The Tradition of Kshaatra in India – The Age of Kingdoms

Now from the Vedas, Itihasas, and Puranas, we come to the era of reality. As such, there is no separate demarcation that separates our ancient texts from history. All the details of the lineage of kings that we find in the Vedas are part of history. For example, an ancient king who is mentioned in the Vedas is Divodasa. His son was Sudasa. The purohita of Sudasa was Vasishta. The Rigveda speaks about the Battle of Ten Kings (दाशराज्ञयुद्ध), in which ten kings combined forces under the guidance of Vishwamitra and attacked Sudasa. This is definitely a part of Indian history. Another great king hailed in the Vedas is Dushyanta and his son, Bharata (सर्वदमन) Chakravarti [emperor]. It is from the great emperor Bharata that our country got its name – Bhaarata. Works like the Aitareya Brahmana refer to Bharata. Bharata is said to have performed 130 Ashvamedha yajnas and 50 Rajasuya yajnas. Nowhere else do we find references to anyone who has performed more Ashvamedha or Rajasuya yajnas. We observe from the frequent repetition of these yajnas how the brilliance of kshaatra was constantly renewed. Each of the kshatriya yajnas contributed to a certain kind of enthusiasm, valor, and preserving the welfare of the kingdom. The Ashvamedha yajna was performed for expanding the kingdom and establishing undisputed sovereignty over a large area of land. It indicates the ability of the king to develop his kingdom far and wide. The four kshatriya yajnas that were prevalent in the Hindu tradition are: सौत्रामणि, वाजपेय, राजासूय, and अश्वमेध. When emperor Bharata realized that his children were worthless, under the supervision of sage Bharadvaja, he handed the power to Bhumanyu – thus we read in the Puranas. It is noteworthy to observe here that when emperor Bharata realized that his own children were unworthy of ruling the kingdom, he had the sagacity to hand over the charge of the people’s welfare to the son of a rishi. In the great tradition of kshaatra, the emphasis was on selflessness, foresight, development of the kingdom – these were the very goals of the tradition. Without doubt, we can see this from the episode of Bharata’s succession.

Typically, modern historians say that the history of India begins with the Magadha kingdom. I don’t agree with that. Several other historians don’t agree with this. The reason is simply this: the episodes from the Vedas, Puranas, and Arshakavyas are definitely a part of history. [While there are elements of imagination in these works, some modern historians tend to look at all of them as fiction, which is erroneous.] The historicity of Ramayana and Mahabharata are well-known. Be it Divodasa-Sudasa of the Vedas, or Dushyanta-Bharata, or the lineage of the Yadavas and Kauravas – all these are a part of our history.

In the extensive lineage of the Yaduvamsa, one branch is the Haihayakula. They ruled from Mahishmati (modern-day Maheshwar; it is in the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh and on the banks of the Narmada river). In that region, there lived many members of the Bhargava clan. That lineage steadily developed from Haihaya, Krtavirya, his son Kartavirya, and others. The kings who were bound to universal welfare [by their kshatriya dharma] also happened to be extremely powerful and due to arrogance arising from knowledge, wealth, and position, some of them ended up oppressing their own people. We see such a class between king and his subjects in the great conflict between the Haihayas and the Bhargavas. This battle went on for generations and bearing testimony to this is the story of Aurva and Chyavana, all the way up to Parashurama. We see [in the Puranas and the Itihasas] that finally Parashurama’s anger is appeased and the entire Haihaya clan is destroyed. All this is a part of history. Similarly, in the line of the Pandavas, Abhimanyu’s son Parikshita, his son Janamejaya, and born later in this lineage, Shatanika, his son Sahasranika, and his son Udayana Vatsaraja – thus the lineage grew. We know from Buddhists texts that Udayana Vatsaraja was a contemporary of the Buddha. During the time of the Buddha, there were several kshatriya clans in India. They were well-known republics. There were also a few kingdoms.  The Buddhist texts refer to them as the ‘षोडशमहाजनपद’ – the sixteen great states.

Republics and Kingdoms

Just as it is described in Buddhist texts, the three important kingdoms in Northern India were Magadha, Kosala, and Vatsa. Rajagriha was the capital of Magadha, Shravasti for Kosala, and Kaushambi for Vatsa. Vidarbha lay to the South. Making Ujjayini (Avanti) as the capital, the king Chandamahasena Pradyota ruled the kingdom. While Prasenjit ruled Kosala from Shravasti, Magadha had Bimbisara Shrenyaka and his son Ajatashatru. Ruling Vatsa from Kaushambi was the king Udayana Vatsaraja. Kuru and Panchala were regions at the banks of the Ganga. Today’s Agra, which lies on the banks of the Yamuna, was called ‘Agrodaka.’ The region in its vicinity was the Shurasena kingdom. Its capital was Mathura. Going further ahead from Vatsa, we reach the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna at Prayaga, which is close to the great city of Kashi (Varanasi). If we go further East, we get Mithila, which is close to today’s Darbhanga in the state of Bihar. Moving further East to the point where the Ganga reaches the sea, we get the kingdom of Anga. In its vicinity lies Vanga, Pundra, Gauda, and further East, Kamarupa (modern-day Assam). Today’s Odisha or the Kalinga of those days is a combination of Odhra and Utkala. Today’s Avadh and the states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh could be equated to the Northern and Southern Kosala of those days. The South-West of Uttar Pradesh, Northern parts of Madhya Pradesh, and Southern Rajasthan were the kingdoms of Matya and Chedi. Today’s Gujarat was earlier Lat, Ghurjara, Saurashtra, and Karahat. Today’s Rajasthan was earlier the kingdoms of Trigarta and Saubha [or Salwa]. Today’s Sindh was earlier Sindhu-Sauvira. The entire Western Karavali border was made up of Konkani, Shurparaka, and Chera kingdoms. Maharashtra was called Maharatta. Including that region, a certain portion of the Kannada country was called Kuntala. The rest was Karnata. Further down was the Dravida region – a combination of Chera (Kerala), Pandya, and Chola kingdoms. Above this was Andhra, also called Trilinga or Trailinga region. Today’s Khandahar was Kambhoja of the earlier days. Its neighbour, Balochistan was earlier the kingdoms of Ashmaka [according to Markandeya Purana and Brihatsamhita] and Gandhara. The sixteen great states [or kingdoms] that existed during the time of the Buddha are as follows: Anga, Magadha, Kashi, Kosala, Vrijigana (Vajjigana – With its capital at Vaishali, it is a region in today’s Magadha), Mallagana (it was in Bihar; it was on the edges of the Himalayas), Chedi (The region on the border of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, in the vicinity of Gwalior), Vatsa (Vaccha – this was just next to Chedi), Kuru, Panchala, Matysa (Maccha), Shurasena (in the region around Mathura), Ashmaka (region on the banks of the Godavari, at the Andhra-Maharashtra border) [according to Buddhist literature], Avanti (in the Vidarbha region), Gandhara, and Kambhoja.

Apart from this, there were a few republics like Malava, Madra, Yaudheya, Koliya, Malla, Shakya, and Vajji. The Jain texts have referred to them in many places. At that time, Bharata was divided into small colonies – regions ruled by small-time dynastic or tribal rulers. However, the idea that ‘Bharata’ was one integral unit was always there. Since many people are unaware of this, they hold on to the false notion that Indian attained the status of a nation only because of the British imperialist rule. In our tradition, right from the earliest days, starting from the Aitareya Brahmana of the Rigveda, we have had different divisions of the regions – साम्राज्य (kingdom), भोज्य (state, large kingdom), वैराज्य (extended sovereignty), पारमेष्ठिकराज्य (supreme empire), etc. In the various Puranas, starting from the Vishnupurana, we find several utterances that talk of Bharata as a united entity –

उत्तरं यत्समुद्रस्य हिमाद्रेश्चैव दक्षिणम् |
वर्षं तद् भारतं नाम भारती यत्र संततिः ||
(VP 2.3.1)

Further, while referring to undertaking pilgrimages to sacred places or to the victories of sages, kings, and scholars – we find unambiguous references to the traditional idea that they have to visit the various parts of the border of Bharata. Not only in the Puranas and Itihasas but we see this even in historical and modern happenings. It becomes clear that even though the land was divided into smaller kingdoms ruled by several kings, there was always a feeling of oneness of Bharata and a need to have a great emperor of the land who was above everyone else.

Translated from Kannada by Hari Ravikumar. Translator's notes in square brackets.
Thanks to Sandeep Balakrishna and Shashi Kiran B N for their timely help.



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.


Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 25+ books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

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