|Emperor of the Magadha Empire|
Ajatashatru of Magadha makes a midnight call
|Reign||492 BC – c. 460 BCE|
Ajatasatru (ruled c. 492 BC – c. 460 BC) was a king of the Magadha empire in north India. He was the son of King Bimbisara ( 558 BC –491 BC), the great monarch of Magadha. He was contemporary to Mahavira ( 540 BCE–468 BCE) and Buddha (563 BCE–483 BCE). He took over the kingdom of Magadha from his father forcefully by imprisoning him. He fought a terrible war against the Vajjis/Lichhavis and conquered the once considered invincible democratic Vaishali Republic. He followed the policy of conquest and expansion. He defeated his neighbours including the king of Kosala; his brothers, when at odds with him, went to Kashi (or Kasi, 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. Ajatshatru's Magadha became the most powerful kingdom in Northern India and its power was felt far and wide.
- 1 Birth
- 2 Early life
- 3 Death of Bimbisara
- 4 War and victory over Vaisali
- 5 Kingdom
- 6 Family
- 7 Death
- 8 Jaina or Buddhist
- 9 Depictions in popular culture
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Ajatasatru is also known as Kunika. The ancient inscription in Mathura Museum refers to him as vaidehi putra Ajatasatru Kunika. The story of Ajatasatru is found in Buddhists Tripitakas and Jain Agamas. The account of Ajatasatru's birth is more or less similar in both the traditions. According to Jaina tradition, Ajatasatru was born to king Bimbisara and Queen Chelna; Buddhist tradition records Ajatasatru being born to King Bimbisara and queen Kosala Devi. It is worthwhile to note that both the queens were called "Vaidehi" in both the traditions. Thus Ajatasatru being called Vaidehi putra in the inscription at Mathura museum does not clarify the mother's name.
According to "Nirayavalika Sutta" of Jaina Aagams, during her pregnancy Queen Chelna had the strong desire to eat fried flesh of her husband's (King Bimbisara's) heart and drink liquor. Meanwhile the very intelligent Prince Abhayakumara (son of King Bimbisara and Queen Nanda) fried a wild fruit that seemed like heart and gave it to the queen. The queen ate it and later felt ashamed for having such a demonic desire and she feared that the child might grow up and prove fatal for the family, thus after a few months of the child being born, the queen had him thrown out of the palace. When the child was lying near the garbage dump, a cock bit his little finger. King Bimbisara, learning about the child being thrown out, ran outside and picked up the child and put its bleeding little finger in his mouth and sucked it until it stopped bleeding and continued this for days until it was healed. As the little finger of the child was sore, he was nicknamed Kunika i.e., Sore Finger. But later he was named Ashokachandra.
In the Buddhists text Digha Nikaya Atthakatha, the above story is almost the same, except that Queen Kosala devi desired to drink blood from King Bimbisara's arm; the king obliged her and, later, when the child was thrown near the garbage dump, due to an infection he got a boil on his little finger and the king sucked it and once while sucking it the boil burst inside the king's mouth, but due to affection for his child he did not spit the pus out, rather swallowed it.
The young prince Ashokchandra was reputedly 7 feet tall, handsome, strong, with long curly hair which touched his chest, very intelligent and learned in all 64 arts. At the age of 20 he was married to Princess Padmavati. Once King Bimbisara decided to give gifts to his children (those born of Queen Chelna), he gave an 18 fold Divine Necklace to Hallakumara and one Sechanaka (watering) White elephant (pachyderm) to Vihallakumara, which cost more than half of Magadha. But as the king wanted to surprise Ashokchandra by giving him the entire kingdom, he did not give anything to him on that day. But Ashokchandra, failing to understand his father, thought that the king would even give the entire kingdom to Halla and Vihall kumaras. Thus, he imprisoned his father in the prison of Rajgriha and enthroned himself as king of Magadha. The fear of Queen Chelna became true and thus she cursed him that for the rest of his life and throughout history he would be known as Ajatasatru i.e.-one who is an enemy of his own clan from even before his birth.
According to Buddhist tradition, the aspiration of Ajatasatru was aflame at the provocation given by Devadatta. Devadatta was looking for ways and means of taking revenge on the Buddha, and seeing in the prince a very desirable weapon, he exerted all his strength to win him to his side. Ajatasatru was greatly impressed by Devadatta's powers of iddhi and became his devoted follower. He built for him a monastery at Gayāsīsa and waited upon him morning and evening carrying food for him, sometimes as much as five hundred cartloads in five hundred cooking pans. Devadatta incited him to seize the throne, killing his father if necessary. When Bimbisara learnt of the prince's intentions he abdicated the throne. But Devadatta was not satisfied until Bimbisāra, who was one of the Buddha's foremost supporters, was killed. Ajatasatru thus on Devadatta's words put Bimbisara behind bars.
Death of Bimbisara
According to the Jain tradition the king committed suicide while according to Buddhist tradition he was brutally murdered.
The Jaina tradition
Once Ajatasatru was eating his meal with his newborn son in his lap, his son suddenly urinated, of which some drops fell onto his plate but due to affection for his child he did not change the plate but wiped the drops with his own patta (cloth on the shoulder) and continued to eat from the same plate. After eating a morsel he asked his mother Chelna, who was sitting in the same dining room, whether she had ever seen a father as loving and caring as he was, to which his mother narrated the story of King Bimbisara sucking his little finger. This touched Ajatasatru's heart and his affection for his father was aroused. At once he picked up his axe and hurried to the prison to free his father by breaking all the iron chains himself. But when Bimbisara saw him coming with an axe in his hand he thought, ... so, he is coming to kill me. It is better that I end my life with my own hands. At once he removed the Talaputa poison from his ring, closed his eyes and chanted "Kevli pannato Dhammam saranam pavajyami"(I seek refuge in the dharma taught by the kevlins or omniscient) and swallowed the poison and ended his life.
Ajatasatru repented a lot but repentance was of no use. Ajatasatru then shifted his palace to Champa and made it his capital as the previous palace reminded him of his atrocious mistake.
The Buddhist tradition
Ajatasatru allowed no one but Kosala devi to meet Bimbisara in the smokey cell. Ajatasatru wanted to starve him to death, as Devdatta had said "father cannot be killed by a weapon." Thus Kosala devi used to take small food packets to the cell, being caught by guards she started to take food hidden behind her hair, being caught again she started slipping in food by hiding it in her golden slippers again being caught she coated 4 layers of honey on her body which was licked by the king. When she was caught once again Ajatasatru prohibited Kosala devi from meeting the king. When Ajatasatru saw that the king was not dying even then he ordered a barber to pierce the king's legs with a knife, then pour salt, hot oil and fire made from khaira wood on him. When this was done the king died.
War and victory over Vaisali
The Jaina Tradition
Once Queen Padmavati, wife of Ajatasatru, was sitting in her balcony in the evening. She saw Halla and Vihalla kumaras with their wives sitting on Sechanaka elephant and one of the wives wearing the 18 fold divine necklace. Then she heard one of the maidservants speaking from the garden below "It's Halla and Vihalla kumaras and not the king who enjoy the real pleasures of the kingdom" and she thought "what's the use of the kingdom if I do not have both the jewels in my possession?"
So, she shared this thought with Ajatasatru the same night and became excessively insistent in her demand. Ajatasatru at last agreed and sent a request to both his brothers to give the elephant and the necklace to him, which both his brothers denied saying that these gifts were given by their dear father so why should they part from them? Ajatasatru sent the request thrice but got the same reply all three times. This annoyed him a lot, so he sent his men to arrest them. Meanwhile Halla and the Vihalla kumaras availed a chance and escaped to their maternal grandfather Chetaka who was the king of the great kingdom of the Vaisali republic (Vajjis/Lichhvis). Ajatasatru sent notice thrice to Chetaka to surrender them but was denied by Chetaka.
This was enough for Ajatasatru. He called his half brothers, Kalkumaras (10 kalakumaras, those born to King Bimbisara and 10 Kali Queens Kali, Sukali, Mahakali, etc.) to merge their army with his, since it was well known to Ajatasatru that Vaisali republic had always been invincible in the past and he alone would not be able to defeat it. Each Kalkumara brought 3000 horses, 3000 elephants, 3000 chariots and 30000 infantrymen each. On the other hand, Chetaka invited his own allies 9 Mallas, 9 Lichhvis and 18 kings of Kasi-Kosala to fight his grandson Ajatasatru. All these kings came with 3000 horses, 3000 elephants, 3000 chariots and 30000 infantrymen each. Thus all together there were 57000 elephants, 57000 chariots, 57000 horses, and 570000 infantrymen.
The war began. King Chetaka was a devout follower of Lord Mahavira and had a vow to not shoot more than one arrow per day in a war. It was known to all that Chetaka's aim was perfect and his arrows were infallible. His first arrow killed one Kalakumara, commander of Ajatasatru. On the consecutive nine days the rest of the nine Kalkumaras were killed by Chetaka. Deeply sorrowed by the death of their sons, the Kali queens were initiated as nuns in the holy order of Lord Mahavira.
As Ajatasatru was moving towards defeat he practiced penance for three days and offered prayers to Sakrendra and Charmendra (Indra of different havens) who then helped him in the war. They protected him from the infallible arrow of Chetaka. The war became very severe and by the divine influence of the Indra's even the pebbles, straws, leaves hurled by Ajatasatru's men fell like rocks on the army of Chetaka. This war was thus named "Mahasilakantaka", i.e. the battle in which more than a lakh (1,00,000) people died. Next the Indra's granted a huge, divine chariot with swinging maces or blades on each side, and driven by Charmendra himself, to Ajatasatru. The chariot moved freely in the battlefield chrushing lakhs of soldiers. This battle was named "Ratha-musala". In this battle Chetaka was defeated. But Chetaka and others immediately took shelter inside the city walls of Vaisali and closed the main gate. The walls around Vaisali were so strong that Ajatasatru was unable to break through them. Many days passed, Ajatasatru became furious and again prayed to Indra, but this time Indra refused to help him. But Ajatasatru was informed by an oracle of a demi-goddess "Vaisali can be conquered if Sramana (monk) Kulvalaka gets married to a prostitute."
Ajatasatru inquired about the monk Kulvalaka and sent for the prostitute Magadhika disguised as a devout follower. The fallen women attracted the monk towards herself and finally the monk gave up his monkhood and married her. Later Magadhika on Ajatasatru's orders brainwashed Kulvalaka to enter Vaisali disguised as an astrologer. With great difficulty, he did enter Vaisali and learned that the city was saved by a Chaitya (altar) dedicated to Munisuvrata. Kulvalaka then started telling people that this altar is the reason why the city is suffering through a bad period. The people uprooted the altar from its very foundation. Kulvalaka gave a signal and Ajatasatru proceeded per prior arrangement. This was the last attack. Vaisali was conquered by Ajatasatru.
Sechanaka the elephant died after it fell in a pit with iron rods and fire made by Ajatasatru's soldiers. Later Halla and Vihalla kumaras got initiated as monks in the holy order of Lord Mahavira. Chetaka courted Sallekahna(fasted unto death). Ajatasatru not only conquered Vaisali but also Kasi-Kosala. Manudev was a famous king of the illustrious Lichchavi clan of the confederacy, who desired to possess Amrapali after he saw her dance performance in Vaishali. After defeating the king, Ajatasatru was in a relationship with Amrapali.
The Buddhist tradition
There was a diamond mine near a village on the river Ganges. There was an agreement between Ajatasatru and the Lichhavis/vajjis that they would have an equal share of the diamonds. Because of sheer lethargy, Ajatasatru failed to collect his own share, and the whole lot of diamonds was carried away by the Lichhavis. This happened many times, and at last Ajatasatru got annoyed and thought:
"it is almost impossible to fight against the whole confederacy of Vaisali. I must uproot these powerful Vajjis and exterminate them". He 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, and the main reason was the Chaityas (altar) inside the town.
Thus, with the help of his chief minister Vassakara, Ajatasatru managed to split the Vajjis and also broke the chaityas inside. Ajatasatru used a scythed chariot with swinging mace and blades on both the sides and attacked the town and conquered it.
After conquering Vaisali, Kasi and Kosala (Kaushala) Ajatasatru conquered 36 republican states surrounding his kingdom and firmly established the predominance of Magadha. Ajatasatru was monarch of a huge kingdom, which covered almost all of modern India's Bihar, Chandigarh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, One fourth of north Madhya Pradesh, tip of Chhattisgarh, bit of Jarkhand, west Bengal.
Ajatasatru, with the help of his two ministers Sunidha and Vassakāra, built a fort near the banks of the river Ganges to strengthen the defense of Magadha and named it Pātali Grama(village). Later it developed into a city, which soon became popular as Pataliputra, now known as Patna, the capital of Bihar.
According to Mahaparinirvana sutta, when Pataliputra was being erected, by chance the Buddha came there and praised the city of Pataliputra, and pointed to three things which could prove fatal to the city: fire, water and discord among the people.
The Jaina tradition
According to the Nirayāvaliyā Suttā Ajatasatru was born to King Bimbisara and Queen Chelna, who was the daughter of Chetaka the king of Vaisali, who was the brother of Queen Triśalá, mother of Mahavira. Ajatasatru had eight wives, but Padmavati, Dharini and Subhadra were his principal consorts. He also had a son named Udayabhadda or Udayabhadra.
The Buddhist tradition
According to Dīgha nikāya, Ajatasatru was born to King Bimbisara and Queen Kosala Devi, who was the daughter of Maha-Kosala, the king of Kosala and sister of Prasenjit who latter succeeded to the throne. Ajatsatru had 500 wives but the principal consort was Princess Vajira. The City of Kasi was given to Bimbisara as dowry by Maha-kosala. After the murder of Bimbisara, Prasenjit took the city back. This resulted in a war between Ajatasatru and Prasenjit, in which Prasenjit was first defeated but became successful later. As Ajatasatru happened to be his nephew his life was spared. In a peace treaty Prasenjit married his daughter Vajira to him. Ajatasatru later had a son named Udayabhadda or Udayabhadra.
The account of Ajatasatru's death recorded by historians is c. 461 BC. The account of his death differs widely between Jain and Buddhist traditions.
The Jaina tradition
According to the Jaina text, Āvaśȳaka Chūrnī, Ajatasatru went to meet Lord Mahavira.
Ajatasatru asked, "Bhante! Where do Chakravartins (world-monarchs) go after their death?"
Mahavira replied that "A Chakravartin, if dying while in office goes to seventh hell called Mahā-Tamahprabhā, and if dying as a monk attains Nirvana."
Ajatasatru asked, "So will I Attain Nirvana or go to the seventh hell?"
Mahavira replied, "Neither of them, you will go to the Sixth hell."
Ajatasatru asked, "Bhante, then am I not a Chakravartin?",
to which Mahavira replied, "No, you are not."
This made Ajatasatru anxious to become a world-monarch. He created 12 artificial jewels and set out for the conquest of the six regions of the world. But when he reached the Timisra Caves he was stopped by a guardian Deva called Krutamāl who said
"Only a Chakravartin can pass through this cave, there can be not more than 12 Chakravartin in the half cycle of a Kalchakra, and already there have been 12." On this, Ajatasatru said arrogantly "Then count me as the thirteenth and let me go or else my mace is strong enough to reach you to Yama." The Deva became enraged at Ajatsatru's arrogance and by his power he reduced him to ashes right on the spot. Ajatasatru was then reborn in the sixth hell called Tamahprabhā"a
The Buddhist tradition
Ajatasatru was brutally murdered by his own son, Udayabhadra, who was greedy of his kingdom. Ajatasatru was reborn in the hell called "Lohakumbhiya".
Although the account of Ajatasatru's death differs in these traditions, both believe that after passing through many births Ajatasatru will be born as a wise prince, and later become a monk and attain Nirvana.
Jaina or Buddhist
Ajatasatru enjoys a respectable position in both Jaina and Buddhist traditions. Both claim him as a close follower, and both come forward with evidence in support of this claim, though according to modern analysis, there is an overwhelming agreement that the Jain account is the credible one. The Uvavai/Aupapātika sutta, which is the first Upānga (see Jain Agamas) of the Jains throws light on the relation between Mahavira and Ajatasatru. It accounts that Ajatasatru held Mahavira in the highest esteem. The same text also states that Ajatasatru had an officer to report to him about the daily routine of Mahavira. He was paid lavishly. The officer had a vast network and supporting field staff through whom he collected all the information about Mahavira and reported to the king. The uvavai Sutta has detailed and illuminating discussion on Mahavira's arrival at the city of Champa, the honour shown to him by Ajatasatru, the sermon given by Mahavira in Ardhamagadhi language, etc.
On the other hand, according to Buddhist tradition, the Samaññaphala Sutta deals with his first meeting with the Buddha. According to the same text, during this meeting, Ajatasatru took protection of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. This Sutta records his devotion towards the Dhamma. He erected a vast Stupa on the bones and ashes of the Buddha after the funeral, and Ajatasatru also was present in the first Buddhist council at the Sattapanni (Saptparni) caves Rajgriha.
If the Uvavai Sutta and Samaññaphala Sutta are placed side by side, then the Uvavai Sutta will appear to be more profound in depth and penetration. The only line in the Samaññaphala Sutta that would give support to Ajatasatru's having become a Buddhist is: "From this day Bhagavān please accept me as thy follower, I seek your protection with folded hands." In contrast, the Uvavai has a more detailed account: The officer in charge of Mahavira's routine, Ajatasatru coming down the throne expressing his feelings and obeisance with utterance of the word Namothhanam, his meeting with Mahavira and his concluding words, "What to speak of the excelling thee, none other Sramana or Brahmana could have given such a brilliant exposition of the Dhamma as thou hast done." Also, Ajatasatru was present in the first council under the guidance of Sudharma swami, the spiritual successor of Mahavira.
Indologist Vincent Arthur Smith has written "Both traditions have claimed him as one of themselves. 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. "
According to another Indologist, Radha Kumud Mookerjee, "So long as both Mahavira and Buddha were alive, Ajatasatru was a follower of Mahavira. Other evidences that suggests that he could not have been a Buddhist, viz., His intimacy with Devadatta, who happened to be enemy of the Buddha.". Aacharya Sri Nagrajji, D.Litt. in Comparative studies of Jainism and Buddhism, says "For the victory from Vajjis, Ajatasatru sent his minister Vassakara to the Buddha. This was a conspiracy to know the secrets of Vajjis from the Buddha. If he would be a true follower of the Buddha, how would he have played such a mean trick with him?" He further says, "It is written in Atthakathas that Ajatasatru butchered 500 Nirgrantha monks after murder of Moggallana. This seems to be no more than a fiction, as had it been true, the Jainas wouldn't have held Ajatasatru with great respect."
Finally, Thomas William Rhys Davids a pāli and Buddhist scholar has written, "There is not a single proof in the Tripitakas stating that Ajatasatru ever became a follower of the Buddha. So far as I have been able to understand, after he met Buddha once, he never again met the Buddha or any other monk of the Buddhist order, neither did he discuss about the religion with any of them; and nor did he make any financial donation to the Buddhist order in the life-time of the Buddha." He further says "Of course, it is known that he sent a request for a share of the bones and ashes of the Buddha; but his justification for this request was that "I am a kshatriya and so was the Buddha" and then he erected an altar on the bones. Later it is recorded that immediately after the Buddha's death, the Buddhist Council met. Ajatasatru had erected a huge conference hall near the entrance of Saptparni cave, where the Buddhist Pitikas were compiled. But the older Buddhist texts are silent on this. Therefore, it is very likely that even without courting the religion of Buddha, he had a great regard for this religion. In doing so, Ajatasatru was only following the great tradition of kingship of India, according to which it was the sacred duty of a ruler to extend protection to all religions. But as far as the religion which Ajatasatru followed is concerned, the evidence suggests that it was Jaina.
Depictions in popular culture
- A fictionalized account of Ajatasatru - depicted as a physically gross and tyrannous figure - appears in Gore Vidal's novel Creation.
- A movie about his life was released titled Ajatasatru. He also features as the protagonist in the film Amrapali (1966), starring Sunil Dutt and Vyjayanthimala.
- A book about his life was written titled Ajatashatru, by Subba Rao.
- Jain Aagam Uvavai Sutra chapter: Kunika
- Smith, Vincent Arthur (1907). History of India: From Sixth century B.C to Mohammedan Conquest (Vol. 2). London, Grolier society.
- Radha Kumud Mookerjee: Hindu sabhyata p. 91,92 (translated from Hindi)
- Ācharya Nagrajji, "Agama and Tripitaka: a comparative study of Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha" v.1, History and Tradition, chapter 14, "Follower Kings" pg.355-377. (English version by Muni Mahendrakumarji) published by Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi.
- Subba Rao, Ajatashatru Amar Chitra Katha Pvt. Ltd. (1980). ISBN 81-89999-72-9
- Ācharya Nagrajji D.Litt. "Agama and Tripitaka- A comparative study of Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha", vol. 1, History and Tradition, chapter 14 "Follower Kings" pg.355-377. (English version by Muni Mahendrakumarji) published by Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi 110059.
- G.P.Singh,2004. "Early Indian Historical Tradition and Archaeology". D.K.Printworld(P)Ltd-New Delhi 110015; pp. 164, 165
- Jain Aagam 1st Upanga Uvavai Sutta Chapter Kunika
493 BCE – 461 BCE