(Ajatashatru means a person without enemies)
Ajatashatru reigned during 492 to 460 BCE as a king of the Haryanka dynasty of Magadha in East India. He was the son of King Bimbisara and was a contemporary of both Mahavira and Gautama Buddha. He forcefully took over the kingdom of Magadha from his father, imprisoned him and finally murdered him. He fought a war against Vajji, ruled by the Lichchhavis, and conquered the republic of Vaishali.
Ajatashatru followed policies of conquest and expansion just like present day China. He defeated his neighbours including the king of Kosala. When his brothers, were at odds with him and went to Kashi, which had been given to king Bimbisara as dowry, it led to a war between Magadha and Kosala. Ajatashatru occupied Kashi and captured the smaller kingdoms. Magadha under Ajatashatru became the most powerful kingdom in North India.
Ajatashatru is the inventor of two weapons used in war, called Rathamusala (a scythe chariot) and a Mahashilakantaka (a weapon for hurling big stones on the enemy).
Based on the correlation of dates in the ‘Mahavamsa,’ an epic poem, written in Pali language concludes that Buddha died in 483 BC. Basis that, Arthur Llewellyn Basham, a noted historian, Indologist from London and an author of a number of books, dated the accession of Ajatashatru to 491 BC. He estimates the first campaign of Ajatashatru to have taken place in 485 BC, and his second campaign against Vajjis in between 481–480 BC. The Samannaphala Sutta, a discourse that tells the story of King Ajatashatru, states that Ajatashatru visited in all, six teachers to hear their doctrines and at last visited Buddha, an event Basham estimated to have taken place in 491 BC.
Ajatashatru, was also known as Kunika. The ancient inscription in Government Museum Mathura, refers to him as ‘Vaidehi putra Ajatashatru Kunika.” The story of Ajatashatru is also found in the Tripitaka—Buddhist scriptures, and Jain Agamas—the Jain texts. The account of Ajatashatru’s birth is more or less similar in both the traditions. According to Jainism, Ajatashatru was born to King Bimbisara and Queen Chelna. Buddhist tradition records Ajatashatru being born to Bimbisara and Kosala Devi. It is worthwhile to note that both the queens were called “Vaidehi” in both the traditions.
According to the Jain Nirayavalika Sutra, during her pregnancy Queen Chelna had a strong desire to eat the fried flesh of her husband’s heart and along with it drink liquor. To deflect the issue the intelligent prince Abhayakumara, son of king Bimbisara and Queen Nanda, fried a wild fruit that resembled the shape of a heart and gave it to the queen. The queen ate it and later felt ashamed of herself for having such a demonic desire, as 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, upon learning that the child had been thrown out, ran outside and picked up the child. He then put the child’s bleeding little finger in his mouth and sucked it until it stopped bleeding and continued this for days till it was healed. As the little finger of the child was sore, he was nicknamed Kunika “Sore Finger”. Later he was named Asokacanda.
In the Buddhist Atthakatha, the above story is almost the same, except that Kosaladevi desired to drink blood from Bimbisara’s arm and the king obliged her. 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 out the pus, rather swallowed it.
Once Queen Padmavati, wife of Ajatashatru, was sitting in her balcony in the evening. She saw Halla and Vihalla, kumaras, with their wives sitting on Sechanaka elephant, where one of the wives was wearing the 18 fold divine necklace. Just then she heard one of the maidservants speaking from the garden below, ‘the necklace belongs to Halla and Vihalla kumaras and not the king who enjoys the real pleasures of the kingdom.” Queen Padmavati got upset at this. She thought, ‘what’s the use of the kingdom if I do not have both the jewels in my possession?’
She shared her unease with Ajatashatru the same night and became excessively insistent in her demand of getting the necklace. Ajatashatru, 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 were gifts given by their dear father so why should they part with them? Ajatashatru sent the request thrice but got the same reply all three times. This greatly annoyed him, so he sent his men to arrest them. Meanwhile, Halla and the Vihalla kumaras, escaped to their maternal grandfather Chetaka who was the king of the great kingdom of Vaishali having both Vajjis and Lichchavis. Ajatashatru to arrest them sent three notices to Chetaka but he denied their release.
This was enough for Ajatashatru. He called his half-brothers, Kalakumaras (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 Ajatashatru that Vaishali had always been invincible in the past and he alone would not be able to defeat it. Each Kalakumara 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 Ajatashatru. 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 570,000 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. And, it was known to all, that Chetaka’s aim was perfect and his arrows were infallible. His first arrow killed one Kalakumara, commander of Ajatashatru. On the consecutive nine days the rest of the nine Kalakumaras were killed by Chetaka.
As Ajatashatru was moving towards defeat he practised penance for three days and offered prayers to Sakrendra and Charmendra (Indra of different heavens) 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 Indras even the pebbles, straws, leaves hurled by Ajatashatru’s men were said to have fallen like rocks on the army of Chetaka. This weapon was thus named “Mahasilakantaka”, i.e. the weapon through which more than a lakh (1,00,000) people died. Next, the Indras granted a huge, automatically moving chariot with swinging spiked maces on each side, and said to have been driven by Charmendra himself, to Ajatashatru. The chariot moved about in the battlefield crushing lakhs of soldiers. This war-chariot was named Ratha-Musala.
In this battle, Chetaka was finally defeated. But, Chetaka and others immediately took shelter inside the city walls of Vaishali and closed the main gate. The walls around Vaishali were so strong that Ajatashatru was unable to break through them. Many days passed, Ajatashatru became furious and again prayed to Indra, but this time Indra refused to help him. But Ajatashatru was informed by an oracle of a demi-goddess that “Vaishali can only be conquered if Sramana (monk)Kulvalaka gets married to a courtesan.”
Ajatashatru 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 Ajatashatru’s orders brainwashed Kulvalaka to enter Vaishali disguised as an astrologer. With great difficulty, he did enter Vaishali and learned that the city was saved by a Chaitya (shrine) dedicated to Muni-Suvrata. Kulvalaka then started telling people that this shrine is the reason why the city is going through a bad period. The people uprooted the shrine from its very foundation. Kulvalaka then gave a signal to Ajatashatru, and he proceeded as per their prior arrangement. This was the last attack. Vaishali was conquered by Ajatashatru.
Sechanaka the elephant died after it fell in a pit with iron rods and fire made by Ajatashatru’s soldiers. Later Halla and Vihalla kumaras got initiated as monks in the holy order of Lord Mahavira. Chetaka committed Sallekahna (fast unto death). Ajatashatru not only conquered Vaishali but also Kasi-Kosala.
Ajatashatru was born to King Bimbisara and queen Chellana, who was the daughter of Chetaka the king of Vaishali, and who was the brother of Queen Triśalá, mother of Mahavira. Ajatashatru had 500 wives but the principal consort was princess Vajira. The City of Kashi was given to Bimbisara as dowry by Maha-Kosala. After the murder of Bimbisara, Prasenajit took the city back. This resulted in a war between Ajatashatru and Prasenajit, in which Prasenajit was first defeated but he succeeded later. As Ajatashatru happened to be his nephew his life was spared. In a peace treaty, Prasenajit married his daughter Vajira to him. Ajatashatru later had a son named Udayabhadda.
It is estimated the Ajatashatru died around 460 BCE. Ajatashatru too like his father was brutally murdered by his own son, Udayabhadra, who too was greedy of his father’s kingdom. As you sow, sow you reap.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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