The Guptas ruled over India from 3rd country A.D. to 6th century A.D. with their capital at Pataliputra.
The Gupta Age ushered in a new era in Indian history. Its uniqueness lay in the fact that during this period some of the world’s best specimens in art, literature, philosophy, astronomy and science were produced.
That is why the Age has been variously branded as the Golden Age, the Classical Age, the Age of Efflorescence, Age of Renaissance or the Age of Hindu Revivalism.
Therefore, historians have compared this age with the brilliant Periclean Age of Greece, Augustan Age of Rome and the Elizabethan Age of England. India witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of literary, artistic and scientific activities which gave a new impetus and drive for the shaping of Indian culture.
The background for the high standard of Gupta culture can be traced back to several factors. The outstanding military achievements of the Gupta rulers like Samudragupta and Chandragupta II Vikramaditya made India politically united and ushered in an era of good governance and progress. Both inland and foreign trade flourished under their rule. The country became wealthier. Peace, tranquility and prosperity prevailed everywhere.
Welfare administration and liberal patronage of the Gupta rulers also precipitated cultural attainments. Internal security and material prosperity found a conducive environment for its expression which culminated in the blossoming of a grand Indian cultural heritage.
In the annals of Indian history, Gupta Age is generally regarded as the Age of Maturity when the seeds of Indian culture blossomed in full bloom. This period of intellectual and cultural revival of Indian history is otherwise known as Gupta Renaissance for its tremendous contribution towards the promotion of religion, literature, art and science. India became a ‘New India’ with its high standard of cultural contribution for the enrichment of world civilization. It can be studied under the following heads.
Political Unification of the Country:
The nucleus of the Gupta kingdom was the Ganga heartland. But the Gupta rulers soon tried to give the country an imperial unity. After the downfall of the Mauryan dynasty India had been divided into several fragments remaining under the Sakas, the Kushanas and several petty local chiefs.
The campaign of Chandragupta II against the Sakas brought the annexation of western India under Gupta rule. Gupta control over the Deccan was further strengthened by marital alliances. The local chieftains, petty principalities and small rulers disappeared. A united and strong empire with efficient bureaucracy and a well-organised administrative machinery to carry out the royal decrees made India a healthy political unit.
The political unification of the country with internal peace and security and absence of foreign invasion inspired the people to concentrate on the finer aspects of Gupta civilization. Further, the benevolent despotism of the Gupta rulers with their liberal patronage of cultural growth gave the country an encouraging impetus. For example, Chandragupta II was a patron of poets, philosophers, scientists, musicians and sculptors like his predecessors. Consequently the cultural attainments of the age became wider with far-reaching influence.
The Gupta kings patronized Brahmanical Hinduism. In other words, the period witnessed the ascendancy of Brahmanical religious beliefs like Vaishnavism, Saivism, Shakti worship etc. The rulers themselves were ardent worshippers of Vishnu and accepted Vaishnavite titles like Parama Bliagabata, Parama Bhattaraka etc.
After the birth and growth of Buddhism and Jainism, Brahmanical Hinduism had lost its earlier flavour. Its influence was at its lowest ebb during the reign of Buddhist rulers like Ashoka and Kanishka. But with Gupta patronage and support Brahmanism got back its former position and glory. Further, Brahmanism of the Gupta age was no longer the same Brahmanism of the later Vedic period.
On the other hand, it had become considerably modified and refined. It strengthened its position by admitting within its fold the casteless foreign invaders and even included Lord Buddha among the ten incarnations of Krishna. It also absorbed some noble principles of Buddhism. Brahmanism was now characterised by the worship of a number of deities like Vishnu, Shiva or Sambhu, Kartikeya, Surya,
Lakshmi, Durga, Parvati etc. Performance of sacrifices was revived. References in Gupta literature are found regarding Ashvamedha, Vajapeya and Agnistoma sacrifices. Thus with the revival of old practices and addition of new principles Brahmanism was changed into what is now called modern Hinduism and indeed, Hinduism got a new lease of life after a decay of several centuries.
The religious liberalism of the Gupta rulers developed their tolerant attitude towards all other existing religions of India. As known from the accounts of the Chinese traveller Fa-hi-en, Buddhism was losing its popularity in the Madhyadesa or Middle Kingdom. It is true that the Gupta rulers never resorted to religious persecution, rather they maintained religious toleration. The subjects enjoyed total religious liberty. The high officials of the state were appointed irrespective of religious creed. But it is quite certain that Buddhism was on the decline all over India due to schisms or divisions and corruption that had entered Buddhist sang has.
Moreover, a number of new features like the worship of Lord Buddha’s image and concept of Bodhisattvas had gradually made the religion very complex. As a result the simple approach of Buddhism was lost. The new form of Buddhism that appeared during the Gupta period had much in common with Hinduism. According to R.S. Sharina, “the stage was well set for the eventual absorption of Buddhism by the latter”.
Like Buddhism, Jainism too flourished during the said period. But it could not gain popularity due to its severe discipline. However, the Gupta rulers extended their patronage to Jainism which is known from Kahaum inscriptions of Skandagupta that records the installation of the images of five Jain Tirthankaras. Fa-hi-en has also recorded the progress of Jainism along with Buddhism and Hinduism in his accounts.
Development of Literature and Revival of Sanskrit:
With the revival Brahmanism during this period there was a simultaneous revival of Sanskrit language. From the Ashokan period to the pre-Gupta age Sanskrit was in a state of decadence due to the predominance of Pali and other vernacular languages. The royal edicts and inscriptions were written in Pali language.
But the Gupta rulers bade farewell to this practice. Sanskrit replaced Pali and other languages. The rulers extended their patronage for revival of Sanskrit. The Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta, Mandasor Inscription of Kumaragupta and other inscriptions were written in Sanskrit. Due to royal preference Sanskrit was given support in both official and unofficial matters and it attained the status of lingua franca of India.
This revival of Sanskrit now produced the best literary gems of the period. Every branch of literature including poetry, prose, folk tales and drama were enriched by substantial amount of creations from Sanskrit writers. In fact both secular and religious Sanskrit literature witnessed an unprecedented progress and reached its point of culmination.
References may be made to dramatists like Kalidas, Bhavabhuti, Bharavi and Magha, prose writers like Dandin, Subandhu and Bana, rhetorician Brahma, grammarians like Chandra Vamana and Bhartrihari, lexicographer Amarasingha, philosophers like Gaudapada, Kumarilla, Vatsayana, Ishvarakrishna and Prasastapada, and astronomers like Aryabhatta, Varahamihira and Brahmagupta who enriched their respective fields during this age of ancient Indian history.
Religious Sanskrit Literature:
Among the religious Sanskrit literature of the Gupta Age, the most significant was the compilation of traditional Puranas and Upapuranas. As a corollary to the revival of Hinduism, religious literature also began to appear in new forms. The Puranas were eighteen in number. Their chief aim was to make the philosophy of the Vedas and the Vedangas intelligible to the common men.
1. Brahma Purana
2. Padma Purana
3. Vishnu Purana
4. Vayu Purana
5. Bhagavata Purana
6. Narada Purana
7. Markandeya Purana
8. Agni Purana
9. Bhavishya Purana
10. -Brahmavaivarta Purana
11. Linga Purana
12. Varaha Purana
13. Skanda Purana
14. Vamana Purana
15. Kurma Purana
16. Matsya Purana
17. Garuda Purana
18. Brahmanda Purana
Padma Purana divides the above eighteen into three groups according to their religious ideologies:
(a) Vishnu, Narada, Bhagavata, Garuda, Padma and Varaha Puranas deal with Vaishnavite faith;
(b) Brahmanda, Brahmavaivarta, Markandeya, Bhavishya, Vamana and Brahma Purans deal with the Brahman or Universe
(c) Matsya, Kurma, Agni, Linga, Skanda and Vayu Puranas deal with the Saivite faith.
Besides these, eighteen Upa-puranas also emerged dealing with local cults and minor sub-sects. Prominent among them are Vishnu Dharmottara, Kalki Purana, Brihad Dharma Purana etc.
Apart from such puranic texts, other forms of religious literature like the Smritis, Nitisliastras and Dharmashastras came into existence. Smriti literature is a type of legal literature consisting of law books which also throw a flood of light on the socio-economic condition of the people in the Gupta age. The Smritis are named after the names of their respective writers.
Smritis of Yajnavalkya, Narada, Katyayana and Brihaspati are some of the important legal works of the period. Yajnavalkya Smriti is perhaps the most systematic and evenly balanced work for it pays equal attention to achara, vyavahara and prayaschitta. Civil laws and legal procedures are dealt in the works of Narada, Katyayana and Brihaspati.
The Nitisliastras deal with the Niti or policies adopted by the King. Prominent creation in this category is the Nitishastra of Kamandaka. Kamandaka was a minister in the Gupta administration who had provided a summary ‘of Kautilya’s Arthashastra and had vividly referred to the diplomatic policy of the Gupta rulers. Among the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata also took their present shape during this age.
Along with the proliferation of a huge amount of religious literature, Hindu philosophical books were also written in great numbers during the Gupta age. According to KA.N. Shastri, “The Gupta period ushers in an era of long philosophical debates wherein all the schools of thought participated with equal zeal.”
The earliest work expounding the Sankhya system was Sankhya-Karika of Ishvarkrishna in seventy verses. Sabaraswamin wrote a commentary on the Purva Mimamsa of Jaimini. Other philosophers of repute were Prabhakara, Kumarilla, Murarimishra, Bhartrihari and others. Gaudapada, the reputed Paramguru of Sankaracharya was the first exponent of Monistic Vedanta.
Besides Hindu religious texts, Buddhist works also appeared in Sanskrit language. The significant Mahayana chronicle Arya- Manjushri-Mula-Kalpa which records the history of India from 700 B.C. to 700 A.D. was a creation of this age. The Hinayanist Buddhist philosophers like Buddhaghosa and Buddhadatta, Mahayanist philosophers like Asanga, Dignaga, Paramartha and Vasuvandhu produced valuable works in their respective fields.
Jain canonical literature too saw marked progress during this period. Devarthi, Gani, Siddhasena, Divakara and Akalanka Deva were the important Jain writers of this age. This was the period when Bhadrabahu II wrote commentaries on Jain canonical works.
Secular Sanskrit Literature:
Apart from religious and philosophical writings, secular Sanskrit literature also made its appearance during the Gupta Age. The internal peace and prosperity, cultural and refined pursuit of rulers and conductive environment prompted the scholars to carry on their creative works. The Gupta rulers themselves were writers of repute. For example, Samudragupta earned the title Kaviraj (King of Poets).
However, Kalidas was the brightest luminary in the Gupta literary firmament. The Gupta secular literature will remain incomplete without reference to Kalidas. He has carved a niche in literature for his brilliant exposition of human feelings, metaphoric descriptions, theme of love and separation and portrayal of nature. Prof A.B.Keith has rightly remarked, “It is in the great writers of Kavya headed by Kalidas that we find a great depth of feeling for life and nature matched with perfection of expression and rhythm.”
The immortal works of Kalidas include lyrical poems like Ritusamhara and Meghaduta, epic poems of Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava, and dramas like Malavikagnimitram, Vikramorvashiya and Abhijnana-Shakuntalam.
Kalidas has been universally regarded as the greatest poet in Sanskrit literature. His poetry is decorated with grace, simplicity and striking figures of speech. His works are remarkable not only for their aesthetic and poetic appeal but also for the high ideals they present before the society. Indeed, Kalidas is popularly accepted as ‘the Shakespeare of India’ in literary circles.
Besides Kalidas, several other writers of repute also flourished during the Gupta Age. The prominent dramatist Bhasa had to his credit thirteen One-Act plays, among which Swapna- Vasavdatta, Urujhanga, Abhisheka are important.
Sudraka, the author of Mrichhakatika, Vishakhadatta, the author of Mudra Rakshasa and Devi Chandraguptam, Bharavi, the author of Kiratarjuniyam and Bhatti, the author of Bhattikavyu were the products of the Gupta Classical Age.
Ganadhya’s Brihat Katha, Dandi’s Kavyadarsha and Dasakumaracharita, and Subandhu’s Vasavadatta are some of the priceless creations of the age. The great lexicographer Amarasingha prepared his Amarakosha and Dhanwantari, Vararuchi, Katyayana and Vachaspati were the other compilers of dictionaries on various subjects.
Science and Technology:
Considerable developments occurred in the fields of science and technology. As in case of religion, philosophy and literature, special interest was found in arithmetic, astronomy, medicine and metallurgy.
Epoch making achievements in the field of arithmetic were made with the introduction of decimal system of notation based on the principles of the place-value of first nine numbers, use of zero, the method of extracting square roots and cube roots and the value of pie (n). It is further known from Aryabhatta’s Aryabhattiyam that geometry, trigonometry and algebra were equally developed.
In the realm of geometry, several properties of circles and projective geometry were described by Aryabhatta. In trigonometry, sine functions were used to solve the problems of astronomy. Thus in algebra and arithmatic, Indians had achieved a lead over contemporary Greek mathematicians.
The prominent astronomers of the period were Aryabhatta and Varahamihira. Besides his valuable contributions in the field of arithmatic, Aryabhatta brought out remarkable works in astronomy. Some of his popular works were Dasagitikasutra, Aryashtasata and Aryabhattiyam. He was the first Indian scientist to declare in his book Surya Siddhanta that the earth is not flat but spherical. It revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis. He also pointed out the causes and consequences of solar and lunar eclipses.
Varahamihira was another noted scientist who wrote Brihat Samhita, Panchasiddhanta, Brihat Jataka and Laghu Jataka. He produced no less than six works on all the three branches of astronomy:
Tantra (Astronomy and mathematics) Hora (He oscope) Samhita (Astrology) Other notable scientific writers of the Gupta period were Latadeva, author of Pulisa and Romaka Siddhanta, and Bralimagupta, author of Brahmagupta Siddhanta.
Medical science was assiduously practised during the Gupta Age. From the account of Fa-hi-en it is learnt that in Pataliputra there were well-organised hospitals. Nalanda University offered a systematic course in medicine. The prominent physician was Vaghabhatta I who ranked along with the most celebrated Charaka and Susruta and his books Astanga Sangraha and Astanga Hriday Samhita were invaluable gems of medical literature. Along with ayurveda, veterinary science too was not neglected. Hastyayurveda of Palakapya and Ashvashastra of Salibhadra dealt with diseases of animals, their diagnosis and treatment.
Though no particular works have been found on this subject, it is known from the accounts of Huen Tsang and Taranath that the famous Buddhist philosopher Nagaijuna was a student of this subject. The iron pillar at Delhi built during l le Gupta Age stands as a silent witness to the metallurgical skill of the workers of this period. Similarly a number of metallic statues have been found at different places that justify their skill. Metallic- preparations are sporadically referred to in medical literature and the use of mercury and iron with proper treatment lad begun during the Gupta Age.
As noted earlier, from aesthetic point of view the Gupta art had reached its pinnacle of glory. Covering a span of three and a half centuries, the Gupta artists began to display their artistic skills in different forms of art like architecture, sculpture and painting. The Gupta Age itself was a natural expression of simplicity, refinement and the spirit of Indian life. It was imbued with a highly developed aesthetic sense that was meticulously represented by the artists. Their great tradition of art reached its maturity in both Hindu and Buddhist spheres.
Literary renaissance in the Gupta Age found its match in the field of sculpture, which reached its stage of perfection. The main feature of Gupta sculpture was the emphasis on human figures and all other forms were subordinate to it. Even the idea of divine image was perceived in the form of human figures.
For such sculptural representation a special canon of beauty began to evolve during this period. A new aesthetic ideal, not seen earlier, emerged behind such presentations. For example, the jewellery or drapery which was used in the images was reduced to the minimum as they concealed the actual physical grace of the image. Further, it was believed that animals and vegetable world were more beautiful than the human world. So the Gupta artists brought various elements from the world of animals and vegetables to adorn the ideal figures of human beings. As a result, human figures appeared more beautiful and rhythmic in proportions.
Again the Gupta artists created various asanas and mudras for proper rendering of different moods and activities attributed to the figures and figurines. The seated Buddha image at Sarnath, the statue of the standing Buddha at Mathura and the Varaha image of Udaygiri are some of the finest examples of Gupta sculpture. Thus with new ideals and forms of presentation, Gupta artists gave a new look to the technique of Indian sculpture.
With the development of sculpture there was commendable progress in the field of architecture too. As a matter of fact, Gupta Age added new dimensions to the flowering of Indian architecture. Temple architecture was the principal area where marked interest was noticed.
With the revival of Hinduism, there emerged a conception of a Hindu House of gods. It was felt that the gods and goddesses ought to have their own houses. With this concept temple architecture began to grow in a new dimension. The use of stone masonry made its beginning. The chief surviving temples of Gupta age are the Vishnu temple at Tigawa, Shiva temple at Bhumra, Parvati temple at Nachan-Kuthara, the Shiva temple at Khoh and the Dasavatara temple at Deogarh. These temples, however, were not big in size but were remarkable for their symmetry in forms, beauty in expression and appropriate positioning of the parts.
The art of painting too reached its apex in the Gupta Age. It had formed an important part in the cultural heritage of the period. Some paintings in the Badsa Caves have been assigned to this age. But the most remarkable specimens of Gupta paintings are preserved in the famous frescoes of the Ajanta at Maharastra and Bagh caves at Gwalior. Some of the paintings have been badly damaged with the ravages of time. Nevertheless, some of the surviving Ajanta paintings are found in cave No I, II, IX, X, XVI and XVII. In the words of Griffiths, “The works of Ajanta are 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 of the ancient world.”
The literary and scientific developments of the Gupta Age presuppose a high standard of educational system during the said period. With the imparting of systematic education, the intellectual output was glorious. Regarding the subjects of study, mention may be made of Scientific section, Vedic section, Puranic section, Legal and Philosophical sections. In addition, a large mass of secular literature also formed a part of Gupta education.
The catholicity of the age may further be judged from the growth of monastic colleges. The Buddhist monasteries began to develop into full-fledged educational institutions. Growing population of monk students flocked to these institutions where reputed teachers imparted education. Special mention may be made of Nalanda University which was the citadel of learning and culture. Vallabhi and Vikramshila were two other great educational centres. These universities followed a very comprehensive curriculum of studies which helped full growth of personality and character.
Along with other arts, music was equally well-developed in the Gupta Age. Vocal and instrumental music combined with dancing were very much popular among the people. The lyrical quality of Gupta poetry further prompted dramatic rendering of musical performances. The coins of Samudragupta revealed that he had a great taste for playing the veena and he styled himself as “Kaviraj” or “King among poets”. It is reported that in this art he even excelled Narada and Tumburu.
Thus the cultural attainments of the Gupta Age were revealed in the fields of religion and literature, art and architecture, science and technology, drama and music along with education. Each of these branches reached the highest watermark in their respective areas. The most potent stimulus to the progress of Indian culture can be attributed to the catholicity of the rulers, their liberal patronage of arts and their promotion of a welfare state on a secular basis.
Many royal dynasties and their rulers have contributed their individual hues to the multi-coloured canvas of Indian culture. But among them Gupta culture has carved a niche for itself in the annals of Indian history by virtue of its individuality and perfection. The period evolved an all-India norm which in due course was designated as the classical tradition of the country.
No description of Indian culture can be complete without reference to the high standards of Gupta cultural heritage which attained its zenith of excellence. No wonder, then, the Gupta Age of India has been compared with some of the most glorious Ages in the history of the world and has been named in various ways, like the Classical Age, the Golden Age etc.