In the sixth country B.C. North India was divided into sixteen kingdoms out of which Avanti, Vatsa, Kosala and Magadha rose into prominence by aggrandizing upon other weaker states.
These four states involved themselves in internecine quarrel in which Magadha emerged as the most powerful state and acquired mastery in the political domain of India.
Magadha under Bimbisara:
Magadha rose into prominence under the rule of Bimbisara who belonged to the Haryanka dynasty. Most probably he overthrew the Brihadrathas from Magadha and assumed the title “Srinika” after his accession. He ruled Magadha from 544 B.C. to 493 B.C. His greatest achievement was the establishment of Magadhan empire. He followed fourfold policy in order to fulfill his programme of imperial expansion.
Policy of Matrimonial Alliance:
By adopting the policy of matrimonial alliance, Bimbisara tried to augment his power. He married Kosaladevi, daughter of king Mahakosala of Kosala, received the Kasi village as dowry, which yielded revenue of 1, 00,000. “Mahavamsa” mentions his marriage with Chellana the daughter of Chetak, the Lichchavi chief of Vaisali.
He then married Vasavi, a princess of Videha in the northward. He also got the hand of Khema, the daughter of king of Modra in Central Punjab. The establishment of matrimonial relations with these states added glory to the Magadhna empire and it also paved the way for the expansion of Magadhan empire and westward.
Policy of Conquest:
The next policy of Bimbisara for the expansion of Magadhan empire was the policy of conquest. Bimbisara led a campaign against the kingdom of Anga and defeated its king Brahmadatta. Anga along with its capital city Champa, was annexed to the Magadhan empire.
Friendly Relation with distant Neighbours:
As a farsighted diplomat, Bimbisara had followed the policy of friendship towards the distant neighbours to win their co-operation for the safety and security of his empire. He received an embassy and letter from Pukkusati, the ruler of Gandhar with which Pradyota had fought unsuccessfully. Magadha’s most formidable enemy was Chanda Pradyota Mahasena of Avanti who fought with Bimbisara but ultimately the two thought it wise to become friends. He also sent his physician Jivak to Ujjain when Pradyota was attacked by jaundice.
Consolidation of his Empire by a Good Administrative System:
By introducing a highly efficient system of administration, Bimbisara consolidated his conquests. His administration was found to have been really well-organised and efficient. The high officers were divided into three classes, viz. executive, military and judicial. The ‘Sabarthakas’ were responsible for the management of general administration.
“Senanayaka Mahamatras” were in charge of military affairs. “Vyavaharika Mahamatra’s” were in charge of judicial-administration. Provincial administration was also well-organised. The head of provincial administration was “Uparaja”. The villages enjoyed rural autonomy. “Gramika” was the head of the village administration. The penal laws were severe. Bimbisara also developed the means of communication by constructing good roads. He is said to have established a new capital at Rajagriha situated on the outskirts of the old capital Girivraja.
He made Magadha a paramount power in the sixth century B.C. It is said that his kingdom had consisted of 80,000 villages. He was also a devotee of Buddha. He donated a garden named “Belubana” to the Buddhist Sangha. According to the Buddhist chronicle Bimbisara ruled Magadha from 544 B.C. to 493 B.C. He was succeeded by his son Ajatasatru who had killed him and seized the throne for himself.
Ajatasatru (492—460 B.C.):
The reign of Ajatasatru witnessed the high watermark of Bimbisara dynasty. From the very beginning Ajatasatru pursued the policy of expansion and conquest. He began a prolonged war with Prasenjit of Kosala who had revoked the gift of the Kasi village made to Bimbisara. The war continued for some time with varying success to both sides till Prasenjit ended it by giving his daughter, Vajira Kumari in marriage to Ajatasatru and leaving him in possession of Kasi.
The next achievement of Ajatasatru was the conquest of Lichchavis of Vaisali. Chetak, chief of Lichchavis had formed a strong confederacy comprising 36 republics in order to fight Magadha. According to jaina sources, before his death, Bimbisara gave his elephant “Seyanaga” “Sechanaka” and two large bejewelled necklaces, one each to his sons Halla and Vehalla who were born of their Lichahhavi mother, Chellana.
Chetak had given them political assylum. After his accession, Ajatasatru requested chetak to surrender them. But Chetak refused to extradite Chetaka’s step brothers. So the conflict between Ajatasatru and Lichchhavis became inevitable.
According to Buddhist text Ajatasatru had entered into an agreement with Lichchhavis to divide among them the gems extracted from a mine at the foot of the hill near the river Ganges. But the Lichchhavis deprived Ajatasatru of his share. But Dr. H.C. Raychoudhury points out that the most potent cause of war was the common movement among the republican states against the rising imperialism of Magadha.
Ajatasatru made elaborate war preparations against the Lichchhavis. As a base for operation he constructed a fort at Patalagrama on the confluence of Ganga and the Son which eventually developed into the famous capital of Pataliputra. Ajatasatru also tried to create a division among members of Lichchhavi confederacy. He employed his minister Vassakara who successfully sowed the seeds of dissension among the members of Vajjian confederacy and broke their solidarity.
Thereafter Ajatasatru invaded their territory and it took him full sixteen years to destroy Lichchhavis. In this war he used some new weapons and devices like “mahasilakantaka” and “rathamushala” to overpower the enemy. Ultimately Lichchhavi was annexed to the Magadhan territory.
Ajatasatru faced danger from Avanti while he was engaged in war with Lichchhavis. King Chanda Pradyota of Avanti became jealous of his power and threatened an invasion of Magadha. To meet this danger Ajatasatru started fortification of Rajgiri. But the invasion did not materialize in his life time.
The successors of Ajatasatru:
Ajatasatru was succeeded by his son Udayin who ruled for sixteen years. The Buddhist texts describe him as a parricide where as the jaina literature mentions him as a devoted son to his father. Udayin built the city of Pataliputra at the fort of Patalagrama which commanded the strategically and commercial highway of eastern India. During his rule Avanti became jealous of the ascendancy of Magadha and a contest between the two started for mastery of Northern India.
However, Udayin was not destined to live to see the ultimate victory of Magadha against Avanti. According to the jaina texts he constructed a chaitya in Pataliputra. He also observed fasts on the eighth and fourteenth tithis as per the jaina tradition. It is said that Udayin have been murdered by assassin engaged by Palaka, the king of Avanti. According to Ceylonese chronicle Udayin was succeeded by three kings namely Aniruddha, Manda and Nagadasaka.
The Ceylonese chronicle describes that all the three kings were parasite. The people resented their rule and revolted against the last king Nagadasaka and raised an amatya Sisunaga on the throne of Magadha. With this restoration the rule of Haryanka dynasty came to end and the rule of Sisunaga dynasty came into being.
Sisunaga served as the viceroy of Kasi before he ascended the throne of Magadha. He established his capital at Girivaraja. His greatest achievement was the conquest and annexation of Avanti. This brought to an end the hundred year’s rivalry between Magadha and Avanti. Probably he had annexed Vatsa and Kosala Kingdoms to Magadha. Towards the later part of his regain he temporarily shifted his capital to Vaisali.
Sisunaga was succeeded by his son Kalasoka or Kakavarna. The reign of Kalasoka is important for two events, viz., the transfer of Magadha capital from Girivaraja to Pataliputra and holding of the second Buddhist Congress at Vaisali. Very unfortunately, he lost his life in a palace revolution, which brought the Nandas upon the throne of Magadha. The usurper was probably Mahapadma Nanda, the founder of Nanda dynasty and he also killed the ten sons of Kalasoka who ruled jointly. Thus the Sisunaga dynasty was followed by the new dynasty of the Nandas.
The Nanda Dynasty:
The rule of Nandas marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Ancient India. Under the Nandas the provincial kingdom of Magadha was transformed into an empire. According to R.K. Mookheijee, Mahapadmananda was the “first historical emperor of India.” Mahapadmananda usurped the throne after murdering Kalasoka, the last notable ruler of the Sisunaga line. However, the ancestry of Mahapadmananda is a controversial question. There are two fold versions of his origin. According to the Puranas, he was the son of the last king of Sisunaga line by a sudra woman.
The jaina work Parisishtaparvana describes him as the son of a courtesan by a barber. Mahapadma Nanda ruled over Magadha for twenty eight years from 367 B.C. to 338 B.C. He established a strong government in Magadha. Being the ruler of a prosperous country, Mahapadmananda was destined to realize the dream of Magadhan imperialism. The puranas describe him as “Sarva Kashtriyantaka” or the destroyer of all the kshatriyas and the Ekrat or sole soverign.
From this it is implied that he uprooted the kshatriya dynasties such as Aikshavakus of Kosala, Panchalas of the Upper Ganges and Doab the Kasis, the Haihayas of Narmada Valley, the Kalingas of Orissa, the Asmakas of Godavari Valley in Hyderabad, the Kurus of Upper Ganges region on the confines of Punjab, the Maithilas of Mithila of Nepalese Terai, the Saurasenas of Mathura on the banks of the Jumna and Vitihotras of Western India adjacent to Avanti.
He also conquered Kalinga and it is proved by two passages of Hati-Gumpha Inscription of Kharavela. It is known from Hathigumpha Inscription that Nandaraja (Mahapadmananda) constructed some irrigation dams in the province and carried away the statue of first Jina from Kalinga as a war trophy.
The southern frontier of the Nanda empire extended up to Godavari Valley in the Deccan which is proved by the existence of a city called “Nav Nandar Dehra” on the Godavari. Thus under Mahapadma Nanda Magadhan empire was extended from Kuru country in the north to the Godavari Valley in the south and from Magadha in the east to the Narmada on the west. Under the Nandas the Magadhan empire reached the pinnacle of celebrity. According to Dr. R.K. Mukherjee ‘Mahapadma Nanda was the first great historical emperor of Northern India.’
The Successors of Mahapadma Nanda:
The Buddhist work Maha Bodhivamsa gives a list of the Nava Nandas in which Mahapandma Nanda and eight others are included. It is generally accepted by the scholars that the term Nava means nine and that the total number of kings of Nanda dynasty is nine. The Buddhist texts describe all the nine Nanda Kings as brothers. But the Puranas describe Mahapadma as the father and the eight Nandas as his sons. The scholars generally accepted the Puranic evidence. The Puranas have described that eight sons of Mahapadma Nanda ruled Magadha for twelve years. The Mahabodhivamsa mentions the name of the last Nanda king as Dhana Nanda who was also a contemporary of Alexander the Great.
The classical writers called Dhanda Nanda as Agrammes. He had a passionate love for hoarding treasures. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang also referred to his wealth. He inherited a vast empire from his father. He had a large standing army which included 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots and 3,000 elephants as described by the Greek historian Curticus. With his fabulous wealth and strong army Dhana Nanda became a powerful ruler of Magadha.
Fall of the Nandas:
Inspite of his power and wealth, Dhana Nanda lost the support of the people. He became unpopular among his people for three reasons which ultimately brought his downfall. Firstly, he taxed people heavily in order to meet the expenses of his vast army and also to satisfy his lust for wealth. Secondly, the low origin and anti-Kshatriya policy of the Nandas coupled with their leaning towards jainism created a number of enemies who were instrumental in bringing their downfall.
Thirdly, the people could find a leader in Chandragupta Maurya and overthrew the last Nanda king from the throne. With the fall of the Nandas, Magadha entered into another phase of her glorious history under the Mauryas. Under the maurya dynasty the Magadhan empire reached the apex of glory.