(INDIA, EMPIRE and CHAOS – continued)

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INDIA, EMPIRE and CHAOS (10 of 10)

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The Gupta Dynasty and Empire

India's so-called Dark Age, from 185 BCE to CE 300, was not dark regarding trade. Trade continued, with more being sold to the Roman Empire than was being imported. In India, Roman coins were piling up. The Kushan invaders were absorbed by India, Kushan kings adopting the manners and language of the Indians and intermarrying with Indian royal families. The southern kingdom of Andhra conquered Magadha in 27 BCE, ending the Sunga dynasty in Magadha, and Andhra extended its power in the Ganges Valley, creating a new bridge between the north and the south. But this came to an end as Andhra and two other southern kingdoms weakened themselves by warring against each other. By the early 300s CE, power in India was returning to the Magadha region, and India was entering what would be called its classical age.

A Magadha raja named Chandra Gupta (unrelated to the Chandragupta of six centuries before) controlled rich veins of iron from the nearby Barabara Hills. Around the year 308 he married a princess from the neighboring kingdom of Licchavi, and with this marriage he gained a hold over the flow of northern India's commerce on the Ganges River – the major flow of north Indian commerce. In 319, Chandra Gupta created for himself the title King of Kings (Maharajadhiraja), and he extended his rule westward to Prayaga, in north-central India.

The Gupta Empire

The Gupta Empire Map: the Gupta Empire

Ten years into his rule, Chandra Gupta lay dying, and he told his son, Samudra, to rule the whole world. His son tried. 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, and 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.

Around 380, Samudra Gupta was succeeded by his son Chandra Gupta II, and the son extended Gupta rule to India's 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, the Guptas let people free to pursue wealth and business, and 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 largely many Indians were pursuing pleasure and enjoying life. In the cities were wealthy and middle class people who enjoyed their gardens, music, dancing, plays and various other entertainment. 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. Greater wealth accrued to those who already had wealth. Big estates grew with the help of dependent labor and slave labor. The poor stayed poor, but apparently there was little dire want. The caste system still existed. So too did the inferior status of women. But charities abounded. The Gupta kings were autocrats who liked to think of themselves as servants to all their subjects. Hospitals offered care free of charge to everyone, rich and poor. There were rest houses for travelers along India's highways, and the capital city had a hospital with free care created by the charity of the wealthy.

With the increase in prosperity came a greater liberality. The cruel punishments during the Mauryan Dynasty had been abolished. Although the Gupta's were more organized in their administrations, 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 often practiced by Roman emperors and by Mauryan rulers. 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.

Among civilians, 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 came an intellectual revival. Literature flourished, and Indians exercised their proficiency in art, architecture and mathematics. It was now that India's greatest poet and dramatist, Kalidasa, lived. He and other writers acquired fame expressing the values of the rich and powerful.

Decline and Fall

Chandra Gupta II died in 415 and was succeeded by his son, Kumara Gupta, who maintained India's peace and prosperity. During his forty-year reign the Gupta Empire remained undiminished. Then, as did the Roman Empire around this time, India suffered more invasions. Kumara Gupta's son, the crown prince, Skanda Gupta, was able to drive the invaders, the Hephthalites, back into the Sassanian Empire, where they were to defeat the Sassanid army and kill the Sassanid king, Firuz.

Prince Skanda was a hero, and women and children sang praises to him. He succeeded his father in 455. Then the Hephthalites returned, and he spent much of his reign of twenty-five years combating them, which drained his treasury and weakened his empire. Perhaps people accustomed to wealth and pleasure should have been more willing to contribute to a stronger military force. At any rate, Skanda Gupta died in 467, and dissension arose within the royal family. Benefiting from this dissension, governors of provinces and feudal chieftains revolted against Gupta rule. For a while the Gupta Empire had two centers: at Valabhi on the western coast and at Pataliputra toward the east.

Seeing weakness, the Hephthalites invaded India again – in greater number. Just before the year 500, the Hephthalites took control of the Punjab. After 515, they absorbed the Kashmir, and they advanced into the Ganges Valley, the heart of India, raping, burning, massacring, blotting out entire cities and reducing fine buildings to rubble. Provinces and feudal territories declared their independence, and the whole of north India became divided among numerous independent kingdoms. And with this fragmentation India was again torn by numerous small wars between local rulers.


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A History of Ancient India, by L.P. Sharma, 1992

A History of India, 4th Edition, by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, 1998

A New History of India, 5th Edition, by Stanley A. Wolpert, 1997

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, Chapter 1, "Science in the Ancient World," by Sir William Dampier, 1948

Hinduism, Its Historical Development, by Troy Wilson Organ, 1974

Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism, by A.L. Basham, 1991

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.