The Ancient Bihar

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The Ancient Bihar

Bihar used to be an educational, political and cultural center for the world, but it has lost its glory of the old days. It is a root place where Indian philosophy developed and took in the shape of Buddhism, Jainism and other religious traditions. Nalanda used to be the house of wisdom, one of the oldest universities that gave vision to the world.

Bihar, the ancient land of Buddha, has witnessed a golden period of Indian history. It is the same land where the seeds of the first republic were sown and which cultivated the first crop of democracy. Such fertile soil has given birth to innumerous intellectuals, which spread the light of knowledge and wisdom not only in the country but also in the whole world. The state has its capital at Patna, situated on the bank of the holy river Ganga. The state as it is today has been shaped from its partition from the province of Bengal and most recently after the separation of the tribal southern region now called Jharkhand. The history of the landmass currently known as Bihar is very ancient. It extends to the very dawn of human civilization. The earliest myths and legends of Hinduism, the Sanatana (Eternal) Dharma – are associated with Bihar. Sita, the consort of Lord Rama, was a princess of Bihar. She was the daughter of King Janak of Videha. The present districts of Muzaffarpur, Sitamarhi, Samastipur, Madhubani, and Darbhanga, in north-central Bihar, mark this ancient kingdom.

The present small township of Sitamarhi is located here. According to legend, the birthplace of Sita is Punaura, situated on the west side of Sitamarhi, the headquarters of the district. Janakpur, the capital of King Janak, and the place where Lord Rama and Sita were married lies just across the border in Nepal. It is reached via the rail station of Janakapur Road located in the Sitamarhi district, on the Narkatiyaganj – Darbhanga section of the North-Eastern Railway. Therefore, it is no accident that the original author of the Hindu epic – The Ramayana – Maharishi Valmiki – lived in Ancient Bihar. Valmiki Nagar is a small town and a railroad station in the district of West Champaran, close to the railhead of Narkatiyaganj in northwest Bihar. The word Champaran is derived from Champa-Arnya, or a forest of the fragrant Champa (magnolia) tree.

Here, Prince Gautam attained enlightenment, became the Buddha at the present Bodh Gaya- a town in central Bihar; and the great religion of Buddhism was born. It is also here that Lord Mahavira, the founder of another great religion, Jainism, was born and attained nirvana (death). That site is located at the present town of pawapuri, some miles to the south-east of Patna, the Capital of Bihar., it is here that the tenth and last Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, was born and attained the sainthood of Sikhism and became a Guru. A lovely and majestic Gurudwara (a temple for Sikhs) built to commemorate the harmandir’s memory is located in eastern Patna. Known reverentially as the Patna Sahib, it is one of the five holiest places of worship (Takhat) for Sikhs.

The ancient kingdoms of Magadh and of Licchavis, around about 7-8th century B.C., produced rulers who devised a system of administration that truly is the progenitor of the modern art of statecraft and the linkage of statecraft with economics. Kautilya, the author of Arthashastra, the first treatise of the modern science of Economics, lived here. Also known as Chanakya, he was the wily and canny adviser to the Magadh king, Chandragupta Maurya.

As an emissary of Chandragupta Maurya, Chanakya travelled far and wide in pursuit of promoting the interests of the state and dealing with the Greek invaders settled in the northwest of India, along the Indus valley. He succeeded in preventing the further onslaught of the Greeks. Indeed, he brought about amicable co-existence between the Greeks and the Mauryan Empire. Megasthenes, an emissary of Alexander’s General, Seleucus Necator, lived in Pataliputra (ancient name of Patna, the Mauryan capital) around 302 B.C. He left behind a chronicle of life in and around Patliputra. This is the first recorded account by a foreign traveller in India. It vividly describes the grandeur of life in Patliputra, a city established by King Ajatshatru, around 5th Century B.C., at the confluence of the rivers Sone and Ganga.

Another Mauryan king, Ashok (also known as Priyadarshi or Priyadassi), around 270 B.C., was the first to formulate firm tenets for the governance of a people. He had these tenets, the so-called Edicts of Ashok, inscribed on stone pillars that were planted across his kingdom. The pillar was crowned with the statue of one or more lions sitting on top of a pedestal inscribed with symbols of wheels. As the lion denoted strength, the wheel denoted the eternal (endless) nature of truth (dharma), hence the name Dharma (or Dhamma) Chakra. This figure of lions, atop a pedestal, with the inscription of a wheel, was adopted as the Official Seal of the independent Republic of India (1947). Also, Ashok’s dharma chakra was incorporated into the national flag of India, the Indian tricolour. Remains of a few of these pillars are still extant, for example, at Lauriya-Nandan Garh in the district of West Champaran and at Vaishali, in the present district of the same name. Ashok, a contemporary of Ptolemy and Euclid, was a great conqueror. His empire extended from what is now the northwest Frontier Province (in Pakistan) in the west to the eastern boundaries of present India in the north, and indeed, up to the Vindhyan Range in the south. Ashok was also responsible for the widespread proselytization of people into Buddhism. He sent his son, Prince Mahendra, and daughter, Sanghamitra, for this purpose to as far south as the present country of Sri Lanka (Sinhal Dweep in ancient times, and Ceylon during the British Empire. Some historians, particularly Sinhalese, consider Mahindra and Sanghmitra as brother and sister.

Ancient Bihar also saw the glorification of women in matters of state affairs. It was here that Amrapali, a courtesan of Vaishali (the present district of the same name) in the kingdom of the Lichhavis, attained and wielded enormous power. It is said that the Lord Buddha, during his visit to Vaishali, refused the invitation of many princes and chose to have dinner with Amrapali instead. Such was the status of women in the Bihari society of several centuries B.C.!

A little-known but historically and archaeologically documented event is worth mentioning in this context. After his visit with Amrapali, Lord Buddha continued with his journey towards Kushinagar (also called Kusinara in Buddhist texts.) He travelled along the eastern banks of the river Gandak (also called Narayani, which marks the western border of Champaran, a district now administratively split into two- West and East Champaran.) A band of his devoted Licchavis accompanied Lord Buddha in this journey. Lord Buddha took rest for the night at a spot known as Kesariya, in 

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