In contrast to the Maurya rulers, the Gupta kings adopted pompous titles such asparameshvara, maharajadhiraja, and paramabhattaraka which signify that they ruled over many lesser kings in their empire.
Kingship was hereditary, but royal power was limited by the want of a firm adherence to primogeniture.
The throne did not always go to the eldest son, creating uncertainties of which the chiefs and high officials took advantage.
The Guptas made munificent gifts to the brahmanas, who expressed their gratitude by comparing the king to different gods. He was looked upon as Vishnu, the protector and preserver. The goddess Lakshmi is invariably represented on Gupta coins as Vishnu’s wife. The numerical strength of the Gupta army is not known. Evidently the king maintained a standing army, which was supplemented by the forces occasionally supplied by his feudatories. Horse chariots receded into the background, and cavalry came to the fore. Horse archery became an important element in military tactics.
During the Gupta period land taxes increased in number, and those on trade and commerce decreased. Probably the king collected taxes varying from one-fourth to one-sixth of the produce. In addition, whenever the royal army passed through the countryside, the local people had to feed it. The peasants had also to supply animals, food grains, furniture, etc., for the maintenance of royal officers on duty in rural areas. In central and western India, the villagers were also subjected to forced labour called vishti by the royal army and officials.
The judicial system was far more developed under the Guptas than in earlier times. Several law-books were compiled during this period, and for the first time civil and criminal laws were clearly demarcated. Theft and adultery fell under criminal law, disputes regarding various types of property under civil law.
Elaborate laws were laid down about inheritance. As in earlier times, many laws continued to be based on varna differentiation. It was the duty of the king to uphold the law, and try cases with the help of brahmana priests. The guilds of artisans, merchants, and others were governed by their own laws. Seals from Vaishali and from Bhita near Allahabad indicate that these guilds flourished during Gupta times.
The Gupta bureaucracy was not as elaborate as that of the Mauryas. The most important officers in the Gupta empire were the kumaramatyas. They were appointed by the king in the home provinces and possibly paid in cash. As the Guptas were possibly vaishyas, recruitment was not confined to the upper varnas only, but several offices were combined in the hands of the same person, and posts became hereditary. This naturally weakened royal control.
The Guptas organized a system of provincial and local administration. The empire was divided into divisions called bhukth, and each bhukti was placed under the charge of an uparika. The bhuktis were divided into districts (vishayas), which were placed under the charge of a vishayapati. In eastern India, the vishayas were divided into vithis, which again were subdivided into villages. The village headman gained in importance in Gupta times, managing village affairs with the assistance of elders. With the administration of a village or a small town, leading local elements were associated. No land transactions could be effected without their consent.
In the urban administration, organized professional bodies were given a considerable say. The sealings from Vaishali show that artisans, merchants, and the head of the guild served on the same corporate body, and in this capacity they obviously conducted the affairs of the town. The administrative board of the district of Kotivarsha in north Bengal (Bangladesh) included the chief merchant, the chief trader, and the chief artisan. Their consent to land transactions was considered necessary. Artisans and bankers were organized into their own separate guilds. We hear of numerous guilds of artisans, traders, etc., at Bhita and Vaishali.
At Mandasor in Malwa and at Indore, silk weavers maintained their own guilds. In the district of Bulandshahar in western UP, the oil-pressers were organized into guilds. It seems that these guilds, especially those of merchants, enjoyed certain immunities. In any event, they looked after the affairs of their own members and punished those who violated the laws and customs of the guild.
The system of administration described above applied only to north Bengal, Bihar, UP, and some adjoining areas of MP, which were ruled directly by the officers appointed by the Gupta kings. The major part of the empire was held by feudatory chiefs, many of whom had been subjugated by Samudragupta. The vassals who lived on the edge of the empire had three obligations to fulfill.
As subordinate princes, they offered homage to the sovereign by personal attendance at his court, paid tribute to him, and presented to him daughters in marriage. It seems that in return they obtained charters to rule their areas, and these, marked with the royal Garuda seal, seem to have been issued to the vassals. The Guptas thus controlled several tributary princes in MP and elsewhere.
The second important feudal development that surfaced under the Guptas was the grant of fiscal and administrative concessions to priests and administrators. Started in the Deccan by the Satavahanas, the practice became a regular affair in Gupta times, particularly in MP. Religious functionaries were granted land, free of tax, for posterity, and they were authorized to collect from the peasants all the taxes that once went directly to the emperor. The villages granted to the beneficiaries could not be entered by royal agents, retainers, and others, and the beneficiaries were also empowered to punish criminals.
Whether state officials were paid by grants of land in Gupta times is not clear. The abundance of gold coins would suggest that higher officials continued to be paid in cash, but some of them may have been remunerated by land grants. As much of the imperial administration was managed by feudatories and beneficiaries, the Gupta rulers did not require as many officials as did the Mauryas, and also because, in contrast to the Maurya state, the Gupta slate did not regulate economic activities on any substantial scale.
The participation of leading artisans, merchants, elders, and others in the rural and urban administration also lessened the need to maintain a large retinue of officers. The Guptas neither needed nor had the elaborate administrative machinery of Maurya times, and in some ways their political system appears to have been feudal.