One of the four chief kingdoms of India at the time of the Buddha, the others being Kosala, the kingdom of the Vamsas and Avanti. Magadha formed one of the sixteen Mahájanapadas and had its capital at Rájagaha or Giribbaja where Bimbisára, and after him Ajátasattu, reigned. Later, Pátaliputta became the capital. By the time of Bimbisára, Anga, too, formed a part of Magadha, and he was known as king of Anga Magadha (see, e.g., Vin.i.27 and ThagA.i.544, where Bimbisára sends for Sona Kolivisa, a prominent citizen of Campá, capital of Anga). But prior to that, these were two separate kingdoms, often at war with each other (e.g., J.iv.454f). Several kings of Magadha are mentioned by name in the Játakas - e.g., Arindama and Duyyodhana. In one story (J.vi.272) the Magadha kingdom is said to have been under the suzerainty of Anga. In the Buddha's day, Magadha (inclusive of Anga) consisted of eighty thousand villages (Vin.i.179) and had a circumference of some three hundred leagues (DA.i.148).
Ajátasattu succeeded in annexing Kosala with the help of the Licchavis, and he succeeded also in bringing the confederation of the latter under his sway; preliminaries to this struggle are mentioned in the books (e.g., D.ii.73f., 86).
Under Bimbisára and Ajátasattu, Magadha rose to such political eminence that for several centuries, right down to the time of Asoka, the history of Northern India was practically the history of Magadha. (A list of the kings from Bimbisára to Asoka is found in Dvy.369 ; cp. DA.i.153; Mbv.96, 98).
At the time of the Buddha, the kingdom of Magadha was bounded on the east by the river Campá (Campá flowed between Anga and Magadha; J.iv.454), on the south by the Vindhyá Mountains, on the west by the river Sona, and on the north by the Ganges. The latter river formed the boundary between Magadha and the republican country of the Licchavis, and both the Mágadhas and the Licchavis evidently had equal rights over the river. When the Buddha visited Vesáli, Bimbisára made a road five leagues long, from Rájagaha to the river, and decorated it, and the Licchavis did the same on the other side. DhA.iii.439 f.; the Dvy. (1p.55) says that monks going from Sávatthi to Rájagaha could cross the Ganges in boats kept either by Ajátasattu or by the Licchavis of Vesáli.
During the early Buddhist period Magadha was an important political and commercial centre, and was visited by people from all parts of Northern India in search of commerce and of learning. The kings of Magadha maintained friendly relations with their neighbours, Bimbisára and Pasenadi marrying each other's sisters. Mention is made of an alliance between Pukkusáti, king of Gandhára and Bimbisára. When Candappajjota of Ujjeni was suffering from jaundice, Bimbisára sent him his own personal physician, Jívaka.
In Magadha was the real birth of Buddhism (see, e.g., the words put in the mouth of Sahampatí in Vin.i.5, pátur ahosi Magadhesu pubbe dhammo, etc.), and it was from Magadha that it spread after the Third Council. The Buddha's chief disciples, Sáriputta and Moggallána, came from Magadha. In Asoka's time the income from the four gates of his capital of Pátaliputta was four hundred thousand kahápanas daily, and in the Sabhá, or Council, he would daily receive another hundred thousand kahápanas (Sp.i.52). The cornfields of Magadha were rich and fertile (Thag.vs.208), and each Magadha field was about one gávuta in extent. Thus AA.ii.616 explains the extent of Kakudha's body, which filled two or three Mágadha village fields (A.iii.122).
The names of several places in Magadha occur in the books - e.g., Ekanálá, NáIakagáma, Senánigáma, Khánumata, Andhakavindha, Macala, Mátulá, Ambalatthiká, Pátaligáma, NáIandá and SáIindiya.
Buddhaghosa says (SNA.i.135 f ) that there are many fanciful explanations (bahudhá papańcanti) of the word Magadha. One such is that king Cetiya, when about to be swallowed up by the earth for having introduced lying into the world, was thus admonished by those standing round - "Má gadham pavisa;” another that those who were digging in the earth saw the king, and that he said to them: " Má gadham karotha." The real explanation, accepted by Buddhaghosa himself, seems to have been that the country was the residence of a tribe of khattiyas called Magadhá.
The Magadhabhásá is regarded as the speech of the Áriyans (e.g., Sp.i.255). If children grow up without being taught any language, they will spontaneously use the Magadha language; it is spread all over Niraya, among lower animals, petas, humans and devas (VibhA.387f).
The people of Anga and Magadha were in the habit of holding a great annual sacrifice to Máha Brahmá in which a fire was kindled with sixty cartloads of firewood. They held the view that anything cast into the sacrificial fire would bring a thousand fold reward. SA.i.269; but it is curious that in Vedic, Bráhmana and Sútra periods, Magadha was considered as outside the pale of Ariyan and Brahmanical culture, and was therefore looked down upon by Brahmanical writers. But it was the holy land of the Buddhists. See VT.ii.207; Thomas: op. cit., 13, 96.
Magadha was famous for a special kind of garlic (Sp.iv.920) and the Magadha nála was a standard of measure. (E.g., AA.i.101).
Magadha is identified with the modern South Behar. See also Magadhakhetta.