Magadha empire

The Factors that led to the rise of Magadha:

  • This rise of Magadha Imperialism is unique in Indian history. The political history of India from the earliest times till the present day is an endless story of struggle between the forces of centralization and decentralization.
  • In the sixth century B.C., India presented the chronic symptom of disintegration. The Aryan India in the North was divided into, sixteen great kingdoms and a number of republican, autonomous states.
  • Out of the four powerful kingdoms viz., Avanti, Vatsa, Kosala and Magadha, Magadha Empire rose into prominence by aggrandizing upon other weaker states. They entered into a four-power conflict for imperial supremacy which ended in the ultimate victory of Magadha Kingdom over them. It is the first successful attempt for imperial and dynastic unification of India in the period of recorded history.
  • The factors that contributed to the rise of Magadha Empire were both internal and external. Collectivist historians emphasize that situation and circumstances makes a leader in history. It is not that leaders create history. But in reality actors and factors collaborate in the creation of historical changes.
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Geographical Factors:

  • Magadha lay on the main land route connecting Eastern India with the West. She could easily control the trade between the two regions of the country.
  • Capitals were at strategic position : Rajgir was surrounded by 5 hills and Pataliputra was surrounded by Ganga, Gandak, Son and Ghagra river i.e. it was true Jaladurga(Waterfort).
  • Magadha Empire was encircled by the Ganges, the Son and the Champa rivers on the three sides and made it impregnable for the enemy. Her old capital Rajgriha was strategically situated as it was surrounded on all sides by hills and cyclopean stone walls.
  • Magadha’s new capital Pataliputra was still more strategically invincible than Rajgriha. It was situated on near the confluence of the Ganges and the Son. It was easier to control the course of the Ganges from the city of Pataliputra.
  • Rivers also made military movements easier for Magadha.
  • These geographical advantages of Magadha helped her to be aggressive against her neighbours while baffled by the impregnability of Magadha.
  • Due to availability of Elephant, Magadh used it in war against enemy,

Economic Factors:

  • One of the main factors behind the rise of Magadhan Power was her economic solvency and growing prosperity. Magadha had a vast population which could be employed in agriculture, mining and for manning her army. The Sudras and the non-Aryans could be employed in clearing up the forest and reclaim surplus land for farming. The surplus population could easily live on the yield of the surplus land.
  • The Magadhan lands were very fertile due to its location between the Ganges and the Son. In the 4th Century B.C. that the Magadhan lands yielded multiple crops round the year. People of Magadhan Empire became prosperous due to fertility of the land and the government became automatically rich and powerful.

Mineral Resources:

  • The mineral resources of Magadha were other sources of her power and prosperity. With the dawn of the Iron Age, iron became an important metal for making implements, plough shears and weapons of war. Magadha had abundant iron supply from Rajgir mines. Besides Magadha had copper mines. Magadha could equip her vast army with iron weapons; she could sell surplus iron to other states. Deep ploughing with heavy iron plough was possible due to easy supply of iron.
  • Iron mines were also available to Avanti, on account of which Avanti proved to be the most serious competitor of Magadha for the supremacy of north India.

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  • Magadha was situated on the land route connecting Eastern India with the west. The trade flowing over this route passed through Magadha. The river Ganges which flowed through the heart of Magadha was the high route of trade in Northern India.
  • Magadha was linked up to parts of Northern India right up to Kasi or Baranasi by the Ganga route and from Prayag or Allahabad; the place of confluence of Ganga and Yamuna, Magadha could send her merchandise along the Yamuna route up to Delhi region.  Downwards from Magadha the open sea could be reached by the Ganga route. The Son and the Champa flowed along the Magadhan frontier.
  • In ancient times river routes served as high way of commerce. Magadha could control the North Indian trade through her mastery over the Ganges.
  • When Bimbisara conquered Anga kingdom, its flourishing port of Champa was annexed to Magadha. Champa was a famous river port from which ocean (Bay of Bengal) going vessels laden with merchandise sailed to different countries of South-East Asia, Ceylon and South India.

Significance of the Ganges:

  • The rise of Magadhan Kingdom was linked up with the establishment of her supremacy over the Ganges.
  • After annexation of Champa, Magadha Empire now turned to establish her supremacy over the upper Gangetic region.Bimbisara and Ajatsatru defeated Kosala and annexed Kasi, a famous river port and emporium. The mastery over Kasi, gave Magadha the opportunity to make economic penetration in Kosala kingdom or U. P. Virtually the southern side of the Ganges now came under Magadhan hegemony, where she started ceaseless economic penetration.
  • Magadha turned her gaze to the northern side of the Ganges, Vaisali and Lichchavi countries. The fertile tracts this region became targets of Magadhan imperialism. The conquest of Vaisali and Lichchavi countries gave Magadha a supreme mastery over the Gangetic valley and she became virtually invincible.
  • Magadha launched the programme of a pan-Indian empire depending on the strength of her heal timid in the Gangetic valley.

Cultural Factors:

  • Culturally, the rise of Magadha can be explained on the ground that Magadha was the meeting ground of two opposite cultures. The Aryan culture lost its original virility when it reached Magadha and the lingering traces of non-Aryan culture of Eastern India got mixed up with the Aryan culture. This interaction of two cultures gave new power and spirit to Magadha Empire.
  • In the sphere of thought and philosophy Eastern India made her mark in the teaching of Mahavira and Buddha. The revolution inaugurated by them in the sphere of thought was supplemented by Magadha in political field by the emergence of Magadhan imperialism and the Magadhan bid to establish a pan-Indian empire.

Political Factors:

  • Politically, the fulfillment of Magadhan dream of imperial unification of India under Magadhan banner was possible due to the political atomization of Northern India in the 6th Century B.C. The rivalry among big monarchies prevented their alliance against Magadha. None but the republican states under Vriji made common alliances against Magadha. The geographical and the natural barriers like the rivers, mountains and jungles prevented the fostering of a united resistance movement against Magadha.
  • An unbroken chain of very able and extraordinary monarchs ascended the Magadhan throne. Dynastic monarchy is generally cursed with incompetent rulers. But in that particular period of time Magadha was exception to this rule. The credit for the rise of Magadha Empire goes to the competent rulers or Magadha Kingdom. Shishunaga, Bimbisara, Ajatasatru, Mahapadma and Chandragupta were exceptionally able kings. They were fortunate in having great ministers and diplomats like Vassakara, Kautilya and Radha Gupta without whose efforts Magadhan ascendancy would have suffered.

Danger of Foreign Invasions:

  • Externally, the threat of foreign invasions like that of Achaemenians in the 6th century B.C.; that of the Macedonians in the 4th Century B.C. and the subsequent infiltration of foreign races boldly put forward the question that without a central paramount government on the subcontinent, it was impossible to defend it from foreign invasions. Such a consciousness certainly worked behind the rise of Magadhan imperialism and prepared the country to submit to Magadhan hegemony.

Magadha Dynasties:

(1)Haryanka dynasty (c. 600 – 413 BC)

  • According to tradition, the Haryanka dynasty founded the Magadha Empire in 600 BC, whose capital was Rajagriha, later Pataliputra, near the present day Patna. This dynasty lasted until 424 BC, when it was overthrown by the Shishunaga dynasty.

(a)Bimbisara (543–491 BC):

  • Bimbisara was a King, and later, Emperor of the Magadha empire. His expansion of the kingdom, especially his annexation of the kingdom of Anga to the east, is considered to have laid the foundations for the later expansion of the Maurya Empire. Bimbisara built the city of Rajagriha, famous in Buddhist writings.
  • According to Buddhist scriptures, King Bimbisara met the Buddha for the first time prior to the Buddha’s enlightenment, and later became an important disciple that featured prominently in certain Buddhist suttas. He is recorded to have attained sotapannahood, a degree of enlightenment in Buddhist teachings.
  • Jain scriptures, on the other hand, described Bimbisara as a disciple of Mahavira who frequently sought his teachings. As per Jain texts, he is referred to as King Shrenika of Rajgriha (being the possessor of a large army). Bimbisara sent Jivaka to Ujjain for medical treatment of King Pradyota, the king of Avanti.

Marriage Alliances:

  • Bimbisara used marriage alliances to strengthen his position. His first wife was Kosala Devi, the sister of Prasenjit (king of Kosala). His bride brought him Kashi as dowry. Kashi was useful for trade. This marriage also ended the hostility between Magadha and Kosala and gave him a free hand in dealing with the other states.
  • Bimbisara’s second wife, Chellana, was a Lichchhavi princess from Vaishali. Mahavira was related to Queen Chellana who was daughter of Mahavira’s uncle ( King Chetaka).
  • Bimbisara’s third wife, Kshema, was a daughter of the chief of the Madra clan of Punjab.
  • Bimbisara was imprisoned by his son Ajatashatru in the prison of Rajgriha to ascend the throne of the kingdom of Magadha.

(b)Ajatashatru (491–460 BC):

  • According to Jaina tradition (“Nirayavalika Sutta” of Jaina Aagams), Ajatasatru was born to king Bimbisara and Queen Chelna; Buddhist tradition (Digha Nikaya Atthakatha) records Ajatasatru being born to King Bimbisara and queen Kosala Devi. Both the queens were called “Vaidehi” in both the traditions. Thus Ajatasatru being called Vaidehi putra in the inscription at Mathura museum.
  • Ajatasatru, with the help of his two ministers Sunidha and Vassakara, built a fort near the banks of the river Ganges to strengthen the defense of Magadha (for war with Vaishali and to protect it from an invasion led by Pradyota of Avanti) and named it Patali Grama(village). Later it developed into a city, which soon became popular as Pataliputra, now known as Patna.
  • Ajatsatru reorganized and strengthened his army and equipped it with new weapons.(war engine which was use to throw stone like catapults). He also used a chariot to which a mace was attached for mass killing. He followed the policy of conquest and expansion.

War with Vaishali and Kosala:

  • He fought a terrible war against the Vajjis/Lichhavis and conquered the once considered invincible democratic Vaishali Republic. His opposition of the triba confederacy of the Vajjis, headed by Lichchhavis of Vaishali was part of general monarchical antagonism against tribal polities.
  • The immediate pretext of war was that the traders complained the double imports collected by Magadhan king and Lichchhavis king, both claiming full control of Ganga. The first step was fortifying Pataliputra.
  • According to Buddhist tradition (Jaina tradition also mentions attack on Vaishali)., it is almost impossible to fight against the whole confederacy of Vaisali. Ajatashatru sent his chief minister Vassakara to Lord Buddha to ask him the purpose of Vaisali being invincible, to which Lord Buddha gave seven reasons which included Vajjis being punctual to the meetings, their disciplined behavior, their respect for elders, respect for women, they do not marry their daughters forcefully, they give spiritual protection to the Arhats (who has attained nirvana) and the main reason was the Chaityas (altar) inside the town.
  • Thus, with the help of his minister Vassakara, Ajatasatru managed to split the Vajjis and also broke the chaityas inside. Ajatasatru attacked the town and conquered it.
  • There is also mention of Amrapali, a nagarvadhu (royal courtesan) of the republic of Vaishali. After defeating the king, Ajatasatru was in a relationship with Amrapali. Later, following the Buddha’s teachings she became an arahant.
  • He defeated his neighbours including the king of Kosala; his brothers, when at odds with him, went to Kashi (of “Kasi-Kosala”), which had been given to Bimbisara as dowry. This led to a war between Magadha and Kosala. Ajatshatru occupied Kashi and captured the smaller kingdoms.
  • After conquering Vaisali, Kasi and Kosala, Ajatasatru conquered 36 republican states surrounding his kingdom and firmly established the predominance of Magadha.

Ajatasatru’s Kingdom

  • King Pradyota of Avanti was powerful that time and Ajatashatru could not conquer it.


  • He was contemporary to Mahavira ( 540 BCE–468 BCE) and Buddha (563 BCE–483 BCE).
  • Ajatasatru enjoys a respectable position in both Jaina and Buddhist traditions. Both claim him as a close follower.
  • The Jaina claim appears to be well founded. Whereas Ajatasatru met Buddha only once, he had several meetings with Mahavira. Buddha spent only 5 monsoon camps in Rajgriha and none in Champa, Ajatasatru’s capital, while Mahavira spent 14 monsoon camps in Rajgriha and 3 in Champa.
  • May be he later embraced Buddhism.
  • The first Buddhist Council was held soon after the mahaparinirvana of the Buddha, dated by the majority of recent scholars around 400 BCE, under the patronage of king Ajatasatru with the monk Mahakasyapa presiding, at Sattapanni caves Rajgriha. Its objective was to preserve the Buddha’s sayings (suttas) and the monastic discipline or rules (Vinaya). The Suttas were recited by Ananda, and the Vinaya was recited by Upali.
  • According to Buddhist texts the four kings, who ruled Magadha after Ajatashatru, all killed their fathers.

(c)Udayabhadra / Udayin (460-444 BC):

  • The Mahavamsa text tells that Udayabhadra eventually succeeded his father, Ajatashatru, moving the capital of the Magadha kingdom to Pataliputra from Rajgriha.


  • He was last king of Haranyaka dynasty.

(2)Shishunaga dynasty:

  • Shishunaga, the founder of this dynasty was initially an amatya (minister) of the last Haryanka dynasty ruler Nagadasaka and ascended to the thone after a popular rebellion in 413 BCE. He temporarily shifted his capital to Vaishali. He defeated Avanti and brought to end 100 years old rivalry.
  • (Avanti became part of the Magadha empire during the rule of the Shaishunaga and the Nanda dynasties. During the Mauryan dynasty rule, Avanti became the Avantiraṭṭha or the western province of the empire, with its capital at Ujjayini)
  • Kalashoka Kakavara: According to the Puranas, Shishunaga was succeeded by his son Kakavarna and according to the Sinhala chronicles by his son Kalashoka.(both may be the same). Two most significant events of his reign are the Second Buddhist council at Vaishali in 383BC and the final transfer of capital to Pataliputra from Vaishali.
  • Nandivardhana or Mahanandin was probably the last ruler of this dynasty
  • This dynasty was succeeded by the Nanda dynasty in c.345 BCE.

(3)Nanda Dynasty (345–321 BCE):

  • The Nandas who usurped the throne of the Shishunaga dynasty were thought to be of low origin with some sources stating that the dynasty’s founder, Mahapadma, was the son of a Shudra mother.
  • First Nanda King Mahapadma Nanda, who has been described in the Puranas as “the destroyer of all the Kshatriyas”, defeated many other kingdoms, including the Panchalas, Kasis, Haihayas, Kalingas, Asmakas, Kurus, Maithilas, Surasenas etc.
  • He is known as Ekrat (Sole king who destroyed others). He conquered Kalinga and brought image of Jina with him. Hathigumpha inscription of Kharvela (of Kalinga) mentions conquest of Kalinga by Nanda.
  • He expanded his territory south of the Vindhya range, into the Deccan plateau.
  • The Nandas are sometimes described as the first empire builders in the recorded history of India. They inherited the large kingdom of Magadha and wished to extend it to yet more distant frontiers. To this purpose they built up a vast army. As described by Diodorus (a Greek historian.) and Quintus Curtius Rufus (a Roman historian), consisted of 200,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, 2,000 war chariots and 3,000 war elephants. According to Plutarch (Greek historian) the size of the Nanda army was, numbering 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8,000 war chariots, and 6,000 war elephants.
  • However, the Nandas never had the opportunity to see their army up against Alexander, who invaded India at the time of Dhana Nanda, since Alexander had to confine his campaign to the plains of Punjab, for his forces, frightened by the prospect of facing a formidable foe, mutinied at the Hyphasis River (the modern Beas River) refusing to march any further.
File:Asia 323bc.jpg

Asia in 323 BC, showing borders of the Nanda Empire in relation to Alexander’s Empire and neighbors

Map of Nanda Empire 323 BCE
  • The Nandas were also renowned for their immense wealth. They undertook irrigation projects and invented standardized measures for trade across their empire, and they ruled with the assistance of many ministers.
  • The Nanda Dynasty was also mentioned in the ancient Sangam literature of the Tamil people. The famous Tamil poet Mamulanar of the Sangam literature described the capital city Pataliputra of the Nanda Dynasty and the wealth and treasure that was accumulated by the great Nanda rulers.
  • Last king of Nand dynasty was Dhana Nanda (329 BCE – 321 BC).
  • Their unpopularity, possibly due to their “financial extortion”, facilitated a revolution, leading to their overthrow by Chandragupta Maurya and Kautilya. Nevertheless, “the greatness attained in the Maurya Age would hardly have been possible but for the achievements of their predecessors”, the Nandas.

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