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Rise, Glory and Fall of the Gupta Empire

Going into the fourth century (the 300s) of the Common Era, India was divided among various independent states. One of these states, in the northeast, was Magadha, which had been at the center of the great Maurya Empire (320-185 BCE). Magadha was no longer an empire, but it would soon become a most remarkable empire, the Gupta Empire, with its raja (king) from the year 320 CE becoming its founder. The raja was Chandra Gupta — not to be confused with Chandragupta Maurya.

Chandra Gupta increased his power and territory by a good marriage to Princess Kumaradevi of the Licchavi tribe, which then controlled north Bihar and perhaps Nepal. This gave him a hold over the flow of northern India's commerce on the Ganges River. Special gold coins depicted the king and queen on one side and the Licchavis on the other. Thinking big, Chandra Gupta created for himself a conqueror's title, King of Kings (Maharajadhiraja).

He ruled ten years, his kingdom estimated as extending 200 miles west of the capital, Pataliputra (Patna). As he lay dying he is reported to have told his son, Samudra, to rule the whole world. And his dutiful son would try. Samudra Gupta's forty-five years of rule would be described as one vast military campaign. He waged war along the Ganges plain, overwhelming nine kings and incorporating their subjects and lands into the Gupta Empire. He absorbed Bengal. Kingdoms in Nepal and Assam paid him tribute. He expanded his empire westward, conquering Malava and the Saka kingdom of Ujjayini. He gave various tribal states autonomy under his protection. He raided Pallava and humbled eleven kings in southern India. He made a vassal of the king of Lanka, and he compelled five kings on the outskirts of his empire to pay him tribute. The powerful kingdom of Vakataka in central India, he preferred to leave independent and friendly. (Map)

Around 380, Samudra Gupta was succeeded by his son Chandra Gupta II, and the son extended Gupta rule to India's Gujarat region on the west coast, where new ports were helping India's trade with countries farther west. Chandra Gupta II influenced local powers beyond the Indus River and north to Kashmir. While Rome was being overrun and the western half of the Roman Empire was disintegrating, Gupta rule was at the apex of its grandeur, prospering in agriculture, crafts and trade. Unlike the Maurya Dynasty with its state control of trade and industry, Gupta kings allowed an expanded free enterprise.

Gupta prosperity exceeded that of the Mauryan era. Like the Cynics during Rome's golden age, a few ascetics in India entertained pessimistic views of life and maintained that asceticism would benefit all of humanity. But generally, people were enjoying life. In the cities were wealthy and middle-class people had their gardens, music, dancing, plays and various other entertainments. They enjoyed a daily bath, artistic and social activities and a variety of food, including rice, bread, fish, milk, fruits and juices. And despite religious prohibitions, the Indians — especially the aristocrats — drank wine and stronger alcoholic beverages.

The middle class prospered and greater wealth accrued to those who already had great wealth. Big estates grew with the help of dependent and slave labor. The poor stayed poor, but apparently there was little dire want (and a population density less that one-tenth what it is in India today.) Charities abounded, and charity by the wealthy contributed to health care. Hospitals offered care free of charge to everyone, rich and poor. There were rest houses for travelers along India's highways. But the caste system still existed. So too did the inferior status of women. (Women were dependent on men for their livelihood.)

Both Samudra Gupta and his son, Chandra, in addition to being militarist in orientation were also interested in the arts, in literature, architecture and mathematics. It was in the early 400s that India's greatest poet and dramatist, Kalidasa, lived. He and other writers acquired fame expressing the values of the rich and powerful.

The kings were Hindus, but the avoidance of killing that had been a part of Buddhism and Jainism was widely observed. Across India most people had become vegetarians, except for fish which was widely consumed in Bengal and places to its south. And unlike parts of the Roman Empire, a traveler in India had little reason to fear robbery. A visitor from China, Fa-hien (Faxian), traveled about in India for eleven years and recorded that he was never molested or robbed.

With the good times there were still punishments for wrongdoing, but the crueler punishments during the Maurya Dynasty were abolished. Law breaking was punished without death sentences — mainly by fines. Punishments such as having one's hand cut off were applied only against obstinate, professional criminals. And government controls were lighter. People no longer had to register with government authorities or carry a passport when traveling within the empire. The government operated without the system of espionage practiced by the Mauryas or by Roman emperors.

Invasion, Succession Weakness, and Disintegration

What weakness prevented the good times from enduring? The son of Chandra Gupta II, Kumara Gupta, reigned forty years (415-455). Prosperity continued. But Late in his reign there were invasions by Hunnic warriors on horseback, out of what today in northeastern Afghanistan. Historians are not sure what language they spoke and have called them Hephthalites. Kumara Gupta's son, the crown prince, Skanda Gupta, led a military drive against them, drove them away and became a hero. Women and children sang his praises.

Skanda Gupta succeeded his father in 455. Eventually the Hephthalites returned, and Skandra spent much of his reign of twenty-five years combating them, which drained his treasury and weakened his empire. Skanda Gupta died in 467, and as was common in royal families, dissension arose regarding succession. Benefiting from this dissension, governors of provinces and feudal chieftains revolted against the centralized authority of Gupta rule. For a while the Gupta Empire had two centers: at Valabhi on the western coast and at Pataliputra toward the east.

Division created at least an image of greater weakness, and seeing weakness the Hephthalites invaded India again — in greater number.

Just before the year 500, the Hephthalites took control of the Punjab (in the northwest). After 515, they absorbed the Kashmir (in the north), and they advanced into the Ganges Valley, the heart of India, raping, burning, massacring, blotting out entire cities and reducing fine buildings to rubble. Territories within the empire declared their independence, and the Gupta empire ended in fragmentation.

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.