The glory of the culture of the Gupta Age rests on its many-sided and comprehensive character. Almost every branch of culture got enriched during that splendid epoch.
In some of its spheres, like art and literature, the ancient culture of India reached almost its zenith. The cultural attainments of the age of the Guptas are like the proud heritage of the Indian people for all time to come.
The Gupta Age saw great achievements in the following spheres of culture.
It was a noteworthy feature of the Gupta cultural resurgence that all the major religions of India came under fresh impetus during that time for growth and development in one form or the other. An age of benevolence as it was, no religion stood on the way of another in that universal manifestation of spiritual awakening.
The Gupta Emperors were themselves the devotees of Brahmanical Hinduism. Naturally, therefore, they became the patrons of their own faith. They encouraged all branches of Hinduism, such as, Vedism, Vaishnavism, Saivism, and Saktaism. As regards Vedism, the Gupta kings believed in some orthodox practices of the Vedic kings like the Asvamedha sacrifices.
As for Vaishnavism, the Guptas were the worshippers of Vishnu, and Lakshmi. They also adopted as their emblem the vahana of Vishnu, that is, Garuda. They styled themselves as Paramabhagabatas. During their reign, many temples were builts all over the country for the worship of Vishnu under His various names. Saivism also received great devotion. Siva temples were constructed at many places, dedicated to Siva under His several names such as Mahadeva, Maheswara, Hara, Pasupati, etc. Similarly, Sakti worship began to gain ground. Temples of Bhavani, Parvati came into existence in many places of India.
The Gupta period also saw the worship of Kartikeya as the God of War. The Guptas, being brave fighters, paid much devotion to this God for their victory in battles. The worship of Surya also came into prominence. Many gods and goddesses came to be worshipped by the people all over the land. The number of Hindu deities was innumerable. Because of such developments, the Gupta Age is described by some historians as an age of Brahmanical revival.
Great monarchs like Asoka and Kanishka in former times were the patrons of Buddhism. But the Gupta Emperors were orthodox Hindus. It was natural that as Hindus, they paid veneration to different worships and practices of Hinduism as a matter of faith. Hinduism, which continued as the fountain-source of Buddhism even in the days of Asoka and Kanishka, had seldom declined when Buddhism was at its zenith.
Under the Guptas, however, it became more glamorous with the splendor of emerging new cults and practices. One of the new trends in Hinduism which came to take root in the Gupta Age was the faith in Bhakti or the intense devotion to God. It became the most important feature of Vaishnavism from this time.
Though the Puranic Hinduism was thus in its high tide, the Gupta Age also saw Buddhism and Jainism growing in their own way according to the needs of the time. The Buddhist and Jaina faiths had their many powerful exponents during this period. Great literary works on these religions appeared from the pen of famous philosophers which enhanced the prestige of those faiths.
The Gupta rulers encouraged such divines with admiration. They also were charitable towards the Buddhist centres and monasteries. Buddhist holy places like Sarnath and Sanchi received the royal patronage, and developed into unique centers of Buddhist art and sculpture. The Jaina religious places also developed into excellent image-making centres during this time. The Gupta Age saw the sweeping force of Mahayanism dominating the Buddhists. This development brought Buddhism nearer to Hinduism. Sanskrit, not Pali, became the religious literature of the Mahayana Buddhists. This made the language of the Brahmins and the Buddhists one and the same.
The Mahayana Buddhism advocated the worship of the image of the Buddha and of the Bodhisattvas. This brought it nearer to Hindu idol worship. Most interestingly, the Gupta period saw the emergence of the image of the Buddha as Bhagavan. Hinduism, in its unlimited liberalism, came to accept Buddha as a God of the Hindus. Buddha came to be worshipped as an incarnation of Vishnu. Thus that the Gupta Age saw a great religious upheaval affecting all faiths and all people. This upheaval vastly influenced the literature, philosophy, art and architecture, promoting their development in many ways.
The Gupta Age is regarded as the golden age of the Sanskrit literature. Sanskrit was both the state language of the time as well as the language of religion and culture. Being the Lingua franca of India, Sanskrit received utmost attention of the rulers and the educated, of religious and secular writers, and of the preachers of various faiths.
Great sages like Panini, Vararuchi, and Patanjali gave to Sanskrit its required character as an attractive medium of thought and expression, Brahmins, Buddhists, and Jainas equally favoured this language as the sacred language of their religions. The imperial Guptas became the great patrons of Sanskrit. As a result, the Sanskrit literature reached its lofty height during the Gupta Age.
Regarding the beauty of this language, an English Orientalist, Sir William Jones, wrote in 1784: “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and exquisitely refined than either.” Among the men of letters who made the Sanskrit literature richer and more magnificent, the following names shine in bright colour. Their works not only made the Gupta period glorious, but the Sanskrit literature great.
Kalidasa who is honoured as one of the greatest poets of the world, and is described as the Shakespeare of India, belonged to the Gupta period. An inscription, discovered most recently, in 1964, establishes his birth in Ujjayini and shows him as a contemporary of King Vikramaditya, who was obviously Chandragupta II Vikramaditya.
According to legends, Kalidasa was a Brahmana by birth, and was ignorant and uneducated. Through the trick of some persons he could marry a princess. But when he was discovered to be a fool, he left the house in search of learning and through the grace of a goddess, ultimately became a celebrated poet. Tradition has led the people to believe that Kalidasa was one of the nine gems or Navaratna of the court of King Vikramaditya of Ujjayini. History has accepted him as “the Prince of Sanskrit poets and Dramatists.”
Kalidasa perfected the Kavya style and the art of poetry in Sanskrit. Human sentiments, presented in ornamental style, made his poetic works superb. The most famous dramas of Kalidasa were Malavikagnimitra and Sakuntala. In the first one, he deals with the theme of love between prince Agnimitra and the princess Malavika.
In Sakuntala, which is acknowledged as one of the world’s masterpieces in drama, Kalidasa deals with the romance between Dushyanta and Sakuntala, their secret marriage, their separation, and their final reunion. His another famous play was Vikramorvasi. The Sakuntala of Kalidasa has been regarded as the greatest of all the classical Sanskrit dramas.
It is said that when Sir William Jones translated ‘Sakuntala’ of Kalidasa into English and published it in 1789, it created a sensation among the Europeans that such a wonderful drama could have been written in ancient times, describing human emotion and feeling in such a superb way. The work was translated to German, French, Danish, Italian and other languages. The celebrated German poet Goethe was so powerfully impressed by this magnificient work that he regarded it as the greatest drama ever written in any literature.
Goethe’s famous exclamation speaks of his feeling:
“And all by which the soul it
Charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in
One sole name combined?
I name thee,0 Sakuntala, and all at once is said.”
Among the great Kavyas of Kalidasa, the most famous are the Ritusamhara or the ‘Cycle of the Seasons’, Meghaduta or the ‘Cloud Messenger’, Kumarsambhava or the ‘Birth of Kumara’, and Raghuvamsa or the ‘Race of Raghu’.
The ‘Cycle of Seasons’ is a wonderful description of Nature and its rhythms in relation to human moods and sentiments. The ‘Cloud Messenger’ describes the emotion of an exiled Yaksha from heaven who sends his message to his wife through a passing cloud. Kumarasambhava describes the wedding of Siva and Parvati, and the birth of the god of war for destruction of a demon. The Raghuvamsa, which is a Mahakavya, describes of Rama’s ancestors, of Rama himself, and of Rama’s successors in Ayodhya.
The extravagant beauty of style, the poetic emotion in descriptions, the close observations on Nature and life, the majestic appeal to human mind, and the serenity of the themes, rendered the works of Kalidasa immortal. Kalidasa’s contributions made the world literature richer.
The western world came to regard some of the works of Kalidasa as so excellent in philosophy and feeling that they could not find their parallel in other great languages. For example, regarding the Meghaduta or the ‘cloud messenger’ in which Kalidasa described the separation of a lover from his beloved, and asked a floating cloud to travel far to carry and pass over his message of love, a western scholar named Ryder discovered two wonderful divisions in that poem, namely, Nature and Human Nature : He commented.
“The former half is a description of external nature, yet interwoven with human feeling; the latter half is a picture of a human heart, yet the picture is framed in natural beauty. So exquisitely is the thing done that none can say which half is superior. Of those who read this perfect poem in the original text, some by the other.
Kalidasa understood in the fifth century what Europe did not learn until the nineteenth, and even now comprehends only imperfectly, that the world was not made for man, that man reaches his full stature only as he realizes the dignity and worth of life that is not human. That Kalidasa seized this truth is a magnificent tribute to his intellectual power, a quality quite as necessary to great poetry as perfection of form.”
Sudraka, another famous Sanskrit author of the Gupta Age, wrote his wonderful social drama known as Mrichchhakatika or the ‘Little Clay Cart’. It contains many interesting features, such as, scenes of refined humour, and of deep pathos. It gives a penetrating picture of human nature in its varied form. The drama is full of lively episodes and is considered as a masterly work of Sanskrit literature.
The celebrated author of the famous drama, Mudra-Rakshasa was Visakhadatta. This drama deals with a theme describing the heroic deeds of Chandragupta Maurya in coming to the throne of Magadha. Being a political drama, it contained exciting scenes, full of suspense and interests. Visakhadatta was the author of another drama known as Devi-Chandraguptam. His writings indirectly reflect the characters of a heroic age as that of the Guptas, and point to the nature of political situations of ancient times.
Another interesting literary figure of the age was Bhartrihari who is said to have renounced the world to lead a saintly life after passing through the painful experiences of life. He was at once a philosopher, grammarian and poet. He was the author of the Three Satakas, famous for their lyrical composition. His themes were on policy, love, and renunciation. They contained valuable instructions, presented in an appealing style. To some, he might have belonged to a little later time.
One of the most renowned literary works of the Gupta Age was the Panchatantra, composed by Vishnu Sharma. This has come to be regarded as a notable contribution to the world literature. Its impact on the Western world is most impressive. Nearly two hundred versions of this work are to be seen in a large number of languages, including German, Italian, Greek, Spanish, and English.
The Gupta period gave birth to a number of other writers who enriched the literature of that time. There was Bharavi who wrote Kiratarjuna or the ‘Hunter and Arjuna’. In this poetic work, Siva appears before Arjuna as a hunter while he was in penance. Harishena, the author of the Allahabad Prasasti of Samudragupta, was also a poet of repute.
The authors of the Puranas also enriched the literature greatly. Though the Puranas were being written much before the age of the Guptas, they received their final shape during this time. Similarly, other religious literature also grew in their volumes in this creative epoch.
During the Gupta golden age, the Indian philosophy, like the Indian literature, passed through a vigorous phase of its development. The famous Smritis of Yajnavalkya, Narada, Katyayana and Brihaspati were composed during this period. Early in the period, Sabarasvamin wrote his famous Bhashya on the Mimamsa Sutras, making Mimamsa a complete system of philosophy.
The Samkhya philosophy was propounded by Iswarakrishna in his Samkhya-Karika. Patanjali wrote Vyasa-Bhashya on the Yoga-Sutras. Vatsyayana brought out his great work Nyayabhashya on the Nyaya system of philosophy. The Hindu philosophy found a wider dimension from all such works.
The Gupta Age also saw some further thoughts on the Buddhist philosophy. Both the Hinayana and the Mahayana thoughts were given new philosophical interpretations. Among the Hinayana philosophers were the celebrated authors like Buddhaghosha, and Buddhadatta. Among the Mahayana philosophers were famous thinkers like Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Dinnaga.
The Jaina philosophies also developed side by side other philosophical movements. The Jaina canon was reviewed, and commentaries on the sacred texts were written.
4. Mathematics and Astronomy:
The Gupta Age was blessed with one of the unique mathematicians and astronomers ever born in India. He was Aryabhatta, born in 476 A.D. in Pataliputra. He wrote his famous work known as the Arya-Bhattyam.
In this, he propounded several important theories on arithmetic, algebra and geometry. He established the principle of the place value of the first nine numbers and the use of zero. The invention of the decimal system in mathematics was a remarkable contribution to world knowledge.
Aryabhatta also wrote Surya Siddhanta. In that work, he propounded the real causes of the solar and the lunar eclipses. Till his time, the Indians believed in the imaginary descriptions of the Puranas that eclipses were due to the demon Rahu who swallowed up the sun and the moon in periodical intervals. Rejecting such absurd beliefs, Aryabhatta made another mighty contribution to the science of astronomy when he proclaimed that the earth revolves round its axis. He also showed the variations in planetary motions. The disciples of Aryabhatta developed mathematics and astronomy to considerable extents.
Another famous man of the age was Varahamihira. His work Brihat Samhita dealt with astronomy, botany, physical geography and natural history. He was also the author of Brihajjataka, Laghujataka and Pancha Siddhanta. Varahamihira is also renowned as the greatest astrologer of his time.
There were several other astronomers and mathematicians who made valuable contributions to ancient knowledge. Brahmagupta, for example, declared long long before Newton that “all things fall to the earth by a law of Nature; for it is the nature of the earth to attract and keep things.”
Thus did the Gupta Age show its progress in some fundamental branches of learning. That ancient India was much advanced in the fields of mathematics and astronomy stands as a fact of history. At a much later time, the Arabs came to learn much of mathematics and astronomy of the Hindus, and they, passed those knowledge to Europe.
During the Gupta period, chemistry as a branch of science made notable progress. Metallurgical science was far more advanced in India than in other countries. A glaring proof of this is to be seen in the 24 feet high and 180 maund heavy Iron Pillar of the Gupta period, found at Mehrauli near Delhi. This wonderful pillar has not got rusted through centuries of time, though exposed to rains and atmosphere. It looks like polished stone, and many observers believed it to be so.
The Gupta Age, being an age of intense religious interests, saw the construction of countless temples and other religious monuments. Majestic temples for various Hindu gods such as Vishnu, Siva, Surya and Kartikeya, as well as splendid shrines for the Buddha, and the Jaina Tirthankaras were erected in many parts of the country. Side by side, the Gupta builders constructed wonderful gateways, lofty pillars, and attractive edifices at the holy places and religious centres. Unfortunately, most examples of the Gupta architecture have been lost to posterity. The Huna invaders destroyed most of those works. Many disappeared under the ravages of time.
Among the few surviving examples of the Gupta architecture, the famous Dasavatara Temple at Deogarh in Jhansi district of Uttar Pradesh is considered the best. The body of the temple is covered with beautiful sculpture with many figures. The other structures of the period include the Vishnu Temple of Tigawa in Jabalpur district, the Siva Temple of Bhumra in Madhya Pradesh, the Temple of Parvati in the former Ajaigarh state, and the Buddhist shrines of Bodh Gaya and Sanchi.
Besides the structures in stones, the Gupta temple-architecture were also erected in brick. Among the brick temples, the most famous one is the temple at Bhitargaon in Kanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. The beautiful designs on the body of the temple show the artistic talent of the builders who could mould the bricks in various forms.
The Gupta monuments were built under the Puranic religious concepts. They represented both balance and beauty. Built both in stone and brick, they maintained external decorations of a higher order. They were built in great many numbers, but have been swept away by the tides of time.
The Gupta period saw the classic phase of Indian sculpture. Through centuries of evolution, this art of sculpture-making reached a stage of perfection. The sculptors were matured enough to transform stone into images of superb beauty. They were under no external influence. Their technique of art was at its best. In perfect precision and masterly skill, they could shape the stone into any object of attraction. They also set pattern to their art which became an ideal model for the future. Their works became the model for the coming ages.
The Gupta sculpture was at its best in giving shape to the images of the deities and divinities, both of the Brahmanical and Buddhist faiths. Countless numbers of images were cut into shape at several centres for their installation in numberless temples and shrines. On the bodies of the temples also such figures were plentifully displayed. Sculpture-making became a major occupation, and the sculptors with their skill played a prominent role in the religious revolution of that period.
Among the finest examples of the Gupta sculpture, the images of Buddha in large numbers stand out the foremost. The seated image of Buddha belonging to Sarnath has been rightly regarded as the finest of all Buddha images in India. Of this it has been said that “the icon of Buddha turning the Wheel of Law or preaching his first sermon, which more than any other Indian sculpture, seems to convey the true messages of Buddhism.” The standing Buddha of Mathura, and the colossal copper statue of Buddha which is now in a British museum (taken from Sultanganj) are some other excellent examples of the Gupta sculpture.
The sculptors were indeed men of genius. They could express on stone the serene mood of Buddha to represent the Lord as if in his true being. The beauty of the Buddha’s body, the majesty of his appearance, and the grace on his face, prove that the art of sculpture was at its most splendid hour.
The Hindu images, too, went by the physical beauty of their figures, dignity of their divinity, and grace of their spiritual being. Among the best examples of Hindu images, the Vishnu Image of Mathura and the Varaha Image of Udaygiri are considered wonderful. On the body of the Deogarh Temple, the scultures represent the episodes relating to Rama and Krishna. They are of attractive style.
The images of Siva and of other Hindu gods and goddesses were made in large numbers at various places. All of them possessed dignity. Their faces revealed spiritual expression and moods of divinity according to the puranic descriptions of their individuality. It seems, as if, the sculptors, were translating the themes, from Sanskrit texts into religious versions on stones. The Gupta sculture thus enhanced the value of the Indian culture greatly. They remained as models for the posterity. They also served as models for the Indian sculptural art in several countries of South-East Asia.
Art of Painting:
The excellence of the art of painting was yet another glory of the Gupta Age. The fresco-paintings on the walls and ceilings of the world famous Ajanta caves are the brightest examples of that refined art. For millions of art-lovers from all parts of the world, Ajanta is like a place of pilgrimage. Much of the Ajanta paintings did not survive the centuries of time. Of the 29 caves, the paintings of 16 caves continued to exist till last century. But most of those precious art also got damaged or destroyed. Yet, whatever of that artistic wealth could survive till now, are considered as wonders of world art heritage.
The painters of Ajanta were at work from much earlier times, perhaps from 1st century A.D. or even earlier. But it was during the Gupta period that most of the paintings were worked out. More than that, the art came to its perfection during that time. The artists were inspired by great ideals to draw their pictures in a superb way. They used bright colours. They adopted spiritual themes as well as secular as the subject-matter of drawing. The scenes of their painting looked most natural, and the figures most life-like.
They painted the figures of Buddha, depicted his previous births, and showed the various incidents of his life as taken from the Jataka stories. They also worked out other themes to represent the realities of life and existence. The scenes of “The Dying Princess” and “The Mother and Child”, among other numerous scenes, show the excellent skill of the artists in presenting human figures together with their feeling, emotion, pathos, sentiment and mood. Every piece of painting in Ajanta Caves is like a masterpiece of art. There are interesting palace scenes, scenes of gandarvas and apsaras, and scenes of social life.
The paintings in Ellora and Bagh Caves were also of high standard. Good portions of those works have not survived. Painting being a very delicate thing, it fails to resist the havoc of Nature. At many more places, as in Ajanta and Ellora, the art of painting of the past have succumbed to the ravages of time.
The Ajanta style of art aimed at covering most subjects of religious, spiritual and social values. The art aimed at carrying a deep appeal to the human mind to create a permanent impression. The gods and sages, kings and queens, men, women and children, birds and beasts, trees and flowers, palaces and houses, and the scenes of varying subjects, all painted in appropriate colour, carried their deeper meaning for men’s thought and imagination.
An authority on the Indian Art, A. Coomaraswami, summed up saying: “Gupta art is the flower of our established tradition, a polished and perfect medium, like the Sanskrit language, for an establishment of thought and feeling…. Philosophy and faith possess a common language in this art that is at once abstract and sensuous, reserved and passionate.”
The Indian art influenced the art outside. The Indian fresco- paintings were imitated in Central Asia and its influence entered deep into Buddhist China.
For all these above mentioned reasons, the culture of the Gupta Age went by its unique value and excellence. Many features of that culture left the legacies for the future. The greatest works of such immortal sons of India as Kalidasa and Aryabhatta, and the great objects of timeless appeal as Sarnath Buddha and the Ajanta fresco will continue to represent the glories of the Gupta Age. They too, are like the priceless cultural heritage of India’s rich past.