The Gupta Empire Revisited

A few days ago, I announced that I had rewritten two sections in Chapter 1 of my Indian history series, to update what we know about India before 600 B.C.  Now I have rewritten the last section, to cover events between 300 and 600 A.D.  Here it is:

The Gupta Empire

The Kushan Empire was destroyed in 244 A.D. by Shapur I, the second king of the Sassanian or Neo-Persian Empire. Yet the Persians, like their Parthian predecessors, were too busy dealing with the Romans to occupy any Indian territory, and they left the lands on their eastern frontier full of Kushan city-states. Now the center of power in India shifted, from the Gandhara district of Pakistan back to the east. Here the Gupta dynasty brought stability for 147 years; under three outstanding and two good kings, India would experience a golden age.

While there is no evidence that the Mauryan and Gupta families were related, the similarities are astonishing: the first great king of each was named Chandragupta, and he ruled from Pataliputra! Another coincidence comes from the dates; we saw the Mauryans get started in 321 B.C., while the Guptas got started in 320 A.D.

The Guptas first appeared around 275 as very minor rulers; the dynasty’s founder was one Sri Gupta, who owned a small fief on the border of present-day Bihar and West Bengal. Several historians have asserted that he came from the Vaishya caste, meaning he was probably a merchant who made good, and he broke the rules of the caste system by becoming the ruler of a state. Nevertheless, he bequeathed the state to his son Ghatotkacha (280?-320?), and it looks like the people forgot the dynasty’s humble origins after that, for they gave Ghatotkacha the more honorable title of maharaja. He was in turn succeeded by his son Chandragupta I, who turned the state into an empire. The family got their lucky break in 305, when Ghatotkacha arranged a marriage between Chandragupta and Kumaradevi, a princess of the Licchavi clan, the current rulers of old Magadha. It appears that the Licchavis had no heir, because Chandragupta added Magadha to his own realm. The Gupta era officially began in 320, but it is uncertain whether that date marks the beginning of Chandragupta’s reign, or the end of the Licchavi dynasty. Chandragupta signaled the new era by changing his title from maharaja to maharajadhiraja–king of kings.

When he died in 335, Chandragupta ruled a sizeable portion of the Ganges valley, equivalent to the modern states of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. He urged his son, Samudragupta, to "rule the world," and Samudragupta did his best to comply. First he put down revolts from rival contenders to the throne. Then calling himself the "Exterminator of Kings," he overthrew nine of them, expanding the boundaries of the kingdom in the process to include the rest of the Ganges and the Punjab. He also led a campaign down the east coast, going almost all the way to the subcontinent’s southern tip, turning back at Kanchi, in Tamil Nadu state. On this campaign he made no permanent conquests, choosing instead to reduce all kingdoms east and south of his empire to vassalage, and establish relations with Sri Lanka and the islands of Southeast Asia. When he wasn’t at war, Samudragupta patronized the arts, and showed off his artistic talents, making sure he would be remembered as a poet, musician and philanthropist as well as a soldier. In other words, imagine what Asoka would have been like, if he had not become a peaceful Buddhist.

Because Samudragupta was so successful, one British Historian, Vincent A. Smith, has called him the "Indian Napoleon" and remarked that he was "endowed with no ordinary powers." However, the empire seems to have suffered a hiccup after his reign, for his eldest son and heir, Ramagupta (375?-376), was not a capable ruler like the other Guptas. In fact, Ramagupta was so bad that an attempt was made to write him out of history; most texts go directly from Samudragupta to Chandragupta II without mentioning Ramagupta. What we do know comes from a play written about him, which reports that Ramagupta led an army into the Gujarat peninsula against one of the last Saka kings, Rudrasimha III. Instead, Ramagupta was defeated, and besieged in a hill fort; to get out, he agreed to terms of surrender that forced him to give up his beautiful queen, Dhruvadevi, to his opponent. As you might expect, the queen was outraged by this arrangement, and called on Ramagupta’s younger brother, Chandragupta II, to save her. Because the Guptas weren’t strong enough to use force alone, Chandragupta resorted to a trick; he disguised himself and several hundred soldiers as women, sneaked into the enemy camp and killed the Saka king. Afterwards Chandragupta became the next emperor and married Dhruvadevi; she became the mother of another emperor, Kumaragupta I (see below). What happened to Ramagupta was not reported, but it’s a safe bet he did not live happily ever after.

Chandragupta II (376-415) is now remembered as the greatest Gupta ruler of all. He pushed west, finished off the Sakas, moved his capital to Ujjain (a Saka stronghold in central India), and conquered Gujarat. Now the empire had seaports on both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. This brought the border up to a rival state; the Kingdom of the Vakatakas had ruled much of the western Deccan since the 250s. But Chandragupta had also learned from his predecessors that diplomacy pays. Instead of fighting, he arranged for his daughter Prabhavati to marry Rudrasena II, the Vakataka king. The result was better than an alliance; Rudrasena died young, and Prabhavati became regent over their children, allowing Changragupta to have a strong influence over the kingdom until the kids grew up. Thus, expansion of the empire stopped–not because of weakness or lack of will from the Guptas, but because it was no longer necessary–the empire had run out of enemies. All surrounding states recognized Gupta supremacy and paid tribute, or were at least friendly.

Gupta Empire.
The Gupta Empire and its neighbors.

Chandragupta II devoted the rest of his reign to peaceful pursuits. As a result Indians now regard the Gupta era as a golden age. Though the Guptas were devout Hindus, they constructed places of worship for all three of India’s religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism). Much of what we know about the Gupta Empire comes from the travel account of Faxian, a Chinese monk who made his pilgrimmage to India during Chandragupta II’s reign. He reported that Buddhism was doing well, but it was Hinduism that prospered the most. Ever since the fall of Kushan, Buddhism’s popularity in India had been on the decline, because the patronage of Asoka and Kanishka caused the common people of India to view it as a religion for the rich and powerful. Meanwhile the Brahmans went into the countryside, where they taught and converted the masses. Where local cults existed, the Brahmans absorbed them into mainstream Hinduism, declaring that such forms of worship were merely a different way of reaching the same goals they strived for. Many of Hinduism’s sects, like the erotic mystery cults called Tantrism, got started this way. The Brahmans also tightened their hold on the faithful by writing the Dharma Shastras, a set of rules concerning how members of different castes should behave in every conceivable circumstance.

The Hindu renaissance sparked a wave of creativity. Scientists worked with sophisticated mathematical tools such as pi, negative numbers, and quadratic equations; they also invented the zero and decimal notation (what we call "Arabic numerals" were originally Indian). Aryabhata, an astronomer and mathematician, discovered that the earth is round, rotates on its axis, revolves around the sun, and that lunar eclipses were caused by earth’s shadow falling on the moon. The first stone Hindu temples were built, replacing the caves and simple wood and brick structures that had been places of worship previously. In the field of literature, Sanskrit classics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were written down in their final form. Kalidasa, the greatest Indian poet and playwright, lived during the Gupta era, and Gupta writers composed the Kama Sutra, the world’s most famous sex manual. Chandragupta II encouraged the development of Sanskrit verse by staging poetry contests. The poets responded with enthusiasm, developing a complex, ingenious style that used riddles, puns, double entendres, wordplay, obscure meanings–anything to win. And when all else failed, they were not above slipping the judges a bribe.(16)

One reason for the golden age was that the Persians were positioned nearby. Being aggressively Zoroastrian at this point, the Persians probably did not care much for the Indians or their religions, but they liked the current residents of Central Asia less. These were the White Huns (also called the Ephthalites or Hunas), a fearsome barbarian tribe related to Attila’s Huns. As long as the Persians were strong enough to keep the White Huns away, the Guptas could enjoy peace and prosperity. Chandragupta’s son and successor, Kumaragupta I (415-455), did just that for forty years. Nevertheless, during the reign of the next king, Skandagupta (455-467), the White Huns inflicted some critical defeats upon the Persians and broke through the barriers protecting India from them. They proved to be just as nasty as the Huns which helped bring down the Roman Empire; the White Hun equivalents of Attila were Toramana and Miharagula (also spelled Mihirakula).(17) Skandagupta was a great warrior, who put up a valiant defense, but by the time of his death warfare had drained the treasury and the end of the empire was in sight.

There appears to have been a struggle for the throne at the same time, because Skandagupta was the son of a concubine, not the previous queen, meaning he was illegitimate. He was succeeded by a half-brother, Purugupta (467-473), who was a weak ruler, and so were all the kings that followed. Genealogies of the kings after Skandagupta disagree considerably, so our guess is that the empire was already in pieces by this time. The White Huns spent the first half of the sixth century removing these Gupta monarchs one by one.

Meanwhile to the southwest, the Vakatakas made their cultural contribution. Like the Guptas, they used art and architecture to promote religion. In a cliff at Ajanta, in Maharashtra State, they carved out caves to use as Buddhist temples and monasteries. There are twenty-nine caves in all; the oldest date to the second and first centuries B.C., but most of them are the work of Harishena, the greatest Vakataka king (ca. 475-500). When he wasn’t expanding the kingdom to its maximum extent (see below), he patronized and promoted Buddhism here. Nearly every wall in the caves is covered with murals depicting scenes from Buddhist scripture and from the Vakataka court. These are the best examples of Indian painting before the Mogul era (see Chapter 3), and the Ajanta caves have rightly been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.

Vakataka kingdom.
The Vakataka kingdom in the late fifth century.

Suddenly, work on the Ajanta caves stopped. It ended so abruptly that some of the painting and carving was left unfinished, and the caves were soon abandoned (they would be re-discovered by a British tiger hunter in 1819). We know why this happened; the patron was gone. The kingdom’s location meant it took longer for the White Huns to get there, and they left the Vakatakas alone while they were looting the Guptas, but they did show up eventually. By the time they arrived, Harishena was dead, and his incompetent successors were no match for the raiders, or for the minor kings who revolted against Vakataka rule. The kingdom quickly collapsed against these internal and external assaults. Again India was congested with petty, quarrelsome states, and it remained that way even after the White Huns had been destroyed by the Turks and the Persians.(18)




16. The strangest artifact we have from the Gupta era is the famous iron pillar that does not rust. For details, go to #9 on this list.

17. By 500 A.D., many White Huns converted to the Saivite (Shiva-worshiping) sect of Hinduism. Not only was this an appropriate religion for a group that likes to kill people and break things (Shiva being a god of destruction, after all), it also gave tham an excuse to persecute Buddhists. Their choice increased their reputation for cruelty; ironically, other Hindus have promoted it to this day. In his 1934 book Glimpses of World History, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote this about the White Huns:
"Torman installed himself king. He was bad enough, but after him came his son Miharagula, who was an unmitagated savage and fiendishly cruel. Kalhana [a twelfth-century historian–CK] in his history of Kashmir–the Rajatrangini–tells us that one of his Miharagula’s amusements was to have elephants thrown over the great precipices into the valley below."

18. The artisans working in the Ajanta caves left an appropriate epitaph to the Guptas and Vakatakas. One inscription in the caves reads: "A man continues to enjoy himself in paradise as long as his memory is green in the world. One should therefore set up a memorial on the mountains that will endure for as long as the moon and sun continue." You could say that current efforts to preserve and restore the caves are a project to do just that.

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