In this article we will discuss about the rise of the Magadha empire during the 6th century B.C.

Magadha had to contend for political pre-eminence with the monarchical states of Kashi, Kosala and Vatsa. Besides, the republican confederacy of the Vrijis was also a strong contender. The struggle between them continued for about a century and. Ultimately, Magadha emerged victorious and established itself as the supreme power.

Bimbisara (544-493 B.C.):

The rise of Magadha started with the accession of Bimbisara to its throne. He was a contemporary of Mahatma Buddha. Dr Bhandarkar has expressed the view that Bimbisara belonged to the Great Naga dynasty and was originally the commander-in-chief, probably of the Vajjis who once held sway over Magadha and, ultimately, succeeded in crowning himself as the king.

But the Buddhist- texts give a different version. According to Asvaghosha’s Buddhacharita, he belonged to Haryanka-kula and Mahavamsa refers that his father appointed him as king at the age of fifteen. Mahavamsa does not state the name of his father but according to other sources, he was named Bhattiya or Mahapadma.


Bimbisara ruled for nearly forty-nine years. Its capital was Rajagriha. He was a man of determination and political foresight who realized the importance of a large kingdom and decided to make Magadha such a state. He pursued his ambition both by wars of conquest and a policy of matrimonial alliances.

It has been said that he had five hundred wives. One may not agree with this number but it is certain that he entered into dynastic relations based on marriage with several important royal families of his time which helped him much in his political career.

His first wife was a sister of Prasenajit, the king of Kosala who gave him a part of the kingdom of Kasi in dowry. His second wife was Chellana, daughter of the Lichchhavi king, Chetaka who was the most important feudatory chief of the republican state of the Vrijis with its capital of Vaisali.

Another wife of his was Vasavi, princess of the kingdom of Vaideh and yet another, was Khema daughter of the king of Madra (Central Punjab). These marriage alliances definitely enhanced his prestige besides helping him in the extension of his territories.


He was a successful diplomat as well. He maintained friendly relations not only with nearby strong states but also with distant powers. He sent his famous physician, Jivaka, to the neighbouring state of Avanti when its ruler, Chanda Pradyota fell ill and was, thus, able to maintain good relations with him. All this must have helped him in pursuing his policy for the extension of his kingdom.

Bimbisara conquered the state of Anga. It was, probably, his only conquest but a very important one. Anga was a big and prosperous state at that time and its conquest marked the beginning of the greatness of Magadha. Bimbisara’s father was defeated by Brahadatta. king of Anga. Probably, it was to avenge this defeat that Bimbisara attacked Anga and succeeded in conquering it.

Bimbisara, for the first time, laid down the foundation of an efficient administration in Magadha. He constructed several canals and roads, appointed several new officers for administrative purposes and arranged for the regular collection of revenue.

It helped him in increasing his financial resources and military strength. It is said that the kingdom of Magadha had 80,000 villages at that time. Bimbisara proved to be an able ruler who recognized the necessity of an efficient administration.


There were several ministers who helped the king in administration. They were chosen on merit and their advice was generally not ignored. Besides, there were different officers who were divided into different categories according to the nature of their work. The executive or administrative officers were called Sambbatakas, the judicial officers Voharikas and the military officers Senanayakas.

However, the basic units of administration were villages. Each village was under the jurisdiction of a headman who was responsible for the collection of taxes and handing them over to the other officials of the state. Theoretically, the land belonged to the king though nobody was displaced from the land till he paid 1/6th of the produce, which was regarded the king’s share.

Mostly Sudras worked as cultivators though they w ere not masters of the land. They were engaged as labourers. This had lowered their status. Therefore, a new class of Sudras, that is untouchables, came to be recognized during this period.

Bimbisara was very much tolerant in religious affairs. He revered both Jainism and Buddhism equally. Therefore, both the Jainas and the Buddhists claimed Bimbisara as their follower.

Bimbisara was killed by his own son Ajatasatru (Kunika). But the Jainas and the Buddhists have expressed different opinions regarding the episode of his death. According to Jaina texts Ajatasatru imprisoned his father but felt guilty afterwards and when he went to let him off, Bimbisara himself took poison out of fear and died.

The Buddhist texts claim that Ajatasatru himself killed his father and he confessed this fact to the Buddha. Whatever might be the actual fact, it is certain that Ajatasatm was responsible for the death of his father and ascended his throne after him.

Ajatasatru (493-462 B.C.):

Ajatasatru continued his father’s policy of expansion through military conquests. First, a fierce struggle started between Magadha and Kosala. Prasenajit’s sister who was the wife of Bimbisara died of grief at the death of her husband. Prasenajit could not tolerate it and asked Ajatasatru to return back Kasi which was given in dowry to Bimbisara.

When it was refused by Ajatasatru, a protracted war began between Magadha and Kosala. The war remained indecisive for a long time but ultimately Prasenajit agreed to give Kasi to Ajatasatru and also gave his daughter Vajira in marriage to him, which proves that the outcome of war, finally, went in favour of Magadha.

However, the foundation of the political supremacy of Magadha was laid by Ajatasatru by defeating the strong confederacy of Vriji. The confederacy which dominated Eastern India included 36 republican states, viz., 9 Mallaki, 9 Lichchhavi and 18 gana-rajyas of Kasi and Kosala. Various reasons have been assigned for this conflict between these two powers. The generally held belief that Padmavati, wife of Ajatasatru, incited him for this conflict seems to be less satisfactory.

Jaina-texts state that two brothers of Ajatasatru, Halla and Vehalla, fled to Vaisal, the capital of the Lichchhavis, with the state-elephant of Magadha and a precious necklace given to ‘hem by their father Bimbisara. The Lichchhavis refused to return the fugitives to Ajatasatru and therefore, he declared war against them.

According to Buddhist-texts, the bone of contention between the two powers was a new-found jewel-mine. Both had agreed to share equally the jewels of the mine but Lichchhavis violated this agreement and so the war was declared by Magadha.

These might be the immediate causes of the war but the basic cause seems to be different. The real issue was that Magadha could not be the supreme power in Eastern India unless this powerful confederacy was defeated. It was realised by both sides.

That is why not only the Lichchhavis but the entire Vriji confederacy including the chiefs of Kasi and Kosala united themselves against Magadha. Dr D.N. Jha has given another reason of this conflict. He has opined that both the states claimed their rule over the river Ganges and the right to collect trade-tax from there. This led to their conflict.

The conflict between Magadha and the confederacy continued for sixteen years (484-468 B.C.). Ajatasatru made all sorts of preparations for it. To be near the theatre of war, he built up a new fort near the bank of the Ganges, which later on gave rise to the famous city of Pataliputra and the future capital of Magadha. Ajatasatm also realised that he could not gain victory against such a powerful confederacy unless its inner unity was destroyed.

Therefore, he sent one of his ministers, Vassakara, to sow seeds of dissension amongst the members of the confederacy. Vassakara remained there for three years and proved quite successful in his mission. The political and social unity of the Vrijis was broken. Besides, Magadha was able to produce two new weapons of war.

One was the Mahasilakantaka which was used to throw heavy pieces of stone on enemy from a distance. The other was the Rathamusala, a chariot with knives and cutting edges fixed on to it and a place under cover for the charioteer. Thus, after preparing himself diplomatically and militarily, Ajatasatru attacked the Vrijis and finally won. This victory gave Magadha an unchallenged supremacy over East India.

The success of Ajatasatru aroused the hostility of king Chanda Pradvota of Avanti who started making preparations to attack Magadha. But it was Ajatasatru who strengthened his fortifications and took various other measures to defend his boundaries and succeeded. Pradvota could not attack Magadha. Thus, Ajatasatru was successful in further extending the boundaries of his kingdom and in laying the foundations of the greatness of Magadha.

Ajatasatru was of liberal religious opinions. Jaina-texts represent him as a Jain and Buddhist-texts as a Buddhist Ajatasatru. probably , was first inclined to Jainism but later on he became a devotee of the Buddha. The first General Council of the Buddhists was held under his patronage near Rajagriha. It is also believed that he built several Buddhist Chaityas.

The Successors of Ajatasatru (462-430 B.C.):

Ajatasatm was succeeded by his son Udayabhadra. The rivalry between Magadha and Avanti continued during his time but Udayabhadra succeeded in defeating Palaka, the then ruler of Avanti several times. It is believed that Palaka then engaged a hired assassin to kill Udayabhadra who murdered him when he was listening to the discourse of a religious teacher. Udayabhadra was a Jaina. He built a town called Kusumapura and a Jain Chaityagriha inside it.

Udayabhadra was succeeded by Anurudha, Munda and Nagadasaka respec­tively. None of them proved himself capable of ruling and according to Buddhist- texts each of them was a parricide. It created dissatisfaction among their subjects and therefore, one of the ministers of the last king, Sisunaga succeeded in overthrowing his rule and established the rule of a new dynasty.

Sisunaga and His Successors (430-364 B.C.):

Sisunaga had gained respect under the weak successors of Ajatasatru and, probably, became the ruler of Magadha with the consent of the people. He proved to be a capable ruler and extended the territories of Magadha. The neighbouring rival state of Avanti, Vatsa and Kosala were defeated by him and their territories annexed to Magadha. Thus, he also contributed to the greatness of Magadha.

Sisunaga was succeeded by his son Kalasoka or Kakavarna. He made Pataliputra the capital of Magadha. The second Buddhist General Council was held during his time at Vaisali. Kalasoka was murdered because of a palace conspiracy and, probably, his murderer was the founder of the Nanda dynasty.

However, Mahavamsa says that the ten sons of Kalasoka ruled for ten years after him. Probably, the princes were allowed to rule nominally for these years to cover the guilt of the murder of their father. But, ultimately, all of them were killed and a new dynasty of kings started its rule over Magadha.

The Nanda Dynasty (364-324 B.C.):

There is a difference of opinion with regard to the first Nanda ruler and his progeny. The Puranas call him Mahapadma while Mahabodhivamsa describes his name as Ugrasena. The Jain-texts describe him as the son of a barber while Puranas refer to him as ‘the son of a king by a Sudra-woman.’ Yet, it is certain that the founder of the Nanda dynasty was a Sudra.

According to Puranas, Mahapadma Nanda destroyed all Kshatriya rulers. The kingdoms of Aikshvakus, Panchalas, Kasis, Haihayas, Kalingas, Asmakas, Kurus, Maithilas, Sursenas etc., were defeated and their territories were annexed to Magadha. There are a few evidences which suggest that the Nandas ruled over the southern part of Bombay and north-western part of Mysore. The evidences are not conclusive.

Yet it is certain that the Nandas succeeded in establishing a great empire or rather the first one in the real sense which covered the greater part of northern India and also part of the South. And the credit for it goes primarily to the first ruler of this dynasty, Mahapadma Nanda.

He completed the work which was started by Bimbisara, made Magadha the most extensive and powerful kingdom in India and ushered in the age of the Empire in this country. It is accepted by all that n ne rulers of the Nanda dynasty ruled over Magadha.

However, while the Puranas state that the first Nanda was the father of the other eight Nandas, the Buddhist-texts take all the Nandas as brothers. Very little is known about the history of the Nandas after Mahapadma Nanda except the last ruler, nicknamed Dhana Nanda (the worshipper of Mammon).

He was a contemporary of Alexander and his empire seems to have extended up to the frontiers of Punjab. He was a powerful king and kept a large army. But he was cruel and miserly. He accumulated fabulous wealth at the expense of his subjects by means of excessive taxation and exactions.

Therefore, he was unpopular among his subjects. Another cause of his unpopularity must have been that he was a Sudra by caste. Chandra Gupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, took advantage of his unpopularity and mis-government, succeeded in killing him and captured the throne of Magadha.

The Causes of the Rise of Magadha:

The kingdom of Magadha started its rise to pre-eminence during the period of Bimbisara and finally became the first great empire in India by the time of the Nandas. Various ambitious and powerful rulers of different successive dynasties contributed to its rise.

But certain other geographical, economic and cultural factors also contributed to its rise. There were certain permanent factors which enabled it to rise to zenith of political greatness more than once. It remained the seat of power for many successive empires in India.

Magadha occupied a strategic position of geographical importance. The river Ganges and its tributaries Son, Gandak and Gagra served as admirable means for defence, communication and trade. The older capital Rajagriha was protected by seven hills and the later one; Pataliputara being at the junction of the Ganges and the Son had natural means of defence.

The natural facilities of communication and trade both with North India and the sea helped it in its economic prosperity. The land of Magadha was also fertile which yielded rich harvests. Therefore, land taxes could be kept high which proved to be regular and substantial sources of income to the state without which the maintenance of a big army could not be possible and the empire could neither be built up nor consolidated.

The taxes Bali and Bhag had now become compulsory and the peasants had no choice but to pay them. The state imposed further taxes on labour and peasants and collected good money by trade-tax as well.

Because of increased financial resources, Magadh was the first state in north India to keep a standing army and Bimbisara the first such ruler. Besides, while neighbouring forests provided timber for building and elephants for the army, its own iron-ore deposits made profitable the manufacture of better implements and weapons and a profitable trade in iron.

Magadh was again the first state in India which manufactured better arms and equipment of war made of iron. All this helped in making Magadha an economically prosperous and militarily strong state which helped in its rise.

Culturally, Magadha, being in the East, was a place where a balanced synthesis between the Aryan and the non-Aryan cultures took place. The Brahamanic culture could not claim dominance in Magadha because by the time it reached there it had lost much of its strength and therefore, liberal traditions in religion and society could be maintained in Magadha.

Prof H.C. Ravchaudhari writes “In their realm Brahmanas could fraternize with Vratyas, Kshatriyas could admit plebian (Sudra) girls to their harem, blue-blooded aristocrats could be done to death or otherwise deprived of the throne to make room for the child of a ‘Nagar-Sobhini’ and a barber could aspire to imperial dignity.”

Jainism and Buddhism both of which took their birth within the territories of Magadha were, probably, the results of these liberal traditions and they participated in further enhancing these traditions “It (Magadha),” writes Prof H.C. Ravchaudhari, “played a part in the evolution of universal religion as it did in the foundation of a pan-Indian empire. ” Liberal traditions, particularly a sense of social equality and catholicity of religious ideas, further strengthened by Jainism and Buddhism, also contributed to the building of a strong empire in Magadha.

Dr Radha Kumud Mookerji writes, “The laxity of social restrictions imposed by the orthodox Brahmanical culture and universal aspect of Buddhism and Jainism which found a congenial home in the Magadha must have considerably widened the political outlook of this region and contributed to make it the nucleus of a mighty empire.”

The administrative system of Magadha, wherein the state was ruled by a hereditary monarch who had the opportunity to enhance his financial and military resources, was also one of the causes of its rise. The powers of the king had increased under monarchical-state. In the previous tribal-system, the king got only a part of the booty of the war. In the new system, he could keep it all for himself.

The kings now, besides Bali, started collecting other taxes as well like Bhaga and Kara. They extorted money from their subjects by several illegal means also. All that made different states financially strong which enabled kings to maintain standing armies. Bimbisara of Magadha was the first king among monarchical states of that time who kept a standing army and there is no doubt that it certainly, helped in the rise of Magadha.

The various powerful rulers of different dynasties contributed to the rise of Magadha. The foundation of the Magadha empire was laid down by Bimbisara and Ajatasatru. Both were ambitious rulers and extended the boundaries of Magadha both by war and diplomacy. “The accounts of the reign of Bimbisara and Ajatasatru” writes Dr A.L. Basham. “give evidence of a definite policy, aimed at the control of as much of the course of the Ganges as possible.”

Dr Basham also points out that the idea of a big empire was picked up by Bimbisara and Ajatasatru from the example of Cyrus, the Great of Persia, who had become a ruler only sixteen years earlier than Bimbisara in Magadha and succeeded in building up Persia as the seat of one of the greatest empires of the world. He writes, “It is hardly likely that the kings of Magadha w ere ignorant of what was happening in the North-West. We believe that their expansionist policy was in part inspired by the example of Persians.”

The contention of Dr Basham definitely has practical wisdom but it is also a fact that Indian rulers had no compulsion to look to any foreign country for the ideal of an imperial kingdom. Rajasuya and Asvamedha ceremonies were performed by Indian rulers for the extension of their empires right from the later Vedic age onwards. After Ajatasatru, Sisunaga pursued the policy of empire-building and succeeded.

Then came the Nandas who, finally, succeeded in establishing the first great empire in India. The Nanda rulers were Shudras. They were despotic rulers, who oppressed their subjects and collected enormous wealth in the state-treasury. Their rule, therefore, was unpopular which led to their weakness and contributed towards the downfall of their empire. Yet, the Nandas have their importance in Indian history.

They created a most extensive empire in India and left it to their successors, the Mauryas in a position when it was extremely prosperous and militarily strong so that the Mauryas became powerful enough to turn the foreigners, the Greeks, out of India and also succeeded in completing the task began by Bimbisara and Ajatasatru of consolidating India in a big empire.

Besides, the Nandas participated in weakening the caste-system during their time. Dr R.K. Mookerji writes: “The 5th and the 6th centuries B.C. hold out strange phenomenon before us. Kshatriya Chiefs founding popular religious sects which menaced Vedic religion and Shudra leaders establishing a big empire in Aryavarta on the ruins of Kshatriya kingdoms.”

Thus, the ambitious rulers of Magadha, its geographical location, fertility of its land, its minerals and forests and. thereby, its economic prosperity and liberal cultural traditions of the people of Magadha helped in its rise and in making it the first imperial power of India.