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 Mahājanapadas and had its capital at Rājagaha or Giribbaja where Bimbisāra, and after him Ajātasattu, reigned. Later, Pātaliputta became the capital. By the time of Bimbisāra, 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 Bimbisāra sends for Sona Kolivisa, a prominent citizen of Campā, 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 Jātakas - 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).
Ajātasattu 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 Bimbisāra and Ajātasattu, 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 Bimbisāra 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 Campā (Campā flowed between Anga and Magadha; J.iv.454), on the south by the Vindhyā 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 Māgadhas and the Licchavis evidently had equal rights over the river. When the Buddha visited Vesāli, Bimbisāra made a road five leagues long, from Rājagaha 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 Sāvatthi to Rājagaha could cross the Ganges in boats kept either by Ajātasattu or by the Licchavis of Vesāli.
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, Bimbisāra and Pasenadi marrying each other's sisters. Mention is made of an alliance between Pukkusāti, king of Gandhāra and Bimbisāra. When Candappajjota of Ujjeni was suffering from jaundice, Bimbisāra sent him his own personal physician, Jīvaka.
In Magadha was the real birth of Buddhism (see, e.g., the words put in the mouth of Sahampatī in Vin.i.5, pātur ahosi Magadhesu pubbe dhammo, etc.), and it was from Magadha that it spread after the Third Council. The Buddha's chief disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna, came from Magadha.
In Asoka's time the income from the four gates of his capital of Pātaliputta was four hundred thousand kahāpanas daily, and in the Sabhā, or Council, he would daily receive another hundred thousand kahāpanas (Sp.i.52). The cornfields of Magadha were rich and fertile (Thag.vs.208), and each Magadha field was about one gāvuta in extent. Thus AA.ii.616 explains the extent of Kakudha's body, which filled two or three Māgadha village fields (A.iii.122).
The names of several places in Magadha occur in the books - e.g., Ekanālā, Nālakagāma, Senānigāma, Khānumata, Andhakavindha, Macala, Mātulā, Ambalatthikā, Pātaligāma, Nālandā and Sālindiya.
Buddhaghosa says (SNA.i.135 f ) that there are many fanciful explanations (bahudhā papañcanti) 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 - "Mā gadham pavisa;” another that those who were digging in the earth saw the king, and that he said to them: " Mā 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 Magadhā.
The Magadhabhāsā is regarded as the speech of the āriyans (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 Māha Brahmā 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, Brāhmana and Sūtra 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 nāla was a standard of measure. (E.g., AA.i.101).
Magadha is identified with the modern South Behar.
See also Magadhakhetta.