Nestled in the modern state of Bihar, with a still abounding presence of iron ores, lies the erstwhile mahajanapada of Magadha. For nearly three centuries, this region became the hotbed of political intrigues, patricides and profound socio-political developments. The Haryanka dynasty was responsible for propelling Magadha to the apex of Bharatiya society around c. 6th century BC.
The first ruler in this lineage was Bimbisara, who many argue was the first great leader in the Indian subcontinent. Before understanding his politics and exploits, we must scan the Indian horizon of 6th century BCE.
Socio-economic and spiritual developments
This was a time when critical social changes were unfolding in Indian society. The earlier clan-based organization of state was disintegrating, and the transition to state systems had accelerated by the Later Vedic Age. Agricultural production had gained a fillip with the discovery and proliferation of iron tools, that reduced mobility and thus gave more reason for individuals to stick to a territory. These social and economic changes presaged the emergence of janapadas, that basically stood for regions rich in resources, particularly favourable for carrying out agrarian activities.
Paddy emerged as the pre-eminent crop, and the rich produce may have led to more rigid forms of taxation initiated by the state. Urban centres crystallised, and gradually began to determine the fortunes of the state and its people. Moreover, significant spiritual developments unfolded parallely. This included the emergence of heterodox sects like the Carvakas, and later the spiritual success of enlightened souls including Gautama Buddha and Mahavira. It must be noted that most of the information about the political history of this period is derived from Buddhist and Jaina literature, though the Puranas- composed long after this period- too provide an overview.
Buddhist and Jaina texts inform us about 16 mahajanapadas that flourished in the early 6th century BCE. These included monarchies (rajyas) like Magadha and oligarchies (ganas or sanghas) like the powerful Lichchhavis. Out of these Vatsa, Koshala, Magadha and Avanti dominated the political scene at least until the end of the 4th century BCE.
Bimbisara (544-492 BCE)
Bimbisara rose to power around the middle of the 5th century BCE, at the age of fifteen. The Buddhacharitha suggests that he belonged to the Haryanka kula, and his dynasty came to acquire its name ever since. He may not have been the founder of this dynasty, as texts explicitly mention him being coronated by his father. In fact, the first major battle fought by him was against Anga, where his victory has been depicted as retribution for an earlier loss to the same mahajanapada. Subsequently, his son Kunika (later Ajatashatru) was appointed governor of Angas capital Champa.
Bimbisaras first capital was at Girivraja (Rajagriha). He followed a sustained policy of expansion by forging marital alliances with neighbouring kingdoms. Some texts claim that he had as many as five hundred wives. One of his wives was the sister of Kosala king Presanjit and the other Chellana happened to be the daughter of a Lichchhavi chief. He also sent his physician Jivaka to attend to Pradyota, the king of Avanti, and this highlights his concern to maintain cordial relations with adjoining states. [ref]
Extent of kingdom and Administration
Thus, by the end of his rule, he had as many as 80,000 villages under his control. This included many republican communities under a leader called raja-kumara. The head of each village was called a gramika, and the chief officers were called mahamatras. The penal code was stringent, and defaulters often had their limbs mutilated. [ref]
Religious affiliation of Bimbisara
Both Buddhist and Jaina texts associate their respective creeds with Bimbisara. He is said to have met both Mahavira and Gautama in his lifetime. The Buddha had apparently visited Rajagriha and been accorded a grand reception by the king himself, who magnanimously gifted a park called Veluvana to the sangha.
Almost all accounts suggest that Bimbisaras death was the handiwork of his son Ajatashatru. While Buddhist sources argue that the latter simply killed his father, Jain accounts attribute it to a case of suicide. Nonetheless by the time of his alleged assassination, Bimbisara had established his supremacy over large parts of North India.
Ajatashatru (492-460 BCE)
Ajatashatru, who came to power around 491 BCE, proved himself to be an able successor to his illustrious father. The Kosala king Presanjit attacked his kingdom on the pretext of his criminal patricide (killing Bimbisara) that also consumed his sisters (i.e wife of Bimbisara) life. The war was protracted in nature, but Kosala was compelled to concede the strategically important region of Kashi. Another marital alliance was forged between the two kingdoms, as a Kosalan princess Vajira was handed over in marriage to Ajatashatru. The saga ended with a rebellion in the Kosalan kingdom, spearheaded by Presanjits son Vidudabha, that compelled the king to seek asylum in Magadha. It is said that Presanjit died at the gates of Rajagriha.
War with Lichchhavis
Ajatashatrus most significant achievement, however, was his victory over the Vrijji mahajanapada, that housed the oligarchical behemoths called the Lichchhavis. The pretext for the war, couched in Buddhist folklore, was an alleged breach of promise on the part of the Lichchhavis. They refused to share equally with Ajatashatru the contents of a jewel mine discovered at a port on the Ganga. Kosala and Kasi forged an alliance with the Lichchhavis and a protracted battle was fought for over 16 years. Many scholars consider this to be a conflict between two forms of state: oligarchy (as represented by the gana-sanghas) and monarchy (as represented by Magadha). The greatest strength of the gana-sanghas was their unity in times of adversity, but Ajatashatru tactfully sowed seeds of disunity. He sent two ministers, Sunidha and Vassakara to create dissension in their ranks, and this eventually paid off. Ajatashatru masterfully used the techniques of diplomacy (upalapana) and dissension (mitubheda), giving his army an upper hand over the scattered opponents. [ref]
The final military assault was launched with the help of two weapons: the rathamusala (a powerful chariot with an attached mace) and mahasilakantaka (catapult hurling big pieces of stone). Thus, he had decimated 8 Malla clans, 9 Lichchhavi clans and the forces of Kasi and Kosala in the span of 16 years. The only other kingdom that could boast of challenging Ajatashutra in terms of power and penetration was Avanti, with its ruler Pradyota. However, there isnt any record of conflict between Magadha and Avanti at least during Ajatashatrus lifetime.
Parallely, Ajatashutra fortified the city of Pataligrama, to preclude the emergence of a new theatre of conflict. His successor, Udaiyin, made this the capital of Magadha, and it came to be called Pataliputra.
Religious affiliation of Ajatashatru
Buddhist tradition informs us of Ajatashatru presiding over the first Buddhist council at Rajagriha. He is said to have visited Kusinagara after the death of Gautama Buddha. Moreover, there are legends of him going to Buddha to express remorse for his patricide. Jain sources narrate similar accounts of Ajatashutras adherence of Mahaviras doctrines.
Decline of Haryanka dynasty
Ajatashutra was followed by his son Udayabhadra or Udaiyin, whose greatest achievement was shifting the capital from Rajagriha to Pataliputra. Located in the confluence of the Ganga, Son and Ghaggar, Pataliputra remained strategically and commercially significant for at least two centuries. There are several successors to Udaiyin, as enlisted in Buddhist and Jain texts, but he seems to be the last significant ruler of the Haryanka dynasty. The last ruler of this dynasty- Nagadashaka was dethroned after a popular uprising and replaced by one of his Amatya Shishunaga who ruled for more than a decade. This ended a short-lived lineage that effectively defined the history of Bharatvarsha for over a century.