Chapter 5: RISE OF MAGADHA AND
The Brahmanas and upanishads composed 800 years ago refer to the Janapada and Mahajanpadas and provide us an insight into the settlement of agricultural communities. Another source are the texts composed by buddhists.
Vinay pitaka dealing with the rules of order, Sutta pitaka dealing with the collection of buddhas sermons and Abhidhamma pitaka a treatise on metaphysics tell us about the princes, preachers, rich, poor, towns and villages of this period. Jataka tales dealing with the previous lives of buddha are a part of the Suta Pitaka. They give us graphical descriptions of the contemporary society and make clear references to various regions and geographical divisions.
Some of the Janapadas developed into Mahajanapadas due to a series of internal social and political structure of the janapadas. The agricultural communities expanded as a result of diffusion of new iron technologies. contemporary texts describe land as a very important economic asset. But earlier it was jointly owned by the tribe or community, now it belonged to the Gahapati who was a big individual land owner.
The structure of the sociey was changing. Now a brahmin would own so much land that he hired laborers or slaves for tilling it. The surplus produce which earlier went to the tillers would now go to the owners of the land.
Gahapatis now had additional wealth and could invest it in further economic activity. This created a class of traders.
Traders would work from towns and cities. They had a large sphere of influence and travelled to different regions and dealt with different principalities.
Kings now emerged who tried to control a large area that would be visited by the traders.
Private property emerged as a dominant economic activity in this period.
As the socio economic sphere changed so did the polity. Earlier the word Raja meant a generous father figure who would ensure the prosperity of his lineage.
However, he did not have an independent taxation system or a standing army. This changed in the 6th Century BC and now there was a clear distinction between the raja and his Praja. The king would use his own system of taxation and have a standing army. This would then be used to acquire new territories and retain control over existing ones. Payment of the army came from the revenues imposed on activities in his territory.
There was thus a permanent confrontation between the raja and his Praja.
The Mahajanapadas did not bear the lineage of the dominant Kshatriya clans of that period.
The 6th century BC saw rise of many
kingdoms in the north. Some were republican where decisions were
made in a public assembly by majority vote. The others were
monarchies where the decisions were made by the king assisted by
The republics were scattered in Himalayas or
northwest. The monarchies were concentrated in the Gangetic
The Buddhist literature talks about 16 Mahajanapadas.
The Mahajanapadas were located in distinct geographical zones and infact 7 of them were located in the Middle Gangetic valley. This was a Rice growing plain unlike the Upper gangetic valley which was a Wheat growing plain. It has been observed in the traditional agriculture system of India, rice output exceeded the wheat output. Rice producing areas had a greater population density too. The fact that so many Mahajanapadas were contiguous to each other meant that an ambitious king would try to capture the neighbouring kingdoms. The flat terrain of these areas was also an asset.
The smaller of these submitted to the larger and in
the end there were only four – Magadha, Avanti, Kosala and
Fig 1: Mahajanpadas
Rise of Magadha
Magadha was the most powerful amongst them.
There were some geographic and strategic factors too that
enhanced this advantage of Magadha like
Her location between the upper and lower part of
the Gangetic valley
Fertile soil. Iron from Rajgir and copper from Gaya
too added to her advantage.
Her location at the centre of the trade highways
added to her advantage and increased her wealth.
First to use elephants in warfare.
Bimbisara was the first important king of
Magadha. He was the contemporary of Vardhaman Mahavir and
Ajatashatru imprisoned his father and
ascended the throne. His rule was strengthened by many military
conquests. Initially he was a supporter of Jainism and later
became a supporter of Buddhism.
Later the Aryankas and Saisunaga followed
by Nandas ruled Magadha. The last Nanda ruler
was Dhana Nanda who was resented by the people.
Taking advantage of this Chanakya and
his disciple Chandragupta launched a popular
movement and dislodged him. This was the time when Alexander
Persian invasions and their impact on India:
Persian invasions started from 550 BC to 450 BC and
were restricted to the Northwest Provinces and Punjab.
The kings Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes led
The Persian impacted trade between India and Iran.
Kharoshti script a form of Iranian writing
[left to right] became famous and Asoka edicts were written in
Persian art had an impact on Mauryan art especially
on Ashok's pillars and the sculptors found on them.
Idea of issuing edicts and wordings on these bore
Pillars of Mauryan were lustrous and polished like
Persian. They had bell shaped capitals like the victory pillars
of Achaemenid emperors.
Ceremonial head bath on birthday was of Persian
King consulted ascetic or physician who sat in a
room of fire. This came from Zoroastrians the
religion of Persia.
Fig 2: Persian invasions
The political conditions in the North West India
and Punjab allowed the invasion of Alexander. The small kingdoms
present in those areas were disunited and couldn’t unite in face
of a common enemy. However this doesn’t mean that Alexander's
invasion was easy.
Causes of the invasion:
He was attracted by the fabulous Indian wealth; he
also wanted to conquer the entire Persian satrapy of India after
defeating the Persians.
He was interested in geographical inquiry and
natural history. He believed that on the eastern side of India
there was a continuous sea so he had the desire of conquering
eastern border of the world.
The battle of Alexander and the tribes of Indus
resulted in victory for him. But his real test was against Porus.
In spite of having a strong army Porus was defeated.
But Alexander treated him with respect and
reinstated him. Alexander wanted to move further east but his
soldiers were tired of prolonged hardship and wanted to return
home. He relented but his return journey too was difficult.
He was attacked by republican tribes. He fell ill
and died on way home.
Immediate unification of North West frontier under
Mauryans was seen.
The small independent kingdoms came to an end.
It also started direct contact between India and
Greece. Naval expeditions increased and additional trade routes
came into existence.
Influence on architecture:
- Art of well shaped, beautiful
silver and gold coins came from Greeks.
- Influence on Indian astrology.
- Ashok’s edicts were in Greek and
inscribed on stone pillars made of single column.
The effect of Persians was higher than the
A considerable number of Greek colonists remained in Punjab linked by marital ties with their adopted country. One of the remarkable features of Alexanders rule was to allow interracial marraiges. His dream was to unit the East and the West by marraiges and to rule over them.
Alexanders campaign opened up and reinforced a number of trade routes to northwest India via Afghanistan and Iran to Asia minor and to the ports along the east Mediterranean.
By curbing the fierce tribes that resided in the hills and passes of northwest India, he created conditions for a united rule under the Mauryans.
The Mauryans did continue to maintain close ties with the greeks. The Bactrian greeks continued to rule the Northwest for two centuries. Throughout this period thousands of Indianised greeks merged with Indian culture and added their own contributions to it.