The Monarchs who patronized Mahavira and Buddha

Magadha an area comprising southern Bihar is referred in the Atharvaveda as a place where the Vratyas inhabited. As regards to its political history according to some version it was Brhadratha a descendant of the Kuru clan who was responsible for the establishment of the Magadha kingdom. During the time of Mahabharata, it was ruled by Jarasanda with its capital Girivraja. Probably the capital got its name Girivraja as it was surrounded by various hills. The Mahabharata describes it as a city situated in a forest of sweet-scented flowers and impregnable on account of its being surrounded by the lofty hills of Vaihara, Varaha, Vrshabha, Rishigiri and Chaityaka. The city was also known as Rajgir or old Rajagraha, a term which has been derived from the supposed fact that every house in it was like a palace. The kingdom of Magadha had obtained a great reputation in the pre-Buddhist period as a centre of wealth and stronghold of learning.

Beginning from 6th century B.C. to 6th century A.D. for over a millennium the kingdom of Magadha played an important role in Indian political, cultural and religious spheres. Ruling from Magadha various dynasties like the Mauryas and Guptas established their sway over vast parts of India. This was here that Buddhism, Jainism and sects like Ajjivikas flourished and during the rule of the Guptas, Magadha was a strong centre of orthodox Hinduism. This was the land which gave philosopher like Ashvagosha, economist and political scientist like Chanakya, grammarian like Panini and astronomer like Aryabhatta. The political ascendancy of Magadha began with the rule of Bimbisara and his son Ajathashatru.

Bimbisara (582-544 B.C.) was the son of Bhattiya or Mahapadma. According to Dr. Bhandarkar, Bimbisara was originally a senapati probably of the Vajjis who held sway over Magadha and ultimately made himself king. This inference is made by the learned scholar from the epithet Shrenika or Seniya that Bimbisara possessed. Dr.Bhandarkar also opines that Bimbisara belonged to the great Naga dynasty as distinguished from Shishunaga who as the name shows belonged to little Naga dynasty. But according to Ashwagosha’s Buddhacharita, Bimbisara was a scion of Haryanka kula.

Bimbisara was fifteen-year old when he was crowned as king by his own father and through matrimonial alliances, he expanded his kingdom. His first wife was a sister of Prasenajit, the king of Kosala who gave him the dowry of a village in Kashi. His second wife was Chellana, daughter of the Lichchhavi chief Chetaka. Another wife was Khema, daughter of the king of Madra in central Punjab. Bimbisara defeated Brahmadatta the king of Anga and annexed his kingdom. With the conquest of Anga and peaceful acquisition of Kashi, the territorial expansion of the kingdom of Magadha occurred.

Bimbisara maintained good relationship even with rulers far away and the king of Gandhara, Pukkusati sent an embassy to his court. According to Kamta Prasad Jain, the king of Gandhara sent an embassy probably with the object of invoking Bimbisara’s assistance against the threatened advance of the Achaemenid power. We also learn from the Jaina sources that Bimbisara sent a contingent of his troops to help a border king who was his ally and the young general who led this army was the merchant prince Jambu Kumara, who after returning triumphantly from this campaign adopted the life of a Jaina monk at the feet of Mahavira. Bimbisara had good relations with the king of Avanti, Pradyota and sent his famous physician Jivaka when the former fell ill. Bimbisara’s kingdom include in it a number of republican or semi-independent communities.

Bimbisara was a powerful, kind and just king. He maintained rigid control over his officers and to ascertain the internal affairs of his kingdom he used to meet the headmen of all the villages. According to Mahavagga, his dominion contained 80,000 townships, the overseer of these towns called Gamikas used to meet in a great assembly. He rebuilt his capital Rajagraha.

Both Jainas and Buddhists claim Bimbisara as their follower. Bimbisara is said to have met Buddha at Rajagriha and embraced his doctrines. He also lent his personal physician Jivaka to work as medical adviser in attendance on the Buddha and his Order. According to Muni Nagraj, Bimbisara’s father followed the faith of Parshvanatha, the predecessor of Mahavira and hence Jainism was the hereditary religion of Bimbisara. Moreover, the chief centre of activity for Mahavira was Rajagriha while it was Shravasti for Buddha. Also, Bimbisara’s contemporaneity with Mahavira is thirteen years while with Buddha is just three years. Therefore, Muni Nagraj claims that though Bimbisara patronized Buddhism he was a follower of Jainism. According to tradition, Bimbisara built many shrines on the summit of Parasnath hill in Bihar.

The last days of Bimbisara was tragic. He was imprisoned by his own son Ajathashatru who usurped the throne. According to Jaina version, Ajathashatru being ambitious, he put his father into prison and himself occupied the throne. Later he repented and came with a chisel to set his father free. But on seeing him, Bimbisara anticipated that he will be murdered and committed suicide. According to Buddhist accounts, Ajathashatru was instigated by Devadatta to imprison his father and usurp the throne. Later Ajathashatru ordered a barber to cut his father’s feet with a weapon smeared with salt and oil and Bimbisara died due to infection.

Ajathashatru (493-462 B.C.) also known as Kunika was the son of Bimbisara through his wife Chellana according to Jaina version while the Buddhist version says that his mother was Kosaladevi. He was acting as a uparaja or viceroy of Anga during his father’s reign. Ajathashatru extended his kingdom through conquest. Soon after the death of Bimbisara, queen Kosaladevi died due to grief. She was the sister of the king of Kosala, Prasenajit who had given Bimbisara the village Kashi as dowry. Prasenajit did not like a parricide to inherit Kashi and hence to recover it waged a war with Ajathashatru. Ajathashatru was defeated and taken captive. But later Prasenajit gave his daughter Vajira in marriage to Ajathashatru gave her Kashi as a gift.

Bimbisara as we know had married the daughter of Chetaka, the Lichchhavi ruler of Vaishali and had sons, Halla and Vehalla from her. It is said that Bimbisara had given some jewels to Halla and Vehalla and they had refused to part with it when Ajathashatru claimed it after his accession to the throne. These brothers then took refuge at Vaishali and when Ajathashatru demanded their extradition, their grandfather, Chetaka refused to hand them over. This made Ajathashatru declare war upon Vaishali. According to Buddhist version a jewel mine was discovered at the foot of a hill at a port on the river Ganga and it was agreed that Ajathashatru and the Lichchhavis should have an equal share of the gems. The Lichchhavis violated this agreement and so the conflict began. The Lichchhavis at that time headed a vast confederacy of 36 republican states and were quite formidable militarily and it took nearly sixteen years for Ajathashatru to finally subdue Vaishali. Ajathashatru also took steps to prevent the ruler of Avanti from attacking Magadha taking advantage of Magadha’s prolonged conflict with the Lichchhavis.

As in the case of Bimbisara, both Jainas and Buddhists claim Ajathashatru as their follower. According to Buddhist tradition after Buddha’s death, Ajathashatru sent a message to the Mallas of Kushinara for giving him a share of Buddha’s ashes and built a stupa thereon. He also attended the first Buddhist council which was held at Rajagriha and provided all hospitalities to the delegates who attended it. But according to Muni Nagraj, Ajathashatru’s submission to Buddha was just a formal thing and he was not a follower of Buddha. Ajathashatru met Buddha only once whereas he often visited Mahavira and even attended the religious discourses of Sudharma Swami, the successor of Mahavira. Dr. Smith also opines that the Jaina claim appears to be well founded. Similarly R.K.Mukherjee says that Ajathashatru was a follower of Mahavira and hence Jaina accounts portray him positively while his character is blackened by the Buddhist sources. Ajathashatru was succeeded by his son Udayibhadda.


    • J.N.Samaddar- The Glories of Magadha, Calcutta, 1927

    • Muni Nagraj- King Bimbisara and King Ajatashatru in the Age of Mahavira and Buddha, Jaina Vishva Bharati, Ladnun, Rajasthan, 1974

    • S.Ramakrishnan Edited – The History and Culture of the Indian People– vol II- The Age of Imperial Unity, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 2001

    • V.Rangacharya- History of Pre-Musalman India, vol II, Vedic India, The Indian Publishing House, Madras, 1937

    • H.C. Rayachaudhuri – Political History of Ancient India– From the accession of Parikshit to the extinction of the Gupta Dynasty, University of Calcutta, 1923

    • Kamta Prasad Jain- Some Historical Jaina Kings and Heroes, The Jain Mittra Mandal, Delhi, 1941

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