were at the top of the society and were known as Purohita, and influenced politics and
administration of a kingdom to a great extent and were the member of the Parishad which performed the
function of legislation. The high position of the Brahmins was evident from the facts that they were exempted
from paying taxes and confiscation and also from corporal punishment and the death penalty. All this social
honour was because of the fact that they hardly belonged to the society. There work was of teaching and
studying and their home was the forest where they lived for another world.
But soon such social order was threatened by the emergence of new religions like Jainism, Buddhism, etc.
Kautilya is widely regarded as the champion of the Brahmanical system and wasn’t pleased with the idea of
premature renunciation and of the obligations of domestic life without the formal sanction of legal
authorities. He is even against giving any land in the villages to unlicensed ascetics due to the fear to
disturbance to the society. Accordingly, in the Mauryan age there is a stage of consolidation and only few
great sects could survive beside Brahmana Orthodoxy.
Greek writers were not able to understand the Hindu society system which is singular in nature and strange
to foreigners. They also failed to distinguish the difference between caste division and occupational
divisions. According to Megasthenes and other Greek writers the society was divided into ‘seven classes’
which reflected the various activities which were being carried out in Pataliputra during the fourth century
Megasthenes speaks of the society under the Mauryan Empire having seven divisions on the basis of
occupation. These divisions were- philosophers, farmers, soldiers, herdsman, artisans, magistrates and
councillors. He interpreted these occupational divisions as caste due to the fact that he states that one was
not allowed to change his or her profession. It is believed that he was confusing the occupational division
with the caste divisions. It was more likely that he was describing the principle of jati, where the social group
one was born into determined the rules for marriage and occupation rather than varna.

Division on the basis of Occupation

Megasthenes regarded Brahmins, Buddhist monks and followers of many other sects as the philosophers
who constituted the top brass in the society but were considerably small in number. As we know from the
writings of Strabo, Megasthenes divided the philosopher into two kinds, first were Brachmanes that is the
brahmans while the other were Sarmanes that is the shramanas. The brachmanes or brahmans were more
admired as they had a more authoritative system of learning which was more inclined towards following a
set of norms. He also tells about the occupation of Brahmins that they served as priests, the persons who
wish to offer sacrifices or perform sacred rituals for others.
The Shramanas included a variety of ascetics, as well as the monks and followers of various other sects-
Buddhist, Jaina, Ajivika and many others. They were large and influential enough to form a separate
category. The most highly honoured Sarmanes were Hylobioi, ‘forest dwellers’. They lived in the forests
and survived on leaves of trees and wild fruits and wore garments made from the bark of trees. Sexual
Intercourse and wine were abstained for them. These descriptions can be easily related to Brahmacharis who
preferred to remain as such through life.
The category of farmers included shudra cultivators and labourers working on the land. The cultivators
were the largest category which explains the central role of agriculture and its requirement to maintain the
Mauryan Empire. The cultivators were mostly kept unarmed, thus reducing a chance of a farmers’ revolt.
Soldier being referred to as one of the seven divisions by Megasthenes show their importance of the army.
The Mauryan standing army was larger than that of Nandas. It had nearly 700 elephants, 1000 horses, 80,000
infantry which is inflated to 600,000 according to some ancient texts. When not in service they spend their
leisure time in idleness and drinking and are maintained at the expense of royal treasury. Joining the army
was not just for kshatriyas, for foot soldiers, charioteers and attendants were of the lower castes and it was
also maintained that the soldier must return weapons back to the armoury.
Next category is of herdsmen, who are identified as tribes, pastoralists who adhere to the clan identity. They
mainly were either of sudra origin or else outcastes. Pastoralists were large in number and they constituted
a social group and they may also have included hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators also.
The status of artisan depended on his distinct craft. Metal worker making armour and other expensive items
were generally perceived to be superior to other artisans like weavers and potters. The wealthier artisans
were probably of the upper classes whereas those working for them may again have been Sudras. Wealthy
artisans were referred to as gahapatis, housholders.
There is no mention of merchants except a slight mention in Greek texts as townsmen who could have been
petty traders. Magistrates were part of the administrative system and were either brahmans or kshatriyas
but there are some exceptions in the history.
The seventh caste is made up of the councillors and assessors who work on the public affairs and they fill
up the high posts in the government and the administrative system.
The Indian Society from the eyes of Megasthenes suggested a more flexible society than presumed by some
scholars. Also, there was a distinction in the upper and lower castes both on the basis of economic and social
The dress that Indians wore in Pataliputra showed their partial side for richness and bright colours, liberally
using ornaments of gold and gems and flowered muslins with attendants carrying umbrellas after them.
Nearchus1 describes the dress of the people as being of shining cotton and comprising “a tunic down to their
knees, and two other pieces of stuff one over their shoulders and one around the head. They wore earrings
of ivory and shoes of white leather, worked very elaborately and high-heeled so as to make the person taller.”

Nearchus was one of the officers, a navarch that is the leader of ships, in the army of Alexander the Great.
The Greeks were struck by the absence of wine from the Indians’ diet. Their staple food was pulpy rice.
Each man took his food by himself. There was neither a common meal nor a fixed time for it. The dinner
was served on the table in a golden dish in which was first put rice and then seasoned meat over it was
Based on Megasthenes’ work one can know that Indians were referred to as polygamous. He also refers to
brides being purchased for a yoke of oxen which was most probably Arsha form of marriage as prescribed
by Manu, in which the bride’s father was entitled to receive a pair of oxen or cows as a customary rule. Also
among certain Indian peoples, girls were secured as prizes of victory in physical feats. Perhaps it was the
Svayamvara way of marriage.
Sutte was seen by the Greeks that prevailed as a custom that widows should be burnt along with their
husbands which is widely regarded as Sati. Aristobulus relates that in 316 B.C. an Indian military leader
accompanied by his two wives was unfortunately killed in the battle, hereupon the two wives also burnt
themselves with him.
The Greeks were struck by the absence of funeral pomp or imposing monuments among Indians. Indians
thought that the virtues of the dead were more enduring than brass as also the songs which were sung over
Arrian on the basis of writings by Megasthenes says that “all Indians are free, and not one of them is a slave.”
But Kautilya’s Arthasastra refers to the existence of slaves. However, forced labour and bonded labour did
exist on a very limited scale but they were not treated as harshly as in the western world.
Domestic slaves were a regular feature in prosperous households and slave labour was used in the mines by
the guilds. The Arthasastra states that a man became slave either by birth, by voluntarily selling himself, by
being captured in war or as a result of a judicial punishment. Slavery was a recognised institution and the
legal relationship between master and slave was clearly defined.
Women in Society
In the domestic family, the joint family system was the norm. Women were respected in the society. But
they were denied equal rights with men. A married woman had her own property in form of bride gift (stree-
dhana), and jewels. They were all at her disposal in case of widowhood. Widow remarriages were known.
Polygamy was practised by rulers and nobles. Women had taken up many professions by this time.
Prostitution by Ganika was widely prevalent. There is also a mention of women philosophers and women
bodyguards in Greek texts. Offences with women were strongly dealt with. There were Superintendents to
look after the welfare of women in the society.
Common Masses
Common people during the Mauryan period lived prudently, and were mild and gentle. Theft was a rare
occurrence and people didn’t tell lies. The houses and property were generally left unlocked. Written
agreements or contracts were not common as people didn’t feel the necessity of such things. The people
were bound by morality and culture.

The Arthasastra mentions the following deities were popularly worshipped in those days: Aparajita (Durga),
Apratihata(Vishnu), Jayanta(Subrahmanya), Vaijayanta (Indra), Siva, Vaisravana, Asvi, Sri, Madira, Aditi.
Spells and exorcisms formed part of the religions of that times. Evil was sought to be warded off by chants
of secret Mantras or spells.
The Brahmanas practised the vedic religion of sacrifice for which special sylvan2 retreats were provided.
The royal palace was provided with separate place for the performance of sacrifice. Among the heretical
sects mentioned Sakyas and Ajivikas entertainment was prohibited.
It will thus appear that Kautilya knows more of Vedic religion, sacrifice, deities and the Atharvavedic rites
and spells than of later clatter Hindu deities and their rituals.
Agriculture and Village Life.
A good deal of the economic life of the country was controlled by the state. The state was largest employer
of labour. It controlled and organised the agriculture, industry and the trade of the country.
The state had a large part of agriculture in the country directly in its own hands. It didn’t interfere in the
actual work of cultivation, provided its established share of the produce was timely paid to it as the land
revenue demand but it was specially the state’s duty to organise and ectend the agricultural productivity of
the country to the public by encouraging the surplus population to settle in new or abandoned tracts. There
were landless agricultural labourers (vishti) who worked as domestic servants for free food and meagre
wages in cash. There were also ordinary labourers (Karmakara) who worked for wages and those who sold
themselves into slavery (Dasas). There were lastly, peasant proprietors who worked on the basis of sharing
the produce with the state. The Buddhist texts of times hold up the ideal that landlord should cultivate his
own land and should not be dependent on anyone else. It attaches a social stigma to the agricultural labour.
The village cattle comprised cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, asses, camels, pigs and dogs. The state
maintained cattle-farms, stud-farms and dairy farms and employed necessary staffs comprising the Gopalaka
(cowherd), Pindaranka (for buffaloes), Dohaka (milker), Manthaka (churner). The cattlefarms reared calves,
steers, draught oxen, stud-bulls and buffaloes. It also undertook the taming of wild cattle. Poultry-farming
was also in place during that time.
Irrigation was the concern of the state as an important source of revenue derived from the water rates levied
in accordance with the means of irrigation employed. It was responsible for constructing new sources of
water supply by excavating tanks and canals.
The Pali texts of the time refer to the arable land of the village divided into individual holdings which were
separated from one another.
Urban Life
The urban life also had its amenities like life in a village. These were offered by numerous institutions of
different kinds. Every city had its rest houses for travellers, its shops, its restaurants and its taverns. It also
had many public amusements like theatrical performances, music, vocal and instrumental, exhibition of
acting, dancing, jugglery, storytelling, gymnastics and painting which were all given by its various artists
trained in its Schools of Art maintained by the state.
The city’s learning and culture were represented by persons noted for their, their oratory skills, their
spirituality, were given highest honours and allowances for their maintenance. The state also bestowed
stipends of honour upon the teachers of music and the men of learning in the city whose services were always
at disposal of the public. The stipends were only granted on the basis of merit.

Associated with the woods or something wooden.
Learning and literature received great attention of people. Kautilya’s Arthasastra, an encyclopaedic range
of government and economics is assigned to this period. Bhadrabahu’s Kalpasutra was produced during this
period. Moggaliputta Tissa compiled the Kathavattu, a treatise rejecting the heretical doctrines of those
times. The Jaina and Buddhist literature was also revised and enlarged during the same period.

Thus, Chandragupta Maurya’s progressive secularization of the state and society prepared the country for the great
moral transformation. He brought social changes which he believed had a great impact on the politics of the country.
The chaturvarna system still governed the society. But, craftsmen, irrespective of jati enjoyed a high place in the
society. The caste system didn’t function in a smooth manner. The first three castes were more privileged than Sudras
and the out-castes. Vaishyas, who became rich trough commercial activities conflicted with the socially superior
castes i.e. Brahmins and Kshatriyas.

The caste system during the Mauryan times was more rigid as compared to the previous ones. Inter-caste marriages,
inter-dining were not permitted. There was a division on the basis of occupation also which was a change from the
past. Occupations became hereditary like castes and brought changes which were eventually for the betterment of
the society

Myneni, S. (2011). INDIAN HISTORY. Allahabad Law Agency.

Stein, B. (1989). New Cambridge History of India. Cambridge University Press.

Thapar, R. (2002). The Penguin History of Early India. Penguin Books.