The short answer is that he was Chandragupta. But it gets complicated when you try to find out which of the many Chandraguptas was he from ancient Indian history ?
Gold coin of Chandragupta I with his wife Kumaradevi
Sandrocottus of the Greek accounts was an self-made emperor who rose to power in the late 4th century BCE Ancient India. He was a contemporary of Seleucus Nicator, one of the generals of Alexander’s army who came to inherit the largest portion of his disintegrated empire, stretching from the Hindu Kush in the east to the eastern Mediterranean coast in the west.
The identity of this Sandrocottus had been the primary focus of early colonial Indology and his identification with Chandragupta Maurya eventually became the sheet anchor of ancient Indian history around which everything else has been dated.
So the identity of this Sandrocottus is of vital importance in ancient Indian history. What I wish to argue here is that there are no solid grounds to suggest that the Sandrocottus of the Greek records was Chandragupta Maurya. In fact, there is much greater evidence to suggest that this Sandrocottus was none other than Chandragupta I, founder of the Gupta Empire.
William Jones and the Puranas
It was William Jones, the man famous for setting in motion the study of Indo-European languages, who is also responsible in establishing the identity of Sandrocottus. And his primary Indian source to help him out in this task were the king lists of Kaliyuga era mentioned in the Puranas.
We may note here that in that era, while there were scholars in Europe who were trying to push the envelope, the Church belief of Earth being only 6000 years old was the dominant narrative in the academic circles across the continent. In that prevailing atmosphere, astronomers and mathematicians like John Playfair and Jean Sylvain Bailly, had already caused some sensation when they argued that Indian astronomy had observations as old as 5000 years but it would not be until the last decades of the 19th century before the Church doctrine lost its hold in the academic circles of Europe.
When William Jones himself started the task of determining the antiquity of Indian history he published the dates of ancient Puranic kings as calculated by the learned Brahmins in his service keeping the base year as the start of the Kaliyuga or the Mahabharata war.
The above page is from one of the papers written by William Jones’ titled ‘On the Chronology of the Hindus’. You can read the paper here. You can clearly see that the date of Chandragupta Maurya’s ascension to the throne as calculated by the Indian tradition is given as 1502 BC.
Now the question is this – on what basis did Jones deem it fit to decide that this same Chandragupta Maurya in fact ruled as much as 1200 years later from this date during the time of Alexander ? For one, Jones did not believe in the claims of great antiquity of Indian history as made by Brahmin scholars whom he was acquainted with. To him, the beginning of mankind began with Adam around 4004 BC, as per the prevailing church doctrine. While the timescales claimed of pre-Kaliyuga Indian history are certainly too high to be believable, the timescales of post-Kaliyuga are much more reasonable and deserved a respectful consideration. But this was not done.
Jones, on the one hand, reading through ancient Greek accounts of India during Alexander’s time came to know of the great Indian emperor Sandrocottus and on the other hand, became aware of the Puranic Chandragupta Maurya while scouring through its king lists. Since Sandrocottus was undoubtedly the Greek transliteration of Chandragupta, Jones reasoned that he had finally hit upon a solid sheet anchor through which ancient Indian historical dates could be put on a firm footing.
Unfortunately, while in Indian history there were 2 Chandraguptas who were the founders of empires, the Gupta Chandragupta is not mentioned in the Puranas. The Puranic account of the kings of the Kaliyuga end when the Guptas were just a minor dynasty in Magadha and Chandragupta I had not risen to power. Therefore Jones never got to know of the other Chandragupta in Indian history and he went on to propose that the Indian king Sandrocottus mentioned in Greek texts was none other than Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of Mauryan empire. Jones’ proposal of identifying the 4th century BCE Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Maurya was taken as fact and it is believed to be a fact until this very day without any challenge.
But is it a fact ? One really needs to wonder – why does Indian tradition date Chandragupta Maurya so early ? And was Jones justified in bringing down Chandragupta Maurya to the 4th century BCE wholly dismissing the Puranic dates
Xandramas, Sandrocottus & Amitrachates
The Greek accounts, apart from preserving the name of Sandrocottus also mention his son who name is mentioned as Amitrochades/Amitrachates or Allitrochades while the king ruling the Gangetic plains during Alexander’s time, i.e. the king who ruled in that region a few years before Sandrocottus, is noted as Xandramas or Agrammes. Sandrocottus himself is also recorded as Androcottus in some accounts. However, Sandrocottus, Xandramas and Amitrochades/Amitrachates are considered to be more accurate preservations of the original names of these Indian kings as recorded by the Greeks and the others are considered corruptions.
Now, in Mauryan history, Chandragupta Maurya defeated a Nanda king, presumably Dhanananda, and ascended the throne of Magadha while his son who succeeded him was Bindusara.
Neither is the name of Dhanananda anywhere similar to Xandramas nor is that of Bindusara to Amitrochades. It has been rather fancifully conjectured that Amitrochates refers to Amitraghata in original Sanskrit and that it was an epithet borne by Bindusara. Yet there is no proof that Bindusara ever bore any title of such nature.
Let us move to the Guptas. The Guptas came to power when majority of North and Central India was under the powerful Naga and Vakataka kings. Fortunately enough, the Puranas give the names of some of these kings, who ruled just before the rise of the Imperial Guptas. In that list, one Naga king’s name is given as Chandramsa.
Is Chandramsa similar to Xandramas. It most certainly is.
Next, it is well-known that the Gupta emperor Chandragupta I was succeeded on the throne by his son Samudragupta. Is Samudragupta similar to Amitrochades ? If we break down the names in prefixes and suffixes and compare, the suffix -gupta does appear very similar to -chates/-chades which is itself quite similar to -cottus of Sandrocottus which is without doubt a transliteration of -gupta.
What about Samudra- and Amitro- ? If we add an initial ‘S’ to Amitro- , it becomes Samitro-. Is that not remarkably alike to Samudra- ? Infact, it is not far fetched to think that the Greeks could have lost the initial ‘S’ sound in Amitrochades and that the original name could have been noted down as Samitrochades. Later Greek authors corrupted the names of Sandrocottus to Androcottus and Xandramas to Agrammes, in both cases the initial ‘S’ sound being lost. Strabo in the 1st century BCE refers to Sandrocottus while Plutarch in 1st century CE and Appian in the 2nd century CE name him as Androcottus. Similarly Diodorus Siculus in 1st century BC mentions the Gangaridai king as Xandrames while Quintus Curtius Rufus in the 1st century CE mentions him as Agrammes. A similar corruption in the name of the aforementioned Amitrochades is also very plausible and entertaining that possibility gives us the name of Sandrocottus’ son and successor as Samitrochades.
So then, could (S)amitrochades be a likely reference to Samudragupta or to Bindusara ?
We may now observe that while in the Mauryan age, we only have Chandragupta Maurya whose name corresponds to Sandrocottus of the Greek accounts, in the Gupta we have 3 kings in succession Chandramsa, Chandragupta and Samudragupta whose names correspond to Xandrames, Sandrocottus and (S)amitrochades respectively as mentioned in the Greek records. How is this possible if William Jones’ identification of Sandrocottus with Maurya Chandragupta is correct and unquestionable ?
The Gupta Era
It could be argued that the beginning of the rule of the Guptas has been fixed based on the start of the Gupta Era which is known to have begun in 319 CE. If Guptas ruled much earlier as you propose, who established the Gupta Era in 319 CE ?
To answer this, we should find out the about the origins of this era. It was J F Fleet who was instrumental in fixing the beginning of the Gupta Empire with the establishment of the Gupta Era in 319 CE. His primary source for the existence of such an era was Al Beruni and some of the Gupta inscriptions which are dated in a Gupta Era. It is Al Beruni’s testimony that is the primary basis for taking the beginning of the Gupta Era from 319 CE. Let us read what Al-Biruni says,
As you can see, Al-Biruni clearly says in no uncertain terms that the Gupta Era was established 241 years after the Saka Era (78 CE) i.e. 319 CE, to celebrate the end of the wicked Gupta kings. That is how it is known to have originated, with the end of the Guptas. However, the colonial scholars decided that Al-Biruni’s testimony was not entirely reliable and that 319 CE was the year of the beginning of the Gupta Empire and not the end of the Guptas. Why did they decide it to be so ?
Well, because it had already been established by William Jones that it was the Mauryas who ruled in 4th-3rd centuries BCE and considering how the Guptas came several centuries later to the Mauryas, the historians conjectured that the Gupta rule could not have begun anytime before the 250-300 CE. But they had a hard time figuring out when exactly. It is in this context that Fleet found Al-Biruni’s testimony very useful. But he and other historians that followed him dismissed the inconvenient bit about Al-Biruni‘s testimony as absurd. But is it really absurd ?
It is true that the Gupta emperors did have an era of their own but there is no good reason to assume that it was one and the same era that Al-Biruni was referring to. And moreover is it really believable that if Gupta Emperors initiated their era in 319 CE, within a few centuries people would forgot all about the origins of this era and come up with a bizarre association of this era with the end of the Guptas ? The Guptas, if their rule began in 319 CE, would likely have died out in the 6th century CE if not later, so why would we not have an era to celebrate their end beginning in the 6th century CE or thereabouts ? However, no such era seems to have existed.
To cut it short, there is very little basis to suggest that the Gupta Era of 319 CE was established by the Gupta emperors. On the contrary, on the testimony of Al-Biruni, there is every reason to believe that the Guptas rule must have began a few centuries before 319 CE since by 319 CE they ceased to exist.
Achievements of Sandrocottus and Chandragupta I
Based on the Greek accounts, we know that there was a major showdown and maybe a large battle between Seleucus Nicator and Sandrocottus alias Chandragupta along the banks of the Indus or the Sindhu river. Sandrocottus had captured all the territories won by Alexander east of the Indus and thus his empire bordered the Indus River in the west. At the same time, Seleucus had also captured Cappadocia, Arabia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Sogdia, Bactria, Arachosia and his sway extended upto the western coast of the Indus River. As a result a showdown was imminent and Seleucus decided to cross the Indus River to fight Sandrocottus and regain the lost territories east of Indus.
The details of the war are unclear but from the post-war treaty concluded between the two, it becomes clear that Seleucus must have been comprehensively defeated. Instead of winning any territory to the east of the Indus as was his aim, Seleucus ceded 4 large provinces to the west of the Indus River namely Arachosia, Gedrosia, Paropamisadae and Aria to Sandrocottus which extended his empire upto the Kabul River and the Hindu Kush. In return Seleucus got 500 elephants. Considering how Sandrocottus is recorded to have had a standing army of 9,000 elephants, this does not appear to be much of a concession. There was also a marriage alliance between the two parties apparently.
There is absolutely no corroboration of such a war from Indian sources on the Mauryas, neither for Chandragupta Maurya, nor for Bindusara or Asoka.
On the other hand, here is an inscription of Chandragupta I of the Guptas, inscribed on the famous Mehrauli Iron Pillar,
While it has been argued that this inscription belongs to Chandragupta II, it is more likely to be that of his grandfather Chandragupta I. In this inscription, note that this Chandra is said to fought the Vahlikas on the Indus River. So the scene of this battle was the same place as the one described by the Greek accounts that had been fought by Sandrocottus. The result is also said to have gone in Chandra’s favour, just as in the Greek account on Sandrocottus.
The battle is one of only 2 battles that are mentioned in this posthumous inscription of the great emperor, who is said to have acquired supreme sovereignty over the earth for a long time through his own prowess. It cannot be doubted therefore, that this must have been a major career defining battle of his illustrious reign.
The opponents mentioned are Vahlikas or Bahlikas i.e. the Bactrians. One night argue that the Greeks were not exactly the Bactrians, which is true. However, if one read the classical Greek accounts, it can be seen that the Greeks, from the time of Alexander, entered the Indian subcontinent from the north via Bactria, crossing the Hindu Kush. Bactria was a prosperous and important region in its own right which had recently come under Greek political control but which was, as a region and as a people, known to Indians since a long time. It is also undeniable that in the battle fought by Seleucus against Sandrocottus, he would have brought forth an army with a large contingent of Bactrian generals and soldiers under his command. Therefore, if we were to identify Sandrocottus with Chandragupta I, this account of the battle on the Indus with the Vahlikas may be plausibly considered considered as the Indian version of the event that is the Seleucus-Chandragupta war.
Further indirect corroboration of such a battle during the early Gupta period, comes from the Allahabad inscription of Chandragupta I’s son, Samudragupta. It is a very long inscription and parts of it give us an account of his military and political might over various subjugated and submissive kingdoms and tribes, within and without. Many of these kingdoms were defeated and even exterminated by Samudragupta.
In this long description of events, an interesting passage (highlighted above) mentions about the Kings whose domains adjoined Samudragupta’s empire and were apparently submissive in posture towards him. One of these kings has a grand title Devaputra Shahi Shahanushahi. Shahi and Shahanushahi were grand titles used by Iranian kings or emperors. So it is undeniable that the reference here is to some powerful Iranian emperor.
If we place Samudragupta in the beginning of the 3rd century BC, following his father whom we identify with the Sandrocottus of the Greek accounts, then during that period, the Iranian throne was under none other than the Seleucid emperors who had been defeated by Chandragupta/Sandrocottus and who had sent ambassadors to the court of Chandragupta and his successor. It is also instructive that unlike the kings of Aryavarta and southern India who seem to have fought against Samudragupta, there is no indication that Devaputra Shahi Shahanushahi fought or resisted his power, an indication that the Iranian monarch’s submission may have been achieved before Samudragupta’s time, in his father’s reign.
The inscription also states that these neighbouring powers which included the Iranian monarch as well as the Saka lords, were paying service to Samudragupta by such acts as self-surrender and by offering their daughters in marriage. Both of these acts can very well be taken as reference to the Seleucids who had surrendered much territory to the Indians and had also offered their daughter in marriage as per the Greek accounts.
Therefore, if we place the Gupta emperors in the 4th-3rd century BCE, there is much more in the way of evidence from Indian sources that can corroborate the Greek accounts of India of the same period in contrast to the little we have of the Mauryas.
Buddhism in the Greek accounts
A very curious aspect of the Greek accounts of the 4th century BC India is the almost complete silence of these sources on Buddhism. On the contrary, these accounts suggest that Vaishnavism and Shaivism were predominant across India. If the Buddha had lived only 2 centuries earlier in the 6th century BC, how does one explain this major discrepancy ?
Infact the earliest mention of Buddhism by the Greeks comes from Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century CE.
Some have tried to argue, taking the dating of the Mauryas in the 4th-3rd centuries BC and that of Buddha in the 6th century BC as sacrosanct, that the Greek accounts prove that Buddhism was not very popular before the time of Asoka.
However, from the early Buddhist accounts that were written after a few centuries of Buddha’s death, we know that Buddhism was already quite a flourishing religion in its early days and it’s influence had already penetrated much of North India much before Asoka. In the lifetime of Buddha himself, his teachings had spread to Magadha, Avanti and Surasena where important centres of Buddhism were founded. Within this backdrop, it is quite extraordinary that Megasthenes makes no mention of Buddhism because he is known to have spent several years in Pataliputra in Magadha, the very region where Buddha had chiefly lived and transmitted his teachings.
On the other hand, if it is true that Sandrocottus was not the Maurya but the Gupta emperor Chandragupta I, it would then push the Mauryas to a much earlier epoch, compared to the 4th century BC where they are presently dated, and push Buddha’s date even further back. We can then try and figure out why Buddhism was not noticeable to the Greeks. Quite simply, by the 4th century BC, as per our dating scheme, Buddhism was already quite old in India and was declining or waning when the Greeks came.
There is also another interesting phenomenon that could have taken place which led to the resurgence of Hinduism and waning of Buddhism. Adi Shankaracharya is dated by modern scholarship to the 8th century CE. However this is totally in contrast to traditional view which puts Adi Shankara in the early half of the 5th century BC.
The 8th century CE dating is also too late for another major reason which is that Adi Shankara was a major opponent of Buddhist philosophy and he is credited with dismantling the influence of Buddhist schools across the country through philosophical debates. As a result subsequent Buddhist historiography does not have a good opinion of Adi Shankara to put it mildly. But by the 8th century, Buddhism had long ceased to be major opponent to Hinduism and the accounts of 7th century Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang are testimony to that fact.
The very reason why the traditional dating of Adi Shankaracharya was rejected was that it would make him a younger contemporary of Gautama Buddha whereas Adi Shankara was even younger to the Mahayana Buddhist philosophers such as Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu who came many centuries after Buddha. Infact, Adi Shankara is considered to have critiqued the views of Dignaga who was a disciple of Vasubandhu or at least belonged to his school of thought.
As we see, Gautama Buddha could have potentially lived much earlier to the 6th century BC. This allows us enough room to consider the traditional dating of Adi Shankara more favourably. If indeed, Adi Shankara lived in the 5th century BC, it would explain why in the late 4th century BC, the Greeks found Hinduism prominent across India and failed to see any noticeable presence of Buddhism. The Greeks were effectively seeing an India where Hinduism was again ascendant after Adi Shankara’s revival while Buddhism was facing a major crisis and a loss of patronage.
There are still a lot of other aspects related to this very important topic that I have not covered here. That shall be done in a later piece. But whatever has been covered here, I believe, is enough to make people think and ponder. Have we done proper justice with our ancient history or have we created a big gigantic mess that no one has the courage to tackle ? It is high time we start questioning the 18th century colonial era identification of Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Maurya which was based on fairly limiting knowledge of Indian history. As it is likely, if Sandrocottus was Chandragupta I of the Guptas, admission of this fact will undoubtedly revolutionise our understanding of ancient India and may help us to a much better understanding of ancient Indian history than we have now.