Ancient India

Life in the Gupta age

System of Administration

IN CONTRAST to the Maurya rulers, the Gupta kings adopted pompous titles such as parameshavara maharajadhiraja and paramabhaitaraka which signify that they ruled over lesser kings in their empire. Kingship was hereditary, but royal power was limited by the absence of a firm practice of primogeniture. The throne did not always go to the eldest son. This created uncertainties, of which the chiefs and high officials could take advantage. The Guptas made munificent gifts to the brahmanas who expressed their gratitude by comparing the king to different gods. He was looked upon as Vishnu, the protector and preserver. The goddess Lakshmi is represented invariably on the Gupta coins as the wife of Vishnu.

The numerical strength of the Gupta army is not known. Evidently the king maintained a standing army, which was supplemented by the forces occasionally supplied by the feudatories. Horse chariots receded into the background and cavalry came to the forefront. Horse archery became prominent in military tactics.

In the Gupta period land taxes increased in number and those on trade and commerce decreased. Probably the king collected taxes varying from one-fourth to one-sixth of the produce. In addition to this, whenever the royal army passed through the countryside the local people had to feed it. The peasants had to supply animals, foodgrains, furniture, etc. for the maintenance of royal officers on duty in rural areas. In central and western India the villagers were also subjected to forced labour called vishti for serving the royal army and officials.

The judicial system was far more developed under the Guptas than in earlier times. Several law books were compiled in this period. For the first time civil and criminal laws were clearly demarcated. Theft and adultery came under criminal law. Disputes regarding various types of property came under civil law. Elaborate laws were laid down about inheritance. Like earlier times, many laws continued to be based on differences in varnas. It was the duty of the king to uphold the law. The king tried cases with the help of brahmana priests. The guilds of artisans, merchants and others were governed by their own laws. Seals from Vaishali and from Bhita near Allahabad indicate that these guilds flourished exceedingly well in Gupta times.

The Gupta bureaucracy was not as elaborate as that of the Mauryas. The most important officers in the Gupta empire were the kumaramatyas. They were appointed by the king in the home provinces and possibly paid in cash. Since the Guptas were possibly vaishyas, recruitment was not confined to the upper varnas only. But several offices came to be combined in the hands of the same person and posts became hereditary. This naturally weakened the royal control.

The Guptas organized a system of provincial and local administration. The empire was divided into divisions (bhuktis) and each bhukti was placed under the charge of an uprika. The bhuktis were divided into districts (bishayas), which were placed under the charge of vishayapatti. In eastern India, the vishayas were divided into vithis, which again were divided into villages.

The village headman became more important in Gupta times. He managed the village affairs with the assistance of elders. With the administration of a village or a small town leading local elements were associated. No land transactions could be effected without their consent.

In the urban administration, organised professional bodies were given considerable share. The seals from Vaishali show that artisans, merchants and scribes served on the same corporate body and in this capacity they obviously conducted the affairs of the towns. The administrative board of the district of Kotivarsha in north Bengal (Bangladesh) included his chief merchant, the chief trader and the chief artisan. Their consent to land transactions was considered necessary. Artisans and bankers were organized into their own separate guilds. We hear of numerous guilds of artisans, traders, etc. at Bhita and Vaishali. At Mandasor in Malwa and at Indore silk-weavers maintained their own guilds. In the district of Bulandshahar in western Uttar Pradesh oil-pressers had their own guilds. It seems that these guilds, especially those of merchants, enjoyed certain immunities. In any case they could look after the affairs of their own members and punished those who violated the customs and law of the guild.

The system of administration described above applied only to north

Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and some adjoining areas of Madhya Pradesh, which were ruled directly by the officers appointed, by the Gupta kings. The major part of the empire was held by feudatory chiefs, many of whom had been, subjugated by Samudragupta. The vassals who lived on the fringe of the empire carried out three obligations. They offered homage to the sovereign by personal attendance at his court, paid tribute to him and presented to him daughters in marriage. It seems that in return for these they obtained charters for ruling in the areas. The charters marked with the royal Garuda seal seem to have been issued to the vassals. The Guptas thus had several tributary princes in Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere. The subordinate position of the princes turned them, into feudal vassals.

The second important feudal development that surfaced under the Guptas was the grant of fiscal and administrative concessions to priests and administrators. Started in the Deccan by the Satavahanas, the practice became a regular affair in Gupta times, particularly in Madhya Pradesh. Religious functionaries were granted land, free of tax for ever and they were authorised to collect from the peasants all the taxes which could have otherwise gone to the emperor. The villages granted to the beneficiaries could not be entered by royal agents, retainers, etc. The beneficiaries were also empowered to punish the criminals.

Whether state officials were paid by grants of land in Gupta times is not clear. Abundance of gold coins would suggest that higher officials continued to be paid in cash, but some of them may have been remunerated by land-grants.

Since much of the imperial administration was managed by feudatories and beneficiaries, the Gupta rulers did not require as many officials as the Mauryas did. They did not require too many officers also because, unlike the Maurya state, the Gupta state did not regulate economic activities on any big scale. The participation of leading artisans, merchants, elders, etc. in rural and urban administration also lessened the need for maintaining a large retinue of officers. The Guptas neither needed nor possessed the elaborate administrative machinery of Maurya times and in some ways their political system appears to be feudal.

Trends in Trade and Agrarian Economy

We get some idea of the economic life of the people of Gupta times from Fa hsien, who visited different parts of the Gupta empire. Among other things informs us that Magadha was full of cities and its rich people supported Buddhism and gave charities.

In ancient India, the Guptas issued the largest number of gold coins, which were called dinaras in their inscriptions. Regular in size and weight, they appear in many types and sub-types. They vividly portray Gupta kings, indicating the latter’s love for war and art. Although in gold content these coins are not as pure as Kushan ones, they not only served to pay the officers in the army and administration but also to meet the heads of the sale and purchase of land. After the conquest of Gujarat, the Guptas issued a good number of silver coins mainly for local exchange, in which silver occupied an important position under the Western Kshatrapas. In contrast to those of the Kushans, the Gupta copper coins are very few. This would suggest that the use of money did not touch the common people so much as it did under the Kushans.

Compared to the earlier period we notice a decline in long-distance trade. Till A.D. 550 India carried on some trade with the Eastern Roman empire, to which it exported silk. Around A D, 550 the people of the Eastern Roman empire learnt from the Chinese the art of growing silk, which adversely affected the export trade of India. Even before the middle of the sixth century A.D the demand for Indian silk abroad had slackened. In the middle of the fifth century a guild of silkweavers left their original home in western India in the country of Lata in Gujarat and migrated to Mandasor, where they gave up their original occupation and took to other professions.

The striking development of the Gupta period, especially in Madhya Pradesh, was the emergence of priestly landlords at the cost of local peasants. Land grants made to the priests certainly brought many virgin areas under cultivation. Bui these beneficiaries were imposed from above on the local tribal peasants, who were reduced to a lower status. Li central and western India the peasants were also subjected to forced labour. On the other hand a good deal of virgin land was brought under cultivation and better knowledge of agriculture seems to have been introduced by the brahmana beneficiaries in the tribal areas of central India.

Social Development

Land grants to the brahmanas on a large scale suggest that the brahmana supremacy continued in Gupta times. The Guptas who were originally vaishyas came to be looked upon as kshatriyas by the brahmahas. The brahmanas presented tire Gupta Icings as possessing the attributes of gods, AM this helped to-legitimise the position of the Gupta princes, who became great supporters of the brahmanical order. The brahmanas accumulated wealth on account of numerous land grants. So they claimed many privileges, which are listed in the Narada Samiriti the law book-of Narads, a work of about the fifth century A.D.

The castes proliferated into numerous sub-castes as a result, of two factors: A large number of foreigners had been assimilated into the Indian society and each group of foreigners was considered a kind of caste. Since the foreigners mainly came as conquerors they were given the status of the kshatriya to society. The Hunas who appeared, in India towards the close of file fifth century, ultimately came to be recognized as one of the thirty-six clans of the Rajputs. Even now some Rajputs bear the title Huns. The other reason, for the increase in the number of castes was the absorption of many tribal people, into brahmanical society through the process of land grants. The tribal chiefs were given a respectable origin. But most of their ordinary kinsmen were given, a low origin end every tribe became a kind of caste in its new Incarnation. This process continued in some ways until present times.

The position of Shudras improved in tills period. They were now permitted to listen to the Ramayana, The Mahabharata and Puranas. They could also worship a new god called Krishna. They were also allowed to perform certain domestic rites, which naturally brought fee to the priests. All this can be attributed to a change In the economicStatus of the shudras. From the seventh, century onwards they were, mainly represented, as agriculturists; in the earlier period they always appeared as servants, slaves and agricultural labourers working for the three higher varnas.

But during this period the untouchables increased to number especially the chandalas. The chandala’s appeared in society as early as the fifth century B C By the fifth century A.D their-number had become so enormous and their disabilities so glaring that it attracted the attention of the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien. He informs us that the chandalas lived outside the village and dealt in meat and flesh. Whenever they entered the town the upper caste people kept themselves at a distance from them because the road was supposed to have been polluted by them.

In the Gupta period, like the shudras, women were also allowed to listen to the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas and advised to worship, Krishna. But women of higher orders did not have access to independent sources of livelihood in pre-Gupta and Gupta times. The fact that women of the two lower varnas were free to earn their livelihood gave them considerable freedom, which was denied to women of the upper varnas, It was argued that the vaishya and shudra women take to agricultural operations and domestic services and hence they are outside the control of their husbands In contrast by Gupta times members of the higher orders came to acquire more and more land which made them more polygamous and more property minded. In a patriarchal setup they began to treat women as items of property, so much so that a woman was expected to follow her husband to the next world. The first example of the immolation of widow after the death of her husband appears in Gupta times in A.D. 510. However, some postGupta Jaw-books held that, a woman can remarry if her husband is dead, destroyed, impotent, has become a renouncer or has been excommunicated.

The main reason for the subordination of women belonging to the upper varnas was their complete dependence on men for their livelihood. They lacked proprietary rights. However, the oldest Smritis state that the gifts of jewellery, ornaments, garments and similar other presents made to the bride on the occasion of her marriage were considered her property. Gupta and post-Gupta law-books substantially enlarged the scope of these gifts. According to them presents received by the bride not only from her parent’s side but also from the side of her parents-in-law at marriage time and on other occasions formed the stridhana. Katyayana, a law-giver of the sixth century, holds that she could sell and mortgage her immovable property along with her stridhana. This clearly implies that women received shares in landed property according to this law-giver, but generally a daughter was not allowed to inherit landed property in the patriarchal communities of India.

State of Buddhism

Buddhism no longer received royal patronage in the Gupta period Fahsien gives the impression that this religion was in a very flourishing state. Blit, really it was not so important in the Gupta period as it was in the days of Ashoka and Kanishka. However, some stupas and viharas (monasteries) were constructed and Nalanda became a centre of Buddhist education.

Origin and Growth of Bhagavatism

Bhagavatism centred arouhd the worship of Vishnu or Bhagavat and originated in post-Maurya times. Vishnu was a minor god in Vedic times. He represented the sun and also the fertility cult. By the second century B.C. he was merged with a god called Narayana and came to be known as Narayana-Vishnu. Originally Narayana was a non-Vedic tribal god. He was called bhagavat and his worshippers were called bhagavatas. This god was conceived, as a divine counterpart of the tribal chief. Just as a tribal chief received presents from his kinsmen and distributed shares among them, Narayana was supposed to bestow shares or good fortune (bhaga) on his bhakta or worshippers. (In return the worshippers or bhaktas offered their loving devotion or bhakti to him ) The worshippers of Vishnu and those of Narayana were brought under one umbrella by merging Vishnu with Narayana. The former was a Vedic god and the latter emerged subsequently with non-Vedic associations. But the two cultures, the two types of peoples and the two gods mingled with each other.

Further, Vishnu came to be identical with a legendary hero of the

Vrishni tribe living in western India who was known as KrishnaVasudeva. The great epic Mahabharata was recast to show that Krishna was identical with Vishnu. So by 200 B.C the three streams of worshippers and their gods merged into one. This resulted in the creation of Bhagavatism or Vaishnavism.

Bhagavatism was marked by bhakti and ahimsa. Bhakti meant the offer of loving devotion It was a kind of loyalty offered by a tribal to his chief or by a subject to his king, Ahimsa or the doctrine of non-killing of animals suited the agricultural society and was in keeping with the old cult of life giving fertility associated with Vishnu. People worshipped the image of Vishnu and offered it rice, sesamum, etc, Out of their aversion to killing of animals some of them took only vegetarian food.

The new religion was liberal enough to attract foreigners. It also appealed to artisans and merchants who became important under the Satavahanas and Kushans. Krishna taught in the Bhagavadgita that even women, vaishyas and shudras who were born of sin could seek refuge in him. This religious text dealt with Vaishnava teachings; so did the Vishnu Parana and also to some extent with the Vishnu Smriti.

Bhagavatism or Vaishnavism overshadowed Mahayana Buddhism by Gupta times. It preached the doctrine of incarnation, or avtara. History was presented as a cycle of ten incarnations of Vishnu. It was believed that whenever the social order faced crisis, Vishnu appeared in an appropriate form to save it. Each incarnation of Vishnu was considered necessary for the salvation of dharma which was identical with the varna-divided society and the institution of patriarchal family protected by the state.

By the sixth century Vishnu became a member of the trinity of gods along with Shiva and Brahma. However he was a dominant god in his own right. After the sixth century several texts were written to popularize the virtues of worshipping him, but the most important was the Bhagavata Purana. The story in that text was recited by priests for several days. In medieval times Bhagavatagharas or places meant for

Vishnu worship and reciting, the legends connected with him came to be established in eastern India. Several religious recitations including the Vishnusahasranama were composed for the benefit of the Vishnu worshippers.

A few Gupta, kings were worshippers of Shiva the god of destruction. But he came in the front rank at a later stage and does not seem to have been as Important as Vishnu in, the early phase of the Gupta rule.

Idol worship in the temples became a common feature of Hinduism from the Gupta period onwards. Many festivals also came to be celebrated. Cultural festivals observed by different classes of people were given religious garb and colour and turned into good sources of income for the priests.

The Gupta kings followed a policy of tolerance towards the different religious sects. We find no example of the persecution of the followers of Buddhism and Jainism. This was also on account of the change in the character of Buddhism which had come to acquire many of the features of Hinduism.


The Gupta period is called the Golden Age of ancient India. This may not be true in the economic field because several towns in north India declined during this period. But the Guptas possessed a large number of gold, whatever might be its source and they issued the largest number of gold coins. Princes and richer people could divert a part of their income for the support of those who were engaged in art and literature. Both Samudragupta and Chandragupta II were patrons of art and literature. Samudragupta is represented on his coins playing the lute (vina) and Chandragupta II is credited with maintaining in his court nine luminaries or great scholars.

In ancient India art was mostly inspired by religion. Survivals of nonreligious art from ancient India are few. Buddhism gave great impetus to art in Maurya ahd post-Maurya times. It led to the creation of massive stone pillars, cutting of beautiful eaves and raising of high stupas or relic towers. The stupas appeared as dome-like structures on round bases mainly of stone. Numerous images of the Buddha were sculpted.

In the Gupta period we find an over two metre high bronze image of the Buddha, which was recovered from Sultanganj near Bhagalpur. Fahsien saw an over 25 metre high image of the Buddha made of copper, but it is not traceable now. In the Gupta period beautiful images of the Buddha were fashioned at Sarnath and Mathura. But the greatest specimen of Buddhist art in Gupta times is provided by the Ajanta paintings. Although these paintings covered the period from the first to the seventh century A.D., most of them belong to Gupta times. They depict various events in the life of Gautama Buddha and the previous Buddhas. These paintings are life-like and natural and the brilliance of their colours has not faded even after fourteen centuries. However, there is nothing to show that the Guptas were the patrons of the Ajanta paintings.

Since the Guptas were supporters of brahmanism, for the first time we get in the Gupta period images of Vishnu, Shiva and some other Hindu gods. At many places we get a whole pantheon in which the chief god appears in the middle and his retainers and subordinates surround him on the panel. The leading god is represented large in size, but his retainers and subordinate gods are drawn on a smaller scale. This represents a clear social discrimination and hierarchy.

The Gupta period was poor in architecture. All we get are a few temples made of brick in Uttar Pradesh and a stone temple. We may mention the brick temples of Bhitargaon in Kanpur, Bhitari in Ghazipur and Deogarh in Jhansi. The Buddhist University at Nalanda was set up in the fifth century and its earliest structure, made of brick, belongs to this period.


The Gupta period is remarkable for the production of secular literature. To this period belong thirteen plays written by Bhasa. The Mrichchhakatica or the Little Clay Cart written by Shudraka, which deals with the love affair of a poor brahmana with the beautiful daughter of a courtesan, is considered one of the best works of ancient drama. But what has made the Gupta period really famous is the work of Kalidasa. Kalidasa wrote Abhijanashakuntamlam which is considered to be one of the best; hundred literary works in the world 1 It tells us about the love story of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, whose son Bharata appears as a famous ruler. The Shakuntalam was one of the earliest Indian works to be translated into European languages, the other work being the Bhagavadgita. Two things can be noted about the plays produced in India in the Gupta period. First these are all comedies. We do not come across any tragedies. Secondly, characters of the higher and lower classes do not speak the same language; women and shudras featuring in these plays use Prakrit while the higher classes use Sanskrit.

During this period we also notice an increase in the production of religious literature. Most works of the period had a strong religious bias. The two great epics, namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were almost completed by the fourth century A.D. The Ramayana tells us the story of Rama, who was banished by his father Dasharatha from, the kingdom of Ayodhya for 14 years on account of the machinations; of his step-mother Kaikeyi. He faithfully carried out the orders of his father and went to live in the forest, where his wife Sita was abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka. Eventually Rama with the help of his brother Lakshmana brought, back Sita. The story has two important moral strands. First it idealizes the institution of family in which a son must obey his father, the younger brother obeys his elder brother and the wife must be faithful for her husband in all circumstances. Second, Ravana symbolises the force of evil and Rama symbolises the force of righteousness. In the end righteousness triumphs over the forces of evil and good order over bad order. The story of Rama made a much wider social and religious appeal than the main narrative of the Mahabharata Many versions of the Ramayana are found in important Indian languages and also in those of South-East Asia.

The Mahabharata is essentially the story of conflict between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. It shows that kingship knows no kinship. Although the Pandavas were entitled to their share in the kingdom ruled by Dhritarashtra, the Kauravas refused to give them even a single inch of territory. This led to a prolonged fratricidal war between the Pandavas assisted by Krishna and the Kauravas. Eventually the Kauravas were worsted in the fight and the Pandavas came out victorious. This story also represents the victory of righteousness over the forces of evil. The Bhagavadgita forms an important part of the Mahabharata. It teaches that a person must cany out the duties assigned to him by his caste and rank under all circumstances without any desire for reward.

The Puranas follow the lines of the epics and the earlier ones were finally compiled in Gupta times. They are full of myths, legends, sermons, etc., which were meant for the education and edification of the common people. The period also saw the compilation of various Smritis or the law books in which social and religious norms were written in verse. The phase of writing commentaries on the Smritis begins after the Gupta period.

The Gupta period also saw the development, of Sanskrit grammar based on Panini and Patanjali. This period is particularly memorable for the compilation of the Amarakosha by Amarasimha, who was a luminary in the court of Chandragupta II. This lexicon is learnt by heart by students who were taught Sanskrit in the traditional fashion. Overall the Gupta period was a bright phase in the history of classical literature. It developed an ornate style, which was different from the old simple Sanskrit. From this period onwards we find greater emphasis on verse than on prose. We also come across a few commentaries. Sanskrit was undoubtedly the court language of the Guptas. Although we get a good deal of brahmanical religious literature, the period also produced some of the earliest pieces of secular literature.

Science and Technology

In the field of mathematics we come across during this period a work called Aryabhatiya written by Aryabhata, who belonged to Pataliputra. It seems that this mathematician was well versed in various kinds of calculations, A Gupta inscription of 448 A.D. from Allahabad district suggests that the decimal system was known in India at the beginning of the fifth century A D. In the field of astronomy a book called Romaka Sidhanta was compiled. It was influenced by Greek ideas, as can be inferred from its name.

The Gupta craftsmen distinguished themselves by their work in iron and. bronze. We know of several bronze images of the Buddha, which began to be produced on a considerable scale because of the knowledge of advanced metal technology. In the case of iron objects the best example is the iron pillar found at Mehrauli in Delhi. Manufactured in the fourth century A.D., the pillar has not gathered any rust in the subsequent 150 centuries, which is a great tribute to the technological skill of the craftsmen. It was impossible to produce such a pillar in any iron foundry in the west until about a century ago. It is a pity that the later craftsmen could not develop this knowledge further.


  1. Explain the meaning of the following terms and concepts; primogeniture, vishti, bhukti, vtshaya, bhakti, avatara.
  2. Describe the administrative system of the Gupta empire. In what respects did it differ from the administrative system of the Mauryas?
  3. What were the reasons for the supremacy of the brahmanas during the Gupta period? What consequences it might have had on the economy and society of the period?
  4. In what respects did the caste system undergo changes during the Gupta period?
  5. Point out the economic changes that took place during the period of the Gupta rule.
  6. What is meant by secular literature? Mention the names of some literary works of the period. What were their striking features?
  7. Describe the religious condition of India during the 4th 6th centuries A.D. with special reference to the emergence of new trends.
  8. Describe the position of women in Gupta-society.
  9. Describe the achievements of the Gupta period in the field of science, mathemati b and metallurgy and art and architecture.
  10. Give an account of Fa-hsien’s description of India.
  11. Work out a project on cultural developments during the Gupta period and collect and prepare materials for display.

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