The following article will guide you to learn about why Gupta age is regarded as golden age of ancient India.
Sources, Origin, Emperors and Extension of the Gupta Empire:
Literature, both religious and secular, writings of foreign travellers, inscriptions, coins, monuments etc. constitute various sources of the history of the Guptas. Puranas, such as the Vayu-Purana, the Matsya-Purana and the Vishnu-Purana, Smritis such as the Narada-Smriti, and the Brahaspati Smriti, dramas such as the Kaumudi-Mahotsava and the Devi-Chandra-Gupta, literary works of Kalidasa e.g., the Raghuvansa and the Abhigyana Shakuntalam, the Kavya-Mimansa of Rajashekhar, the Rajatarangani of Kalhana, the Harsh-Charita of Banabhatta, the Katha-Sarit-Sagar of Somadeva, the Vrahat-Katha-Manjari of Kshmendra, Jaina-text the Kuvalaya-Mala, and many others are its literary sources.
The writings of the Chinese travellers Fa hien, and Hiuen Tsang and I-tsing also provide us some useful information. Coins, inscriptions, different monuments and pieces of fine arts of the Gupta age are other valuable sources of the history of this period. Rulers like Samudra Gupta, Chandra Gupta II, Kumar Gupta and Skanda Gupta issued coins of varied types which help us in understanding their personalities and achievements.
The different inscriptions such as the Allahabad- pillar-inscriptions of Samudra Gupta, iron-pillar at Delhi near Kutub Minar and other pillar inscriptions at Mathura, Sanchi, Bhitri, Junagarh, etc., and some stone-inscriptions as well help us in knowing the history of the Guptas. Besides, a large number of seals of this age too have been discovered at Vaisali in district Muzzafarpur.
Among them one seal is that of the wife of king Chandra Gupta II. Mahadevi Dhruvaswamini. Seals of different administrative officials too have been discovered from there which has helped scholars in preparing a list of civil and military officers of the Gupta rulers. Besides, temples, idols, paintings of this age also constitute good sources of information. Thus, variety of sources and in quite good number is available to scholars for knowing the history and culture of the age of the Guptas.
Yet, the origin of the Guptas is obscure. Dr Romila Thapar has observed that, probably, the family was one of wealthy landowners who gradually gained political control in the region of Magadha. It is also possible that the family belonged to one of the many petty ruling families in the area of Magadha or around Magadha.
Also nothing is certain about the caste of the family. Some scholars have expressed the view that it was a Vaisya family. Dr Altekar, Dr Ayangar and Allen are of this view Dr K.P. Jayaswal has maintained that it was a Jat family of Punjab.
He has given several references from the drama, the Kaumidi-Mahotasava to support his view. He contends that in this drama. Lichchhavis have been referred as Mlechha (base-born) and as Chandra Gupta I married a Lichchhavi princess, he was also a Mlechha i.e. Jat. But his view has not been accepted by modern historians. Mostly historians have accepted Lichchhavis as Kshatriyas.
Dr H.C. Raychoudhury says that it was a Brahamana family related to Dharni, wife of Agnimitra Sunga. Dr S. Chattopadhaya has expressed the view that it was a Kshatriya family. He says that in the Aryamanjusrimulakalpa, the Gupta rulers have been described as Kshatriyas. Chandra Gupta I married a Ksliatriya-Lichchhavi princess and therefore, the Gupta rulers were Kshatriyas.
However, there is no clear evidence to justify any of these opinions. Probably they were Kshatriyas. Historians have differed with regard to their place of origin as well. According to Dr K.P. Jayaswal, they were the original inhabitants of some place near Allahabad.
Dr Allan and some others have observed that they lived somewhere in Magadha near Pataliputra itself. Dr D.C. Ganguli says that they belonged to the district of Murshidabad in Bengal and Dr R.C. Majumdar and Dr S. Chattopadhaya have opined that their original place was Varendri in Bengal. Therefore, it is assumed that the family originally lived near the boundaries of Magadha and Bengal.
On the eve of the rise of the Guptas, India was politically divided into small kingdoms. Iranian Sassanians had occupied Afghanistan and the Indus valley. Central and west Punjab was occupied by different Sakas and Kushana rulers, Malwa and Gujarat were also in the hands of the Saka rulers and the rest of North India was also divided into many monarchical and non-monarchical states.
In the South the most influential ruling family was that of the Vakatakas and in the far South was that of the Pallavas. At that time, the Guptas too, probably, ruled over a small kingdom in Magadha which comprised a portion of Bengal as well.
The first ruler of the dynasty was Sri Gupta (240-280 A.D.) who ruled over a petty kingdom though he had assumed the title of Maharaja. He was succeeded by his son Ghatotkacha Gupta (280-320 A.D.) who was also titled Maharaja. But, these first two rulers made no significant contribution towards the extension of the empire. The foundation of the greatness of this family was laid by its third ruler. Chandra Gupta I.
The Deccan in the Gupta Age:
The collapse of the Satavahana empire by 225 A.D. gave rise to a number of independent states in the Deccan Plateau as well as in the Far South. The most important of them were the Pallavas of Kanchi, Pandyas of Madura and Vakatakas of the Deccan. Amongst the minor powers were the Gangas and the Kadambas of Mysore. As the Vakatakas influenced the course of the history of the Guptas to a certain extent, we limit ourselves here only to them.
After the fall of the Satavahanas the Vakatakas succeeded in creating a powerful empire in the Deccan. Dr K.P. Jayaswal suggests that the Vakatakas originally belonged to Bundelkhand while some other scholars maintain that the family belonged to some place in the extreme south. However, the majority of scholars agree that originally they lived somewhere in Madhya Pradesh.
It is also suggested that in the beginning either they were tributaries to the Satavahanas or their provincial governors or when the Satavahanas became weak they declared their independence. Dr K.P. Jayaswal has maintained that the first great empire in India after the Kushana empire was built up by the Vakatakas. Some scholars have also made serious efforts to bring their empire on an equal footing to the Gupta empire in power and prestige.
But, it is mostly not accepted. Of course, Vakataka rulers were powerful and. at the zenith of their power, their empire extended from Bundelkhand in the north to Hyderabad in the south but neither any one of them could seriously claim as the ruler of India nor, put together, they can be favourably compared with the great rulers of the Gupta dynasty.
Vindhyasakti was the founder of the rule of this dynasty. But probably, Vindhvasakti is not the personal name but the title of the founder of this dynasty. This suggests that his kingdom was near the Vindhya range and there was some place called Vakataka from which his family drew its name.
Inscription in the Ajanta-cave No. 16, has described him as ‘The canopy of the Vakataka-family’ and the Puranas have described him as the founder-ruler of the Vakataka-dynasty and father of Pravarasena I. We know very little about the reign of Vindhyasakti but, probably, he flourished in the third quarter of the third century A.D. Vindhyasakti inherited a petty principality somewhere in Berar or Western Madhya Pradesh.
He extended his kingdom, probably, more by diplomacy than by force across the Vindhya range so as to include a portion of Malwa. However, he assumed no regal titles. As he was a Brahamana by caste it is probable that he was inspired to create an independent kingdom by his personal ambition as well as with the desire to establish a Brahamana state.
However, Vindhyasakti could make only a beginning. The real founder of the greatness of the Vakatakas was his son and successor, Pravarasena I, who proved himself a great conqueror and extended his kingdom in all directions. In fact, he had inherited only some districts from his father. He extended the territories of his kingdom and, after conquering practically the entire territory between the rivers Narmada and Krishna created an empire.
Madhya Pradesh, Berar, north Maharashtra, and larger part of Hyderabad state was within his empire while he had good influence over Malwa, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and south Kosala. Thus, after the Satavahanas, the credit of uniting the larger part of south India went to Pravarasena I. He married his eldest son, Gautamiputra with the daughter of king Bhavanath in the South.
It, probably, gave him some political advantage but not very much because Gautmiputra died during his life-time. Pravarasena I, probably, ruled between 280-340 A.D. It is suggested that he performed four Asvamedha sacrifices. He was the first Vakataka ruler who assumed the title of Samrat (emperor).
After the death of Pravarasena I, the Vakataka empire was divided into two parts. Gautamiputra, the elder son of Pravarasena I, had died during the life time of his father and when his son Rudrasena I (340-365 A.D.) ascended the throne of his grandfather then Sarvasena, another son of Pravarasena I, refused to accept him as king and established an independent kingdom with its capital at Vatsagulma in the Akola district. Thus, the empire was divided into two parts.
Rudrasena I’s capital remained at Nagpur. Because of the division of the empire, the power of the Vakatakas was weakened. It was further weakened when Samudra Gupta attacked south India and forced certain feudatories of the Vakatakas to accept his suzerainty.
He was succeeded by his son Prithvisena I (365-390 A.D.). He was a peace-loving ruler and firmly believed in speaking truth. Therefore, he was called the Yudishtir (the eldest brother among the Pandavas, heroes of the Mahabharat) of his age.
However, one of his relatives conquered Kuntal for him. Prithvisena I was succeeded by his son Rudrasena II. He married Prabhavati, daughter of emperor Chandra Gupta II. But Rudrasena II did not live long. After his death (nearly 400 A.D.) his wife Prabhavati ruled the kingdom as the guardian of her sons, Divakarasena and Damodarsena.
First, Divakarsena was made ruler who ruled for fifteen years. After his death, his brother, Damodarsena was made ruler who, when became major, assumed the title of Pravarasena II (410-440 A.D.) He made Pravarpur his capital. Thereafter ruled Narendrasena and Prithvisena II in succession. Prithvisena II died near about 480 A.D. None of his successors proved capable.
Lastly, by the end of the fifth century A.D., their empire was conquered by Harisena, ruler of the Vatsagulma branch of the Vakatakas.
The first ruler of the Vatsagulma branch of the Vakatakas was Sarvasena, son of Pravarasena I. The other rulers of this dynasty were Vindhyasakti II, Pravarasena II, Devasena etc. However, its greatest ruler was Harisena (480-515 A.D.) who not only united the two branches of the Vakatakas by conquest but also conquered Kuntala, Avanti, Kalinga, Kosala, Konkan, Andhra Pradesh etc.
His empire extended from Malwa in the north to south Maharashtra in the south and from the Bay of Bengal in the East to Arabian Sea in the West. But soon after the death of Harisena, the empire declined and its territories were occupied by its more powerful neighbours.
Nothing is known about the causes and circumstances leading to the downfall of the Vakatakas. Probably, the Nalas occupied most of their territories in Maahya Pradesh, the Kadambas occupied south Maharashtra, the Kalchuris occupied north Maharashtra and Yasodharma occupied Malwa.
When about 550 A. D. the Chalukyas asserted their power in Deccan, they had not to contend against the Vakatakas. It suggests that by the later half of the sixth century the power of the Vakatakas had been vanquished.
The king was the head of the administration in the Vakataka kingdom. Among Vakataka kings, only Pravarasena I assumed the title of Samrat. Rest of the rulers were contented only with the title of Maharaja. The position of the Maharaja was hereditary and mostly the eldest son of the Maharaja used to be his successor.
The Vakataka rulers did not accept the principle of divine rights of the king and none of them proved a despotic ruler. Each of them followed the principle of Rajya-Dharma of the Hindus and regarded performing the welfare of his subjects as his foremost duty. There has been found no reference of any Mantri-Parishad for assisting the Maharaja in administration.
Yet, there were several high officials of the state to assist him. Among them, Mahamantri was the first and highest one. The Mahamantri was called the Sarvadyaksh. Another high official of the state was the Senapati (commander-in-chief of the army). Scholars have found no reference of other officials at the Centre. However, the administration of the Vakatakas was thoroughly centralized.
It has been expressed by scholars that the rule of the Vakatakas was more centralised than the rule of the Satavahanas, the Chalukyas or the Rashtrakutas and there was no place for semi-independent rulers or feudal chiefs in it. The empire was divided into Bhuktis or Rashtras which, probably, were only district units. Santaka was the chief officer of a Bhukti and all its police and military officers called Chatas and Bhatas were under his supervision.
He was responsible for maintaining peace and order within the Bhukti besides collecting the revenue. Not much has been known about other administrative units or officials of the Vakatakas.
The primary source of income of the state was land-tax or revenue but nothing is known about the quantum (share of the state) and method of its collection. However, it is known that the expenditure on officers visiting a village was met by the concerned villagers. It has also been referred to that the revenue was fixed up after the measurement of land.
Import and export duties were also important sources of income of the state. Nothing is known about other taxes. Not much is known about the administration of the villages but, probably, village assemblies existed and help was taken from them in carrying administration. Thus, not much is known about the administration of the Vakatakas, yet, whatever is known, has impressed scholars who have opined that it was successful.
The Vakataka rulers were Brahamanas and all of them pursued Hindu religion. Yet, the Vedic religion of the Hindus was observed only by Pravarasena I who performed many Yajnas. The rest of them followed Hindu religion based on the Puranas which was based on worship to god, pilgrimages, help to poors, etc. And, among them also, except Rudrasena II who followed Bhagvatism, rest of the rulers worshipped Siva.
However, all rulers were tolerant towards all religions. During their rule, the Mahayana-sect of Buddhism remained very popular in south India. Among the Buddhist Ajanta caves, many were constructed during the rule of the Vakatakas. By that time, temple-construction had also begun in India. The Vakataka rulers helped in their construction and gave liberal grants to them.
The four-fold division of the society existed in Vakataka society. But, the caste-system was not rigid. People of different castes pursued different professions and, except the Sudras, inter-dining and inter-caste marriages were possible. Women commanded respect in the society; Sati-system was rarely observed; and a widow had a share in the property of her husband. However, marrying a girl before puberty had become a popular belief.
The Vakataka empire enjoyed economic prosperity. Among industries, cloth- industry was at the top. Probably, different professions and industries were organised into guilds. But, the Vakataka rulers issued no coins.
The Vakataka rulers patronized both Sanskrit and Prakrat languages. Most of the Vakataka rulers were scholars and they provided patronage to scholars. Many scholarly works were written during the period of their rule but the fact, that these were written under the patronage of Vakataka rulers, has not been proved. However, it has been proved that Maharaja Sarvasena wrote the Hari- Vijaya and Maharaja Pravarasena wrote the Setu-Bandh. Both are in poetic form and the language is Prakrat.
Some temples were constructed by the Vakataka rulers. The Ajanta caves of No. 16 and No. 17 and frescoes (wall-paintings) therein were also prepared during the period of their rule. Thus, we can say that the Vakataka rulers also helped in enriching the culture of their people.
The Vakataka rulers remained effective in the politics of the Deccan for about 250 years and also contributed fairly to the progress of culture in the South. Most of the rulers of this dynasty were Saivas. They helped in the progress of Hindu religion and Sanskrit literature. They contributed to the progress of fine arts as well.
The building work of the caves of Ajanta was initiated during their period. They pursued those ideals which were set up by the Gupta emperors in the North and, at one time, did the same for the political unity and cultural progress of the Deccan as was achieved by the Guptas in the North.
The Administration, Culture and Civilization of the Gupta Age:
The age of Guptas has been regarded as the age of all-round progress in India by all historians. Of course, Dr Romila Thapar is near the mark when she contends that when we accept the Gupta period as the classical age of ancient India we have to accept its limitations also. She says that the living standards, which reached their peak, were limited to upper classes alone and, further the classicism of the Gupta period was restricted to northern India alone.
With these limitations she also agrees with others regarding the progress achieved during this period. Some scholars have described it as ‘Augustan Age’, some others have compared it with the Perclean age of Greece, some others define it as the ‘Classical Age” and the majority of them agree with the view that it was the ‘Golden Age: of ancient India.
Barnett says, “Gupta period is in the annals of classical India, almost what Perclean age is in the history of Greece.” Dr V.A. Smith also writes, “The age of great Gupta kings presented a more agreeable and satisfactory picture than any other period in the history of Hindu India. Literature, art and science flourished in a degree beyond ordinary and gradual changes in religion were effected without persecution.”
The empire of the Guptas was certainly less extensive than the empire of the Mauyras prior to them but it was more extensive than the empire of Harsha or the Gurjara-Prathiharas after them.
One after another, the great Gupta rulers provided political unity to a large part of north India for nearly two centuries, administered it well and helped in the creation of those circumstances which led to the growth of Sanskrit language and literature, agriculture, trade and commerce — both external and internal, science, fine arts and revival of Hinduism which made their period the most glorious period of ancient India and gave it the title of ‘Golden Age’.
I. The Central Government:
The king was the head of the state as well as that of administration. The royal power and prestige had increased and emphasis was laid on the divine powers of the king. In contemporary literature, the king has been described as the incarnation of Dharma or that of god Vishnu on earth.
The Gupta rulers assumed the titles such as Maharajadhiraja, Parambhattaraka, etc. Harisena described Samudra Gupta as a ‘god dwelling on the earth’. Certainly, the establishment of a vast empire had helped in increasing the powers of the rulers and divinity was assigned to the kings. Yet the kings could not afford to be selfish despots. They had to rule according to Rajya Dharma and with the help of their ministers.
The political treatise titled Sukra Niti stated: “The ruler has been made by ‘Brahma’ a servant of the people getting his revenue as remuneration.” It also described that “the king should take the side not of his officers, but of his subjects and should dismiss the officer who is accused by hundred men.” Thus, the powers of the king were limited in practice.
Primarily, these were limited by the advice of his ministers and the concept of public welfare. Therefore, a king could not afford to rule as he liked because, thereby, he could forgo his moral right to rule. The princes and the successors to the throne were given proper education and they shared the responsibility of administration in different fields. The royal ladies too could participate in administration. Probably, Kumaradevi participated in administration during the rule of her husband Chandra Gupta I.
The king was assisted by Amatyas and ministers in administration. The Kamandaka-Niti-Shastra made clear distinction between Amatyas and ministers. Amatyas were simply important executive officers and, in no case, were advisers to the king while ministers who were heads of their respective departments were also advisers to the king in administration.
The Katyayana-Smriti emphasized the view that only Brahamanas should be appointed Amatyas. But the Gupta rulers had not observed it. They appointed Amatyas from other castes as well. Sometimes an individual was assigned several executive posts.
Besides, in certain cases, the posts had become hereditary as well, viz., a post remained in the hands of members of a single family for several generations. The Gupta rulers paid cash salaries to their officers. However, some scholars have expressed the view that the practice of assigning land in place of salary- too had made a beginning during the Gupta-age.
Mostly the ministers looked after the administration of different departments under their respective charge and did not act on the principle of joint responsibility but important matters were decided at a joint meeting. The ministers were appointed by the king on merit and one of their important qualifications was their capability to lead the army. In practice, the king respected the advice given by his ministers.
The Gupta emperors did not create any new administrative structure. They continued the traditional bureaucratic administration though it was organised more elaborately. Dr U.N. Ghoshal writes, “The imperial Guptas continued the traditional machinery of bureaucratic administration with nomenclature mostly borrowed or adopted from earlier times.”
Amongst the highest officials of the central government were the Maha-mantri, the Maha-baladhikrita, the Maha- dandanayaka, the Maha-pratihara, the Sandhi-Vigrahika and a class of officers called Kumaramatyas who could be appointed to look after district administration as well.
The last two types of officers were introduced by the Guptas. The Maha-baladhikrita (commander-in-chief) was supported by Maha-asvapati (Commander of the Cavalry) Bhatti-asvapati, Maha-pilupati (commander of the elephant-force), Senapati, Baladhikrita, etc. The same way Maha-dandanayaka (Chief justice) had subordinate Dandanayakas and Maha-pratihara had subordinate pratiharas. Another class of officers were called Ayuktas.
The primary source of the income of the state was land-revenue. The total taxes, probably, numbered 18. The important items of expenditure were the army, the expenditure of king’s palace and public welfare works.
Mostly the government servants were paid in cash. Proper attention was given to the dispensation of justice. Mostly fines were imposed on law-breakers and corporal punishment was given only in extreme cases of repeated offences. In general, the punishments were light.
The duties of the state were all-embracing. Its duties included not only to protect the frontiers, to maintain law and order and to help in the material progress of its subjects but also to help them in their moral and spiritual progress. However, the one novelty of the administration of the Guptas was its decentralisation.
The district officers and guilds of the traders and financiers enjoyed wide autonomy in their respective spheres. The village assemblies also enjoyed wide powers regarding the village administration. Dr A.S. Altekar has remarked, “Government, moreover was remarkably decentralised and most of its functions were transferred to district administration.”
The infantry, the cavalry and war elephants constituted the primary parts of the army of the Guptas which was well-organised and proved an effective force. Dr. D.N. Jha has opined that the Guptas did not maintain a centralised army like the Mauryas and mostly depended on their nobles and dependent rulers for this purpose, each of whom contributed his share towards it when necessary. According to him, the Guptas even did not keep monopoly over the war-elephants and the cavalry.
Even if we accept the view of Dr Jha, yet, it has to be accepted that the Gupta rulers, certainly, maintained a powerful army. Had it not been the case, the Guptas could not succeed in creating an extensive empire and also defend it from the invasions of the Hunas. The police duties were, probably, looked after by the Dandanayakas. The Gupta rulers also kept an efficient spy- system.
Several modern scholars have pointed out that one important feature of the administration of the Guptas was encouragement to feudalism. The Mahabharata and the Puranas described and upheld the view that donation of land to the Brahamanas was a pious duty and religious responsibility of rulers. The Puranas were given final shape during the Gupta-age and therefore, the Gupta rulers accepted their view and started donating land to Purohits.
This donation of land combined two precepts. One, that whosoever was donated land received the income from that land and, second, that he was responsible for administering that land, viz., maintenance of peace and security, observation of laws of the state etc. In the fifth century, the practice of donating lands by rulers to Purohits increased. In the sixth century, rulers started distributing lands to their officers as well in place of giving them salaries.
Besides, in the fifth century, the state had kept certain administrative rights in its own hand concerning donated lands, e.g., punishing thiefs, deciding property disputes, etc. In the sixth century, even these rights were handed over to the owners of donated lands. Thus, finally, the owners of donated lands, whether Purohits or officials, got all administrative rights over lands donated to them and also over inhabitans of those lands.
People enjoying such rights were called feudal lords and the system which gave them this privilege was called the feudal-system. However, one thing has to be kept in mind. The Guptas were not the first to begin this system in India. The Satavahanas had already started it in the South.
II. The Provincial Administration:
The Gupta rulers maintained the traditional system of managing the provinces. However, there was one novelty. They made use of the representative system at the various stages of administration.
The empire was divided into provinces called Bhuktis or Desas. The head of the administration of a Bhukti was called Uparika while that of a Desa was called Goyatri. They were appointed by the emperor. When princes of royal blood were appointed to these posts they were called Maha-Rajaputra or Devabhattaraka. The provincial governors enjoyed wide, independent powers. They appointed subordinate officers in their provinces and could work independently in matters concerning public welfare.
The provinces were divided and sub-divided into Vishayas, Mandals and Bliogas respectively. The smallest unit of the administration was Grama (village). The Vishayas were administered by Vishayapati with the help of subordinate officers called Kumaramatyas and Ayuktas.
Mostly, these subordinate officers were appointed by provincial governors but sometimes they were appointed by the central government. The district officers were helped by junior officers called Dandikas, Dandapasikas, Kulikas, etc. The important officers of the village were Gramikas and Bhojakas.
The representative system was assigned an important place in the administration of districts and villages. The Vishavapatis (district officers) lived in their district towns and were helped in administration by representatives of various important interests besides their subordinates.
The representative advisers of Vishayapatis constituted a Board (Adhikarna) which included the Nagara-Sreshthin (the most wealthy man of the town or the President of the Guilds of the town), the Stharavraha (the chief merchant), the Prathama-kulika (the chief artisan) and the Prathama-Kayastha (the chief secretary).
The same way, village panchayats (assemblies) were the representative bodies of villages and enjoyed fairly independent powers regarding the administrative and judicial functions concerning their respective villages.
This central and provincial administration of the Guptas was confined to the territories of Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh which were under the direct rule of the Emperor. The dependent rulers were left free to administer their kingdoms as they desired.
Among the important dependent rulers were the Maitrakas of Vallabhi, the Vardhanas of Thaneswar, the Maukharis of Kannauj, the Gaudas of Bengal and the later Guptas of Malwa and Magadh who were virtually independent in their internal administration. That was one reason why each of these dependent rulers became independent as soon as the Gupta rulers became weak.
Yet, the administration of the Guptas was successful. Peace and prosperity of the subjects and the progress achieved by them in practically all walks of their lives was its proof. The administrative model of the Guptas was accepted by contemporary Vakataka rulers, the Kalchuries, the Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas after them.
2. The Social Condition:
Besides others, three important circumstances affected the society during the Gupta age. Firstly, the period marked the revival of Hinduism under the patronage of the Gupta rulers. Therefore, the fourfold division of the society on the basis of castes was emphasised and efforts were made to establish the supremacy of the Brahamanas.
Secondly, it was necessary to absorb in society foreigners like Sakas, Kushanas and Parthians who had entered and established themselves in India. That was done. Thirdly, increased trade and commerce brought about prosperity, raised the living standard and created a rich commercial and trading class which helped in the growth of a city culture.
Though emphasis was placed on the fourfold division of the society, it was interpreted liberally. The supremacy of the Brahamanas was asserted but other castes were also assigned respectable status while the Kshatriyas were given a status practically equal to that of the Brahamanas and also the right to perform religious rituals. The status of the Vaishyas and Sudras also improved.
Except the Brahamanas, people of other castes were free to choose their own professions. Thus except the untouchables, people of all castes were given freedom to chose and change their professions. On occasions, the Brahamanas had chosen the profession of the Kshatriyas. The Vakataka rulers, who were contemporaries of the Gup a rulers, were Brahamanas.
In the drama, Mrachakatikam, a Brahamana, Charudatta has been described a reputed trader. At Indore, one inscription of the period of Skanda Gupta has been discovered. It has been mentioned in it that many Kshatriyas had adopted business as their profession. There existed many examples of the Vaisyas adopting the profession of the Kshatriyas, e.g. acceptance of military service. The Sudras mostly had engaged themselves in agriculture and other professions.
In the Narasirtgha-Purana, agriculture has been described the profession of the Sudras and the Amar-Kosh included sculptors among the list of the Sudras. The Sudras were also given the right to adopt trade as their profession. The Puranas stated that a Sudra could earn his livelihood by engaging himself in business. A person could manage to change his social status as well according to his profession.
The improved economic status of the Vaisyas certainly increased their social status and they were entitled to participate in administration as well. The Sudras too could choose the profession of trade or agriculture if they so liked. A clear distinction was made between the Sudras and slaves and also between Sudras and Chandalas (untouchables). It definitely marked an improvement in the conditions of the Sudras since Maurvan times.
Yagyavalkya permitted Sudras to adopt agriculture or trade as their profession. Taking advantage of it some of the Sudras succeeded in becoming officers even in the army. Liberality was expressed in matters of religion as well concerning the Sudras. The Matsya-Purana referred that if a Sudra remained pious and devoted to God, he could achieve Nirnana.
The Markandeya-Purana assigned the responsibility of performing Yajna to the Sudras. During that period, the Sudras were permitted to listen the recitation of the Ramayana, the Mahahharata, the Puranas and in some cases even the Vedas. Thus, the one novelty of the society of the period of the Guptas was that though fourfold division of the society was emphasized but the status of all Varnas improved particularly that of the Sudras.
During that period, the slave-system had also weakened and the slaves were treated well so much so that foreign travellers even could not note its existence and described that there existed no slavery in India during that period. R.S. Sharma, therefore, has aptly remarked that ‘both the Varna-system and the slave- system had weakened during the Gupta-age.’
Thus, except the Chandalas, theoretically, every caste witnessed improvement in its social status and members of each caste could choose professions of their own choice and bring about improvement in their social status accordingly. The Chandalas, however, had no place in society and lived outside the cities. Thus, the caste-system was liberalised during the Gupta period.
It helped in the absorption of the foreigners into the Hindu society. All foreigners, who had settled in India, were accepted by the Hindus as part of their society. Those who took up the profession of fighting were assigned the status of Kshatriyas and the rest, too, were absorbed in the Hindu society according to their chosen professions. However, slavery existed at that time. War-captives and those who failed to pay back their debts were taken as slaves.
There were no restrictions on inter-dining between different castes except the Sudras. The same way, though, generally, marriage took place within one’s own caste yet there were no restrictions on inter-caste marriages. We find references that men of upper castes married women of lower castes and vice- versa.
The Vakataka ruler Rudrasena was a Brahamana but married the Kshatriya Gupta princess Prabhavati. Many other Brahamana rulers also married daughters of Kshatriya-princes as well as those of the foreigners.
It also seems that, by this time, sub-castes were also formed on the basis of varied professions though the system was not perfected as yet. Inscriptions of the Gupta- age have referred to one more section of the society. The people of this section were called Kayasthas. These people, at that time, were neither included in any existing caste nor were accepted as people of a separate distinct caste.
Rather, all those people who were engaged in keeping records of revenue, income and expenditure of various departments, maintenance of other records, etc. were called Kayasthas. People of different castes had taken up such professions but all were known as Kayasthas. Their numbers went on increasing with increase in state-duties. Thus, the Kayasthas grew up as a class of professionals. It was only later on that these people were recognised as people of a separate and distinct caste.
The inferior status of women, as stated during the previous period, continued more or less in the Gupta age. Aryan patriarchal society had become the norm and that was primarily responsible for lowering the status of women. It was advocated that girls should be married before achieving puberty. Education was limited only to upper-class women. There was no purdah system but intimate contacts between men and women were not appreciated.
The practice of sati (burning oneself on the funeral pyre of the husband) had come into vogue, though it was restricted to upper class families and that, too only at a very few places. Because of increased prosperity and city-life the institutions of prostitution and Nagara-Vadhu (bride of the city) had also become popular. However, they were not looked down. On the contrary, they were accepted as a part of city-life.
They were expected to excel in music and dance. In the Kama-sutra detailed description has been given concerning training of prostitutes. The system of devadasis (courtesans of god) was also practised. They have been mentioned in the Puranas. Devadasis were kept at the temple of Mahakala at Ujjayini. Thus, women were certainly accorded a subordinate position to men in society.
However, women were free to educate themselves, marry at a later age, choose their own husbands and participate in all social, religious and political activities and functions. Monogamy was the usual practice. But the members of the ruling class and rich people used to have several wives. There were no restrictions on the remarriage of widows but if they did not marry they had to observe perfect celibacy.
Women occupied a respectable place in the family, could inherit property, could choose suitable professions and even occupy the position of Acharya (instructor of vedic mantras). The Yagyavalkya-Smriti stated that the wife was the successor of the property of her husband in case there was no son. The daughter’s rights were to be considered only afterwards. Many other contemporary scholars favoured this opinion. Though several others opposed it also.
However, the Narada-Smriti and the Brahaspati-Smriti supported this view. Wife was idealised during the Gupta age. Woman, as wife, was expected to fulfill her responsibilities in an ideal way and observe high morality. She was expected to be an absolutely chaste and dutiful wife.
However, in return, she was provided all respect and security. No wife could be abandoned by her husband unless she was charged with having illicit relation with a low-born man, having produced a child by other man or attempting to murder her husband.
Different Smritis, Samhitas, the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, the Amarakosa, etc. provide us valuable information regarding the position of women during the Gupta-age. Therefore, we can say that though woman had a subordinate position to man and suffered from certain disabilities, yet, by then, she was free from many social evils which crept in the Hindu society afterwards.
Public and personal morality was high during this period. Most of the human virtues such as truth, courage, simplicity, honesty, generosity, faithfulness etc. were practised by the people in their personal and social lives, particularly the Brahamanas and the Kshatriyas were expected to observe and mostly observed high morality.
The people mostly observed simplicity in their food and clothing. Meat and wine were generally avoided. Only Kshatriyas and low-caste people included them in their diet. The staple diet of people was wheat, rice, pulses, vegetables, fruits, milk and milk-products. The dress of common man was dhoti and shawl. However, because of the influence of the Sakas and Kushanas, coats and trousers were adopted by the members of the ruling classes. Women used dhoti, bodices and petti-coats.
The Saka-women used jackets as well. The garments were made of silk, cotton or woolen cloth. Varied types of ornaments were used. Necklaces, anklets, bangles, armlets, ear-rings, finger-rings, girdles, ornaments for foreheads etc. were all used. However, there seems to be no fashion of any ornament for the nose. The ornaments were prepared from gold, silver, pearls, diamonds, ivory, etc. Cosmetics were used by both sexes.
The living standard of the common people was simple but the town-life had become glamorous and sophisticated. Big, comfortable and well furnished houses, with attached gardens, were built in the cities and the rich people enjoyed all luxuries of life.
The cities were kept clean and beautiful. The contemporary literature abundantly points out the gay life of townsmen in the Gupta age. It also proves that increased prosperity had led to increased economic inequality amongst the people.
3. The Economic Condition:
The Gupta age was the age of economic prosperity. The increased agricultural production, growth of handicrafts and industries and expansion of trade and commerce, both external and internal, had enriched India which, primarily, helped its progress in other fields of life.
In Bengal and Madhya Pradesh even villages were donated to Brahamanas, temples and monasteries. However, in the beginning, donees acquired only the right to receive the revenues and not that of dispossessing any tenant.
This abuse developed only later on. The provincial governments were assigned the responsibility to build canals, dams and other means of irrigation. Waste land was brought under cultivation with the help of the state. Pasture-land was also protected and increased. The state took interest in agricultural production. All this helped in the growth of agriculture and animal husbandly.
There were different indigenous professions as those of garlanders, washermen, carpenters, black-smiths, jewellers, goldsmiths, potters, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, architects, sculptors etc. India produced fine quality of cotton, silk and woolen clothes. While Mathura was well-known for production of cotton cloth, Banaras was known for its silk production. The Vrahat-Samhita has described twenty varieties of precious stones and their colour, importance, places of getting them too have been given in detail in it.
The cutting, polishing and using of precious stones for clothing’s and ornaments prove not only the highly-developed condition of the concerned art but also the economic prosperity which prevailed during the Gupta-age. Both internal and foreign trade flourished during this period. It was carried on both by sea and land.
All important cities and ports like Broach, Ujjayini, Vidisa, Prayaga, Banaras, Gava, Pataliputra, Vaisali, Tamralipti, Kausambi, Mathura, Peshawar, etc. were well connected by public highways and the state arranged all facilities and security for the travellers and traders.
Trade was carried on even through rivers like the Ganges, the Brahmputra, the Narmada, the Godavari, the Krishna, and the Kaveri, Kalyan, Chaul. Broach and Cambay were the principal ports of the Deccan and Gujarat. Besides, brisk trade was carried on with countries of South-East Asia and China from the ports of South India. India also carried on huge, profitable trade with the Roman empire in the West.
It became so unfavourable to the Romans that their government had to put restrictions on trade with India. This check and the partition of the Roman empire afterwards certainly adversely affected the profits of the Indians but, then, the lucrative trade with the Byzantine empire, Egypt, Arabia, Greece, Syria and other countries of the West went on unhampered. Primarily, India exported pearls, precious stones, cloth, perfumes, spices, indigo, drugs, coconuts and ivory articles while its main items of import were gold, silver, tin, lead, silk, and horses.
The primary reason of the economic prosperity of India was the favourable foreign trade. The prices of daily necessities were quite low. Fa-hien described that even Kauries (sea-shells) were used as medium of exchange. At that time, the Indians pursued sea-voyages, constructed big ships and used them for travelling and trade purposes. The organisation of trade and industry in guilds was a feature of Indian economic life since early times and it continued to be so during the Gupta age as well.
Trade and industry, both high and low, were organised in guilds. There were guilds not only of the traders and bankers but also those of manual workers like weavers and stone-cutters. As against the Mauryas, who kept trade and industry under state control, the Gupta rulers emphasised the autonomy and independence of economic and administrative units and organisations.
Therefore, these guilds enjoyed sufficient autonomy to manage their own affairs and participated effectively in the economic life of the people. These guilds had their own property and trusts, worked as bankers, settled disputes of their members and issued their hundis and. probably, even coins. Probably, this was one reason why the Gupta rulers did not issue copper coins. Most of the Gupta rulers issued only gold coins. Chandra Gupta II issued silver coins for the first time while copper coins were first issued by Kumara Gupta.
A few guilds even kept their own soldiers which forced Gupta rulers to frame certain laws to limit their powers. The autonomy provided to economic organisations like guilds have been regarded as one of the basic features of the economy of the Gupta age. However, Dr R.S. Sharma has pointed out another basic feature of the economic life of this age. He contends that zamindari or feudal system was also started partially during this age.
He writes, “The main interest of the economic history of the Gupta age lies not so much in its foreign trade and money economy as in the partial feudalization of the land system and the rise of local units of production.” However, it is not refuted that agricultural production had increased during the Gupta age. Thus, it is accepted that the system which the Gupta rulers evolved, certainly, brought increased prosperity to the people and strengthened the economic resources of the state.
It is only during the later Gupta period that we observe signs of a weak economy. Yet, it is difficult to deny that while the common people had a share in the increased prosperity of the age, the largest share of it was grabbed by the mercantile community.
One thing more needs to be stated concerning the growth of feudal system during the Gupta-age. When feudal system grew into a developed form then it created a class of people whose interests differed from centralized administration as well as from the welfare of the state. This class of people emphasized on local or regional loyalties, put hindrances in centralizing economic and military resources of the state and, with a view to enhance its rights, put economic pressure on the peasants.
Later on, it became difficult to keep this class under the control of the state. Skanda Gupta and Budha Gupta felt the necessity of centralising the administration and they attempted it but with little success. The feudal system strengthened itself with passage of time and was perfected during the so-called Rajput age. The Indians, then, had to suffer as w ell from its serious defects.
4. The Religious Condition:
The transformation of the ancient Brahmanical faith into something like modern Hinduism, its final triumph against Buddhism and Jainism, its spirit of liberalism, its absorption of foreigners within its fold and the practice of tolerance by every religion, are regarded as the distinguishing features of the religious life of the Gupta age.
Neo-Hinduism which mostly provided the base to modern Hinduism was organised during the Gupta age. The Gupta rulers largely participated in it. They provided protection to the Bhagavata sect of Hinduism, called themselves Bhagavatas, worshipped god Vishnu and his spouse Lakshmi, marked Garuda (vehicle of Vishnu) on their state-flag, performed Asvamedha sacrifices, gave large donations to Brahmanas and built many temples.
Besides, a large number of scholars wrote different texts and revised or compiled the old ones which certainly helped in the growth of Hinduism. Practically all the Puranas were written during this age; the Sutras were prepared or compiled; and the Mahabharata was given a new shape. Of course, the construction of the temples, emphasis on Bhakti-Marg and concept of incarnation of God in different forms started earlier than the Gupta age.
But, now all these infiltrated down to the masses and became their universal beliefs. The old Vedic religion yet formed the basis of Hinduism but its form was changed. The common people did not forget to practise the ancient Vedic religion based mostly on ritualism and sacrifices which they understood nor had the economic means to pursue. They were now attracted to a simple and economically less burdensome religion based on faith and worship.
Absorbing within itself all the essentials of the ancient and the new Brahamanic religion, Hinduism took a new shape during the Gupta age, proved most attractive to the common people and became the dominant religion in India once again. Dr R.C. Majumdar writes, “Hinduism had already grown into that mosaic of various patterns combining the religious and spiritual ideas, both old and new, high and low, losing nothing and eternally adding more and more from new elements introduced into society.”
The acceptance of what was attractive in Buddhism or Jainism, the adaptability to new circumstances and ideas and the liberalism in accepting even the foreigners within its fold also helped in the popularity of Hinduism. It has been said that it was the revival of Hinduism or ‘Hindu Renaissance’ that took place during this age. However, it is better to suggest that the process did not start with the Guptas. It started much earlier and only found its culmination during the age of the Imperial Guptas.
Bhagavatism, which was a contemporary to Buddhism and Jainism in origin and owed its birth to the stream of thought which began with the Upanishads, reached its zenith and became the most popular religion during this age. The theory of ten Avatar as or incarnations of the supreme god Vishnu was accepted and, amongst them, Krishna was regarded as the most important one.
The Buddha was also accepted as one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu and the worship of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, also started, though it did not become much popular at that time. However, Saivism became more widespread, particularly in South India, and Siva-worship became as popular as that of Vishnu. Different rulers of the Vakatakas, the Nalas and the Kadambas accepted Saivism and built temples in honour of Siva.
Mathura was an important place in the North where Pasupata-cult of Saivism became most popular. Actually, Bhagavatism and Saivism became so close to each other that both were accepted as part of the same religion, viz., Hinduism. Temples were built by the followers of both the sects and image-worship became most popular in Hinduism.
Besides, Brahma, Surya, Kartikeya, Ganesa, Durga, Lakshmi, Sarasvati and other lesser gods like Indra, Varuna, Yama, etc. also remained the objects of worship. The snakes, the Yakshas, the Gandharvas, the Apsaras also continued to be revered. Even animals (i.e. cow), plants (i.e. Tulsi), rivers (i.e. the Ganga and the Yamuna) and mountains (the Himalayas) were looked at with reverence and cities like Banaras and Pravag (Allahabad) became places of pilgrimage. The worship of Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Siva) also started during this age. Thus, all prominent features of modern Hinduism had virtually taken shape during the Gupta-period.
Hinduism absorbed within its folds all foreigners like the Greeks, the Sakas and the Kushanas. Besides, it spread itself beyond the frontiers of India. Hindu missionaries and religious preachers went as far as Syria and Mesopotamia in the West and to the islands of Java, Sumatra and Borneo in the South-East Asia, drew large converts and helped in the propagation of Indian culture there.
Buddhism was also widely supported during this period. Of course, Hinduism became the most popular religion in India and particularly superseded Buddhism in Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, yet Buddhism remained popular in many parts of India. Dr A.S. Altekar writes, “The general view that Buddhism was on the decline in the Gupta period, owing to the revival of Hinduism under the Guptas, is not supported by the above survey of its pliilosophical activity. Nor is it confirmed by the artistic evidence.”
Renowned Buddhist scholars like Asanga, Vasubandhu, Kumarjiva and Dignaga wrote their best scholarly works during this time. Buddhghosh, the great Buddhist scholar of Sri Lanka, also flourished during this age. Besides, the artistic creations of Ajanta and Ellora caves and the stupas and monasteries of Andhra Pradesh and images of the Buddha of this time justify the fact that Buddhism was also quite popular. The account of Fa-hien testifies to the same.
The Hinayana sect of Buddhism remained popular in Kashmir, Gandhara and Afghanistan by the first half of the fifth century. Afterwards, it was replaced by Mahayanism sect of its own. Thus, Buddhism remained quite popular at Matnura, Sanchi, Nalanda, Vallabhi, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Pradesh during this period. However, it is accepted that due to the increased popularity of Hinduism, Buddhism had certainly lost its first position in India.
Jainism also remained popular during this period and efforts were made to strengthen it further. Two Jaina councils were convened at Mathura and Vallabhi respectively, in 313 A.D. Another council was called again in 453 A.D. at Vallabhi. Fresh commentaries were written on Jaina-texts which enriched Jaina literature.
While the Svetambara sect of Jainism remained popular at Mathura and Vallabhi, its Digambara sect was popular in Karnataka and Mysore. Jainism was also popular in some parts of Bengal and at Kanchi in the South. It was provided patronage by the Kadamba and Ganga dynasties of the South.
The one basic feature of the religious life of the Gupta age was the spirit of religious toleration between different religious communities. The scholars of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism held religious and philosophical debates amongst themselves, wrote their religious texts or gave them fresh interpretations and, thereby, tried to establish superiority of their respective religions over their rivals. But, there was no religious animosity between them and their followers.
The people pursued their respective religions freely and did not mind even changing them at will. Members of the same family could choose to accept different religions. The followers of the Hinayana and the Mahavana sect lived in the same monasteries. Hinduism accepted the Buddha as one of the incarnations of Vishnu. Thus, both the leaders and the followers of different religions lived in peace and harmony with each other.
The emperors also practised religious toleration in their private and public life. Samudra Gupta himself believed in Hinduism but he had appointed a Buddhist scholar, Vasubandhu, as the tutor of his son. The Gupta rulers gave generous grants to all scholars and religious institutions including Buddhism and Jainism. The University of Nalanda was also patronised by the Gupta, rulers.
Another important feature of this age concerning religion was the construction of temples. The images were built even prior to the Gupta age but the construction of temples, where images were placed for worship, began during the period of the Guptas and it was Hinduism which took the lead in it.
5. Literature and Education:
Literature, science and fine arts progressed tremendously during the Gupta age. This is the best proof that there existed a varied and sound system of education during this period in the absence of which neither intellectualism could grow nor progress could be achieved in different fields of life. Pataliputra, Vallabhi, Ujjayini, Padmavati, Avarapur, Vatsagulma, Kashi, Mathura, Nasik, Kanchi, etc., were the centres of learning where universities were established.
The rulers and the rich people gave large donations in cash, land or material to educational institutions, though they were all autonomous in their functioning. University education was provided only to meritorious students. The admission to a university was done on the past performance of a student. Once a student was admitted to a university he was provided not only free education but also free boarding and lodging.
In the sixth century, the university of Nalanda became renowned all over Asia. The universities provided both religious and secular education to students according to their choice or capability. The existence of many universities suggests that institutions of the lower level existed in every pan of India and education was quite widespread.
The age of the Guptas has been regarded as the age of Periclean and Augustan or classical age in India. It is primarily because of its progress in the field of literature, both religious and secular. Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina scholars produced the best literature by their writings. By that time, Sanskrit language had become virtually the national language of India and so most of the works were prepared in Sanskrit.
The beautiful Sanskrit in Kavya style which was in the process of growth even prior to Gupta age reached its maturity by the fourth or the fifth century A.D. The Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, received their present shape during this age. The Puranas, which were also in the process of writing earlier than the Gupta period, were completed in their present shape during the Gupta age.
Many Smritis like Narada Smriti, the Brahaspati Smriti and different Dharmashastras were also written or completed now. In the fourth century A.D. Iswarakrishna wrote the Sankhyakarika, Vyas his commentary on the Yogasutra of Patanjali and Vatsayana his Kamasutra. The Panchatantra, which has now been translated into nearly 50 languages of the world, was also recompiled during this age.
The Hitopadesa was also written. Asanga, Vasubandhu, Diganaga and Dharmapala, the vice-chancellor of the Nalanda University were the famous Buddhist scholars of this age. Asanga wrote the Yogachar-Bhumrisastra, the Mahayana-Sutralankar, the Mahayana-Sampari- graha, etc. Besides, Vasubandhu and Diganaga also wrote many texts. Amongst the Jaina scholars Siddhasena, Bhadrabhanu II and Umaswati became very famous.
All of them enriched literature by their scholarly writings. Amongst the texts written in Pali Dipavansa and Mahavansa proved very popular. Valuable literature was produced in Tamil and Prakrat languages also and many Sanskrit texts were translated into these languages.
Secular literature also made tremendous progress during this period. Amongst prominent works of this age the most notable are the Vasavadatta by Subandhu, the Ravanavadha by Bhattin, the Kiratarjuniyam by Bharavi, the Mudrarakshas and the Devi-Chandraguptam by Visakhadatta, the Mrichchhakatikam by Sudraka and the Dasakumara-charita by Dandina.
Besides, there were a host of scholars, astronomers, scientists and grammarians who produced works of durable merit. Bhartahari was a poet and philosopher, Virsasena Sava was a prominent grammarian, Amarasingh wrote the Amarakosh, and probably Vatsayana wrote the Kamasutra during this very period. The author of the Parasasti of Asoka pillar at Allahabad, Harishena, was also a reputed scholar at the court of Samudra Gupta.
However, the greatest of these scholars in Sanskrit literature was Kalidasa who wrote many scholarly works. Kalidasa has been regarded as the greatest poet and dramatist of ancient India. Probably, he was a contemporary of Chandra Gupta II. Amongst his scholarly writings the Ritusamhara, the Meghaduta, the Kumara-sambhava, the Raghuvansa, the Vikramvamsiya, the Malavikagnimitra and the A bhijnana Sakuntalam have been regarded as the best ones.
Kalidasa has been sometimes compared with the English scholar Shakespeare of England. But now the opinion has veered round to the view that he was even greater than Shakespeare as a literary man. Dr R.C. Majumdar writes of him, “Kalidasa was the most brilliant luminary in the literary firmament of the Gupta age who had shed lustre on the whole Sanskrit literature. He is, by common consent, the greatest poet and dramatist that ever lived in India and his works have enjoyed a high reputation and popularity throughout the ages.”
Thus, many scholars of repute flourished during the Gupta age and they, certainly, made this age the classical age of Indian history by their scholarly contributions towards learning and literature. Of course, Pali, Tamil and Prakrat literature also progressed but the progress of Sanskrit literature remained uncomparable.
It has been commented upon by a scholar that, “in amount of cleverness per square inch no poetry surpasses the Sanskrit Kavya.” It perfectly applies to the Kavya which was produced during the age of the Guptas.
6. Science, Grammar, Astrology, Medicine etc.:
Many scholars of different sciences, astronomy, astrology, medicine, grammar and various other fields of knowledge flourished during the Gupta age and contributed to learning. Aryabhatta has been accepted as the greatest scientist and mathematician of this age. He wrote the Aryabhatiyam in which he found solutions to many problems of Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry.
He was the first Indian astronomer to discover that the earth rotates on its axis. He also stated that it is the earth which rotates round the sun and not vice-versa. It is also believed that the decimal system was discovered by the Hindus. It is not clear who found it but both Aryabhatta and Varahamihira have described it in their works.
Aryabhatta contributed to many fields of learning including Mathematics, Astrology and Astronomy. Among his writings, the Aryabhatiyam became the most famous one. Bhaskara I wrote commentaries on the writings of Aryabhatta and other several independent works also. Among his writings the Mahabhaskarya, the Laghubhaskarya and the Bhasya became more renowned.
Certain other scholars such as Lata, Pradyumna. Vijayanandin contributed further to what Aryabhatta did and, ultimately, Varahamihira took all that to the peak. Varahamihira was the greatest astrologer of his age. His work on astrology, the Vrihat Samhita is an encyclopaedia of useful information in various branches of knowledge. Besides, among his other writings, the Panch-Siddhantika, the Brahmajataka and the Laghujataka also became famous.
Brahma Gupta, who composed the Brahmasiddhanta, was another famous astrologer of this age. Besides, many other scholarly works such as the Shatpanchasika and the Vaisistha Siddhanta were also prepared during this age.
The science of medicine also progressed during this age. The Navanitakam is the famous book of this age on medicine. Besides, we also find treatise such as the Hastyaayurveda and the Asvasastra on the diseases of animals which proves that veterinary science was not neglected at that time.
Nagarjuna, the famous Buddhist scholar, was also a great student of medicine, chemistry and metallurgy. He discovered many new medicines. Probably, Dhanavantari, the most renowned physician of Ayurvedic medicines, also flourished during this age.
The science of metallurgy also made good progress during this age. The famous Iron Pillar near the Qutab Minar on the outskirts of Delhi belongs to this age and is the best proof of the striking metallurgical progress of this period. Though the pillar has stood exposed to the sun and the rain for the last so many centuries, it has exhibited not the least sign of rusting which is surprising even to modern metallurgists as to how it was prepared.
Thus, the Gupta age witnessed progress in education, literature and science or rather in every field of knowledge. It was an age of intellectualism which led to progress and new inventions and innovations in every field of learning.
7. The Arts:
Different arts showed remarkable progress during the age of the Guptas. The primary sources of understanding the arts of the Gupta age are the coins, cave- dwellings and their frescoes, remnants of temples and monasteries, terracotta plaques and figurines and various images made of stone. All these prove that during the age of the Guptas, the Indians were able to give good expression to their artistic and creative talents.
The Gupta emperors issued coins of good gold and silver of artistic taste. On the obverse of the coins of Chandra Gupta I, we find the king and his queen Kumaradevi standing face to face with each other while their names are engraved by their sides. On the reverse, there is Durga seated on a lion.
On the coins of Samudra Gupta, he has been shown in different poses — as an archer with his queen Dattadevi, with the battle-axe or slaying a tiger. On certain others, horse of Asvamedha yajna on the obverse and Lakshmi on the reverse were engraved. Chandra Gupta II added certain other types to them. He has been shown on some as slaying a lion, on some others as a horseman and on yet others with a royal umbrella.
The coins of Samudra Gupta and Chandra Gupta II exhibit no foreign influence and are the best specimens of numismatic art. Of course, the art began to decline in the reign of Kumara Gupta I, yet coins of varied types such as Peacock type, Elephant-rider type and archer type were issued. The coins are fine in shape and the names and the picture-engravings of kings, queens, animals etc. are remarkably artistic which prove that the art of coinage had acquired perfection during the Gupta age.
II. Music, Dance and Drama:
Music, dance and the art of acting and drama were patronized by the Gupta emperors. The coins of Samudra Gupta justify it. Women were trained in these fine arts, particularly the prostitutes, the Devdasis and the Nagaravadhus. Besides, we find innumerable references of these arts in literary texts of this age.
III. Terracotta (Pottery, Images etc. of Clay):
The art of terracotta was most popular and refined during the Gupta age. It was a poor man’s art but beautiful figures of males and females, Hindu deities such as Vishnu, Kartikeya, Surya, Durga, Ganga, Yamuna or rather of all gods and goddesses, birds and animals etc. were prepared. The terracotta figures found their place in the temples, the stupas and private homes. They were beautifully prepared.
The art was perfect in itself and so it helped in the growth of the art of sculpture also. Dr V.S. Agrawal comments, “Finally it may be observed that much of the terracotta work of the Gupta period is imbued with the spirit of true art prevailing at the time. It can rightly be claimed for the Gupta artist that he adorned whatever he touched.”
IV. Iron and Stone Pillars:
The Iron Pillar near the Qutab Minar at Delhi was constructed, probably, by Chandra Gupta II and is the best and lone example of its own kind. Besides the Gupta emperors constructed stone pillars at different places which were used for engraving their inscriptions. Samudra Gupta constructed one at Allahabad and so was done by Buddha Gupta; Chandra Gupta II’s pillar was at Mathura and that of Kumara Gupta I at Vilasad.
Skanda Gupta constructed pillars at Kahom and Bhitri. At the top of the pillar of Buddha Gupta, an image of a lion has been constructed and over it is the image of god Vishnu. The distinguishing feature of these pillars was that they were not round but angular. However, in certain cases their middle portion was kept round.
The construction of Stupas, Chaitya Halls, monasteries, cave-temples and cave dwellings continued during the Gupta period. The contemporary literature refers to magnificent palaces and other buildings which justify that the art of architecture had flourished. However, most of them do not exist now. Only remnants of the palaces at Amravati and Nagarjunakonda have been discovered.
However, the Ajanta caves No. 16 and 17 which exist were constructed during this period. The Bagh-caves near Gwalior too have been regarded belonging to the Gupta-age. These caves were used as abodes for the monks. After cutting mountains, construction of rooms for living and religious purposes was a wonderful art which flourished during the age of the Guptas.
Amongst existing Buddhist buildings, the Stupa at Rajagiri and the Dhamekh Stupa at Sarnath are the most prominent ones. The Stupa at Dhamekh is 39 metres high and there are four Deva-grahas on all the four sides. Remnants of Viharas (residential premises) of Buddhists have been discovered at Nalanda as well. All existing buildings have been regarded good pieces of architecture.
Besides, the novelty of this period was the construction of Hindu temples. The remnants of these temples have been found at Jubbulpore, Bhumara and Udayagiri. A temple of Vishnu has been found at Tigawa in Jubbulpore district. It has flat roof and the doorway has been beautified by engravings of the figures of the Ganga and the Yamuna on its walls. The Siva temple at Bhumara in Nagod State and temple of Parvati in Ajaigarh State also belong to this period. The Siva temple of Bhumara has the images of Ganesa, Kartikeya, Surya etc. on its walls.
The temple at Bhitargaon near Kanpur was constructed of bricks and is beautiful. The Dasavatara temple at Deogarh, another temple at Dah Parbatia in Assam and yet another at Aphol in Bijapur are a few other good specimens of the temples of this age. Among these temples constructed during the age of the Guptas, the Dasavatara-temple at Deogarh in the district of Jhansi has been regarded the best one. It is encircled by four Mandaps while most of the temples of the Gupta-age have only one Mandap.
Besides, the entrance-pillars of the temple have been beautified by constructing many images on them based on the stories of the Puranas. Most of these temples were built of stone but a few were made of bricks as well. The temples which were constructed during the early period had no domes while the ones constructed during later times had domes. These temples were merely shrines for images of gods and goddesses.
They had no place covered or uncovered, for the gathering of worshippers. The construction of big halls in Hindu temples for the gatherings of the devotees began after the Gupta age. Yet, the remnants of the temples of the Gupta age justify that the art of architecture had progressed during this age. S.K. Saraswati writes: “The Gupta age heralded a new epoch in the history of Indian architecture.”
He says that not only beautiful buildings and temples were constructed on a large scale but permanent materials, especially brick and dressed stone were used in their construction which was a novelty.
However, a different opinion has also been expressed. Dr Romila Thapar says: “But it is probably near2r the truth to say that Gupta temples were unimpressive shrines which were either absorbed in domestic architecture or else were built over in later centuries . . . The Hindu temple in northern India did not really come into its own until the eighth century A.D.”
The best specimens of the art of painting of this age are preserved in the wall frescoes of Ajanta caves in Hyderabad and the Bagh caves in Gwalior state. No. 16 and 17 frescoes of Ajanta caves are certainly of the Gupta age. Amongst the painting of cave No. 16, the scene known as ‘Dying Princess’ and in cave No. 17 the ‘Mother and the Child’ group paintings have been regarded as the most beautiful ones.
The wall frescoes of Ajanta caves have received unstinted praise from all art critics. The scenes describing the life and events of the Buddha or the stories of the lives of different Boddhisattvas, the figures of different gods and goddesses, Yaksa and Yaksinis, the birds, the animals, the flowers etc. are so beautifully painted here that the Ajanta frescoes have found their place amongst the best frescoes of the world.
Mr Griffith has remarked, “Here we have art with life in it, human faces full of expression, limbs drawn with grace and action, flowers which bloom, birds which soar and beast that spring or fight or patiently carry burdens; all are taken from nature’s book growing after her pattern, and in this respect differing entirely from Mohammedan art, which is unreal, unnatural and therefore, incapable of development.”
The paintings at Bagh-caves represent an extension of the Ajanta school and rank equally high in variety of design and vigorous execution. Among the frescoes of Bagh, a village near the city, Gwalior No. 4 and No. 5 have been regarded as the best ones. In one of these paintings a musical-dance, led by a man and participated by several women, have been depicted.
In another painting, several male-scholars engaged in discussion, have been depicted. Both the paintings are of a secular nature and, probably, were prepared during the same period of time. Therefore, these are distinct from the frescoes of Ajanta-caves. The effort to depict the physical beauty of both men and women and the expression of their emotions in these frescoes has been regarded unique by several scholars and therefore, praised by them.
Therefore, we can suggest that the art of painting made remarkable progress during the Gupta age. Dr V.S. Agarwal says, “The art of painting reached its perfection in the Gupta age. It appears that training in painting formed a necessary item in the cultural make-up of the Gupta citizen and that every cultured man and woman tried to attain excellence in it during their age.”
It was held for long that the Gandhara school of sculpture influenced all schools of sculpture in India and as Gandhara school was deeply influenced by the Hellenic or Greek art of sculpture the entire Indian art of sculpture bore the imprint of foreign influence. But the view has been refuted now. The Mathura and Amravati schools of sculpture grew independently.
However, while the school of Amravati remained perfectly free from foreign influence, the Mathura school was influenced by Greek art due to some influence of Gandhara art and more because of direct commercial contacts of Indians with the Roman empire by sea. Certainly, the Mathura school provided the base for further progress in the art of the Gupta age but by the time it reached the Gupta age, the Mathura school had made itself perfectly free from the influence of Greek art.
Therefore, it is now universally accepted that the art of sculpture which flourished during the Gupta age was perfectly free from foreign influence. Dr R.C. Majumdar writes, “It was derived from the Mathura type and owes nothing to Greek or any other influence. Indeed, the Gupta sculpture may be regarded as typically Indian and classic in every sense of the term.”
Sculpture has contributed most of the high esteem in which the Gupta art is held and the pivot of Gupta sculptural art is the human figure. Mathura, Sarnath and Pataliputra were the primary centres of this art where beautiful images of the Buddha and different Hindu gods and goddesses were prepared. Many of them are preserved at different places.
Amongst the best specimens of the images of the Buddha of this period are the seated Buddha image from Sarnath, the standing image of Buddha which now is kept in the Mathura Museum, and about 7½ feet high copper statue of Buddha from Sultanganj now kept in the Birmingham Museum. The seated Buddha image from Sarnath depicts the Buddha in the pose of preaching the Dharma.
The fingers of the image are in the dharam-chakra mudra, has halo round the face and is flanked by two small demigods. The standing Buddha image in the Mathura Museum has also a large halo round in its face which represents spiritual strength of the Buddha. The copper image of the Buddha in the Birmingham Museum is also a standing image whose right hand is raised in blessing. Besides these, images of the Buddha and Boddhisattvas have been found at different other places also. Most of these images are now in the Calcutta Museum.
The images of different Hindu gods and goddesses have also been found at different places. Both Saivism and Bhagavatism were popular at this time and images of different gods and goddesses were constructed in large numbers. Amongst them, images of Vishnu and Siva are most numerous. The Ekamukhi (one-face) and the Chaturmukhi (four-face) Sivalinga and the Ardhanarisvara form of Siva representing a synthesis between male and female deity represent a few fine specimens of the art of sculpture of the Gupta age.
The image of Vishnu found at Mathura is as beautiful as the seated Buddha image in the Saniath Museum. The Dasavatara temple at Deogarh (District Jhansi) has beautiful images of Siva, Vishnu, Rama, Krishna and certain other gods and goddesses which are regarded as best pieces of Indian sculpture. Dr V.S. Agrawala writes, “Gajendramoksha Vishnu reclining on Ananta and Mara and Narayana in their Himalayan hermitage, sculptured in the Deogarh temple, rank among the best specimens of Hindu sculpture.”
A set of four beautiful images has been found at Rupavasa near Bharatpur. Amongst them one image of Vishnu is more than 9 feet high while that of Balaram, brother of Krishna is more than 27 feet high. The great Varaha image at Udayagiri near Bhilsa in Madhya Pradesh is another good example of the genius of the Gupta sculptors. Vishnu, in his Varaha avatar image here, has held the earth on his teeth.
The two flanking scenes representing the birth of the river Ganga and Yamuna, their confluence at Prayag and the final merging of their waters into the ocean are also of unusual merit. Another image at Pathari near Udayagiri depicts the birth of Krishna. An image of Krishna raising mountain Govardhan on his finger was found near Kashi and has been kept in the museum of Sarnath.
A beautiful image of Kartikeya sitting on a peacock and now kept in the art museum of Kashi, the Surya-image at Allahabad and different other images depicting the scenes of Krishna and his play-mates found at Rajashati in Bengal are other praise-worthy specimens of Gupta sculptural art. Many images of Jaina Tirthankara Mahavira as well as of others have been found at Mathura and Gorakhpur. These images of Hindu gods and goddesses, the Buddha and the Mahavira etc. found at different places indicate that the art of sculpture had made tremendous progress during the period of the Guptas.
The images at Mathura were built mostly of red stone, that of Sarnath of white marble while at Pataliputra white marble and some metal was used in their making.
The sculpture of their period had its own characteristics.
Some of them were as follows:
I. Beautiful curly hair;
II. A large halo round the face with ornamentation of different kinds;
III. Transparent drapery, plain or with folds, clearly revealing the form of the body;
IV. Expression of peace, piety and calmness on the faces as attributes of spiritual quality; and
V. Elimination of nudity.
The art of Gupta age represents the religious and moral life of its age. The physical beauty, of course, was not neglected but it was covered under transparent garments and emphasis was laid on expression of spiritualism on the faces of the images. Thus, it was the best synthesis of the external form with the inner spirit of man that was depicted in the images of the Gupta period.
Of course, the Indians picked up the art of sculpture from foreigners but by the age of the Guptas they developed their art which was totally free from foreign influence and took it to its best form.. By that time, instead of being in a position to learn from others, the Indians had reached that stage in the field of sculpture that they were in a position to teach it to others.
Havell writes, “India was not then in a stage of pupilage, but the teacher of all Asia and she borrowed western suggestions to mould them to her own way of thinking.” This art of sculpture had reached its perfection during the Gupta age through its natural, evolving and progressive process. Dr Coomarswamy has remarked, “Gupta art marks the zenith in a perfectly normal cycle of artistic evolution.” Further, it helped in the progress of art in South India as well as in the countries of South East Asia where the Indian culture had by then penetrated.
Thus, the Gupta age marked the progress of India, particularly that of North India in every field of life. The political unity of large part of India, its economic prosperity, the spirit of religious toleration, the revival of Hindu religion and Sanskrit literature, the acceptance of foreigners within the Hindu society and religion, progress in fine arts, spreading of Indian culture in foreign countries, particularly those of South-East Asia etc., were such achievements that have provided this period a unique place in ancient Indian history and it deserves to be ranked as the golden age of ancient India. Arvind has rightly remarked, “Never in her history has India seen such a many-sided blossoming of her force in life.”
Several modem scholars, however, have expressed the view that geographically the golden age of the Gupta period was limited only to northern India. Dr Romila Thapar has rightly expressed that in south India, economic prosperity began much after the period of the Guptas. The contention has now been accepted by the majority of historians.
Another view expressed by several modern scholars is that the advantage of the increased prosperity during the Gupta age was drawn largely by rulers, mercantile and trading community and the Brahamanas. The land was given to the Brahamanas first as donations. Then afterwards, it was donated to individuals in lieu of services to the state. It marked the beginning of feudalism which resulted in bringing misery to the peasants, Sudi-as and slaves.
Fa-Hien has described the wretched condition of the Chandalas. It resulted, in some cases, permanent bondage to peasants and social tensions among different castes. Feudalism, later on, was supported by religious texts as well as by contemporary literary writings. Dr. Kosambi has expressed that ‘devotion to master proved a chained slavery for the slave-peasants towards the feudal lords.’
The same attitude was developed in religion in the form of Bhakti-cult which influenced Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism alike. Contemporary Indian dramas also supported feudalism. Even the texts written by the great Sanskrit scholar, Kalidas described values which supported the life-style of rich people. Even in the field of fine arts we find that most of them flourished under the patronage of rich classes and therefore, folk-arts failed to develop. The economic condition of the common people also did not improve during the Gupta age.
Therefore, it is not proper to accept the Gupta age as the golden age of ancient India. This view of these several modern scholars, certainly, has much justification. Yet, we have to understand that the poor were neglected at that time all over the world and the measurement of success and failure of a rule or the rule of a particular dynasty was the contemporary prevailing conditions in general. Therefore, if we assess the Gupta age from the then prevailing code of assessment, we can fairly accept the Gupta age as the golden age of ancient India.