India: The Imperial Guptas

The Rising Flood Of Asian Culture, 300-1300





     After the fall of Rome, eight centuries passed before Europe began its

transition to modernity. The civilizing process was more continuous in Asia,

high cultures flourishing in both India and China between 300 and 1300. Their

wealth and cultural achievements helped prepare the way for Western revival

after the fourteenth century.


[See States And Empires 800-West]


[See States And Empires 800-East]


     This was a time of preservation, consolidation, and innovation for the

old Asian civilizations. Earlier values and institutions were reaffirmed so

effectively that the characteristic Hindu and Chinese culture patterns have

endured down to modern times, despite frequent invasions of both homelands.

Moreover, each civilization produced significant contributions to the world's

common culture. India made remarkable advances in mathematics, medicine,

chemistry, textile production, and imaginative literature. China excelled in

political organization, scholarship, and the arts, while producing such

revolutionary technical inventions as printing, explosive powder, and the

mariner's compass.


     The preserving function of the Indo-Chinese heritage was reinforced by

the roles of women. Although developing militarism and elitism emphasized

masculine views and often contributed to the abuse of women as sex objects and

playthings, older feminine values lingered on, particularly within families,

where women continued to maintain traditional values and make important

decisions. With the possible exception of Muslim women in India, they played

more significant social roles than in Europe or the Middle East.


     Cultural growth in the old Asian centers led naturally toward diffusion

into other locations and the emergence of fringe civilizations. In Southeast

Asia, new civilizations rose as contacts with India and China increased

through trade, missionary efforts, colonization, and conquest. First Korea,

and then Japan after the seventh century, imported cultural bases from China.

Similarly, Central Asian nomads - Turks, Uighurs, Mongols, and numerous other

steppe peoples - who were just beginning to create urban civilizations in this

period, learned as merchants, subjects, or conquerors from the Chinese. During

their briefly maintained states, climaxed by the great Mongol Empire in the

thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they passed on to Arabs and Europeans

many items in the expanding Asian culture stream.


India: The Imperial Guptas


     Through most of the fourth and fifth centuries the monarchs of the Gupta

dynasty ruled in what has been termed India's classical age. For a century,

the land had suffered political disintegration while Buddhism partially

replaced the old Vedic religion of the brahmins. The Guptas brought unity and

fostered a revival of traditional religion, Sanskrit literature, and native

art. During this period, Hindu culture spread widely through Southeast Asia,

as we shall see in chapter 14. After the fifth century, India became a melange

of warring states, some ruled by Muslim dynasties, but the Hindu tradition

continued to exert its influence.


The Gupta State And Society


     The Gupta state began its rise with the accession to power of Chandra

Gupta I (not related to Chandragupta Maurya) in 320. His son and grandson were

successful conquerors, extending the boundaries of an original petty state in

Maghada until it included most of northern India from the Himalayas to the

Narbada River and east to west from sea to sea. Within this domain, the Gupta

monarchs developed a political structure along ancient Mauryan lines, with

provincial governors, district officials, state-controlled industries, and an

imperial secret service. This centralized system was effective only on royal

lands, however, which were much less extensive than in Mauryan times. With a

smaller bureaucracy, the Gupta rulers depended upon local authorities and

communal institutions, raising revenues primarily through tribute and military

forces by feudal levy.


     Peace and stabilized government under the later Guptas increased

agricultural productivity and foreign trade. Flourishing commerce with Rome in

the last decades of the fourth century brought a great influx of gold and

silver into the Empire. Hindu traders were also active in Southeast Asia,

particularly in Burma and Cambodia, contributing to the emergence of

civilizations there (see ch. 14). The resulting prosperity of India was

reflected in the erection of great public buildings and in the luxuries of the

elite, particularly at the Gupta court.


[See Gupta Statue: Gupta sculpture reached a pinnacle of refinement at

Sarnath, where this high-relief statue of the Buddha preaching the First

Sermon was discovered. Government of India Tourist Office]


     Although the Gupta rulers generally practiced religious toleration, they

favored Hinduism, providing the brahmins with imperial patronage, both in

wealth and prestige. As it crystallized into a final form, Hinduism thus

became dominant over Buddhism. By recognizing the validity of all religious

experience - and particularly by incorporating basic Buddhist doctrines, such

as nonviolence and respect for life - the traditional religion developed

tremendous tenacity, lasting into modern times. The Hindu revival of this

period brought a great upsurge of devotion to old gods, such as Vishnu and

Siva, in a popular quest for personal identity and serenity. This new

religious fervor was reflected in a wave of popular religious books, the

Puranas, which emphasized in simple tales, the compassion of the personal

gods. By promoting such emotional Hinduism, the Gupta monarchs gained great

favor among all classes of their subjects.


     Much of our knowledge of Gupta society comes from the journal of a

Buddhist monk, Fa-Hsien, who traveled in India for fifteen years at the

opening of the fifth century. He reported the people to be happy, relatively

free of government oppression, and inclined towards courtesy and charity.

Other references in the journal, however, indicate that the caste system was

rapidly assuming its basic features, including "untouchability," the social

isolation of a lowest class that is doomed to menial labor. The caste system

certainly provided security of status and occupation for many, but it also

justified economic and social inequality. Gupta material prosperity was

monopolized by the elite.


     Class inequality was matched by a growing inequality of the sexes. Gupta

women still received the respect of their husbands and children; some women,

particularly those of the upper class, were also active in the arts, commerce,

and professions. Sometimes, upon the death of rulers, their queens became

capable regents for infant sons. But growing wealth and power during the Gupta

period steadily eroded the traditional status of women. Girls were contracted

to arranged marriages at early ages and forced to live with the families of

future husbands. Subordination of women was most evident in developing customs

that denied widows the right to remarry and even encouraged them to commit

suicide, in the suttee ceremony, by burning themselves on the funeral pyres of

their husbands.


[See India 400-650 AD]


Gupta Art And Literature


     Indian art of the Gupta period depicts an age of classical brilliance,

mingling stability and serenity with an erotic love of life. The Gupta

artistic spirit is perhaps best expressed in the twenty-eight monasteries and

temples at Ajanta, hewn out of a solid rock cliff and portraying in their wall

frescoes not only the life of Buddha but also life in general: lovers

embracing, beds of colorful flowers, musicians, dancers, and a young lady

preparing her toilette. Numerous lightly clad women reveal the beauty of the

human form, attesting to the traditional belief of Gupta artists that the

divine is not separate from the human nor the spirit from the body.


     The Gupta era was also a golden age for literature, written in Sanskrit,

the ancient language of the brahmins. Authors supported by royal patronage

poured forth a wealth of sacred, philosophical, dramatic, poetic, and prose

works. Among the latter were fables, fairy tales, and adventure stories

featuring a wide range of characters - thieves, courtesans, hypocritical

monks, and strange beasts. The Panchatantra is a collection of stories about

animals facing human problems. A most renowned literary figure of this era was

India's greatest poet and dramatist, Kalidasa (c. 400-455), who wrote at the

court of Chandra Gupta II. His work best known in the West is Shakuntala, a

drama of lovers separated by adversity for many years and then by chance

reunited. The play is full of vivid imagery and a loving sympathy for nature.


Gupta Scholarship And Science


     The Gupta era brought a great stimulus to learning. Old Vedic schools

were revitalized, and Buddhist centers, which had spread after the Maurya

period, were given new support. The foremost Indian university was at Nalanda,

founded in the fifth century. Although Buddhist in its basic orientation, it

tolerated all creeds and attracted students from all over Asia. The

organization of Hindu philosophy into six orthodox systems, with a common

concern for salvation, owed much to the Hindu-Buddhist dialogue in the Gupta



     Accomplishments in art, literature, scholarship, and philosophy were not

more remarkable than those in science. The most famous Gupta scientist was the

astronomer-mathematician, Aryabhatta, who lived in the fifth century. He

discussed (in verse) quadratic equations, solstices, and equinoxes, along with

the spherical shape of the earth and its rotation. Other Hindu mathematicians

of this period popularized the use of a special sign for zero, later passing

it on to the Arabs.


     In addition to employing their skills in Yoga, Hindu physicians

sterilized wounds and prepared for surgery by fumigation, performed Caesarean

operations, set broken bones, and practiced plastic surgery. They used drugs

then unknown in the West, such as chaulmoogra oil for treating leprosy, a

practice still used today.


     Achievements in pure science were matched by practical applications.

Gupta craftsmen made soap, cement, superior dyes, and the finest tempered

steel in the world.


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