About the GUPTA Empire

Vikram University, Ujjain.
  • Know about the Gupta kings. Why is their rule considered the Golden Age of India? How did Vikram Samvat come into being? 

This article is based on Volume 3 of The History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan. All credits to authors. Copyright Bhavan. I have only compiled for your convenience.


Article tells about individual kings of the Gupta Empire.


Foreword by Kulapati K M Munshi, excerpts.


“About 320 A.D., Chandra-gupta I, the founder of the Gupta Empire, revived the chakravarti ideal in North India. His marriage with Kumaradevi, the Lichchavi princess, probably resulted in the union of her principality with Magadha.” Pg. x


“Placed between 335-350 A.D. Samundragupta laid the foundation of a military machine which probably included a navy. The territory from Haridwar to the borders of Assam was consolidated into a compact homeland which he directly administered.” Pg xi


“Politically, this was the age of the integration in India. After more than 300 years, northern India was again united under a powerful monarch of versatile talents. A man of culture and patron of arts and letters, he became a symbol and architect of a mighty creative urge amongst the people, which while drawing vitality from tradition, took on a new shape and power.”  Pg xi


Next was his son Chandragupta II (376-414), known as Vikramaditya, acclaimed as the greatest of the Gupta emperors. His reign is placed between 376 and 414. The direct sway of Pataliputra extended from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. South of the Narmada-was dominated by two friendly powers the Pallavas and Vartakas.” Pg xi He defeated the Saka chiefs who had been ruling Gujarat for more than 300 years.

In the collective conscious of India, Vikramaditya symbolised the highest aspirations of national greatness.” Pg xii


“Next was his son Kumara-gupta (415-55 a.d.) and grandson, Skanda-gupta (455 to 467 a.d.) who inflicted a defeat on the invading Hunas.”


“The Dharma-sastras were not enforced at the point of the sword. Even the backward and immigrant classes dropped their group, customs and usages and cheerfully adopted the social system prescribed by them.” Pg xiii


“Sanskrit, a living language, elastic in structure and rich in expression, was the living embodiment of the Dharma was a powerful integrating force. Inscriptions began to be written in Sanskrit, even in the far South.” Pg xiii


“The Gupta emperors upheld Dharma. Under the Gupta emperors, the Mahabharata acquired a unique position as an integrating psychological course. The cultural uprising was based upon the central idea underlying Dharma from early time. The age saw the speculative thought among others of Vasubandhu and the Nayanars; the perfect lyric and drama of Kaildasa; the astronomical discoveries of Varahamihira; the iron pillar of Delhi; the beginnings of structural temples; the beauty of the early Ajanta frescoes; the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism; completion of Mahabharata and composition of the Vayu- and the Matsya Puranas. Greatness of the empire lay in its integral outlook.” Pg xiv


“Its strength was based as much on military strength as on internal order and economic policy; the sap of its vitality was drawn from ancient tradition which they maintained, re-interpreted and replenished.”


“The Gupta emperors became the symbols of a tremendous national upsurge. Life was never happier, our culture never more creative than during the Golden Prime of India.” Pg xv


Although the Guptas were devoted to Vishnu, the worship of Siva was more popular. Kanchi became a great centre of faith. After 500 A.D. the Bhakti cults gave to the religious movements the emotional content. It helped form enduring values which helped people during the disastrous Turkish invasions.


By 512 a.d. the Huns, under Toramana, overran north India. They were resisted and defeated. They disappeared as they came. The Guptas had grown weak, the Maukharis emerged victorious. Kanauj emerged as the symbol of a new order.


Dr R C Mazumdar wrote in same volume (3),” it is during this period that Indian intellect reached its high watermark. The period witnesses the highest development of Sanskrit literature.” The six systems of Philosophy, took place during this period, which also produced great Buddhist philosopher like Vasubandhu.


“We have the shining figures of Aryabhata, Varahamihiri and Brahmagupta, whose works in Maths and Astronomy are still reckoned to be the greatest contribution of India to science in the ancient world. It will be enough to recall the fact that Aryabhatta was the first to discover that the earth rotates on its axis and moves around the sun. The discovery of the decimal system of notation has revolutionised the process of arithmetical calculation. As regards technical science, the great iron pillar at Mehrauli is a triumph of metallurgy.” Pg xvi


This period (320-750) saw the final development of the two great epics, growth of Vaishnavism and Saivism. The vast Puranic literature took definite shape during this period.


“During the Gupta Age this cultural unity overspread the natural physical boundaries of India.” During this period Indian culture spread to Southeast Asia and Central Asia. There was a cultural renaissance in India during the Gupta Age.


“The intellectual greatness which characterised the Gupta Age was typified in the University of Nalanda.” Pg xxviii

Sri Gadhkalika Mandir Ujjain is traditionally known to be the choice of worship of Kalidasa.

Now let us look at the kings of the Gupta empire.


1. Rise of the Guptas

The dissolution of the Kushanas continued right up to the beginning of the 4th century a.d. Kushanas ruled over western Punjab. The Sakas ruled over Gujarat and part of Malwa but power was on the decline. The rest of Northern India was divided into small kingdoms.


Guptas origin seems to be somewhere in modern day Central India, perhaps Rewa. The first three rulers are referred to as Srigupta, Sri Ghatotkacha-gupta and his son Sri Chandra-gupta (Chandragupta I). It is generally assumed that the well known Gupta Era started with the accession to the throne by Chandragupta I on 26/2/320 A.D. He probably ruled over the whole of Bihar and parts of U.P. and Bengal. Origin of the Gupta name is not known.


2. Foundation of the Gupta Empire

To know about the military exploits of Samudra-gupta (SG) read what is engraved on the Asoka pillar at Prayagraj.


Areas directly under the administration of SG-In the east, it included the whole of Bengal, excepting its south-eastern extremity. Its northern boundary ran along the foothills of the Himalayas. In the west it includes parts of Punjab. The southern line ran along with the Vindhya range of hills. Book has details.


SG also made expeditions to the Deccan and defeated no less than 12 rulers. He captured some southern states but allowed them to rule as feudatories. Even Ceylon was included as a vassal state like that of the Sakas and Kushanas. King Meghavarna of Ceylon (353-379) sought and obtained permission from SG to build a monastery and rest-house at Bodhgaya for Ceylonese devotees.


SG’s empire comprised of the whole of Northern India excluding Kashmir, Western Punjab and Rajputana, Sindh and Gujarat and included the highlands of Chhattisgarh and Orissa with a long stretch along the eastern coasts extending as far south as Chingleput. He was a great patron of learning, a poet and a musician. SG died around 380 A.D.


Chandra-gupta II (CG) became king around 376 a.d. and lived till about 413 a.d.

Vikramaditya, Vikram University, Ujjain. 

CG defeated the Saka ruler of Gujarat and Kathiawar Peninsula around 1st decade of the 5th century. The Gupta empire also controlled to a large extent Indian commerce with the western world.


CG exploits make one compare him with king Vikramaditya of Ujjain who is supposed to have expelled the first Saka conquerors over 400 years ago. It is likely that some of the traditions, esp. patronage of learning, associated with CG owed their origin to the historic king. But it is true that the famous poet Kaildasa (one of the 9 gems of CG) lived at the court of CG. He had successful military expeditions in East Bengal and Bactria beyond the Hindu Kush.


CG introduced copper and silver unlike his predecessors who had only gold coins. Reverse of the coin had Garuda, vehicle of Lord Vishnu. The brilliant intellectual revival in arts, literature and science took places under SG, CG. They brought about peace which made possible progress of culture & civilization.


Kumara-Gupta I (415 to 455 a.d.)

He was son of CG who maintained the vast empire that was inherited.


Skanda-Gupta (SG – died about 467 a.d.)

He defeated the Hunas. For nearly half a century after that the Gupta empire was immune from their depredations. He was a saviour of India for the Hunas had established their supremacy in Europe.


Budha-gupta died about 500 a.d. He seems to have been the last Gupta emperor to have enjoyed sovereignty over the vast dominions bequeathed to him by Chandra-gupta II.


Indian civilization progressed because there was peace & prosperity.


3. Disintegration of the Empire

The Hunas invaded again and brought chaos/barbarism (Toramana and Mihirakula), contributed to the disintegration of the Gupta empire. They were defeated by the Maukharis (pg. 38)


The Maukharis and later Guptas became independent rulers. Several powerful feudatories of the Gupta empire also rose.


Narasimha-gupta was the last great Gupta emperor. He was succeeded by his son and grandson (about 535-570 a.d.)


The decline and downfall was brought about by internal dissension in the royal family and rebellion of feudal chiefs and regional satraps, though foreign invasion was an important contributing factor.  


It is generally accepted that Kalidasa flourished during the Gupta Age, period between 100 B.C. and A.D. 450. His best known work is Sakuntla. It was based on the story of Sakuntla as found in the Mahabharata. He was also brilliant in poetry. His two Mahakavyas, Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava and the lyrical poem Meghaduta are accepted as gems of Sanskrit poetry.  Pg 302


The Udaygiri Caves at Vidisha near Bhopal contain inscriptions belonging to the region of Chandra-gupta II, one of which is dated 401 A.D. Pg. 488 See video talk by art historian Benoy K Behl on Sublime Art in Gupta period 51 minutes 


The Gupta period heralded a new period in Indian temple architecture. Earlier shrines were made of perishable items like wood, bamboo. Now temples were made in permanent materials, esp. brick and dressed stone.


Aihole in Karnataka is said to be the cradle of Indian Temple architecture


During the Gupta Age inter-caste weddings took place esp. of Brahmins and Kshatriyas marrying Vaisyas and Sudras. Pg. 561

Vikramaditya Temple in Ujjain. 

Was Vikramaditya (CG II) the founder of Vikram Samvat?

There are conflicting views. I will dwell in brief.


Some say Vikramaditya was the ruler who defeated the Sakas in 58 B.C. and founded the era Vikrama Samvat – to commemorate this fact. CGII’s  association with Kalidasa is accepted but learned do not think Kalidasa lived so early a period. The general view he lived during the period of CGII, who too defeated the Sakas. Kalidasa is said to have lived between 100 BC and 450 AD.


As per chapter 10 of Volume 2 of Bhavan’s eleven volumes there is a reference to Jain literature and partly in connection with history of Jaina darsana.  


Thus, Vikramaditya, son of ruler Gardabhilla, regained the kingdom of Ujjayini by expelling the Sakas. So commenced the Vikrama era in 58 BC. When the Sakas regained control of Ujjayani about 135 years later then commenced the Saka era in 78 A.D. Pg. 155


“For the first five hundred years, the years of the era were simply referred to as Samvat. In the 5th century A.D. the era is for the first time called the ‘era of Malavas’. The earliest use of the word Vikrama is in an inscription in which 898 is referred to the time called Vikrama. Had it been founded by king Vikramaditya it would have been more than strange that no allusion should ever have been made for this for more than a thousand years.” Pg 156


This explains why I found a Vikramaditya temple in Ujjain.


Also read

1. Hindu calendar explained

2. Informative blog on subject

3. The tragedy of Vikram Samvat

4. Ganesha speaks about Vikram Samvat  

5. Album Jantar Mantar Observatory, Ujjain

6. About history of Ujjain

7. When it all began – Indian calendars

8. Renowned Mathematicians of India

9. Education – words of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother  

 10. See video talk by art historian Benoy K Behl on Sublime Art in Gupta period 51 minutes 

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