The anti-sacrifice attitude of Buddhism and Ashoka brought much loss to the Brahmanas, who lived on the gifts made to them in various kinds of sacrifices.
In spite of the tolerant policy of Ashoka, the Brahmanas developed some kind of antipathy towards him. They wanted a policy that would favour them and uphold existing interests and privileges.
Some of the kingdoms which arose on the ruins of the Maurya empire were ruled by Brahmanas. The Sungas and the Kanvas, who ruled in Madhya Pradesh and further east on the remnants of the Mauryan empire were Brahmanas.
Similarly, the Satavahanas who founded a lasting kingdom in the western Deccan and Andhra claimed to be Brahmanas.
These Brahmana dynasties performed the Vedic sacrifices, which were abandoned by Ashoka.
The enormous expenditure on the maintenance of the huge army and payment to bureaucrats, the largest regiment of officers, created a financial crisis for the Mauryan empire.
Despite the taxes imposed on the people, it became difficult for the Mauryas to sustain this huge superstructure.
It appears that the large grants to the Buddhist monks by Ashoka made the royal treasury empty and in order to meet the expenses they had to melt the images made of gold.
The cost of establishing settlements on the newly cleared land also must have strained the treasury, as the people settling on these lands initially were exempted from tax.
The oppressive rule in the provinces was another factor that led to the breaking-up of the empire.
In the reign of Bindusara, the citizens of Taxila complained against the misrule of wicked bureaucrats (Dushtamatyas).
Their grievances were redressed by the appointment of Ashoka as the viceroy of Taxila. But, when Ashoka became the emperor, a similar complaint was lodged by the same city.
The Kalinga edicts show that Ashoka felt very much concerned about the oppression in the province and therefore, asked the Mahamatras not to torture townsmen without due cause.
For this purpose, he introduced rotation of officers in Torali (in Kalinga), Ujjain and Taxila.
All the measures taken did not help to stop oppression in the outlying provinces and after the retirement of Ashoka, Taxila took the earliest opportunity to throw off the imperial yoke.
The 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
Historian Romila Thapar is of the view that the 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.
Weak 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.
Independence of the provinces
After Ashoka, under the later kings, the centre’s hold over the vast empire began to disintegrate. This led to the emergence of various kingdoms.
It is already mentioned that Jalauka ruled over Kashmir independently.
Kalinga became independent.
According to Tibetan sources, Virasena ruled over Gandhara independently.
Vidarbha broke away from Magadha. As per Greek sources, a king named Subhagasena (Sophagasanus) began to rule over the north-western provinces independently.
Spread of the new material knowledge in the outlying 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.
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.
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.
Some scholars suggest that Ashoka’s policies of non-violence and pacifism led to the weakening of the empire.
Since he stopped waging wars, foreign powers were once again tempted to attack the kingdom.
Also, he gave a lot of importance and effort to the propagation of Buddhism.
Neglect of the north-west frontier and absence of the boundary structure such as the Great Wall of China
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.
Scholars have expressed different opinions regarding the downfall of the Mauryas and some of them have put the blame on Ashoka.
According to the view of one school of writers, the religious policy of Ashoka was primarily responsible for it. Hari Prasad Sastri states that Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhism, his disregard to ritualism and sacrifices, his appointment of Dhamma-Mahamairas and deliberate humiliation of the Brahmanas, the framing of laws by the Sura Maurya rulers (as Brahmanas, regarded them) etc. gave rise to a reaction which was carried to success by the Brahamana commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra. But this view is not accepted by the majority of scholars. There is no adequate ground to believe that Ashoka ill-treated the Brahmanas and there is also no evidence that the Brahmanas unitedly rose against the Mauryas. Pushyamitra acted neither as the leader of the Brahmanas nor that of the general public. He was the Commander-in-chief of the army and he utilised his position to seize the throne from his weak king. There is no evidence of popular revolt because of any reaction of the Brahmanas.
Another school of historians point out that the basic cause of the downfall of the Maurya Empire was Ashoka’s policy of Ahimsa or non-violence which reduced the martial spirit of soldiers and thereby, the fighting strength of army which, ultimately, made it incapable to fight against the Greek invaders or suppress the revolts of provincial governors.
H.C. Raychaudhary has supported this view. He argues that the military weakness of the Mauryas made them incapable of not only of facing foreign aggressions but also of making the governors of the provinces responsible for good administrationwhich resulted in revolts of the people at various places. Therefore, it weakened the empire and led to-its downfall.
But this view has also not been accepted by the majority of historians. Of course, Ashoka’s policy of non-violence must have adversely affected the morale of the army of the Mauryas and therefore, partly contributed to the downfall of the empire.
But it was not the primary cause. We do not find any evidence to justify that Ashoka had reduced the strength of the army or had reduced the fear of law and punishment amongst his subjects.
Therefore, the policies of Ashoka can not be regarded as primarily responsible for the downfall of the Mauryas even though these contributed to it partly.
According to Kosambi, the primary cause ot the downfall of the Maurya Empire was its financial weakness.
The Mauryas had a vast empire and it was maintained with the help of a large army and bureaucracy which meant huge expenditure by the state.
The Mauryas put heavy financial burden on their subjects in the form of taxes to meet the ever-growing expenditure of the state, yet, they could not succeed in their attempt and were forced to issue coins of inferior metal.
All this affected agriculture, trade and commerce adversely bringing about hardships to the people and financial insolvency to thp state. Thus, the financial difficulties both of the rulers and the ruled brought about the downfall of the empire. But, the view of Dr. Kosambi is also not acceptable to most of the modern historians who largely accept that both the rulers and the ruled were economically prosperous during this period and therefore, economic problems were not responsible for the downfall of the empire.
R.K. Mookherjee has taken a practical view in analysing the causes of the downfall of the Mauryas.
He draws parallels and says that empires rose and fell in-India both before and after the Mauryas and there were certain natural causes at work in all these cases.
All empires up to the medieval period in India broke up due to more or less the same causes and the Maurya empire; proved no exception.
He says that weak successors, the spirit of local autonomy which resulted in repealed revolts by provincial governors, lack of means of communication, oppressive rule of local chiefs, palace intrigues and treachery of officials, remained some of the general causes of the downfall of different empires in India. And so was the case with the Mauryas.
Romila Thapar puts forth another view, she argues that the highly centralized bureaucracy and the absence of the ideal of one state or one nation were responsible for the downfall of the Mauryas. She writes :
The decline of the Mauryan empire can not be satisfactorily explained by quoting military inactivity, Brahmana resentment, popular uprising, or economic pressure. The cause were far more fundamental and included a much wider perspective of mauryan life than any of these mentioned above.
She contends that the success of the Mauryas depended on the efficiency and loyalty of a highly centralized and most extensive bureaucracy but they failed to find out proper means for the employment of the members of such a bureaucracy which could be both efficient and loyal; There were no representative assemblies at that time and no attempt was made to separate the executive and the judiciary.
Thus, there was no difference between the state and the emperor, and everything depended on the power and capacity of the emperor. Therefore, such a system was bound to fail. Besides, there were wide economic and cultural differences amongst the subjects which were detrimental to the ideas of one nation or state.
Therefore, she concludes : The causes of the decline of the Mauryas must in large part be attributed to a top heavy administration where authority was entirely in the hands of a few persons and an absence of any national consciousness.
The argument of Thapar seems to be perfectly logical from the point of view of historian who is conscious of ideas and circumstances of the modern age. Yet we have to think that national consciousness is a modern concept and it could not be expected from the people of that age. It was also not possible to have representative bodies of the subjects at that time.
Therefore, there was no alternative to the personal rule of a king or that of a centralized bureaucracy. Therefore it seems difficult to accept the absence of national conscious and a centralized bureaucracy to be \he primary causes of the downfall of the Mauryas.
Romila Thapar also agrees that the division of the empir between Kunal and Dasarath after the death of Ashoka, the ambitions of different princes to acquire state power and rebellions of different provincial governors certainly participated in the downfall of the Mauryas. Therefore it is accepted by the majority of historians that the break up of the Maurya empire was mostly because of these causes and Ashok was only partly responsible for it.