Bihar, the ancient land of Buddha, has witnessed 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 is the soil that has given birth to innumerous intellectuals which spread the light of knowledge and wisdom not only in the country but in the whole world. The state has its capital at Patna, which is 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 land mass currently known as Bihar is very ancient. In fact, it extends to the very dawn of human civilization. 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, located 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. It is no accident, therefore, that the original author of the Hindu epic – The Ramayana – Maharishi Valmiki – lived in Ancient Bihar. Valmikinagar 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.
It was here that 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 here also 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, that is became a Guru. A lovely and majestic Gurudwara (a temple for Sikhs) built to commemorate his memory – the harmandir- 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 progenitor of the modern art of statecraft, and of 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 traveled 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 traveler in India. It describes in vivid terms 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 which were planted across his kingdom. The pillar were crowned with the statue of one or more lions sitting on top of a pedestal which was 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 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 tricolor. 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 North West Frontier Province (in Pakistan) in the west, to the eastern boundaries of present India in the north, and certainly, up to the Vindhyan Range in the south. Ashok was responsible also 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. At a spot known as Kesariya, in the present Purbi (meaning, East) Champaran district, Lord Buddha took rest for the night. It was here that he chose to announce to his disciples the news of his impending niravana (meaning, death); and implored them to return to Vaishali. The wildly lamenting Licchavis would have none of that. They steadfastly refused to leave. Whereupon, Lord Buddha, by creating a 3,000 feet wide stream between them and himself compelled them to leave. As a souvenir he gave them his alms-bowl. The Licchavis, most reluctantly and expressing their sorrow wildly, took leave and built a stupa there to commemorate the event. Lord Buddha had chosen that spot to announce his impending nirvana because, as he told his disciple Anand, he knew that in a previous life he had ruled from that place, namely, Kesariya, as a Chakravarti Raja, Raja Ben. (Again, this is not just a mere legend, myth or folk-lore. Rather, it is a historiclly documented fact supported by archaeological findings. However, neither this part of Buddha’s life, nor the little town of Kesariya, is well-known even in India or Bihar.
At Nalanda, the world’s first seat of higher learning, an university, was established during the Gupta period. It continued as a seat of learning till the middle ages, when the muslim invaders burned it down. The ruins are a protected monument and a popular tourist spot. A museum and a learning center- The Nava Nalanda Mahavira – are located here.
Nearby, Rajgir, was capital of the Muaryan Empire during the reign of Bimbisara. It was frequently visited by Lord Buddha and Lord Mahavira. There are many Buddhist ruins here. It is also well-known for its many hot-springs which, like similar hot-springs elsewhere in the world, are reputed to have medicinal property.
This glorious history of Bihar lasted till around the middle of the 7th or 8th century A.D. – the Gupta Period – when, with the conquest of almost all of northern India by invaders from the middle-east, the Gupta dynasty also fell a victim.
In medieval times Bihar lost its prestige as the political and cultural center of India. The Mughal period was a period of unremarkable provincial administration from Delhi. The only remarkable person of these times in Bihar was Sher Shah, or Sher Khan Sur, an Afghan. Based at Sasaram which is now a town in the district of the same name in central-western Bihar, this jagirdar of the Mughal King Babur was successful in defeating Humayun, the son of Babur, twice – once at Chausa and then, again, at Kannauj (in the present state of Uttar Pradesh or U.P.) Through his conquest Sher Shah became the ruler of a territory that, again, extended all the way to the Punjab. He was noted as a ferocious warrior but also a noble administrator – in the tradition of Ashok and the Gupta kings. Several acts of land reform are attributed to him. The remains of a grand mausoleum that he built for himself can be seen in today’s Sasaram (Sher Shah’s maqbara.)
During most of British India, Bihar was a part of the Presidency of Bengal, and was governed from Calcutta. As such, this was a territory very much dominated by the people of Bengal. All leading educational and medical centers were in Bengal. In spite of the unfair advantage that Bengalis possessed, some sons of Bihar rose to positions of prominence, by dint of their intelligence and hard labor. One such was Rajendra Prasad, native of Ziradei, in the district of Saran. He became the first President of the Republic of India.
When separated from the Bengal Presidency in 1912, Bihar and Orissa comprised a single province. Later, under the Government of India Act of 1935, the Division of Orissa became a separate province; and the Province of Bihar came into being as an administrative unit of British India. At Independence in 1947, the State of Bihar, with the same geographic boundary, formed a part of the Republic of India, until 1956. At that time, an area in the south-east, predominantly the district of Purulia, was separated and incorporated into West Bengal as part of the Linguistic Reorganization of Indian States.
Resurgence in the history of Bihar came during the struggle for India’s independence. It was from Bihar that Mahatma Gandhi launched his civil-disobedience movement, which ultimately led to India’s independence. At the persistent request of a farmer, Raj Kumar Shukla, from the district of Champaran, in 1917 Gandhiji took a train ride to Motihari, the district headquarters of Champaran. Here he learned, first hand, the sad plight of the indigo farmers suffering under the oppressive rule of the British. Alarmed at the tumultuous reception Gandhiji received in Champaran, the British authorities served notice on him to leave the Province of Bihar. Gandhiji refused to comply, saying that as an Indian he was free to travel anywhere in his own country. For this act of defiance he was detained in the district jail at Motihari. From his jail cell, with the help of his friend from South Africa days, C. F. Andrews, Gandhiji managed to send letters to journalists and the Viceroy of India describing what he saw in Champaran, and made formal demands for the emancipation of these people. When produced in court, the Magistrate ordered him released, but on payment of bail. Gandhiji refused to pay the bail. Instead, he indicated his preference to remain in jail under arrest. Alarmed at the huge response Gandhiji was receiving from the people of Champaran, and intimidated by the knowledge that Gandhiji had already managed to inform the Viceroy of the mistreatment of the farmers by the British plantation owners, the magistrate set him free, without payment of any bail. This was the first instance of the success of civil-disobedience as a tool to win freedom. The British received, their first “object lesson” of the power of civil-disobedience. It also made the British authorities recognize, for the first time, Gandhiji as a national leader of some consequence. What Raj Kumar Shukla had started, and the massive response people of Champaran gave to Gandhiji, catapulted his reputation throughout India. Thus, in 1917, began a series of events in a remote corner of Bihar, that ultimately led to the freedom of India in 1947.
Sir Richard Attenborough’s award winning film, “Gandhi”, authentically, and at some length, depicts the above episode. (Raj Kumar Shukla is not mentioned by his name in the film, however.) The two images here are from that film. The bearded gentleman, just behind Gandhiji, in the picture on the left, and on the elephant at right, is Raj Kumar Shukla.
Gandhiji, in his usual joking way, had commented that in Champaran he “found elephants just as common as bullock carts in (his native) Gujarat”!!
It was natural, therefore, that many people from Bihar became leading participants in India’s struggle for independence. Dr. Rajendra Prasad has been mentioned above. Another was Jay Prakash Narayan, affectionately called JP. JP’s substantial contribution to modern Indian history continued up until his death in 1979. It was he who steadfastly and staunchly opposed the autocratic rule of Indira Gandhi and her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi. Fearing people’s reaction to his opposition, Indira Gandhi had him arrested on the eve of declaring National Emergency beginning June 26, 1975. He was put in the Tihar Jail, located near Delhi, where notorious criminals are jailed. Thus, in Free India, this septuagenarian, who had fought for India’s freedom alongside Indira Gandhi’s father, Jawahar Lal Nehru, received a treatment that was worse than what the British had meted out to Gandhiji in Champaran in 1917, for his speaking out against oppression. The movement started by JP, however, brought the Emergency to an end, led to the massive defeat of Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party at the polls, and, to the installation of a non-Congress government -The Janata Party – at Delhi, for the first time. With the blessings of JP, Morarji Desai became the fourth Prime Minister of India. JP remained the Conscience of the Janata Party and of post-Gandhi – post-Nehru India. He gave a call to all Indians to work ceaselessly towards eliminating “dictatorship in favour of democracy” and bringing about “freedom from slavery”. Sadly, soon after attaining power, bickering began among the leaders of the Janata Party which led to the resignation of Shri Desai as the Prime Minister. JP continued with his call for “total revolution” (sampporna kranti), but he succumbed to kidney failure at a hospital in Bombay in 1979.
Subsequent bickering in the Janata Party led to the formation of a breakaway political party – the Janata Dal. This political party is a constituent unit of the current ruling coalition at Delhi, the so called, United Front. It was also from this party that Laloo Prasad Yadav, the Chief Minister of Bihar was elected. The bickering continued. A new party led by Mr. Yadav was formed as – the Rashtriya Janata Dal – which went on to rule for almost 15 years in Bihar.
This was also a period when Hindi literature came to flourish in the state. Raja Radhika Raman Singh, Shiva Pujan Sahay, Divakar Prasad Vidyarthy, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Ram Briksha Benipuri, are some of the luminaries who contributed to the flowering of Hindi literature, which did not have much of a long history. The Hindi language, certainly its literature, began around mid to late nineteenth century. It is marked by the appearance of Bhartendu Babu Harischandra’s ( a resident of Varanasi in U.P.) drama “Harischandra”. Devaki Nandan Khatri began writing his mystery novels in Hindi during this time (Chandrakanta, Chandrakanta Santati, Kajar ki Kothari, Bhootnath, etc.) He was born at Muzaffarpur in Bihar and had his earlier education there. He then moved to Tekari Estate in Gaya in Bihar. He later became an employee of the Raja of Benares (now Varanasi.) He started a printing press called “Lahari” which began the publication of a Hindi monthly, “Sudarshan”, in 1898. One of the first short stories in Hindi, if not the very first, was “Indumati” (Pundit Kishorilal Goswami, author) which was published in 1900. The collection of short stories “Rajani aur Taare” (Anupam Prakashan, Patna, publishers) contains an extended history of the origin and evolution of the short story as a distinct literary form in the Hindi literature.
For its geographical location, natural beauty, mythological and historical importance, Bihar feels proud of the assets it has been gifted by time. And for its moral contributions in the fields of arts-literature and religion and spiritualism, it knows no competitors centuries old stories related to this land are told even today. The state is the same kingdom, which once upon a time ruled the country as well as the neighbouring countries . Many great rulers have lived here and it fills us with a sense of pride when we think of Bihar as the ‘Karmabhumi’ of Buddha and Mahavir. Bihar, to liven up the glorious tale of which land, words fall short.