Notes from the Designer #14 -- India's First Empire

The Kingdom of Magadha

To understand the military campaigns fought by the Mauryas, we need to understand something political and cultural environment that gave rise to both Chandragupta Maurya and the eastern Indian kingdom that gave rise to the dynasty he overthrew.

As you recall (way back in Notes from the Designer #3, the two ancient Vedic tribes, the Purus and the eponymous Bharatas, formed the Kuru nation in what today is called Hiryana state in northwest India (and includes the national capital of Delhi). Sometime in the 11th century BCE, the descendants of the celebrated Kuru monarch, Janamejaya – said to be the great-grandson of Arjuna, the warrior-hero of Mahabharata fame – expanded the kingdom eastward into what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh. By the 6th century BCE, the Kuru mantle had expanded further eastward to encompass a large state in eastern India, rich for its fertile soil and positioned strategically between the upper and lower parts of the Gangetic plain. This was the state of Magadha, located in today’s south Bihar.

The 6th and 5th centuries BCE were a period of revolutionary religious, social, and political changes in India, and the kingdom Magadha was in the thick of it. Two of the world’s great religions, Buddhism and Jainism, were founded in Magadha during this period, revealing a broad outlook reflected in social polity as well. As K. N. Sastri explains, Brahmins in the realm could fraternize with Vaishyas, Kshatriyas could admit plebian (Sudra) girls to their harem, “blue-blooded aristocrats” could be done to death by the child of a courtesan, and a barber could aspire to imperial dignity.

As with the evolution of universal religion, the ambition for pan-Indian empire was also fostered by the outward-looking Magadhans. Though the early dynastic history of Magadha is shrouded in myth, the historical record coalesces roughly around 560 BCE with the Haryanka dynasty. It was at this time that prince Bimbisara – only fifteen years old at the time – was anointed king. Ruling for some 52 years, Bimbisara launched his kingdom’s career in conquest and aggrandizement, a program of imperialism that would not end until Ashoka Maurya sheathed his sword after the conquest of Kalinga in 261 BCE.

Magadha’s most powerful rival was the kingdom of Avanti (modern Malwa in Uttar Pradesh). Founded by a regicide minister named Pulaka, the Pradyota dynasty of Avanti had brought under its subjection a number of neighboring states, all coveted by Magadha. The opportunity to seize Avanti would come in 422 BCE with, ironically, the slaying of Magadha’s king. Apparently a weakling, this king was the last of descendant of Bimbisara. His murderer, a man by the name of Sishunaga (“little slave of the Nagas”), proved a powerful ruler when he mounted Magadha’s throne in 422. Immediately Sishunaga set out for conquest. He “destroyed the glory of the Pradyotas,” defeating their large army and conquering Avanti. Soon after, the powerful kingdoms of Kosala and Vatsa were annexed to Magadha as well.
Of the dynasties that had ruled over Magadha, Avanti, Kosala and Vatsa at the time of the Buddha’s nirvana in the mid 6th century BCE, the genealogies of all come to an abrupt end 140 years later, after the ascension of Sishunaga to the Magadhan throne. Magadha’s dominions in this time became large enough to be called an empire, and Sishunaga thus the first Indian king who could be called an emperor. Sishunaga’s son, called Kakavarna – meaning “crow-colored”, apparently because of his dark complexion – succeeded him (peacefully) in 383 BCE. A patron of Buddhism and an able leader, Kakavarna moved the capital of Magadha to the city of Pataliputra. Founded on the south bank of the Ganges in 500 BCE, the city would withstand the test of time for 2,500 years. Today, under the name Patna, it is the capital of the state of Bihar.

Sishunaga’s dynasty, however, would not prove as long-lived. A powerful official within Kakavarna’s court, a man who bore the name Nanda, had earned the confidence of the monarch. According to the Puranas (a genre of Hindu literature treating history, tradition, and religious myth), though, this Nanda was the son of a Sudra woman and Mahanandin – the last king of the Haryanka dynasty, murdered by Kakavarna’s father some forty years earlier. Undoubtedly, this Nanda and his sympathizers must have considered Sishunaga and Kakavarna as usurpers.

Nanda and his group waited for the right opportunity to seize the throne. When the time came, an agent of the Nanda faction thrust a dagger into Kakavarna’s throat. Nanda reclaimed the usurped Magadhan throne. But Nanda’s dynasty was destined to last no longer than Sishunaga’s.

Next week: The Nandas.