Forgotten Kings of the Kaliyuga

The suggestion that Indians as a people lack a sense of history repeated often with little scrutiny. The beginnings of Indian historiography have been attributed to the marunmatta-s and mleccha-s ignoring a much older native tradition of chronicling the past. The beginnings of historiography date back much earlier, to the period of oral transmission as reflected purANa-s and itihAsa-s. Likewise the nAstika-s have their own histories preserved in the biographical works of the jina-s and sthavira-s of their sect. Various other historical traditions were preserved within the narrative work the bR^ihatkathA. In addition there exists a vast corpus of historical plays. Several of these sources contain what appear to be reasonably accurate records of historical events that occurred long before their composition, suggesting that they drew upon pre-existing literature much of which is lost today. While the absolute dates are only speculative, much of the relative chronology is beyond doubt.

The bArhadratha-s

The territory of magadha lay to the east of Aryavarta, (southern Bihar of the present day) separated from its northern neighbor vaishAlI by the ga~NgA. It had for its capital the town of girivraja, a town surrounded by the five hills – vaibhAra, varAha, vR^iShabha, R^iShigiri and chaityaka and supposedly founded by the legendary king vasu chaidya, the progenitor of its earliest dynasty the bArhadratha-s.

It was in the line of bArhadratha-s that the villainous monarch jarAsandha was born. At the dawn of the kaliyuga the ruling monarch of the line was his grandson somAdhi. Very little other than the names of its kings of this dynasty is known.

A great deal of error has crept into the purANic accounts with regard to the following period. The purANa-s describe the pradyota-s as capturing power in the period following the fall of the bR^ihadratha-s and the vItihotra-s. The purANa-s seem to have mistakenly placed them amidst the dynasties of magadha, whereas they were the rulers of avantI

The pradyota-s

The last vItihotra king was assassinated by his general puNika who placed his son pradyota on the throne of avantI, c. 598 BCE. The murder of a brother of pradyota, by a tAlajangha named vetAla at the festival of mahAkAla mentioned by bANabhatta may have been an act of revenge by a member of the former royal clan.  pradyota earned the epithet chaNDa-pradyota or mahAsena, on account of his powerful army remained feared by his neighbours. He led two campaigns against shatAnIka of kaushambI, while the first ended in failure, it was during the second that shatAnIka met his end. An impending attack by him on ajAtashatru is mentioned in the majjhima nikaya. The jaina tradition also alludes to a war with on udrAyaNa of king sindhu and sauvira which ended in defeat.

Following a 23 year long reign he was succeeded by his second son pAlaka (r. 475 – 451 BCE), his elder son gopAla having abdicated the throne, an event that coincided with the nirvANa of mahAvIra according to jaina accounts. After a ruling for 23 years he was overthrown by his nephew Aryaka (r. 451 -430 BCE) the son of gopAla, (This event is mentioned in the mR^ichchhakaTika) who reigned for 21 years. The kingdom then passed into the hands of avantivardhana, the son of pAlaka. Their rule came to an end following defeat at the hands of shishunAga soon after assuming control of magadha, as narrated in the purANa-s.

The bimbisArids

The purANa-s place the shaishunAga-s after the pradyota-s whose fame shishunAga is said to have destroyed. This would mean shishunAga reigned after the time of bimbisAra who was a contemporary of pradyota, and the later redactors of the purANa-s have mistakenly considered bimbisAra a descendant of the latter.

The overthrow of ripu~njaya the bArhadratha was carried out by a predecessor of shreNika bimbisAra (a contemporary of the buddha), likely his father named kshemajit/kshatraujas in the purANa-s and bhaTiya in the mahAvaMsa an event that can be dated c.550 BCE. The mahAvamsA makes bimbisAra (b. 571 BCE) 5 years junior to the buddha and attributes to him a reign of 52 years following his accession at the age of 15, on the other hand the purANa-s assign to him 28 or 38 years of rule.  However given his close association with the buddha, the bauddha dates may be given priority though seemingly excessive suggesting that he reigned from 446 – 494 BCE. It was during his reign that a~Nga was conquered under its last monarch brahmadatta. He was also responsible for the establishment of the new town of rAjagR^iha.

ajAtashatru (r. 494 – 469 BCE) identified in the jain accounts by the epithet kUNika imprisoned and later assassinated his father seizing control of the kingdom. In the initial years of his reign he faced attacks by prasenajit of kosala and pradyota and the majjhima nikaya mentions preparations to strengthen the fortifications of rAjagR^iha following threat of an invasion by pradyota. Disputes also arose with the vR^ijji-s to the north, and the dIghanIkaya mentions the building of fortifications at pATaligrAma to hold out the invaders. A few years later (A little before the buddha’s nirvANa c. 486 BCE) the brAhmaNa minister varShakAra was planning a campaign against the vR^ijji confederation. The war with the vR^ijji-s led by the lichchhavI chieftain cheTaka lasted twelve years after which ajAtashatru emerged victorious breaching the fortifications of vaishAlI. The beginning of this war that coincided with the death of maskarin goshAlaka occurred sixteen years before mahAvIra’s death c.491 BCE. The purANa-s assign to him reign of 25-27 years and the bauddha’s 32, which may have included a period of governorship over anga.

The reign of his successor darshaka, (r. 469 BCE –  460?) mentioned only in the purANa-s but whose existence is vouched for by his mention in the svapnavAsavadattam of bhAsa and within the bR^ihatkathA tradition. Although assigned a reign of 25 years by the purANa-s his reign is likely to have been but a short interregnum leading to it being neglect by the nAstika traditions. udayin (460 BCE -?  another son of ajAtashatru succeeded darshaka. Astika and jaina traditions attribute the foundation of pATaliputra at the site of the village of pATaligrAma on the southern bank of the ga~NgA to the king udayin. The Jaina-s assign to him 60 yrs, the purANa-s 33 and the Buddhists 15-16 years, the first number though may be a life figure. While no definite dates can be assigned to him his reign likely ended around 430 BCE. The reigns of the successors of udayin are obscure, muNDa named only in the southern and northern bauddha texts, but is encountered in the anguttara nikaya as a king of pATaliputra. He was succeded by another obscure ruler aniruddha. These two rulers together reigned a total of 8 years. The final ruler of the dynasty nick-named nAgadAsa assumed the throne after killing his father. He was ousted by the people of magadha tired of partricidal rulers. Within the pAlI tradition itself two different reign lengths are mentioned 24 years, however if the reason for his removal is correctly mentioned it is unlikely to have happened 24 years into his reign.

The shishunAga-s

The first king of this line to rule over magadha was the obscure ruler shishunAga (r.411? – 396 BCE), who was as per certain commentaries on the mahAvamsha was a minister of nAgadAsa hailing from the lichchhavI clan invited to invade magadha by its citizens who resented the patricidal rulers of biMbisAra’s line. The purANa-s state that shishunAga shifted the capital back to girivraja from pATaliputra and placed his son on the throne of kAshI. Certain pALI Accounts suggest that his native town vaishAlI may have been retained as the centre of administration.

He was succeeded by his son kAlAshoka (‘ashoka the black’) also known as kAkavarNin (‘The crow coloured’). The nanda of tAranatha corresponds to the same individual and it may be that mahAnandin was one of his titles, and was duplicated as a separate king by later compilers of the purANa-s. He is said to have ruled at the time of the second Buddhist council at vaishAlI which occurred in the tenth year of his reign and the hundredth year after the buddha’s nirvANa. He was also responsible for presiding over the shift of the magadhan capital to pATaliputra once and for all, after which the city of rAjagR^iha slowly fell into obscurity. The purANa-s state that he ruled for 36 yrs from around (396 – 360 BCE) bANabhatta’s harshacharita refers to kAkavarNin shaishunAgi as having been murdered in the vicinity of his capital by having his throat slashed. A similar incident is recorded by the jaina-s but the murdered predecessor of the nanda-s is identified as udAyin.  This incident was known to graeco-roman writers. His successor was ugrasena ‘mahApadma’ nanda who ruled initially as a guardian of kAkavarNI’s sons. They are named as bhadrasena, kAraNDavarNa, sarva~njaya, jAlika, R^iShabha, sa~njaya, kauravya and nandivardhana (possibly identical with the nandivardhana of the purANa-s).

Other contemporary dynasties

The Vatsa-s : The ruling clan of vatsa was an offshoot of the kuru-s, and claimed descent from parIkshit. They had their seat at kaushambI. sahasrANIka vasudAna the twentieth in line from parIkshit probably reigned in the mid 6th century. He was succeeded by his son shatAnIka parantapa who was a contemporary of mahAvira and the buddha. The jaina tradition alludes to his victories over dadhivAhana, the king of angA who may have been the penultimate ruler of that province. He was succeeded on his death by his young son udayana, who also reigned during the last years of the buddha.  udayana married vAsavadatta the daughter of pradyota and later padmAvatI the sister of darShaka, an alliance engineered by his minister yaugandharAyaNa to fend of the invasion by AruNi the king of the pa~nchAla-s. Famed for his mastery over the vINA, the stories of his romances were the subject of several plays and remained popular centuries after his death. He was succeded by his son naravAhanadatta (vahInara) whose reign seems to have partially overlapped with that of his uncle pALaka over ujjayinI. The line became extinct three generations after naravAhanadatta probably following a defeat at the hands of mahApadma nanda.

Kosala : At the time of the buddha, kosala was ruled by prasenajit, the son of sa~njaya mahAkosala who had annexed the neighbouring kingdom of kAshI. ajAtashatru of magadha is known to have waged war with him over the non-remittance of revenues from a village in kAshI given to his father as dowry. The war ended in a truce and a matrimonial alliance. He was succeded by his son virUDhaka/kshUdraka . The AikShvAku-s too lost their independence three generations later under the reign of sumitra probably annexed by the rising magadha under mahApadmaG.

Gandhara: gandhAra fell under the control of achaemenid Iran around c. 500 BCE, and is named along with hindush (sindhu ?) amongst the achaemenid satrapies in the behistun inscription of Darius the great. Previously at the time of the buddha it was ruled by the king puShkarashakti. It seems to have regained independence soon after, it being several smaller principalities in the time of Alexander.

The nanda-s

The nanda-s are conventionally identified as a set of nine rulers, a father and his eight sons in the Astika and jaina traditions or as nine brothers by the pAlI tradition. Both the Astika and jaina traditions identify the nandas as a clan of low birth, though differing in explaining their relationship to the previous ruling clan, the purANic accounts identify the senior nanda as the son of mahAnandin through a shUdra wife while the jaina-s identify him as the son of a barber.  The latter account seems to tally better with the accounts of graeco-roman writers, who identified the father of the king contemporary to Alexander as a barber who having seduced the queen murdered the reigning monarch. The first nanda may be identified as ugrasena nanda of the pAlI chronicles, and elsewhere known by his epithet mahApadma  on account of his being an extremely wealthy mahApadmapati. The bauddhas and Astikas characterize nanda rule as a period of adharma characterized by oppression and extortion which lead to much resentment amongst the people. Such was the wealth of the nanda-s of pATaliputra that even the poets from the Dramila country have alluded to it. mahApadma nanda in addition was perhaps the first emperor since the decline of the kuru-s of old. He managed to capture vast tracts of land, the purANa-s compare him to bhArgava of the treat-yuga, in being a vanquisher of kshatriyas. Interestingly the vamshAvalI-s of the ikshvAku-s, pradyota-s and kuru-s end abruptly a few generations after those contemporary to the Buddha. His reign included most of the Gangetic plain, extending south to ashmaka, kuru in the north-west and to kalinga in the east. He was succeeded upon his death by his 8 sons who ruled in succession. Only two sons dhana and suhalya (also mentioned in the divyAvadhAna )are mentioned in the purANa-s. The pALI tradition names them as pANDuka, pANDugati, bhUtapAla, rAShTrapAla, goviShANaka, dashasiddhaka, kaivarta and dhana. dhana nanda the youngest was the emperor at the time of chandragupta’s conquest. The greek name agrammes is possibly a rendering of the patronymic augraseniya. Justin on the other hand refers to the reigning monarch as nandrus or nanda.  . The PurANic accounts give the dynasty a century long rule, with the reign of mahApadma variously identified as either eighty eight or twenty eight years and a twelve year reign attributed to his sons. An eighty eight year reign is impossible while two generations ruling for a century seems unlikely. The jaina-s attribute a similarly unlikely figure  for the reigns of the nanda-s, a periof of either 155 or 90 years. The la~Nkan chronicles on the other hand reduce the reign of the entire nanda line to 22 yrs. This can probably be reconciled with the purANic chronology if the period under (which mahApadma reigned on behalf of) the sons of the previous murdered king, mentioned to be 22 years. Thus the reign of the nanda-s can be said to have lasted around 40 yrs. Thus mahApadma nanda began his reign around 360 BCE, initially governing in the name of the princes perhaps as long as 22 yrs until his death around 332 BCE. He was succeeded by his sons who ruled until c. 320 BCE.

The maurya-s

The Origin of the maurya-s remains obscure, while later Astika traditions identify them as a line of kings of shUdra descent  (The purANa-s do not make any pronouncements on this matter, the purANic statement “tataH prabhR^iti rAjAnaH bhaviShyAH shUdra yOnayaH” while describing the usurpation of power by mahApadma nanda seems to refer only the succeeding kings of that line, for the kings of successor dynasties including the shU~Nga-s, kANva-s and perhaps the Andhra-s were know to be brAhmaNa-s as well), the bauddha-s identify them as a kShatriya clan from pippalivana and are mentioned as one of the kShatriya clans vying for a share of the tathAgata’s remains in the mahAparinibbAna sutta. Irrespective of their ancestry, it appears that at the time of capturing power they were a family of limited means. There is sufficient reason to believe the tradition that he was assisted by the scheming brAhmaNa chANakya in his attempt to overthrow the nandas, as attested by Astika, bauddha and jaina sources, during which he managed to establish a vast empire. He even defeated seleucus I nikator, who ceded to him territories to the west of the sindhu perhaps as far west as arachosia. He was succeded upon his death by his son bindusara amitraghAta (known to the Greeks as amitrochates). Little is known about his reign and he was eventually succeeded by his son ashoka, the last great maurya after whose death the empire seems to have been divided up between his grandsons dasharatha in the east and samprati in the west. The dynasty was brought to an end with the murder of of bR^ihadratha, by his brAhmaNa general puShyamitra.

Dating the Maurya’s : A clue as to the date of ashoka is from his inscriptions that mention the names of various contemporary yavana kings that reigned beyond his borders – antiyoka (Antiochus), turamAya (Ptolemy), magA ( Magas) antekina (Antigonos), alikasudara (Alexander) identifiable (based on the estimated age of the edicts) as Antochus I (280 -261BCE) or II (261 -246BCE) of Syria, Ptolemy II of Egypt (285 -247BCE), antigonos of Macedonia (280 -261BCE)  , Magas of Cyrene  (300 -250 BCE) and Alexander of Corinth(252 – 250BCE)   or Epirus(272 -255 BCE). This would mean the edicts were commissioned between 272 and 250 BCE. Since the edicts were composed after the thirteenth year of his reign when the mahAmAtras were appointed, his rAjyAbhiSheka must have been performed not later than 286 – 264 BCE.

Hellenic accounts of the reign of his grandfather chandragupta maurya (known to the Greeks as sandrocottus of palibothra) help in further refine the chronology of the mauryas. These accounts suggest that chandragupta rose to power in the time following Alexander’s death (323 BCE). His rise to power must have occurred before 302 BCE when seleucus I of Syria returned to capadocchia following his campaigns in the east during which his Indian territories were lost to chandragupta maurya.  The length of the reigns of chandragupta and his son bindusAra as furnished by the Sinhalese chronicles and the puraNa-s are as follows. 49 – 53 yrs between the establishment of mauryan rule and ashoka’s abhisheka.  This would mean Chandragupta became king of magadha between 223 and 217 BCE. Interestingly traditional jaina accounts offer a close date to chandragupta maurya 255 yrs before the commencement of the vikrama era i.e. 312 BCE.

Was ashoka priyadarshI of the inscription’s kumAragupta ?

A misguided theory that has gained currency amongst H-s completely dismisses the mainstream, chronology of the maurya-s as a colonial imposition. In this narrative devAnAmpriya ashoka of the inscriptions is identified not as ashoka maurya but as kumAragupta, thereby trying to push back the chronologies of ancient Indian dynasties by ~700 yrs. unfortunately this creates more questions than answers. Ashoka, is identified by name in his inscription at maski, while the bairaT edict identifies him as a king of magadha. Inscriptions closely related in style, script and language bearing the name of a king devAnAmpriya dasharatha, put all doubts about the identity of the king priyadarshI to rest. The purANa-s know of only one ashoka of Magadha, ashoka maurya succeeded by his grandson dasharatha (Mt.P. & Va.P.) There is little evidence any of the gupta kings having been known as ashoka, nor any named dasharatha.  kumAragupta’s coins bear little evidence of his having adopted the tradition of the tathAgata. Further the ornate script and language of established gupta inscriptions is entirely different from the crude style of those of ashoka. Thus there is little reason to doubt that the famous edicts of priyadarshI were in indeed established by ashoka maurya, the champion of bauddha dharma.

The date of the buddha and mahAvIra

Given that the jaina and the bauddhA traditions refer to the dates of contemporary kings relative to the dates of their founders, it becomes necessary to ascertain their chronology. The mainstream shvetAmbara tradition places the nirvANa of mahAvira in the year 527 BCE (540 BCE as per some of the digambara-s) ie 470 yrs before vikrama era. This it appears is derived from the following reigns, 60 yrs of pAlaka who took the throne on the night of mahAvIra’s death, 155 years of nanda rule, 108 of the Maurya,30 of puShyamitra, 60 of bhAnumitra and bAlamitra, 40 of nabhovAhana, 13 of gardabilla and 4 years of the shaka’s. While this yield’s a reasonably reliable estimate for the beginning of mauryan rule the pre-mauryan chronology seems suspicious. 155 years of nanda rule is an impossibility, while palaka was a ruler not of magadha but avantI. hemachandra on the other hand offers a different chronology, placing the nirvANa 155 years be. The lengths of intermediate reigns ( udAyin 60 years and 90 years of the nandas) is once again suspicious,  however this chronology fits well with the chronology of sthAvira-s attested within jaina tradition. suhastin a disciple of sthUlabhadra who died in the year 215 after nirvANa  for example becomes patriarch 245 years after the nirvANa is attested to have been a contemporary of ashoka’s grandson samprati whom he converted. Whose accession would have occurred 249 years after nirvANa as per hemachandra’s calculation or 309 years after nirvANa as per the dates of the gAthA’s.  likewise legends associating  the AchArya bhadrabAhu who died in the 170th year after nirvANa with Chandragupta are possible only if the latter chronology were true.  Thus the nirvANa of mahAvira may be dated to around 475 BCE, and given that he was 72 years old at the time he was born around 545 BCE.

That the buddha and mahAvira  were contemporaries is borne out by multiple statements. The canonical texts of the bauddha-s refer to mahAvira, as the nirgratha jnAtaputra, a reference to his kShatriya clan the jnAta or jnAtrika clan of kuNDagrAma and he is one of the chief rivals of the buddha. Besides this both contain references to shreNya bimbisAra and  his son ajAtashatru, the former usually referenced as shreNika and the latter as kUNika in the jaina texts but occasionally referring to the former as bibbhisAra/bambhasAra leaving no doubts as to his identity. Besides this both were contemporaries of the teacher the AjIvika-s mAskarin goshAlaka, who died 18 years befor mahAvIra. The pALI tradition identifies the date of the birth of the buddha at 644 BCE and the nirvANa 80 years later at 564 BCE, however this appears to be a later tradition with an older nirvANa era at 482 BCE. Further the traditional date would conflicts with the established date for ashoka whose coronation occurred 218 years following the nirvANa.The dotted record of canton that consists of a series of dots placed yearly since the date of the nirvANa suggests a date of 386 BCE. This is however in conflict with certain northern Buddhist texts that date the reign of ashoka to 100, 116 or 160 years after the buddha. However there is reason to believe that this date arose out of the confusion between ashoka kAkavarNin and dharmashoka. It is significant that several northern texts including the divyAvadana, the Aryama~njushrI mUlakalpa and the lama tAranAtha place ashoka within their relative chronologies not after Chandragupta and bindusAra as would be expected but before the nanda-s. Unfortunately the latter date has gained great traction amongst mleccha buddhologists, with its chief proponent going so far as to suggest a date as late as 350 BCE for the buddha. One may dismiss this chronology as nonsensical, ignoring as it does the socio-political history of India. There is little reason to doubt the existence of ajAtashatru, udayin or the two generations of the nanda-s, in addition there is significant reason to believe that at least darshaka, muNDa, kAkavarNin and his sons were historical figures as well. To reduce all these kings to a period of 20 years is absurd. However the long chronology is not without problems as well. While several bauddha texts refer to the buddha as outliving mahAvira, this is directly contradicted by the jaina tradition. (It is questionable though how well informed the Buddhists were about a rival teacher given elsewhere they confuse his gotra with that of one his disciples and mistook pAvA in magadha where mahAvira breathed his last for the more famous  for the more famous pAvA of the malla-s). Secondly the long chronology assumes unusually long life spans  for the bauddhA AchArya-s between upAlI and mahIndra with an average of close to 90 years. While the corrected long chronology seems to best explain various circumstances, it is not possible to entirely rule out a date closer to 420 BCE as proposed by some.


While much more can be said about the date of the great grammarian pANini, I shall write only briefly on the topic. pANini uses the word yavana, a derivative of the old Persian yauna referring to Ionian Greeks, suggesting that his work belongs to the period succeeding the achaemenid invasion. This is supported by the presence of the word lipi, another borrowing from old Persian. The aShtAdhyAyI also indicates a familiarity with certain (Buddhist) monastic custom and the existence of ascetics of the school of maskarI. All this suggests that the aShTAdhyAyI belongs to the period beyond the mid-fifth century. The tradition of the kashmIrian bR^ihatkathA and the Aryama~njushrImUlakalpa make him a contemporary of nanda. tAranAtha however places him at the time nanda the predecessor of mahApadma. However pANini recognizes the existence of shUrasena, avantI, kosala and ashmaka as independent state and seems to indicate no familiarity with a unitary empire. On this basis his work can be assigned to the last decades of the fifth century allowing him to be a contemporary of mahAnandin ie kAlAshoka.

The article was first published here. The author tweets at @Dirghakarna.