Ajatasatru was a powerful and authoritative emperor of the Haryanka dynasty of the Magadha kingdom. He embraced supremacy and dominance over the whole of North India. According to the Buddhist texts, ‘such was his restlessness to ascend the throne and rule the empire that he imprisoned his father, Bimbisara, and got him murdered’. With an ambition of expanding his empire, he invaded Vaisali and after 16 years of extensive war with its ruler, Chetaka, he was successful in conquering the republic. Thereafter, he set his eyes on other smaller kingdoms of Kasi and Kosala. Desperate to add more territories to his empire, he conquered 36 more kingdoms and republican states around Magadha, eventually, establishing the influence of Magadha across North India, stretching from present-day Haryana and Himachal Pradesh in the west to Bihar and West Bengal in the east. While he is said to be a follower of both Jainism and Buddhism faiths, records provide sufficient evidence of him being a Jain devotee due to his several meetings with Mahavira as opposed to a single meeting with Buddha
Childhood & Early Life
Ajatasatru, also known as Kunika, was born to King Bimbisara, the ruler of Magadha kingdom, and Queen Chelna or Kosala Devi, as mentioned in Jainism and Buddhist records, though both the traditions referred the queen as Vaidehi.
He ascended the throne in 492 BC after his father’s death, who is believed to have committed suicide as per the Jain tradition while the Buddhist tradition states that Ajatasatru murdered him to take over the Magadha Empire.
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Accession & Reign
Soon after he assumed power as the king of Magadha, he followed a policy of conquests to expand his empire, moving towards the north and the west, since his father had previously captured Anga in the east.
A dispute over the possession of Sechanaka elephant and precious jewels between him and his two brothers, Halla and Vihalla, led to the battle of Vaisali, where the two escaped to seek refuge from their maternal grandfather, Chetaka.
Upon denial to surrender the two brothers, he sought help from his half brothers, 10 Kalkumaras, to invade the impregnable Vaisali, while Chetaka was supported by his allies – 9 Mallas, 9 Lichhvis and 18 kings of Kasi-Kosala.
Being a devoted follower of Lord Mahavira, Chetaka vowed not to shoot more than one arrow a day in a war, due to which he killed one Kalkumara per day.
Sighting his defeat, he offered prayers to different Indras for help, who granted him ‘Mahasilakantaka’, a device that ejected large stones, and ‘Ratha-musala’, a divine chariot with swinging blades on both sides.
With the two war devices, he succeeded in routing Chetaka, who immediately took shelter within the walls of Vaisali, which were difficult to break. However, he defeated him and conquered Vaisali through a trick.
As per the Buddhist tradition, he sent his minister, Vassakara, to Vaisali to arouse jealousy among the Lichchhavis and break their unity. Thereafter, he attacked the territory and conquered it after 16 years of war.
Both Jainism and Buddhism claim him to be a follower of their respective faiths, though evidences indicate his meeting with Mahavira on several occasions, while he had met Buddha just once.
Deducing the facts and evidences of various scholars, there is no proof of him accepting Buddhism; rather he was an ardent follower of Mahavira.
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Upon Buddha’s death, he sought a share of his relics and constructed a large stupa on it, apart from renovating 18 Buddhist monasteries and supporting the erection of more stupas across his capital.
To end the dispute over the town of Kasi, he declared war against the Kosala king, Presenajit, and defeated him. Apart from Kasi being added to the Magadha kingdom, he also married the king’s daughter, Vajira.
He defeated his maternal grandfather, Chetaka, at the battle of Vaisali, using two special devices granted by the Indras, following which he successfully conquered Vaisali.
He conquered 36 kingdoms and republican states to build a powerful Magadha Empire, which included present-day Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh.
He constructed a new fort on the banks of River Ganges to strengthen Magadha’s security, known as Patali grama, which later developed as Pataliputra (modern-day Patna).
Soon after Buddha died, Ajatsatru organized the First Buddhist Council in Rajgir which was held in a conference hall built by him outside the Sattaparnaguha Cave or Sattapani caves, which placed him in high records in the history of Buddhism.
Personal Life & Legacy
The Jain records state that he had 8 wives, the foremost among them being Padmavati, Dharini and Subhadra, while the Buddhist traditions indicate that he had 500 wives, the chief being Princess Vajira.
Both the Buddhists and Jain traditions say that he had a son, Udayabhadda or Udayabhadra.
He was assassinated by his son in 461 BC to take over the kingdom, thereby ending Ajatasatru’s 32 year reign.