The Gupta Empire: India's Golden Age

Did the Huns Bring Down Classical India's Gupta Dynasty?

The Gupta Empire collapsed in 550 CE.
Late Gupta Empire art in Mumbai, India. Christian Haugen on Flickr.com.

The Gupta Empire may have lasted only about 230 years, but it was characterized by a sophisticated culture with innovative advances in literature, arts, and sciences. Its influence continues to be felt in art, dance, mathematics, and many other fields today, not just in India but across Asia and around the world.

Called India's Golden Age by most scholars, the Gupta Empire was likely founded by a member of a lower Hindu caste called Sri Gupta.

He came from the Vaishya or farmer caste and founded the new dynasty in reaction to abuses by previous princely rulers. The Gupta were ardent Vaisnavas, devotees of Vishnu and they ruled as traditional Hindu monarchs.

Advances of the Golden Age of Classical India

During this Golden Age, India was part of an international trade network which also included other great classical empires of the day, the Han Dynasty in China to the east and the Roman Empire to the west. The famed Chinese pilgrim to India Fa Hsien (Faxien), noted that Gupta law was exceptionally generous; crimes were punished only with fines.

The rulers sponsored advances in science, painting, textiles, architecture, and literature. Gupta artists created marvelous sculptures and paintings, perhaps including the Ajanta caves. The surviving architecture includes palaces and purpose-built temples for both Hindu and Buddhist religions, such as the Parvati Temple at Nachna Kuthara and the Dashavatara temple at Deogarh in Madhya Pradesh.

New forms of music and dance, some of which are still performed today, flourished under Gupta patronage. The emperors also founded free hospitals for their citizens, as well as monasteries and universities.

The classical Sanskrit language reached its apogee during this period as well, with poets such as Kalidasa and Dandi.

The ancient texts of the Mahabharata and Ramayana were converted into sacred texts, and the Vau and Matsya Puranas were composed. Scientific and mathematical advances include the invention of the number zero, Aryabhata's incredibly accurate calculation of pi as 3.1416, and his equally amazing calculation that the solar year is 365.358 days long.

Establishing the Gupta Dynasty

In about 320 CE, the chief of a small kingdom called Magadha in southeastern India set out to conquer the neighboring kingdoms of Prayaga and Saketa. He used a combination of military might and marriage alliances to expand his kingdom into an empire. His name was Chandragupta I, and through his conquests, he formed the Gupta Empire.

Many scholars believe that Chandragupta's family was from the Vaishya caste, which was the third tier out of four in the traditional Hindu caste system. If so, this was a major departure from Hindu tradition, in which the Brahmin priestly caste and the Kshatriya warrior/princely class generally held religious and secular power over the lower castes. In any case, Chandragupta rose from relative obscurity to reunite much of the Indian subcontinent, which had fragmented five centuries earlier after the fall of the Mauryan Empire in 185 BCE.

Rulers of the Gupta Dynasty

Chandragupta's son, Samudragupta (ruled 335–380 CE), was a brilliant warrior and statesman, sometimes called the "Napoleon of India.". Samudragupta, however, never faced a Waterloo, and was able to pass on a greatly expanded Gupta Empire to his sons. He extended the empire to the Deccan Plateau in the south, Punjab in the north, and Assam in the east. Samudragupta also was a talented poet and musician. His successor was Ramagupta, an ineffectual ruler, who was soon deposed and assassinated by his brother, Chandragupta II.

Chandragupta II (r. 380–415 CE) expanded the empire still further, to its greatest extent. He conquered much of Gujarat in western India. Like his grandfather, Chandragupta II also used marriage alliances to expand the empire, marrying into control of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and adding the rich provinces of Punjab, Malwa, Rajputana, Saurashtra, and Gujarat.

The city of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh became a second capital for the Gupta Empire, which was based at Pataliputra in the north.

Kumaragupta I succeeded his father in 415 and ruled for forty years. His son, Skandagupta (r. 455–467 CE), is considered the last of the great Gupta rulers. During his reign, the Gupta Empire first faced incursions by the Huns, who would eventually bring down the empire. After him, lesser emperors including Narasimhagupta, Kumaragupta II, Buddhagupta, and Vishnugupta ruled over the decline of the Gupta Empire.

Although the late Gupta ruler Narasimhagupta managed to drive the Huns out of northern India in 528 CE, the effort and expense doomed the dynasty. The last recognized emperor of the Gupta Empire was Vishnupta, who ruled from about 540 until the empire collapsed around 550.

Decline and Fall of the Gupta Empire

As with the collapses of other classical political systems, the Gupta Empire crumbled under both internal and external pressures.

Internally, the Gupta Dynasty grew weak from a number of succession disputes. As the emperors lost power, regional lords gained increasing autonomy. In a sprawling empire with weak leadership, it was easy for rebellions in Gujarat or Bengal to break out, and difficult for the Gupta emperors to put such uprisings down. By 500, many regional princes were declaring their independence and refusing to pay taxes to the central Gupta state. These included the Maukhari Dynasty, who ruled over Uttar Pradesh and Magadha.

By the later Gupta era, the government was having trouble collecting enough taxes to fund both its hugely complex bureaucracy, and constant wars against foreign invaders like the Pushyamitras and the Huns.

In part, this was due to the common people's dislike of the meddlesome and unwieldy bureaucracy. Even those who felt a personal loyalty to the Gupta Emperor generally disliked his government and were happy to avoid paying for it if they could. Another factor, of course, was the near-constant rebellions among different provinces of the empire.

Invasions

In addition to internal disputes, the Gupta Empire faced constant threats of invasion from the north. The cost of fighting off these invasions drained the Gupta treasury, and the government had difficulty refilling the coffers. Among the most troublesome of the invaders were the White Huns (or Hunas), who had conquered much of the northwestern section of Gupta territory by 500 CE.

The Huns' initial raids into India were led by a man who is called Toramana or Toraraya in Gupta records; these documents show that his troops began to pick off feudatory states from the Gupta domains around the year 500. In 510 CE, Toramana swooped down into central India and inflicted a decisive defeat at Eran on the Ganges river.

The End of the Dynasty

The records indicate that Toramana's reputation was enough that some princes voluntarily submitted to his rule. However, they do not specify whether he had a reputation as a great military strategist, was a blood-thirsty tyrant, or a better ruler than the Gupta alternatives, etc. Eventually, this branch of the Huns adopted Hinduism and was assimilated into Indian society.

Although none of the invading groups managed to completely overrun the Gupta Empire, the financial hardship of the battles helped hasten the end of the dynasty.

Almost unbelievably, the Huns or their direct ancestors the Xiongnu had the same effect on two of the other great classical civilizations in earlier centuries: Han China, which collapsed in 221 CE, and the Roman Empire, which fell in 476 CE.

Sources

  • Agrawal, Ashvini. Rise and Fall of the Imperial Guptas. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1989. Print.
  • Chaurasia, Radhey Sham. History of Ancient India. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2002. Print.
  • Dwivedi, Gautam N. "The Western Limits of the Gupta Empire." Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 34 (1973): 76-79. Print.
  • Goyal, Shankar. "Historiography of the Imperial Guptas: Old and New." Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 77.1/4 (1996): 1-33. Print.
  • Mookerji, Radhakumud. The Gupta Empire. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1989. Print.
  • Prakash, Budha. "Last Days of the Gupta Empire." Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 27.1/2 (1946): 124-41. Print.
  • Vajpeyi, Raghavendra. "A Critique of the Huna Invasion Theory." Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 39 (1978): 62-66. Print.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Gupta Empire: India's Golden Age." ThoughtCo, Jan. 18, 2018, thoughtco.com/gupta-empire-in-india-collapse-195477. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2018, January 18). The Gupta Empire: India's Golden Age. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/gupta-empire-in-india-collapse-195477 Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Gupta Empire: India's Golden Age." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/gupta-empire-in-india-collapse-195477 (accessed January 22, 2018).