The age of the imperial Guptas in northern India (A.D. 320 to 647) is regarded as the classical age of Hindu civilization. Sanskrit literature was of a high standard; extensive knowledge in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine was gained; and artistic expression flowered. Society became more settled and more hierarchical, and rigid social codes emerged that separated castes and occupations. The Guptas maintained loose control over the upper Indus Valley.
Gupta rulers patronised the Hindu religious tradition and orthodox Hinduism reasserted itself in this era. However, this period also saw the peaceful coexistence of Brahmins and Buddhists and visits by Chinese travellers like Faxian (Fa Hien). The exquisite Ajanta and Ellora caves were created in this period.
The Imperial Gupta era comprised the reigns of a number of able, versatile and mighty monarchs, who brought about the consolidation of a large part of Northern India under “one political umbrella,” and ushered in an era of orderly government and progress. Both inland and foreign trade flourished under their vigorous rule, and the wealth of the country multiplied. It was, therefore, natural that this internal security and material prosperity should find expression in the development and promotion of religion, literature, art, and science. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
The origins of Gupta is not clearly known, It emergence as a major empire occurred when Chandragupta I (Chandra Gupta I) married into royalty in the A.D. 4th century. Based in the Ganges Valley, he established a capital at Pataliputra and united north India in A.D. 320. His son Samaudrahupta extended the influence of the empire southward. Hindu religion and Brahmin power revived under peaceful and prosperous reign.
The period of Gupta rule between 300 and 600 A.D. has been called the Golden Age of India for its advances in science and emphasis on classical Indian art and literature. According to PBS: “Sanskrit became the official court language, and the dramatist and poet Kalidasa wrote celebrated Sanskrit plays and poems under the presumed patronage of Chandragupta II. The Kama Sutra, a treatise on romantic love, is also dated to the Gupta era. In 499 CE, the mathematician Aryabhata published his landmark treatise on Indian astronomy and mathematics, Aryabhatiya, which described the earth as a sphere moving around the sun.
The Gupta emperors conquered and unified a large portion of northern India and, like the Mughals, created a powerful central state surrounded by kingdoms loyal to it. The Gupta Empire was marked by the return of Brahmanism (Hinduism) as the state religion. It also regarded as the classical period or golden age of Hindu art, literature and science. The Gupta established a strong central government which also allowed a degree of local control. Gupta society was ordered in accordance with Hindu beliefs. This included a strict caste system. Peace and prosperity created under Gupta leadership enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors. [Source: Regents Prep]
The empire lasted for more than two centuries. It covered a large part of the Indian subcontinent, but its administration was more decentralised than that of the Mauryas. Alternately waging war and entering into matrimonial alliances with the smaller kingdoms in its neighbourhood, the empire's boundaries kept fluctuating with each ruler. While the Guptas ruled the north in this, the classical period of Indian history, the Pallava kings of Kanchi held sway in the south, and the Chalukyas controlled the Deccan.
The Gupta dynasty reached its peak during the reign of Chandragupta II (A.D. 375 to 415). His empire occupied much of what is now northern India. Following a series of victories against the Scythians (A.D. 388-409) he expanded the Gupta empire into western India and what is now the Sind area of Pakistan.Though the last strong Gupta king, Skanadagupta, held off invasions by the Huns in the 5th century, subsequent invasion weakened the dynasty. An invasion by the White Huns destroyed the much civilization around 550 and the empire finally collapsed completely in 647. Inability to exert control over a large area had as much to do with the collapse as the invasions.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote in The National Interest: “The Gupta Empire (320-550 C.E.) was a great empire but also had a mixed record. Like the previous Maurya Empire, it was based in the Magadha region and conquered much of South Asia, though unlike that empire, its territory was limited only to what is today North India. It was under Gupta rule that India enjoyed the height of its classical civilization, its golden age, when much of its famous literature and science was produced. Yet, it was also under the Guptas that caste became rigid while the decentralization of power to local rulers continued. After a period of initial expansion, the empire stabilized and did a good job of keeping out invaders (like the Huns) for two centuries. Indian civilization expanded into much of Bengal during this time, which was previously a lightly inhabited swampy area. The main achievements of the Guptas during this era of peace were artistic and intellectual. During this period, zero was first used and chess invented, and many other astronomical and mathematical theories were first elucidated. The Gupta Empire collapsed due to continuous invasion and fragmentation from local rulers. Power at this point increasingly shifted to regional rulers outside of the Ganges valley. [Source: Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The National Interest, May 8, 2015]
The invasions of the White Huns signalled the end of this era of history, although at first, they were defeated by the Guptas. After the decline of the Gupta empire, north India broke into a number of separate Hindu kingdoms and was not really unified again until the coming of the Muslims.
The world population was around 170 million at the of the birth of Jesus. In A.D. 100 it had risen to around 180 million. In 190 it rose to 190 million. At the beginning of the 4th century the world population was around 375 million with four fifths of the world's population living under the Roman, Chinese Han and Indian Gupta empires.
Book: Hinds, Kathryn, India’s Gupta Dynasty. New York: Benchmark Books, 1996.
Deccan and Southern India
During the Kushana Dynasty, an indigenous power, the Satavahana Kingdom (first century B.C.-third century A.D.), rose in the Deccan in southern India. The Satavahana, or Andhra, Kingdom was considerably influenced by the Mauryan political model, although power was decentralized in the hands of local chieftains, who used the symbols of Vedic religion and upheld the varnashramadharma . The rulers, however, were eclectic and patronized Buddhist monuments, such as those in Ellora (Maharashtra) and Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh). Thus, the Deccan served as a bridge through which politics, trade, and religious ideas could spread from the north to the south. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Farther south were three ancient Tamil kingdoms — Chera (on the west), Chola (on the east), and Pandya (in the south) — frequently involved in internecine warfare to gain regional supremacy. They are mentioned in Greek and Ashokan sources as lying at the fringes of the Mauryan Empire. A corpus of ancient Tamil literature, known as Sangam (academy) works, including Tolkappiam, a manual of Tamil grammar by Tolkappiyar, provides much useful information about their social life from 300 B.C. to A.D. 200. There is clear evidence of encroachment by Aryan traditions from the north into a predominantly indigenous Dravidian culture in transition. *
Dravidian social order was based on different ecoregions rather than on the Aryan varna paradigm, although the Brahmans had a high status at a very early stage. Segments of society were characterized by matriarchy and matrilineal succession — which survived well into the nineteenth century — cross-cousin marriage, and strong regional identity. Tribal chieftains emerged as "kings" just as people moved from pastoralism toward agriculture, sustained by irrigation based on rivers, small-scale tanks (as man-made ponds are called in India) and wells, and brisk maritime trade with Rome and Southeast Asia. *
Discoveries of Roman gold coins in various sites attest to extensive South Indian links with the outside world. As with Pataliputra in the northeast and Taxila in the northwest (in modern Pakistan), the city of Madurai, the Pandyan capital (in modern Tamil Nadu), was the center of intellectual and literary activities. Poets and bards assembled there under royal patronage at successive concourses and composed anthologies of poems, most of which have been lost. By the end of the first century B.C., South Asia was crisscrossed by overland trade routes, which facilitated the movements of Buddhist and Jain missionaries and other travelers and opened the area to a synthesis of many cultures. *
Gupta and Harsha
The Classical Age refers to the period when most of North India was reunited under the Gupta Empire (ca. A.D. 320-550). Because of the relative peace, law and order, and extensive cultural achievements during this period, it has been described as a "golden age" that crystallized the elements of what is generally known as Hindu culture with all its variety, contradiction, and synthesis. The golden age was confined to the north, and the classical patterns began to spread south only after the Gupta Empire had vanished from the historical scene. The military exploits of the first three rulers — Chandragupta I (ca. 319-335), Samudragupta (ca. 335-376), and Chandragupta II (ca. 376-415) — brought all of North India under their leadership. [Source: Library of Congress *]
From Pataliputra, their capital, they sought to retain political preeminence as much by pragmatism and judicious marriage alliances as by military strength. Despite their self-conferred titles, their overlordship was threatened and by 500 ultimately ruined by the Hunas (a branch of the White Huns emanating from Central Asia), who were yet another group in the long succession of ethnically and culturally different outsiders drawn into India and then woven into the hybrid Indian fabric. *
Under Harsha Vardhana (or Harsha, r. 606-47), North India was reunited briefly, but neither the Guptas nor Harsha controlled a centralized state, and their administrative styles rested on the collaboration of regional and local officials for administering their rule rather than on centrally appointed personnel. The Gupta period marked a watershed of Indian culture: the Guptas performed Vedic sacrifices to legitimize their rule, but they also patronized Buddhism, which continued to provide an alternative to Brahmanical orthodoxy. *
Origin of the Guptas
“Although preceded by two Guptan rulers, Chandragupta I (reign 320-335 CE) is credited with establishing the Gupta Empire in the Ganges River valley in about 320 CE, when he assumed the name of the founder of the Mauryan Empire. [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]
The origins of Gupta is not clearly known, It emergence as a major empire occurred when Chandragupta I (Chandra Gupta I) married into royalty in the A.D. 4th century. Based in the Ganges Valley, he established a capital at Pataliputra and united north India in A.D. 320. His son Samaudrahupta extended the influence of the empire southward. Hindu religion and Brahmin power revived under peaceful and prosperous reign.
Rama Shankar Tripathi wrote: When we enter upon the Gupta period, we find ourselves on firmer ground owing to the discovery of a series of contemporary inscriptions, and the history of India regains interest and unity to a large extent. The origin of the Guptas is shrouded in mystery, but on a consideration of the termination of their names it has been contended with some plausibility that they belonged to the Vaisya caste. Much stress should not, however, be laid on this argument, and to give just one example to the contrary we may cite Brahmagupta as the tiame of a celebrated Brahman astronomer. Dr. Jayasval, on the other hand, suggested that the Guptas were Caraskara Jats — originally from the Punjab. But the evidence he relied on is hardly conclusive, as its pery basis, the identification of Chandragupta I with Candasena of the Yiaumudmahotsava, is far from certain. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
Beginning of the Gupta Empire
By the fourth century A.D., political and military turmoil destroyed the Kushan empire in the north and many kingdoms in the south India. At this juncture, India was invaded by a series of foreigners and barbarians or Mlechchhas from the north western frontier region and central Asia. It signaled the emergance of a leader, a Magadha ruler, Chandragupta I. Chandragupta successfully combated the foreign invasion and laid foundation of the great Gupta dynasty, the emperors of which ruled for the next 300 years, bringing the most prosperous era in Indian history. [Source: Glorious India]
India's so-called Dark Age, from 185 B.C. to A.D. 300, was not dark regarding trade. Trade continued, with more being sold to the Roman Empire than was being imported. In India, Roman coins were piling up. The Kushan invaders were absorbed by India, Kushan kings adopting the manners and language of the Indians and intermarrying with Indian royal families. The southern kingdom of Andhra conquered Magadha in 27 B.C., ending the Sunga dynasty in Magadha, and Andhra extended its power in the Ganges Valley, creating a new bridge between the north and the south. But this came to an end as Andhra and two other southern kingdoms weakened themselves by warring against each other. By the early 300s CE, power in India was returning to the Magadha region, and India was entering what would be called its classical age.[Source: Frank E. Smitha, Macrohistory /+]
The Gupta dynasty is believed to have started as a wealthy family from either Magadha or Prayaga (now eastern Uttar Pradesh). During the late third century, this family rose in prominence until it was able to claim the local rulership of Magadha. According to the genealogical lists, the founder of the Gupta dynasty was a person named Gupta. He is given the simple title of Maharaja, which shows that he was only a minor chief ruling a small territory in Magadha. He has been identified with Maharaja Che-li-ki-to (Sri-Gupta), who, according to I-tsing, built a temple near MrigaSikhavana for some pious Chinese pilgrims. It was handsomely endowed, and at the time of Itsing’s itinerary (673-95 A.D.) its dilapidated remnants were known as the ‘Temple of China.’ Gupta is generally assigned to the period, A.D. 275-300. I-tsing, however, notes that the building of the temple began 500 years before his travels. This would, no doubt, go against the dates proposed above for Gupta, but we need not take I-tsing too literally, as he merely stated the “tradition handed down from ancient times by old men.” Gupta was succeeded by his son, Ghatotkaca, who is also styled Maharaja. This name sounds rather outlandish, although some later members of the Gupta family bore it. We know almost nothing about him. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
The reign of Gupta emperors can truly be considered as the golden age of classical Indian history. Srigupta I (270-290 AD) who was perhaps a petty ruler of Magadha (modern Bihar) established Gupta dynasty with Patliputra or Patna as its capital. He was succedded by his son Ghatotkacha (290-305 AD). Ghatotkacha was succeeded by his son Chandragupta I (305-325 AD) who strengthened his kingdom by matrimonial alliance with the powerful family of Lichchavi who were rulers of Mithila.[Source: Glorious India]
Gupta rulers acquired much of the land previously held by the Mauryan Empire, and peace and trade flourished under their rule. According to PBS “Detailed gold coins featuring portraits of the Gupta kings stand out as unique art pieces from this period and celebrate their accomplishments. Chandragupta's son Samudragupta (r. 350 to 375 CE) further expanded the empire, and a detailed account of his exploits was inscribed on an Ashokan pillar in Allahabad toward the end of his reign. Unlike the Mauryan Empire's centralized bureaucracy, the Gupta Empire allowed defeated rulers to retain their kingdoms in return for a service, such as tribute or military assistance. Samudragupta's son Chandragupta II (r. 375–415 CE) waged a long campaign against the Shaka Satraps in western India, which gave the Guptas access to Gujarat's ports, in northwest India, and international maritime trade. Kumaragupta (r. 415–454 CE) and Skandagupta (r. c. 454–467 CE), Chandragupta II's son and grandson respectively, defended against attacks from the Central Asian Huna tribe (a branch of the Huns) that greatly weakened the empire. By 550 CE, the original Gupta line had no successor and the empire disintegrated into smaller kingdoms with independent rulers. [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]
The third Gupta king, Chandragupta was a Magadha raja who controlled rich veins of iron from the nearby Barabara Hills. Around the year 308 he married a princess from the neighboring kingdom of Licchavi, and with this marriage he gained a hold over the flow of northern India's commerce on the Ganges River – the major flow of north Indian commerce. In 319, Chandragupta assumed the title of Maharajadhiraja (emperor) in formal coronation and extended his rule westward to Prayaga, in north-central India. [Source: Frank E. Smitha, Macrohistory /+]
Chandragupta I (unrelated to the Chandragupta of six centuries before) is given credit for founding of the dynasty in 320 AD, though it is not clear whether this year marks the accession of Chandragupta or the year his kingdom achieved full independent status. In the following decades, the Guptas expanded their control over the surrounding kingdoms either through militaristic expansion or by means of marriage alliance. His marriage to Lichchhavi princess Kumaradevi, brought an enormous power, resources and prestige. He took advantage of the situation and occupied whole of fertile Gangetic valley.[Source: University of Washington]
1) Gupta (circa A.D. 275-300)
2) Ghafotkaca (c. 300-319)
3) Chandragupta I— KumaradevI (319-335)
4) Samudragupta (335 - 380 AD)
6) Chandragupta II =DhruvadevI (c. 375-414)
7) Kumargupta I (r. 414-455)
8) Skandagupta Puragupta=VatsadevI (c. 455-467) |
10) Kumaragupta II
11) Budhagupta (c. 475-95)
12) Narasimhagupta Baladitya =MahalaksmidevI (c. 467-75)
13) Kumaragupta III
16) Bhanugupta (495-510)
Samudragupta (335 - 380 AD) succeeded his father Chandragupta I. He was perhaps the greatest king of Gupta dynasty. Samudragupta enlarged the Gupta Kingdom by winning a series of battles he was a master of northern India. Soon he defeated the kings of Vindhyan region (central India) and Deccan. He although made no attempt to incorporate the kingdoms of south of Narmada and Mahanadi rivers (southern India) into his empire. When he died his mighty empire bordered with Kushan of Western province (modern Afganistan and Pakistan) and Vakatakas in Deccan (modern southern Maharashtra). Samudragupta was a staunch Hindu and after all his military triumphs, he performed the Ashwamedha Yagna (Horse sacrifice ceremony) which is evident on some of his coins. Ashwamedha Yagna gave him the coveted title of Maharajadhiraj, the supreme king of kings.
Frank E. Smitha wrote in his Macrohistory blog: “Ten years into his rule, Chandragupta lay dying, and he told his son, Samudra, to rule the whole world. His son tried. Samudragupta's forty-five years of rule would be described as one vast military campaign. He waged war along the Ganges plain, overwhelming nine kings and incorporating their subjects and lands into the Gupta Empire. He absorbed Bengal, and kingdoms in Nepal and Assam paid him tribute. He expanded his empire westward, conquering Malava and the Saka kingdom of Ujjayini. He gave various tribal states autonomy under his protection. He raided Pallava and humbled eleven kings in southern India. He made a vassal of the king of Lanka, and he compelled five kings on the outskirts of his empire to pay him tribute. The powerful kingdom of Vakataka in central India, he preferred to leave independent and friendly.” [Source:Frank E. Smitha, Macrohistory /+]
Chandragupta appointed his son, Samudragupta, to the throne sometime around the year 330. The new king established the city of Pataliputra as the Gupta capital, and from this administrative base the empire continued to grow. By approximately 380, it had expanded to include a number of smaller kingdoms to the east (into what is now Myanmar), all territories north to the Himalayas (including Nepal), and the entire Indus Valley region to the west. In some of the more remote areas, the Guptas reinstalled defeated rulers and allowed them to continue to run the territory as a tributary state.
Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya)
Around 380,Samudragupta was succeeded by his son Chandragupta II, and the son extended Gupta rule to India's west coast, where new ports were helping India's trade with countries farther west. Chandragupta II influenced local powers beyond the Indus River and north to Kashmir. While Rome was being overrun and the western half of the Roman Empire was disintegrating, Gupta rule was at the apex of its grandeur, prospering in agriculture, crafts and trade. Unlike the Maurya Dynasty with its state control of trade and industry, the Guptas let people free to pursue wealth and business, and prosperity exceeded that of the Mauryan era. [Source: Frank E. Smitha, Macrohistory /+]
Chandragupta II(380 - 413) is also known as Vikramaditya, the legendary emperor of India. More stories/legends are associated with him than any other ruler of India. It was during his (and his son Kumargupta) reign, India was at the pinnacle of prosperity and opulence. Although named after his grandfather Chandragupta, he took a title of Vikramaditya, which became a synonym for sovereign of tremendous power and wealth. Vikramaditya succeeded his father Samudragupta (possibly there was another prince, or his elder brother who ruled briefly, and according to legends slayed by Shakas). He married princess Kubernaga, daughter of Naga Chieftains and later gave his daughter Prabhavati in marriage to Rudrasena of powerful family of Vakatakas of the Deccan (modern Maharashtra). /+\
His most significant and well celebrated military achievement being total destruction of Kshatrapas, the Shaka (Scythian) rulers of Malawa and Saurashtra, the western India (modern Gujrath and neighbouring states). He scored a fantastic victory over the Kshatrapa rulers and incorporated these provinces into his increasing empire. The cool courage he showed in fight with Shakas and killing their king in their own city entitled him the epithets Shakari (destroyer of Shakas) or Sahasanka. He has also been responsible for the era, popularly known as Vikram Samvat which commence in 58 B.C. This era has been used by major Hindu dynasties and still in use in modern India. /+\
After Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya)
Vikramaditya was succeeded by his able son Kumargupta I (415 - 455). He maintained his hold over the vast empire of his forebears, which covered most of India except southern four states of India. Later he too performed the Ashwamegha Yagna and proclaimed himself to be Chakrawarti, king of all kings. umargupta also was a great patron of art and culture; evidence exist that he endowed a college of fine arts at great ancient university at Nalanda, which fluorished during 5th to 12th century AD. [Source: Frank E. Smitha, Macrohistory /+]
Kumara Gupta maintained India's peace and prosperity. During his forty-year reign the Gupta Empire remained undiminished. Then, as did the Roman Empire around this time, India suffered more invasions. Kumara Gupta's son, the crown prince, Skanda Gupta, was able to drive the invaders, the Huns (Hephthalites), back into the Sassanian Empire, where they were to defeat the Sassanid army and kill the Sassanid king, Firuz. [Source: Frank E. Smitha, Macrohistory /+]
Skandagupta (455 - 467) proved to be able king and administrator in time of crisis. In spite of heroic efforts of SkandaGupta, Gupta empire did not survive long the shock it received from invasion of the Huns and internal uprising of Pushyamitras. Although there was some sort of unity reign of the last king Budhagupta in the 6th century AD. /+\
Prince Skanda was a hero, and women and children sang praises to him. He spent much of his reign of twenty-five years combating the Huns, which drained his treasury and weakened his empire. Perhaps people accustomed to wealth and pleasure should have been more willing to contribute to a stronger military force. At any rate, Skanda Gupta died in 467, and dissension arose within the royal family. Benefiting from this dissention, governors of provinces and feudal chieftains revolted against Gupta rule. For a while the Gupta Empire had two centers: at Valabhi on the western coast and at Pataliputra toward the east.
Religion in the Gupta Period
Gupta rulers patronised the Hindu religious tradition and orthodox Hinduism reasserted itself in this era. However, this period also saw the peaceful coexistence of Brahmins and Buddhists and visits by Chinese travellers like Faxian (Fa Hien), a Buddhist monk. Brahmanism (Hinduism) was the state religion.
Brahmanism: During this epoch Brahmanism gradually came into ascendancy. This was to a large extent due to the patronage of the Gupta kings, who were staunch Brahmanists with special predilections for the worship of Visnu. But the wonderful elasticity and assimilative power of Brahmanism were not less important factors in its ultimate triumph. It won over the masses by giving common beliefs, practices, and aboriginal superstitions the stamp of its recognition; it strengthened its position by admitting the casteless foreign invaders within its roomy fold; and above all, it cut the ground — so to say — from under the feet of its great rival. Buddhism, by including the Buddha among the ten Avatar as and absorbing some of his noble teachings. Thus with all these new features the aspect of Brahmanism changed into what is now called Hinduism. It was characterised by the worship of a variety of deities, the most prominent then being Visnu, also known as Cakrabhrit, Gadadhara, Janardana, Narayana, Vasudeva, Govinda, etc. The other gods in popular favour were Siva or Sambhu; Kartikeya; Surya; and among the goddesses may be mentioned LaksmI, Durga or Bhagavati, Parvatl, etc. Brahmanism encouraged the performance of sacrifices, and the inscriptions refer to some of them, such as ASvamedha, Vajapeya, Agnistoma, Aptoryama, Atiratra, Pancamahayajna, and so on.
Buddhism was beyond doubt on the downward path in Madhyadesa during the Gupta period, although to Faxian, who saw everything through Buddhist glasses, no signs of its decline were visible in the course of „his wanderings. The Gupta rulers never resorted to persecution. Themselves devout Vaisnavas, they followed the wise policy of holding the scales even between the competing faiths. Their subjects enjoyed full liberty of conscience, and if the case of Chandragupta’s Bvfddhist general, Amrakardava, is a typical instance, the high offices of the realm were open to all irrespective of creed. Without digressing into a discussion of the causes of the decay of Buddhism, it may be pertinent to observe that its vitality was considerably sapped by schisms and subsequent corruptions in the Samgha. Besides, the worship of the images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, the growth of its pantheon, the introduction of ceremonial solemnities and religious processions, carried Buddhism so far away from its pristine purity that to the ordinary man it became almost indistinguishable from the popular phase of Hinduism. Thus the stage was well set for its eventual absorption by the latter. Even in modern times we see a striking illustration of this process of assimilation in Nepal, where, as Dr. Vincent Smith points out, “the octopus of Hinduism is slowly strangling its Buddhist victim.” [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
Jainism: The inscriptions testify also to the prevalence of Jainism, though it did not rise into prominence on account of its severe discipline and lack of royal patronage. There appears to have been a commendable concord between it and other religions. For a certain Madra, who dedicated five statues of the Jain Tirthamkaras, describes himself as “full of affection for Hindus and religious preceptors.”
Religious Benefactions: With a view to gaining happiness and merit both in this world and the next, the pious generously endowed free boarding-houses (. sattras), and gave gifts of gold, or village lands (agrahdras) to Hindus. They evinced their religious spirit also in the construction of images and temples where out of the interest on permanent deposits (aksaya-riivt) lights were maintained all the year round as a necessary part of worship. Similarly, the Buddhist and Jain benefactions took the form of installations of the statues of the Buddha and the Tirthamkaras respectively. The Buddhists built monasteries also (vibaras) for the residence of monks, who were provided with proper food and clothing.
The Gupta Empire (A.D. 320 to 647) was marked by the return of Hinduism as the state religion. The Gupta era us regarded as the classical period of Hindu art, literature and science. After Buddhism died out Hinduism returned in the form of a religion called Brahmanism (named after the caste of Hindu priests). Vedic traditions were combined with the worship of a multitude of indigenous gods (seen as manifestations of Vedic gods). The Gupta king was worshiped as a manifestation of Vishnu, and Buddhism gradually disappeared. Buddhism all but disappeared from India by the A.D. 6th century.
The caste system was reintroduced. Brahmans held great power and became wealthy landowners, and a great many new-castes were created, in part to incorporate the large number of foreigners that moved into the region.
Attempts to reform Hinduism only led to new sects that still follow the basic tenets of the Hindu mainstream. During medieval times, when Hinduism was influenced and threatened by Islam and Christianity, there was a movement toward monotheism and away from idolatry and the caste system. The cults of Rama and Vishnu grew in the 16th century out of this movement, with both deities being regarded as supreme gods. The Krishna cult, known for its devotional chants and song meetings, highlighted Krishna’s erotic adventures as a metaphor for the relationship between mankind and God. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
The Gupta era saw the emergence of the classical art forms and development of various aspects of Indian culture and civilisation. Erudite treatises were written on a multiplicity of subjects ranging from grammar, mathematics, astronomy and medicine, to the Kama Sutra, the famous treatise on the art of love. This age registered considerable progress in literature and science, particularly in astronomy and mathematics. The most outstanding literary figure of the Gupta period was Kalidasa whose choice of words and imagery brought Sanskrit drama to new heights. Aryabhatta, who lived during this age, was the first Indian who made a significant contribution to astronomy.
Rich cultures developed in south India in the Gupta era. Emotional Tamil poetry aided the Hindu revival. Art (often erotic), architecture and literature, all patronized by the Gupta court, flourished. Indians exercised their proficiency in art and architecture. Under the Guptas, Ramayana and the Mahabharta were finally written down in the A.D. 4th century. India's greatest poet and dramatist, Kalidasa, acquired fame expressing the values of the rich and powerful. [Source: Library of Congress]
Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ Under royal patronage, this period became India’s classical age of literature, theater, and visual art. The aesthetic canons that came to dominate all the arts of later India were codified during this time. Sanskrit poetry and proseflourished, and the concept of zero was conceived which led to a more practical system of numbering. Arab traders adapted and further developed the concept, and from western Asia the system of “Arabic numerals” traveled to Europe. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
Influence of Gupta Empire
Because of extensive trade, the culture of India became the dominant culture around the Bay of Bengal, profoundly and deeply influencing the cultures of Burma, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. In many ways, the period during and following the Gupta dynasty was the period of "Greater India," a period of cultural activity in India and surrounding countries building off of the base of Indian culture. [Source: Glorious India]
Due to a renewal of interest in Hinduism under the Guptas, some scholars date the decline of Buddhism in northern India to their reign. While it is true that Buddhism received less royal patronage under the Guptas than it had under the preceding Mauryan and Kushan Empires, its decline is more accurately dated to the post-Gupta period. In terms of intercultural influence, no style had a greater impact on East and Central Asian Buddhist arts than that developed in Gupta-era India. This situation inspired Sherman E. Lee to refer to the style of sculpture developed under the Guptas as "the International Style."
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Hun Invasions and the Decline of the Gupta Empire
Sometime around the year 450 the Gupta Empire faced with a new threat. A Hun group called the Huna, began to assert themselves in the empire's northwest. After decades of peace Gupta military prowess had diminished, and when the Huna launched a full-scale invasion around 480, the empire's resistance proved ineffective. The invaders swiftly conquered the tributary states in the northwest and soon pushed into the heart of Gupta-controlled territory. [Source: University of Washington]
Though the last strong Gupta king, Skanadagupta (r. c. 454–467), held off invasions by the Huns in the 5th century, subsequent invasion weakened the dynasty. The Hunas invaded the territory of the Gupta in the 450s soon after a Gupta engagement with the Pusyamitras. Hunas began to pour down into India through north-western passes like an irresistible torrent. At first, Skandagupta succeeded in stemming the tide of their advance into the interior in a sanguinary contest, but the repeated attacks eventually undermin’ed the stability of the Gupta dynasty. If the Hunas of the Bhitari pillar inscription are identified with the Mlecchas of the Junagadh rock inscription, Skandagupta must have defeated them before 457-58 A.D. the last date mentioned in the latter record. Saurastra seems to have been the weakest point of his empire, and he was hard put to it in ensuring its protection against the attacks of his enemies. We learn that he had to deliberate for “days and nights” in order to select the proper person to govern those regions. The choice, at last, fell on Parnadatta, whose appointment made the king “easy at heart.” [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
The Hiung-nu or the Hunas of Sanskrit literature and inscriptions first come into view about 165 B.C., when they defeated the Yueh-chi and compelled them to quit their lands in North-western China. In course of time the Hunas also moved west wards in search of ‘fresh fields and pastures new’. One branch proceeded towards the Oxus valley, and became known as the Ye-tha-i-li or Ephthalites (White Hunas of Roman writers). The other section gradually reached Europe, where they earned undying notoriety for their savage cruelties. From the Oxus the Hunas turned towards the south about the second decade of the fifth century A.D. and, crossing Afghanistan and the northwestern passes, eventually entered India. As shown in the last chapter, they attacked the western parts of the Gupta dominions prior to 458 A.D. but were hurled back by the military ability and prowess of Skandagupta. To use the actual expression of the Bhitari pillar inscription, he “by his two arms shook the earth, when he.... joined in close conflict with the Ilunas.” For the next few years the country was spared the horrors of their inroads. In A.D. 484, however, they defeated and killed king Firoz, and with the collapse of Persian resistance ominous clouds again began to gather on the Indian horizon. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
Hun Invasions and the Fall of the Gupta Empire
An invasion by the White Huns (known to Byzantine sources as the Hephthalites) destroyed much of the Gupta civilization by 550 and the empire finally collapsed completely in 647. Inability to exert control over a large area had as much to do with the collapse as the invasions.
Seeing weakness, the Hunas invaded India again – in greater number than their 450s invasions. Just before the year 500, they took control of the Punjab. After 515, they absorbed the Kashmir, and they advanced into the Ganges Valley, the heart of India, "raping, burning, massacring, blotting out entire cities and reducing fine buildings to rubble" according to Indian historians. Provinces and feudal territories declared their independence, and the whole of north India became divided among numerous independent kingdoms. And with this fragmentation India was again torn by numerous small wars between local rulers. By 520 the Gupta Empire was reduced to a small kingdom on the fringe of their once vast realm, and now it was they who were forced to pay tribute to their conquerors. By the mid-sixth century the Gupta dynasty dissolved entirely.
The leader of these renewed incursions was Toramana perhaps Toramana, known from the Rajatarangini, inscriptions, and coins. It is clear from their evidence that he wrested large slices of the western territories of the Guptas and established his authority as far as Central India. It is likely that the “very famous battle,” in which Bhanugupta’s general Goparaja lost his life according to an Eran inscription dated G.E. 191 — 510 A.D. was fought against the Huna conqueror himself. The loss of Malwa was a tremenous blow to the fortunes of the Guptas, whose direct sway did not now extend much beyond Magadha and Northern Bengal.
The irruption of the Huns, although at first checked by Skandagupta, appears to have brought to the surface the latent disruptive forces, which readily operate in India when the central power weakens, or its grip upon the remote provinces slackens. One of the earliest defections from the Gupta empire was Saurastra, where Senapati Bhattaraka founded a new dynasty at Viilabhi (Wala, near Bhavnagar) about the last decades of the fifth century A.D. Dhruvasena I, and Dharapatta, who ruled successively, assume the title of Maharaja only. But it is not clear whose suzerainty they acknowledged. Did they for some time nominally keep alive the tradition of Gupta paramountcy? Or, did they owe allegiance to the Hunas, who gradually overwhelmed the western and central parts of India? Step by step the power of the house grew until Dhuvasena II became a major power in the region.. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
Under Harshavardhana (Harsha, r. 606-47), North India was reunited briefly around the kingdom of Kanauj, but neither the Guptas nor Harsha controlled a centralized state, and their administrative styles rested on the collaboration of regional and local officials for administering their rule rather than on centrally appointed personnel. The Gupta period marked a watershed of Indian culture: the Guptas performed Vedic sacrifices to legitimize their rule, but they also patronized Buddhism, which continued to provide an alternative to Brahmanical orthodoxy. *
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “ Gupta splendor rose again under the emperor Harsha of Kanauj (c.606–647), and N India enjoyed a renaissance of art, letters, and theology. It was at this time that the noted Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) visited India. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]
Although Harshavardhana had neither the lofty idealism of Ashoka nor the military skill of Chandragupta Maurya, he has succeeded in arresting the attention of the historian like both those great rulers. This has, indeed, been largely due to the existence of two contemporary works: Bana’s Harshacarita and Xuanzang’s Records of his Travels.[Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
Harsha was a younger child of a maharaja and claimed the throne after the majority of his brothers and sisters had been killed or imprisoned. Xuanzang’s remark that “Harsa waged incessant warfare until in six years he had brought the five Indias under allegiance” has been interpreted by some scholars to mean that all his wars were over between 606 A.D. the date of his accession, and 612 A.D.
It has generally been supposed from the epithet “Sakalottarapathanatha” that Harsha made himself master of the whole of Northern India. There are, however, grounds for believing that it was often used in a vague and loose way, and did not necessarily connote the whole of the region from the Himalayas to the Vindhya ranges. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
In those early times the Ganges was the highway of traffic linking up all the country from Bengal to “Mid India”, and the supremacy of Kanauj over this vast Gangetic region was, therefore, essential for its commerce and prosperity. Harsha succeeded in bringing nearly the whole of it under his yoke and, the kingdom having thus developed into comparatively gigantic proportions, the task of its successful governance became all the more difficult. The first thing that Harsha....., did was to increase his military strength, both to keep the unsubdued states overawed and to fortify his own position against internal upheavals and foreign aggressions. Xuanzang writes : “Then having enlarged his territory he increased his army bringing the elephant corps up to 60,000 and the cavalry to 100,000.” It was thus on this large force that the empire ultimately rested. But the army is merely an arm of policy.
It appears from the Harshacarita and inscriptions that the bureaucracy was very efficiently organised. Among some of these state functionaries, civil and military, may be mentioned Mahasandhivigrahddhikrita (supreme minister of peace and war); Mahdbaladhikrita (officer in supreme command of the army); Sendpati (general); Brihadahavara (head cavalry officer); Katuka (commandant of the elephant forces); Cata-bhata (irregular and regular soldiers); Duta (envoy or ambassador); Rajasthaniya (foreign secretary or viceroy); Uparika Maharaja (provincial governor); Visayapati (district officer); Ayuktaka (subordinate officials in general); Mimdnsaka (Justice ?), Mahdpratihara (chief warder or usher); Bhogika or Bhogapati (collector of the^state share of the produce); Dirghadvaga (express courier); Aksapatalika (keeper of records); Adhyaksas (superintendents of the various departments); Lekhaka (writer); Karanika (clerk); Sevaka (menial servants in general), etc.
The inscriptions of Harsha testify that the old adminitrative divisions continued, viz Bhuktis or provinces, which were further sub-divided into Visayas (districts). A still smaller territorial term, perhaps of the size of the present day Tahsil or Taluka, was Pathaka; and the (drama was, as usual, the lowest unit of administration.
Xuanzang was favourably impressed by the government, which was founded on benign principles, families were not registered and individuals were not subject to forced labour contributions. The people were thus left free to grow in their own surroundings unfettered by the shackles of overgovernment. Taxation was light; the main sources of revenue were the traditional one- sixth of the produce and “duties at ferries and barrier stations ”, paid by tradesmen, who went to and fro bartering their merchandise. The enlightened nature of Harsha’s administration is also evident from the liberal provision he made for charity to various religious communities and for rewarding men of intellectual eminence.
Harsha’s Administration and Punishments
Harsha secured his position by other means as well. He concluded an “undying alliance” with Bhaskaravarman, king of Assam, when he started on his initial campaign. Next, Harsha gave the hand of his daughter to Dhruvasena II or DhruvabhataofValabhl after measuring swords with him. Thereby hj not only gained a valued ally, but also an access to the southern routes. Lastly, he sent a Brahman envoy to Tai-Tsung, the Tang Emperor of China, in 641 A.D. and a Chinese mission subsequently visited Harsha. Iiis diplomatic relations with China were probably meant as a counterpoise to the friendship that PulakeSin II, his southern rival, cultivated with the king of Persia about which we are told by the Arab historian Tabari.
Much of the success of Harsh’s administration depended on his benevolent example. Accordingly, Harsha essayed the trying task of supervising personally the affairs of his wide dominions. He divided his day between state business and religious work. “He was indefatigable and the day was too short for him.” He was not content to rule from theluxurious surroundings of the palace only. He insisted on going about from place to place “to punish the evil-doers and reward the good.” During his “visits of inspection” he came into close contact with the country and the people, who must have had ample opportunities for ventilating their grievances to him.
According to Xuanzang, 'Harsa was invited to accept the crown of Kanauj by the statesmen and ministers of that kingdom led by Poni, and it is reasonable to believe that they may have continued to wield some sort of control even during the palmy days of Harsha’s power. The pilgrim even goes so far as to assert that “a commission of officers held the land ”. Further, owing to the large extent of territory and the scanty and slow means of communication, it was necessary to establish strong centres of government in order to keep the loosely knit parts of the empire together.
There were few instances of violent crime. But the roads and river-routes were by no means immune from bands of brigands, Xuanzang himself having been stripped by them more than once. Indeed, on one occasion he was even on the point of being offered up as sacrifice by desperate characters. The law against crime was exceptionally severe. Imprisonment for life was the ordinary penalty for transgressions of the statute law and conspiracy against the sovereign, and we ate informed that, though the offenders did not suffer any corporal punishment, they were not at all treated as members of the community. The Harshacarita, however, refers to the custom of releasing prisoners on joyous and festive occasions.
The other punishments were more sanguinary than in the Gupta period: “For offences against social morality and disloyal and unfilial conduct, the punishment is to cut off the nose, or an ear, or a hand, or a foot, or to banish the offender to another country or into the wilderness”. Minor offences could be “atoned for by a money payment”. Ordeals by fire, water, weighing or poison were also recognised instruments for determining the innocence or guilt of a person. The severity of the criminal administration was, no doubt, largely responsible for the infrequency of violations of law, but it must also have been due to the character of the Indian people who are described as of “pure moral principles.”
Harsa’s Death and Its Impact on the Remains of the Gupta Empire
After a momentous reign lasting for about four decades, Harsha passed away in the year 647 or 648 A.D. The withdrawal of his strong arm let loose all the pent-up forces of anarchy, and the throne itself was seized by one of his ministers, O-la-na-shun (i.e., Arunalva or Arjuna). He opposed the entry of the Chinese mission sent before the death of She-lo-ye-to orSiladitya, and massacred its small armed escort in cold blood. But its leader, Wang-heuen-tse, was lucky enough to escape, and with the help of the famous Srong-btsan-Gampo, king of Tibet, and a Nepalese contingent he avenged the previous disaster. Arjuna or ArunaSva was captured in the course of two campaigns, and was taken to China to be presented to the Emperor as a vanquished foe. The authority of the usurper was thus subverted, and with it the last vestiges of Harsha’s power also disappeared. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
What followed next was only a general scramble to feast on the carcass of the empire. Bhaskaravavman of Assam appears to have annexed Karnasuvarna and the adjacent territories, formerly under Harsha, and issued a grant from his camp there to a Brahman of the locality. 8 In Magadha Adityasena, the son of Madbavagupta, who was a feudatory of Harsha, declared his independence, and as a mark of it assumed full Imperial titles and performed the Ahamedha sacrifice. In the west and north-west those powers, that had lived in dread of Harsha, asserted themselves with greater vigour. Among them were the Gurjaras of Rajputana (afterwards Avanti) and the Karakotakas. of Kashmir, who during the course of the next century became a formidable factor in the politics of Northern India.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated September 2020