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Son of Bimbisāra, King of Magadha, and therefore half-brother to Abhayarājakumara. He succeeded his father to the throne. His mother was a daughter of Mahākosala,¹ and he married Vajirakumārī, Pasenadi’s daughter,² by whom be had a son Udāyibhadda

Ajātasattu grew up to be a noble and handsome youth. Devadatta was, at this time, looking for ways and means of taking revenge on the Buddha, and seeing in the prince a very desirable weapon, he exerted all his strength to win him to his side. Ajātasattu was greatly impressed by Devadatta’s psychic-powers and became his devoted follower.⁴ He built for him a monastery at Gayāsīsa and waited upon him morning and evening carrying food for him, sometimes as much as five hundred cartloads in five hundred cooking pans.⁵

Devadatta incited him to seize the throne, killing his father if necessary. When Bimbisāra learnt of the prince’s intentions he abdicated in his favour. However, Devadatta was not satisfied until Bimbisāra, who was one of the Buddha’s foremost supporters, was killed.⁶ According to the Saṃkicca Jātaka ⁷ he had killed his father in previous births too. Ajātasattu helped Devadatta in several of the latter’s attempts to kill the Buddha (See Devadatta). In the Sañjiva Jātaka.⁸ we are told that in past lives he had associated with the sinful and once lost his life as a result.

Later he was filled with remorse for these past misdeeds as he confesses himself;⁹ but evidently, for very shame, he refrained from visiting the Buddha until he was won over by the persuasions of his physician Jīvaka Komārabhacca. When in the end he did go to the Buddha, it was in great fear and trembling; so nervous was he that he imagined conspirators in the very silence surrounding the Buddha where he dwelt in the monastery, in Jivaka’s Mango grove at Rājagaha.¹⁰ It was on the occasion of this visit that the Sāmaññaphala Sutta was taught. The king admits that he had been to various teachers before, but had failed to find satisfaction in their teachings. It is noteworthy that the Buddha greets the king cordially on his arrival and makes no mention whatever of the king’s impiety. Instead, when Ajātasattu expresses his repentance at the end of the discourse, the Buddha accepts his confession and lets him off almost too lightly. However, after the king had departed the Buddha tells the monks how the king’s misdeeds had wrought his undoing both in this world and the next, for if he had not been guilty of them, the Eye of Truth (the Path of Stream-winning, says the Commentary) would have been opened for him on the occasion of this discourse.¹¹ It is said that from the day of his father’s death he could not sleep on account of terrifying dreams, particularly after he had heard of Devadatta’s dire fate.¹² He slept after his visit to the Buddha.¹³ Henceforth the king became a loyal adherent of the Buddha’s faith, though, as far as we know, he never waited again either upon the Buddha or upon any member of the Order for the discussion of ethical matters.¹⁴ He was so full of love and respect for the Buddha that when he heard of Upaka Maṇḍikāputta having spoken rather impolitely to the Buddha, he at once flew into a rage.¹⁵

Sakka said of him that among the worldlings (puthujjana) he was most possessed of piety.¹⁶ When the Buddha died, in the eighth year of Ajātasattu reign,¹⁷ the latter’s ministers decided not to tell him the news at once, in case he should die of a broken heart. On the pretext of warding off the evil effects of a dream, they placed him in a vat filled with the four kinds of sweet things (catumadhura) and broke the sad news gently to him. He immediately fainted, and it was not until they put him in two other vats and repeated the tidings that he realised their implication.¹⁸ He forthwith gave himself up to great lamentation and despair, “like a madman,” calling to mind the Buddha’s various virtues and visiting various places associated in his mind with the Buddha. Later he sent messengers to claim his share of the Buddha’s relics, and when he obtained them he prolonged the rites held in their honour until the Arahants had to seek Sakka’s aid to make the king take the relics away to Rājagaha, where he erected over them a stone thūpa.¹⁹ Two months afterwards, when the first Council was held, he gave the undertaking his royal patronage and assisted the monks who took part in it with all his power.²⁰

Several incidents connected with Ajātasattu’s reign are mentioned in the books. Bimbisāra had married a sister of Pasenadi, and when he was killed she died of grief. The revenue of a Kāsī village had been given to her by her father, Mahākosala, as part of her dowry, but after Bimbisāra’s murder, Pasenadi refused to continue it. Thereupon Ajātasattu declared war on his uncle. Before this, uncle and nephew seem to have been on very friendly terms. Once Ajātasattu sent Pasenadi a wonderful piece of foreign fabric, sixteen cubits long and eight broad, mounted on a pole to serve as a canopy. This Pasenadi gave to Ānanda.²¹

At first he was victorious in three battles, but, later, he was defeated by Pasenadi, who followed the military advice of an old monk, the elder Dhanuggahatissa; Ajātasattu was taken captive with his army. On giving an undertaking not to resort to violence again, he was released, and to seal the friendship, Pasenadi gave him his daughter Vajirā as wife, and the revenue of the disputed village was gifted to her as bath-money.²² Ajātasattu evidently took his reverses very unsportingly.²³

Later, when through the treachery of Pasenadi’s minister, Dīgha Kārāyaṇa, his son Vidūḍaḍabha usurped the throne, Pasenadi, finding himself deserted, went towards Rājagaha to seek Ajātasattu’s help, but on the way he died of exposure and Ajātasattu gave him burial (See Pasenadi).

About a year before the Buddha’s death, Ajātasattu sent his chief minister and confidant, the brahmin Vassakāra, to the Buddha to intimate to him his desire to make war on the Vajjī  and to find out what prediction the Buddha would make regarding his chances of victory. The Buddha informed the brahmin that the Vajjī  practised the seven conditions of welfare which they had learnt from him, and that they were therefore invincible.²⁴ The Saṃyuttanikāya mentions the Buddha as saying that the time would come when the Vajjī  would relinquish their strenuous mode of living and that then would come Ajātasattu’s chance.²⁵

This chance came about three years later, for by the treachery of Vassakāra, he succeeded in sowing dissension among the leading families of Vesāli. Having thus weakened them, he swooped down upon the place with an overwhelming force and completely destroyed it.²⁶ Rumours are mentioned of King Caṇḍappajjota making preparations for a war on Ajātasattu to avenge the death of his friend Bimbisāra, but no mention is made of actual fighting.²⁷ Of the end of Ajātasattu’s reign the books mention very little except that he was killed by his son Udaya or Udāyībhadda,²⁸ who had been born on the day that Bimbisāra died as a result of his tortures.²⁹

We are told that Ajātasattu had feared that his son might kill him and had therefore secretly hoped that Udaya would become a monk.³⁰ Ajātasattu’s reign lasted thirty-two years.³¹ It was he who built the fortress of Pāṭāliputta, which later became the capital of Magadha.

We do not know what Ajātasattu’s real name was. By the Jains he is called Kunika or Konika, which again is probably a nickname.³² The title Vedehiputta which always accompanies his name probably means “son of the Videha lady.” At the time of Buddhaghosa there seems to have been much confusion about the meaning of this word. According to Buddhaghosa ³³ Vedehi means “wise.” There seems to have been another explanation which Buddhaghosa rejects — that Ajātasattu was the son of the Videha queen. Videhi was probably the maiden, family, or tribal (not personal) name of his mother. According to a Tibetan authority her personal name was Vāsavī, and she was called Videhi because she was from Videha.³⁴ (See also Vedehikā.)

Two explanations are given of the epithet Ajātasattu. According to Buddhaghosa he was so called because the soothsayers predicted his enmity to his father even before his birth, and a story is told of how his mother, at the time of his conception, had a longing to drink blood from Bimbisāra’s right hand. The longing was satisfied, but when the queen heard the soothsayer’s prediction, she tried, in many ways, to bring about a miscarriage.³⁵ The park where she tried to bring about the miscarriage was called Maddakucchi.³⁶

In this she was prevented by the king. Later both parents grew to be very fond of him. There is a story of the prince, holding his father’s finger, visiting Jotika’s marvellous palace and thinking that his father was a fool for not taking Jotika’s wealth. When he became king he acquired Jotika’s palace.³⁷ As a boy he used to visit the Buddha with his father.³⁸

To show Bimbisāra’s love for the babe, an incident is mentioned of how once, when the prince was crying with pain because of a boil on his finger, the nurses took him to the king who was then holding court. To soothe the child, the king put the offending finger in his mouth, where the boil burst. Unable to spit the pus out the king swallowed it.³⁹ The other explanation is that also found in the Upanisads,⁴⁰ and this is probably the correct one. It says that the word means “he against whom there has arisen no foe.”

According to the Dīghanikāya Commentary,⁴¹ Ajātasattu was born in the Lohakumbha hell (niraya) after his death. He will suffer there for 60,000 years, and later will attain nibbāna as a Pacceka Buddha named Viditavisesa (Vijitāvī). Ajātasattu’s crime of parricide is often given as an example of an obstructive (upacchedaka) kamma, which has the power of destroying the effect of meritorious deeds.⁴² He is also mentioned as the worst kind of parricide.⁴³

Ajātasattu seems to have been hated by the Nigaṇṭhā. The reason is probably that given in the Dhammapada Commentary ⁴⁴ where it is said that when Moggallāna had been killed by thieves, spies were sent out by the king to discover the murderers. When arrested, the murderers confessed that they had been incited by the Nigaṇṭhā. The king thereupon buried five hundred Nigaṇṭhā waist-deep in pits dug in the palace court and had their heads ploughed off.


¹ J.iii.121. ² J.iv.343. ³ D.i.50. Vin.ii.185; J.i.185‑6.

S.ii.242. DA.i.135‑7. J.v.262 ff. J. i. 510 f. D.i.85.

¹⁰ D.i.49‑50; J.v.262‑9. An illustration of this visit is the subject of one of the bas-reliefs on the Barhut Tope; Cunningham, Pl. xvi., fig.36, and p.135.

¹¹ D.i.85‑6. ¹² J.i.508. ¹³ DA.i.238.

¹⁴ However, see DA.i.238, where we are told “tinnaṃ ratanānaṃ mahāsakkāraṃ akāsi.”

¹⁵ A.ii.182. ¹⁶ DA.ii.610. ¹⁷ Mhv.ii.32. ¹⁸ DA.ii.605‑6. ¹⁹ DA.ii.610.

²⁰ Sp.i.10‑11; DA.i.8‑9. ²¹ M.ii.116.

²² S.i.82‑5; J.ii.403‑4; Avas. 54‑7; J.iv.343 f; DhA.iii.259.

²³ See the Haritamāta Jātaka, J.ii.237 f. or 24. ²⁴ D.ii.72 f.

²⁵ S.ii.268. According to the Jains, Ajātasattu fought with Ceḍaga, king of Vesāli, for the possession of an extraordinary elephant. Hoernle on Ājivaka in ERE i..

²⁶ For details see Licchavi.

²⁷ M.iii.7; MA.ii.853; see also Buddhist India, p.13.

²⁸ Mhv.iv.l. ²⁹ DA.i.137. ³⁰ DA.i.153.

³¹ Mhv.ii.31; but see Geiger’s Introd. to Mhv. trans. xi ff; also Samaddar: Glories of Magadha, 17, n. 3; also Vincent Smith: Early History of India, pp.26 ff.

³² Dial. ii.79, n.1. ³³ DA.i.139.

³⁴ Rockhill, p.63. In the Pāḷi books she is often referred to as Kosaladevī.

³⁵ DA.i.133 ff; J.iii.121‑2. ³⁶ SA.i.61. ³⁷ DhA.iv.211 and 222 f. ³⁸ DA.i.152.

³⁹ DA.i.138. ⁴⁰ Dial.ii.78 f. ⁴¹ DA.i.237‑8. ⁴² E.g., AA.i.369.

⁴³ E.g. AA.i.335. ⁴⁴ DhA.iii.66 f.

Finding Footnote References

Samaññaphala Sutta: Dīghanikāya. Di.i.86.

References in the notes are to the Pāḷi texts of the PTS. In the translations, these are usually printed in the headers near the spine, i 86, or in square brackets thus [86] in the text. References to the Jātaka Commentary are given as J, not JA, which would normally be used, as that is reserved for the Journal Asiatic.