History of Magadha Empire

History of Magadha Empire

The Magadha Empire was the most powerful Kingdom in Ancient India. It had powerful kings like Bimbisara, Ajatasatru, Dhana Nanda, Chandragupta Maurya, etc.

The Rise of Magadha Empire under Bimbisara:

While Avanti, Vatsa and Kosal were expanding their respective frontiers at the expense of their neighbours, the rise of Bimbisara of Haryanka Kula ascended the Magadhan throne Bimbisara in and about 543 or 545 B.C.

King Bimbisara probably overthrew Brihadratha from the throne of Magadha and assumed the title of `Srenika’ after his accession. Bimbisara was destined to initiate Magadha in the race for imperial supremacy.

Imperial Expansion

In carrying out his programme of imperial expansion, Bimbisara followed threefold policy:

  1. Conquest of immediate neighbours;
  2. Matrimonial alliances and
  3. Friendly relation with distant neighbours.

Matrimonial Policy

Bimbisara knew the art of augmenting his power by matrimonial alliances. He married Kosaladevi, the sister of king Prasenjit of Kosala and received the Kasi village as dowry. The transfer of Kasi village as a dowry to Bimbisara was a diplomatic step as the latter had already established his claim on it.

Bimbisara also married Chellana, the daughter of the Lichchhavi chief of Vaisali. He also got the hand of Vasavi, a princess of Videha in the north. He also married Khema, the daughter of the king of Madra in Central Punjab. According to Buddhist sources, Bimbisara had many other wives some of whom might have been princess of royal blood, besides these queens.

Results of matrimonial Policy:

The results of Bimbisara’s matrimonial policy were remarkable. It added glory to the ruling house of Magadha and brought for Magadha rich dowries of fortunes. These marriages paved the way for expanding matrimonial Policy of Magadha westward and north-ward. Bimbisara could count upon the friendly neutrality of his neighboring powers tied to him by marriage relation, during his war with the kingdom of Anga.

Policy of conquest:

After disarming the hostility of his neighbours by matrimonial alliances, Bimbisara led a campaign against the kingdom of Anga. He defeated its king Brahmadatta and annexed Anga country with its flourishing capital Champa to Magadha. Champa was a flourishing river port which controlled the trade over the Ganges. Ocean going vessels laden with merchandise sailed from Champa across the confluence of the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal. These vessels sailed up to South India, Burma and other countries of South-East Asia. The Champa merchants brought pearl and spices from South India in exchange of their goods. This extensive trade now came under the control of Magadha. Besides, the annexation of Kasi gave Magadha a trading foot-hold in the Kosalan kingdom. Goods from Magadha were sent by boats along the Ganges up to Kasi or Baranasi. These factors greatly contributed to Magadha power and prosperity.

Friendly relation with distant neighbours:

Master of aggressive imperialism as Bimbisara was, he was equally an adept in the art of peaceful diplomatic intercourse with distant neighbours like Taxila and Avanti. He received an embassy from Pukkusati, king of Taxila. Pukkusati sought his help against the enemies of Taxila. Bimbisara also established diplomatic friendship with Avanti. He sent his physician Jivaka for the treatment of Pradyota king of Avanti.

Consolidation of power:

Bimbisara consolidated his conquests by introducing good administrative machinery. Bimbisara received high praises from contemporary Buddhist writers for his administration. He exercised a rigid control of over high officers, He rewarded the efficient and dismissed the unworthy. The high officers were divided into three viz., executive, military and judicial. The penal laws of Magadha empire were severe. The villages enjoyed rural autonomy. Bimbisara’s kingdom included some republican tribes also. He is said to have built up a capital at Rajagriha. But some authorities attribute this credit to his son. Thus Bimbisara pushed Magadha in the path of incipient imperialism by acquiring a territory of about 300 leagues in extent. That is to say, Bimbisara’s kingdom comprised 80,000 villages. His capital was the ancient city of Girivrajapura. He left this kingdom as a legacy to his son Ajatasatru. Bimbisara was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. While Bimbisara initiated Magadha in a career of political conquest, Buddha made a spiritual conquest of the people. Bimbisara himself was a devotee of Buddha.

Magadha Empire under Ajatasatru:

The power of the Haryanka dynasty of Magadha reached its highest watermark under Ajatasatru. He ascended the Magadhan throne in 493 B.C. Ajatasatru’s mother was the Lichchhavi princess Chellana. Ajatasatru was the greatest ruler of the Haryanka dynasty. He followed from the beginning a ceaseless policy of aggression against his neighbours. He started a war against king Prasenjit of Kosala, who had revoked the gift of the Kasi village made to Bimbisara. Legend ascribes the revocation to Ajatasatru’s assassination of his father Bimbisara. Perhaps Kosala was jealous of the growing power of Magadha and wanted to curb her trade by taking back Kasi. Ajatasatru was last to spare his maternal uncle Prasenjit for the revocation of Kasi. He declared war on Kosala which continued for some time. At last it was amicably settled by the restoration of the Kasi village to Magadha and marriage of Ajatasatru to Vajira Kumari, the daughter of Prasenjit.

Struggle with Vaisali:

Ajatasatru engaged himself in a protraced struggle with the Lichchhavis of
Vaisali. Though the Lichchhavis were his mother’s kinsmen and relations, yet, Ajatasatru did not hesitate to attack them. The causes of the struggle between Magadha and Lichchhavi are variously stated by Buddhist and Jaina sources.

According to Basham, the Buddhist and Jaina sources realised the great importance of the Magadha-Lichchhavi war and they fully recorded its details. The Buddhist sources refer to a quarrel between Magadha and the Lichchhavis over the possession of a gold mine and Lichchhavi chief Chetaka’s refusal to extradite Ajatasatru’s step-brother, Chetaka had given the latter political asylum. But Dr. Raychaudhury rightly points out that the most potent cause of the Magadha-Lichchhavi war was the common movement among the republican states against the rising imperialism of Magadha. The Jaina records state that 9 Lichchhavi chiefs, 9 Malla chiefs and 18 chiefs of Kasi-Kosala formed a confederacy against Magadha. Altogether 36 republican chiefs formed a confederacy under the Lichchhavi chief Chetaka. Chetaka, being a man of great political influence, had also mobilized the support of the kingdoms of Avanti, Vatsa and Sindhu-Sauvira. Kasi-Kosala also lent its support to the anti-Magadhan confederacy under Lichchhavi.

Ajatasatru made elaborate war preparations against the republics by constructing a fort at Patalagrama on the confluence of the Ganga and the Son, as a base for operation. As the old Magadha capital Rajagriha was deep inside Magadhan territory and was unsuitable for conducting campaigns against Lichchhavi, Ajatasatru used his new fort of Patalagrama as a base for operations. In order to weaken his enemy, Ajatasatru also employed Magadhan agents under his minister Vassakara for a period of three years to sow the seeds of dissension among the members of the Vrijjian confederacy. Thereafter Ajatasatru started military campaign against the Lichchhavis. The war continued at least for sixteen years from 484-468 B.C. In course of this protracted struggle Ajatasatru defeated the Lichchhavis and annexed the kingdom of Vaisali.

Dr. Basham has explained the significance of Magadhan success in the Lichchhavi war. Magadha aimed at establishing her mastery over the region lying to the north of Ganges. The conquest of Anga and Kosala had allowed Magadhan mastery over the southern Gangetic districts. The northern Gangetic districts were not only fertile but its annexation led to secured Magadhan hold on both the banks of the river. It ensured supreme ascendancy of Magadha.

Defence against other powers:

While Ajatasatru was engaged in such a deadly conflict with the Lichchhavis in Eastern India, king Pradyota of Avanti in Central India became jealous of his power and threatened his capital. But Ajatasatru was successful in preventing Avanti from attacking Magadha.

Thus Ajatasatru defeated Kosala, annexed Kasi, Vaisali and added 200 leagues of territory to his ancestral kingdom comprising 300 leagues. Ajatasatru like Bimbisara followed a policy of imperial expansion by extending Magadhan mastery over the Ganges. Three important events happened in Ajatasatru’s reign. However, he had no direct connection with them. They were:

  1. King Prasenjit of Kosala died after a revolt of his son Vidudabha against him.
  2. The destruction of Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakya country by Vidudabha.
  3. The Mahaparinirvana of Buddha took place in the 8th year of Ajatasatru’s reign.

Ajatasatru himself died in 475 B.C. (According to Romila Thaper, the date is 461 B.C.). Ajatasatru shirked his earlier hostility towards Buddha. Perhaps latter’s sympathy for the Samghas or republican tribes led to this hostility. But later on Ajatasatru became a devotee of Buddha and the Bharhuta relies depict Ajatasatru’s offering of allegiance to Buddha.

The successor of Ajatasatru – Udayi:

The Puranas mention the name of Darsaka as the successor of Ajatasatru. But the majorities of the scholars reject the Puranic list and accept the Buddhist and Jaina lists. According to these lists Udayi or Udayabhadra ascended the throne of Magadha after Ajatasatru in 462 B.C. or 459 B.C.

Udayi constructed the city of Pataliputra round the fort of Patalagrama and it became the principal city of Magadha. In the reign of Udayi, there began a contest between Magadha and Avanti for mastery of Northern India. But Udayi did not live to see the fall of Avanti at the hands of Magadha. He left the struggle with Avanti as a legacy to the next Magadhan dynasty. Udayi had a predilection of Jainism. Jaina texts refer to Udayi’s creation of a great Jaina monastery of Pataliputra.

Udayi was succeeded by three weak kings of his house named Aniruddha, Munda and Nagadasaka. Probably they ruled up to 430 B.C. This Nagadasaka is indentified by some scholars with Darsaka mentioned in the Puranas. The Ceylonese chronicles and the Buddhist ‘Anguttara Nikaya’ agree on the names of the three successors of Udayi mentioned above. But they were inefficient rulers and according to the Ceylonese Chronicle all the three rulers were parricide. People became tired of their rule and taking advantage of their unpopularity, the Magadhan minister Sisunaga overthrew the Haryanka dynasty and ascended the Magadhan throne. This political revolution led to the rise, of Saisunaga dynasty in Magadha.

Magadha under Nanda Dynasty

Mahapadma Nanda was the founder of Nanda Empire. It is generally accepted that Mahapadma Nanda was of low caste. The Magadha Empire under Mahapadma Nanda and his son Dhana Nanda was immensely powerful. The Nanda Dynasty was succeeded by Maurya Dynasty.

Magadha under Chandragupta Maurya

Chandragupta Maurya, took the help of a Brahmin name Kautilya, to overthrew the Nanda Empire. The empire of Chandragupta consisted of almost the entire portion of present India and its neighbours.

– Paridhi Khanna