In this article we will discuss about the causes of the downfall of the Gupta empire.
For nearly 250 years the Gupta empire provided political unity, good administration and economic and cultural progress to North India. The period, therefore, has been rightly regarded as the most glorious epoch in Indian history. But then it disappeared from the scene.
The difficulties of the empire began during the later period of the reign of Kumar Gupta I. Skanda Gupta faced them successfully but could not finish them. The difficulties were converted into weaknesses after him when his weak successors failed to rise to the occasion. This led to the disruption and finally to the extinction of the empire. The Gupta empire also met the fate of the Maurya empire and the causes too, more or less, were similar.
Skanda Gupta successfully checked the invasion of the Hunas as a crown- prince and as an emperor he inflicted a crushing defeat on them. He also succeeded in eliminating completely the threat posed by Pushyamitras to the empire from the South. Yet these campaigns heavily taxed the financial and military resources of the empire. Therefore, he was forced to lower the quality of his gold coins.
It meant that the empire was under financial strain. However, Skanda Gupta was successful. But. after him, the Gupta rulers proved incompetent. Their incompetence increased the number of internal and external enemies. The provincial governors began to assert independence right from the reign of Puru Gupta. Emperor Budha Gupta was hardly able to maintain a show of suzerainty over his governors.
After him even the nominal suzerainty was thrown off by the governors and they became independent rulers. The same way, the later Gupta rulers failed to face their external enemies like the Vakatakas and the Hunas. Thus, the incompetence of the Gupta rulers after Skanda Gupta was one of the primary causes of the downfall of the empire. In the absence of competent rulers no empire could be preserved in those times. The Guptas also lost their empire primarily because of their own incompetence.
Another factor which brought ruin to the Gupta rulers was their own internal dissensions. After Kumara Gupta the succession to the throne was always disputed. Probably, even Skanda Gupta had to fight against Pura Gupta to get the throne. And after the death of Pura Gupta the rival princes of the family of Skanda Gupta and Pura Gupta fought against themselves and the empire was divided.
Probably, for a few years, Narsimha Gupta ruled in Magadha while at the same time Vainya Gupta ruled over the eastern part of the empire and Bhanu Gupta ruled in the West. Budha Gupta who ascended the throne in 477 A.D. was not the ruler of a consolidated empire, but rather, the head of a federal state.
After him, even that semblance of unity was overthrown and different Gupta princes or rulers took opposite side in the struggles and political convulsions of their period. This, certainly, helped in bringing about the downfall of the empire.
Put together, the incompetence of the later Gupta rulers and their internal conflicts weakened the central authority which encouraged both external and internal enemies of the empire to take advantage of it. While the Vakataka-rulers and the Hunas endangered the Imperial territories from outside, the provincial governors broke up the unit} of the empire from within by asserting their independence.
The success of Yasodharmana in Malwa encouraged others. The Maitrakas assumed independence at Valabhi, the Maukharis created an independent kingdom in the upper Ganges valley and the Gandas wrested Bengal from the Guptas. The weak Gupta rulers failed to check the disintegration of the empire.
The Vakatakas had created a powerful kingdom in South-west. Samudra Gupta had not harmed them while Chandra Gupta II had entered into a matrimonial alliance with them by marrying his daughter Prabhavati to the then Vakataka ruler Rudrasen II. But when the Gupta empire weakened, the Vakataka rulers tried to take advantage of it.
Narendra Sen attacked the territories of the empire in Malwa, Kosala and Mekhala during the period of Budha Gupta which weakened the authority of the Guptas in Madhva Pradesh and Bundelkhand. Afterwards, the Vakataka ruler Hansen also attacked the boundaries of the empire. These attacks of the Vakataka rulers were primarily responsible for weakening the authority of the Guptas in Malwa. Gujarat and Bundelkhan 1 and encouraging their governors to assert their independence.
A few scholars have expressed the view that the invasions of the Hunas were primarily responsible for the downfall of the Gupta empire. But it is not generally accepted. The view expressed by Dr R.C. Majumdar is more tenable and now generally accepted. He says that the invasions of the Hunas were not primarily but only partially responsible for the downfall of the empire. The Hunas were defeated so severely by Skanda Gupta that they did not dare to invade the empire for about the next fifty years.
And, when they started their attacks again the empire had already become weak because of its internal dissensions. Of course, the Huna Kings Toramana and Mihirakula succeeded in penetrating deep into the Indian territories as far as the borders of Magadha. But then, at that time, they were not fighting against the lively and mighty Gupta empire but against its ghost. The mighty Gupta empire was already dead. At that time it existed only in name.
The Hunas did not contribute in any way to its death. In fact, they came when only the last ceremonies were due. Even then the Hunas were not very much successful in India because they, too, had lost their wave-strength by that time. The Kingdom of Toramana did not cross the river Indus and Mihirakula was defeated twice here, once by Narsiinha Gupta II and once by Yasodharman of Mandasor (Malwa).
Thus, the Hunas neither directly contributed to the downfall of the Gupta empire nor were they capable of it when they attempted it next time, once they were defeated by Skanda Gupta. However, it is accepted that their attacks, no doubt, put a heavy pressure on the financial and military resources of the empire and therefore, were partially responsible for its downfall.
Dr H.C. Raychaudhury puts forward a different reason for the downfall of the empire. He says that the later Gupta rulers were influenced by Buddhism and its principle of non-violence. This brought about a negative influence on their military strength and that also contributed, partially, to their downfall. Narsimha II was inclined towards Buddhism and it is stated that he once captured Mihirakula but left him free on the advice of his Buddhist mother.
Such acts cannot be justified in matters concerning state-politics and none would deny that the attitude of non-violence or passivity is harmful to the military strength of a state and, thus, creates danger to its existence. The later Gupta rulers definitely failed to maintain their military- strength and. thereby to pursue a forceful policy against their external enemies and internal dissenters which, certainly, resulted in the downfall of the empire.
After Budha Gupta, there existed virtually no Gupta empire as such. Narsimha Gupta was simply the ruler of Magadha. The rest of the empire was lost by him. Afterwards Magadha was also occupied by Maukhari ruler Isana- Varcnan near about 544 A.D. though it is believed that the Gupta rule existed in north Bengal up to 550 A.D. or so and in Kalinga till 569 A.D.
Thus, ended the mighty Gupta empire. The internal weakness of the empire was primarily responsible for its downfall though, of course, external attacks also contributed to it. Dr R.C. Majumdar rightly concludes, “Indeed, from various points of view the end of the Gupta empire offers a striking analogy to that of the Mughal empire. The decline and downfall of both was brought about mainly by internal dissensions in royal family and the rebellion of feudal chiefs and provincial satraps, though foreign invasion was an important contributory factor.”