The Gupta period is called the Golden Age of ancient India. This may not be true in the economic field because several towns in north India declined during this period.
However, the Guptas possessed a large quantity of gold, whatever its source, and they issued the largest number of gold coins.
Princes and the rich could divert a part of their income to support those who were engaged in art and literature. Both Sam udragupta and Chandragupta II were patrons of art and literature. Samudragupta is represented on his coins playing the lute (vina), and Chandragupta II is credited with maintaining in his court nine luminaries.
In ancient India, art was largely inspired by religion. Survivals of non- religious art from ancient India are few. Buddhism gave great impetus to art in Maurya and post-Maurya times and led to the creation of massive stone pillars, the hewing of beautiful caves, and the raising of high stupas or relic towers. The stupas appeared as dome-like structures on round bases, principally of stone. Innumerable images of the Buddha were sculptured.
During the Gupta period a life-size copper image of the Buddha of more than 6 feet was made. It was discovered at Sultanganj near Bhagalpur, and is now displayed in Birmingham. During the Gupta period beautiful images of the Buddha were fashioned at Sarnath and Mathura, but the finest specimens of Buddhist art in Gupta times are the Ajanta paintings.
Although these paintings covered the period from the first century BC to the seventh century ad, most of them relate to Gupta times. They depict various events in the life of Gautama Buddha and the previous Buddhas whose birth stories are related in the Jatakas. These paintings are lifelike and natural, and the brilliance of their colours has not faded even after fourteen centuries. However, there is nothing to show that the Guptas were the patrons of the Ajanta paintings.
As the Guptas supported Brahmanism, images of Vishnu, Shiva, and some other Hindu gods were fashioned for the first time during their period. At many places, the entire pantheon is portrayed with the chief god at the centre surrounded by his retainers and subordinates. The leading god is represented as large in size, with his retainers and subordinate gods drawn on a smaller scale. This reflects clear social hierarchy and discrimination.
The Gupta period was poor in terms of architecture. All that we find .ire a few temples made of brick in UP and a stone temple. The brick temples of Bhitargaon in Kanpur, Bhitari in Ghazipur, and Deogarh in Jhansi may be mentioned. The Buddhist university at Nalanda was set up in the fifth century, and its earliest structure, made of brick, relates to this period.
The Gupta period is remarkable for the production of secular literature, which consisted of a fair degree of ornate court poetry. Bhasa was an important poet in the early phase of the Gupta period and wrote thirteen plays. He wrote in Sanskrit, but his dramas also contain a substantial amount of Prakrit. He was the author of a drama called Dradiracharudatta, which was later refashioned as Mrichchhakatika or the Little Clay Cart by Shudraka.
The play deals with the love affair of a poor brahmana trader with a beautiful courtesan, and is considered one of the best works of ancient drama. In his plays Bhasa uses the term yavanika for the curtain, which suggests Greek contact. However, what has made the Gupta period particularly famous is the work of Kalidasa who lived in the second half of the fourth and the first half of the fifth century. He was the greatest poet of classical Sanskrit literature and wrote Abhijnanashakuntalam which is very highly regarded in world literature.
It relates the love story of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, whose son Bharata appears as a famous ruler. Shakuntalam was one of the earliest Indian works to be translated into European languages, the other work being the Bhagavadgita.
The plays produced in India during the Gupta period have two common features. First, they are all comedies; no tragedies are found. Secondly, characters of the higher and lower classes do not speak the same language; women and shudras featuring in these plays use Prakrit whereas the higher classes use Sanskrit. We may recall that Ashoka and the Satavahanas used Prakrit as the state language.
This period also shows an increase in the production of religious literature. Most works of.the period had a strong religious bias. The two great epics, namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were almost completed by the fourth century AD.
Although the epics and Puranas seem to have been compiled by the brahmanas, they represent the kshatriya tradition. They are replete with myths, legends, and exaggerations. They may reflect social developments but are not dependable for political history. The Ramayana relates the story of Rama, who was banished by his father Dasharatha from the kingdom of Ayodhya for fourteen years on account of the machinations of his stepmother Kaikeyi. He faithfully carried out his father’s orders and went to live in a forest, from where his wife Sita was abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka.
Eventually Rama with the help of Sugriva succeeded in rescuing Sita. The story has two important moral strands. First, it idealizes the institution of family in which a son must obey his father, the younger brother must obey his elder brother, and the wife must be faithful to her husband under all circumstances. Second, Ravana symbolizes the force of evil, and Rama the force of righteousness. In the end, righteousness triumphs over the forces of evil, and a good order over a bad order.
The story of Rama had a much wider social and religious appeal than the main narrative of the Mahabharata. There are many versions of the Ramayana in all the important Indian languages and also in those of Southeast Asia.
The Mahabharata is essentially the story of conflict between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. It shows that kingship knows no kinship. Although the Pandavas were entitled to their share in the kingdom ruled by Dhritarashtra, the Kauravas refused to give them even a single inch of territory. This led to a prolonged fratricidal war between the Pandavas, patronized by Krishna, and rhe Kauravas fighting on their own.
Eventually the Kauravas were worsted in the battle, and the Pandavas emerged victorious. This story too symbolizes the victory of righteousness over the forces of evil. The Bhagavadgita forms an important part of the Mahabharata. It teaches that a person must carry out the duties assigned to him by his caste and rank under all circumstances without any desire for reward.
The Puranas follow the lines of the epics, and the earlier ones were finally compiled in Gupta times. They are full of myths, legends, sermons, etc., which were meant for the education and edification of the common people. The period also saw the compilation of various Smritis or the lawbooks in which social and religious norms were written in verse. The phase of writing commentaries on the Smritis begins after the Gupta period.
The Gupta period also saw the development of Sanskrit grammar based on the work of Panini and Patanjali. This period is particularly memorable for the compilation of Amarakosha by Amarasimha, who was a luminary in the court of Chandragupta II. This lexicon is learnt by heart by students learning Sanskrit in the traditional way.
Overall, the Gupta period was a bright phase in the history of classical literature and one that developed an ornate style that was different from the old simple Sanskrit. From this period onwards we find a greater emphasis on verse than on prose, and also a few commentaries. Sanskrit was undoubtedly the court language of the Guptas, and although the period produced much brahmanical religious literature, it also gave birth to some of the earliest pieces of secular literature.
Science and Technology:
In mathematics, the period saw, in the fifth century, a work called Aryabhatiya written by Aryabhata who belonged to Pataliputra. It appears that this mathematician was well versed in various kinds of calculations. Aryabhata displays an awareness of both the zero system and the decimal system.
A Gupta inscription of AD 448 from Allahabad district suggests that the decimal system was known in India at the beginning of the fifth century. In the field of astronomy, a book called Romaka Sidhanta was compiled, its title indicating that it was influenced by Greek and Roman ideas.
The Gupta craftsmen distinguished themselves by their work in iron and bronze. Bronze images of the Buddha began to be produced on a considerable scale because of the knowledge the smiths had of advanced metal technology. With regard to iron objects, the best example is the iron pillar found at Mehrauli in Delhi.
Manufactured in the fourth century ad, the pillar has not gathered any rust over the subsequent fifteen centuries which is a great tribute to the technological skill of the craftsmen, although the arid conditions in Delhi may also have contributed to its preservation. It was impossible to produce such a pillar in any iron foundry in the West until about a century ago. It is a pity that the later Indian craftsmen could not develop this knowledge further.