Chandragupta Maurya or Chandragupta?

Reader Kedar asked two questions recently

  1. There is a huge gap between Mahabharata (3100 BCE, 2450 BCE, 1500 BCE) and the Mahajapadas. What happened there?
  2. Who was the contemporary of Alexander of Macedonia? Chandragupta Maurya or the Guptas? Do Mahavira, Buddha and Adi Shankara belong to an earlier period?

We will look at (2) today and deal with (1) later.
At the International Conference on Indian History, Civilisation and Geopolitics 2009, Dr Subramanian Swamy gave the valdedictory speech on the need to defalsify Indian history. In this speech, Dr. Swamy stated that most dates  related to Indian history – Rigveda, Mahabharata, Buddha, Asoka —  are wrong. This happened because European historians identified Sandrocottus, mentioned by Megasthenes, as Chandragupta Maurya. This Sandrocottos was a contemporary of Alexander and from associated calculations, the date of Chandragupta Maurya’s coronation was found. Based on this point, Asoka’s corononation was calculated, so was the time of Buddha.
But according to Swamy,  the correct dates are as follows

However, on the basis of these calculations we can say that Gupta Chandragupta was “Sandrocottus” c.327 B.C. His son, Samudragupta, was the great king who established a unified kingdom all over India, and obtained from the Cholas, Pandyas, and Cheras their recognition of him. He also had defeated Seleucus Nicator, while his father Chandragupta was king. On this calculation we can also place Prithu at 6777 B.C. and Lord Rama before that. Derivation of other dates without discussion may also be briefly mentioned here: Buddha’s Nirvana 1807 B.C., Maurya Chandragupta c. 1534 B.C., Harsha Vikramaditya (Parmar) c. 82 B.C.[Non-random-Thoughts: ‘De-falsify Indian history’ — Dr Subramanian Swamy]

Thus, a case is presented that Western historians distorted Indian history and it is our responsibility to correct it. So let us accept for a moment that Buddha lived in 1807 BCE. We don’t have archaeological evidence of the cities and kingdoms mentioned in Buddhist texts dating to that period.
If Rama lived in 6777 BCE, he belonged to the Neolithic age and would have fought with axe heads and chisels. This Rama would be vastly different from the one portrayed in Ramayana, like King David. The Tel Dan Stele mentions David’s existence, but archaeology has found that he would have been not a king, but a petty warlord of a small chiefdom with few settlements. So did this Neolothic Rama’s exploits survive as a mnemohistory, like how David’s lives in the Torah?
Whether due to colonial bias or not, we have certain dates and there is an effort to propose new ones. But these new ones have to take into consideration the social order of the time and also be backed up by archaeology.

The Death of Chanakya

In Episode 2 of The Story of India, Michael Wood, journeys from Patna to Sravanabelagola following the footsteps of Chandragupta Maurya. According to Jain tradition, after a teacher warned Chandragupta about an impending famine, Chandragupta made Bindusara the king, took a begging bowl and walked to Deccan. Even now there is a cave with a carving of a stone foot, where the Mauryan emperor is believed to have starved to death (See from 35 min onwards)
But what about Chanakya? While most popular accounts of Chanakya end with coronation of Chandragupta Maurya’s coronation, Visakshadutta’s Mudrarakshasa is about events after the coronation where Chanakya tries to get the deposed minister of the Nandas, Amatya Rakshasa, to serve as the Emperor’s minister. We don’t know what happened after that.
The only information I could find about Chanakya’s life after this period is in the book The Lives of the Jain Elders by the Jain monk Hemacandra. This narration talks not just about the death of Chanakya, but also about the birth of Bindusara and associated palace intrigues.
According to Hemacandra, while Chanakya served as the Prime Minister of Chandragupta Maurya, he started adding small amounts of poison in the Emperor’s food so that he would get used to it; railway meals was not available then. This gourmet cuisine was prepared to prevent the Emperor from being poisoned by enemies.
One day a pregnant queen Durdha shared the food with the Emperor. Since poisoned food was not her staple diet, she died. Chanakya decided that the baby should not die; he cut open the belly of the queen and took out the baby. A drop (bindu) of poison had passed to the baby’s head, and hence Chanakya named him Bindusara.
After Chandragupta abdicated the throne, Chanakya stayed as the Prime Minister of Bindusara. One person who did not like this was Bindusara’s minister Subandhu who revealed to Bindusara that Chanakya was responsible for the murder of his mother.
On hearing that the Emperor was angry with him, Chanakya thought he had nothing to lose but his life. He donated a his wealth to the poor, widows, and orphans and sat on a dung heap, prepared to die by total abstinence from food and drink. Bindusara, meanwhile heard the full story of his birth from the nurses and rushed to beg forgiveness of Chanakya. But Chanakya would not relent. Bindusara vent his fury on Subandhu, who asked for time to beg for forgiveness from Chanakya.
Subandhu, who still hated Chanakya, wanted to make sure that he did not return to the city – alive. He arranged for a ceremony of respect, but unnoticed by anyone, slipped a smoldering charcoal ember inside the dung heap. Aided by the wind, the dung heap was on fire and the man behind the Mauryan Empire and the author of Arthashastra was burned to death.
R.C.C. Fynes writes in the introduction to the translation of The Lives of the Jain Elders that the stories told by Hemacandra are legend and not history. He has a point since there are no other sources to verify this story. Also it is told entirely from a Jain perspective which adds its own bias. But then most legends have a kernel of truth to them, only sometimes that kernel is hard to find.

When did Mauryas rule?

When it comes to building a chronology of events in India’s history, a student is confused by the wide variation in dates of certain events. For example, when did Mahabharata war happen? Was it 1924 B.C or 3137 B.C? When did Adi Shankara live? Was it 8th century CE or 5th century B.C? Partly such confusion exists due to the existence of multiple methodologies that exist (Puranic genealogies, archaeological evidence etc), and they often contradict each other. Partly the confusion is due to the fact even now people don’t understand that when something is 3000 years old, it does not date to 3500 B.C.
While most of us learned that Chandragupta Maurya lived around the 3rd century B.C, there is a set of people (via DesiPundit) who believe that he lived in 1534 B.C. This means that if we choose 1924 B.C as the date for Mahabharata war, then the Mauryan empire was established just 300 later. Then what happened to Buddha? Oh well he lived just 100 years after Mahabharata.
What can help in solving this mystery is some archaeology. Specifically if we can find out when humans settled in the areas where the Mauryan empire was located, then some of these dates can be ridiculed and there is some effort in this direction in West Bengal.

The state archaeology department recently found the site, on the banks of Piyali riyal in South 24 Parganas district. “We would begin excavation in winter at Tilpi near Joynagar in South 24 Parganas which could be an early historic site of pre-Mauryan period,” West Bengal Archaeology and Museums Department director Gautam Sengupta told IANS.
“This could prove that human habitation existed in the area between 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD,” Sengupta said. The Maurya dynasty ruled India between 321 and about 240 BC. “We discovered the site recently and came across some terracotta articles, copper coins, stone beads and other artefacts. Excavation is likely to reveal more artefacts and those can be compared with our previous findings to ascertain the occupational history of the area,” he added.
“This new site is on the banks of Piyali, which is again a part of the river system of Vidyadhari, on the banks of which Chandraketugarh was discovered in the early years of last century,” he said. Chandraketugarh is located in North 24 Parganas district and its history dates back to almost 3rd century BC, even before the Maurya dynasty came up.
The archaeological significance of the Chandraketugarh area came to light in the early years of the last century when road-building activities exposed a brick structure and artefacts.From all indications Chandraketugarh was an important urban centre, most probably a port city. The new site at Tilpi could be linked to Chandraketugarh, Sengupta said.[Excavation near Kolkata to unearth pre-Mauryan history via IndiaArchaeology]