The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire, founded by Sri Gupta, which existed at its zenith from approximately 320 to 550 CE and covered much of the Indian subcontinent.
Founded: 320 AD
History of Gupta Dynasty
The Gupta dynasty is believed to have started as a wealthy family from either Magadha or Prayaga (now eastern Uttar Pradesh). During the late third century, this family rose to prominence until it was able to claim the local rulership of Magadha. The third Gupta king, Chandra Gupta I, is given credit for the founding of the dynasty in 320 AD, though it is not clear whether this year marks the accession of Chandra Gupta or the year his kingdom achieved full independent status.
In the following decades, the Guptas expanded their control over the surrounding kingdoms either through militaristic expansion or by means of marriage alliances. Chandra Gupta appointed his son, Samudra Gupta, to the throne sometime around the year 330. The new king established the city of Pataliputra as the Gupta capital, and from this administrative base, the empire continued to grow. By approximately 380, it had expanded to include a number of smaller kingdoms to the east (into what is now Myanmar), all territories north to the Himalayas (including Nepal), and the entire Indus Valley region to the west. In some of the more remote areas, the Guptas reinstalled defeated rulers and allowed them to continue to run the territory as a tributary state.
Literary and archeological evidence dating from this period depicts a ruling class as interested in cultural developments as they were in expanding their political control. In fact, the Gupta period is considered something of a golden age, marked by great achievements in literature, music, art, architecture, and philosophy. Fa Xian, a Chinese pilgrim who traveled to Gupta India in the early fifth century, wrote of beautiful cities, fine hospitals and universities, and described a content and prosperous people.
Due to a renewal of interest in Hinduism under the Guptas, some scholars date the decline of Buddhism in northern India to their reign. While it is true that Buddhism received less royal patronage under the Guptas than it had under the preceding Mauryan and Kushan Empires, its decline is more accurately dated to the post-Gupta period. In terms of intercultural influence, no style had a greater impact on East and Central Asian Buddhist arts than that developed in Gupta-era India. This situation inspired Sherman E. Lee to refer to the style of sculpture developed under the Guptas as “the International Style.”
Sometime around the year 450, the Gupta Empire faced a new threat. A group called the Hunas, known to Byzantine sources as the Hephthalites(1) began to assert themselves in the empire’s northwest. After decades of peace Gupta military prowess had diminished, and when the Hephthalites launched a full-scale invasion around 480, the empire’s resistance proved ineffective. The invaders swiftly conquered the tributary states in the northwest and soon pushed into the heart of Gupta-controlled territory. By 520 the Gupta Empire was reduced to a small kingdom on the fringe of their once vast realm, and now it was they who were forced to pay tribute to their conquerors. By the mid-sixth century, the Gupta dynasty dissolved entirely.
In the later part of the third century, Kushan power declined. Chandragupta, I was a princely ruler in the kingdom of Magadha. An advantageous marriage and political alliance with the Licchavis rulers brought Chandragupta I total control of the kingdom of Magadha, one of the most fertile and richest kingdoms in the heartland of the former Mauryan Empire.
Chandragupta, I (r. 320-335) was succeeded by his son, Samudragupta (r. 335-380) who conquered the Kushans and other smaller kingdoms and greatly expanded the emerging Gupta Empire. Chandragupta II (r. 380-414), the son of Samudragupta, expanded the Empire even further so that the Gupta Empire was almost as large as that of the ancient and powerful Mauryan Empire.
Samudragupta and Chandragupta II
Samudragupta succeeded his father Chandragupta I and ruled the Gupta dynasty for about 45 years from 335 AD to 380 AD. He is also known as ‘Napolean of India’.
Many historians believe that Chandragupta II was nominated by his father Samudragupta as the next heir of Gupta Empire.But Ramagupta,t he eldest son of Samudragupta succeeded his father and became the emperor.
Chandragupta II killed him and ascended the throne. He was an extremely powerful emperor. Chandragupta II is most commonly known as Vikramaditya, ruled the Gupta Empire from 380 AD to 413 AD.
The Golden Age of India
The Gupta Era in India was one of the most remarkable in terms of intellectual advancement. Literature and art flourished. Kalidasa, the greatest Sanskrit poet of India, wrote his epic plays and poems during the Gupta period. Abhijnaana Shakuntalam and Kumarasambhavam are considered some of the most remarkable works in Sanskrit literature.
Major discoveries and inventions were made and scientists and scholars such as Aryabhata, Vishnu Sharma, Vatsyayana, and Varahamihira found the patronage of the kings. Aryabhata, the great mathematician and scientist is believed to have introduced the idea of zero (0) to mathematical systems. Vatsyayana, the celebrated scholar, wrote the Kamasutra, and Vishnu Sharma authored Panchatantra, a renowned collection of fables for children Varahamihira’s treatises on astronomy and advanced mathematics were masterpieces of the ancient world.
The Gupta kings were excellent diplomats. Trade and cultural relations with Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Burma, and China flourished. The numismatics of the Gupta era outshone those of any previous period. The university at Nalanda was established, and the paintings and frescoes at Ajanta were commissioned by the Gupta kings.
But Samudragupta was more than a fighter; he was also a lover of the arts. Engraved coins and inscribed pillars from the time of his reign provide evidence of both his artistic talent and his patronage. He set the stage for the emergence of classical art, which occurred under the rule of his son and successor Chandragupta II.
Chandragupta II gave great support to the arts. Artists were so highly valued under his rule that they were paid for their work — a rare phenomenon in ancient civilizations. Perhaps it is due to this monetary compensation that such considerable progress was made in literature and science during the period.
Much of the literature produced during the Gupta dynasty was poetry and drama. Narrative histories, religious and meditative writing, and lyric poetry emerged to enrich, educate, and entertain the people. Formal essays were composed on subjects ranging from grammar and medicine to math and astronomy. The best-known essay of the period is the Kamasutra, which provides rules about the art of love and marriage according to Hindu laws.
Two of the most famous scholars of the era were Kalidasa and Aryabhatta. Kalidasa, the greatest writer of the empire, brought plays to new heights by filling them with humor and epic heroism. Aryabhatta, a scientist ahead of his time, went out on a limb and proposed that earth was a rotating sphere centuries before Columbus made his famous voyage. Aryabhatta also calculated the length of the solar year as 365.358 days only three hours over the figure calculated by modern scientists.
Gupta artists may be best known for the magnificent sculpture that they carved on stone temples for the rajahs who sponsored an immense flowering in the arts. Such buildings were literally covered with carvings of mostly religious subjects. In addition, the Golden Age of the Gupta Dynasty encompassed other arts, including painting, music, dance and literature. Regarded as highly now as they were when created, the Gupta arts influenced artistic styles in later Indian societies as well as in many other parts of Asia. Indian advances in mathematics had a wide impact on the rest of the world. Gupta mathematician devised the system of writing numbers (Arabic numerals) that we use today. Indian mathematicians also originated the concept of zero and developed the decimal system of numbers based on ten digits, which we still use today.
During Gupta times, many fine writers added to the rich heritage of Indian literature. They collected and recorded fables and folk tales in the Sanskrit language. In time, Indian fables were carried west to Persia, Egypt and Greece. The greatest Gupta poet and playwright was Kalidasa. His most famous play, Shakuntala, tells the story of a king who marries the lovely orphan Shakuntala. Under an evil spell, the king forgets his bride. After many plot twists, he finally recovers his memory and is reunited with her.
Unlike the Mauryas, the Guptas adopted such pompous titles as Parameshvara Maharajadhiraja, Paramabhattaraka, etc., which imply the existence of lesser kings with considerable authority within the empire. Besides, the Guptas added other epithets claiming for themselves super-human qualities which raised them almost to the level of gods. In fact, in the Allahabad Pillar Inscription, Samudragupta is referred to as a god dwelling on earth. Kingship was hereditary, but royal power was limited by the absence of a firm practice of primogeniture.
Although Samudragupta was a fighter, he loved the arts as well. Artists were so highly appreciated in the Gupta Empire that they were actually paid for their work. After the conquests of expanding the empire, the Gupta’s were relatively peaceful. Because of this, the Gupta’s were very tolerant of other religions, specifically Buddhism, even though their culture revolved around Hinduism. The prosperity of the civilization grew, especially after Chandragupta II succeeded his father. This allowed for lots of leisure time within the society. This spare time permitted for the Gupta’s to be successful with literature as well as mathematical and scientific endeavors. Literature developed extensively; Sanskrit writing became a great beneficiary to the empire. The free expression and creativity in the writing was revolutionary.
The last days of the Gupta Empire
Skandagupta died about A.D. 467 and the line of succession after him is very uncertain. Purugupta, a son of kumaragupta, ruled for some time and was succeeded by his son Budhagupta whose earliest known date is A. D. 477 and the latest A.D. 495. He was succeeded by his brother Narasimhagupta Baladitya.
A king named Kumaragupta II is known to have reigned in A.D. 474. This indicates internal dissension which continued after the end of Budhagupta’s reign. He was succeeded by his son and grandson, Kumaragupta III and Visnugupta – the three reigns covered the period A.D. 500-550. Two otherkinos, Vainyagupta (A.D. 507) and Bhanugupta (A.D. 510) ruled in Samatataand Nalandaand in Eran respectively. The Guptas continued to rule till about 550 A.D., but by then their power had already become very insignificant.
The Fall of the Gupta
It wasn’t until about 455 C.E. that the Gupta Empire began having trouble. All the power, wealth, and extravagant living led the rulers to become very lazy. They became invaded by Huns and they became very weakened by the expense of the war. The Huns then took over and all of India split up into individual kingdoms.Ultimately, the Hephthalites, an Asian nomadic tribe, were the reason for the destruction of the civilization. The war with the tribe devastated the empire’s economy. By 550 C.E. the Hephthalites had decimated the Gupta Empire.
Facts about Gupta Dynasty
- The empire was founded by Maharaja Sri Gupta but little did he know that he started an era that would be considered as ‘Golden Age of India’. Actually Sri Gupta and his son Ghatotkacha ruled between 240 and 319 CE. During their rule, the Guptas did not really create an empire but did lay the foundation stone. It was only in 320 CE that Chandragupta I (grandson of Sir Gupta) properly established the Gupta Empire. Much of his success came because he married Kumaradevi, the princess of the powerful Magadha. Chandragupta I received Magadha’s capital Pataliputra as dowry and then went on expanding his kingdom by conquering Saketa, Prayaga and much of Magadha and eventually assumed the title of Maharajadhiraja (King of kings).
- Gupta Empire was large and at its peak, covered 21 kingdoms both inside and outside Indian subcontinent.
- It was a period of peace and prosperity and ancient India under the Gupta Dynasty went through a phase of development and growth that spanned over philosophy, religion, logic, literature, art dialect, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, technology and science.
- It was an era of prominent scholars. Some of the most prominent names include Vatsyayana, Vishnu Sharma, Varahamihira, Kalidasa and Aryabhata.
- All these aforementioned scholars were special but most important scholar among them was Aryabhata whose contributions to mathematics and astronomy still continues to baffle modern scientists. Aryabhata was the first mathematician to give an accurate approximation of π and was also the first person to mention that π was irrational.
- Aryabhata’s contribution to ZERO made him immortal through ages. He literally did not use the symbol for zero but his place value system implicitly used zero. The place value system was a counting system he developed which would have literally been impossible without the use of zero. He also calculated square roots and cubic roots which are literally impossible without place value system and zero.
- Aryabhata wrote ‘Aryabhatiya’ when he was only 23 years old. Aryabhatiya is an astronomical treatise of 118 verses. It contains a mathematical section covering algebra, arithmetic, plane and spherical trigonometry, quadratic equations, continued fractions, table of sines and sums of power series.
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