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

the Ganges.

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

low-caste woman.

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.