Sixth century B.C. forms an important landmark in ancient Indian history as it witnessed the emergence of sixteen great states (Mahajanapadas) in the political firmament of India.
In order to know about the political condition of India one has to depend largely on different religious literatures.
(i) Later Vedic Literature such as the Puranas, Mahabharata and Ramayana
(ii) The Buddhist literatures ‘namely Digha Nikaya”, ‘Anguttara Kiaya’, “Kumbhakara Jataka”
(iii) The Jaina literatures like the “Bhagabati Sutra, Uttaradhyayana Sutra.”
According to the Buddhist text, “Anguttara Nikaya, Northern India was extending from the Kabul Valley in the north to the Godavari in the South and it witnessed the rise of a congeries of sixteen states known as “Shodas Mahajanapadas’ or Sixteen great states.
These states were:
(15) Gandhara and
Of those states Vajji and Malla were the republics known as Ganas or Sanghas while the remaining fourteen were the monarchical states. The monarchical states were mostly concentrated in the Gangetic plain whereas the republican states were situated in the foot hill of Himalayas of north-western India.
The Mahajanapadas. (The Monarchical States):
1. Kasi (Varanasi):
The kingdom of Kasi was perhaps the most powerful of the states. Its capital was Varanasi and it was called so after the names of two rivers, the varuna and the Asi. The excavations at Rajghat throw light on the fact that the earliest inhabitation started around 700 B.C. In the sixth century B.C. the city was surrounded by mud walls. Kasi was perhaps the most powerful of the states.
King Asvasena was known to be the earliest king of Kasi. He was the father of twenty-third jaina tirthankar Parsva. Under the rule of Brahmadatta, Kasi had attained the pinnacle of celebrity. He defeated King Dighiti of Kosala. There was internecine quarrel between Kasi and Kosala. Ultimately during the reign of Kamsa, Kasi came under the Suzerainty of Kosala.
2. Kosala (Oudh):
Kosala comprised the area occupied by eastern Uttar Pradesh. It had its capital at Sravasti which is identical with Sahet-Mahet on the borders of Gonda and Bahraich districts in Uttar Pradesh. Kosala had an important city called Ayodhya, which is associated with the story in the Ramayana. River Sarayu divided the kingdom into two parts namely Uttara Kosala and Dakhin Kosala. Sravasti and Kusavati were the two capitals of Uttara Kosala and Dakshin Kosala respectively.
Mahakosala of Ikshvaku dynasty, the powerful ruler of Kosala, ascended the throne in the beginning of the Sixth Century B.C. He gave the annexed kingdom of Kasi to his daughter Kosaladevi as dowry on the occasion of her marriage to Bimbisara, the king of Magadha. Mahakosala was succeeded by his son Prasenjit, who was a very good friend of Lord Buddha. The Buddhist texts described him as the most powerful ruler of Kosala. He fought a war with Ajatasatru of Magadha. He became a victim to the palace conspiracy organised by his son Vidudobha who threw him out and succeeded to the throne of Kosala. Later on it was conquered by Magadha.
3. Anga (East Bihar):
The kingdom of Anga comprised the modern districts of Monghyr and Bhagalpur. It had its capital at Champa. Champa was situated on the confluence of Ganga and Champa river. The Buddhist text, Diggha Nikaya describes Champa as a famous trading centre of ancient India. From jaina texts it is known that in the beginning of sixth century B.C.
Dadhivamana was the ruler of Champa and his daughter Chandrabala had embraced jainism as the first woman. Anga rose to prominence for its trade and commerce. Probably it was due to the maritime trade that bitter feud existed between Anga and Magadha. Finally King Brahmadatta of Anga was defeated by King Bimbisara of Magadha. Anga was annexed by Magadha.
4. Magadha (South Bihar):
Magadha comprised of modern districts of Patna, Gaya and parts of Shahabad. Its capital was Girivraja or Rajagriha. The Buddhist texts mentioned the name of Bimbisara of Haryanaka a dynasty who ruled over magadha in 6th century B.C. Under him Magadha rose into Prominence.
He was succeeded by his son Ajatasatru. Ajatasatru had conquered Vaisali. Under Ajatasatru’s rule magadha had reached its highest watermark. He was succeeded by his son Udayi who had established the city of Pataliputra, the new capital of the Magadh kingdom. With the gradual march of time all the states of Northern India were annexed by Magadha and it emerged as the most powerful state and attained the pinnacle of celebrity.
5. Chedi (Bundelakhand and Adjacent Territories):
The kingdom of chedi was identified with modern Bundelakhand and adjacent territories situated between the rivers Yamuna and Narmada Suktimati was its capital. ‘Chetiya jataka’ describes that Mahasamanta was the first ruler of chedi. Mahabharata gives informations about Sisupala Sunith and his two sons Dhritaketu and Sarava who were ruling over Chedi.
6. Vansa or Vatsa (Allahabad and Adjoining Territories):
Vatsa was identified with modern Allahabad and adjoining tracts. It was situated to the north east of Avanti. Kausambi was its capital which can be identified with modern village of kosan situated on the bank of river Yamuna. The Vatsa was a Kuru clan who had shifted from Hastinapur and settled down at Kausambi. The rulers of Vatsa claimed their descent from King Bharata of the horay past.
In sixth century B.C. Udayan was ruling over Vatsa kingdom. He was a very ambitious ruler. By establishing matrimonial alliances with the king Ajatasatru of Magadha and king Chandra Pradyota of Avanti, he enhanced his power. King Udayana was contemporary of Buddha. He had embraced Buddhism and made it the state religion.
7. Kuru (Delhi, Meerut, Thaneswar Districts):
Delhi, Meerut and Thaneswar constituted the state of Kuru. Indraprastha was its capital. The jaina Uttaradhyayan Sutra’ throws light on King Ishukara. Kurus had established matrimonial alliances with Yadavak Bhoja, and Panchalas. However in sixth century B.C. the Kurus no longer enjoyed the political importance which they had attained in the later vedic period.
8. Panchala (Bareilly and Farrukhabad Districts):
The state of Panchala roughly corresponds to modern districts of Bareilly and Farrukhabad in Uttara Pradesh. Panchala kingdom was divided by river Ganga into parts namely Northern Panchala with its capital at Ahicchatra and Southern Panchala with its capital of Kampilya respectively. Northern Panchala was conquered by Kuru and Hastinapura became its capital. Like the Karus, the Panchalas also lost their political importance in Sixth Century B.C.
9. Matsya (Jaipur-Rajasthan):
Modern Jaipur, Alwar and Bharatpur constituted the Matsya kingdom. It was situated to the west of the river Yamuna and to the south of the kingdom of the Kurus. Its capital was Viratanagar. Matsya had lost its political importance during the time of Gautama Buddha.
The kingdom of Surasena was situated on the bank of river Yamuna. Mathura was its capital. Its ruler Avantiputra was the follower of Buddhism. Due to his patronage Buddhism spread in Mathura. In sixth century B.C. Surasena with its Yadava ruler had played an eventful role.
11. Assaka (on the Godavari-Southern India):
Situated on the bank of river Godavari Assaka was the only kingdom of Southern India. It was located between Avanti and Mathura. Its capital was Potali or Potana. In sixth century B.C. Assaka had great importance. According to Vayupurana Iskhaku dynasty ruled over Assaka Kingdom. “The Buddhist text” Chulakalinagh Jataka” mentions about King Avun of Assaka who had conquered Kalinga.
12. Avanti (Malwa):
Avanti was a very powerful kingdom in sixth century B.C. It corresponds to modern Malwa. It was divided into two parts namely Northern Avanti and southern Avanti by the river Betravati. Mahismati was the capital of northern Avanti and Ujjain was the capital of Southern Avanti.
In sixth century B.C. King Chanda Pradyota was ruling over Avanti. He was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. The Buddhist texts depicted him as a fierce, warlike and ambitious king. Being a ambitious ruler, he attacked the neighbouring states. The state of Vatsa became his first victim. But he was defeated by King Udayana of Vatsa and gave his daughter in marriage to Udayana. Pradyotya also established matrimonial alliance with the state of Surasena. As a contemporary of Buddha, he extended his royal patronage to Buddhism. Avanti emerged as a great centre of Buddhism. However, Avanti was conquered by Magadha.
13. Gandhara (Peshwar and Rawalpindi Districts in Pakistan):
Modern Peshwar, Rawalpindi and also a part of Kashmir constituted the kingdom of Gandhara. Its capital was Taksasila. It was a great centre of learning in ancient India. Nagnajit, who ruled over Gandhar had embraced Jainism. In sixth century B.C. Pukkusati was ruling over Gandhara. He defeated Chanda Pradyota, the mighty ruler of Avanti. Gandhara was ultimately conquered by the Persians.
14. Kamboja-(South West Kashmir):
Kamboja was situated in the extreme north-west of India. Its capital was Dwaraka. Rajpura was another important town of Kamboja. Mahabharata mentions the name of Rajpura.
15. Vajji (North Bihar):
The state of Vajji was identified with North Bihar. It was a confederation of eight classes namely the Videhas, the Lichhavis, the Jnatrikas, the Vajvis, the Ugra, the Boga, the Kauravas, and the Aikshaka. Vaisali was the capital of Vajjan confederation. During sixth century B.C. Vajjian republic had attained the zenith of its power. King Bimbisara of Magadha had established matrimonial alliance with Vajji by marrying a Vaisali princess named Chellana.
In order to protect himself from Vajjian attack, Ajatasatru had built a strong fort on the confluence of Ganga and Son near Pataligrama which later on became famous as Pataliputra. However on account of internal dissension and feud, the republic of Vajji became weak and fell a prey to Magadhan imperialism. Ajatasatru had annexed it to Magadhan Empire.
16. Malla (Gorakhpur district):
It is identified with modern Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh. It was divided into two parts by the river ‘Kuka, one with its capital at Kusinara and the other with the capital at Pawa. Both the places were associated with the life of Buddha. While in Pawa he fell ill after taking his last meal, in Kusinara he died. Mahavira jaina also breathed his last at Pawa. After the death of Buddha, Malla was annexed by Magadha.
The political history of India from sixth century B.C. onwards is actually the history of struggles for supremacy between these states. In this struggle for supremacy the kingdom of Magadha emerged to be the most powerful state and succeeded in founding an empire.