THE FIRST EMPIRE IN INDIA
At the time of Buddha, India was made up of a number of small kingdoms. Every king wanted to become the greatest of all. It was difficult for all these kings to live together in a friendly way. For a long time there was no one who was strong enough to rule over all the kingdoms together. The first king to bring almost the whole country under his rule, and so, to become an emperor, was Chandragupta Maurya. But before he did this, another important thing happened.
PORUS AND ALEXANDER
A young boy in far-off Greece used to dream of conquering the whole world. His name was Alexander. When Alexander became a young man, the dream of his childhood very nearly came true. He left his country with an army of 40,000 men, and started moving towards India. He defeated every king he met on the way. At last, strong and proud after many victories, Alexander boldly crossed the Hindukush Mountains. Many chiefs of small Indian kingdoms in the Punjab tried to stop him, but he was too powerful for them. One of the kings who fought bravely against Alexander was Porus. The army of Porus was camped on the banks of the river Jhelum. It had many war-chariots and elephants. Alexander's army was on the other side of the Jhelum. One night, when it was raining, some of Alexander's soldiers crossed the river and attacked the camp of Porus. The elephants got frightened and started to run back. They killed many of their own soldiers and caused a panic. The chariots got stuck in the mud. At last Porus had to surrender, and was brought to the Greek camp as a prisoner in chains. Alexander asked him, “How shall I treat you?" "Like a king", answered the proud Porus. Alexander was impressed by the reply and let Porus have his kingdom back.
At this time there was a rich kingdom called Magadha. Magadha is the old name for the southern part of Bihar. Alexander had heard of it and wanted to conquer it. He crossed three more rivers of the Punjab and came up to the banks of the Beas. Then his soldiers refused to go any further because they were tired and wanted to return home. Alexander had to give in and go back with them. He returned to the Indus, collected many boats and sailed down the river to the sea.
There was a fearless young Indian who had been watching the exploits of Alexander very closely. This was because he himself wanted to become a conqueror like him some day. This young man was Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the first empire in India.
Chandragupta had once been a general in the army of the king of Magadha. He tried to become king himself but his plot failed. His life was in danger, and he had to run away from Magadha. He wandered in the Punjab waiting for his chance. With him was a very clever man called Chanakya. Chanakya had also lived at the court of the king of Magadha. He left the court, because the king had insulted him. Now he wanted to take revenge. The best way was to take away the crown and give it to someone else. Chandragupta was just the person he was looking for. Chanakya taught Chandragupta how to become a powerful king.
Chandragupta began to collect an army. When he was strong enough to fight, he won for himself all the kingdoms that Alexander had taken in India. Then he marched to Magadha and defeated the king. Both he and Chanakya had been waiting a Iong time for this. Chandragupta was then crowned king of Magadha and began to rule all the lands he had conquered.
After some time Seleukus, one of the generals of Alexander, tried to win back the kingdoms that had been lost. But Chandragupta defeated him. When there was peace between them, Chandragupta married the daughter of Seleukus. Afterwards, Seleukus sent an ambassador called Megasthenes to Chandragupta's capital at Pataliputra, where Patna is today. Megasthenes wrote a book describing all he saw.
Chandragupta's kingdom grew larger and larger, until it became a huge empire that covered nearly the whole of India.
Chandragupta ruled his land very well. Chanakya, his clever teacher, became his chief minister and helped him in keeping the country in good order. He wrote a book, which tells how a king should rule. This book is known as the Artha-shastra.
Chandragupta lived in a wonderful palace all made of wood. It was decorated with beautiful things of gold and silver. The ponds in the gardens were full of many kinds of fish. Now nothing remains of this palace.
Chandragupta also built a wide and a very, very long road. It ran from Peshawar right up to Pataliputra nearly 1,200 miles. There were shady trees on either side. Every few miles there were rest houses where tired travellers could stay.
Chandragupta had a grandson named Ashoka. Ashoka grew up to be a very wise and a good king. Many people believe that Ashoka was the best king India ever had.
When Ashoka came to the throne, almost the whole of the country was under him. Only the kingdom of Kalinga, which was ruled by powerful tribes, was independent. Kalinga was roughly where Orissa is today. Ashoka thought that like his grandfather, he ought to make his empire bigger and stronger. So he invaded Kalinga with a mighty army. The people of Kalinga came out in all their force. Their army had 700 elephants. There was a terrible battle. In the end, Ashoka won. But his victory did not make him happy. He was a very kind man. He saw that thousands of people had been killed, and many more wounded. Ashoka was so upset by all this that he vowed never to take out his sword again. Nor would the drums of war ever be beaten in the land that he ruled over.
After the battle of Kalinga, Ashoka became a follower of Buddha. Kings in those days enjoyed hunting. Ashoka gave it up because Buddha had said one must not kill or hurt anybody. He also gave up eating meat and tried to stop the killing of animals.
Ashoka lived a pure and good life himself; he also wanted his people to live good lives. His empire was so large that he could not speak to all his people himself. So he thought of a wonderful plan. He got stone-workers to carve what he wanted to say on pillars of stone. The writing was in the language, which the people spoke. These pillars were taken to every corner of the country and put up for everyone to see.
What did these writings (or edicts, as they are called) say? They asked the people to be kind, to tell the truth and not to kill. These were the lessons of Buddha. The pillars also tell us something about the greatness of Ashoka and what he did for his subjects whom he loved as though they were his own children.
Ashoka’s voice is still heard because he wrote his message on rocks and stone pillars and made them speak for over the centuries to this day. He was the first king to use stone for building.
He sent good and learned men to other countries so that they could teach the Buddhist religion. In those days, travelling was not easy. Countries - which today are like next-door neighbours because of ships and aeroplanes, seemed very very far. He spent a great deal of money on his missions to foreign lands.
Ashoka visited all the holy places of the Buddhists Lumbini, where Buddha was born; Gaya, where he attained Enlightenment; Kushinagara, where he passed away; and, many others besides. He put up a pillar to mark the place where Buddha was born. He built many Viharas, or places where Buddhist holy men could live. In fact he built so many that Magadha came to be known as the country of Viharas, or Bihar. He also built monasteries where men could live and learn about the teachings of Buddha.
One of Ashoka’s pillars carries the figures of four lions sitting back to back. This pillar is at Sarnath. Another emblem often carved on the rocks and pillars is a wheel. The wheel stands for the Law that Buddha taught. Today you will find this wheel in the middle of our national flag, The lions on the pillar form the seal of our Government.