Settlement in Early Historic Ganga Plain

by Chirantani Das | 143,447 words

This page relates “King Bimbisara” as it appears in the case study regarding the settlements in the Early Historic Ganga Plain made by Chirantani Das. The study examines this process in relation to Rajagriha and Varanasi (important nodal centres of the respective Mahajanapadas named Magadha and Kashi).

Part 7 - Rājagṛha supreme seat (b): King Bimbisāra

After Jarāsandha or his son Sahadeva we don’t have any reference to such mythical figures associated with Magadha. After a long gap of time, the next ruler came to the forefront was Bimbisāra. His period falls in the beginning of the historical period. However information about his ancestry and the beginning of his dynasty is scanty and misleading. In the Purāṇas he was placed in the house of Śiśunāgas. His father was Kshatranjas and Ajātaśatru was his son.[1] But the Puranic view was challenged by historians like Geiger and Bhandarkar. In their opinion the Pali Ceylonese accounts clearly distinguished Bimbisāra’s ruling house from that of Śiśunāgas.[2] In the Buddhacharita in a dialogue between the Buddha and the Magadhan king Bimbisāra the former addresses the latter as born in the Haryaṅka kula (jatasya Haryanka kula) whose ensign is a lion.[3] The Ceylonese Buddhist text Mahavamsa places Bimbisāra as a contemporary of the Buddha. It says both were friends like their fathers. The Buddha was five years older than Bimbisāra. Mahavamsa mentions that Bimbisāra was only fifteen years old when he was anointed king by his own father.[4] In dearth of earlier and more reliable evidence this origin of Bimbisāra found acceptance among historians. It was called a great family but not much is known about it. Bimbisāra took the title Srenika or Srenya, the meaning of which is also not clear.

Bimbisāra’s time was one of tussle among newly emerged territorial states for supremacy. The states were suffering from a kind of mistrust and consequent insecurity from one another. The states were ambitious enough to expand their territorial limits.

Magadha from the beginning was an important state. Under the house of Haryaṅkas, especially under Bimbisāra and his son Ajātaśatru, Magadha undertook a cruel, expansionist policy. During the early days of Magadhan imperialism, Rājagṛha was the capital city and rose to the highest glory and prominence for being the imperial seat. Bimbisāra took a dual policy of matrimonial alliance and open military conquest of new areas for securing power and territory.

From the Buddhist sources we learn that Bimbisāra married the princess of Kośala-Kośala devī. At that time Kośala was a formidable rival to Magadhan imperialism. By this marriage Bimbisara not only neutralized this powerful kingdom but also secured its friendship. Now Bimbisara could divert his attention to the conquest of other states without opposition from Kośalan side. He also gained materially from this marriage. The Kośalan king Mahakośala gifted the village of Kashi as the bath money to his daughter. It was a rich village generating huge revenue of hundred thousand.[5] Most Jaina sources took pride in climing Bimbisāra a Jaina. However the sources concede that he was not a Jaina by birth. But he was converted to the faith under the influence of one of his important queens Chellana. She was a Lichchhavi princess and probably an aunt of Mahāvīra. Licchavis were an important tribe and Vṛji their state was a very powerful ganarajya or republican kingdom of the period. Bimbisara’s marriage relation to them must have gone in favour of Bimbisara.[6] He also married Khema-the Madra princess of Punjab and the Videhan princess.[7] These marriages not only raised his status as a monarch but also got him important political allies. H. C. Raychaudhuri thinks that these marriages paved the way for the expansion of Magadhan boundaries both westward and northward.[8]

By ensuring the neutrality of these powerful contenders, Bimbisāra diverted all his attention to annexation of Anga. He took possession of Aṅga after defeating Brahmadatta. We have direct and indirect literary references of Magadhan conquest of Aṅga. From the Champeyya Jataka we learn, these two neighbouring states were frequently engaged in warfare. The river Campā flowed between the two neighbouring states. Once, defeated by the king of Campā, the Magadhan king tried to commit suicide by drowning himself in the river. A serpent king staying nearby stopped him from doing so and helped him to conquer and annex the kingdom of Campā.[9] The Mahāvagga speaks of Bimbisāra ruling over eighty thousand townships and in an assembly of them there was one Sona Kolivisa of Campā, thus indirectly proved that Campā was under Magadhan authority.[10] B. C. Law on the basis of this particular evidence believes that Aṅga definitely came under Bimbisāra’s sway.[11] We have the exactly opposite evidence from the Jataka itself. The Vidhurapandita Jataka called Rājagṛha a far off city of Aṅga kingdom and describes it as a very beautiful city like the capital of Indra.[12] Though the credibility of this account may be questioned, yet if we go by this account then it certainly indicates that Rājagṛha might have gone under Aṅga’s possession at some point of time. From all probability it emerges from the references that the two neighbouring states were engaged in frequent warfare in which the capital cities used to pass from one kingdom to another. But the final and decisive turn of events went in Magadha’s favour under Bimbisāra.

The conquest and annexation of Aṅga had deep implications. It launched Magadha into a career of ceaseless campaigns which ultimately ended with Aśokan conquest of Kalinga.[13] V. A. Smith sums up this achievement very well. To quote him “the first step taken by the kingdom of Magadha in its advance to greatness and the position of supremacy which attained in the following century, so that Bimbisāra may be regarded as the real founder of the Magadhan imperial power. He strengthened his position by matrimonial alliances with the two neighbouring states viz. Kośala and Vaiśālī. He took one consort from the royal family of Kośala and another from the influential Licchavi clan at Vaiśālī.”[14]

Bimbisāra like an able monarch and a sound diplomat maintained good relations with other important contemporary rulers. King Pradyota of Ujjaini was once suffering from jaundice which no one could cure. On Pradyota’s request Bimbisāra sent Jivaka-the famous physician of Rajagriha to treat him. On his recovery Pradyota gifted both the physician and his master with fine silk clothes.[15] Bimbisāra also received an embassy and a letter from Pukkusati–the king of Gandhara.[16]

Footnotes and references:


Vishnupuranam op.cit. part IV, section XXIV, p.307.


H. C. Raychaudhuri, Seniya Bimbisara, The Indian Historical Quarterly, vol. I, no. I, Calcutta, March 1925, pp. 86-7


E.B. Cowell, Buddhacharita or Life of Buddha, book XI, p. 133, Cambridge, 1894.


Wilhelm Geiger translated, The Mahavamsa or The great Chronicle of Ceylon, London, Oxford,Published for the Pali Society,1912, p.12.


E.B.Cowell ed & translated from Pali by W.H.D.Rouse, The Jātaka or Stories of The Buddha’s Former Births, vol. ll, Delhi, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1990, no. 239, Harita Mata Jataka, p.164.


Padmanabh S. Jaini,The Jaina path of Purification, Delhi, Motila Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1979, p. 276.


A. Sen op.cit. p.22.


H.C. Raychaudhuri, Political History of Ancient India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.103.


E.B. Cowell, ed., &translated from Pali by W.H.D. Rouse,The Jātaka or Stories of The Buddha’s Former Births, vol. IV, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1901, no. 506,Champeyya Jataka, p.281.


Friedrich Maxmüller ed. & translated from Pali by T.W. Rhys Davids and Hermann Oldenberg, Mahavagga, Fifth Khandaka. I.I, Vinaya Text, Part ll, Sacred Book of the East, Vol 17, Oxford, 1882,Patimokkha p.1.


B.C. Law, The Magadhas in Ancient India, The Royal Asiatic society, London, 1946, p.8.


E. B. Cowell ed. &translated from Pali by E.B. Cowell and W.H.D. Rouse, The Jātaka or Stories of The Buddha’s Former Births, vol.VI, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1907, no. 545,Vidhurapandita Jataka, pp.126-55.


H. C. Raychaudhuri op.cit. 1923, p.104.


Cited by B.C.Law op.cit. 1946, pp.8-9.


Mahavagga op.cit.1882, 8.1.23, pp.189-90.


H.C.Raychaudhuri op.cit. 1923, p.108.

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