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]

The question arises: What were the causes of this outburst of intellectual and artistic activity? According to Dr. Vincent Smith, it was “mainly due to contact with foreign civilisations. The fact that India was then in constant communication with China and the Western world may, of course, be readily accepted. For devout pilgrims, like Fahian, came to the land of the Buddha in almost a regular stream; and India on her part sent out eminent sages of the type of Kumatajlva (383 A.D.) to the celestial empire on Buddhist missions. Moreover, with the extension of the Gupta dominions to the seaports of Saurastra and Gujarat India’s foreign trade with the West increased; and this led, it is believed, to a flow of ideas, which produced important reactions on the Indian mind. But the most potent stimulus to progress must have been the beneficent rule of Gupta Emperors who were men of catholic culture. It was largely due to their liberal patronage of art and learning that such brilliant and fruitful results followed. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Literature and the Revival of Sanskrit in the Gupta Era

Gupta literature consists of fables and folktales written in Sanskrit. These stories spread west to Persia, Egypt, and Greece, and became the basis for many Islamic literary works such as, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and his Magic Lamp. The Panchatantra and Kamasutra were written during this period. The greatest writer of the time was Kalidasa. Poetry in the Gupta age tended towards a few genres: religious and meditative poetry, lyric poetry, narrative histories (the most popular of the secular literatures), and drama. The Nalanda University in Bihar, came to fame during the Gupta rule. [Source: Glorious India]

Side by side with the renovation of Brahmanism the use and influence of Sanskrit grew apace. An early stage in its revival was marked by the long Junagadh rock inscription of Rudradaman, dated 72 (Sakai) ~ijo A.D. but now it was uniformly given the place of honour as the official language of epigraphic documents and coin legends. Even Buddhist writers of the day, like Vasubandhu and Dignaga, preferred Sanskrit to Pali, the earlier vehicle of expression. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The Gupta period has generally been compared to the Periclean age in the history of Greece, or to the Elizabethan epoch in that of England. It was distinguished by a number of intellectual celebrities, whose contributions vastly enriched the different branches of Indian literature. The Gupta monarchs encouraged learning, and were themselves highly cultured, we have already noted the evidence of the Allahabad pillar inscription about Samudragupta’s poetical attainments and. proficiency in music. Besides, the universal tradition which associates the nine gems (nava-ratna) with the legendary Vikramaditya, shows what a profound impression the brilliant literary coterie of Chandragupta II Vikramaditya’s court created in the popular mind, Its most shining light was, of course,Kalidasa, the famous poet and dramatist, who was perhaps a native of Malwa.

Although eclipsed by the genius of Kalidasa, there were many other poets of repute during the Gupta times. Harisena and Vatsabhatti, contemporaries of Samudragupta and Kumaragupta II respectively, have left to us their compositions permanently incised on stone. Presumably to the same period belong Visakhadatta, author of the Mudra-rdksasa', the lexicographer Amarasirnha, who wrote the Amarkosa; the celebrated physician Dhanvantari; and the great Buddhist scholars whom we have mentioned in the preceding para. Furthermore, the Hindus now retouched and rearranged their literature in order to bring it into harmony with the feelings of their growing followers, and strengthen their hold over them. The Puranas, which refer to the Gupta dynasty last of all, were recast into their present form; so also was the Manusmriti. Other Smritis, like the Yajnavalkya-smriti and the B hasyas or commentaries on the Sutras were written to give canonical sanction to the new changes that had taken place. Astronomy and Mathematics were Assiduously cultivated; and Aryabhata (bom in 476 A.D.), Varahamihira (505-87 A.D.), and Brahmagupta (born in 598 A.D.) made remarkable contributions to the development of these branches of scientific literature. They appear to have been acquainted with Greek astronomy, for their works contain many Greek technical names.


Kalidasa is arguably India’s most famous writer. He lived in the A.D. fourth or fifth century and was a Sanskrit poet and dramatist. The best known plays that have survived from this era are Shakuntala and The Little Clay Cart, the former written by Kalidasa and the latter a comedy also perhaps written by him. Kalidasa is believed to have been a native of Malwa. Unfortunately, his date is still open to doubt, and some scholars persist in the view that he was living in 57 B.C. But there are strong grounds to believe that he flourished in the Gupta age, and that he was a contemporary of Chandragupta II or Kumaragupta I. Indeed, an allusion to the conquests of the former may be detected in the exaggerated description of Raghu’s “digvijaya” in the Raghtwamia. Another epic poem by Kalidasa is the Kumdra-sambhava, while the RJtusamhara and the Aleghaduta present two excellent examples of lyrical poetry. Of his plays, we know the Mdlavikdgnimitra, Vikramorvasi and Sakuntala, the last being so superb as to win the appreciation of the greatest literary critics of the world. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

According to PBS: Kalidasa is best known for several plays, written in the 4th and early 5th century CE, the earliest of which is probably the Malavikaagnimitra (Malavikaa and Agnimitra), a work concerned with palace intrigue. It is of special interest because the hero is a historical figure, King Agnimitra, whose father, Pushhpamitra, wrested the kingship of northern India from the Mauryan king Brihadratha about 185 B.C. and established the Shunga dynasty, which held power for more than a century. The Vikramorvashiiya (Urvashii Won Through Valor) is based on the old legend of the love of the mortal Pururavaas for the heavenly damsel Urvashii. The legend occurs in embryonic form in a hymn of the Rig Veda and in a much amplified version in the Shatapathabrahmana. [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

“The third play, Abhijnanasakuntala (Shakuntalaa Recognized by the Token Ring), is the work by which Kalidasa is best known not only in India but throughout the world. It was the first work of Kalidasa to be translated into English from which was made a German translation in 1791 that evoked the often quoted admiration by Goethe. The influence of the Shakuntala outside India is evident not only in the abundance of translations in many languages, but also in its adaptation to the operatic stage by Paderewski, Weinggartner, and Alfano. In addition to these three plays Kalidasa wrote two long epic poems, the Kumaarasambhava (Birth of Kumaara) and the Raghuvamsha (Dynasty of Raghu). Finally there are two lyric poems, the Meghaduuta (Cloud Messenger) and the Ritusamhaara (Description of the Seasons).

Kama Sutra

The Kama Sutra is the famous guidebook on fulfilling “kama”, sensual pleasure, with a particular emphasis on sex, probably produced during the Gupta period. It was written by a celibate yogi named Mallanaga Vatsyayana in the A.D. 4th or 5th century. In the West, it is perhaps best known for the 64 love making positions in recommends, some of which only contortionists can perform, and the sexual art and instructive paintings that often accompanied them.

According to PBS: “Kama means love, desire, or pleasure in Sanskrit, and the Sutra is the earliest surviving example of the kama shastra, or science of erotica genre, that would become popular in later centuries. The Kama Sutra is composed of seven books with two or more chapters each, and much of the book gives advice to the urban male or nagaraka about courtship. Women were encouraged to learn 64 practices of the kama shastra, including singing, dancing, and even carpentry, and solving riddles. The Kama Sutra treats sex as both an art and a science and divides men and women into sexual types, discusses sexual positions, details appropriate conduct for married women and provides advice for courtesans. The Kama Sutra became the archetype for subsequent works on the subject of erotic love in India and influenced later Sanskrit erotic poetry.” [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

Kama is one of the three basic ingredients for living a balanced life during the family phase of the four stages of a Hindu man’s life. The other two are “dharma” (moral and social duties) and “artha” (the pursuit of wealth and power to support one’s family). A sutra is a scripture or a religious text. "Sutra" literally means a thread or line that holds things together

The Kama Sutra describes 17 types of kisses, 12 kinds of embraces and eight kinds of nail marks. But it also says sex should only be performed in the context of marriage. According to the Kama Sutra sexual preference vary from place to place in India: “The women of the central countries dislike pressing the nails and biting, the women of Aparitka are full of passion, and make slowly the sound, ‘Seeth.’”

According to “The Kama Sutra (or Kamasutra) is a famous Hindu text, which is widely considered to be a classic work on human sexual behavior. It was originally written in Sanskrit by Vatsyayana. A portion of the literature consists of practical advice on sexual intercourse. The text is written largely in prose form, with many inserted anustubh (quatrain of four lines) poetry verses.. But a more metaphorical meaning of the word refers to an aphorism (or line, rule, formula). It is a common perception in the west that Kama Sutra (Kamasutra) is sex manual, but it actually a guide to a virtuous and gracious living that discusses the nature of love, family life and other aspects pertaining to pleasure oriented faculties of human life. [Source:]

The Kama Sutra is one of the most notable pieces text from a group of texts known as Kama Shastra (or Kamashastra). Traditionally, the first transmission of Kama Shastra or "Discipline of Kama" is attributed to the sacred bull of Shiva. He was his doorkeeper and is known by the name Nandi. He overheard the lovemaking of the Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati and later recorded his utterances for the benefit of mankind. Historians suggest that Kama Sutra was composed sometime between 400 B.C. and A.D. 200. John Keay believes that the Kama Sutra is a compendium that was collected into its current form in the A.D. 2nd century. The famous English adventurer Sir Richard Burton did a well-known English translation of the Kama Sutra published in 1883.

Gupta Art

In the realm of painting also a high degree of proficiency was attained, as appears from the Ajanta (Hyderabad State) caves, whose interiors were freely decorated with frescoes. They range in date from the first to the seventh century A.D. and thus some of them fall within the scope of this period. In the opinion of a learned connoisseur the work of Ajanta is “so accomplished in execution, so consistent in convention, so vivacious and varied in design, and full of such evident delight in beautiful form and colour, ” that one cannot help ranking it with the best art of the ancient world. The Ajanta school further extended its operations to the caves at Bagh in the Gwalior State, and these paintings also display high merit and infinite variety.

The wall-paintings of Ajanta Cave in the central Deccan are considered among the greatest and most powerful works of Indian art. The paintings in the cave represent the various lives of the Buddha, but also are the best source we have of the daily life in India at the time. There are forty-eight caves making up Ajanta, most of which were carved out of the rock between 460 and 480, and they are filled with Buddhist sculptures. The rock temple at Elephanta (near Bombay) contains a powerful, eighteen foot statue of the three-headed Shiva, one of the principle Hindu gods. Each head represents one of Shiva's roles: that of creating, that of preserving, and that of destroying. The period also saw dynamic building of Hindu temples. All of these temples contain a hall and a tower. [Source: Glorious India]

The discoveries at Sarnath and other places show that the plastic art reached a high level of perfection during the Gupta age. It gradually liberates itself from Gandharan influences, and the statues of the Buddha are now characterised by decorated haloes, close-fitting transparent garments, and peculiar arrangement of the hair. Among the numerous Gupta sculptures, found at Sarnath, the most pleasing and graceful perhaps is the seated Buddha in the preaching attitude (dharma cakra-mudra). Besides depicting scenes from the Master’s life, incidents from Pauranic mythology are treated with remarkable freshness. On the whole, the work of the Gupta artists is distinguished by vitality, freedom from extravagance, and exquisite technique. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The craftsmen of the Gupta age were experts in working metals. This is evident from the discovery of several colossal copper statues of the Buddha and an iron pillar at Mehrauli near Delhi. It represents the triumph of Gupta metallurgical skill, and the wonder is that in spite of exposure for centuries to sun and rain the column has not yet rusted.

Buddhist Art in the Gupta Period

The Gupta periodwitnessed the creation of an "ideal image" of the Buddha. This was achieved by combining selected traits from the Gandharan region with the sensuous form created by Mathura artists. Gupta Buddhas have their hair arranged in tiny individual curls, and the robes have a network of strings to suggest drapery folds (as at Mathura) or are transparent sheaths (as at Sarnath). With their downward glance and spiritual aura, Gupta Buddhas became the model for future generations of artists, whether in post-Gupta and Pala India or in Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia. Gupta metal images of the Buddha were also take by pilgrims along the Silk Road to China. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Over the following centuries there emerged a new form of Buddhism, which involved an expanding pantheon and more elaborate rituals. This later Buddhism introduced the concept of heavenly bodhisattvas as well as goddesses, of whom the most popular was Tara. In Nepal and Tibet, where exquisite metal images and paintings were produced, an entire set of new divinities were created and portrayed in both sculpture and painted scrolls. Ferocious deities were introduced in the role of protectors of Buddhism and its believers. Images of a more esoteric nature, depicting god and goddess in embrace, were produced to demonstrate the metaphysical concept that salvation resulted from the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male). Buddhism had traveled a long way from its simple beginnings.

Ajanta Cave

Ajanta Caves (62 miles from Aurangabad) is a set of 30 man-made caves overlooking a wide horseshoe-shaped gorge. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the caves features hundred of paintings and murals made between 200 B.C. and A.D. 650, which are considered to be some of the finest Indian painting and the most important Buddhist art in the world.

The caves were formed through the erosive action of nearby rivers and enlarged with chisels and hammers by Buddhist monks into residences, temples and schools. Each cave is adorned with statuary. Many contain wall paintings that record episodes in Buddha’s life and major Buddhist events.

The paintings are mostly frescoes made on a layer of plaster rather than directly on the cave wall. The cave paintings were made by applying mud plaster in two coats on the rock walls. The first was used to fill in the pores of the rough rocks. The plaster for this layer was made of rice husks and other organic materials mixed with mud and covered by sieved gypsum. The second coat was lime plaster that could be painted on. The outlines of the paintings were made with red ocher and filled in with brown, deep red and black. The pigments came mostly from local minerals, many local volcanic rocks, with the exception of bright blues which came from lapiz lazuli from Afghanistan.

The painting at Ajanta Caves offer insight into the clothing, body ornamentation and court life of the period in which they were painted. Among the best works are the Bodhisattva Padmapani, an expressive work of a male figure with large, soulful eyes and lotus flower in one hand; and a 1,500-year-old work showing a princess getting the bad news that her husband has renounced his crown to covert to Buddhism. In a mural in Cave 10, fifty elephants are painted in different poses.

The paintings are known for their fluid yet form lines, sweeping brush strokes, subtle color gradations. The later painting feature bold color washes and shadowing and color used to highlight facial expressions and create a sense of depth.

Gupta Architecture

Gupta architecture was dedicated to building stone temples to the various Hindu gods. Also, Buddhists built shrines to house the remains of select holy people. These structures were called Stupas. This form of architecture made its way to China where it was altered slightly and renamed the pagoda.Unfortunately, very few monuments built during Gupta reign survive today. Examples of Gupta architecture are found in the Vaishnavite Tigawa temple at Jabalpur (in Madhya Pradesh state) built in A.D. 415 and another temple at Deogarhnear Jhansi built in A.D. 510. Bhita in Uttar Pradesh State has a number of ancient Gupta temples, most are in ruins. [Source: Regents Prep]

The Gupta rule gave a great impetus to architecture, although owing to a combination of causes the extant remains of this age are not many. Most of the Gupta edifices perished owing to the ravages of nature; some of them later provided materials for the building needs of the people; others that lay in the track of the Muslim armies fell a prey to their iconoclastic fury. Our knowledge is, therefore, limited to a few survivals only, and they too are not secular structures, but were all consecrated to religion.

Dr. Vincent Smith refers to two such temples — the one at Deogadh (Jhansi district) contains fine pieces of sculpture on the panels of the walls, and the other of brick at Bhitargaon (Cawnpore district) is noted for its well-designed figures in terra-cotta. We may add here that the achievements of the Gupta art are further illustrated by the Ajanta caves. No doubt, they were mostly hewn and carved out of solid rock in different periods, but there are some which were perhaps excavated during the centuries under survey, and they certainly bear eloquent testimony to the skill of Gupta engineers. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Gupta Science and Astronomy

The most significant achievements of this period, however, were in religion, education, mathematics, art, and Sanskrit literature and drama. The religion that later developed into modern Hinduism witnessed a crystallization of its components: major sectarian deities, image worship, devotionalism, and the importance of the temple. Education included grammar, composition, logic, metaphysics, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy. These subjects became highly specialized and reached an advanced level. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to PBS: “Astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and religion were closely linked in ancient India. Astronomy developed out of the need to determine solstices, equinoxes, and phases of the moon for Vedic rituals. Eighteen early astronomical texts or siddhantas, of which only the Surya-Siddhantha, written around 400 B.C., survives, discuss topics including lunar and solar eclipses, astronomical instruments, and the phases of the moon. The Vedanga Jyotisha composed by the astronomer Lagadha about 500 B.C. outlines a calendar based on a five-year cycle or yuga with 62 lunar months and 1,830 days. India's earliest calendar, the Saptarshi calendar is broken into 2,700-year cycles and a version counting back to 3076 B.C. is still in use in parts of India today. [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

“Astronomy flourished under the Gupta Empire (c. 320-550 CE) during which time Ujjain in central India emerged as a center for astronomical and mathematical research. In 499 CE, Aryabhata, an Indian astronomer and mathematician who was also head of the university at Nalanda in Magadha (an ancient region located in what is now Bihar), composed the Aryabhatiya, a significant treatise about mathematics and astronomy written in Sanskrit. Aryabhata described a spherical Earth that rotates on its own axis and the orbits of planets in relation to the sun. He dated the universe to approximately 4,320,000 years and calculated the length of the solar year. India's first space satellite, launched in 1975, was named Aryabhata in his honor.

Gupta Mathematics and the Advent of Zero and Base-10 Numbers

The Indian numeral system — sometimes erroneously attributed to the Arabs, who took it from India to Europe where it replaced the Roman system — and the decimal system are Indian inventions of this period. Aryabhatta's expositions on astronomy in 499, moreover, gave calculations of the solar year and the shape and movement of astral bodies with remarkable accuracy. In medicine, Charaka and Sushruta wrote about a fully evolved system, resembling those of Hippocrates and Galen in Greece. Although progress in physiology and biology was hindered by religious injunctions against contact with dead bodies, which discouraged dissection and anatomy, Indian physicians excelled in pharmacopoeia, caesarean section, bone setting, and skin grafting. *

The use of zero and decimal numbers based on the number 10 was pioneered under the Gupta. Advances were in veterinary science; Pi was calculated to four decimal places; and the solar year was calculated to eight places. The greatest Mathematician of India Aryabhatta also belongs to this age.

Gupta mathematicians created a number writing system that was later adopted by the Islamic Empire. This system became known as Arabic Numerals, but is really a Gupta achievement. This is the number writing system used throughout the world today. Gupta physicians developed herbal remedies to treat various illnesses. They also developed a form of plastic surgery for the treatment of facial injuries. Physicians vaccinated against smallpox, a practice later used in China (10th century) and Europe (17th century.) [Source: Regents Prep]

Book: Stewart, Melissa, Science in Ancient India . New York: Franklin Watts, 1999.

Life and Economic Issues in the Gupta Empire

Literary and archeological evidence dating from this period depicts a ruling class as interested in cultural developments as they were in expanding their political control. In fact the Gupta period is considered something of a golden age, marked by great achievements in literature, music, art, architecture, and philosophy. Fa Xian, a Chinese pilgrim who traveled to Gupta India in the early fifth century, wrote of beautiful cities, fine hospitals and universities, and described a content and prosperous people. [Source: University of Washington]

Frank E. Smitha wrote in his blog Macrohistory: “Like the Cynics during Rome's golden age, a few ascetics in India entertained pessimistic views of life and maintained that asceticism would benefit all of humanity. But laregly many Indians were pursuing pleasure and enjoying life. In the cities were wealthy and middle class people who enjoyed their gardens, music, dancing, plays and various other entertainment. They enjoyed a daily bath, artistic and social activities and a variety of food, including rice, bread, fish, milk, fruits and juices. And despite religious prohibitions, the Indians – especially the aristocrats – drank wine and stronger alcoholic beverages. [Source: Frank E. Smitha, Macrohistory /+]

“The middle class prospered. Greater wealth accrued to those who already had wealth. Big estates grew with the help of dependent labor and slave labor. The poor stayed poor, but apparently there was little dire want. The caste system still existed. So too did the inferior status of women. But charities abounded. The Gupta kings were autocrats who liked to think of themselves as servants to all their subjects. Hospitals offered care free of charge to everyone, rich and poor. There were rest houses for travelers along India's highways, and the capital-city had a hospital with free care created by the charity of the wealthy. /+\

”With the increase in prosperity came a greater liberality. The cruel punishments during the Mauryan Dynasty had been abolished. Although the Gupta's were more organized in their administrations, people no longer had to register with government authorities or carry a passport when traveling within the empire. The government operated without the system of espionage often practiced by Roman emperors and by Mauryan rulers. Law breaking was punished without death sentences – mainly by fines. Punishments such as having one's hand cut off were applied only against obstinate, professional criminals. /+\

“Among civilians, the avoidance of killing that had been a part of Buddhism and Jainism was widely observed. Across India most people had become vegetarians, except for fish which was widely consumed in Bengal and places to its south. And unlike parts of the Roman Empire, a traveler in India had little reason to fear robbery. A visitor from China, Fa-hien (Faxian), traveled about in India for eleven years and recorded that he was never molested or robbed.” /+\ The earliest gold coins of Samudragupta (or of Chandragupta I?), weighing 1x8-122 grains, closely follow the Kushan standard and types. The influence of foreign coinage is also proved by the use in the Gupta inscriptions of the Kushan name of Dinara, derived from Latin Denarius. However, in the time of Chandragupta II, whose coins are of 124 to 132 grains there began a deviation from the Kushan (Roman) weight until it was given up by Skandagupta in favour of the Hindu standard of Suvarna (146 grains). After the conquest of the Ksatrapa territories, the Guptas too issued silver coins on the Saka standard of 32 grains, which was subsequently' raised by Skandagupta to that of the Karsapana. It may be added that the copper coinage of the Guptas is very scarce, perhaps because small transactions were then made in cowrie-shells, as observed by Faxian. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Education in the Gupta Period

The intellectual output of the Gupta age shows that the system of education, then in vogue, must have been sound. Unhappily, however, our information on this topic is disappointingly meagre. According to inscriptions, the teachers were then known as Acaryas and Upadhyayas, but sometimes the title of Bhatta was also applied to the learned Hindus. They were supported by the grant of villages and the charities of the generous public. The religious disciples, called Sisyas or Brahmacarins, were grouped round Sakhas and Caranas, i.e., Vedic schools following a particular recension of any one of the Vedas. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Among these recensions the inscriptions mention Maitrayaniya, Taittiriya, Vajasneya, and several others. Regarding the subjects of study, we learn of the fourteen sections 6f science (caturdahvidya), comprising the four Vedas, six Vedangas^' the Purdnas, the MImarisa, Nyaya, and Dharma or Law. There are also references to the Vyakarana (Astddhyayi) of Salaturiya (Panini) and the Satasahairi-samhitd or the Mahabharata. In addition to these, instruction must have been imparted in the large mass of secular literature.

The catholicity of the age may further be judged from the fact that Nalanda, the great centre of Buddhist learning, was founded about the middle of the fifth century A.D. by Sakraditya, probably Kumaragupta I, who endowed a monastery there. Additional grants to the establishment were made by Budhagupta, Tathagatagupta, Baladitya, and other Gupta monarchs. Nalanda followed a very comprehensive curriculum of studies, and in due course it rose to such eminence that students from all parts of India, and even from beyond its frontiers, flocked here in order to satisfy their mental and spiritual thirst.

Nalanda University

Nalanda University in India is regarded as the world's oldest university by far. Describing by the Xuan Zang's 7th century record of his journey to the West, it flourishing for centuries before it was destroyed by Afghan invaders in the 12th century. For over 700 years, it was a center of learning for a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, science, mathematics and public health. In 2011, the Indian Parliament passed a bill reestablishing Nalanda University as an international university.[Source: George Yeo, Global Viewpoint, April 12, 2011]

According to UNESCO World Heritage website: “Nalanda is one of the most ancient international centers of education and learning equivalent to modern universities, with a very rich library. An inscribed seal written "Sri-Nalandamahavihariy-Arya-Bhikshu-Sanghasya" identifies the site as Nalanda Mahavihara. Nalanda has a very ancient history and goes back to the days of Mahavira and Buddha in sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Many references in the Pâli Buddhist literature mention about Nâlandâ. It is said that in course of his journeys Buddha often halted at this place. It is also the place of birth and nirvana of Sariputra, one of the famous disciples of Buddha. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage website]

“The place rose into prominence in 5th Century A.D. as a great monastic-cum-educational institution for oriental art and learning in the whole Buddhist world, attracting students from like Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing from China and other distant countries. The galaxy of luminaries associated with it includes Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, Dharmapala, Suvishnu, Asanga, Silabhadra, Dharmakirti, Shantarakshita. Another important mention in history, is that around second century, Suvishnu built one hundred and eight temples at Nalanda to prevent the decline of the Hînayâna and Mahâyâna schools of Buddhism.

“Various subjects like theology, sabda-vidyâ grammar, hetu-vidyâ (logic), astronomy, metaphysics, chikitsâ-vidyâ medicine and philosophy were taught here. The accounts of pilgrim state that Nâlandâ was bustling with literary activities. Nâlandâ had now acquired a celebrity spread all over the east as a centre of Buddhist theology and educational activities. This is evident from the fact that within a short period of thirty years following Hiuen Tsang's departure, no less than eleven Chinese and Korean travelers are known to have visited Nalanda.

“Life lead by Nalanda monks is regarded as the ideal to be followed by the Buddhist all over the world. This celebrity status persisted through ages. It is also attributed that a detailed history of Nalanda would be the history of Mahayanist Buddhism. The institution was maintained by the revenue collected from the villages bestowed specifically for the purpose by the contemporary rulers as evident from inscriptions. Royal patronage was therefore the key note of the prosperity and efficiency of Nâlandâ.

Life, Culture and Education Under Harsha

Under Harshavardhana (Harsha, r. 606-47), North India was reunited briefly with the center of the empire in Kanauj. 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]

The prosperity and importance of Kanauj, so well begun during the time of the Maukharis, grew tremendously under Harsha; and it now easily became the premier city of Northern India supplanting Pataliputra, the older centre, through which the main currents of political life had flowed since the days of the Buddha. To the observant eyes of a foreigner it must have appeared a great cosmopolitan town whose inhabitants were almost equally divided between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. There were one hundred Buddhist monasteries with Qaore than 10,000 brethren belonging to both the “Vehicles”. The “Deva temples” amounted to about two ‘hundred, and the non-Buddhists were several thousands in number. The city itself (twenty li or about 5 miles in length and five li in breadth) was strongly defended by both nature and art. It was well planned, and had beautiful gardens and tanks of clear water. The houses were, on the whole, clean, comfortable and simple, or, in the words of Xuanzang, “sumptuous inside and economical outside”. The people wore “a refined appearance”, and the rich were “dressed in glossy silk attire”. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Praising the citizens Xuanzang says: “They are pre-eminently explicit and correct in speech, their expressions being harmonious and elegant, like those of the Devas, and their intonation clear and distinct, serving as rule and pattern for others.” Xuanzang adds : “They will not take anything wrongfully, and theyyield more than fairness requires. They fear the retribution for sins in other lives, and make light of what conduct produces in this life. They do not practise deceit and they keep their sworn obligations” 83).

Great as was Harsha as a ruler and conqueror, he was greater still in the arts of Peace that “hath her victories no less renowned than War”. One of them was the convocation of a grand assembly at Kanauj to give the utmost publicity to the doctrines of the Manayana. Harsha marched from his camp with accustomed pomp and pageantry along the southern bank of the Ganges, accompanied by Xuanzang and Bhaskaravarman, king of Kamarupa, and in the course of ninety days reached his destination.' Plere Harsha was received by the “kings of eighteen countries” of the Five Indies 2 and several thousand priests belonging to the various sects, who had gathered together in response to the royal summons to join in the deliberations. Harsha had previously ordered the construction of two thatched halls, each to accommodate one thousand persons, and a huge tower, in the middle of which was placed a golden statue of the Buddha, “of the same height as the king himself.” [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

One of the claims of Harsha to remembrance rests on his liberal patronage of learning. Xuanzang says that Harsha used to earmark a fourth of the revenue from the crown lands for rewarding men of intellectual distinction. According to the Life, he generously assigned “the revenue of eighty large towns of Orissa” to a noted Buddhist scholar, named Jayasena, who, however, thankfully declined even this tempting offer.’ 6 Harsha also made munificent endowments to Nalanda, the great centre of Buddhist learning, [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Its lofty structures, its inspiring instruction imparted through discussion, its comprehensive curriculum, its large assemblage of students from far and near, 7 and above all, the noble character and deep scholarship of its teachers and alumni, were then matters of pride to the entire Buddhist world; and kings vied with one another in their liberality to equip and endow this great institution. Harsha’s interest in literature is further evident from his patronage of authors like Banabhatta, who wrote the Harshacarita, first part of the Kadambarl, Candldataka, etc.; Mayura, whose chief contribution was the Suryaiataka\ and also Matanga-Divakara, a shadowy bard.

Large Celebrations Under Harsha

The proceedings of large assembly witnessed by Xuanzang started with a solemn procession, and the main object of attraction was a golden statue of the Buddha, three feet high, which was carried on a gorgeously caparisoned elephant. Both Harsha and Bhaskaravarman attended it, dressed in the guise of Sakra and Brahma respectively. They were followed on elephants by a brilliant train of princes, priests, and prominent state officials. After the termination of the procession Harsha performed a ceremonial worship of the image, and gave a public dinner. This being over, the conference opened with Xuanzang as “lord of the discussion”. He dwelt on the merits of the Mahayana, and challenged those present to assail his arguments. But none came forward, and he remained in undisputed possession of the field for five days, when his theological rivals entered into a conspiracy to take the pilgrim’s life. Getting a scent of it, Harsha at once issued a stern proclamation threatening to behead anybody causing the least hurt to his celebrated guest. The announcement had the desired effect, and for eighteen days there was none to oppose him in debate. Thus, though according to the Life the programme was gone through successfully to the utter confusion of all heretics and the joy of the Mahayanists, the account preserved in the Si-yu-ki avers that the convocation concluded with startling incidents. The great tower suddenly caught fire, and there was an atfempt to assassinate Harsha on account of his indifferent treatment of the assembled “heretics”. He then got five hundred Hindus arrested, and deported them. To the rest he extended mercy.

Whichever of the two accounts may be true, it is certain that the victory of Xuanzang in this assembly of public disputation considerably enhanced his prestige and influence over Harsha, who honoured and reverenced him more than ever by precious gifts, but the pilgrim in a rare religious spirit respectfully declined to accept any of them.

When the special assembly at Kanauj broke up, Harsha invited Xuanzang to witness his sixth quinquennial distribution of alms (Maba-moksa Parisad) at Prayaga at the sacred confluence of the Ganges and the Jumna. The latter, although homesick, agreed to be present at that unique function, which was attended by Dhruvabhata, “king of South India”, Kumararaja (Bhaskaravarman) of Assam and other royalties, besides a vast concourse of people amounting to about 500,000— Sramanas, heretics, Nirgranthas, the poor, the orphans and the bereaved of the Five Indias, who had been summoned by an Imperial decree. The “Great distribution Arena” was the immense sandy plain between the rivers, and the proceedings lasted for seventy-five days, commencing with an impressive procession. The religious services were of the curiously eclectie kind, so characteristic of Hindu society and worship. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

On the first day the statue of the Buddha was set up in one of the temporary shrines built upon the sands, and was honoured by costly offerings and lavish distributions. On the second day the image of Adityadcva (Sun) was worshipped and on the third day the idol of Isvara-deva (Siva) was offered adoration, but in each case the gifts bestowed were only half the value of those consecrated to the Buddha on the opening day. On the fourth day generous gifts were given to Buddhist monks. During the next twenty days Hindus were the recipients of Harsha’s bounty. Then ten days were spent in bestowing largess on the “heretics”, i.e. Jains and members of other sects. The same number of days was reserved for giving alms to the mendicants, while it took a month to distribute charity to the poor, the orphans, and the destitute. By this time the accumulated treasures were exhausted, and then Harsha gave away even his personal “gems and goods”. Thus, he established a record in individual liberality hardly equalled in history.

Image Sources:

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

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