Ajātasattu is the son of Bimbisāra and father of Udāyibhadda. So far so good!
He is also called Vedehiputta. This name is confirmed not only in the Pali but in inscription and other languages as well.
Now, this would seem to mean “son of the Queen of Videha”, as per Bodhi in his translation of DN 2. Videha is the nation of which Mithilā is the capital, and hence was a central location of the “Kosalan brahmanism”, being the location where, a few generations earlier, King Janaka had debated Vajnavalkya.
But Ajātasattu is also said to be the son of the Queen (or “princess”, kosaladevī) of Kosala, who in turn was the daughter of Mahākosala and sister to Pasenadi. Now, Mahākosala was the king who put Kosala on the map by subjugating rival territories, including, it would seem, the Buddha’s own nation of Sakya.
One reading of this is that his daughter was given the title “Princess of Videha” in the same way as today we might have “Prince of Wales”, to honor the newly conquered territory. The problem with this is that, at the time, Videha was allied with the Licchavīs to form the fiercely independent Vajjian confederacy. They were later conquered by Magadha, but I don’t think they were ever part of Kosala.
The other possibility is that the history linking his mother with Mahākosala’s daughter is false. According to Wikipedia—and I have not been able to chase down the sources—Bimbisara had three wives, each securing a critical alliance.
- Kosaladevī, the “princess of Kosala” and Pasenadi’s sister.
- Cellaṇā, daughter of Chetaka, a Licchavī king from Vesali.
- Khemā, daughter of a Madra king from the Punjab.
Cellaṇā was Ajātasattu’s mother according to (admittedly partisan) Jain sources. This aligns better with the epithet Vedehiputta, although technically both the Videhans and Licchavis were part of Vajji. It does make sense, because we know that a few years after the King’s accession and the events of DN 2, he set his sights on conquering Vajji. If he had a serious claim to royal status there it would provide a justification.
The commentarial solution to this is to deny that the word here has any real connection with Videha, but rather is a word meaning “wise”, connected with veda. Thus he would be Ajātasattu, son of the wise woman. But this seems forced. To support this, they note that Ānanda is referred to by the nuns Thullatissā and Thullanandā (SN 16.10, SN 16.11) as vedehamuni, which they explain as “wise sage”.
ānando pi icchati pravrajituṁ mātāye mṛgīye śākyakanyāye nānujānīyati || so vaidehaṁ janapadaṁ gatvāna maunavratena āsati
Ānanda also wished to go forth, but his mother Mṛgīya the Sakyan maiden did not allow it. So he went to the country of Videha and undertook a vow of sagacity (silence?).
Elsewhere Mavahavstu 72 confirms the epithet vaidehakamuni.
The Mulasarvastivadins seem to suggest yet another reading. There was evidently a mountain of Rajagaha called Vaidehaka. One time, it would seem, the Buddha asked Ananda to hold on to his robe, whereupon he vanished and reappeared on that mountain. He showed Ananda the farmers of Magadha working the fields, and asked that he pattern the robes after them. In the Pali this is told more simply, as they were wandering in the Southern Hills at the time.
The text does not associate this event with the epithet “sage of Videha”, but it is significant in that the lineage of the robe plays a large part in the authority of Mahakassapa. Famously, the Buddha swapped his robes with Mahakassapa, being the only time this happened. This is one of the claims Mahakassapa makes in SN 16.11 to assert his authority over Ananda. Perhaps it is significant that this event took place after one of the very rare visits to the Southern Hills. Thus it could be understood that there are two competing claims to authority based on the lineage of the robes.
Another point that seems significant is that the epithet vedehamuni is only used when contrasted with Mahakassapa:
ayyo mahākassapo aññatitthiyapubbo samāno ayyaṁ ānandaṁ vedehamuniṁ
Master Mahākassapa, who formerly followed another path, Master Ānanda the Videhan sage
Mahakassapa rebukes the nun and denies that he had ever followed another path, so the nun was confused (perhaps mixing him up with Sariputta and Moggallana who had indeed followed another teacher). But the context very much makes it about who is the real follower of the Buddha. So whatever vedehamuni means, it must have something to do with Ananda’s supposed authenticity as the genuine heir of the Buddha.
This would be satisfied by both the Mahasanghika’s explanation (he missed the Buddha so much even as a youth that he undertook a vow of silence), as well as the Mulasarvastivadin (he was the one entrusted by the Buddha with designing the robe, the emblem of the Sangha). But if so, why would this tradition only be remembered by two (bad) nuns? Unless maybe they too came from Videha and remembered his time there? But I can’t find anything on their place of origin.
I’m wondering whether the memory of Mithilā as the center of the great brahmanical debates influenced the idea that being “of Videha” was a sign of wisdom?
As a result of this confusion, translators vary in their renderings for Vedehiputta. Bodhi in DN 2 has “son of the Queen of Videha”, but later, in AN, he used the Pali, as have I. @Brahmali has “Ajātasattu of Videha”, for which I’d be interested to hear the reasoning.
Given the evident meaning of vedehiputta, and the support of the Jain sources, I’m inclined to translate it as “son of the Videhan princess”.
Now, if the commentary is correct, it creates a rather, umm, tight-knit family tree for Ajātasattu. His mother was Pasenadi’s sister. His wife was Vajirā, Pasenadi’s daughter, and hence his own first cousin. Obviously it was not uncommon in royal families, but still.