The decline of the Maurya Dynasty was rather rapid after the death of Ashoka/Asoka. One obvious reason for it was the succession of weak kings. Another immediate cause was the partition of the Empire into two. Had not the partition taken place, the Greek invasions could have been held back giving a chance to the Mauryas to re-establish some degree of their previous power.
Mauryan Empire began to decline after the death of Ashoka in 232 BC. The last king was Brihadratha was assassinated by his general Pushyamitra Shunga who was a Brahmin. The factors which led to the decline of Mauryan Empire are as following:
- The religious policy of Ashoka
The religious policy of Ashoka antagonized the Brahmins of his empire. Since Ashoka banned animal sacrifice it stopped the income of Brahmins who received gifts in form of various kinds of sacrifices made to them
- Financial crisis
During Mauryan age a huge expenditure was done on maintaining army and bureaucracy. Moreover, Ashoka during his reign made large grants to the Buddhist monks which made the royal treasury empty. The Mauryan kings who succeeded Ashoka faced the financial crunch.
- Oppressive rule
The provincial rulers in Magadhan Empire were often corrupt and oppressive. This led to frequent rebellions against the empire. During the reign of Bindusara, the citizens of Taxila complained against the misrule of wicked bureaucrats. Although Bindusara and Ashoka took measures to control the bureaucrats, this failed to check the oppression in provinces.
- Partition of the empire
After the death of Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire split into two halves – western and eastern parts. This weakened the empire. Kalhana, the author of the work Rajatarangini which is an account of Kashmir’s history, says that after Ashoka’s death, his son Jalauka ruled over Kashmir as an independent ruler. This partition resulted in invasions from the northwest.
- Highly centralised administration
Highly centralised administration under the Mauryas became a problem with the later Mauryan kings who were not as efficient administrators as their predecessors.
Powerful kings like Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka could control the administration well. But weak rulers led to a weakening of the administration and ultimately led to the empire’s disintegration.
Also, the sheer vastness of the Mauryan Empire meant that there had to be a very effective ruler at the centre who could keep coherent all the regions.
A weakening of the central administration coupled with a large distance to communicate also led to the rise of independent kingdoms.
- Monarchs after Ashoka
The successors of Ashoka were weak kings who could not carry the burden of the huge empire that was bequeathed to them. After Ashoka, only six kings could rule over the kingdom for a mere 52 years. The last Maurya king, Brihadratha was overthrown by his own army commander, Pushyamitra. Only the first three kings of the Mauryan Empire were men of exceptional abilities and character. The later kings were no match in quality to their illustrious ancestors.
- Internal revolt
During the rule of Brihadratha, there was an internal revolt led by his army chief Pushyamitra Shunga in about 185 or 186 BCE. Bana describes in Harshacharita how Shunga killed Brihadratha during an army parade. This ended the rule of the Mauryas over Magadha and thence started the Shunga dynasty’s rule.
- Foreign invasion
During the reign of the first three Mauryan kings, no foreign power tried to attack India from the north-west as there was a fear of the mighty Mauryan army. But after Ashoka’s death, the kingdom split up into two. This led the Greek king Antiochus to attack India unsuccessfully though. But in time, foreign tribes attacked and established their kingdoms on Indian soil. The notable ones were the Indo-Greeks, the Sakas and the Kushanas.
- Neglect of the north-west frontier
The Chinese ruler Shih Huang Ti (247-210 BCE) constructed the Great Wall of China in about 220 BCE, to protect his empire against the attacks of the Scythians, a central Asian nomadic tribe who were in a state of constant flux. No such measures were taken by the emperor Ashoka on the northwestern frontier of India. In order to escape the Scythians, the Parthians, the Shakas and the Greeks were forced to move towards India. The Greeks were the first to invade India in 206 BCE and they set up their kingdom in north Afghanistan called Bactria. This was followed by a series of invasions till the beginning of the Christian era.
- New material knowledge in the outlaying areas
Once the new knowledge of iron tools and weapons spread in the peripheral areas, Magadha lost its special advantage. On the basis of material culture acquired from Magadha, new kingdoms such as the Shungas and Kanvas in central India, the Chetis in Kalinga and the Satavahans in the Deccan were founded and developed.