Category Archives: 6. The Gupta Empire

The Gupta Dynasty

Ancient India experienced prolific cultural and political advancement under the reign of the imperial Guptas. The Guptas carried the torch of classicism and it was under their reign that early India saw significant advancements in mathematics, art, architecture and drama (Saunders 106). These progressions are attributable to strong leadership by the great rulers of the Gupta Empire as well as advantageous connections through marriage and the practice of relatively peaceful external relations (Avari 156). The relatively blissful condition in which the Guptas reigned is portrayed well by Fa Hian, a Chinese pilgrim who had the opportunity to witness the Guptan civilization under Chandragupta II. Fa Hian, praised the lifestyle of the Guptas who “ruled without corporal punishment… [and] abstain from taking life or drinking wine…” (Saunders 105).

The empire, originating from a relatively small land plot in the “western Ganga plains” (Avari 155) grew quickly and eventually encompassed the majority of continental India. The vast expansion of Guptan territory is connected to the conquests and acquisitions of the great Guptan emperors. The first of these distinguished rulers was Chandragupta I, who would be succeeded by two emperors that would successfully transform continental India. Samudragupta was a leader of great power and influence and it is under him that the Guptas vastly expanded their territory. He swelled their lands by subduing much of Bengal and by obtaining some influence “as far west as the Indus river, and over most of central and eastern India, as far south as Kanchi.” (Robb 39). Samudragupta was a skilled tactician on the battlefield, according to writings inscribed on an Ashokan pillar; Samadragupta was responsible for the submission or defeat of over a dozen ancient Indian kings (Avari 157). Like most monarchs, Samadragupta was a well rounded intellectual and scholar. His son, Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya) would reign until 415 C.E. and would also expand Gupta territory significantly through marriage as well as military conquest (Avari 158). His great military campaign would be against the Shakas of western India, who he would eventually subdue (Robb 39). Ancient Gupta coins exemplify the importance of the ksatriyas (warrior) expansionist type mindset. Coins dating from the reign of Chandragupta II depict the king, armed with a bow combating a lion (Emeneau 86).

The Gupta dynasty expanded its territory through a policy of militarism but within its own borders, the Guptas displayed an enlightened sense of the arts and political structure. Literature flourished under the Gupta dynasty, many works were written in Sanskrit and it is believed that the Guptas played a significant role in legitimizing the language. Like his father, Chandragupta II was a well rounded scholar and had a definite affinity for the arts. Chandragupta II encircled himself with poets and intellectuals (Avari 171). The Shakuntala is one of the most notable pieces of literature to come out of the Gupta dynasty. It is a play that tells a story of romance between Shakuntala and King Dushyanta (Avari 171).

Politically, the Guptas moved towards a system of medieval feudalism. Although the Gupta emperors were considered to be all powerful they did not rule by a system of absolutism, but were governed by a policy of rajadharma (royal dharma). Which basically prescribes that royalty be governed by “fundamental ethical considerations” (Derrett 606). The policy did not promise protection and justice but that the “king should rule his subjects (including of course, the brahmins) in such a manner as to give general satisfaction…” (Derrett 606) Essentially, the Gupta emperors ruled with a political hierarchy in which conquered kings could be spared and could continue to rule their respective kingdoms within Gupta territory as long as wealth was shared (Avari 159). Bureaucracy was kept basic and the Guptas ruled lightly, allowing for the highest degree of cooperation between the various differing and newly annexed or conquered Gupta communities.

The Guptas were generous with land. The distribution of land plots throughout their domain allowed them to maintain a continued sense of order over their large territories. Grants entitling members of the society to land were not uncommon and were most often given to men that belonged to the priestly class (brahman). The Puranas uncover some evidence as to why land was so commonly distributed to the brahman. According to the sacred text, land could be contributed as a way to obtain a certain level of religious merit (Avari 164). Land could also be bestowed upon crown officers, military generals or skilled craft workers (Avari 163). As opposed to the reasoning behind the donation of land to the priestly class, the giving of land to the other castes can be explained by way of payment, as international trade between Rome and the Levant was diminishing (Avari164).

Although the Guptas were in many ways ahead of their time with respect to social order and government they continued to follow a somewhat rigid order of caste. The Chandalas (outcastes) were prosecuted, as they are to some extent in modern India. Members of the lowest caste were required to live outside of population centers. When entering a town, they were obliged to make their presence known by creating audible noises with two pieces of wood, warning people belonging to more distinguished castes of their coming (Smith 171). This being said, there is some evidence that points towards a certain degree of caste mobility under the Guptas. Land grants allowed groups that were largely outside the realm of caste to be included within it (Avari 166). There was also some evidence that pointed towards the reduction of the connection between caste and occupation as lower castes were in some cases able to perform the duties of the upper castes (Avari 167).

The great Gupta Empire can be compared with the other great civilizations of history. This classical age saw advancements not only on a cultural level but to some extent on a social level. Through military conquest and strategic marriage, the Guptan emperors would rule most of continental India for over two hundred years. Constant invasions from the North West, by the White Huns would eventually weaken the Guptas and end this classical age (Thapar 286).


Avari, Burjor (2007) India, the Ancient Past : a History of the Indian Sub-Continent from c. 7000 BC to AD 1200. New York: Rutledge.

Derrett, Duncan (1976) “Rajadharma.” Journal of Asian Studies, 35, no. 4, 597-609.

Emeneau, Barry (1953) “The Composite Bow in India” American Philosophical Society, 97, no. 1, 77-87.

Robb, Peter (2002) A History of India. New York: Palgrave.

Smith, Vincent (1981) The Oxford History of India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Saunders, Kenneth (2002) Great Civilizations of India. New Delhi: Shubhi Publications.

Thapar, Romila (2003) Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Kushans

Karma Sutra

The Visit of Fa Hsien

Skandagupta Chandalas (untouchables)

The Shakuntala Noteworthy Websites Related this Topic

Written by Evan Gregory (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Gupta Dynasty (2)

The Classical period of Hinduism or what is often referred to as the Golden Age of Hinduism, saw the rise and fall of the Gupta Dynasty which reigned from 320-500 C.E. This empire ruled in Northern India and was concentrated around Pataliputra which is currently Patna. This was also the capital city of the Mauryan Dynasty which among other dynasties ruled northern India before the Gupta Dynasty. According to scholars the exact geographical and familial origins of the rulers of the Gupta Empire are largely unknown (Gupta 1). Some sources infer from the name Gupta that they belonged to the vaishya caste while others believe them to be Brahmin (Thapar 282). The three best known rulers of this time period are Chandragupta I, his son Samudragupta, and his youngest son Chandragupta II (Heitzman & Worden). They were all victorious in unifying the people of Northern India which spurred the expansion of Hinduism. Chandragupta I began his reign by gaining control of the Magadha region at the local level and expanding from there (Basham 46). His marriage to Mahadevi Kumaradevi who was a member of the powerful and wealthy Licchavi lineage also helped him secure his kingdom (Gupta 1). Samudragupta and his kingdom were able to defeat many rivals and expand their territory to the west and south; he was known for his skills in battle (Gupta 2).

The time period of the Gupta Dynasty is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of Hinduism or the Classical Period. Some attribute this partly to Samudragupta and his love of the arts. He is said to have been a poet and musician and often assembled literary scholars at his kingdom (Gupta 2). When Chandragupta II came to succession, there were many threats being made to the kingdom. One of the best known plays composed in this time period was about how Chadragupta II came to be king. The Devi- Chandraguptam tells the rather mysterious tale of how Chandragupta, the son of Samudragupta came to succession. Apparently after the death of Samudragupta, Rama Gupta (Chandragupta’s older brother) was the decided heir to the throne. When Rama Gupta was defeated by the Sakas he decided to give up his wife Dhruvadevi as a trade. Chandragupta thought this was despicable so he concealed himself under the disguise of the Dhruvadevi and killed the king of the Sakas (Thapar 285). He then went on to kill his brother Rama who was furious with him, and in the end he married Dhruvadevi. Chandragupta is well known for spearheading the annexation of western India which resulted from the triumphant attack against the Sakas (Basham 46). He was able to consolidate the empire and once again bring harmony and unification back to Northern India (Gupta 3). The Gupta’s were eventually overthrown by the Hunas (or White Huns) in 500 C.E (Heitzmen & Worden). The relative peace and harmony created by these rulers allowed for an atmosphere that was conducive to innovation and the bringing together of people culturally and religiously.

The cultural advances that occurred during the Gupta period can be seen in literary sources, language, art, architecture and the building of temples. There were also scientific advancements in areas such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. The Gupta Empire reigned during a time of great economic prosperity from domestic and foreign trade of spices, textiles, ivory, stone, and much more (Basham 47). Sanskrit became more developed and was the language of religion, the courts, scholars and science, and poetry. Many of the most important Hindu texts and scriptures were composed in Sanskrit. One of the best-known Indian playwrights also flourished during this time, his name was Kalidasa. He was known for his beautiful and exemplary use of Classical Sanskrit language and literature. Among his most famous pieces are the drama Shakuntla, Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava two of his Mahakavyas, and the poem Meghaduta ( Some of the more famous literary works of the time were the Puranas, and the plays Kamudi-Mahotsava and Devi-Chandraguptam (discussed above).

The Puranas are a broad collection and mixture of history and myths dealing with bhakti. Visnu, one of the great gods in the Hindu tradition is described in the Puranas. Visnu is said to have ten incarnations or avataras, one of which was the boar or Varaha. The myth tells of how Varaha defeats a demon and rescues the Earth Goddess from the cosmic ocean where she was being held hostage. The boar incarnation (Varaha) was widely worshipped by the kings of the Gupta Dynasty (Rodrigues 308). Early Hindu art and architecture largely inspired the evolution of art around the world. Temples began to be constructed from brick and stone rather than wood making them more durable. The Northern and Southern style of temple architecture was born during this time as well. This was a very prosperous time rich with cultural advancement and harmony for the people of northern India.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Basham, A.L. (1975) A Cultural History of India. London: Oxford University Press.

Gupta, Lal Parmeshwari (1991) The Golden Age: Gupta Art – Empire, Province and Influence. Bombay: Marg Publications.

Heitzmen, James & Worden, Robert (1995) India: A Country Study. Washington: Library of Congress.

Rodrigues, H. (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook an Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Thapar, Romila (2003) Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

The Classical Age 320-750. Retrieved April 3, 2008 from

Written by Krista Tittlemier (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.