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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.

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Posted in History, History: Before 1 CE, India.

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