King Bimbisara was a great ruler of Magadha Empire. In the Puranas it has been mentioned that Barhdratha dynasty ruled first at Magadha to be followed by the Pradyot dynasty which was in its turn followed by Sishunaga dynasty. It has also been mentioned that Bimbisara was the fifth ruler of Sishunaga dynasty. But modern researches have proved that the Pradyot dynasty did never rule in Magadha. It was the ruling dynasty of Avanti. It is also proved that Bimbisara ascended the throne immediately after the rule of the last king of the Barhadratha dynasty name Ripunjay. Thus the Puranic version that Bimbisara was the fifth ruler of Sishunaga dynasty is erroneous. Sishunaga was a ruler posterior to Bimbisara.
Asvaghosa, the author of Buddhacharita refers to Bimbisara as a scion of Haryanka dynasty. Modern historian like H.C. Roy Chaudhuri and others consider the Buddhist source to be more reliable and accept the view that Bimbisara was a scion of Haryanka dynasty. Nothing is, however, known about the rise of Haryanka dynasty.
According to Ceylonese Buddhist literature Mahavamsa, Emperor was consecrated to the throne by his father at an early age of fifteen. Bimbisara’s father was once defeated by Brahmadatta, king of Anga. But Bimbisara after ascending the throne introduced into Magadha a revolutionary instrument – a new type of army without tribal basis, loyal only to the king. With this army he defeated the kingdom of Anga and thereby avenged the defeat of his father and launched Magadha upon a career of imperial conquest. Matrimonial alliances also played an important part in his career of imperial expansion. His first wife was a sister of Prasenjit king of Kosala. This marriage brought him a dowry of a village in Kasi with a revenue of one lakh while his second wife Chellana, daughter of the Lichchavi Chief Chetaka, third wife Vaidehi Vasavi and fourth wife Khema daughter of the king of Madra brought him much power and prestige. He maintains friendly relations with king Pukkasati of Gandhara and Pradyot, king of Avanti. By his organized system of taxation, diplomatic and matrimonial relations Bimbisara proceeded on his policy of imperial aggression with success.
From the Buddhist literature detailed description of the administrative system of the Magadhan empire may be had. Villages used top enjoy considerable autonomy. The Chief of the village used to administer the villages with the help of the village Council. The Central government was divided into three distinct parts namely:
- The Executive Department,
- The Judicial Department and
- The Military Department.
King Bimbisara used to look after all the three departments personally. The method of punishment at that time was rather very cruel. Besides imprisonment, amputation of hands or legs was often resorted to.
Bimbisara was tolerant in his religious views. The Jainas and Buddhists received equally liberal treatment at his hand. In Jaina Uttaradhyana Sutra, Bimbisara is claimed to have been a Jaina convert and the meeting of Mahavira and Bimbisara is described in details. But on the other hand the Buddhist literature refers to the meeting of Bimbisara and Gautama seven years before latter’s attainment of Enlightenment and to a second meeting after he had become Buddha. The Buddhist texts refer to the conversion of Bimbisara into Buddhism by Gautama Buddha himself. Bimbisara appointed his own physician Jivaka to treat Buddha as well as the inmates of the Samgha.
Both Jaina and Buddhist literature contain numerous stories about the death of Bimbisara. In the Buddhist literature Bimbisara is said to have been killed by his son Ajatasatru at the instigation of Devadatta, a cousin of Gautama Buddha. According to the Jaina literature, however, Ajatasatru kept Bimbisara imprisoned and during this period he had a bad sore in his figure which was cured due to the nursing of queen Chellana. This instance of Chellana moved Ajatasatru and he felt remorse for his earlier conduct and proceeded to free his father whom he had kept confined. But Bimbisara at the sight of Ajatasatru thought that the latter had come to kill him and to avoid the disgrace committed suicide. Whatever might have been the truth in the Buddhist or the Jaina stories, it may not be wrong to suppose that Ajatasatru was responsible for Bimbisara’s death.