Magadha Empire/Society

Magadha Social and Economic Conditions in the 6th Century BC and Onwards (Pre-Mauryan Period)

Magadha Empire

• Of all the kingdoms of north India, Magadha emerged powerful and prosperous.
• It became the nerve centre of political activity in north India.
• Magadha was endowed by nature with certain geographical and strategic advantages. These. Its geographical and strategic position between the upper and lower part of the Gangetic valley was a great advantage due to which it rose to imperial greatness.
• The iron ores in the hills near Rajgir and copper and iron deposits near Gaya added to its natural assets. Its location at the centre of the highways of trade of those days contributed to its wealth.
• Rajagriha was the capital of Magadha.
• During the reign of Bimbisara and Ajatasatru, the prosperity of Magadha reached its zenith.

Factors for the Rise of Magadha
1. The close vicinity and control over richest deposits of copper and iron ore rendered better weapons and instruments.
2. Favourable geographical location enabled it to control the whole lower Gangetic plain.
3. Its rich alluvial soil provided a strong agricultural base. The fertility enabled the peasants to produce considerable surplus which could be mopped by the rulers in the form of taxes.
4. The thick forests beyond Gaya in South Bihar supplied timber for building and elephants for the army. It was Magadha which first used elephants on large scale in wars.
5. The two capitals of Magadha, Rajgriha and Pataliputra were situated at very strategic points. Rajgriha was surrounded by a group of five hills and it was rendered impregnable. Pataliputra was situated at the confluence of the Ganges, the Gandak and the Son, and therefore formed a water-fort or jaldurga.

• Some historians maintain that it was the introduction of iron implements which enabled the people to clear the jungle and reclaim the fertile land of the eastern Gangetic plains and led finally to the rise of the powerful Maha Janapadas.
• But hitherto there is no archeological evidence to clearly support this thesis of economic change as the main reason for the rise of Magadha.
• Iron, however, did play an important role during this period, as it was used mostly for making weapons and Magadha may have had strategic advantage due to its access to the iron ore deposits in Chota Nagpur and its better armament.
• Magadha’s first great campaign was directed against Anga, its neighbour, which was equally close to those iron ore deposits and perhaps controlled the trade routes through which iron would reach northern India. In this way, Magadha eliminated a dangerous competitor at the very beginning of its imperial career.
• All these factors account for the expansion and stability of Magadha, which gradually swallowed all other contemporary states.
• Initially, Magadha appeared to be rather badly placed on the trade-route but after Bimbisara, it got some foothold in Kasi by contracting a marriage alliance with the kingdom of Kosala and annexed Arya, the position was radically changed. Thus, the internal trade of Magadha was linked with the foreign trade which became even more lucrative. This factor gave a boost to trade and thus, helped in its rise.

Bimbisara (546 – 494 B.C.)
• Bimbisara belonged to the Haryanka dynasty.
• He consolidated his position by matrimonial alliances.
• His first matrimonial alliance was with the ruling family of Kosala. He married Kosaladevi, sister of Prasenajit. He was given the Kasi region as dowry which yielded large revenue.
• Bimbisara married Chellana, a princess of the Licchavi family of Vaisali. This matrimonial alliance secured for him the safety of the northern frontier. Moreover, it facilitated the expansion of Magadha northwards to the borders of Nepal.
• Bimbisara also married Khema of the royal house of Madra in central Punjab.
• Bimbisara defeated Brahmadatta of Anga and annexed the kingdom.
• Bimbisara maintained friendly relations with Avanti.
• Bimbisara had also efficiently reorganized the administration of his kingdom.
• Bimbisara was a contemporary of both Vardhamana Mahavira and Gautama Buddha. However, both religions claim him as their supporter and devotee.
• Bimbisara made numerous gifts to the Buddhist Sangha.

Ajatasatru (494 – 462 B.C.)
• The reign of Ajatasatru was remarkable for his military conquests.
• He fought against Kosala and Vaisali.
• He won a great success against a formidable confederacy led by the Lichchavis of Vaisali. This war lasted for about sixteen years. It was at this time that Ajatasatru realised the strategic importance of the small village, Pataligrama (future Pataliputra).
• He fortified it to serve as a convenient base of operations against Vaisali.
• Buddhists and Jains both claim that Ajatasatru was a follower of their religion.
• But it is generally believed that in the beginning he was a follower of Jainism and subsequently embraced Buddhism.
• He is said to have met Gautama Buddha. This scene is also depicted in the sculptures of Barhut.
• According to the Mahavamsa, he constructed several chaityas and viharas. He was also instrumental in convening the First Buddhist Council at Rajagriha soon after the death of the Buddha.
• The immediate successor of Ajatasatru was Udayin.
• He laid the foundation of the new capital at Pataliputra situated at the confluence of the two rivers, the Ganges and the Son.
• Later it became famous as the imperial capital of the Mauryas.
• Udayin’s successors were weak rulers and hence Magadha was captured by Saisunaga. Thus the Haryanka dynasty came to an end and the Saisunaga dynasty came to power.

Saisunaga Dynasty
• The genealogy and chronology of the Saisunagas are not clear. Saisunaga defeated the king of Avanti which was made part of the Magadhan Empire.
• After Saisunaga, the mighty empire began to collapse.
• His successor was Kakavarman or Kalasoka. During his reign the second Buddhist Council was held at Vaisali. Kalasoka was killed by the founder of the Nanda dynasty.

• The fame of Magadha scaled new heights under the Nanda dynasty.
• Their conquests went beyond the boundaries of the Gangetic basin and in North India they carved a well-knit and vast empire.
• Mahapadma Nanda uprooted the kshatriya dynasties in north India and assumed the title Ekarat.
• The Puranas speak of the extensive conquests made by Mahapadma.
• The Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela of Kalinga refers to the conquest of Kalinga by the Nandas.
• Many historians believe that a considerable portion of the Deccan was also under the control of the Nandas. Therefore, Mahapadma Nanda may be regarded as a great empire builder.
• According to the Buddhist tradition, Mahapadma Nanda ruled about ten years. He was succeeded by his eight sons, who ruled successively.
• The last Nanda ruler was Dhana Nanda.
• He kept the Magadhan empire intact and possessed a powerful army and enormous wealth.
• The enormous wealth of the Nandas is also referred to in the Tamil Sangam work Ahananuru by the poet Mamulanar. The flourishing state of agriculture in the Nanda dominions and the general prosperity of the country must have brought to the royal treasury enormous revenue.
• The oppressive way of tax collection by Dhana Nanda was resented by the people. Taking advantage of this, Chandragupta Maurya and Kautilya initiated a popular movement against the Nanda rule.
• It was during this time that Alexander invaded India.


The pre-Mauryan period saw an economy which was evolving continuously. It saw a further development over the Vedic phase and many features of the Vedic period were replaced by others.

• Cattle rearing was no longer the primary occupation, agriculture having taken its place in many areas.
• The Large lands were divided into cultivable plots and allotted family wise.
• The plot was cultivated with the help of its members supplemented by that of agricultural labourers.
• Land was also owned in common by the village or a tribal chief who hired labourers to work on it.
• Titles were fenced and irrigation channels dug collectively by peasant families under the supervision of the village headman.
• Rice was the staple cereal produced in eastern UP and Bihar in this period.
• Pali texts refer to various types of paddy and paddy plants. Large scale paddy transplantation began in the age of the Buddha.
• In addition, the peasants also produced barley, pulses, millets, cotton and sugarcane.
• Agriculture made great advances because of the use of the iron ploughshare and the immense fertility of the alluvium soil in the area between Allahabad and Rajmahal.
• Iron played, a crucial role in opening the rain-fed forests, hard soil area of the middle Ganga basin to clearance, cultivation and settlement. Iron ore was obtained from Singhbhum and Mauryashar.
• Agricultural lands were mostly outside the village settlements, while all the people were nucleated in the village. This type of settlement first appeared in the age of the Buddha.

Village Economy
• The Pali texts speak of three types of villages.
• The first included the typical village inhabited by various castes and communities. Its number seem to have been the largest and it was headed by a village headman called Bhojaka.
• The second type was a suburban village, which served as a market for other villages and linked the towns with the country side.
• The third category consisted of a border villages situated on the limits of the countryside which merged into forests. People living in these villages were mainly fowlers and hunters and led a backward life.
• A strong rural base was necessary for the beginning of urbanisation and crafts and command.
• Princes, priests, artisans, traders, administrators military personnel and numerous others could not live in towns unless taxes, tributes and lithes were available in sufficient measure to support the non-agriculturists living in towns had to be by agriculturists living in villages.
• In return, artisans and traders living in towns made tools, cloth, etc. available to rural folk.

• This period saw the second urbanisation in India, which, was a new important factor in the life of people.
• Towns had come into existence as centres of industry and trade.
• The NBP phase marked the beginning of urbanisation.
• NBP is a pottery of a very shining and glossy type, made of very fine fabric and served as the table-ware of rich people. In association with this pottery, are found iron implements, especially those made for craft and agricultural use.
• The use of burnt bricks and ringwells appeared in the middle of the NBP phase, in the third century BC.
• Some towns such as Sravasti, Champa, Rajagriha, Ayodhya, Kausambi and Kasi were of substantial importance to the economy of Ganges plain.
• Others such as Vaishali, Ujjain, Taxila and Bharukachchha (Broash) had a wider economic reach.
• Towns had grown from what had been villages those which had specialised in particular crafts, and trading centres.
• Specialised craftsmen tended to congregate because it facilitated carriage of raw materials and the distribution of finished articles.
• The concentration of artisans in a town brought them within easier reach of the traders and of the markets.

• In many towns such as Kausambi, Sravasti, Ayodhya, Kapilvastu, Pataliputra and others, signs of habitation and mud-structures belonging to the NBP phase have been found.
• Wooden palisades have been found in Patna.
• Some of these towns were also fortified and mostly made of mud-brick and wood.
• Material remains of towns are unimpressive, but together with other material remains indicate great increase in population.
• Though many towns were seats of government, they eventually turned out to be markets and thus, dominated by artisans and merchants.
• Both artisans and merchants were organised into guilds under their respective headman. There were 18 guilds of artisans.
• Each guild inhabited a particular section of the town.
• Members of a guild lived and worked together and generally had such a close-knit relationship that they came to be regarded as a sub-caste.
• In most cases, the sons followed the same profession as the father.
• The guild at this stage was not the highly developed mercantile system which it was to become later.
• The products of crafts were carried over long distance by merchants.
• All the important cities were situated on the river banks and trade-routes and connected with one another.
• Sravasti was linked with both Kausambi and Varanasi.
• Traders also crossed the Ganga near Patna and went to Rajgir.
• The introduction of a monetary system considerably facilitated trade.
• The terms nishka and satamana in the Vedic texts are taken to be the name of coins, but coins actually found are not earlier than the 6th BC.
• Coins made of metal appear first in the age of Gautama Buddha.
• There were made of silver and copper and were punch-marked.
• The earliest hoards have been found in eastern UP and Magadha, although some have been found at Taxila.
• In the pre-Mauryan period, an advanced food-producing economy spread over middle Gangetic plains and the beginning of urban economy in this area.
• This economy provided subsistence to both farmers and non-farmers, which made possible tax collection and thus, maintenance of a standing army.
• These created conditions for the formation of terrritorial states.

Social Conditions
• By the pre-Mauryan period, the tribal community had been clearly divided into four classes Brahamins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras.
• The Dharmasutras laid down the duties of each of the four varnas and the civil and criminal law came to be based on the varna division.
• The higher the varna, the purer it was and the higher was the order of moral conduct expected by law.
• All kinds of disabilities were imposed on the Sudras.
• They were deprived of religious and legal rights and relegated to the lowest position in society.
• Crimes committed by them were punished more severely.
• The law givers emphasised the fiction that Sudras were born from the feet of the creator.
• Members of higher varnas shunned their company and avoided food touched by them.
• Sudras were specifically asked to serve the twice born as slave, artisan and agricultural labourer. Even Jainisms and Buddhism did not make any substantial change in the position of the Sudras.
• The civil and criminal law of the period was regulated by caste.
• Laws were administered by royal agents who inflicted ready punishments such as scourging, beheading etc.
• In many cases, punishment for criminal offences was governed by the idea of revenge.
• Brahmanical law books recommended that the crimes committed by Sudras against Brahmanas and others should be punished severely. On the other hand, the crimes committed against the Sudras were punished lightly.
• The Brahmanical texts also did not ignore the customs of those non-Vedic tribal groups who were gradually absorbed into the Brahmanical social order.
• Some or these indigenous tribals were given fictitious social origins and they were allowed to be governed by their own customs.
• The legal and judicial system which originated in this period was largely an important weapon of authority in the hands of the ruling class.

System of Administration
• Monarchy was the dominant form of government during this period.
• Kingship had by now become a hereditary phenomenon with a preference for rulers of the Khatriya caste.
• This preference remained theoretical, since kings of all the four castes are known to have ruled, according to political expediency.
• The divine nature of kingship was an established idea, which was reinforced from time to time by means of elaborate ritual sacrifices which the king initiated.
• After the coronation, he began the year long royal consecration (rajasvya) which invested him with divinity. Other importants sacrifice was the Ashwamedha.
• The Jatakas tell of oppressive kings and their chief priests being expelled by the people and the new kings were installed. But occasions of expulsion were as rare as those of election.
• The king enjoyed the highest official status and special protection of his person and property.
• The post-Vedic period saw the earliest appearance of the royal advisers or ministers and the king ruled with their help.
• Higher officials were called Mahamatras and they performed various functions such as those of the minister (mantrim), commander (senattayaka), judge, chief accountant and head of the royal harem.
• A class of officers called Ayuktas also performed similar functions in some of the states.
• Varsakara of Magadha and Dirghacharayam of Kosala are known to have been effective ministers with great political influence.
• High officers and ministers were largely recruited from the priestly class of the Brahmanas. Generally, they do not seem to have belonged to the clan of the king.
• In the countryside, local administration was entrusted to the headman, whose office grew out of the leadership of the tribal leadership. They were called gramanis which means the leader of the grartia or a tribal military wit.
• As life became sedentary and plough cultivation well-established, tribal contingents settled down to agriculture.
• The gramani was, therefore, transformed into a village headman in pre-Mauryan times.
• The village headman was known by different titles such as gramabhajoka, gramani orsramaka.
• Eighty-six thousand gramikas are said to have been summoned by Bimbisara which shows that headmen enjoyed considerable importance and had direct links with the king.
• The village headmen assessed and collected the taxes from the villagers and they also maintained law and order in their locality.
• Influential Brahmanas and Sethis were paid by the grant of the revenue of villages, though punch-marked coins made of silver existed. In doing so, the king did not have to obtain the consent of the clan, as was the case in later Vedic times. But the revenue alone was granted and administrative authority was not handed over.
• The real and most effective prop of the state administration was the standing army; whose growth was promoted by socio-economic developments in the age of the Buddha.
• With the decline of tribal life and the corresponding division of society into caste-classes the tribal militia was naturally replaced by the standing army.
• At the time of Alexander’s invasion, the Nanda ruler of Magadha kept 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 200 horse-chariots and about 4000 elephants.
• The chariots were loosing their importance.
• The possession of numerous elephants gave an edge to the Magadha princes.
• The senanavaka occupied a very exalted place in the list of high functionaries.
• The development of the standing army was facilitated in most of the mahajanapadas only by a system of taxation which came to be somewhat firmly established in post-Vedic times.
• Land taxes became the substantial and permanent source of income for the exchequer.
• Bali, which was originally a voluntary tribute, tended to become obligatory.
• New taxes such as bhaga and kara, both unheard of in earlier periods, seem to have become a source of state income.
• Warriors and priests, i.e., Kshatriyas and the Brahmanas, were exempted from payment of taxes and the burden fell on the peasants who were mainly vaishyas or grihapatis.
• Artisans and traders also had to pay taxes.
• Artisans were made to work for a day in a month for the king and the traders had to pay customs on the sale of their commodities.
• The tolls were collected by officers known as Soulkika or Sulkadhyaksha.
• The bali was collected by the officers called Balisadhakas.
• Two types of officers, tundiyas and alcasiyas are described in the Jataka stories as collecting taxes from the people, either by beating or and binding them or by dispossessing them of their earnings.
• Jatakas also speak of cases in which peasants left the country of the king in order to escape the oppressive burden of taxes.