Bihar: A short historical sketch

Part of the published paper “Bihar: What Went Wrong? And What Changed?” by  Arnab Mukherji and Anjan Mukherji

The study of Bihar’s history is vast and in this short sketch we cover only a few key aspects that provide a sense of the expanding and contracting economic fortunes that the state has seen. From around 600 B.C., republics and kingdoms were established and “details of Indian history began to emerge with greater clarity” (Thapar 1996, p.50). At this time, two forms of political organizations existed: republics or monarchies. The monarchies were based in the Indo-Gangetic plain while the republics skirted around the monarchies. Thapar (1996) documents that frequent skirmish and attempts to consolidate among the monarchies and republics saw the emergence of four rival states – the three kingdoms of Kashi, Kosala, Magadha (modern south Bihar) and the republic of Virjis (covering Janakpur in Nepal and the Muzaffarpur district of Bihar). Over the next hundred years, Magadha emerged as the dominant state in this region. The first ruler of repute of Magadha was Bimbisara. He was not only a skilful and ambitious monarch but also an efficient administrator and was responsible for setting up a bureaucratic structure for governance that was based on the idea of autonomous village economies unified within a monarchy. He was also responsible for expanding the dominion of the kingdom to control passage and commerce on the river Ganges. Through alliances created by marriages (e.g. Kosala, Kashi, etc.), he was able to extended the reach of the Magadha kingdom to what today constitutes east Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Nepal. Many important changes began during his rule; towns and cities were built, international trade began and commerce prospered. Over time, Magadha emerged as the main state amongst the earlier competing entities; while monarchy won over the republic, its survival over the next few centuries was based as much on good leaders as on a well-oiled governance apparatus.

In 493 B.C., Bimbisara’s son, Ajatashatru, ascended to the throne and continued the expansionist career of his father; it is believed he imprisoned and starved Bimbisara to death. Ajatashatru, in his own right contributed to the expansion of Magadha, and built a fort near the river Ganges that grew into Pataliputra, and eventually became Patna, the capital of today’s Bihar. Magadha’s importance grew; it not only controlled the lower Ganges, but trade and commerce provided revenue to the kingdom and a business and trade community was established. Ajatashatru’s death in 461 BC was followed by a rapid succession of five weak kings, each ascending to throne, according to Thapar (1996, p.57), through patricide. In spite of this turbulent monarchy the administrative set-up of the kingdom of Magadha continued and society and commerce continued to flourish. Domestic and foreign trade flourished and led to rapid changes “in another sphere; that of religion and philosophical speculation. The conflict between established orthodoxy and the aspirations of newly rising groups…..resulted in a remarkable richness and vigor in thought rarely surpassed in centuries to come.”6 Of the many sects that flourished, two acquired some permanency, the Jains and the Buddhists and they matured into separate and distinct religions that continue to affect spiritualism and religious debate even today as the remain widely practiced world religions today. Both of these religions were supported by members of the Kshatriya ruling class “who were opposed to brahminical orthodoxy”7 and the founders of both religions were approximate contemporaries of Bimbisara and Ajatashatru.

After the fifth patricide, the people of Magdha had enough; they revolted against the ruling dynasty and installed the royal viceroy as the King. This proved to be a transient arrangement with a number of other rulers stepping through the kingdom until the ascendancy of Mahapadma Nanda. Thapar (1996, p. 57), describes the Nanda dynasty as the “first empire builders of India” as under their rule the boundaries of the Magdha kingdom expanded to include parts of central India, modern Orissa (Kalinga), and further east towards present-day Bengal (Anga: roughly the eastern part of present-day Bihar). At this time, Alexander and his Greeks entered India from the west; they annexed much of north-west India but stopped at Punjab from where they returned. The Greeks left written accounts of what they found and these documents contributed in a great way to the myths and wonders of India. Although, Alexander left the Indus Valley without challenging Nanda, the Greeks left detailed accounts of the fantastic army that the Nandas had built. This was also a period in which trade between various Greek colonies to west of the Indian subcontinent was firmly established and this continued even as various dynasties waxed and waned in their rule of the Indian sub-continent.

The Nandas prospered with a complex and effective administrative machinery built on the existing structures set in place from Bimbisara’s time. This was used to collect taxes that not only enriched the treasury, but also allowed the Nanda maintain large armies as well as build canals and instituted irrigation projects. The Nanda dynasty held the throne of Magadha until 321 B.C. when it was overthrown by Chandragupta Maurya, and it was under the Mauryas, that Magadha attained truly great heights; as Thapar puts it, “the imperial idea found expression” under Chandragupta Maurya and his heirs. He was able to rapidly expand the reach of Magadha in the west and the north-west due to the vacuum left behind by the departure of Alexander.

Chandragupta’s rise and success is associated with the shrewd advice he received from Chanakya (Kautilya), the teacher-philosopher-administrator who is also believed to be the key strategist in establishing Magadha, under Mauryan rule, to cover most parts of the India sub-continent. Chanakya also authored Arthashastra with the goal to codify norms associated with providing good governance. Waldeur et. al. (1996) documents how key ideas from trade theory, taxation theory, and the labor theory of value are used in the Arthashastra to develop norms for the monarch. Written more than 2000 years prior to Adam Smith and Ricardo, this manuscript remained lost. The role of “just” wages in society, crime and punishment, corruption within bureaucracy, right to food and a deep responsibility of the ruler to its people are all ideas developed in a rich framework with the overall goal to expand the wealth of the nation state. Chandragupta, with Chanakya’s counsel, soon controlled both the Indus and the Ganges valley and the reach of Magadha covered much of the north of the Indian sub-continent. Chandragupta died around 297 BC and was followed by his son Bindusara, under whom central India (the Deccan) came under Mauryan rule and by the time of his death, 272 B.C., the extensive parts of the sub-continent was being ruled from Pataliputra! Bindusara’s rule was followed by the rule of Ashoka under whom the empire achieved its most significant expanse, controlling the entire subcontinent of India.

Society, economy, foreign trade, diplomacy, religion, and administrative complexity to manage the entire kingdom: each of these attributes was perhaps never richer than under Ashoka’s rule. After initial years of war, Ashoka’s experience with horrific loss of life in the Kalinga War made him abdicate violence and accept Buddhism as a way of life. This proved instrumental in the spread of the religion outside of India. However, by this time the expanse of the Magadha kingdom was already huge – it was bounded by the Himalayas in the north, it covered areas well into Pakistan, Baluchistan, parts of eastern Iran and Afghanistan in the west, Assam, in the east, and most parts of the south of India, except for parts that paid tribute to Ashoka; as did Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. The reaches of the kingdom was marked by inscriptions on pillars of rock that are in Peshawar (in Karoshthi script), in Kandahar (in Greek and Aramaic), and all over India in the Brahmi script. These inscriptions not only proclaim the reach of Ashoka, but also provide an understanding of public policy of the time in terms of the commitments of the king to his people. The Magadha empire didn’t long survive Ashoka; within 50 years of his death, in 232 BC, the Maryuan rule decayed and the expansive empire was lost.

A second coming for an empire centred on Magdha was during the course of the Gupta dynasty that ruled over the period 320 to 550 CE. Again, at its peak, the empire covered substantial portions of South Asia, although it’s reach into the south India was more limited than during Ashoka’s time. Better documentation of the military strength and complexity of governance exists for the Gupta period (Mookerji 1959). At its peak the empire was divided into 26 administrative units, or Desas, that were managed by governors. Each Desa was further divided into districts that were administered by the district officer (Vishayapati). Mookerji (1959) notes that additional officers were assigned at the district level to help with different departments such as Saulkika (revenue officer), Gualkika (forest officer), etc. Apart from placing an administrative structure, a range of other initiatives, either through the state or through public philanthropy, such as rest-houses, grants of land for educational institutions, hospitals, roads, temples of worship, repairs of embankments, etc. provided a semblance of public service delivery.

In sharp contrast to Polgreen’s (2010) description of Bihar, Fa-Hien, a Buddhist traveller from China, notes how “… the people were allowed by the government considerable individual freedom not subject to vexations from its Officers in the shape of registration, or other regulation; economic liberty with unfettered mobility of labour, so that agriculturalists were not tied to land like serfs; and humane criminal law” (Mookerji, 1929, pp. 59). During the Gupta dynasty we also see the creation of an international university at Nalanda that flourished from 5th -6 th Century to the 11th Century and was a major contribution to academic life, society and religion (Dutt 1962 and Scharfe 2002). A range of other contributions in mathematics (Aryabhatta’s work), large public works and engineering practices (irrigation, embankments, etc.), art, theatre, etc. are available from this period. The dynasty’s decline set in during the late 5th century when a range of invaders (Hepthalites, Huns, etc.) were able to break through the Gupta defences and within the sub-continent other dynasties began to challenge the Guptas.

The subsequent centuries did not see the emergence of any unifying empire till the rise and establishment of the Moghuls much later in the 15th Century. A natural question that emerges is how do these periods of consolidation and growth emerge? Not just economic, but also cultural, and social. In a growing series of investigations that explore why civilizations, economies and societies of the past have failed or succeeded, Bihar’s case is undeniably important.

On a much smaller scale, consider the Chaco Phenomenon: a preColumbian society with thriving economic, political and religious activity that spread out over more than 1000 square miles in the Chaco Canyon over the 850 – 1150 AD period (Vivian 1990). The Chaco people built irrigation networks 150 times larger than any known before (Friedman et al. 2003). They constructed huge houses, with hundreds of rooms, and built more than 250 miles in total of roads. Over the three centuries of the civilization’s existence, thousands of trees were transported great distances for building (Lekson 1986, Lewin 1993, and Adovasio with Page 2002), and in the process the forests around the canyon were denuded. While no other preColumbian society reached this level of maturity, the Chaco Canyon civilization was unable to take the next step and become a nation-state. Attempts at state formation were unsuccessful. Today, what remains are the ruins and a mystery: Where did they go wrong? Was it the denuding of the forests around the canyon or something much more systematic?

Think and put your views

Ritesh Singh
बिहार में जन्म हुआ और फिर भगवान ने बिहारी बनाया। तब से आज तक कुछ कुछ प्रयत्न कर रहे है कामयाब होने की।
गलती से IIT से B.Tech पास करने के बाद, AaoBihar पर लेख लिखना और पढ़ना शौक बन गया है।



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