The sixth century B.C. has been regarded as a definite starting point of the political history of ancient India.
From that time, it has been possible to construct a continuous account of India’s political developments.
From the famous Buddhist text, Anguttara Nikaya, a part picture of the political map of India at the time of the rise of Buddhism is available. Jaina sources also present more or less a similar account.
It is thus known that there were Sixteen Great Territories or the ‘Sodasha Malianjanapada’ at that time extending over the land from the Kabul Valley to the banks of the river Godavari. These states were Anga, Magadha, Kasi, Kosala, Vriji, Malla, Chedi, Vatsa, Kuru, Panchala, Matsya, Surasena, Asmaka, Avanti, Gandhara and Kamboja.
The list of the Sixteen Mahajanapadas did not contain the names of some other notable states of that time. But from Brahminical as well as from Buddhist sources it is known that there were some other territories like Kalinga on the eastern sea-coast extending from river Vaitarani to the river Godavari, Mulaka on the upper Godavari, and Saurashtra in Kathiawar region. There were several other smaller states in different parts of India.
Among these various territories there were some states with republican form of government and others with monarchical forms. Both the forms of government rested on stable systems and well established principles. The ancient Indian polity was, thus, remarkably well advanced. A brief account of some of the republican as well as monarchical states is given below.
It is a matter of much interest that there were several republican states in ancient India which existed side by side with the monarchical states. The two most famous of these states were the state of Vriji and the state of Malla. Still more interesting is the fact that these two states had monarchical forms of government earlier, but they were seen in 6th century B.C. as republican states.
Besides these two states, the republican forms were also seen among some other notable peoples. These people were the Sakyas of Kapilavastu, the Koliyas of Ramagama, the Bhaggas of Susumagiri, the Bulis of Allakappa, the Kalamas of Keshaputta and the Moriyas of Pippalivana. These territories were small and were ruled by their elected assemblies.
The assembly of each state was presided over by an elected leader who was commonly known as the Raja. But this Raja was not like the all powerful king of the monarchical states. The people of these small republics enjoyed much freedom in their thought and action. It may be mentioned here that the founders of Jainism and Buddhism, who rose to challenge the orthodox Brahminical faith, came from among the republican people.
An account of the state of Vriji or the Vajji, as known from the Buddhist sources, gives an idea of how the ancient republics worked. The Vrijian or the Vajjian state was like a union or confederacy of as many as eight clans, bound together by an accepted republican system. The chief clans were the famous Lichchhavis of Vaisali and the Videhas of Mithila. The capital of the republic was Vaisali. The state had no king. It was ruled by the ‘gana’ meaning a popular assembly. The chief executive or head of the state was an elected leader styled as Raja. The actual administration rested in hands of elected elders.
It was by consent and united opinion that the representatives ruled the republic. The famous advice of Buddha to his disciple Ananda in connection with the affairs of the Vajjian state shows both the strength and weakness of that powerful republic. Said Buddha:
“So long as the Vajjians hold these full and frequent public assemblies, so long may they be expected not to decline, but to prosper. So long, Ananda, as the Vajjians meet together in concord, and carry out their undertakings in concord, so long as they enact nothing not already established, abrogate nothing that has been already enacted and act in accordance with the ancient institution of the Vajjians as established in former days so long as they honour and esteem and revere and support the Vajjain elders, and hold it a point of duty to harkens to their words, so long may be Vajjians be expected not to decline but to prosper”.
The Buddha’s words of wisdom were like a lesson for the successful existence of a republic. It was by faith in the assemblies by a unity of purpose, by respect for the laws and instructions, and by obedience to the call of duty given by the elders that a republican people could be expected to live as republican for long.
Glimpses of the republic of the Sakyas of Kapilavastu are also derived from the Buddhist literature. Be it noted that Gautama Buddha was born among the freedom-loving Sakyas. That clan had a population of nearly half a million distributed among eighty thousand families. They lived in several groups in their villages and towns. “The affairs of each of these groups were looked after by an assembly of the young and old meeting in the open air under a tree, or in a motehall, which was just a roof supported by pillars without walls and called Santhagara.
Decisions were generally unanimous, doubtful questions being turned over to a committee of referees. There were also Ganapurakas (whips) of the assembly and salakagrahakas, gatherers of voting papers’. The executive power was in the hands of a raja who was elected, for how long is not known”.
The Sakya people were known for their democratic spirit. The rigidity of the caste system did not affect them. Though they were Kshatriyas, they also worked at agriculture and carried on trade. It is said that “All Sakyans including the Buddha’s father put their hands to the plough”. It was in this kind of republican simplicity of the Sakyas that the future Sakyamuni was born.
The Buddhist accounts depicted Buddha as a prince at his birth and early life. But, in fact, the Buddha’s father was the head of the Sakya state which was a republic. As the noted researcher D. D. Kosambi puts it: “The Sakyan chief was elected by rotation, which led to the later fable of the Buddha being born a prince and living in magnificent palaces amid the most refined pleasures. Actually, the title rajanya denoted any Kshatriya eligible for election to chieftainship”.
The republics of ancient India had their internal problems. But the real danger which threatened their existence was the rise of powerful monarchies. When the powerful king of Magadha, Ajatasatru, proceeded to expand his kingdom, he proclaimed. “I will root out and destroy these Vajjians, mighty and powerful though they may be, and bring them to utter ruin”.
The king applied tactics to bring about disunity among the Vajjian leaders by sowing dissension among them, and finally defeated them. When Buddha’s advice for ‘concord’ yielded place to discord, the end of the republic became the natural result. About the time of the death of Buddha, both the Sakyas and the Vajjians were seen to have been conquered.
As the Gangetic Valley in 6th century B.C. became the cradle of powerful monarchies, the smaller republics could not survive their aggression. But some of the republican tribes in western India continued to exist in freedom for a much longer time. Among these western Indian republics, the most prominent was the state of the Yaudheys in Rajasthan.
The ancient Indian republics proved that the people of the land had the ability and desire to rule themselves with common consent and will. This mentality survived through ages in numberless villages of India where the people managed their own affairs in their village gatherings, taking advice of the elders and opinion of the rest.
The Monarchical States:
There were a large number of monarchical states in India in the 6th century B.C. While many of them were ruled by weaker kings, a few of them saw the rise of strong monarchy. Notable among the powerful kingdoms in the north were Avanti, Vatsa, Kosala and Magadha. On the eastern coast the most powerful state in the days of Mahavira and Buddha was Kalinga.
The kingdom of Avanti was ruled by king Chanda Pradyota Mahasena from his capital at Ujjayini (modern Ujjain). An ambitious and aggressive ruler, he conquered some of the smaller states around his kingdom. Evert he proved himself a terror to the powerful kingdom of Magadha. This proves the tendency of the 6th century Indian monarchy for expansion and growth which resulted in future in the rise of empires. Apart from its political fame, Avanti also became famous for its attraction towards Buddha and his teachings. Ancient Avanti was situated in the Malwa region of modern times.
The kingdom of Vatsa which existed around Kausambi near Prayag was ruled by king Udayana who claimed himself to be a descendant of the race of Bharata. He too became ambitious to extend his territory and conquered some of the near about places.
The kingdom of Kosala covered the territories of Oudh and was ruled by king Mahakosala and his more powerful son Prasenjit who was a contemporary of Buddha. These rulers claimed themselves as the descendants of the mythical monarch Ikshvaku. In their ambition, the kings of Kosala conquered lands far and wide. When Prasenjit ruled Kosala, his Kingdom came into conflict with the kingdom of Magadha under king Ajatasatru.
The struggle for political hegemony was thus becoming a prominent feature of the Indian politics. King Prasenjit was known for his devotion to Buddha, without being a Buddhist. His respect for Jaina and Brahminical faiths was also deep. It proves that the ancient Indian Kings could be ruthless in politics, but were tolerant in their religious practice. It was the successor of this king who waged war against the republican Sakyas and subjugated them. But in course of time, Kosala itself fell a victim to the growing power of Magadha.
The rise of Magadha in the 6th century B.C. as a powerful kingdom in the Gangetic Valley had a greater significance for the future. It was from that kingdom that attempts were made for the political unity of India under one imperial umbrella.
Magadha began as a small state around Patna and Gaya, very much smaller in size compared to Kosala. By the middle of the 6th century B.C., Bimbisara became the king of Magadha. In Jaina literature, he is also named as Srenika. This king was contemporary of Buddha and died a few year before the death of Buddha. The dynasty of Bimbisara is known as the Sisunaga dynasty, named after an earlier king of that name. In some other sources, this dynasty is described as the Haryanka-kula dynasty.
King Bimbisara rose to fame and power by conquering the territory of Anga in the east. He constructed the capital city of Rajagriha at the base of the old capital Giribraja which was a fort on a hill. The king married Kosaladevi, the sister of king Prasenjit of Kosala and enhanced the prestige of his dynasty. He also married a Lichahavi princess, Chellana by name.
Since Rajagriha quickly rose to fame, it attracted both the great religious preachers of the time, Mahavira Jina and Gautama Buddha. Magadha and its people came under the influence of the new movements from the time of Bimbisara.
Though a ‘righteous man’ and a ‘righteous king’, Bimbisara met a tragic death after ruling for 52 years. His son Ajatasatru became an instrument for his father’s death for sake of power. It is known from the Buddhist sources that Ajatasatru confessed his sin to Buddha, saying: “Sin overcame me, Lord, weak and foolish and wrong that I am, in that for the sake of sovereignty I put to death my father, that righteous man, that righteous king”.
Ajatasatru began a career of conquest to increase the size of his kingdom. Following the death of king Bimbisara when his wife Kosaladevi died in her extreme sorrow, the good relation of Magadha with Kosala ended, and war between the two countries broke out. In the long run, Magadha became victorious and Kosala lost some of its territories including Kasi to the rising power.
Ajatasatru extended his power northwards. In course of his campaigns in that direction, he fortified a village named Patali or Pataligrama at the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Sona. That place soon developed into a city and became famous as Pataliputra, destined to be the capital of the future Indian empires.
Ajatasatru’s territory was extended to the foot hills of the Himalayas. He invaded the Vajjians after sowing discord and dissension among their republican rulers. Their capital Vaisali was occupied and the republic was destroyed. The use of diplomacy and force to defeat the enemy is seen as an interesting feature of the Magadhan monarchy.
The attempts of both Bimbisara and Ajatasatru to expand their kingdom as far as possible carried a deeper meaning. They were perhaps the first Indian Kings in historical times to have thought of an empire. Even if they did not succeed, they nevertheless sowed the seeds of ambition for future dynasties to try for it.
It was during the rule of Ajatasatru that both Mahavira and Buddha died. The king was said to have been favourable to the great doctrines which were about to sweep over the land. It was at Rajagriha that a Buddhist Council was held after the death of the Buddha to give shape to the Buddhist scriptures.
The political history of the rising power of Magadha after Ajatasatru passed through a period of confusion even though a historical continuity was maintained. Within the next few generations the Nandas rose to power to take up the cause of Magadhan ascendancy and after them rose the dynasty of the Mauryas to try vigorously for the political unity of India.
During the days of Mahavira Jaina and Gautama Buddha, when powerful kingdoms were seen to have existed in the north, on the eastern seacoast of India the kingdom of Kalinga was already prominent as a powerful state. The Jaina and Buddhist literature abound with information about Kalinga. It is mentioned in the Jaina Scripture Harvansa Purana that Mahavira Vardhaman came to Kalinga to preach his doctrines. It is further known from the Jaina work Hari Vadriya Vriti that the then king of Kalinga was a friend of the father of Mahavira, and therefore that Mahavira came to Kalinga to preach his religion.
The Buddhist text Mahaparinirvana Sutta describes that after the death of Buddha, a Buddhist monk named Khemathera brought a Tooth of the Lord to Kalinga and gave it to the Kalinga King Brahmadatta. The king constructed a stupa for the preservation and worship of the Tooth. The place where the Holy Tooth was kept became famous as Dantapura.
The Power of Magadha and Kalinga seem to have grown rapidly following the age of Buddha. Two centuries after the Lord when the Magadhan imperialism overran the whole of India, Kalinga was seen as the only rival power maintaining its military might and political independence. This resulted in Asoka’s Kalinga War, one of the greatest wars of ancient history.
Form 6th century B.C. the political history of India continued to assume its clear shape. From that time, too, India saw the high tide of great religious movements with far-reaching results in cultural spheres of the land.