By – Usha K Kent

It is a mistake of history that ahimsa, deeply rooted in Vedic traditions, is attributed and associated with Jainism, Buddhism and Ajivikas, whose beginning go back more than 2500 years. These offshoot faiths of Hinduism emerged in an India riven by intense political rivalry between small kingdoms and tribes each of whom wanted control over the fertile Gangetic plains and more. The most ambitious power-center was the kingdom of Magadha, which became the starting point for the expansion and establishment of the first historically dated empire of the sub-continent under the Mauryas.

The Mauryas were the first rulers to seek spiritual solace in the new breakaway faiths. It started with the blood-lusty, ambitious, cunning and eventually pacified Ajatashatru, who encountered the Buddha while pursuing his love, the courtesan Amrapali. It is interesting to note that both Jain and Buddhist texts claim Ajatashatru as the follower of their faith, and speak gloriously of him. Ajatashatru was a contemporary of both Mahavira and Gautama Buddha. Our story is based on Buddhist texts and is a fictionalised version of the encounter between Ajatashatru and Amrapali!

Vaishali Refuses to Give In

Ajatashatru (ruled 492 – 460 BCE) was the son of King Bimbisara. He took over the kingdom of Magadha from his father forcefully, by imprisoning him. Ajatashatru followed policies of conquest and expansion and soon made Magadha the most powerful kingdom in Northern India. To the north of his kingdom lay the tribal confederacy of the Lichhavis of Vaishali. The Lichhavis refused to recognize the suzerainty of Magadha, despite the several wars Ajatashatru waged against them, every one of which was repulsed.

Wily and Wilful

After failing many times, the determined king decided to seek out the reasons and secret for the tenacity of the Lichhavis. He entered the battle zone disguised as a Lichhavi soldier to spy on their military and society. Unfortunately, his disguise was so good, one of his own soldiers mistook him for the enemy and shot him. Ajatashatru fell unconscious, and was evacuated to Vaishali by the Lichhavi troops along with their own wounded soldiers.

Love Blossoms at Vaishali

At Vaishali, not knowing the family background of Ajatashatru, he was boarded at the home of its most famous courtesan, Amrapali.  After regaining full consciousness, Ajatashatru went about spying in Vaishali to understand its weaponry and the secrets of their usage. Alongside, he also fell in love with his loving, beautiful, and talented hostess, Amrapali. He however hesitated to reveal his real identity, since Amrapali openly expressed hatred towards Magadha and its ruler Ajatashatru!

The Bloody Carnage of Vaishali

After obtaining all the information he needed, Ajatashatru decided to return to Magadha to regroup his army and plan another attack on Vaishali. One night, he escaped, not disclosing his departure to Amrapali. As soon as Ajatashatru reached Maqadha he gave orders for the invasion of Vaishali. This time the Magadhan army came prepared and knew the techniques to overcome the secret weapons of the Lichhavis. The ensuing battle was bloody and after an appalling carnage of the Lichhavi troops, the Magadhans captured Vaishali.

Amrapali Surrenders to the Buddha

On coming to know about the terrible truth about Ajatashatru, his betrayal of their relationship, and the carnage he wrecked upon Vaishali, Amrapali became filled with remorse. She had no desire to live and wandered aimlessly out of the devastations of Vaishali. Lost in a whirlwind of conflicting emotions, she wandered deep into the forest outside the city when she heard words preaching kindness, love, compassion. Amrapali had encountered the Buddha. Hurt and heartbroken Amrapali found solace in Buddha’s words; she went closer to the Master and fell at his feet and begged him to allow her to join the order.

Ajatashatru in Hot Pursuit

Ajatashatru’s troops who had fanned out of Vaishali in search of her, found Amrapali at the Buddha’s congregation and reported it to Ajatashatru. On hearing this, he rushed to the place where Buddha was preaching. When he witnessed how remorseful Amrapali had become and had found solace in Buddha, Ajatashatru became inclined to listen to the Buddha too. The simple words of Buddha, of love and compassion and the plight of his beloved Amrapali – all penetrated Ajatashatru’s royal pride that had become bloated by his recent victory. In a moment of reversion from all that he had advocated and practiced till then, he broke his scimitar (a type of sword) and accepted the Buddha as his Master.