The Gupta Empire of Ancient India is often regarded as one of the high points of Indian civilization. It was not only one of the greatest states in Indian history, it was a period of great achievements in art, literature and science. Some of these achievements rank as some of the most important in world history. It was also a period of change, as Indian civilization evolved from its ancient form to its more modern manifestation.
Centuries prior to the advent of the Gupta empire, the Maurya empire had arisen in 3rd century BCE. This was a huge state, covering the majority of the Indian subcontinent. For several centuries after it had vanished no empire arose in India to take its place. Indeed, whilst the Maurya empire fragmented into several kingdoms, these in turn tended to fragment into ever smaller, more numerous, kingdoms. By the 4th century CE, the subcontinent was covered by a huge numbers of states of varying size and power, with none in a dominant position.
This changed in the 4th century CE, with the rise of the Gupta empire. Although this state never achieved the dimensions of the Maurya, it was, for a century or more, by far the largest state within the Indian subcontinent, and its influence spread over a wide area through diplomacy, marriage alliances and cultural attraction.
The Gupta era is often regarded as the high point of Ancient Indian civilization. It was a period of great achievements in art, literature and science. It was also a period of change, as Indian civilization slowly evolved from its ancient form to its more modern manifestation.
Magadha and the rise of the Gupta empire
The Maurya empire was, in essence, a super-sized expansion of the historic kingdom of Magadha. With the decline of the Maurya empire in the 3rd and early 2nd centuries CE, the line of kings of the Maurya dynasty ended, to be followed by a succession of obscure dynasties until the 4th century CE. By then the kingdom had been reduced to the status of just one kingdom amongst many in northern India.
The Gupta dynasty came to power in the late 3rd century CE. Chandragupta I (reigned 318-30) was the first major king of the Gupta dynasty, inheriting the throne of Magadha in 318 AD. He married the heiress of the Lichavvi kingdom, and was thus able to weld together the military resources of the two states. With these, he set about extending his kingdom’s territory by conquering neighboring territories.
Chandragupta’s successor Samudragupta (330-75) continued this process until his kingdom covered the eastern half of the great Ganges plain.He then turned his attention south, and in what must have been a grand procession of conquest far into southern India, brought many kingdoms under his sovereignty,
The next of the Gupta emperors, Chandragupta II (375-415), brought the Gupta empire to the height of its power.
He had to spend the first years of his reign quelling rebellions from amongst the subordinate rulers. He then extended his kingdom’s borders in north-central India before mounting a major attack on the Sakas (Western Satraps). He succeeded in destroying their power and bringing their territories under his control.
Chandragupta II also strengthened the Gupta regime by a judicious marriage alliance with the Vakataka dynasty, the dominant power in the Deccan. His daughter, Prabhavati, married the Vakataka king Rudrasena II, who died soon afterwards. This left Prabhavati as regent for her two young sons in succession for a period of twenty years (c. 390-410). During this time the Vakataka kingdom acted in close alliance with the Gupta.
By the time of his death, Chandragupta II had brought the Gupta Empire to its widest extent. His son, Kumaragupta (415-54), was able to reign in peace, as all the other kings in India were in awe of the Gupta.
Kumaragupta’s successor, Skandagupta (454-67) had to face an uprising at the beginning of his reign, which he was only able to put down after a bloody fight. Later, his reign saw a development of major importance, which would have a baneful impact of Gupta fortunes. This was the emergence of the Huns, a nomadic people from the steppes of central Asia, to power Afghanistan.
The Gupta were able to fend off Hun attacks for some time, but after Skandagupta’s death the Gupta empire began a slow decline. A succession of weak kings were unable to control the centrifugal tendencies within the empire which undermined the empire’s cohesion.
When Hun attacks began again in earnest, in the 6th century, they finished off what remained of the empire. By about the mid-century mark it had vanished altogether.
Politically, the Gupta empire consisted of two kinds of territory. The central core of the empire was made up of territory directly governed by the Gupta king.
In this area, a hierarchy of royal officials formed a chain of command which reached down from the monarch, his ministers and court, through provincial governors (of whom there were twenty six at one time, presumably at the empire’s height), to district officials. These latter were assisted by a district council made up of local notables. The individual villages which made up the district were under local headmen.
The other portion was made up of a large number of tributary kingdoms. These had at one time or another been defeated by the Gupta, or in some case voluntarily submitted to Gupta overlordship. Instead of annexing kingdoms, and wiping them off the map, the Gupta allowed their kings to keep their thrones and remain responsible for administering affairs within their own territories.
So long as they remained loyal, and continued to send tribute to the imperial court, these kings kept their thrones as subject, or tributary, kings.
This arrangement was in marked contrast to the political situation in other regions of the world. Both the Roman empire in the West and the Han empire of China were predominantly administered by centrally-appointed officials of the emperors. The Gupta empire was not at all uncommon in India, however; it was in fact the norm.
The great ambition of successful Indian rulers was to be seen as a “King of Kings”. Their aim was to have as many kings subordinate to them as possible. This was what gave them the greatest prestige, in an Indian context. They seem not to have been motivated by annexing as much territory as they could to rule directly.
This state of affairs tended to mean that large states were often short-lived in India. The Gupta empire was lucky in that, for several generations, it was ruled by a line of able rulers who enjoyed the loyalty and obedience of their subordinate kings.
Even the Gupta dynasty was in danger on the death of a king. In these transitions of power, when a youth took his place on the Gupta throne, unknown and untested, some subordinate kings took this opportunity to rebel and try to break away from Gupta rule.
Fortunately for the Gupta, as we have seen, until the later 5th century, their emperors are largely successful in putting these rebellions down.
To what extent the Gupta army was similar to other Indian armies of the time is difficult to assess, given the state of the evidence. However, it was different from earlier armies, for example that of the Mauryan empire, in certain key respects.
There was the same emphasis on infantry, which formed the bulk of the army. And like the Mauryan army, there was strong corps of elephants. There was a much larger cavalry arm, however, and this was more heavily armed. Unlike in Mauryan times, when the horsemen had mainly fought with bows and arrows, the Gupta cavalry had picked up the ways of central Asian horsemen in that they wore heavy armor (and so were presumably mounted on heavier and stronger horses), and their main weapons were lances and swords. This implies that they fought up close with the enemy rather than from a distance, as had been the case in earlier times.
Another contrast with the Mauryan military was that the Gupta had a strong navy. The Maurya certainly had warships, but these seemed to have played little part in battles. The Gupta navy, on the other hand, formed one of the five branches of the military establishment (the others being elephants, cavalry, chariots and infantry), and must therefore have had a role of real significance. Whether this was for troop transport or in battle, or on rivers or oceans, is unfortunately not known.
Hinduism, as a religion with specific doctrines, had yet to emerge properly from the broad Vedic practices and beliefs of ancient India. There was still therefore a wide religious space in which different belief systems, such as Buddhism and Jainism, could flourish. Gupta kings endowed the establishments of both Buddhism and Hinduism with equal generosity.
Things were beginning to change, however. Vedic sacrifices, still an integral part of royal ritual, seem to have been losing their hold on ordinary people’s spiritual lives during the Gupta period. More emotional cults, often local in character and involving personal devotion to a deity, were becoming more popular.
These local deities became increasingly associated with mainstream deities, above all Shiva and Vishnu, whose cults (Shaiva and Vaishnava respectively) started their rise to prominence across India at this time. The great set of religious writings called the Puranas were reworked at this time to promote the worship of Shiva and Vishnu; and the ancient Vedic epics, hitherto transmitted orally from generation to generation, began to be recast and written down during the Gupta era. For example one of the seminal Hindu texts, called the Bhagavad Gita, was incorporated into the great Mahabharata epic probably in the 4th or 5th centuries CE.
These developments were beginning to transform the Vedic tradition into what we can recognize as Hinduism. The new cults were given sanction by the Brahman priestly caste, which successfully brought them under its authority.
This process of change was deeply influenced by Buddhist beliefs and practices. Buddhist teachings emphasizing compassion (alien to ancient Vedic tradition) and practices involving meditation began to enter Hinduism. Whereas the ancient Vedic emphasis had been on the propitiation of the gods, there was now, as noted above, a growing emphasis on a more personal devotion to a deity.
With the rise of this new, more popular kind of Hinduism, Buddhism began a long decline in the Indian subcontinent. This process would take many centuries to complete, but the early stages in the rise of Hinduism in its modern form were already detectible at the time of the Gupta Empire.
In the Gupta period, however, Buddhism was still very widespread. The Chinese monk Faxian, who travelled extensively in India at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, reported seeing large numbers of monasteries, which together housed thousands of monks.
The growing influence of Hinduism – and of its guardians, the Brahmin caste – can be seen in various ways within Indian society under the Guptas.
The ancient four-fold varna system of castes – the Brahmins (priests), Kshatrya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants) and Shudras (peasants) – began to become more rigid in Gupta times. In particular, the Brahmin caste strengthened its influence over Indian society.
In early Gupta times, the caste system was comparatively fluid. Brahmins were not restricted to following the priestly calling, and some Khastriyas were involved in trade and commerce. As time went on, however, the Brahmins called on their fellow Hindus to have a greater concern for ritual purity. Living and working outside one’s own caste environment therefore became more difficult. For example, it was in this period that it Brahmins stated that overseas travel and trade were to be avoided (see below, trade). This was because foreign travel would lead to contact with foreigners, who were, by definition, outside the caste system and therefore a source of spiritual pollution.
At the bottom of Indian society, the status of the millions of outcastes declined, again due to the concern for ritual purity. Contact with them polluted those of caste, and outcastes were increasingly made to live outside the walls of cities.
In comparison with the outcastes, there are indications that the status of the Shudras (peasants) increased, as at least they were within the bounds of the caste system.
The influence of the Brahmins can be seen in the growing rigidity, not just of social groups but of occupational ones as well. Up to now these had allowed some movement between them, but in Gupta times they started on the road to becoming exclusively hereditary sub-castes within the broader varna system.
Another trend in Indian society at the time of the Gupta, which was also attributable to Brahmin influence, was that society became increasingly patriarchal. The senior male’s position as master of the house was enhanced, and the status of women declined. Girls were forced into earlier marriages at this time.
This decline in women’s status was not just apparent within households, but also in the public sphere. There are indications that women had been able to sit on local village and district councils in early Gupta times; later, however, membership became restricted entirely to men.
From this period, also, the idea began to spread, at least in higher levels of Hindu society, that a virtuous widow should throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre.
Ironically, these developments went hand in hand with the growing popularity of the worship of the Mother Goddess, and the idealization of women in literature.
One final development within society at this time which was the result of increased Brahminic influence was that the status of cows as sacred animals rose – related to which, vegetarianism seems to have become more widespread.
Cities in the Gupta empire
The mass of the population of India lived in farming villages – a fact true of all societies around the world in pre-industrial times. However, there were many large cities in Gupta India. Some of these were ports and trading centers (for example Broach and Sopara on the west coast of India, and Tamralipta on the east coast), and others were centers of pilgrimage (for example Varanasi and Mathura).
Pataliputra, the capital (the modern city of Patna), was by far the largest, and one of the biggest cities in the world. The Chinese monk Faxian, visiting the city in early Gupta times, was awe-struck by its magnificent palaces and temples, as well as by the many Buddhist monasteries there. He also noted the presence of free hospitals and other charitable institutions for the poor, paid for by wealthy citizens.
The Gupta period was a time of prosperity, with trade reaching its peak in ancient India at this time.
One interesting indication of this is that the rate of interest on trading voyages had decreased from 240% per voyage in earlier times to 20% now. This reflects much greater confidence in such voyages, and the greater numbers of voyages over which risks could be spread.
At this time, Indian merchants and seamen dominated the Indian Ocean trade routes. They had trading links as far afield as the Sasanian empire of Persia and the Byzantine empire, in the west, and with South East Asia and China in the east.
The State naturally benefitted from the revenues flowing into its treasury from the custom duties at the numerous ports, such as Broach and Sopara. Unsurprisingly, the Gupta regime sought to encourage trade by various means – for example by maintaining rest houses for travelers on the highways, and building safe docks and even lighthouses at ports.
Sadly, the seeds of Indian leadership in overseas trade was being sown at this time, another manifestation of growing Brahmin influence (see above).
It was in the Gupta period that Brahminical law began to state that travel by sea was impure, and the participation of Hindus in overseas trade began to diminish. This was left increasingly to Buddhist traders. As we have seen, however, this could not be a long term trend as Buddhism itself was in decline in the subcontinent.
Over the next few centuries Muslim traders would come to dominate maritime trade in the Indian Ocean region.
Under the Gupta empire the culture of ancient India reached its peak. It was a time of tremendous achievement in a wide range of fields.
The impression given is that culture was given high priority in Gupta India. The great Gupta emperors were certainly a prolific fount of patronage of learning and culture. They endowed many cities with wonderful Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries, along with the abundant statuary with which they were furnished. The great university of Nalanda, which would become the leading international center of Buddhist learning, was founded by one of later Gupta emperors.
Faxian noted seeing large numbers of Buddhist monasteries in northern India, housing thousands of monks. Many monks were well known scholars, and monasteries famous for their leaning attracted students from all over India. Faxian himself spent three years studying Sanskrit language and Buddhist scriptures at Pataliputra.
Hindu scholars were also prolific at this time, with major achievements to their name. They often lived and worked in cities, close to centers of power. The best-known worked at the Gupta court, under the patronage of the emperors themselves. Their Buddhist contemporaries, meanwhile, tended to remain in their monasteries, often located in isolated places far removed from the distractions of power and wealth.
During the Gupta period regional languages continued their long-term evolution as literary languages. But it was Sanskrit that was the language of scholarship, official records and courtly conversation. Although it was understood by only a tiny minority of people, any work with any pretensions to scholarly or literary credibility throughout the subcontinent would have to be written in, or translated into, Sanskrit.
At the highest levels, Indian culture was remarkably homogenous. This was in fact the high water mark of ancient Indian literature. In poetry and drama, the great figure of Kalidasa looms over the period, even though the dates in which he lived are disputed. He is universally compared with Shakespeare as giant in world literature. Like Shakespeare, he wrote both plays and poems. It was Kalidasa’s achievement to ensure that Sanskrit remained the dominant medium of high literary culture in India.
Other dramatists and poets were also highly regarded. Dramas were often risqué and action-packed, while poems were courtly and elegant. In sacred literature too this was an extremely important time. The great set of religious writings called the Puranas were reworked at this time to promote the worship of Shiva and Vishnu; and the ancient Vedic epics, hitherto transmitted orally from generation to generation, began to be recast and written down during the Gupta era. For example one of the seminal Hindu texts, called the Bhagavad Gita, was incorporated into the great Mahabharata epic probably in the 4th or 5th centuries CE.
This process of change was deeply influenced by Buddhist beliefs and practices. For example, whereas the Vedic cults had not traditionally used statues in worship, this was changing by the time of the Guptas. Statues began to become central to Hindu ritual and worship.
The Gupta age is usually regarded as one of the great periods of Indian art. The influence of Buddhist Gandhara art can be clearly seen in the sculpture off the time, in the folds of the clothing for example, and the purity of form. Gupta sculpture is known for its serenity of countenance and grace of pose. These qualities can be clearly seen in the erotic sculptures in the Khajuraho temples.
Painting was also an important art form, but hardly any examples survive – and those that do are much damaged. Some fragments of frescoes from the cave temples of Ajanta hint at the high standards achieved, and from texts of the period we know that painting was regarded as a respected profession, and a desirable social accomplishment for the elite.
The Gupta period was a high point in the development of Indian science. Important works on astronomy and medicine were produced.
Aryabhata, the most famous scholar in Gupta times, showed that the Earth is a sphere, and revolves around its axis each day. He believed that is circles round the Sun, not vice versa, and that the stars’ motions are caused by the Earth’s own movements rather than the sky’s. He identified eclipses as the shadow of the moon falling on the Earth.
Gupta scholars calculated the length of the solar year with a precision not matched by any other ancient civilization, including the Greeks.
Above all, Indian mathematics was probably the most advanced in the world at this time. A step of enormous importance for human progress was taken with the perfection of the decimal system and the discovery of the mathematical concept of zero. At a more exalted level, the solution was found to certain determinate equations; pi was successfully calculated to four decimal places.
All this learning was written in Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient India. It was thus inaccessible to all but a very few. Ordinary artisans, for example, had no knowledge of these exalted works, and no known treatises were written on subjects to do with craft production.
Nevertheless, Indian artisans of the time achieved extraordinarily high levels of skill. For example, the metal smiths who fashioned the 7 m. high ‘Iron Pillar’ in Delhi, noted not only for its enormous size but for its anti-corrosive qualities, were clearly masters of their craft.
Links to Timemaps resources:
The article on Ancient India places the Gupta empire in the wider contect of India’s ancient history.
Premium Link: India in the Classical Age, 250 CE is the first of a sequence of maps showing the rise and decline of the Gupta empire.
More articles on Ancient India:
Click on this link for an attractive, interactive visual survey of the Gupta empire.
The Indian Civil Service website page on Gupta society gives an interesting overview of Indian society and culture in Gupta times.