INDIAN HISTORY Part 25: THE GOLDEN GUPTAS Section V: The Empire and Its Governance

Canberra, 27 February 2014

The Guptas followed the traditional concepts of hereditary monarchy and that of primogeniture. The king’s right to rule was considered divinely ordained and was further sanctified by Brahminical ceremonies. However, this divine right was bestowed with the caveat that the king was duty and honour bound to institute righteous policies, follow them personally, and enforce them strictly. The Gupta monarchs were almost uniformly exemplary in their behaviour and followed the principles of the caveat in both letter and spirit, governing their kingdom in accordance with the established rajadharma or the king’s bounden duty. At the same time they were also not absolutists.

For millennia Indian monarchs had concentrated power in their own hands, dealing ruthlessly with any indication of dissention or rebellion. The outlying provinces were subdued and kept within the ambit of the kingdom either through military subjugation or through direct bureaucratic intervention. In sharp contrast to this tradition, the Gupta kings believed in a decentralised rule and devolved power to subordinate authorities, bringing them together within the ambit of the monarchy through the offer of friendship. Friendship was offered as a response to the lesser kings of chiefs paying homage to the Guptas. While Samudra Gupta was indeed a conquering hero, he also tended to make feudatories of defeated kingdoms, restoring the vanquished rulers to their thrones in return for tributes that was normally a one-time requirement. Such relationships had the effect of sharing the wealth in a peaceful manner and afforded group protection from external interference. The enforcement of the concept of peaceful coexistence even after the defeat of a particular kingdom also had the added advantage of putting an end to the endemic internecine wars that were debilitating, especially to the smaller dynasties. A sort of ‘Gupta Peace’ was enforced though coercion and deterrence rather than actual physical military intervention.

Samudra Gupta, for all his military feats, established a network of Samantas around the geographic core of his extended kingdom. Samanta essentially means neighbour in Sanskrit, and he dealt with each of the outlying provinces as neighbours and not as their conquering adversary. The fact that later-day Indian monarchs adopted the same feudatory system is a testimony to the success and effectiveness of this system. Further proof of its efficacy is provided with even the British adopting a more refined and nuanced version of the basic system practised by the Guptas.


In a broad manner the Gupta administration was developed on the Chanakyan model, similar in pattern to that followed by the Mauryas six centuries earlier. The administration consisted of a system that was operated by high ranking officers who were responsible for the efficient conduct of foreign policy, judiciary, state documents and other portfolios necessary for the efficient functioning of a vast empire. There was also a master of ceremonials in the emperor’s court, perhaps an offshoot of Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya’s affinity for pomp and show. The king was advised by a council of ministers, which was headed by a Pradhan Mantri or Prime Minister.

The military was controlled by a commander-in-chief, although by normal protocol the king personally commanded the army most of the time. It can be presumed that the appointed commander-in-chief was responsible for the day-to-day administration of the forces rather than strategic and operational command during times of war. The Gupta military had an elaborate command arrangement with the cavalry, elephant corps and the infantry having independent commanders directly responsible to the king. The crown prince and other royal personages were also involved in the command structure of the military, although they were not normally given direct control of the forces. This precautionary stance of the king is a clear indication of the precariousness of his hold on power. However, the princes, especially the crown prince, were used regularly to oversee the administration of outer provinces and employed as viceroys when necessary. This process would have also been a method of training and educating them to shoulder the greater responsibility of kingship at a later stage and also of keeping the more enterprising princes of the next generation away from the seat of power.

The Empire was administratively divided into Desa, Bhukti, and Visaya, roughly equivalent to state, province and district. The control was decentralised and decision-making was routinely effected at the provincial and even district level. This is in sharp contrast to the Mauryan administration that held the decision-making powers fully centralised at the emperor’s court. The lowest unit of administration was the grama—village—a fact that has remained unchanged throughout the history of India and continues to be so even today.

The primary source of income for the central treasury was the land tax, which was set at one-sixth of the total produce of the land. This income was supplemented through toll taxes, port duties, war booty and tributes from feudatories. The Guptas increased the cultivable land area in the rural regions and the far-flung villages were protected by dispersed military units that could be centrally assembled to form an army in times of war. These settlements were made possible through state provided public works and strictly enforced trade practices.

Considering that the Maurya and Gupta dynasties were separated in time by only six centuries and the fact that both conquered and ruled a major part of the Indian sub-continent, comparisons of the two are inevitable. There are few distinct differences between the Maurya and Gupta administrations. One, the Maurya administration had a bureaucracy that was intrusive in the extreme, controlling all aspects of people’s lives including religious and economic activities. The Guptas on the other hand maintained a discrete distance in all aspects of the people’s daily lives and was well removed from all religious intervention. Two, the Mauryas were avowed Buddhists and the administration followed Buddhist ideology in all aspects, whereas the Guptas were believers in the early Vedic religion, the precursor of Hinduism. However, religious ideology did not percolate much into the Gupta administration. Three, the Mauryas maintained a huge army that had become a seldom-used instrument of statecraft, especially during Emperor Ashoka’s time. In direct contrast, the slightly smaller Gupta army was almost always on the move and engaged in wars almost constantly. Four, the Mauryas regularly carried out a strict census to facilitate taxation and their punishments for crime, even very minor offences, were harsh and strictly enforced. The Guptas never even attempted a census and as far as possible avoided corporal punishment. The decentralised administrative concept followed by the Guptas is clearly evident in these four basic factors.

Fa-Hein’s Reports

Fa-Hein (lived 337-422) the Chinese pilgrim, traveller, and writer entered India through the Karakoram Pass and lived in the country from 399 to 412. He was single-mindedly involved in the study of Buddhist scriptures, so much so that he does not mention even once in his travelogue the name of the Emperor in whose lands and under whose indirect protection he travelled. However, although his writings were undeniably biased towards the Buddhist theories and concepts and details the way of life of the Buddhist people in India, they have to be collectively considered a travelogue since he also provides detailed descriptions of the places and people he visited. He visited Pataliputra and stayed there for three years studying Sanskrit. He commented on the excellence of the craftsmanship of Asoka Maurya’s palace that still existed. The palace was made of stone, and Fa-Hein reports a story that was prevalent in which the people believed that the palace was actually constructed by heavenly spirits on the orders of the Emperor. This legend provides further proof of the concept of the divine right of the Emperor to rule—a fundamental pillar on which the absolute power of the king/emperor was built.

There were two monasteries next to the famous stupa catering to the followers of the Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist sects, together accommodating over 700 learned monks. This demonstrates that Buddhism was far from being in decline and that the religion was actually flourishing during this period. In his 500-mile journey from Indus to Mathura on the banks of the Yamuna, Fa-Hein reports the existence of a number of thriving monasteries, a sure sign of the influence of Buddhism in the region. Fa-Hein also reports an annual parade of images that were carried in a splendid procession of cars and subsequently mentions that such parades were common in other major cities of the nation also. These parades must have been religious in nature, and probably Buddhist as well, otherwise it is unlikely to have found a prominent mention in Fa-Hein’s account of daily life.

One of the most important aspects that emerge from Fa-Hein’s travelogue is his observations regarding the ‘Chandals’ or untouchables who lived on the periphery of the normal society, being considered outcastes. He reports that they were outcastes because they were traditionally charged with disposing off both human and animal dead bodies and therefore were considered to be polluted. By official decree they had to give warning of their approach so that other people could take effective measures to avoid coming in contact with them and thereby becoming polluted. In this context of ‘untouchability’ it is interesting to note that Fa-Hein does not mention or comment on any other aspects of the, now notorious, caste system. The conclusion that can be drawn is that the caste system was not as rigid as it became in later years and that the people accepted the varna and jati system without complaints. This acceptance could have stemmed from the fact that the society as a whole still approved and accepted upward mobility of people from one caste to the next ‘higher’ one based on individual merit and achievement.

In his travels Fa-Hein visited many towns, both big and small, and mentions some of the towns within the kingdoms of Magadha and Malwa in detail. He names the kingdom of Magadha as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ in accordance with the Chinese concept with which he was familiar. Magadha is reported as being the largest in the Gangetic plain and that the people were both rich and charitable. There were numerous charitable institutions that catered to the needs of the less fortunate members of society and there were rest houses at regular intervals on the highways for use by travellers. He also mentions that Pataliputra maintained a free hospital for treating the sick. This is an important bit of information to bring out since nowhere else in the world did such an institution exist at that time. The earliest date in which the first charitable hospital could have come into being in the Christian world is around 530, but it is more likely to have been in Paris in the 7th century. The Magadhan hospital perhaps owes its origin to the influence of Ashoka’s teachings.

The description of Malwa provides the details of the natural advantages of the region to the south of Mathura, of its temperate climate, and moderate government. The government was non-intrusive in its administration and did not impose any travel restrictions within the kingdom. Even foreigners did not have to register with the local magistrate, which was a common practice of the time. Fa-Hein states that in comparison to China the criminal law was mild and that torture was not practised. Further it written that the revenue to the kingdom was obtained through the renting of crown lands, which collected by Royal officers on fixed salaries. This system of paid rent collectors tended to eliminate corruption since the officers were not forced to live off a percentage of the collection that normally made them oppressive in fixing and collecting the rent.

Buddhist rule of life was prevalent across most of the kingdom and the monasteries were endowed with royal grants. The general population was generally charitable towards the monks. The Gupta kings followed a Brahminical faith but the foundation of their rule was secular tolerance and support of all religions. This concept is in sharp contrast to that followed by Buddhist kings who felt compelled by the tenets of their religion to propagate and impose their faith on the people. The Gupta kings were popular rulers primarily because of their adherence to a non-interfering stance on all matters other than the most important one of security of the nation. Considering the era of their rule this is a laudable concept to have been instituted. The Guptas provided their people the luxury of assured liberty of conscience. In its long and turbulent history, India was never governed better—before or after.

Although Fa-Hein’s travelogue is biased towards reporting everything that he observed through the prism of his Buddhist beliefs, it is definite that by the time of his departure from India orthodox Hinduism had started to make inroads into the religious practices of a large proportion of the populace. From then on Buddhism went into gradual decline.

The Desolation of Gaya

Although the tranquillity and prosperity of the empire was never in question, some areas did not fare well. Fa-Hein reports that the city of Gaya, once the fountainhead of Buddhist learning and the epicentre of the religion, was empty and desolate. The holiest of holy places, Bodh-Gaya, six miles to the south of Gaya was surrounded by jungle. Extensive tracts of Himalayan lowlands that had very large population centres in 5th century B.C. were now almost completely uninhabited. The once-great city of Sravasti in the upper reaches of the River Rapti is reported as being sparsely populated. Kapilavastu, the ancient capital of the Sakya clan and a holy city as the birthplace of the Buddha himself, as well as the other holy city of Kusinagara are both reported as being wasted and deserted. The cause of such overwhelming decay is unknown. However, since these areas and towns were intimately connected to the Buddhist religion, it can be speculated that their decline and eventual decay was connected to the declining influence of the religion itself on the general population. The indifference of the population to the Buddhist religion combined with the rise of orthodox Hinduism could have been the unobtrusive reason for the desolation that Fa-Hein reported.

Religion and Philosophy

The Gupta rule saw the beginning of a discreet clash between Buddhism and orthodox Hinduism. By this time the concepts of the Buddhist belief system, which was originally intended to be applied in a flexible manner, had become fairly rigid adding to the decline of the religion. There are a number of other reasons also for the decline in its general influence. Buddhism lost ground through the dilution of its essential distinction from other religious beliefs—the virtual atheism of the Eight-fold Path propagated by Gautama the Buddha had become watered down. Further, the monks of the religion now did not signify the virtual isolation from the normal world, the concept on which its popularity had been built. The monastic complexes had increasingly started to function as commercial hubs associated with the wealthy classes and rich merchants leading to a sense of alienation in the general public.

At the same time the challenge from the Brahminical system had started to penetrate into the rural and more remote areas of the Empire. The initial pattern was of the assimilation of the various cults and customs of the region into the more colourful practices of the emerging Hindu religion. At this stage the ancient Vedic deities had started to be pushed to the background. The Guptas, while being secularly tolerant, assiduously promoted the Vishnu and Shiva cults, while also encouraging their feudatories and other lesser dynasties to do so. They combined their claim to divinity with the economic resources of the conquered feudatories to establish a sort of overarching religious control. The concept of Vishnu’s different incarnations could have been born around this time in order to accommodate local customs into the broader fold of Hinduism. For example—in Mathura, the original land of the Yadavas, their popular deity ‘Krishna’ was made into an incarnation; during Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya’s long sojourn in Malwa, the colossal wild boar that is coincident with local folklore was converted to the ‘varaha’ or wild boar incarnation of Vishnu. This was one of the important ways in which local deities and spirits, however rudimentary, were transformed into images worthy of worship within the Brahminical mainstream.

The Brahminical system, founded on a deeply embedded belief in elaborate ritual and sacrifice was strengthened through a process of syncretism wherein the Buddha himself was reduced to the position of a minor ‘avatar’, or incarnation, of Vishnu—the primary Hindu God. Although an overriding philosophy of absorption has been the trademark of the spread of Hinduism, it is even today without a specific doctrine to an extent that the religion still does not have a recognisable form. Its continuity and strength lies in flexibility and belief; not in rigid doctrine and practice of orthodoxy. Today, this process of spiritual assimilation is termed ‘The Great Tradition’ of Hinduism.

The Gupta period saw the beginning of the evolutionary replacement of the sacrifice-oriented Vedic Brahminism by Shaivite and Vaishnavite practices. The essential difference between the two was that the proclaimed eternal superiority of the Vedas became inconsequential when compared to the worship of the supreme glory of a single all-encompassing deity. The ceremony of the puja, the most essential part of this type of worship, superceded the stilted practice of Vedic sacrifices. In the conduct of this worship, the central role of the priest as the sole interceding agent between man and god started to be questioned since the emphasis shifted, in a passive manner, to individual devotion and worship. Thus was born the concept of Bhakti, an individual form of worship with no priestly mediation focused on one supreme God. However, this development did not put an end to the role of the priest. The result of this development was not the rejection of one type of worship and the acceptance of another, but a typically Hindu compromise of coexistence.

The upper classes continued with an evolved version of the Vedic system of rituals and sacrifices conducted by the priests, whereas the masses became increasingly individualistic in their devotion and religious practices under Shaivite or Vaishnavite influence. The fundamental shift that occurred was that millions of unlettered common people became imbued with a strong passion for devotional worship providing a visible surge in the popularity of the Hindu traditions of belief and worship. This popularity was not to be overshadowed by any other religious thought process across the sub-continent, other than in some geographical pockets that came under the influence of Islam and Christianity in later years. The initial devotional shift in the practice of Hinduism was facilitated by the Puranas.

The Puranas

The Puranas are a set of texts written by learned Shaivite and Vaishnavite followers, in a style and language that was easily understood, as a primer for the religious education of the common population. The subjects covered are a mixture of explanations and teachings on morality, religious practices, and the fundamentals of individual worship. They also deal in a broad manner with history, genealogy, folk lore; provide practical wisdom to deal with everyday occurrences; have explanations regarding subjects such as geography and astrology; and deal with a number of other, equally diverse subjects.

There are 18 major and another 18 minor texts that form the corpus of the Puranas. The ease of access of these texts drew the people away from Buddhism as well as orthodox Vedic Brahmanism. They form the basis of today’s ‘folk Hinduism’. The earliest writings of the Puranic texts dates to the pre-Gupta period and there were additions made much after the collapse of the Gupta dynasty. However, the majority of the texts are definitive products of the Gupta period and marked the transition in Hindu worship that was witnessed in the 4th and 5th century.

The Gupta period was the epitome of the concept of co-existence and tolerance of different religious beliefs and intellectual traditions. In fact the plethora of Indian philosophies that exist to this day is supposed to have originated in the Gupta period.

The Guptas, although identifying themselves with Lord Vishnu and performing Vedic sacrifices, encouraged endowments to both Buddhist and Brahman establishments with even-handed munificence.

John Keay, India: A History, p. 146.

It was also during the Gupta rule that primacy amongst the Buddhist Universities passed from Taxila, which was outside the Gupta domains, to Nalanda located near the earliest Magadhan capital of Raja-Griha. Nalanda was hallowed space with the Buddha’s own footprint located there. In 5th century the Huns sacked Taxila, burning most of the manuscripts collected over centuries and laying waste the city, once and for all ending its claim to being a seat of learning.

Even though Buddhism as a religion entered the first stages of its decline in India during the Gupta reign, during that time it also contributed to the development of religious architecture and sculpture. The Buddhist practice of erecting adorned stupas was the first experiments in the devotional use of architecture in India and led to the development of sculptural iconography. It is now certain that the Buddha figures that have been unearthed were created after the sculptors had perfected the art of creating general animal and human figures. Thereafter, they went on to produce the images of the pantheon of orthodox Hindu gods—mainly Vishnu, Shiva and various versions of the mother goddess—that have been excavated near Mathura.


Trade during Gupta rule was governed by guilds called sreni, which were extremely influential even in the general administration of the districts. They regulated the prices, ensured quality control, and supervised the training establishment for craftsmen. The sreni also functioned as the bankers to the nation and were used even by the Royal Court. The chiefs of all srenis, each representing a particular craft and called ‘Sresthin’ or aldermen, met at regular intervals to ensure the smooth flow of trade both within the nation and with nations abroad. This group was the original chamber of commerce! Needless to state, trade flourished both within India and abroad.

Fa-Hein returned from India on a trading ship that sailed from Tamralipti in Bengal. He reports the presence of Brahmans in Indo-China and in an island he called ‘ye-po-ti’ that could be either Java, Sumatra or Malaya. This is conclusive proof of a thriving trade relationship between the Gupta Empire and the far-flung lands of Indo-China.

The Concept of a Golden Age

It is a supreme twist of irony that the concept of a ‘Golden Age’ under the rule of the Guptas rose not among the Indian historians [although Indian/Hindu nationalists have been quick to grab it as a propaganda aid] but amongst the British who came to India. Vincent Smith, the brilliant historian, who was completely unsympathetic to and harshly critical of many aspects of Indian culture was admiring of the Guptas, considering them the perfect imperialists worthy of emulation. He went so far as to suggest that the British could model themselves on the imperial Guptas.

The Guptas brought about a subtle, but all important, change in the concept of kingship. The earlier rulers, kings, and emperors adhered to one of two forms. They were either charged with maintaining the status quo of the established cosmic order through the performance of Vedic sacrifices with the help of Brahman priests or, like Ashoka, propounding a moral order through the practice of religions such as Buddhism. The Guptas developed the idea of the divine connection further, making the king himself the central theme of discourse and being considered god on earth. While this change was more in the virtual and imaginary space of religious thought, the Gupta kings brought about a golden age in the history of the sub-continent through their heroic deeds in battle, their magnanimity in victory, their patronage of art and literature, their love of pomp and ceremony, and their unparalleled sophistication and splendour in the conduct of their courts. The Guptas, deservedly became the benchmark for all succeeding dynasties to rate their own performance. The title, ‘Golden Guptas’ is not out of place!

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

One Response to “INDIAN HISTORY Part 25: THE GOLDEN GUPTAS Section V: The Empire and Its Governance”

  1. Dear Sanu sir, a really thought provoking read. Sometimes when looking at the topographical map of India i tend to wonder what would have happended if the Hindukush mountains that separate the Punjab plains from that of Afghanistan and Iran were further west and bordering the mediterranean. Would Hinduism/Budhism have prevailed over the Abrahamic religions, or could it have been the other way around? Geopolitics is one department that tempts us to ask, “What if?”

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