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Type of Government

Magadha was a hereditary monarchy based in what is today the state of Bihar in northeastern India. Its standing army, well-paid civil servants, and efficient, decentralized administrative system were so successful that several Magadhan kings, notably the founders of the Maurya (c. 321–c. 185 BC) and Gupta (c. AD 320–550) dynasties, were able to expand their holdings into full-fledged empires stretching across northern India and beyond.


Northern India in the sixth century BC was a patchwork of independent states, of which Magadha was only one. Under King Bimbisāra (c. 543–491 BC), however, it began to absorb its neighbors. Crucial to this early success were its control of trade and transport along a major portion of the Ganges River, strategic marriage alliances, and a standing army staffed by professionals; all three factors remained important through the rise of the Gupta dynasty eight hundred years later. However, another hallmark of Magadhan rule, its decentralized administration, had not yet developed. The centralized system of Bimbisāra and his successors worked well when the kingdom was small, but came under increasing pressure with the acquisition of new territory.

Government Structure

The founder of the Maurya dynasty, Candragupta (d. c. 297 BC), came to power in a coup around 321 BC. An ambitious campaign of expansion gave him control of almost the entire Indian subcontinent, including modern Pakistan and a sizeable portion of modern Afghanistan. So vast a territory required a new administrative framework. At the palace level, a council of ministers assisted the king in setting policy. Except for the chief minister, who served as a general adviser, each minister had responsibility for a single government function. Particularly important was the department of tax collection, which merged local and empirewide functions in an influential and effective structure. Because the empire depended on the taxes levied on agriculture and land, and because most land holdings were small, it was imperative to have resident tax officials in all but the smallest villages. An efficient chain of command sent revenue and information from village to subdistrict to district to province to the imperial palace.

Provincial officials, often locally recruited, enjoyed significant autonomy, particularly at the far edges of the empire. Good pay encouraged their loyalty. The Arthasastra, a contemporary treatise on political organization often attributed to Candragupta’s chief minister, recommended spending a full quarter of state revenues on salaries. Even though this percentage may represent an ideal allocation, not a realistic one, other sources indicate that officials of all kinds were well trained and highly paid. To be absolutely certain of their loyalty and performance, however, Mauryan kings developed an independent inspectorate. Royal auditors reporting directly to the palace made periodic trips to every region of the empire. Candragupta’s grandson Aśoka (d. 238 or 232 BC) went further, deploying a special group of observers to study local conditions and test public opinion. Even though some historians characterize these officials as spies, their intent was probably more benign than this term implies. By all accounts, Aśoka was a conscientious king deeply concerned for the welfare of his people. If some were suffering at the hands of a corrupt or incompetent official, Aśoka wanted to know.

The Mauryan bureaucracy worked so well that it survived the end of the empire in 185 BC; most of it, in fact, was still in place when the Gupta dynasty arose five hundred years later. Most of the administrative adjustments made by the Gupta kings reflected the enormous economic and political changes that had occurred throughout southern Asia in the interim. For example, a sharp increase in international trade required the Guptas to staff additional customs posts and to increase the production of coinage. Meanwhile, tribal migrations throughout Asia had destabilized the empire’s northern frontiers. In response, the Guptas diverted resources to the establishment and maintenance of dependent buffer states in those areas. Several of these were led by local kings the Guptas had conquered in their initial rise to power and then, in a characteristic move, put back on the throne as allies.

Political Parties and Factions

As in many hereditary monarchies, factions often coalesced around rival claimants to the throne. These palace disputes could be violent, particularly in the period before the rise of the Maurya dynasty. Several kings are known to have gained the throne only after murdering their fathers.

Outside the palace, foreign observers found a highly stratified society in which distinctions based on class and occupation inhibited the growth of broad-based factions. The Greek traveler Megasthenes (c. 350–c. 290 BC) identified seven occupational groups: farmers, shepherds, soldiers, magistrates, councilors, artisans, and philosophers; the last of these included priests and teachers. Because of their concentration in the capital of Pataliputra (modern Patna) and other cities, the artisans probably wielded more power than their numbers would indicate. The best-educated group, the philosophers, might have presented the greatest challenge to imperial authority, had their backgrounds and agendas not proved too diverse for a single faction. Moreover, the kings’ general policy of religious toleration kept dissatisfaction among Hindu priests and Buddhist monks to a minimum.

Major Events

In 305 BC Candragupta defeated a mixed Greek-Indian force under Seleucus I (c. 358–281 BC), in what is today the northwestern state of Punjab. The treaty that followed stabilized the borders and facilitated a long and fruitful cultural exchange with the Greek-speaking Seleucids, who had remained in Asia after the withdrawal of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) some twenty years earlier.

Candragupta was well established on the throne in 305 BC. Most major battles involving the Magadhan kingdom, however, took place early in a king’s reign, as he consolidated his power and adjusted his frontiers. King Aśoka’s early campaigns targeted the Kalinga peoples of central India and earned him the nickname “Aśoka the Fierce.” Later generations viewed the Kalinga campaigns as a pivotal event in the life of one of Magadha’s most influential rulers, for the shock of the violence he had inspired is said to have converted Aśoka to a policy of peace, nonviolence, and toleration.


Palace rivalries and feuds posed an increasingly serious threat to Gupta power over the course of the fifth century AD. Ally and enemy alike sensed the empire’s growing internal weakness and turned it to their advantage. Many of the client states on the frontiers rebelled just as the nomadic Huns of central Asia were turning southward. Deprived of the protection its buffer states once offered, the Guptas felt the full force of the Huns’ raids. Though several late Gupta kings were able to halt the onslaught temporarily, the empire had fallen apart by AD 550. The kingdom of Magadha existed for another six hundred years, but its political power never again extended beyond the home region of Bihar. Regardless, its influence over Indian art, literature, and government organization continues to this day.

Samaddar, J. N., and B. P. Sinha. The Glories of Magadha. 3rd ed. Patna, India: K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1990.

Srivastava, Kamal Shankar. History of Magadha: From the Sixth Century BC to Twelfth Century AD. Varanasi, India: Sangeeta Prakashan, 1995.

Thapar, Romila. Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas: With a New Afterword, Bibliography, and Index. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.


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MAGADHA One of sixteen major states (mahajanapadas, or "great tribal regions") in North India, stretching from Bengal to the North-West Frontier province between about 770 and 450 b.c., Magadha was one of the two most powerful. (The other was Kosala, the site of Ayodhya and Kashi and adjacent to the Buddha's home, Kapilavastu.) With its capital at Rajagriha (the King's House), a city surrounded by five hills that formed a natural defense, Magadha's prosperity depended on its fertile land, favoring the cultivation of rice, its forests, which provided timber and elephants, the mineral resources of the Barabar Hills, especially iron ore and copper, and control of the eastern Gangetic trade through its command of the trade on the river Ganges. Attacking east and south, Magadha incorporated its Bengali neighbor Anga, thereby controlling the ports in Bengal and trade from the east coast. Its most renowned rulers were Bimbisara (c. 555–493 b.c.) and his son Ajatasatru (c. 459 b.c.), who murdered his father to ascend the throne. Bimbisara was the great patron of the Buddha (c. 563–483 b.c.), who won him over, according to the Pali canon, by preventing a Brahman priest from sacrificing fifty of the king's goats. Another Buddhist text talks of Ajatasatru visiting the Buddha. If Buddhism and Jainism owe their creation and survival to the business classes—the Jain leader Vardhamana Mahavira (c. 540–468 b.c.) was also born and taught in the area—then Magadha is one of the most important sites in history.

Bimbisara adopted the catapult and the chariot, enabling him to dominate the region militarily. He also formed marriage alliances with neighboring states, including a marriage into the Kosala royal family. Bimbisara started a land revenue collection system, which his successors expanded. Each village headman (gramani) was responsible for collecting taxes, which were handed over to a set of officials responsible for their transport to Rajagriha. Wasteland, which came to be considered the property of the king, was cleared in the forest, further expanding revenue. The king's customary share was reflected in the term for the monarch, shadbhagin (one-sixth). Ajatasatru continued his father's policies but also founded the city of Pataligrama (later Pataliputra, then Patna) on the south bank of the Ganges, where it became an important source of revenue as it controlled the river trade.

After the death of Ajatasatru a number of ineffectual kings ruled over Magadha, and Sisunaga founded a new dynasty which in turn was ousted by the Nandas, whose vast armies may have caused Alexander the Great's Greek army to mutiny and to refuse to march farther east than the Punjab. Maghada, with its capital at Pataliputra, was also the site of the great Mauryan dynasty (4th–2nd century circa b.c.), and the state once again dominated all of North India and a great deal of the south as well. It declined in the early centuries a.d. but rose again under the Guptan dynasty in the fourth century. It was finally destroyed by Muslim invaders in the twelfth century but was refounded in 1541.

Roger D. Long

See alsoAlexander the Great ; Bimbisara ; Buddhism in Ancient India ; Guptan Empire ; Jainism


Thapar, Romila. Early India: From the Origins toA.D. 1300. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.


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Māgadhā or Māgadhi. An ancient Indian language. It is chiefly important as the language employed by the Mauryan court of Aśoka and particularly in the rock edicts of that king. Māgadhī is a Prakrit, its most widespread script being Brāhmī.

The kingdom of Māghadā was one of sixteen N. Indian states mentioned in Buddhist sources. It was in an area centred in what is now Bihar.