There is not a great deal known about Ajatashatru. What is known is that he became a King of Magadha and the adjoining areas by murdering his father, Bimbisara. Also, he was a contemporary of Buddha, was a patron of the then-new religion of Buddhism, and he let the Sangha function in his Kingdom.
Some details of his life are given in the earliest Buddhist scriptures of the Pali Canon. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, Gautama Buddha said that if Ajatasattu hadn't killed his father, he would have attained sotapannahood, a degree of enlightenment. But because he had killed his father he could not attain it.
According to Romila Thapar, Ajatashatru was responsible for building Pataliputra and strengthening the defences of the Magadhan capital, Rajagriha. The same historian reports that Ajatashatru murdered his father and predecessor Bimbisara in order to accede to the throne. This is also recorded in the Buddhist scripture, the Contemplation Sutra. Next, Ajatashatru, undertook the annexation of the kingdoms of Kosala and Kashi, and pursued a sixteen-year war against the Vriji confederacy of north Bihar and Nepal. Legends say that the one who masterminded Ajatashatru's usurping of the throne was the schismatic monk Devadatta, the reasons being that Ajatashatru was said to have been convinced by Devadatta to help fund his schismatic sangha.
Mention by Fahian
James Legge writes: Four yojanas on from this place (Vaisali) to the east brought the travellers to the confluence of the five rivers.1 When Ananda was going from Magadha2 to Vaisali, wishing his pari-nirvana to take place (there), the devas informed king Ajatasatru3 of it, and the king immediately pursued him, in his own grand carriage, with a body of soldiers, and had reached the river. (On the other hand), the Lichchhavis of Vaisali had heard that Amanda was coming (to their city), and they on their part came to meet him. (In this way), they all arrived together at the river, and Ananda considered that, if he went forward, king Ajatasatru would be very angry, while, if he went back, the Lichchhavis would resent his conduct. He thereupon in the very middle of the river burnt his body in a fiery ecstasy of Samadhi,4 and his pari-nirvana was attained. He divided his body (also) into two, (leaving) the half of it on each bank; so that each of the two kings got one half as a (sacred) relic, and took it back (to his own capital), and there raised a tope over it.
1 This spot does not appear to have been identified. It could not be far from Patna.
2 Magadha was for some time the headquarters of Buddhism; the holy land, covered with viharas; a fact perpetuated, as has been observed in a previous note, in the name of the present Behar, the southern portion of which corresponds to the ancient kingdom of Magadha.
3 In Singhalese, Ajasat. See the account of his conversion in M. B., pp. 321-326. He was the son of king Bimbisara, who was one of the first royal converts to Buddhism. Ajasat murdered his father, or at least wrought his death; and was at first opposed to Sakyamuni, and a favourer of Devadatta. When converted, he became famous for his liberality in almsgiving.
4 Eitel has a long article (pp. 114, 115) on the meaning of Samadhi, which is one of the seven sections of wisdom (bodhyanga). Hardy defines it as meaning “perfect tranquillity;” Turnour, as “meditative abstraction;” Burnouf, as “self-control;” and Edkins, as “ecstatic reverie.” “Samadhi,” says Eitel, “signifies the highest pitch of abstract, ecstatic meditation; a state of absolute indifference to all influences from within or without; a state of torpor of both the material and spiritual forces of vitality; a sort of terrestrial nirvana, consistently culminating in total destruction of life.” He then quotes apparently the language of the text, “He consumed his body by Agni (the fire of) Samadhi,” and says it is “a common expression for the effects of such ecstatic, ultra-mystic self-annihilation.” All this is simply “a darkening of counsel by words without knowledge.” Some facts concerning the death of Ananda are hidden beneath the darkness of the phraseology, which it is impossible for us to ascertain. By or in Samadhi he burns his body in the very middle of the river, and then he divides the relic of the burnt body into two parts (for so evidently Fa-hien intended his narration to be taken), and leaves one half on each bank. The account of Ananda’s death in Nien-ch’ang’s “History of Buddha and the Patriarchs” is much more extravagant. Crowds of men and devas are brought together to witness it. The body is divided into four parts. One is conveyed to the Tushita heaven; a second, to the palace of a certain Naga king; a third is given to Ajatasatru; and the fourth to the Lichchhavis. What it all really means I cannot tell.
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