Settlement in Early Historic Ganga Plain

by Chirantani Das | 143,447 words

This page relates “Rajagriha at the cross-roads of religious affiliations” 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 9 - Rājagṛha at the cross-roads of religious affiliations

With the consolidation of political power and an expansionist policy pursued by the Haryaṅkas, the Magadha Mahājanapada managed to create an important place for itself and Rājagṛha as the capital of Magadha, not only performed a range of administrative functions but was an important part of the broad cultural scene created by the non-Vedic new religious movements. It is notable that these were essentially city based cultures and Rājagṛha shared the frame with other contemporary cities. It played a significant role in disseminating the message of these new philosophies, connecting and incorporating places to create a religious topography, especially a Buddhist one.

Dilip K. Chakrabarti in his paper titled “Buddhist sites across South Asia as Influenced by Political and Economic forces” has highlighted this closeness of Buddhism and urbanity. He has pointed out that both monarchical and republican states were closely linked to Buddhism and the settlement types mentioned in the Buddhist texts were normal villages, villages of exclusive professional groups, market towns, cities and large cities. The last type of settlements were in most cases capitals of newly emerged states and the most important were Śrāvastī, Saketa, Kauśāmbī, Rajagṛha, Campā and Vārāṇasī. All these cities located in northern India in the Middle Gaṅgā Plain formed the core area of the Buddha’s movement. The Middle Gaṅgā Plain itself was the home of all heretical movements, challenging Brahmanical ritualism and dominance and certainly provided a common rationale to the growth of celebrated sects like the Buddhists, Jains, Ājīvikas and so on in the Middle Gaṅgā Plain. References to urban centres far outnumber those of rural settlements. The most quoted city site was Śrāvastī immediately followed by Rajagṛha and other cities already mentioned. So a Buddhist circle was created along these cities and this was supported by archaeological remains of Budhhist sites. The architectural remains of Buddhist monastic establishments dated from6th century BCE to 12th-13th centuries CE may be noted mainly along the trade routes in the urban orbit of some great cities.[1] A careful study of the relation among trade, urbanism and Buddhism may reveal the true cultural and ideological the temperament of the age that reflected the societal preparedness to see the growth of cities.

While Buddhism received much patronage from the people there were numerous other sects which find mention in the Buddhist literature. In fact, Rājagṛha was one of the earliest strongholds of heresy and on one occasion we see Ajatashatru-the Magadhan king meeting with the leaders of six heretical sects with his philosophical questions before he met the Buddha. They were Purana Kassapa, Makkhaliputta Goshala, Ajita Keshakambali, Pakudha Kacchayana, Sanjaya Belatthiputta and Nigantaha Nathaputta. All these sects had their own distinct philosophy and followers.[2] Here Nigantha Nāthaputta was the leader of the Jains and Makkhaliputta Gośāla was that of the Ājīvikas-two other most widely popular sects. The birth and progress of these sects were related to Rājagṛha. Presence of these sects at Rājagṛha has been attested in the Jatakas which also speak of the same ascetics and the same incident.[3] The Dīgha Nikāya also reports about some other ascetics. We have the reference of one ascetic Suppiya and his disciple Brahmadatta who met The Buddha at Ᾱmbalithika and the former was continuously abusing the Buddha and the latter went on defending him.[4] Another naked ascetic whom the Buddha met on the way from Vaishali to Kalaramutthuka enjoyed great gain and fame at the Vajjian capital.[5] Again at Rajagriha the Buddha was staying at the Vulture’s peak at the same time wanderer Nigrodha was staying at Udumbarika Lodging with as many as 3000 followers.[6] So even before the rise of the Buddha or Buddhism a rich and strong current of asceticism already flowed in Magadha. This created the cultural context ready for the growth of Buddhism as the champion of heretical movements. On the other hand while Rājagṛha’s importance for the growth of Buddhism in its initial phase cannot be denied Rājagṛha must also be seen as the old centre of heresy that did not hinder the growth of a new protestant faith rather nourished it with a favourable cultural climate and ready acceptance.

It has already been hinted that Rājagṛha was central to early Buddhism. It has also been furnished that how Buddhism suited the needs of the age and fulfilled the requirements of diverse groups. Ideologically it offered an umbrella like space, catering and satisfying the social needs of the people and practically, King Bimbisāra’s closeness and patronage to Buddhism and other heterodox sects encouraged the people of Aṅga-Magadha to freely accept Buddhism, Jainism and other lesser known sects. In fact Rājagṛha was a city where 36000 merchants stayed. Half of them were Buddhists and the other half were Jains. Rājagṛha-as the capital of Magadha and at the height of prosperity during the Buddha’s times formed the core of a bigger client area of early Buddhism in Aṅga-Magadha. Buddhism found a large number of followers in the Bodhgaya-Gaya Rājagṛha-Nālandā belt. It is well known that the Buddha achieved his Enlightenment in Uruvela later named as Bodhgaya. He also won a major milestone at Bodhgaya as he impressed three ascetics Uruvela Kassapa, Nadi Kassapa and Gaya Kassapa with a following of 500, 300 and 200 jaṭilas and eventually got them converted to Buddhism. This incident reveals that Bodhgaya already had an old culture of asceticism. Uruvela Kassapa had a considerable lay following among the people of Aṅga-Magadha. Victory of Buddha over these ascetics certainlymade his position stronger and brought him a large number of followers. Now he had one thousand jaṭilas under him. From Bodhgaya he went to Gayasisa and finally moved to Rājagṛha.[7] We often see the Buddha and his order moving through all these places. In fact his frequent movement to all those contemporary cities of Rājagṛha, Śrāvastī, Vārāṇasī, Kauśāmbī, Vaiśālī was along the trade routes that provided an elaborate network of roadways. The spread of Buddhism along the trade routes can be archaeologically documented. Bodhgaya’s Neolithic legacy was represented by Neolithic village of Taradih just beside the Mahabodhi temple but its rise as a prominent religious site was due to Aśoka’s missionary zeal to promote such places like Bodhgaya or Sārnāth related to some important events of the life of the Buddha. To commemorate the centrality and importance of these places to Buddhism stūpas were constructed on corporeal remains of the Buddha. Though on the basis of references made by Fa-Hien, Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing its construction was dated to the Gupta or even late Gupta period of about 420- 600 CE[8] its offered milk-rice or Payesa to the Buddha when he failed to attain nirvāṇa after his extreme penance. So Bodhgaya formed a composite Buddhist spot with architecturally and archaeologically identifiable monumental remains.

The modern village of Kurkihar, standing on a mound is located 14 miles east of Gaya and 5 km north-east of Wazirgunj and may be accessed by Gaya-Nawada road. The site is well known for its excellent metal arts first brought to notice by Major Kittoe. In 1847 he recovered ten cart loads of Buddhist metal images during his second visit to the spot. In his brief survey he speaks of the vast mound that he identified as a monastery and big town site. He found many more Buddhist spots in this region. Murhat, 15 km south-west of Gaya is the most important one for having a citadel and monasteries. Other monastic sites were Chillor, 2 miles from Murhat, Matka, Manda, Boorha, Gooneria and two mounds near Sherghati. Concentration of these sites in the Wazirgunj renders it an archaeologically detectable Buddhist topography. This is attested by large number of miniature caityas located in rows stretching for several hundred feet in the north-south. Dilip K. Chakrabarti has identified BRW/NBPW layers in the site. The site probably rose as a fortified site and later assumed the Buddhist colour. Discovery of Kurkihar in the Gayā-Bodhgayā region has strengthened the Buddhist inclination of the place. So a vast Buddhist area comprising Bodhgayā-Gayā-Rājagṛha-Nālandā and the peripheral sites like Kurkihargrew up since the days of the Buddha. This was also confirmed by the discovery of contemporaneous BRW-NBPW sherds.[9] Another important religious landmark of the area was the Barabar hills also called Gorathagiri in the Mahābhārata and the Hathigumpha inscription of king Kharavela of Kalinga. In the inscriptions of Aśoka and his grandson Daśaratha and in the Mahābhāṣya these hills were called Khalatika parvat. But the Barabar hills are mainly known for its rock cut caves donated by Aśoka and Daśaratha. Buddhist link to this spot is visible in the form of broken images and other ruins. Maukhari inscriptions of 5th- 6th centuries CE also spoke about installation of Hindu deities somewhere in this area. So to the modern visitor the area will appear as a summit of different faiths. Though the Hindu connection to the place is of a fairly later date, in the last half of the 1st millennium BCE the place was a celebrated centre mainly of the Ājīvikas and even of the Buddhists.[10] Hence, this terrain of ancient Gaya-Bodhgaya had a strong religious flavour in their settlement logic and formed an important portion of the religious topography of ancient Magadha.

Footnotes and references:


Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Buddhist sites across South Asia as Influenced by Political and Economic forces, in World Archaeology, vol. 27, no. 2, Buddhist Archaeology, Routledge, 1995,pp.185-202.


Digha Nikaya, op. cit., 1995, Sammana phalasutta, pp 91-97.


E.B.Cowell ed. The Jātaka or the stories of the Buddha’s former Births, vol.I, op.cit., no. 150, Sanjīva Jataka, 1990,p.320.


Dīgha Nikāya,op.cit., Brahmajala Sutta, p.67.


Ibid, Patika Sutta, p.374.


Ibid, Udumbarika Sutta, p-385.


The Mahavagga, 1. 15.1, 19.1, 21.1, Vinaya Text, Part 1, op. cit., 1882, pp.118,124,135.


Arun Kumar Singh, The Archaeology of the Magadha Region, New Delhi, Ramanand Vidya Bhavan, 1991, p. 7.


Dilip K. Chakrabarti, The Archaeological Geography of the Ganga Plain, New Delhi, Permanent Black, 2001, pp. 181-82.


Arun Kumar Singh, op.cit.,1991, pp. 9,10

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