Origins of Chandragupta Maurya
Where did Chandragupta Maurya come from? Who were his parents? It's hard to say.
Some think he was born in 340 BC, an illegitimate son to a Nanda prince of Magadha, part of modern-day Bihar state, or the son of a Nanda king to a low-ranking Shudra wife. Others think it likely he came from the Moriya clan or another clan of the Kshatriya warrior caste. Other stories abound attesting to his Indo-Scythian lineage.
Buddhist tradition, however, holds that Chadragupta Maurya was a member of the Kshatriyas and that his son, Bindusara, and grandson, the famous Buddhist Ashoka (Asoka) were of Kshatriya lineage, perhaps of the Sakya line. (The Sakya line of Kshatriyas is considered to be the lineage of Gautama Buddha, and Ashoka Maurya billed himself as "Buddhi Sakya" in one of his inscriptions.)
Chandragupta the Conqueror
Regardless of the difficulty of defining his early years or family life with any certainty, it is generally agreed that India was a conglomerate of numerous smaller kingdoms, tribes, and principalities at that time, rather than any kind of large, united, national body -- much as in the time of European colonization centuries later. The Nanda Empire ruled a large central strip of what is modern-day India, but this was nothing compared to the breadth of empire created by Chandragupta Maurya after he conquered them, and certainly the exception even before. There is evidence that young Chandragupta, called Sandroccotos or Androcottus by Alexander the Great, looked upon the Nandan rulers with disdain. Plutarch reported that:
"Androcottus, when he was a stripling, saw Alexander himself, and we are told that he often said in later times that Alexander narrowly missed making himself master of the country, since its king was hated and despised on account of his baseness and low birth."
And although Chandragupta Maurya staged an unsuccessful coup against the Nanda rulers early on, he learned a lot from watching how Alexander organized the Greeks into one large, centralized army. Adapting this tactic to the subcontinent, Chandragupta put together and trained the largest single army classical India had ever seen. He mowed down every tribe and petty kingdom in his path, conquering even the Nanda Empire by the time he was only 20 years old. Keenly insightful and guided by his brilliant advisor, Kautilya (author of the Arthashastra, a treatise on empire management), he was virtually unstoppable.
A Strong Empire
But one of the generals who succeeded Alexander, Seleucus, still pictured the fragmented India of 20 years before and marched on India, thinking it would be an easy conquest.
Seleucus couldn't have been more wrong! Chandragupta Maurya had a large standing army waiting to meet him. This army was numbered by Strabo at 400,000 soldiers (while Pliny the Elder shows even larger numbers in his Natural History IV). He forced Seleucus to surrender and set terms that mandated a marital alliance between Seleucus himself and one of Chandragupta's daughters (or possibly that Chandragupta married one of Seleucus's daughters) in exchange for territory west of the Ganges for the Mauryans, and several hundred war elephants for use on other battle fronts for the Greeks.
At its height, the Mauryan Empire stretched throughout most of the Indian subcontinent and west into Afghanistan. Its borders were further expanded under Bindusara, son of his wife Durdhara, and his grandson, the famously brutal warrior Ashoka, who later turned to Buddhism.
When he was in his 50s, Chandragupta Maurya turned to Jainism, studying under the Jain sage Bhadrabahu. In 298 BC, he renounced his kingdom, giving it over to the rule of Bindusara, and traveled south to a cave in Karnataka to meditate.
There it is said that he meditated without food or water, a practice called santhara, until he died in 298 BC, achieving the ultimate ahimsa (nonviolence) through violence to himself in this way, following the path of Mahavira to seek nirvana.