History Of A State: Magadha

1200 BC – 322 BC

Today, I’m going to follow up on a post I did a couple of weeks ago about the Indian subcontinent in their age of Mahabharata, myths and legends, with a bit of a focus on the Gandhara Kingdom in the north-west. Today, I’m going to go back there, but with a focus on another kingdom from that time, a kingdom that was really quite significant to later Indian religion for one simple reason, one of its inhabitants.

Also I’m going to make the decision to switch my naming to ‘state’. I’ll edit all my old posts as and when.


This may be the first state that appeared in the region of Bengal (although actually Bihar, Bengal proper is just slightly east of where Magadha was), eastern India and Bangladesh in the modern-day. One of the sixteen Mahajanapada kingdoms spoken of during this time, it survived into the 1st millennium BC and became the dominant power in this area. At times it might have expanded out into Bengal and west to Uttar Pradesh, it was certainly one of the more notorious states of the time in India and though we don’t know the exploits of all the rulers, some of them did have a conquering streak. Smaller states like Anga are known for being conquered and absorbed by Magadha.


Up until 600 BC, though some of the kingdoms are held to have existed for far longer as I covered in the colourful Hindu epics, otherwise known as the Vedic texts, the last time I came to India, the first solid record for Magadha, and the rest of India, comes up around 600 BC. We’re focusing on Magadha as it was the dominant state in East India and held a considerable amount of power. It was also the forerunner of some of the first huge Indian empires, for beyond Magadha emerged Maurya and Gupta. At this time, Magadha was ruled by the Haryanka dynasty, a stable line of kings that lasted for two hundred years. Chief among these was Bimbisara, who expanded Magadha’s power to the East and built the city of Rajpir. However, perhaps what he’s most known for is a friendship he had with a local sage. This sage was Gautama Buddha, the founder and central teacher of Buddhism, a religion that would spread throughout the entirety of East Asia and in the 21st century, hipsters banking on karma.

The Buddha

The Buddha’s life, as it relates to Magadha, is not so close to have claimed him as one of its citizens, it’s thought he may have been born to the north, towards Nepal, as perhaps the son of a chief, or small king. However, Magadha was definitely the major power in the area and in his travels as an ascetic and a teacher, Gautama would have spent a large amount of his time within the borders of the Magadha Kingdom and apparently became quite friendly with the ruler. Early in his life, Bimbisara offered him the throne, once learning of the Buddha’s quest for asceticism but was refused. At one point, to keep a promise to Bimbisara, he travelled to his capital and spent three years at a monastery in the capital, at the very heart of the Magadha Empire. Now, I don’t know enough about Buddhism to feel comfortable in making this a religious lesson, I’d probably just make a horrible mistake but he was intertwined with the highest politics of the Magadha kingdom in its earliest days, so here is the birthplace of Buddhism. In one sense. The first Buddhist council was held not long after his death in Bimbisara’s city of Rajpir.

Remaining Kings and the Nandas

Bimbisara was eventually killed by his son, Ajatashatru, something that has made it into Jain and Buddhist texts and makes Ajatashatru look like a nasty piece of work who made his father suffer with skinned feet, tortured him, in several versions, Bimbisara kills himself out of shame that his son is so evil, in others, Ajatashatru tortures him to death. In the Buddhist version, the Buddha even gives Bimbisara a brief respite of hope before Ajatashatru wins. But then Ajatashatru gets brutally murdered by his own son so everyone’s happy.. In history, he conquered a lot as well, conquering up to 35 states surrounding Magadha.

A few rulers later, after somewhat prosperous rule, the Haryanka dynasty gets overthrown by an official called Shishunaga, who founds his own dynasty that promptly (well, 3 generations) gets offed by the final chapter of Magadha, the Nanda dynasty. Conquering further than ever before, Mahapadma Nanda, the son of Shishunaga’s grandson (although probably a bastard), eliminated many rival sons in an epic battle royale for the throne, so he decided that was worth forming his own dynasty for. He conquered far further than I left space for on that map, into central India, into the previously quiet Deccan Plataeau, all along the Ganges river, and even further east into Bengal. They had a vast army, according to Greek historian Plutarch, because remember, this was about the time when Alexander was planning his expedition and had Alexander gone further into India, he likely would have fought the Nanda from Magadha. But mostly, the Nanda dynasty is remembered for its huge unpopularity and decadence. Mahapadma had nine sons, all of which wallowed and bathed in the wealth that their father had brought them. Dhana Nanda is the one that is focused on, inheriting the kingdom directly, but as you can imagine, creating a huge empire, having a huge army, you need people to like you to keep all of that, because otherwise pretenders will rise up out of nowhere to claim your wealth for themselves. And Dhana Nanda left it open for just that to happen,¬†Chandragupta Maurya did exactly that in 325 BC, overthrowing the last Magadha line and founding what could be properly described as the first pan-Indian Empire.


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