The Gupta Age of the Indian history is compared to the Periclean Age of ancient Greece, the Augustan Era of ancient Rome, and the Elizabethan Age of medieval England for its splendor and excellence in the realms of culture.
It was an age of all-round cultural progress. In the spheres of religion, literature, philosophy, science, architecture, sculpture, art, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, education and industry, the Gupta Age made remarkable advance. India passed through a phase of mental upsurge, spectacular in character.
Rightly, therefore, that the Gupta Age has been described as the Golden Age of ancient India.
Several factors were responsible to make the Gupta Age glorious. Among these factors, the following are noteworthy, namely, a powerful imperial dynasty, political unity of the country, internal peace and security, strong but benevolent administration, economic prosperity, contact with outside world, and the royal encouragement of culture. A brief account of these factors is given below.
The Gupta Dynasty:
The Guptas gave to India a powerful imperial dynasty. From Chandragupta I to Skandagupta, the dynasty contained five emperors who ruled one after another, covering a period of one century and a half. During this continuous rule of five generations of monarchs, the Gupta Empire enjoyed a political stability of higher order. After these great Guptas, the dynasty also continued for a few more generations, enjoying considerable influence. On the whole, the Gupta dynasty, for its longer duration than many other dynasties in history, served India better by giving her administrative continuity and stability.
The Gupta monarchy assumed a divine pretension in order to establish its hold on popular imagination. In the Allahabad Pillar Inscription, Samudragupta is described as equal to Kuvera, Varuna, Indra and Yama, and a God on earth. These concepts of monarchy added glamour to the dynasty for a vigorous rule.
Political Unity of the Country:
The political unification of northern India under one powerful government was the most significant feature of the Gupta Age. The Gupta power also extended its influence to the south. The unity of the country developed a spirit of oneness among the Indian people. Small boundaries of petty territories disappeared from the political map. As a result, people came under greater cohesion. The destruction of the foreign powers added further strength to Indian unity.
For all-round cultural upheaval, this unity became a tremendous source of inspiration. Cultural exchanges between remote corners of the country became rapid. The political unity encouraged the people to manifest their creativity in a better way.
During the Gupta Age India enjoyed a long period of peace. The powerful monarchs were capable enough to protect their subjects from internal disorder and external invasions. The suppression of lawlessness created a sense of social security. This feeling of safety supplied incentive for cultural activities. Culture, in fact, grows in an atmosphere of peace. The Gupta Age having been a period of fearlessness, the people made the best use of that peaceful epoch in promoting their talent.
The Gupta rulers gave to their empire not only a stable system of government but also a benevolent administration. Punishment was far from being severe. The people were free to carry on their activities without fear or restraint. Fa-Hien, the famous pilgrim from China who visited India during the reign of Chandragupta II, was full of praise for the Gupta administration. According to his description: “The people are numerous and happy. They have not to register their households, or attend to any magistrates and their rulers. The King governs without decapitation or other corporal punishments.”
From various evidences it is known that the Gupta administration was liberal and lenient. Taxes were fixed according to the richness of the place. Officers and soldiers were paid regularly. Crime was rare. Most offenders were punished only by fines. Capital punishment was rare. Under the Gupta benevolence, all religions and faiths received liberal treatment. There was no intolerance on part of the administration towards any creed or cult. It was in this kind of liberal atmosphere that the cultures of different areas and of peoples received proper incentive to grow.
The Gupta Age was an age of general prosperity. Internal trade and commerce developed greatly because of internal peace and security. External trade and commerce also grew manifold when the Guptas conquered the western territories and extended their sway to the Arabian seacoast. Commerce with the Western countries brought immense wealth to India. The numerous gold coins of the time prove the economic prosperity of the state.
It is known from the accounts of Fa-Hien that the general richness of the people made them charitable in their habits. The wealthy persons competed among themselves in benevolent and virtuous deeds. As he states: “people of various sects set up houses of charity where rooms, couches, beds, food and drink are supplied to travellers.” There were large number of hospitals and charitable institutions which the Chinese pilgrim saw to his surprise.
India of the Gupta Age abounded with many prosperous cities. Among them were the centres of trade, holy places, as well as political headquarters. These cities represented wealth and affluence. Though the general economic condition of the country was prosperous, yet the people were far from the vices associated with wealth. As Fa-Hien says: “There were no shambles or wine-shops in their market-places.”
The large-scale architectural and sculptural activities all over the country were possible because of the general economic prosperity of the people. The Gupta culture represented the creative faculties of a people who were economically self-sufficient.
Contact with Outside World:
The culture of India has shown its greater splendor during the ages when the doors of India were open to a wider world. As in the Maurya and the Kushana period, so also in the period of the imperial Guptas, India’s contact with the outside world was well-established. While the contact with the Western countries was mainly commercial in character, contact with the Eastern world was mostly cultural. These contacts enlarged the mental vision of the people, as well as encouraged them in spreading their culture outside.
It is said that during the Gupta period, the whole region of South-East Asia came under the deep influence of Indian religious thought and custom. The benevolent Gupta rulers encouraged contacts with outside countries. A notable example of this was Samudragupta’s permission to the King of Ceylon to erect a magnificent monastery in Bodh-Gaya. The external contact of the Gupta Age was thus meaningful because of the wealth it imported and the culture it exported.
Encouragement of Culture:
The Gupta Age, in its cultural resurgence, found its rulers as active patrons of culture. Far from being dogmatic or sectarian, the kings, their ministers, and the nobles showed extraordinary zeal in promoting various facets of art and literature.
The courts of the Gupta kings contained some of the best poets, philosophers, and scientists of that age. By their active interest in building and developing cities, monuments, and the centres of religions, the Gupta Emperors properly utilised their resources. They patronised music, art and literature as best as they could. They showed a sense of personal involvement in the creative achievements of their people. For all these reasons, the culture of India saw its high water-mark in the golden age of the Guptas. A brief account of the various features of the Gupta culture is presented below.