Introduction to an Early Historic Period of Indian Society!
The period spanning from the 6th century BC to the 4th century BC is an important landmark in the evolution of Indian society and culture.
Historians labelled this period as the beginning of the early historic period.
Literary and archaeological sources provide valuable data to understand the historical process and construct the nature of society that evolved during this phase, Vedic texts refer to Janapadas, and the Buddhist and Jaina literatures refer to Mahajanapadas. For the first time geographical regions with different types of human settlements began to acquire specific territorial identity.
The conflicts between various Janapadas led to the annexation of the vanquished Janapadas by the victors. Thus, emerged the larger territorial and political entity of Mahajanapada. This process led to the decline of the power of the Ganasanghas and to the strengthening of the institution of kingship or monarchy, which is an important development in the sphere of the polity of early historic India.
In each Mahajanapada, we come across human settlements designated as village, market-town, town and city. Thus, this period witnessed the beginnings of the second urbanization. It implies that people were following different professions besides food production on a larger scale now, more than in the early phase. The dichotomy between rural and urban areas began at this time. The concentration of food-producing groups by following agriculture, and cattle herding in a particular region led to the demarcations of rural areas.
In urban areas, we find the professionals engaged in non-food producing activities living as separate communities. Both rural and urban areas were supplementing each other. It suggests that the rural areas were producing surplus food to meet the demand from the non-food producing specialist professional groups. This new development required a new mechanism to regulate and control effectively both these groups.
The mechanism devised was the strengthening of royalty by making Danda or coercion as an essential feature along with protection and expansion of territorial unit. Consequently, taxes were imposed and collected by force to appropriate the surplus. Besides the already existing two social groups the priests and the Kshatriyas, a new social group of ‘Settis’ or Sreshtis, who acted as middle men and merchants supplying food grains to the non-food producing social groups, was encouraged.
In these new circumstances, in order to maintain equilibrium between different social groups, the theoretical framework of the Varna model was brought to the forefront, where the functions and privileges of the existing social groups were clearly demarcated.
The Varna model appears to have served the purpose for which it was divided, and that may be the reason why even Buddha could not deviate from the Varna-based division of society though he strongly opposed the Vedic tradition and Brahmanical rituals.The Buddhist literary tradition refers to the sixteen Mahajanapadas as a new politico-territorial unit that depended on the king equipped with Danda or coercive apparatus.
The Buddhist text, Anguttaranikaya of Suttapitaka mentions the following 16 Mahajanapadas:
(15) Gandhara, and
However, the Mahavastu another Buddhist text excludes Gandhara and Kamboja and substitutes Sibi and Dasarna in the Punjab and central India respectively. The Jaina texts also gave a different list as both the Buddhists and the Jains included only those areas known to them or those important to them. We may say that the figure 16 is only conventional. These sixteen Mahajanapadas extended from north-west Pakistan to East Bihar and from the regions of the Himalayas in the north to the river Godavari in the south.
Among the sixteen Mahajanapadas, Kasi appears to be the most powerful and Varanasi, its capital is located at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Gomati in fertile agricultural zone. By 450 BC, Varanasi appears to have become a major town and a centre of cloth manufacturing, in particular Kashaya cloth worn by the Buddhist monks. By the time of the Buddha, the Mahajanapada of Kashi was annexed by Kosala, which led to a war between Magadha and Kosala.
In due course, next to Kashi, the Mahajanapada of Kosala became a large principality, having four important towns – Ayodhya, Saketa, Kapilavastu and Sravasti. Hiranyanabha, Mahakosala Prasenajit and Suddhodhana are the known rules of Kosala. The Mahajanapada ofAnga, which included the present-day districts of Bhagalpur and Munger in Bihar, had its capital at Champa.
Anga was annexed by Magadha in the 6th century BC because of its flourishing trade and commerce. The Mahajanapada of Magadha included the present-day area around Patna and Gaya in South Bihar. It was protected in the north and west by rivers Son and Ganga. Its capital was Girivraja or Rajagriha.
The name Girivraja signifies that it was protected by hills and the name Rajagriha testifies to the fact that it was the palace of Raja or king. The capital was shifted to Pataliputra in the 5th century BC and the Brahmanical texts give low status to Magadha as its population is said to be ‘non-believers of Vedic Dharma and rituals’.
However, the Buddhist tradition accords a great place to Magadha because its rulers Bimbisara and Ajatasatru were the disciples of the Buddha. Magadha became an important centre because of its fertile land that was the most suitable for wet-land rice cultivation, its control over iron ore of South Bihar, and its control over the routes of Ganga, Gandaki and Son rivers. Magadha gained further importance by occupying the territory of the Vajjis or pastoral nomads, who lived in the north of Ganga the Vaisali District of Bihar. This was a confederacy of eight different Ganas, of which Videhas, Lichchavis and Jnatrikas were the most powerful.
The celebrated Jaina Thirthankara, Mahavira was born in this Gana. In this Mahajanapada, Vaisali and Mithila were important centres. Malla was another Gana Sangha, which had its headquarters at Kusinagara and Pawa. Kusinagara was the place where the ‘enlightened one’ breathed his last, and Mallas probably performed the last rites. The Chedi ruler Sisupala is said to be a contemporary of Lord Krishna. The territory of the Chedis corresponds to the eastern part of modern Bundelkhand and its capital was Suktimati, which is identified to be in the Banda district of Madhya Pradesh.
Vatsa with its capital at Kausambi was another powerful Mahajanapada, annexed by Magadha. The Kuru Mahajanapada is centred round the Delhi-Meerut region. Hastinapura, Indraprastha and Isukara are referred to as its capitals. The epic Mahabharata throws valuable light on the Kurus.
The Panchalas appear to have been divided as northern and southern Panchalas according to literary tradition. Ahichchatra and Kampilya were the capitals of the northern and southern divisions respectively. They had close contact with the Kurus and became obsolete by the 6th century BC. Matsya Mahajanapada comprised the present-day Jaipur-Bharatapur-Alwar area of Rajasthan and Viratnagara was the capital.
The Mahabharata refers to the fact of Pandavas hiding in their court, and their being looted by the Kauravas. Bairat of modern times has been identified as Viratnagar and this was finally won by Magadha. The Mahajanapada of Surasena had its capital at Madhura, ruled by the Yadus, according to the epic Mahabharata and the Puranas.
The Yadus were divided into a number of small clans and Lord Krishna, the central figure of the Mahabharata and an Avatara of Vishnu or Narayana belonged to the Yadus of Mathura. The Surasena Mahajanapada failed to create a strong kingdom because of its ecology. Assaka Mahajanapada had its capital at Paithan or Pratisthana about which we have very scant informulation.
Besides Magadha, Avanti was one of the most important ones and its core area comprises the present-day Ujjain district of Madhya Pradesh. Pradyota was one of the powerful rulers of this Mahajanapada of the 6th century BC.
Gandhara and Kambhoja Mahajanapadas existed very near to each other. The Brahmanical literary tradition considers the people of Kambhoja as ‘uncultured’ and Kautilya in his Arthasastra classified them as a confederation of agriculturists, herdsmen, traders and warriors.
A review of the newly emerged territorial entity called Mahajanapada reveals that seven out of sixteen -Anga, Magadha, Vajji, Malla, Kasi, Kosala and Vatsa – were of the middle Gangetic valley, which was a rice producing, densely populated area. Magadha’s access to important metal ores and the other factors made the middle Gangetic valley a politico-economic power centre.
The fact that all these Mahajanapadas are contiguous to each other made it easy for Magadha to conquer them all and create a large kingdom. The event of the Magadhan ascendancy was completed by 400 BC by Bimbisara and Ajatasatru of the Haryanka clan, who successfully exterminated the Vajjiyan tribal confederacy and incorporated the Mahajanapadas of Anga and Kashi.
Thus, while eastern India under the leadership of Magadha made a successful transition to statehood; the frontier tribes of the north-west were exposed to the Persian invasion. Consequently, certain areas of the Sindhu and Gandhara regions became a part of the Achaemenian Empire.
The Persian hold continued up to 330 BC until the Macedonian invader Alexander destroyed it. During the Persian domination, some tribal settlements became states, whose rulers were allowed to rule independently without declaring allegiance to the Persian overlords.
The short rule of the Greeks produced enduring results neither in the economic nor in the political sphere except that it opened up the gates of communication between Greece and India and laid the foundation for an intimate intercourse between the west and India. The only tangible result of Alexander’s invasion was the extermination of tribal settlements of north-western India. Ultimately, the states of north-western India also came under the imperial rule of Magadha.