King Bimbisara is described as the son of Bhatiya, a petty chieftain in Magadha. He is said to have come to the throne at a tender age. Some historians claim that Bhatiya grabbed the throne when the previous dynasty was overthrown by a minister. Others claim that it was not Bhatiya but Bimbisara (on the basis of Buddhist texts from Sri Lanka) himself who established the dynasty. According to this version, Bimbisara or Srenika (literally, Commander-in-Chief) was a general of the powerful Vajji confederacy to the north of the kingdom (across the Ganges). Perhaps, he carved out a kingdom in an age when Majjhimadesa was in a state of flux, riven by feuds, rebellions, coups, wars and invasions. His father is said to have been humiliated by one Brahmadatta, ruler of Anga, a Mahajanapada to the east, across the river Champa. Bimbisara crossed the Champa, killed Brahmadatta and incorporated Anga into his domain. Magadha was now the paramount force in Eastern India. Bimbisara’s son by Kosaladevi (a princess from the Mahajanapada of Kosala to the northwest), Ajatashatru (Ajatasattu) was appointed governor of the newly-conquered territory.
The story of Bimbisara and Ajatashatru is one of the great tales of ancient India. It is a saga of blind love, ruthless ambition, and cruel fate. Ajatashatru’s mother was the daughter of King Mahakosala. This was one among the many matrimonial alliances struck by Bimbisara to secure his reign. Kosala was a powerful kingdom, with its capital at Shravasti (Savatthi). The marriage saw a village in Kasi (then under the yoke of Mahakosala) transferred to Bimbisara as Kosaladevi’s dowry. Ancient texts also speak of Bimbisara’s marriage to princesses from Madra (Queen Khema), in present-day Punjab, and Vajji (Queen Chellana). But it was Kosaladevi who was Bimbisara’s favourite wife. He treated young Ajatashatru with great love and affection, something that is spoken of in great detail by the ancient texts. It is said that regardless of the grim predictions made about the yet-to-be born Ajatashatru by royal soothsayers, King Bimbisara persuaded the expectant Queen to have the child. Once, when the baby was suffering greatly on account of a boil on his finger, the King himself sucked the pus and blood out, swallowing them in the process.
Ajatashatru grew up to be a man of noble bearing. He received a head-start in his career by way of his appointment as the viceroy of Anga (following Brahmadatta’s deposition). Unfortunately, for his doting father, Ajatashatru fell into the wrong company. According to Buddhist texts, he was befriended by the scheming Devadatta, one among the five Shakya princes who had joined the Sangha on Anuruddha’s insistence (the rest being Bhadrika, Bhrigu, Kimbala and Ananda). Devadatta went on to become one of the most prominent members of the Order. However, he grew head-strong and arrogant with the passage of time, seeking to replace the Buddha as its leader. One of the many things he did to unseat the Master was to befriend the Magadhan crown prince. According to Buddhist texts, Devadatta began to poison Ajatashatru against both the Buddha and Bimbisara, encouraging him to capture the throne. The words had their effect. With his mind clouded by desire, Ajatashatru became increasingly restless, even making a futile attempt to break into his father’s chambers to assassinate him. He was noticed by the royal guards who foiled his plan.
They reported the incident to the King, expressing apprehension over the prince’s changed countenance. A puzzled Bimbisara summoned his son to find out what was amiss, only to receive a shocking confession. Ajatashatru is said to have fallen down at the King’s feet and admitted his folly. Stung by the admission, the King (still blinded by love for his son), decided to renounce his throne. Kingship, in his eyes, was not worth enmity with his favorite offspring. Ajatashatru was appointed monarch with immediate effect. But the evil Devadatta would not relent. He feared Bimbisara’s influence and friendship with the Buddha. He told Ajatashatru that his royal prerogative would count for nothing as long as Bimbisara was free, for the old monarch still retained many powers and followers. A gullible Ajatashatru gave in to the mischievous advise. Bimbisara was arrested and imprisoned. The Prince was now so consumed by the idea of consolidating his rule that he decided to starve his father to death. However, his mother, Queen Kosaladevi, was extremely devoted to her husband. She began smuggling food, hidden inside her garments, for the king to eat. Ajatashatru put a stop to it by asking the prison guards to check her on her way in. The desperate Queen then began to smear honey on her body for Bimbisara’s nourishment.
When he discovered this, the enraged Prince put a complete stop to any future visits by his mother. Still, his father, greatly weakened as he was by the lack of proper food, did not die. Driven mad by his ambition, Ajatashatru decided to have him killed immediately. A barber was summoned to carry out the misdeed. The Prince had him burn off the soles of his father’s feet, cut up his legs and pour boiling oil and salt into the wounds. The old King died an excruciating death. All this while, egged on by Devadatta, Ajatashatru let loose a reign of terror against the Buddha’s followers in Rajagriha. The temple established by Bimbisara, housing the Master’s hair and finger-nails, was abandoned. It wasn’t to be cleaned or swept. No flowers or perfume were to be left behind as offerings. A woman named Srimati, who happened to be a follower of the Buddha noticed this and decorated the temple. She paid for her mistake with her life, stabbed by the Prince. Legend has it that a son was born to Ajatashatru on the same day that his father died. The news of Bimbisara’s execution shocked Kosaladevi so much that she died of grief. It is said that after his father’s death, Ajatashatru came to know how much care Bimbisara had lavished on him during his childhood. He was filled with anguish and remorse.
The act of parricide would cause the young King great trouble. His maternal uncle, King Prasenajit (Pasenadi), infuriated by the murder of Bimbisara, and the subsequent death of his sister, Queen Kosaladevi, withdrew the village of Kasi gifted to Magadha on the occasion of their marriage. He was also afraid of facing the wrath of King Pradyota (Pajjota) of Avanti (a Mahajanapada located far to the southwest). Bimbisara had sent his personal physician to Pradyota when the latter was suffering on account of an illness. The monarch of Avanti was known for his friendship with Bimbisara. He was also famed for his short temper and mighty army. So terrified was the young Magadhan King at the prospect of facing a vengeful Pradyota that he began preparations for war. Rajagriha was fortified, though the attack never materialized. Ajatashatru was also being eaten up by guilt from within. Stories of his father’s great affection for him began to haunt him, more so with his own son growing up in front of his eyes. He began to have nightmares, seeing his father’s wounds bleed and hearing him scream in agony. He even avoided meeting the Buddha out of shame, until his father’s physician, Jivaka, persuaded him to do so (out of concern for his deteriorating mental condition).
Buddhist texts claim that he had been unable to sleep in peace since the day of his father’s death, on account of those nightmares. It became even worse after he got to know Devadatta’s sorry fate (whom he had expelled after becoming repentant). It is said that Ajatashatru, when he did pay a visit to the Buddha, did so in a state of great fear and anxiety. The Master received him without any hostility and made no reference to his father’s unfortunate death. Instead, he preached the Samannaphala Sutta. The King made a confession of grievous wrong-doing on his part at the end of the sermon, which the Buddha accepted. He did not admonish the monarch but once he had left, he told the monks who had gathered around, of how the king would pay for his act of parricide both in this world and the next. The texts also speak of Ajatashatru’s fears with regard to his own son, Udayabhadra (Udayibhadda). As fate would have it, he was killed by Udayabhadra, eager to ascend the throne, as his father had done before him. Ajatashatru had reigned for thirty-two years by that time. His murder would be the second in a chain of parricides experienced by the Haryanka dynasty, a phenomenon that continued until the last king, Nagadasaka was deposed by a populace sick of the repeated bouts of violence and blood-shedding.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Archive.org, shows a wall painting of King Ajatashatru displaying the Vitarka Mudra (displayed as the frontispiece in the book ‘Along the Ancient Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums’). It forms part of a collection of paintings found in the Kizil Caves of Xinjiang, China. These rock-cut caves were made by Buddhists living near the settlement of Kizil, on the banks of the Muzart river, at a distance of 75 km from the famed Silk Road city of Kucha (Qiuci), on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin in Central Asia. Also known as the Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves, they were carved into the cliffs on the northern bank of the river, between the 3rd to the 9th centuries CE, forming the oldest specimens of Buddhist art in China, older than the world famous Mogao Caves. They were included in the World Heritage List in 2014. The region played a crucial role in the history of Buddhism and it was from here, from the Tokharian kingdom of Kucha (established by an Indo-European people speaking the Tokharian language, and living in Central Asia) to be exact, that the faith spread to Central China. Xinjiang was then dominated by Buddhism (which flourished in the region for a thousand years, before its displacement by Islam). The Buddhist heritage of the region was brought to light by a German expedition comprising Albert von Le Coq and Albert Grünwedel who visited the Kizil Caves in 1906.