Often, you come across people who have never drunk a drop of alcohol, but they can tell you the finest differences between Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Or people, who have never smoked a cigarette, but can tell you the differences between Virginia tobacco and Amarelinho. Like that, a Chinese colleague of mine, who often used to join us for lunch at work, and who grew up in revolutionary communist China, could tell you everything there was to know about the history of kings and emperors. One day, he was telling me about China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. And then, he asked me a question that I did not know the answer to, "Who was your first emperor?".
I fumbled for the answer, and then, taking a wild guess, said, "I think it was Ashoka the great. He was a person who unified India. And after a pretty nasty military conquest of a state called Kalinga, he converted to Buddhism. We respect him a lot in India, our national emblem, the four headed lion, was actually a part of Ashoka's royal seal."
Ashoka? No. I think your first emperor was someone called Sandrokyptos, I read about him in a history book. This was a Greek colleague of mine, who was a proud descendant of the Spartans, and was extremely well versed in history. I was intrigued. Sandrokyptos? I knew that when Alexander the Great invaded India, he left several of his generals in charge of the conquered territories. May be, my Greek friend was talking about one such general in Alexander's army. But, I decided to look this up.
As it turns out, Sandrokyptos, as he was known to the Greek, was a mighty emperor. And, as an Indian, he was indeed my first emperor. It just happens, that we know him by a slightly different name, Chandragupta Maurya. At the age of twenty, he had conquered most of northern India and Pakistan and after his southern conquests, he was the undisputed ruler of almost the entire Indian subcontinent, modern day Afghanistan, and some parts of Iran.Then, towards the end of his life, he renounced everything, became a Jain ascetic and moved to a place called Shravanabelagola in modern day Karnataka. Apparently, he chose to die by fasting, which is supposed to be the highest accomplishment of an ascetic.
Who was this extremely interesting person, my first emperor, who lived the life of a powerful monarch, and chose to die with no material possessions? This very approach to life, makes me very sure, that he was India's first emperor.
The historical records from the times of Chandragupta are very sketchy, and most historians believe that he was a common man, not born into nobility. But, very early in his life, he was discovered by another great personality of those times, Chanakya, who is also known as Kautilya to most Indians. Chanakya has gone down in Indian history as a super-intellectual, who was a brilliant military and political strategist. He and Chadragupta made a formidable team together that shook the very foundation of India. Even today, business gurus write books about the philosophy of Kautilya and the rule of Chandragupta Maurya, to teach would be business tycoons how they should rule, and, how they shouldn't. The first milestone in Chandragupta's path to becoming the first emperor of India was to overthrow the Nandas, who were the kings of Pataliputra at the time. As a child, I remember reading a very interesting story about this.
During the first attack on the Nandas, Chandragupta focused on the seat of power. He attacked Nanda's palace with a small band of soldiers and was swiftly defeated. He somehow escaped with his life. Then, he and Chanakya, disguised as monks, roamed the countryside in northern India, plotting their next step. It was during these travels, that they took shelter in the house of a kind lady, who offered them a warm meal. They were sitting down to eat and the lady's young son, who was barely five, joined them. Being extremely hungry, the boy put his hand in the middle of a hot lump of rice and whimpered in pain. Instead of consoling the boy, his mother chided him, "Why did you make the same mistake that Chandragupta did? Now you have to suffer!"
The two monks were about to dig into their food, but froze when they heard the remark. Curious, they asked,"What does putting your hand in the middle of a hot lump of rice have to do with Chandragupta?" The lady said, "Just like my boy here, Chandragupta put his fingers where his enemy was the strongest. The best way to eat a hot lump of rice is to eat it from the sides, and wait while the rest cools down."
The two most brilliant political and military strategists of our land, learned a life lesson from that housewife on that fateful day. They decided to attack the Nandas from the fringes and eat away at their crumbling empire. Very soon, Chandragupta was the ruler of Pataliputra, on his way to becoming the first emperor of India.
One last thing. I discovered that I was not completely wrong with my answer after all. Ashoka the great, a mighty emperor in his own right, who had a profound impact on our destiny as Indians, was the third emperor of the mighty Mauryan empire. Founded by the mighty Sandrokyptos, my first emperor.