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THE Puranas, or collections of ‘old-world’ legends, contain the traditional genealogies of the principal ruling houses of the Middle Country. They are closely connected both in form and substance with the epics and law-books. All three varieties of literature are written in the same kind of verse and in the same kind of Sanskrit; and they have much of their subject-matter in common. Not isolated verses merely but long passages recur word for word in them all. They are all alike inheritors of the same stock of legendary and traditional lore; and, so far as the nature of their contents is concerned, it is not always possible to draw any hard and fast line of distinction between them. Thus from different points of view the Mahabharata may be regarded, as indeed it regards itself, as an epic, a law-book, or a Purana.

Any old-world story may in fact be called a Purana; but the term is specially applied to certain works which, in conformity with the classical definition, deal, or are supposed to deal, with the following five topics : (1) Sarga, the evolution of the universe from its material cause; (2) Pratisarga, the re-creation of the universe from the constituent elements into which it is merged at the close of each aeon (kalpa) or day in the life of the Creator, Brahma; (3) Vamsha, the genealogies of gods and rishis; (4) Manvantara, the groups of ‘great ages’ (mahayuga) included in an aeon, in each of which mankind is supposed to be produced anew from a first father, Manu; (5) Vamshanucharita, the history of the royal families who rule over the earth during the four ‘ages’ (yoga) which make up one ‘great age’.

With this ideal scheme none of the existing Puranas is in complete agreement. All differ from it in various degrees by defect or by excess; but, in spite of this, they profess generally to conform with the old definition, and are thus made to give a description of themselves which is no longer in accordance with the facts. It is evident, then, at the outset that their original form has been modified. Only seven out of the eighteen still retain the fifth section, which should contain an account of kings who have reigned during the historical period. For the purposes of political history all the rest are therefore without value.

Orthodox Hinduism regards these works as of divine origin; and their framework is stereotyped in accordance with this view. The chief speaker is some ancient seer who has received the tradition through Vyasa, who himself received it from the Creator. The narrative is introduced by a dialogue between the chief speaker and his audience, and is continued in the form of a series of reported dialogues between the characters of the stories told.

Most commonly, though not invariably, the narrator is Lomaharshana or his son, Ugrashravas. The former is called ‘the Suta’; and the latter ‘Sauti’ or the ‘Suta's son’—titles which clearly indicate that the traditional lore, out of which the Puranas have been fashioned, was of Kshatriya, not of Brahman, origin; for the Sutas, its custodians, were a mixed caste who were entrusted with various important functions in royal households. In the Brahmanas the Suta is the royal herald and minstrel, and possibly also ‘master of the horse’. He is one of the king’s ‘jewels’ and ranks with the commander-in-chief of the army and other high officers of state; and in his character as herald he was inviolable. In the law-books he is described as the son of a Kshatriya by the daughter of a Brahman. The Puranas say that he was born to sing the praises of princes and that he was entrusted with the care of the historical and legendary traditions; but they state definitely that he had no concern with the Vedas. In later times he appears as the king’s charioteer; but he still retains his exalted rank, and in the dramas he speaks Sanskrit—the sign of high birth or education—while the inferior characters speak some Prakrit dialect.

In the interval between the Brahmanas and the dramas the Suta had evidently been deprived of some of the most important of his ancient functions; and this change in his fortunes reflects a change which had taken place in Indian society and in the character of the Puranas. In the heroic age, when the Suta was the chronicler of kings, the Kshatriyas, as we gather from the Upanishads and from early Jain and Buddhist literature, occupied a position of considerable intellectual independence. But this position was not maintained. In India, as in medieval Europe, the priestly power eventually asserted its supremacy, and all the old Kshatriya literature was Brahmanised. The record of the lineage of princes tended to disappear from the Puranas, and its place was taken by endless legends about holy places, or hymns in praise of the divinities who were worshipped there. The Puranas had passed from the Kshatriyas to the Brahmans, from the royal bards to the priests who waited on temples and pilgrims’ shrines—a class mentioned with contempt in the law-books. But, in spite of this transference and the radical changes which it involved, some of the old terms and some fragments of the old literature still remained to testify to a state of things which had passed away.

Thus the Puranas, like the Mahabharata, have undergone a complete transformation. Just as the Mahabharata, originally the story of a war, has been made into a Dharma Shastra, the main object of which is to inculcate duty, so too the Puranas are no longer mere collections of ancient legends. Like the ‘Lives of the Saints’ they have been applied to purposes of edification. For them the kings of the earth have existed simply to point a moral—the vanity of human wishes :

“He who has heard of the races of the Sun and Moon, of Ikshvaku, Jahnu, Mandhatri, Sagara, and Raghu, who have all perished; of Yayati, Nahusha, and their posterity, who are no more; of kings of great might, resistless valor, and unbounded wealth, who have been overcome by still more powerful Time, and are now only a tale : he will learn wisdom, and forbear to call either children, or wife, or house, or lands, or wealth, his own”.

The chief object of the Puranas is to glorify Shiva or Vishnu, the great divinities who, in their manifold forms, share the allegiance of India. They have become sectarian and propagandist, exalting their own particular deity at the expense of all others. In a word, they have become the scriptures of various forms of the later Hinduism, and bear to these the same relation that the Vedas and Brahmanas bore to the older Brahmanism. But while the scriptures of the ancient sacrificial religion have remained unaltered and have been protected from textual corruption by the elaborate devices of priestly schools, the Puranas have adapted themselves to the changes which have taken place in the social and religious life of the people, and their text has been perverted by generations of editors and transcribers.

They are made up of elements old and new. However late they may appear in their present form—and some of them are said to have been altered in quite recent times—there can be no question that their main source is to be traced back to a remote antiquity. The ancient lore of the bards from which, like the epics, they are derived is known to the Atharvaveda as a class of literature with the general title Itihasa-Purana ‘story and legend’; and both in the Upanishads and in early Buddhist books this literature is called the fifth Veda. It was in fact the Veda of the laity; and as such the epics and Puranas have been universally accepted all through the classical period even down to the present day.

The attitude of modern scholarship towards these documents has varied at different times. In the early days of the study of Sanskrit in Europe they were accepted as historical. But it was soon evident that no satisfactory system of Indian chronology could be established by their aid alone; and for a long time scholars seem to have agreed to ignore their evidence unless when supported from other sources. After having been unduly appraised, the Puranas were unduly neglected. In recent years a reaction has set in, and there is a growing belief that these works are worthy of more serious attention than they have hitherto received. It has been shown that the historical information which they convey is not so untrustworthy as was formerly supposed. Dr Vincent Smith, for example, was able in 1902 to prove that both the dynastic list of the Andhra kings and the duration of the different reigns as stated in the Matsya Purana are substantially correct.

The critical study of the Puranas, which was inaugurated by Mr Pargiter's Dynasties of the Kali Age (1913), is still in its infancy. When this important branch of literature has been examined by the methods which have been applied to the Vedas and Brahmanas, there can be little doubt that valuable historical results will be obtained. The Puranas are confessedly partly legendary and partly historical. The descriptions of superhuman beings and of other worlds than this are glorified accounts of the unknown founded on the analogy of the known. They find their counterpart in that Christian Purana, Milton’s Paradise Lost. The descriptions of ancient monarchs and of their realms are essentially historical. They may be compared to the Sagas and the medieval chronicles of Europe. They are the products of an imaginative and uncritical age in which men were not careful to distinguish fact from legend. It is the task of modern criticism to disentangle the two elements. Its first object should be to remove from the existing Puranas all later additions, and then from a comparison of their oldest portions to determine the relations in which they stand to one another, and thus, as far as possible, to restore their common tradition to its original form.

As yet this necessary preliminary process has not even been begun; and until it is completed the real value of the Puranas as historical evidence cannot be estimated. They still continue to be dated by scholars according to the latest indications which can be discovered in them, and they are too often rejected as incompetent witnesses for the events of any earlier period. The elementary fact that the date, whether of a building or of a literary production, is not determined by its latest addition is in their case generally ignored.

The eighteen Puranas are associated with an equal number of Upapuranas. Traditional lists, in which all of these Puranas and Upapuranas are arranged in a definite order of precedence, have been preserved in the works themselves. In these the Brahma Purana stands first; and, as this position and its alternative title ‘Adi’ or ‘the First’ would alike seem to indicate, it is probably the oldest. There would appear to be nothing in its earlier portions to discountenance this claim; but it has received late additions, and on the evidence of these Wilson ascribed it to the thirteenth or fourteenth century. This affords a signal instance of the misconception which may be caused by failure to discriminate between the ages of different parts of a work. All the Puranas without exception have been altered. The Vishnu Purana, which stands third in the list, has apparently suffered less than the others.

Comparatively little is known about the Upapuranas. Few of them have been published or thoroughly investigated. They appear to be, as a rule, still more narrowly sectarian than the Puranas, and to be intended to further religious interests which are more purely local. They probably have little, if any, historical worth.

The total number of couplets comprised in the eighteen Puranas as given in the lists is 400,000, the length of the different versions varying from 10,000 to about 81,000 couplets. These statements were no doubt accurate at the time when the computation was made; but great changes have since taken place. On the one hand, whole sections have been lost. The Vishnu Purana, usually regarded as the best conserved of all, has now less than 7000 couplets: in the lists it appears with 23,000. On the other hand, numerous more recent works claim to belong to one or other of the Puranas, so that it is now sometimes impossible to define the precise limits of the latter. If all the productions which profess to form portions of the Skanda Purana, for instance, were included; the total given in the lists would be greatly exceeded.

Different Versions and Age

As to the history of these eighteen versions of a common tradition, it seems certain that they were molded into their present form at various centres of religious activity. The case has been clearly stated by the late Mr A. M. T. Jackson in the Centenary Volume of the Jour. of the Bombay Branch of the R. A. S. (1905), p. 73:

“A very striking analogy to the mutual relations of the various Puranas is to he found in the case of our own Saxon chronicle, which, as is well known, continued to be written up in various monasteries down to the reign of Stephen, though the additions made after the Roman conquest were independent of each other. Similarly the copies of the original verse Purana that were possessed by the priests of the great centres of pilgrimage were altered and added to chiefly by the insertion of local events after the fall of a central Hindu government had made communication between the different groups of Brahmans relatively difficult. In this way the Brahma Purana may represent the Orissa version of the original work, just as the Padma may give that of Pushkara, the Agni that of Gaya, the Varaha that of Mathura, the Vamana that of Thanesar, the Kurma that of Benares, and the Matsya that of the Brahmans on the Narmada”.

At what period the eighteen Puranas assumed their distinctive titles is uncertain. It was no doubt long after they had ceased to be regarded as repositories of historical information, for they are grouped in the traditional lists entirely according to their religious character. It has sometimes been supposed that one of their number is the immediate source of all the others; but it seems more probable that they belong to several groups which represent different lines of tradition. Possibly the Puranas which are narrated by the Suta may belong to one such group, and those which are narrated by Maitreya to another. One at least of the present titles may be traced back to an early period; for the Bhavishya or Bhavishyat Purana, the ninth in the list, is quoted in the Dharma Sutra of Apastamba, which cannot be later than the second century BC, and may possibly be still more ancients. But as a rule early references to this traditional lore describe it generally as Purana or Itihasa-Purana, a class of literature which, as we have seen, undoubtedly goes back at least to the time of the Atharvaveda.

Some such antiquity is implicitly claimed by the Puranas in their prologues. Parashara, who narrates the Vishnu Purana, is the grandson of Vasishtha, the rishi of the seventh mandala of the Rigveda; and his narration takes place in the reign of Parikshit, who is celebrated as a king of the Kurus in the Atharvaveda. Nearly all the other Puranas are attributed to the State, and to a period four generations later. Of the prologues to these that of the Vayu Purana may be selected as typical. The rishis are performing their twelve-year sacrifice in the Naimisha forest on the bank of the sacred river Drishadvati. To them comes the Suta, the custodian of the ancient Kshatriya traditions. At their request he takes up his parable and retells the legends entrusted to his care by Vyasa. The scene is laid in the reign of the Puru king Adhisimakrishna, who is supposed to have lived before the beginning of the Kali Age, or, as we should say, before the historical period. But the genealogy assigned to him indicates a more definite date; for of his immediate forbears, Ashvamedhadatta, Shatanika, Janamejaya, Parikshit, all but the first, his father Ashvamedhadatta, are no doubt to be identified with kings of the same names who appear in the Brahmanas.

Whatever may be the historical value of these prologues, they certainly carry us back to the same period, the period of the Atharvaveda and the Brahmanas, to which modern research has traced the existence of an Itihasa-Purana literature. To suppose that they are altogether concoctions of the Middle Ages is to place too great a strain on our credulity. They can scarcely have been reconstructed from the fragmentary evidence supplied by Vedas and Brahmanas at a period when no one could have dreamed of treating Vedas and Brahmanas as historical documents—a task reserved for the nineteenth century. We cannot escape from the only possible conclusion, that the Puranas have preserved, in however perverted and distorted a form, an independent tradition, which supplements the priestly tradition of the Vedas and Brahmanas, and which goes back to the same period. This tradition, as we may gather from the prologues, was handed down from one generation of bards to another and was solemnly promulgated on the occasion of great sacrifices.

The Kshatriya literature of the heroic age of India has for the most part been lost. Such of it as has survived has owed its preservation to its association with religion. The commemoration of the lineage of kings found a place in religious ceremonial, as, for instance, in the year-long preparation for the ‘horse-sacrifice’, by the performance of which a king ratified his claim to suzerainty over his neighbors. It is no doubt to such commemorations that we owe, the dynastic lists which have been preserved in the Puranas.

The historical character of these works is disguised by their setting. They have been made to conform with Indian ideas as to the origin and nature of the universe and its relation to a First Cause. The effect of this has been to remove the monarch, who is represented as reigning when the recital takes place, and all his predecessors from the realm of history into the realm of legend; and it has been found necessary to preserve the illusion throughout the subsequent narrative. The Suta is invited by the sacrificing rishis of the Naimisha forest to describe the Kali Age which is still to come. It is evident that he can only do so prophetically. He can only reproduce the foreknowledge which has been divinely implanted in him by Vyasa. Accordingly he uses the future tense in speaking of kings who have actually reigned and of events which have actually happened. History has been made to assume the disguise of prophecy.

When this pretence is set aside, and when all legendary or imaginary elements are removed, the last two sections of the Puranas afford valuable information as to the geography and history of ancient India.

The Manus

The fourth section, the manvantara, deals with the ‘periods of the different Manus. These form part of a chronological system which is purely hypothetical. Time, like soul and matter, is a phase of the Supreme Spirit. As Brahma wakes or sleeps, the universe wakes or sleeps also. Each day and each night of Brahma is an ‘aeon’ (kalpa) and is equivalent to a thousand ‘great ages’ (mahayuga), that is to say, 1000 x 4,320,000 mortal years. During an ‘aeon’ fourteen Manus or ‘fathers of mankind’ appear, each presiding over a period of seventy-one ‘great ages’ with a surplus. Each ‘great age’ is further divided into four ‘ages’ (yoga) of progressive deterioration like the golden, silver, brazen, and iron ages of Greek and Roman mythology. These are named, from the numbers on the dice, Krita, Treta, Dvdpara, and Kali, and are accordingly supposed to last for periods represented by the proportion 4 : 3 : 2 : 1. We need not follow this subdivision of time down to its ultimate fraction ‘the twinkling of an eye’ (nimesha) or dwell on the sectarian zeal which leads some of the Puranas to assert that an ‘aeon’ of Brahma is but ‘the twinkling of an eye’ in the endurance of Shiva or Vishnu.

The account of the manvantara of Manu Svayambhilva, the first in the series of fourteen, includes a description of the universe as it now exists or is supposed to exist. The greater part of this description is, like the chronology, imaginary. The world, according to this primitive geography, consists of seven concentric continents separated by encircling seas. These are the ‘seas of treacle and seas of butter’ at which Lord Macaulay, with his utter inability to understand any form of early culture, scoffed in his celebrated minute on Indian education. The innermost of these continents, which—and here we come to actuality—is separated from the next by salt water, is Jambudvipa; and of Jambudvipa the most important region is Bharatavarsha or Bharata, that is to say, the sub-continent of India:

“The country that lies north of the ocean, and south of the snowy mountains, is Bharata; for there dwell the descendants of Bharata...

The seven main chains of mountains in Bharata are Mahendra, Malaya, Sahya, Shuktimat, Itiksha, Vindhya, and Paripatra...

On the east of Bharata dwell the Kiratas (the barbarians); on the west, the Yavanas : in the centre reside Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras”.

General descriptions such as this are followed by lists, more or less detailed, of the rivers which flow from the Himalayas and the seven great ranges, and of the tribes inhabiting the various regions. As in all early geography, the district is known by the plural of the tribal name. Similar lists are found also in the Mahabharata and elsewhere. This extensive geographical literature gives a remarkably full account of the whole sub-continent.

The geographical, like the dynastic, lists have evidently been brought up to date from time to time, since foreign invaders of very different dates appear in them. These seem to range from the Yavanas, Shakas, and Pahlavas, who came into India in the second and first centuries BC, to the Hunas, who broke up the Gupta empire at the end of the fifth century AD.

The fifth and last section of the Puranas, the vamshanucharita, gives an account of the kings of the earth, the descendants of Manu Vaivasvata, the ‘son of the Sun’. The narrative uses all three tenses, past, present, and future; for it recounts the kings who have been, the kings who are, and the kings who are to be. The earliest of these genealogies, like the most ancient chronicles of other peoples, are legendary. They trace the descent of the rulers of this world from the Sun and Moon, and through them from the Creator—a claim inherited and still maintained by the Surajbansi and the Chandrabansi families of Rajput princes. Such pedigrees have been pieced together from fragments of religious lore or from fancied etymologies on to which old-world traditions and speculations have been engrafted.

Traditional Genealogies

Ila, the daughter of Manu, from whom the Lunar family is derived, personifies, as her name denotes, the sacrificial offering made by Manu in the legend of the Flood. Such legendary characters are everywhere the result of man’s early speculations on the origin of the world. The first glimpses of authentic history only appear when tribal names are inserted in the genealogies under the disguise of eponymous ancestors. These, too, are the outcome of hypothesis, but of hypothesis founded on facts. All the members of a tribe are presumably descended from a common ancestor, and related tribes are descended from related ancestors. On these supposed individuals the names of the tribes are conferred; and they supply a sort of genealogical framework which continues to be filled in by tradition until the age of records. Once fashioned in this way such genealogies are accepted without question until the period when critical scholarship arises and undertakes its first duty, which is to discriminate between legend and fact in the story of past ages.

In the Puranas, which were the common scriptures of the ruling Aryan peoples of Northern and Western India, the traditional genealogies of the royal houses have been collected and made to form a consistent whole. Not only are the ancient tribes of the Rigveda and the kingdoms immediately descended from them represented here, but the realms of Kosala (Ayodhya), Videba, Vaishali, and Magadha, which were not Aryanised until a later date, have also been brought into the scheme and furnished with a still longer and more august pedigree. They belong to the Solar family and are derived directly from Manu through Ikshvaku. A family of princes bearing this name is known from Vedic literature; and it is quite possible that the Solar dynasties of Kosala and other kingdoms to the east of the Middle Country may have been descended from this family. If so, the Ikshvaku of the genealogical tree must be regarded as an eponymous ancestor; and as his superhuman origin had to be explained, a myth founded on a far-fetched etymology of his name was invented. Ikshvaku was so called because he was born from the sneeze (kshava) of Manu.

Fragments of historical fact may no doubt be found embedded even in the earliest lists; but these fragments have been carried down the stream of time and deposited far away from their original home. Thus, for instance, Purukutsa and his son Trasadasyu, who in the Rigveda are Purus living on the Sarasvati, appear in the Puranas among the Solar kings of Kosala; Vadhryashva, Divodasa, Pijavana, and Sudas, who form a direct line in the succession of Bharata princes ruling in the country between the Sarasvati and Drishashvati, appear in this order, but with intervening reigns, among the kings of N. Panchala. It is probable that these apparently conflicting statements are not really contradictory: the chain of evidence which might bring the tradition of the Puranas into substantial agreement with the Rigveda has been broken.

But it is clear that documents of this kind can only be used with the greatest caution. To some extent at least they have unquestionably been fabricated in accordance with preconceived opinions. How these pedigrees have been elaborated, even at a comparatively late date, by court poets who sought to magnify the ancient lineage of their lord, may sometimes be seen at a glance. For example, in the genealogy of the Ikshvakus of Kosala the immediate predecessors of Prasenajit, the contemporary of Buddha, are Shakya, Shuddhodana, Siddhartha, and Rahula. That is to say, the eponymous hero of Buddha’s clan, Buddha’s father, Buddha himself, and his son have all been incorporated in the dynastic list of the kings of Kosala.

It seems impossible to bring the Puranic genealogies into any satisfactory relation with the Vedic literature or with one another until we approach the period at which they profess to have been recited, that is to say, the reign of Parikshit in the case of the Vishnu Purana and the reign of Adhisimakrishna in the case of most of the others. Then certain synchronisms seem to afford a more secure chronological standpoint. Parikshit is celebrated as a king of the Kurus in the last and latest book of the Atharvaveda : according to the epic, as usually interpreted, he was appointed king of Hastinapura more than thirty-six years after the great war between the Kurus and Pandus. Adhisimakrishna, the great great grandson of Parikshit is represented by the Puranas as contemporary with Divakara of Kosala and Senajit of Magadha. Between the last mentioned and his predecessor Sahadeva, who was killed in the great war, six reigns intervene. The length of each reign and the total duration of the different dynasties of Magadha are given in some versions. Unfortunately the state of the text is so corrupt and the numbers are so discrepant that this evidence is generally of no value. Leaving out of account an impossible reading which attributes a reign of one hundred years to Niramitra, the mss. as they stand give a maximum of 289 and a minimum of 259 years to the six reigns which separate the great war from Senajit of Magadha; and even the lesser of these estimates would seem to be excessive. We must be content with the general conclusion that the tradition of the Puranas, according to the dynastic lists of Hastinapura and Magadha, places the great war early in what we know as the Brahmana period, say about 1000 BC.

The Great War: Purus

That the war between the Kurus and Pandus is historical and that it took place in ancient times cannot be doubted, however much its story has been overloaded with legend, and however late may be the form in which it has been handed down. The legend of the war of the Mahabharata in India finds its exact parallel in the legend of the Trojan war in Europe. Each became the great central point to which the nations of the Middle Ages referred their history. To have shared ancestrally in the fame of Kurukshetra or of Troy was for nations the patent of nobility and ancient descent. The remotest peoples of Eastern and Southern India and the late invaders of the North-West alike claimed a place in the story of the Mahabharata, even as the royal houses of Western Europe traced their origin to Trojan heroes. Until the close of the sixteenth century no historian of France or Britain doubted that the kings of these countries were descended from the Trojan Francus or Brutus, both of whom were in reality eponymous heroes like Yadu and his brothers in the Puranas. Milton in his History of England (1670) repeats the story of Brutus at length and in detail; but a chance phrase—‘they who first devis'd to bring us from some noble ancestor’—shows that historians were beginning to recognize the origin of such legends. And so far as the Mahabharata associates most of the nations of India with the great war it has been ‘devis'd’ in the same manner and for the same purpose. A nucleus of fact has been encrusted with the legendary accretions of ages.

After the great war detailed dynastic tables continue to be given in the case of three royal lines only—the Purus, the Ikshvakus, and the kings of Magadha. Other kingdoms are mentioned summarily with a bare statement of the number of contemporary reigns. The Puranic history is thus, professedly though not actually, confined in its later stages to the regions now represented by the United Provinces and S. Bihar.

In the Purus or Pauravas of the Puranas the Bharatas of the Rigveda and the Kurus of the Brahmanas have been merged. In the Rigveda both the Purus and the Bharatas live in the land of the Sarasvati (Brahmavarta or Sirhind). But already the Aryan occupation of Kurukshetra, the adjacent country of the upper Jumna and Ganges on the south-east, was beginning: for a victory on the Jumna gained by Sudas, king of the Tritsus, over a native leader called Bheda is referred to. In the Puranas, Suda and his family appear in the list of the kings of N. Panchala to the east of Kurukshetra. That is to say, the later kings of N. Panchala claimed descent from the Tritsus of the Rigveda, who are regarded by the Puranas as a branch of the Purus.

But the great conqueror of Kurukshetra was Bharata Dauhshanti, whose victories on the Jumna and Ganges are commemorated in an old verse quoted by the Shatapatha Brahmana; and the extension of Bharata’s conquests to Kati (Benares) is attributed by another ancient verse to Shatanika Satrajita. In the Puranic list of Puru kings, Bharata and his father, Dushyanta, appear long before, and Shatanika soon after, the beginning of the Kali Age. Between the periods of the two conquerors, Bharata and Shatanika, came the war of the Mahabharata, which for the Puranas marks the division between the third and fourth ages of the world.

The later list contains the names of twenty-nine Puru kings, who lived after the war. They reigned first at Hastinapura, the ancient capital of the Kuru princes, which is usually identified with a ruined site in the Meerut District on the old bed of the Ganges; but when this city was destroyed by an inundation of the Ganges in the reign of Nichakshus, the successor of Adhisimakrishna, they removed the seat of their rule to Kaushambi, possibly the present Kosam in the Allahabad District. Another of their capitals was Indraprastha in the Kuru plain, the ancient city of the Pandu princes : it is the modern Indarpat, near Delhi. The Purus therefore, with their capitals in the north, east, and west, ruled over a large portion of the present province of Agra from the Meerut Division on the north to the Benares Division on the south-east. The dynasty came to an end with Kshemaka, the fourth king to reign after Udayana, the contemporary of the Buddha.

Kosala: Magadha

From the evidence both of Vedic literature and of the Puranas it appears that the Ikshvakus were originally a branch of the Purus. They were kings of Kosala, the country which lay to the east of the Kurus and Panchalas and to the west of the Videhas, from whom it was separated by the river Sadanira, probably the Great Gandak. This territory was practically the modern province of Oudh. The chief cities were Ayodhya (Ajodhyd on the Gogra in the Fyzabad District) with which the Saketa of Buddhist writers was probably either identical or closely associated, and Shravasti (Set Mahet in the Gonda District). In story Ayodhya is famous as the city of Dasharatha, the father of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana. Both of these characters, who may possibly have been historical, are assigned by the Puranas to a dim and distant period long before the beginning of the Kali Age.

Although the extension of Brahmanism from the land of the Kurus and Panchalas to Kosala was comparatively late, the Aryan occupation of the country goes back to an earlier period. In the later Vedic literature two kings of Kosala, Hiranyanabha and Paru Atnara, probably father and son, seem to be mentioned as performing the horse-sacrifice in celebration of their victories; and, as the former of these appears in the Puranic list before the Kali Age, the conquest of Kosala was evidently attributed to the period before the great war.

In the time of the Buddha, Kosala was the predominant kingdom in Northern India, but it was already being eclipsed by the growing power of Magadha. Such incidents in its history as can be recovered from early Buddhist literature have been narrated in Chapter VII.

The Puranic list of Ikshvaku kings in the Kali Age concludes with Sumitra, the fourth successor of Prasenajit, who was contemporary with the Buddha. The royal houses of Puru and Ikshvaku, the sovereigns of Agra and Oudh, thus disappear from the scene at about the same time (p. 308). Henceforth the historical interest of the Puranas centres in Magadha which had become the suzerain power in the Middle Country.

The Magadhas, who inhabited the Patna and Gaya Districts of S. Bihar, are unknown by this name to the Rigveda; but, together with their neighbors, the Angas, in the Districts of Monghyr and Bhagalpur, they are mentioned in the Atharvaveda as a people living on the extreme confines of Aryan civilization. Their kings claimed to be Purus : they traced their descent from Kuru through the great conqueror, Vasu Shhaidya, whose son, Brihadratha, was the founder of the dynasty which is known by his name.

Magadha is the most famous kingdom in ancient and medieval India. Twice in history did it establish great empires—the Maurya Empire in the fourth and third centuries BC, and the Gupta Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. The long line of kings attributed to Magadha by the Puranas consists of a series of no fewer than eight dynastic lists furnished with a statement of the number of years in each reign and the duration of each dynasty. If all these dynasties could be regarded as successive, and if the length of reigns could be determined with certainty, the chronology of Magadha would be a simple matter of calculation. But this is not the case. Some of the royal families included in the series were undoubtedly contemporary, and the text of the Puranas has become so corrupt that the numbers as stated by the different MSS. are rarely in agreement.

Brihadratha himself and nine of his successors are supposed to have reigned before the Kali Age. It is recorded that, when Sahadeva, the last of these, was slain in the great war, Somadhi, his heir, became king in Girivraja, ‘the fortress on the hill’, at the foot of which the old capital of Magadha, Rajagriha, grew up. The site is marked by the ruined town of Rajgir in the Patna District. In the reign of Senajit, Somadhi's sixth successor, most of the Puranas claim to have been recited. No other event is connected with the twenty-one successors of Sahadeva.

The next two dynasties, the Pradyotas and Shishunagas, were almost certainly contemporary. The Pradyota dynasty may be identified with the Paunika family mentioned in the Harshacharita. According to the Puranas, the founder, Punika (Pulika), slew his master, Ripuñjaya, the last of the Brihadrathas, and anointed his own son in his stead. After five reigns, the duration of which is given by some versions as 52 years and by others as 138 years, the Pradyota dynasty is supplanted by Shishunaga, who, after placing his son on the throne of Kashi (Benares), himself takes possession of Girivraja.  

But this is history distorted. Some editor has evidently placed independent lists in a false sequence and supplied appropriate links of connection. This is clear from the evidence of Buddhist literature.

The Pradyotas were kings of Avanti (W. Alalwa) and their capital was Ujjain. Pradyota (Pajjota) himself, like Bimbisara and Ajatashatru (Ajatasattu), the fifth and sixth in the list of Shishunagas, and like the Puru Udayana (Udena) of Vatsa (Vamsa) and the Ikshvaku Prasenajit (Pasenadi) of Kosala, was contemporary with the Buddha. The first of the Pradyotas, and the fifth and sixth of the Shishunagas, who are separated by more than 150 years at the least according to the Puranas, were therefore ruling at the same period in different countries.

Avanti : Later Shishunagas

That the Pradyota of the Puranas and the Pradyota of Ujjain were one and the same person does not admit of question. The fact is implied in the statement of the Matsya Purana, and is clear when the Puranas are compared with other Sanskrit literature. Udayana, the king of Vatsa, is the central figure in a large cycle of Sanskrit stories of love and adventure; and in these Pradyota, the king of Ujjain, the father of the peerless Vasavadatta, plays no small part. In some of the stories he appears also as the father of Palaka and the grandfather of Avantivardhana. Now of the five members of the dynasty in the Puranas the first two are Pradyota and Palaka (Balaka), and the last is probably Avantivardhana; for the various readings of the MSS., as given by Mr Pargiter (Kali Age), indicate that this may be the correct form of the name which appears in his text as Nandivardhana.

This intrusion of kings of Avanti in the records of Magadha is probably to be explained, as in the similar case of the Andhras, as the result of a suzerainty successfully asserted by Avanti; and this may have been the outcome of the attack on Ajatashatru which Pradyota was reported to have been contemplating shortly before the Buddha’s death. If so, the supremacy of Avanti, which may have been temporary, was not established until some years after the beginning of Ajatashatru’s reign, and the Pradyotas of the Puranas were contemporary with the later Shishunagas—Ajatashatru, Darshaka, and Udayin.

It is only when we come to the reigns of Bimbisara and Ajatashatru in the Shishunaga dynasty that we find the firm ground of history. At this period lived Mahavira and Buddha, the founders, or perhaps rather the reformers, of Jainism and Buddhism; and now the Puranas are supplemented by two other lines of tradition which are presumably independent. In the Jain accounts Bimbisara appears as Shrenika and Ajatashatru as Kunika : the former began the expansion of Magadha by the conquest of the kingdom of Anga (Monghyr and Bhagalpur), and the latter is said to have come to the throne after the death of Mahavira and a few years before the death of Buddha.

Unfortunately on one important point the three sources of information are not in agreement. The first eight kings in the Puranic genealogy may be arranged into two groups, the first headed by Shishunaga and the second by Bimbisara. This arrangement is reversed in the Buddhist lists, while Shishunaga's group is omitted altogether by the Jains. It is difficult to see how the three traditions, each of which has its champions among modern scholars, can be reconciled.

The Brahman and Buddhist books record the length of the reigns of Bimbisara and Ajatashatru; but they are not in agreement with one another, and moreover the Brahman accounts are not consistent. In the present corrupt condition of the text the various MSS. of the Puranas attribute a reign of either 28 or 38 years to Bimbisara, and one of 25, 27, or 28 years to Ajatashatru (Kali Age). Until the text has been restored by critical editing the authentic tradition of the Brahmans cannot be ascertained. In contrast with this discrepancy the Buddhist chronicles of Ceylon, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, offer a consistent and more detailed account of these reigns and of certain important events in the lifetime of Siddhartha, the Shakya prince who became the Buddha. Whether this tradition is to be accepted as correct in preference to the other may be questioned; but it affords the best working hypothesis which has yet been discovered. The chronology as determined by Prof. Geiger in the introduction to his translation of the Mahavamsa may be tabulated as follows :


Shishunaga Kings. B.C. Siddhartha (the Buddha). B.C.
Bimbisara's birth 558 Born 563
accession 543 Leaves his father's house 534
death 491 Becomes Buddha 528
Ajatashatru’s accession 491 Meets Bimbisara (for the second time) 528
death 459 Attains nirvana 483


After these two reigns we come once more to a period of conflicting authorities and chronological uncertainty which lasts until, the reign of Chandragupta. The Buddhist genealogy preserved in the Mahavamsa is certainly not above suspicion; for each of the five kings from Ajatasattu to Nagadasaka is said to have killed his father and predecessor within a period of fifty-six years, and we are solemnly told that, after the last of these, Nagadasaka, had occupied the throne for twenty-four years, the citizens awoke to the fact that ‘this is a dynasty of parricides’ and appointed the minister Susunaga (Shishunaga) in his stead. The Jain tradition recognizes only Udayin and the nine Nandas as reigning during this interval; and the Puranic list (Kali Age) is as follows:

Darshaka reigned 24, 25, or 35 years

Udayin 33

Nandivardhana reigned 40, or 42 years

Mahanandin 43

Mahapadma 28 or 88

His eight sons 12

Total, 100 years.

Darshaka appears not to be mentioned by the Buddhist writers, unless indeed he is to be identified with Nagadasaka whom they place before Udayin (Udayi-bhadda); but he is known to Sanskrit literature as a king of Magadha and the brother of Padmavati, the second queen of Udayana, king of Vatsa. Udayin, or Udayi­bhadda, is known to all the three traditions. To him the Brahmans and Jains attribute the foundation of Kusumapura on the south bank of the Ganges. The new city, which was either identical with the later Pataliputra or in its immediate neighborhood, was built near the fortress which Ajatashatru had established at the village of Patali as a protection against the Vajjian (Vriji) confederacy of Licchavis, Videhas, and other clans of N. Bihar. The foundation of Pataliputra is ascribed by the Buddhists to Kalasoka.

The ten Shishunaga kings are expressly called Kshatriyas by the Puranas, but the last of these, Mahanandin, became, through his marriage with a Shudra woman, the founder of a Shudra dynasty which endured for two generations—Mahapadma and his eight sons. One of the latter, usually supposed to be named Dhanananda, was on the throne in 326 BC, when Alexander the Great was obliged by the unwillingness of his army to abandon his scheme of attacking the Prasioi, or ‘eastern nations’, then united under the suzerainty of Magadha. Within a few years of Alexander’s retirement from India, this suzerainty passed from the Nandas to the Mauryas, probably c. 321 BC.


The period of the nine Nandas is thus determined. According to the Puranas they represent no new family: they are the direct descendants of the Shishunagas, the last and the last but one of whom, Mahanandin and Nandivardhana, bear names which indicate their connection. There are, therefore, two groups of these kings, which seem to be distinguished in literature as the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Nandas; and, as Mr Jayaswal has suggested, ‘new’ and not ‘nine’ may have been the correct designation of the later groups. The Puranas know no break of political continuity between the Shishunagas and the Nandas; but they recognize that a great social and religious gulf has been fixed between the earlier and the later Nandas by the flagrant violation of caste law which placed Mahapadma, the son of a Shudra woman, on the throne; and they mark their sense of this chasm by interpolating after the reign of Mahanandin a summary of the number of reigns in other contemporary dynasties before proceeding with their account of the rulers of Magadha.

As to the origin of the Nandas we have no certain information; but the name is probably tribal, and it may be connected with the Nandas who lived near the river Ramganga, between the Ganges and the Kosi in the Himalayan region of the United Provinces. The countries of the Himalayan fringe at this period were occupied by innumerable clans governed by tribal constitutions which may best be described as aristocratic oligarchies. Like the Rajputs, they were conquerors ruling in the midst of subject peoples; and, as Dr Vincent Smith has suggested, many of these clans may have been of Tibeto-Chinese origin. It is possible that the Shishunagas and Nandas may have been the descendants of mountain chieftains who had won the kingdom of Magadha by conquest.

A Nanda king is twice mentioned in the Hathigumpha inscription of king Kharavela of Kalinga (Orissa). The inscription, which is a record of events in thirteen (or fourteen) years of the king’s reign, has been badly preserved. Considerable portions have been lost, and both the reading and the interpretation of many passages are uncertain. The record in its present state can only be used as a basis for history with the utmost caution. It is clear, however, that in his fifth year Kharavela executed some public work which was associated with the memory of king Nanda, and that in his twelfth year he gained a victory over the king of Magadha and, according to Mr Jayaswal’s translation, recovered certain trophies which had been carried away by king Nanda.

These statements of the inscription, coupled with the somewhat, enigmatical testimony of an ancient Sanskrit quoted by Mr Jayaswal, seem to show that Kalinga had been conquered by one of the Nanda kings and lost by another. Kalinga was undoubtedly conquered by Asoka, the third of the Maurya emperors, c. 262 BC. We must infer, therefore, either that it was not included in the dominions of the first two emperors, Chandragupta and Bindusara, or that it had revolted and was reconquered by Asoka.

Growth of Magadha : Other Powers

Certain stages in the growth of the power of Magadha from its ancient stronghold in the fortress of Girivraja may thus be traced. The expansion began with the conquest of Anga (Monghyr and Bhagalpur in Bengal) by Bimbisara, c. 500 BC. The establishment of a supremacy over Kati (Benares), Kosala (Oudh), and Videha (N. Bihar) was probably the work of his son and successor, Ajatashatru, in the first half of the fifth century. Kalinga (Orissa) was, perhaps, temporarily included in the empire as a result of its conquest by a Nanda king. It remained for Chandragupta to extend the imperial dominions by the annexation of the north­western region which for a few years had owned the sway of Alexander the Great and his satraps, and for Asoka to conquer, or reconquer, Kalinga.

The summary of reigns, which comes in the Puranas between the description of the earlier and later Nandas, has reference to ten dynasties in Northern and Central India which were contemporary with the kings of Magadha. It is a bare list of names and numbers without any orderly arrangement, and, as usual, the numbers given by the different MSS. are not consistent. The summary may be rearranged geographically as follows.


(United Provinces : Agra)

1. Kurus : 36 (19, 26, 30, or 50) reigns.

2. Panchalas : 27 (25)

3. Shurasenas: 23 0)

4. Kashis : 24 (36) 77

(United Provinces : Oudh)

5. Ikshvakus : 24

(Central India and Gujarat)

6. Haihayas 28 (24) reigns

7. Ashmakas : 25

8. Vitihotras : 20

(N. Bihar)

9. Mithilas : 28 (18)


10. Kalingas : 32 (22, 24, 26, or 40)

1. The Kurus are no doubt the Purus of the detailed list; but the number of reigns differs.

2. The Panchalas, a confederation of five tribes, were neighbors of the Kurus. The capital of N. Panchala was Ahicchatra, now a ruined site still bearing the same name near the village of Ramnagar in the Bareilly District. The capital of S. Panchala was Kampilya, now represented by ruins at the village of Kampil in the Farrukhabad District.

3. The peoples living to the south of Kurukshetra claimed descent from Yadu. Of these the Shurasenas occupied the Muttra District and possibly some of the territory still farther south. This capital was Muttra (Mathura), the birth­place of the hero Krishna.

To the west of the Shurasenas dwelt the Matsyas. The two peoples are constantly associated, and it is possible that at this time they may have been united under one king. The Matsyas occupied the state of Alwar and possibly some parts of Jaipur and Bhartpur. Their capitals were Upaplavya, the site of which is uncertain, and Vairata, the city of king Virata, the modern Bairat in Jaipur.

4. The little kingdom of Kashi (Benares) was bordered by Vatsa on the west, Kosala on the north, and Magadha on the east. Some details of its relations with these countries may be recovered from early literature. According to the Shatapatha Brahmapa, its king Dhritarashtra was conquered by the Bharata prince Shatanika Satrajita. Such incidental notices of its later history have been preserved by Buddhist writers.

At different periods Kashi came under the sway of the three successive suzerain powers of Northern India—the Purus of Vatsa, the Ikshvakus of Kosala, and the kings of Magadha; but it seems to have enjoyed its period of independent power in the interval between the decline of Vatsa and the rise of Kosala, when king Brahmadatta, possibly about a century and a half before the Buddha’s time, conquered Kosala. The fame of Brahmadatta has been kept alive in Buddhist literature; for in his reign the Jatakas, or stories of the Buddha in previous births, are conventionally set.

The account given in the Puranas of the accession of Shishunaga to the throne of Magadha shows that this king was associated also with Kashi.

5. The number of Ikshvaku kings given in the summary is 22. This is not in accordance with the detailed list which contains 30.

6, 7, 8. The Haihayas, Ashmakas, and Vitihotras, like the Shurasenas, belonged to the great family of the descendants of Yadu who occupied the countries of the river Chambal in the north and the river Narbada in the south; but it is difficult to identify with precision the kingdoms indicated by these different names. Haihaya is often used almost as a synonym of Yadava to denote the whole group of peoples; and the Vitihotras are a branch of the Haihayas. Both the Vitihotras and the Ashmakas are closely associated in literature with the Avantis of W. Malwa, whose capital was Ujjain (Ujjayini) on the Sipra, a tributary of the Chambal (Charmanvati).

It would be strange if the rulers of a city so famous both politically and commercially as Ujjain should have found no place in this summary. The most plausible explanation of their apparent absence from the list is that they are here called Haihayas.

9. The Mithilas take their name from Mithila, the capital of the Videhas, one of the numerous clans, possibly of Tibeto-Chinese origin, who inhabited Tirhut (the districts of Champaran, Muzaffarpur, and Darbhauga in N. Bihar). Videgha Mathava, to whom the Brahmanisation of this region is attributed by the Shatapatha Brahmana is probably its earliest recorded monarch. According to the Puranas the Aryan kings of the Videhas were a branch of the Puru family. They are derived from Mimi, the son of Ikshvaku and the remote ancestor of Siradhvaja Janaka, the father of Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana. Like Rama himself, he is supposed to have lived before the Kali Age. It is possible that he may be the King Janaka of Videha who is celebrated in the Brahmanas and Upanishads; and, if so, the story of the Ramayana has its origin in the later Brahmana period. In the time of the Buddha, the Videhas together with the Licchavis of Vaishali (Basarh in the Hajipur sub-division of Muzaffarpur) and other powerful clans formed a confederation and were known collectively by their tribal name as the Vrijis (Vajjis). The reduction of their power marks an epoch in the expansion of the kingdom of Magadha.

10. In the Puranas the monarchs of the five kingdoms of Anga (Monghyr and Bhagalpur), Vanga (Birbhum, Murshidabad, Bardwan and Nadia), Pundra (Chota Nagpur), Suhma (Bankura and Midnapur), and Kalinga (Orissa) are derived from eponymous heroes who are supposed to be brothers belonging to the family of Anu. With the exception of Anga, none of these kingdoms is mentioned in early literature. The earliest monument which throws light on the history of Kalinga is the Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela.

Shungas, Kanvas, and Andhras

After this summary the royal genealogies are resumed, and detailed lists of the later Nandas, the Mauryas, the Shungas, the Kanvas, and the Andhras follow. The continuous record then ceases; but genealogies more or less fragmentary and summaries of ruling powers, both native states and foreign invaders, continue to appear until about the end of the fifth century AD when the Puranas cease to be historical.

The five dynasties just mentioned are, as usual, regarded as successive; but this can only be true of the Nandas, Mauryas, and Shungas. The Shungas, Kanvas, and Andhras were contemporary, although no doubt they claimed the suzerainty of N. India successively. That the first two of these were ruling at the same time may be inferred from the incidental statement that the first Andhra king destroyed the last of the Kanvas and “what was left of the Shungas’ power”. But it is certain that the Shungas were flourishing after the reign of the first Andhra king. Both powers, Schunga and Andhra alike, arose on the ruins of the Maurya empire—the former in the Midland Country and the latter in Southern India. It was probably not until the reign of the third Andhra king, Shatakarni, that they came into collision; and then their political association appears to have been transient.

The Puranas, however, state or imply that ten Shunga kings, reigning for 112 years, were succeeded by four Kanvas, who reigned for 45 years, and that then the first of the Andhras, Simuka, having wrested the kingdom from the last of the Kanvas, Susharman, became the founder of a dynasty of thirty kings who ruled over Magadha during a period of 460 years. This is manifestly incorrect. It is evident that by piecing together three separate lists some editor has constructed an entirely false chronology and has perverted history. The Andhras had probably no connection with Magadha. Their only possible claim to a place in its records must have been founded on a conquest which transferred to them the suzerainty previously held by Magadha.

In order to understand the situation we must consider what the consequences of a triumph of this kind must have been. Under the Nandas and the Mauryas Magadha had established a suzerainty which passed by conquest to the first Shunga king, Pushyamitra, and was solemnly proclaimed by his performance of the ‘horse-sacrifice’. This suzerainty, and with it the proud title of chakravartin, ‘universal monarch’, was contested successfully by the Andhra king who, as is known from the Nanaghat inscription of his queen, Naganika, celebrated the Ashvamedha on two occasions; and, as we have seen, there is good reason for believing that the genealogies preserved in the Puranas have their origin in the proclamation of the king’s lineage which accompanied the performance of this sacrifice.

The rank of a chakravartin must, at this period, have conferred on his family an hereditary distinction which entitled all his successors to be commemorated in the records of Magadha. Imperial and royal dignities of this kind, when once established, are not readily abandoned, however shadowy and unreal they may have become. It must be remembered that the sovereigns of our own country continued to use the title and the arms of France until the beginning of the nineteenth century, nearly two centuries and a half after the loss of Calais, the last of their French possessions. Regarded as historical documents, the British coin-legends of the eighteenth century, with their purely hereditary titles, are as misleading as the Puranas, which, arranging all in one long series, ascribe to Magadha both its own kings and the families of the suzerains of Northern India.