The Maurya empire, the beer brewing and the alcohol.



The Arthashastra also focuses on a recurrent theme: alcohol, sex, gambling and hunting are sources of social disorder and human corruption. This issue is related to concepts inspired by Vedism and Brahmanism.

Book VIII, Chap. 3 (The Aggregate of the Trouble of Men) is built on a conception both religious and political. The sources of corruption are to be fought on a moral level, but a realistic policy must use them as unfailing means to overcome the enemies of imperial power.

« The fourfold vices due to desire are hunting, gambling, women and drinking (surā). ».


Kautilya's verdict, the alleged author of this treaty, is unambiguous. The four vices will be overcome in their order of harmfulness : firstly the fermented beverages (surā), then sex, gambling, and lastly hunting.

But what causes the disorder within the empire will be used to weaken the enemies of the imperial power. The Arthashastra abounds in stratagems which use drunkenness and fermented beverages to deceive military or political opponents. In this context, the various kinds of beer (surā), more or less strong and fragrant, healthy or poisoned, become efficient weapons.


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Intermediate situations exist between the brewery within a kingdom and the brewery of the imperial type. An empire can conquer and integrate kingdoms without making all their characteristics disappear. Conversely, a dislocated empire can revive local politics and traditions, which are then tempted to return to a system of redistribution of beer and grains in kind, to mention just one example. The monetarised exchanges and the taxation policies for beer and by-products of the brewery give way to barter and economic exchanges which become purely local again.

In reality, each new socio-political organisation that has emerged over the course of human history (tribe, clan, chieftaincy, kingdom, confederation, empire) adds its own socio-political stratum that integrates pre-existing organisations. In the image of this historical stacking, the brewery is constantly evolving on 3 levels: the economy of grains (of starch sources in general), the brewing technologies, the management (ideological/religious) of drunkenness. The testimony given by Arthashastra particularly highlights these 3 levels of the brewery management within a political project of the imperial type.

In 185 BC, the last of the Maurya is assassinated by his own chief general: the dynasty of the Sunga takes power. Weakened, the imperial edifice nevertheless persists in the North and the Ganges basin. The kingdoms of southern India, such as that of the Pandyas, collected part of this economic and political heritage, in particular its commercial dynamism[1]. The empire fragments into a myriad of kingdoms that fight each other.

Nevertheless, the historical influence of the Maurya persists until the Gupta empire, founded four centuries later (250-550) and considered by historians as its main heir. The end of the Maurya did not mean the complete disappearance of the imperial organisation on the Indian peninsula. It will be interesting to examine how the management of fermented beverages described by the Arthashastra survived among the political entities born from the fragmentation of the Maurya empire. A direct management of grains and beers would mean a return to a palatial type of administration governed by local monarchies.



[1] Khanna Vikramaditya S. 2005, The Economic History of the Corporate Form in Ancient India.

02/05/2012  Christian Berger