Mahajanapadas is the word derived from Sanskrit that has a meaning of “Great Kingdoms” (Maha means “great” and janapadas means “foothold of a tribe”). Prior to the rise of Buddhism in India, 16 great powers and republics thrived in the north-western/northern parts of India. One of the main reasons of the declination of one of the most popular Indus Valley civilization was the invasion of Aryans from the Central Asia to India. Aryans introduced their cultures and civilization to the Harappa people.
The formation of a new political structure
The Indus people began to follow the same culture as was introduced by Aryans. But there were always some clashes between Aryans and non Aryans about their lands, foods, cattle, etc. But later on the merger of the two took place. Many janapadas, i.e. non Aryans tribes, were emerged as great kingdoms in the era of Buddhism. Political structure in ancient India came into existence with the semi migrating tribal community called Jana (means subject). It is mentioned in many early Vedas that these Janas (or the Aryans tribes) fought against other non-aryan tribes and also among themselves for their lands, cows and sheep.
These Janas of early Vedic period later on merged with Epic Age Janapadas (literally means tribe’s foothold or a country). Janapada were actually derived from Jana. Jana tribes started to settle permanently by taking lands. This land-taking process by the Jana tribes was for the purpose of permanent settlement. Before the time of Panini and Buddha, early stages of settlement reached to its last stage. North-west region of India was divided into different Janapadas during the pre-Buddhist era. These janapadas were separated with the boundaries between them. These Janapadas people were actually derived from Jana’s people and hence named after the Jana tribes who had their permanent settlement in the later stage.
Around ca. 600 BCE, Janapadas had gone through evolution leading to politically larger bodies by the land-grabbing process. This eventually gave birth to numerous kingdoms. As Sanskrit was the common language then, the word “Mahajanapadas” was coined for the formation of these great nations in Buddhist tradition.
Different texts and the different list
The writings from era of Buddha and other Veda texts mentioned the 16 numbers of great kingdoms that were present before. As per Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddhist scholar, the list of 16 Mahajanapadas includes Kamboja, Gandhara, Avanti, Assaka, Surasena, Machcha (Matsya), Panchala, Kuru, Vatsa (Vamsa), Chedi, Malla, Vajji (Vriji), Magadha, Anga, Kosala and Kasi.
Another ancient Buddhist text omits the first four from the above lists and mentions only the first twelve.
Another ancient Buddhist text, Chulla-Niddesa, replaces Yona for Gandhara and also added Kalinga to 16 Mahajanapadas. This text thus states that Uttarpatha regions include only the Yona and the Kamboja as Mahajanapadas.
However Jaina Bhagvati Sutra lists marginally different Mahajanapadas. This list includes Sambhuttara, Avaha, Kosala, Kasi, Moli, Vajji, Ladha, Padha, Kachcha, Vaccha, Accha, Malavaka, Malaya, Magadha, Banga and Anga. Since the list mentioned in the Jaina Bhagvati Sutra doesn’t contain the countries from Uttarapatha like the Gandhara and the Kamboja, this clearly indicates that its author has concentrated on the nations of far south and east and of Madhydesa only. Since the list of 16 nations entered by different Vedic texts include the names of the people, not the countries, this clearly indicates that idea in the minds of people who drew up the Janapada lists was more tribal than geographical.
Kasi were basically the Aryans who got inhibited in the Varanasi (modern-day Banaras). Then Varanasi was surrounded by Asi and Varuna rivers. Before the rise of Buddhism, Kasi had been the most influential kingdom of the above sixteen Mahajanapadas. There are several Jatakas who bear the witness to its superiority in India. The Jatakas tell about the regular conflicts and wars between Kasi and other kingdoms like Anga, Kosala and Magadha. Brihadratha, the Kasi king had captured Kosala. But later on, during Buddha’s time, King Kansa incorporated Kasi into Kosala. The Kasis, Videhans and Kosalas all have been mentioned in texts from Vedic period. Matsya Purana reads Kausika in stead of Kasi and Alberuni reads as Kaushaka. All other texts in ancient writing, except these two, read as Kasi only.