The Sesu-naga And Other Kings
B.C. 620 TO B.C. 327
We stand now on the threshold of actual history. Before us lie two
thousand five hundred years; and behind us? Who can say? From the far
distance come the reverberating thunders of the Mahabharata, still
filling the ear with stories of myth and miracle. But the days of
these are over. Henceforward, we are to listen to nothing save facts,
to believe nothing to which our o
dinary everyday experience cannot
give its assent.
Who, then, were these Sesu-naga kings of whom we read in the lists of
dead dynasties given in the Puranas--those curious histories of the
whole cosmogony of this world and the next, some of which can now be
fairly proved to have existed in the very first centuries of our era,
and with them an accredited claim to hoar antiquity?
How came these kings by their name Ses, or Shesh-naga? A name which
indubitably points to their connection with the sacred snake, or
Were they of Scythic origin? Nothing more likely. Certain it is that
Scythic hordes invaded India from the north-east, both during and
after the age of the Epics. It is conjectured, also, that they met in
conflict with the Aryan invaders from the north-west on the wide,
Gangetic plains, possibly close to the junction of the Sone River with
Here, at any rate, lay the ancient kingdom of Magadha, the kingdom of
these Ses-naga kings.
There were ten of these kings, and of the first four, we, as yet, know
nothing. But almost every year sees fresh inscriptions deciphered, new
coins discovered, and therefore it is not unlikely that some day these
mere dry-as-dust names, Sesu-naga, Sakavarna, Kshema-dharman, and
Kshattru-jas, may live again as personalities. At present we must be
content with imagining them in their palace at Raja-griha, or "The
kings abode surrounded by mountains."
It has a curiously distinguished, dignified sound, this description.
One can imagine these Ses-naga princes, their Scythian faces, flat,
oblique-eyed, yet aquiline, showing keen under the golden-hooded snake
standing uraeus-like over their low foreheads, riding up the steep,
wide steps leading to their high-perched palaces, on their milk-white
steeds; these latter, no doubt, be-bowed with blue ribbons and bedyed
with pink feet and tail, after the fashion of processional horses in
India even nowadays. Riding up proudly, kings, indeed, of their world,
holders of untold wealth in priceless gems and gold--gold, unminted,
almost valueless, jewels recklessly strung, like pebbles on a string.
This legend, indeed, of countless uncounted gold, of fair women, and
almost weird, rough luxury, lingers still around the very name of
Snake-King, and holds its own in the folk-lore of India.
In these days the kingdom of Magadha--so far as we can judge, a
Scythic principality--was just entering the lists against that still
more ancient Aryan kingdom of Kosala, of which we read in the
Ramayana. But there were other principalities in the settled country
which lay between the extreme north-west of the Punjab and Ujjain, or
Malwa. Sixteen such states are enumerated in various literary--chiefly
religious--works, which were probably compiled in the fifth century
B.C.; but these, again, are mere dry-as-dust names.
The first breath of real life comes with Bimbi-sara, the fifth
Sesu-naga king. He, we know, conquered and annexed the principality of
Anga and built the city of New Rajagriha, which lies at the base of
the hill below the old fort. But something there is in his reign which
grips attention more than conquests or buildings. During it, and under
his rule, the founders of two great religions gave to the world their
solutions of the problem of life. In all probability both Mahavira and
Gautama Buddha were born in Bimbi-sara's days; certain it is that he
must have heard the first teachings of Jainism and Buddhism preached
at his palace doors. He is supposed to have reigned for nearly five
and twenty years, and then to have retired into private life, leaving
his favourite son, Ajata-sutru, as regent.
And here tragedy sets in; tragedy in which Buddhist tradition avers
that Deva-datta, the Great Teacher's first cousin and bitterest enemy,
was prime mover. For one of the many crimes imputed to this
arch-schismatic by the orthodox, is that he instigated Ajatasutru to
put his father to death.
Whether this be true or not, certain it is that Bimbi-sara was
murdered, and by his son's orders; for in one of the earliest Buddhist
manuscripts extant there is an account of the guilty son's confession
to the Blessed One (i.e., Buddha) in these words: "Sin overcame me,
Lord, weak, and foolish, and wrong that I am, in that for the sake of
sovranty I put to death my father, that righteous man, that righteous
If, as tradition has it, that death was compassed by slow starvation,
the prompt absolution which Buddha is said to have given the royal
sinner for this act of atrocity becomes all the more remarkable. His
sole comment to the brethren after Ajata-sutru had departed appears to
have been: "This king was deeply affected, he was touched in heart. If
he had not put his father to death, then, even as he sate here, the
clear eye of truth would have been his."
Apart from this parricidal act, the motive for which he gives with
such calm brutality, Ajata-sutru seems to have been a strong, capable
king. He had instantly to face war with Kosala, the murdered man's
wife--who, it is said, died of grief--being sister to the king of that
country. Round this war, long and bloody, legend has woven many
incidents. At one time Magadha, at another Kosala, seems to have come
uppermost. Ajata-sutru himself was once carried a prisoner in chains
to his opponent's capital; but in the end, when peace came, Kosala had
given one of its princesses in marriage to the King of Magadha, and
had become absorbed in that empire.
But this was not enough for ambitious Ajata-sutru. He now turned his
attention to the rich lands north of the Ganges, and carried his
victorious arms to the very foot of holy Himalaya.
In the course of this war he built a watch-fort at a village called
Patali, on the banks of the Ganges, where in after years he founded a
city which, under the name of Pataliputra (the Palibothra of Greek
writers), became eventually the capital, not only of Magadha, but of
India--India, that is, as it was known in these early days.
Patali is the Sanskrit for the bignonia, or trumpet-flower; we may
add, therefore, to our mental picture of the remaining four Ses-naga
kings, that they lived in Trumpet-flower City.
For the rest, these two great monarchs, Bimbi-sara and Ajata-sutru,
must have been near, if not actual contemporaries of Darius, King of
Persia, who founded an Indian satrapy in the Indus valley. This he was
able to do, in consequence of the information collected by Skylax of
Karyanda, during his memorable voyage by river from the Upper Punjab
to the sea near Karachi, thus demonstrating the practicability of a
passage by water to Persia. All record of this voyage is,
unfortunately, lost; but the result of it was the addition to the
Persian Empire of so rich a province, that it paid in gold-dust
tribute to the treasury, fully one-third of the total revenue from the
whole twenty satrapies; that is to say, about one million sterling,
which in those days was, of course, an absolutely enormous sum.
There is not much more to tell of Ajata-sutru; and yet, reading
between the lines of the few facts we actually know of him, the man's
character shows distinct. Ambitious, not exactly unscrupulous, but
uncontrolled. A man who, having murdered his father, could weep over
his own act, and seek to obliterate the blood-stain on his hands by
confessions and pious acts. When Buddha died, an eighth portion of his
bones was claimed by Ajata-sutru, who erected at Rajgriha a
magnificent tope or mound over the sacred relics.
But, if tradition is to be believed, he handed down the curse of his
great crime to his son, his grandson, and his great grandson; for the
Ceylon chronicle asserts, that each of these in turn were parricides.
It is--to use a colloquialism--a tall order; but assertion or denial
are alike unproven.
If it be true, there is some relief in finding that the last of these
criminal kings--Maha-nundin by name--was ousted from his throne and
killed by his prime minister, one Maha-padma-Nanda, who is said, also,
to have been the murdered man's illegitimate son by a Sudra, or
Whether this latter be true or not, certain it is that about the year
B.C. 361, or thereabouts, the reign of the Ses-naga kings ends
abruptly. The dream-vision of the steps of old Rajgriha with Scythian
princelings--parricidal princelings--riding up to their palaces on
processional horses, or living luxuriously in Trumpet-flower city,
vanishes, and something quite as dream-like takes its place.
For in the oldest chronicles we are told that there were but two
generations in the next, or Nanda dynasty--viz.: Maha-padma and his
eight sons--yet we are asked to believe that they reigned for one
hundred and fifty-nine years!
In truth, these nine Nandas seem in many ways mythical, and yet the
very confusion and contradictions which surround their history point
to some underlying reason for the palpable distortion of plain fact.
They are said to have reigned together, the father and his eight sons.
The name of only one of these is known, Suma-lya; but when Alexander
the Great paused on the banks of the Beas, in the year B.C. 326, he
heard that a king was then reigning at Pataliputra, by name Xandrames
(so the Greek tongue reports it), who had an army of over two hundred
thousand men, and who was very much disliked, because of his great
wickedness and base birth. For he was said to be the son of a barber,
and as such, "contemptible and utterly odious to his subjects."
This king must have belonged to the Nanda dynasty, and the story, if
it does nothing else, proves that the family was really of low
extraction. That it gained the throne by the assassination of a
rightful king, is also certain. But revenge was at hand. The tragedy
was to be recast, replayed, and in B.C. 321 Chandra-gupta, the
Sandracottus of the Greeks, himself an illegitimate son of the first
Nanda, and half-brother, so the tale runs, of the eight younger ones,
was, after the usual fashion of the East, to find foundation for his
own throne on the dead bodies of his relations.
But some four years ere this came to pass, while young Chandra-gupta,
ambitious, discontented, was still wandering about Northern India
almost nameless--for his mother was a Sudra woman--he came in personal
contact with a new factor in Indian history. For in March, B.C. 326,
Alexander the Great crossed the river Indus, and found himself the
first Western who had ever stood on Indian soil. So, ere passing to
the events which followed on Chandra-gupta's rude seizure of the
throne of Magadha, another picture claims attention. The picture of
the great failure of a great conqueror.