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Buddhist India

Chapter 1 – The Kings

When Buddhism arose there was no paramount sovereign in India. The kingly power was not, of course, unknown. There had been kings in the valley of the Ganges for centuries, long before Buddhism, and the time was fast approaching when the whole of India would be under tile sway of monarchical governments. In those parts of India which came very early under the influence of Buddhism, we find, besides a still surviving number of small aristocratic republics, four kingdoms of considerable extent and power. Besides, there were a dozen or more of smaller kingdoms, like the German duchies or the seven provinces into which England was divided in the time of the Heptarchy. No one of these was of much political importance. And the tendency towards the gradual absorption of these domains, and also of the republics, into the neighbouring kingdoms, was

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already in full force. The evidence at present available is not sufficient to give us an exact idea, either of the extent of country, or of the number of the population, under the one or the other form of government; nor has any attempt been so far made to trace the history of political institutions in India before the rise of Buddhism. We can do no more, then, than state the fact – most interesting from the comparative point of view – that the earliest Buddhist records reveal the survival, side by side with more or less powerful monarchies, of republics with either complete or modified independence.

It is significant that this important factor in the social condition of India in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. has remained hitherto unnoticed by scholars either in Europe or in India. They have relied for their information about the Indian peoples too exclusively on the brahmin2 books. And these, partly because of the natural antipathy felt by the priests towards the free republics, partly because of the later date of most of the extant priestly literature, and especially of the law books, ignore the real facts. They convey the impression that the only recognised, and in fact universally prevalent, form of government was that of kings under the guidance and tutelage of priests. But the Buddhist records, amply confirmed in these respects by the somewhat later Jain ones, leave no doubt upon the point.

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As regards the monarchies, the four referred to above as then of importance are as follows:

1. The kingdom of Magadha, with its capital at Rajagaha (afterwards at Pataliputta), reigned over at first by King Bimbisara and afterwards by his son Ajatasattu.

2. To the north-west there was the kingdom of Kosala – the Northern Kosala – with its capital at Savatthi, ruled over at first by King Pasenadi and afterwards by his son Vidudabha.

3. Southwards from Kosala was the kingdom of the Vamsas or Vatsas, with their capital at Kosambi on the Jumna, reigned over by King Udena, the son of Parantapa.

4. And still farther south lay the kingdom of Avanti, with its capital Ujjeni, reigned over by King Pajjota.

The royal families of these kingdoms were united by matrimonial alliances; and were also, not seldom in consequence of those very alliances, from time to at war. Thus Pasenadi’s sister, the Kosala Devi, was the wife of Bimbisara, King of Magadha. When Ajatasattu, Bimbisara’s son by another wife (the Videha lady from Mithila), put his father Bimbisara to death, the Kosala Devi died of grief. Pasenadi then confiscated that township of Kasi, the revenues of which had been granted to the Kosala Devi as pin money. Angered at this, Ajatasattu declared war against his aged uncle3. At first victory inclined to Ajatasattu. But in the fourth campaign he was taken prisoner, and not released until

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he had relinquished his claim. Thereupon Pasenadi not only gave him his daughter Vajira in marriage but actually conferred upon her, as a wedding gift, the very village in Kasi in dispute. Three years afterwards Pasenadi’s son Vidudabha revolted against his father, who was then at Ulumba in the Sakiya country. The latter fled to Rajagaha to ask Ajatasattu for aid; but was taken ill and died outside the city gates4. We shall hear farther on how both Vidudabha, and his brother-in-law Ajatasattu, were subsequently in conflict with the adjoining republican confederacies, the former with the Sakiyans, the latter with the Vajjians of Vesali.

The royal families of Kosambi and Avanti were also united by marriage. The commentary on verses 21–23 of the Dhammapada gives a long and romantic story of the way in which Vasula-datta, the daughter of King Pajjota of Avanti, became the wife, or rather one of the three wives, of King Udena of Kosambi. The legend runs that Pajjota (whose fierce and unscrupulous character is there, painted in terms confirmed by one of our oldest authorities5) inquired once of his courtiers whether there was any king whose glory was greater than his own. And when he was straightway told that Udena of Kosambi surpassed him, he at once determined to attack him. Being then advised that an open campaign would be certainly disastrous, but that an ambush – the more easy as Udena would go anywhere to capture a fine elephant – might

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succeed, he had an elephant made of wood and deftly painted, concealed in it sixty warriors, set it up in a defile near the boundary, and had Udena informed by spies that a glorious elephant, the like of which had never been seen, was to be found in the frontier forest. Udena took the bait, plunged into the defile in pursuit of the prize, became separated from his retinue, and was taken prisoner.

Now Udena knew a charm of wonderful power over the hearts of elephants. Pajjota offered him his life and freedom if he would tell it.

“Very well,” was the reply, “I will teach it you if you pay me the salutation due to a teacher.”

“Pay salutation to you – never!”

“Then neither do I tell you my charm.”

“In that case I must order you to execution.”

“Do as you like! Of my body you are lord. But not of my mind.”

Then Pajjota bethought him that after all no one else knew the charm, and he asked Udena if he would teach it to someone else who would salute him. And being answered yes, he told his daughter that there was a dwarf who knew a charm; that she was to learn it of that dwarf; and then tell it to him, the King. And to Udena he said that a hunchback woman would salute him from behind a curtain, and that he had to teach her the charm, standing the while himself outside the curtain. So cunning was the King to bar their friendship. But when the prisoner day after day rehearsed the charm, and his unseen pupil was slow to catch it up and to repeat it, Udena at last one day, called out impatiently,

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“Say it so, you hunchback! How thick lipped you must be, and heavy jawed!”

Then she, angered, rejoined: “What do you mean, you wretched dwarf, to call such as I am hunchback?”

And he pulled the corner of the curtain to see, and asked her who she was, and the trick was discovered, and he went inside, and there was no more talk that day of learning charms, or of repeating lessons.

And they laid a counter-plot. And she told her father that a condition precedent to the right learning of the charm was the possession of a certain potent herb picked under a certain conjunction of the stars, and they must have the right of exit, and the use of his famous elephant. And her wish was granted. Then one day, when her father was away on a pleasure jaunt, Udena put her on the elephant, and taking also money, and gold-dust in bags of leather, set forth.

But men told Pajjota the King; and he, angry and suspecting, sent a force in rapid pursuit. Then Udena emptied the bag of coins. And the pursuers waiting to gather them up, the fugitives forged ahead. When the pursuers again gained on them, Udena let loose a bagful of gold-dust. Again the pursuers delayed. And as they once more gained on the fugitives, lo! the frontier fortress, and Udena’s own troops coming out to meet their lord! Then the pursuers drew back and Udena and Vasula-datta entered, in safety and in triumph, into the city; and with due pomp and ceremony she was anointed as his Queen.

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So far the legend; and it has a familiar sound as echoes of two of our classical tales had been confused in India. No one would take it for sober history. It is probably only a famous and popular story retold of well-known characters. And when a learned scholar summarises it thus: “Udena eloped with her on an elephant, leaving behind him a bag full of gold, in order to prevent a prosecution6” – we see how easily a very slight change in expression may, in retelling, have altered the very gist of the tale. But it is sufficient evidence that, when the tradition arose, King Pajjota of Avanti and King Udena of Kosambi were believed to have been contemporary rulers of adjoining kingdoms, and to have been connected by marriage and engaged in war.

We hear a good deal else about this Udena, King of the Vacchas or Vamsas of Kosambi. Formerly, in a fit of drunken rage, at a picnic, because his women folk left him, when he was sleeping, to listen to a religious discourse by Pindola (a highly respected and famous member of the Buddhist Order), he had had Pindola tortured by having a nest of brown ants tied to him7. Long afterwards the King professed himself an adherent of the Buddha’s in consequence of a conversation he had with this same man Pindola, on the subject of self-restraint8. At another picnic the women’s pavilion was burnt, with his Queen, Samavati, and many of her attendants9. His father’s name was Parantapa; and he had a son named Bodhi,

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after whom one of the Suttantas is named10 and concerning whom other details are given11. But Udena survived the Buddha12, and we are not informed whether Bodhi did, or did not, succeed him on the, throne.

Pasenadi, the King of Kosala, is described as a very different character. The whole of the Third Samyutta, consisting of twenty-five anecdotes, each with a moral bias, is devoted to him. And there are about an equal number of references to him in other parts of the literature. Educated at the celebrated seat of learning, Takkasila, in the extreme northwest, he was placed, on his return, by his father, Maha Kosala, upon the throne13. As a sovereign he showed himself zealous in his administrative duties, and addicted to the companionship of the good14. And he extended his favour, in full accord with the well-known Indian toleration, to the religious of all schools of thought alike15. This liberality of thought and conduct was only strengthened when, early in the new movement, he proclaimed himself an adherent, in a special sense, of the Buddha’s16. This was in consequence of a talk he had had with the Buddha himself. The King had asked him how he, being-so young, as compared with other already well-known teachers, could claim an insight beyond theirs. The reply simply was that no “religieux” should be despised because of his youth. Who would show disrespect to a prince, or to a venomous serpent, or to

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Fig 1. – King Pasenadi in his Chariot. Above is the Wheel of the Law

[From the Bharahat Tope. Pl xiii.]

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a fire, merely because it was young? It was the nature of the doctrine, not the personal peculiarities Of the teacher, that was the test.

Sumana, the King’s aunt, sister of his father, Maha. Kosala, was present at this conversation, and made up her mind to enter the Order, but delayed doing so in order to nurse an aged relative. The delay was long. But on the death of the old lady, Sumana, then old herself, did enter the Order, and became an Arahat, and is one of the Buddhist ladies whose poems are preserved in the Theri Gatha. The aged relative was Pasenadi’s grandmother; so that we have four generations of this family brought before us17.

A comparison between Digha I. 87 and Divyavadana 620 – where the same action is attributed in the older book to King Pasenadi and in the younger to King Agnidatta – makes it highly probable that Pasenadi (used as a designation for several kings) is in reality an official epithet, and that the King’s real personal name was Agnidatta.

Among the subjects chosen for the bas-reliefs on the Bharahat tope, in the third century B.C., is one representing Pasenadi issuing forth on his chariot, drawn by four horses with their tails and manes elaborately plaited, and attended by three servants. Above him is figured the Wheel of the Law, the symbol of the new teaching of which the King of Kosala was so devoted a supporter.

It is stated that it was from the desire to associate. himself by marriage with the Buddha’s family that

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Pasenadi asked for one of the daughters of the Sakiya chiefs as his wife. The Sakiyas discussed the proposition in their Mote Hall, and held it beneath the dignity of their clan. But they sent him a girl named Vasabha Khattiya, the daughter, by a slave girl, of one of their leading chiefs. By her Pasenadi had the son, Vidudabha, mentioned above. And it was in consequence of the anger kindled in Vidudabha’s heart at the discovery of the fraud that, having determined to wreak his vengeance on the Sakiyas, he, on coming to the throne, invaded their country, took their city, and put to death a great number of the members of the clan, without distinction of age or sex. The details of the story have not been found as yet in our oldest records18. But the main circumstance of the war against the clan is very early alluded to, and is no doubt a historical fact. It is said to have preceded only by a year or two the death of the Buddha himself.

The beginning of this story, on the other hand, seems very forced. Would a family of patricians in one of the Greek republics have considered a marriage of one of their daughters to a neighbouring tyrant beneath their dignity? And in the present case the tyrant in question was the acknowledged suzerain of the clan19. The Sakiyas may have considered the royal family of Kosala of inferior birth to themselves. There is mention, in several passages, of the pride of the Sakiyas20. But, even so,

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we cannot see, in the present state of our knowledge, why they should object. We know that the daughter of one of the chiefs of a neighbouring clan, equally free and equally proud, the Licchavis of Vesali, was married to Bimbisara, king of Magadha21. It is, furthermore, almost certain that the royal family at Savatthi was simply one of the patrician families who had managed to secure hereditary consulship in the Kosala clan. For the chiefs among the Kosalas, apart from the royal family, and even the ordinary clansmen (the kulaputta), are designated by the very term (rajano, kings), which is applied to the chiefs and clansmen of those tribes which had still remained aristocratic republics22. And it is precisely in a very natural tendency to exaggerate the importance of the families of their respective founders that the later records, both of the Jains and of the Buddhists, differ from the earlier ones. It is scarcely probable, therefore, that the actual originating cause of Vidudabha’s invasion of the Sakiya territory was exactly as set out above. He may have used the arrogance of the Sakiyas, perhaps, as a pretext. But the real reasons which induced Vidudabha to attack and conquer his relatives, the Sakiyas, were, most likely, the same sort of political motives which later on induced his cousin, Ajatasattu of Magadha, to attack and conquer his relatives, the Licchavis of Vesali.

We hear already of Ajatasattu’s intention to attack them in the opening sections of the Book of

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the Great Decease23, and the Buddha is represented24 as making the not very difficult forecast that eventually, when the Licchavis had been weakened by Luxury, he would be able to carry out this intention. But it was not till more than three years afterwards that, having succeeded, by the treachery of the brahmin Vassakara, in sowing dissension among the leading families of Vesali, he swooped down upon the place with an overwhelming force, and completely destroyed it.

We are also told that Ajatasattu fortified his capital, Rajagaha, in expectation of an attack about to be made by King Pajjota of Ujjeni25. It would be most interesting to know whether the attack was ever made, and what measure of success it had. We know that afterwards, in the fourth century B.C., Ujjeni had become subject to Magadha, and that Asoka, when a young man, was appointed governor of Ujjeni. But we know nothing else of the intermediate stages which led to this result.

About nine or ten years before the Buddha’s death, Devadatta, his first cousin, who had long previously joined the Order, created a schism in the community. We hear of Ajatasattu, then the Crown Prince, as the principal supporter of this Devadatta, the quondam disciple and bitter foe of the Buddha, who is the Judas Iscariot of the Buddhist story26.

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Fig. 2. – Ajatasattu starting out to visit the Buddha

About the same time Bimbisara, the King, handed over the reins of government to the Prince. But it was not long before Devadatta incited him, in order to make quite sure, to slay the King. And Ajatasattu carried out this idea in the eighth year before

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the Buddha’s death, by starving his father slowly to death.

Once, subsequently, when remorse had fastened upon him, we hear of his going, with a great retinue, to the Buddha and inquiring of him what were the fruits, visible in this present life, of becoming a member of a religious order27. An illustration of the King saluting the Buddha on this occasion is the subject of one of the bas-reliefs on the Bharhut Tope28. As usual the Buddha himself is not delineated. Only his footprints are, shown.

At the close of the discourse the King is stated to have openly taken the Buddha as his guide in future, and to have given expression to the remorse he felt at the murder of his father. But it is also distinctly stated that he was not converted. There is no evidence that he really, after the moment when his heart was touched, continued to follow the Buddha’s teaching. He never, so far as we know, waited again either upon the Buddha, or upon any member of the Order, to discuss ethical matters. And we hear of no material support given by him to the Order during the Buddha’s lifetime.

We are told, however, that, after the Buddha’s death, he asked (on the ground that he, like the Buddha, was a Kshatriya) for a portion of the relics; that he obtained them; and built a stupa or burial-mound over them29. And though the oldest authority

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says nothing about it, younger works state that on the convocation of the First Council at Rajagaha, shortly after the decease, it was the King who provided and prepared the hall at the entrance to the Sattapanni cave, where the rehearsal of the doctrine took place30. He may well have thus showed favour to the Buddhists without at all belonging to their party. He would only, in so doing, be following the usual habit so characteristic of Indian monarchs, of patronage towards all schools.

Mention is made occasionally and incidentally of other kings – such as Avanti-putta, King of the Surasenas31; and the Eleyya of A. 2. 188, who, together with his courtiers, was a follower and supporter of Uddaka, the son and pupil of Rama, and the teacher of Gotama. But the above four are the only ones of whom we have accounts in any detail.


2. This word, always pronounced, and till lately always spelt, in England, with an i, is spelt in both Sanskrit and Pali, brahmana. It seems to me a pity to attempt to introduce a spelling, brahman, which is neither English nor Indian.

3. Properly “brother of his stepmother.”

4. S. 1. 33; Jat. 2. 403, 4. 343; Avad. Sat. 51.

5. Maha Vagga of the Vinaya, viii, 1. 23, and following.

6. J.P.T.S., 1888, sub voce.

7. Jat. 4. 375.

8. S. 4. 110.

9. 4 Ud. 7. 10 = Divy, 533.

10. M. No. 85.

11. Vin. 2. 127, 4, 198, 199; Jat. 3. 157.

12. P.V.A. 141.

13. Dhp. A. 211.

14. S. 1. 83.

15. D. 87; Ud 2, 6; S. 1. 75.

16. S. 1. 70.

17. Thag. A. 22; comp. S. 1. 97; Vin. 2. 169; Jat. 4. 146.

18. But see Dhp. A. 216, foll.; Jat. 4. 145, foll.

19. Pabbajja Sutta, verse 18 (S. N. 122).

20. For instance, D. 1. 90, 91; Vin. 2. 183; J. 1. 889, 4. 145.

21. See the genealogical table in Jacobi’s Jaina Sutras, 1, xv.

22. Sum. 239.

23. Translated in my Buddhist Suttas. The name there is Vajjians. But that the Licchavis were a sub-clan of the Vajjians is clear from A. 4. 16.

24. S. 2. 268

25. M. 3. 7.

26. S. 2. 242; Vinaya Texts, 3. 238–265; Sum., 133, etc.

27. The famous Suttanta, in which this conversation is set out, – the Samanna Phala, – is translated in full in my Dialogues of the Buddha.

28. Cunningham, Stupa of Bharhut, Pl. xvi., Fig. 3.

29. Book of the Great Decease, chap. vi.

30. See, for instance, M.B.V. 89.

31. M. 2. 83.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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