The Mauryan State and Polity
The major areas of concern for the Mauryan state were the collection of taxes as revenue to the state and the administration of justice, in addition to the maintenance of internal security and defence against external aggression. This required a large and complex administrative machinery and institutions. Greek historians, taking their lead from Megasthenes, described the Mauryan state as a centralised state. What we should infer from this description as a centralised state is that a uniform pattern of administration was established throughout the very large area of the empire. But, given the existing state of technology in communications and transport, a decentralised administrative system had to be in place.
This bureaucratic set-up covered a hierarchy of settlements from the village, to the towns, provincial capitals and major cities. The bureaucracy enabled and required an efficient system of revenue collection, since it needed to be paid out of taxes collected. Equally, the very large army of the Mauryan Empire could be maintained only with the revenue raised through taxation. The large bureaucracy also commanded huge salaries. According to the Arthasastra, the salary of chief minister, the purohita and the army commander was 48,000 panas, and the soldiers received 500 panas. If we multiply this by the number of infantry and cavalry, we get an idea of the enormous resources needed to maintain the army and the administrative staff.
Perhaps the most detailed account of the administration is to be found in the Arthasastra (though the work itself is now dated to a few centuries later). However, it must be remembered that the Arthasastra was a prescriptive text, which laid down the guidelines for good administration. If we add to this the information from Ashoka’s edicts and the work of Megasthenes, we get a more comprehensive picture of the Mauryan state as it was.
At the head of the administration was the king. He was assisted by a council of ministers and a purohita or priest, who was a person of great importance, and secretaries known as mahamatriyas. The capital region of Pataliputra was directly administered. The rest of the empire was divided into four provinces based at Suvarnagiri (near Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh), Ujjain (Avanti, Malwa), Taxila in the north-west, and Tosali in Odisha in the south-east. The provinces were administered by governors who were usually royal princes. In each region, the revenue and judicial administration and the bureaucracy of the Mauryan state was replicated to achieve a uniform system of governance. Revenue collection was the responsibility of a collector-general (samaharta) who was also in charge of exchequer that he was, in effect, like a minister of finance. He had to supervise all the provinces, fortified towns, mines, forests, trade routes and others, which were the sources of revenue. The treasurer was responsible for keeping a record of the tax revenues. The accounts of each department had to be presented jointly by the ministers to the king. Each department had a large staff of superintendents and subordinate officers linked to the central and local governments.
At the next level of administration came the districts, villages and towns. The district was under the command of a sthanika, while officials known as gopas were in charge of five to ten villages. Urban administration was handled by a nagarika. Villages were semi-autonomous and were under the authority of a gramani, appointed by the central government, and a council of village elders. Agriculture was then, as it remained down the centuries, the most important contributor to the economy, and the tax on agricultural produce constituted the most important source of revenue. Usually, the king was entitled to one-sixth of the produce. In reality, it was often much higher, usually about one-fourth of the produce.
The Arthasastra, recommended comprehensive state control over agricultural production and marketing, with warehouses to store agricultural products and regulated markets, in order to maximise the revenues from this most important sector of the economy. Other taxes included taxes on land, on irrigation if the sources of irrigation had been provided by the state, taxes on urban houses, customs and tolls on goods transported for trade and profits from coinage and trade operations carried on by the government. Lands owned by the king, forests, mines and manufacture and salt, on which the state held a monopoly, were also important sources of revenue.
Justice was administered through courts, which were established in all the major towns. Two types of courts are mentioned.
The dharmasthiya courts mostly dealt with civil law relating to marriage, inheritance and other aspects of civil life. The courts were presided over by three judges well-versed in sacred laws and three amatyas (secretaries). Another type of court was called kantakasodhana (removal of thorns), also presided over by three judges and three amatyas. The main purpose of these courts was to clear the society of anti-social elements and various types of crimes, and it functioned more like the modern police, and relied on a network of spies for information about such anti-social activities. Punishments for crimes were usually quite severe. The overall objective of the judicial system as it evolved was to extend government control over most aspects of ordinary life.
Ashoka’s rule gives us an alternative model of a righteous king and a just state. He instructed his officials, the yuktas (subordinate officials), rajjukas (rural administrators) and pradesikas (heads of the districts) to go on tours every five years to instruct people in dhamma (Major Rock Edict 3). Ashoka’s injunctions to the officers and city magistrates stressed that all the people were his children and he wished for his people what he wished for his own children, that they should obtain welfare and happiness in this world and the next. These officials should recognise their own responsibilities and strive to be impartial and see to it that men were not imprisoned or tortured without good reason. He added that he would send an officer every five years to verify if his instructions were carried out (Kalinga Rock Edict 1).
Ashoka realised that an effective ruler needed to be fully informed about what was happening in his kingdom and insisted that he should be advised and informed promptly wherever he might be (Major Rock Edict 6). He insisted that all religions should co-exist and the ascetics of all religions were honoured (Major Rock Edicts 7 and 12). Providing medical care should be one of the functions of the state, the emperor ordered hospitals to be set up to treat human beings and animals (Major Rock Edict 2). Preventing unnecessary slaughter of animals and showing respect for all living beings was another recurrent theme in his edicts. In Ashoka’s edicts, we find an alternative humane and empathetic model of governance. The edicts stress that everybody, officials as well as subjects, act righteously following dhamma.