The Gupta Empire and India

(320 AD - 750 AD)

Ancient India: Highlights


Prehistoric India

Indus Valley Civilization

The Vedic Age

The Epic Age

Hinduism and Transition

The Mauryan Dynasty

The Invasions

The Deccan and South India

The Gupta Era

The Age of small kingdoms


The Southern kingdoms

The Chola Empire

The Northern Kingdoms


Culture Index


After the disintegration in northern India in the third century CE, the Kushanas still ruled over the western Punjab and the declining Shakas over Gujurat and part of Malwa. Sassanian king Shapur II fought and made a treaty with the Kushanas in 350, but they defeated him twice in 367-368. After two previous kings of the Gupta dynasty, Chandra-gupta I by marrying Kumaradevi, a Lichchhavi princess, inaugurated the Gupta Empire in 320, launching campaigns of territorial conquest. This expansion was greatly increased by their son Samudra-gupta, who ruled for about forty years until 380, conquering nine republics in Rajasthan and twelve states in the Deccan of central India. Many other kingdoms on the frontiers paid taxes and obeyed orders. The Guptas replaced tribal customs with the caste system. Rulers in the south were defeated, captured, and released to rule as vassals. Local ruling councils under the Guptas tended to be dominated by commercial interests. Even Lanka king Meghavarna (r. c. 352-379) sent gifts and asked permission to build a large monastery north of the Bodhi tree for Buddhist pilgrims that eventually housed more than a thousand priests. In addition to his military abilities Samudra-gupta was a poet and musician, and inscriptions praised his charity.

His son Chandra-gupta II (r. 380-414) finally ended the foreign Shaka rule in the west so that his empire stretched from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. He allied his family with the Nagas by marrying princess Kubernaga; after marrying Vakataka king Rudrasena II, his daughter ruled as regent there for 13 years. In the south the Pallavas ruled in harmony with the Guptas. The Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien described a happy and prosperous people not bothered by magistrates and rules; only those working state land had to pay a portion, and the king governed without using decapitation or corporal punishments. Kumara-gupta (r. 414-455) was apparently able to rule this vast empire without engaging in military campaigns. Only after forty years of peace did the threat of invading Hunas (White Huns) cause crown prince Skanda-gupta (r. 455-467) to fight for and restore Gupta fortunes by defeating the Huns about 460. After a struggle for the Gupta throne, Budha-gupta ruled for at least twenty years until about 500. Trade with the Roman Empire had been declining since the 3rd century and was being replaced by commerce with Southeast Asia. The empire was beginning to break up into independent states, such as Kathiawar and Bundelkhand, while Vakataka king Narendra-sena took over some Gupta territory.

Gupta decline continued as Huna chief Toramana invaded the Punjab and western India. His son Mihirakula succeeded as ruler about 515; according to Xuan Zang he ruled over India, and a Kashmir chronicle credited Mihirakula with conquering southern India and Lanka. The Chinese ambassador Song-yun in 520 described the Hun king of Gandara as cruel, vindictive, and barbarous, not believing in the law of Buddha, having 700 war-elephants, and living with his troops on the frontier. About ten years later the Greek Cosmas from Alexandria wrote that the White Hun king had 2,000 elephants and a large cavalry, but his kingdom was west of the Indus River. However, the Malwa chief Yashodharman defeated Mihirakula. The Gupta king Narasimha-gupta Baladitya was also overwhelmed by Yashodharman and was forced to pay tribute to Mihirakula, according to Xuan Zang; but Baladitya later defeated Mihirakula, saving the Gupta empire from the Huns. Baladitya was also credited with building a great monastery at Nalanda. In the middle of the 6th century the Gupta Empire declined during the reigns of its last two emperors, Kumara-gupta III and Vishnu-gupta. Gupta sovereignty was recognized in Kalinga as late as 569.

In the 4th century Vasubandhu studied and taught Sarvastivadin Buddhism in Kashmir, analyzing the categories of experience in the 600 verses of his Abhidharma-kosha, including the causes and ways to eliminate moral problems. His brother Asanga converted Vasubandhu to the Yogachara school of Mahayana Buddhism. Vasubandhu had a long and influential career as the abbot at Nalanda.

As an idealist Vasubandhu, summing up his ideas in twenty and thirty verses, found all experience to be in consciousness. Seeds are brought to fruition in the store of consciousness. Individuals are deluded by the four evil desires of their views of self as real, ignorance of self, self-pride, and self-love. He found good mental functions in belief, sense of shame, modesty, absence of coveting, energy, mental peace, vigilance, equanimity, and non-injury. Evil mental functions he listed as covetousness, hatred, attachment, arrogance, doubt, and false view; minor ones included anger, enmity, concealment, affliction, envy, parsimony, deception, fraud, injury, pride, high-mindedness, low-mindedness, unbelief, indolence, idleness, forgetfulness, distraction, and non-discernment. For Vasubandhu life is like a dream in which we create our reality in our consciousness; even the tortures of hell have no outward reality but are merely projections of consciousness. Enlightenment is when mental obstructions and projections are transcended without grasping; the habit-energies of karma, the six senses and their objects, and relative knowledge are all abandoned for perfect wisdom, purity, freedom, peace, and joy. Vasubandhu wrote that we could know other minds and influence each other for better and worse, because karma is inter-subjective.

In 554 Maukhari king Ishana-varman claimed he won victories over the Andhras, Sulikas, and Gaudas. A Gurjara kingdom was founded in the mid-6th century in Rajputana by Harichandra, as apparently the fall of empires in northern India caused this Brahmin to exchange scriptures for arms. Xuan Zang praised Valabhi king Shiladitya I, who ruled about 580, for having great administrative ability and compassion. Valabhi hosted the second Jain council that established the Jain canon in the 6th century. Valabhi king Shiladitya III (r. 662-684) assumed an imperial title and conquered Gurjara. However, internal conflicts as well as Arab invasion destroyed the Valabhi kingdom by about 735. Arabs also overran the Gurjara kingdom, but Pratihara king Nagabhata is credited with turning back the Muslim invaders in the northwest; Gurjara king Jayabhata IV and Chalukya king Avanijanashraya-Pulakeshiraja in the south helped him in this effort.

After Thaneswar king Prabhakara-vardhana (r. 580-606) died, his son Rajya-vardhana marched against the hostile Malava king with 10,000 cavalry and won; but according to Banabhatta, the king of Malava after gaining his confidence with false civilities had him murdered. His brother Harsha-vardhana (r. 606-647) swore he would clear the earth of Gaudas; starting with 5,000 elephants, 2,000 cavalry, and 50,000 infantry his army grew as military conquests enabled him to become the most powerful ruler of northern India at Kanauj. Somehow Harsha's conflicts with Valabhi and Gurjara led to his war with Chalukya king Pulakeshin II; but his southern campaign was apparently a failure, and Sindh remained an independent kingdom.

However, in the east according to Xuan Zang by 643 Harsha had subjugated Kongoda and Orissa. That year the Chinese pilgrim observed two great assemblies, one at Kanauj and the other a religious gathering at Prayaga, where the distribution of accumulated resources drew twenty kings and about 500,000 people. Xuan Zang credited Harsha with building rest houses for travelers, but he noted that the penalty for breaching the social morality or filial duties could be mutilation or exile. After Gauda king Shashanka's death Harsha had conquered Magadha, and he eventually took over western Bengal. Harsha also was said to have written plays, and three of them survive. Xuan Zang reported that he divided India's revenues into four parts for government expenses, public service, intellectual rewards, and religious gifts. During his reign the university in Nalanda became the most renowned center of Buddhist learning. However, no successor of Harsha-vardana is known, and apparently his empire ended with his life.

Wang-Xuan-zi gained help from Nepal against the violent usurper of Harsha's throne, who was sent to China as a prisoner; Nepal also sent a mission to China in 651. The dynasty called the Later Guptas for their similar names took over Magadha and ruled there for almost a century. Then Yashovarman brought Magadha under his sovereignty as he also invaded Bengal and defeated the ruler of Gauda. In 713 Kashmir king Durlabhaka sent an envoy to the Chinese emperor asking for aid against invading Arabs. His successor Chandrapida was able to defend Kashmir against Arab aggression. He was described as humane and just, but in his ninth year as king he was killed by his brother Tarapida, whose cruel and bloody reign lasted only four years. Lalitaditya became king of Kashmir in 724 and in alliance with Yashovarman defeated the Tibetans; but Lalitaditya and Yashovarman could not agree on a treaty; Lalitaditya was victorious, taking over Kanauj and a vast empire. The Arabs were defeated in the west, and Bengal was conquered in the east, though Lalitaditya's record was tarnished when he had the Gauda king of Bengal murdered after promising him safe conduct. Lalitaditya died about 760. For a century Bengal had suffered anarchy in which the strong devoured the weak.

Arabs had been repelled at Sindh in 660, but they invaded Kabul and Zabulistan during the Caliphate of Muawiyah (661-680). In 683 Kabul revolted and defeated the Muslim army, but two years later Zabul's army was routed by the Arabs. After Al-Hajjaj became governor of Iraq in 695 the combined armies of Zabul and Kabul defeated the Arabs; but a huge Muslim army returned to ravage Zabulistan four years later. Zabul paid tribute until Hajjaj died in 714. Two years before that, Hajjaj had equipped Muslim general Muhammad-ibn-Qasim for a major invasion of Sindh which resulted in the chiefs accepting Islam under sovereignty of the new Caliph 'Umar II (717-720).

Pulakeshin I ruled the Chalukyas for about thirty years in the middle of the 6th century. He was succeeded by Kirtivarman I (r. 566-597), who claimed he destroyed the Nalas, Mauryas, and Kadambas. Mangalesha (r. 597-610) conquered the Kalachuris and Revatidvipa, but he lost his life in a civil war over the succession with his nephew Pulakeshin II (r. 610-642). Starting in darkness enveloped by enemies, this king made Govinda an ally and regained the Chalukya Empire by reducing Kadamba capital Vanavasi, the Gangas, and the Mauryas, marrying a Ganga princess. In the north Pulakeshin II subdued the Latas, Malavas, and Gurjaras; he even defeated the mighty Harsha of Kanauj and won the three kingdoms of Maharashtra, Konkana, and Karnata. After conquering the Kosalas and Kalingas, an Eastern Chalukya dynasty was inaugurated by his brother Kubja Vishnuvardhana and absorbed the Andhra country when Vishnukundin king Vikramendra-varman III was defeated. Moving south Pulakeshin II allied himself with the Cholas, Keralas, and Pandyas in order to invade the powerful Pallavas. By 631 the Chalukya Empire extended from sea to sea. Xuan Zang described the Chalukya people as stern and vindictive toward enemies, though they would not kill those who submitted. They and their elephants fought while inebriated, and Chalukya laws did not punish soldiers who killed. However, Pulakeshin II was defeated and probably killed in 642 when the Pallavas in retaliation for an attack on their capital captured the Chalukya capital at Badami.

For thirteen years the Pallavas held some territory while Chalukya successors fought for the throne. Eventually Vikramaditya I (r. 655-681) became king and recovered the southern part of the empire from the Pallavas, fighting three Pallava kings in succession. He was followed by his son Vinayaditya (r. 681-696), whose son Vijayaditya (r. 696-733) also fought with the Pallavas. Vijayaditya had a magnificent temple built to Shiva and donated villages to Jain teachers. His son Vikramaditya II (r. 733-747) also attacked the Pallavas and took Kanchi, but instead of destroying it he donated gold to its temples. His son Kirtivarman II (r. 744-757) was the last ruler of the Chalukya Empire, as he was overthrown by Rashtrakuta king Krishna I. However, the dynasty of the Eastern Chalukyas still remained to challenge the Rashtrakutas. In the early 8th century the Chalukyas gave refuge to Zarathustrians called Parsis, who had been driven out of Persia by Muslims. A Christian community still lived in Malabar, and in the 10th century the king of the Cheras granted land to Joseph Rabban for a Jewish community in India.

Pallava king Mahendra-varman I, who ruled for thirty years at the beginning of the 7th century, lost northern territory to the Chalukyas. As a Jain he had persecuted other religions, but after he tested and was converted by the Shaivite mystic Appar, he destroyed the Jain monastery at Pataliputra. His son Narasimha-varman I defeated Pulakeshin II in three battles, capturing the Chalukya capital at Vatapi in 642 with the aid of the Lanka king. He ruled for 38 years, and his capital at Kanchi contained more than a hundred Buddhist monasteries housing over 10,000 monks, and there were many Jain temples too. During the reign (c. 670-695) of Pallava king Parameshvara-varman I the Chalukyas probably captured Kanchi, as they did again about 740.

On the island of Lanka (Ceylon) the 58th and last king listed in the Mahavamsa was Mahasena (r. 334-362). The first of 125 kings listed up to 1815 in the Culavamsa, Srimeghavarna, repaired the monasteries destroyed by Mahasena. Mahanaman (r. 409-431) married the queen after she murdered his brother Upatishya. Buddhaghosha was converted to Buddhism and went to Lanka during the reign of Mahanaman. There he translated and wrote commentaries on numerous Buddhist texts. His Visuddhimagga explains ways to attain purity by presenting the teachings of the Buddha in three parts on conduct, concentration, and wisdom. Buddhaghosha also collected parables and stories illustrating Buddhist ethics by showing how karma brings the consequences of actions back to one, sometimes in another life. One story showed how a grudge could cause alternating injuries between two individuals from life to life. Yet if no grudge is held, the enmity subsides. In addition to the usual vices of killing, stealing, adultery, and a judge taking bribes, occupations that could lead to hell include making weapons, selling poison, being a general, collecting taxes, living off tolls, hunting, fishing, and even gathering honey. The Buddhist path is encouraged with tales of miracles and by showing the benefits of good conduct and meditation.

The clan chief Dhatusena (r. 460-478) became king of Lanka and expelled foreigners from the island, but his eldest son Kashyapa (r. 478-496) took him prisoner and usurped the throne but lost it with his life to his brother Maudgalyayana (r. 496-513), who had the coast guarded to prevent foreign attacks and gave his umbrella to the Buddhist community as a token of submission. His son Kumaradasa (r. 513-522) was succeeded by his son, who was quickly deposed by a usurping uncle soon killed by Upatishya (r. 522-524), who was succeeded by his son Shilakala (r. 524-537). Maudgalyayana II (r. 537-556) had to fight for the throne; but he was a poet and was considered a pious ruler loved by the people. Two rulers were killed before Agrabodhi I (r. 559-592) and Agrabodhi II (r. 592-602) built monasteries and dug water tanks for irrigation. A revolt by the general Maudgalyayana III (r. 602-608) led to a series of civil wars and succession battles suffered by the Lanka people that continued until Manavarman managed to rule Lanka for 35 years (668-703).

Included in a didactic Tamil collection of "Eighteen Minor Poems" are the Naladiyar and the famous Kural. The Naladiyar consists of 400 quatrains of moral aphorisms. In the 67th quatrain the wise say it is not cowardice to refuse a challenge when men rise in enmity and wish to fight; even when enemies do the worst, it is right not to do evil in return. Like milk the path of virtue is one, though many sects teach it. (118) The treasure of learning needs no safeguard, for fire cannot destroy it nor can kings take it. Other things are not true wealth, but learning is the best legacy to leave one's children. (134) Humility is greatness, and self-control is what the gainer actually gains. Only the rich who relieve the need of their neighbors are truly wealthy. (170) The good remember another's kindness, but the base only recalls fancied slights. (356)

The Tamil classic, The Kural by Tiru Valluvar, was probably written about 600 CE, plus or minus two centuries. This book contains 133 chapters of ten pithy couplets each and is divided into three parts on the traditional Hindu goals of dharma (virtue or justice), artha (success or wealth), and kama (love or pleasure). The first two parts contain moral proverbs; the third is mostly expressions of love, though there is the statement that one-sided love is bitter while balanced love is sweet. Valluvar transcends the caste system by suggesting that we call Brahmins those who are virtuous and kind to all that live.

Here are a few of Valluvar's astute observations on dharma. Bliss hereafter is the fruit of a loving life here. (75) Sweet words with a smiling face are more pleasing than a gracious gift. (92) He asked, "How can one pleased with sweet words oneself use harsh words to others?"2 Self-control takes one to the gods, but its lack to utter darkness. (121) Always forgive transgressions, but better still forget them. (152) The height of wisdom is not to return ill for ill. (203) "The only gift is giving to the poor; all else is exchange." (221) If people refrain from eating meat, there will be no one to sell it. (256) "To bear your pain and not pain others is penance summed up." (261) In all the gospels he found nothing higher than the truth. (300) I think the whole chapter on not hurting others is worth quoting.

The pure in heart will never hurt others
even for wealth or renown.
The code of the pure in heart
is not to return hurt for angry hurt.
Vengeance even against a wanton insult
does endless damage.
Punish an evildoer by shaming him
with a good deed, and forget.
What good is that sense which does not feel and prevent
all creatures' woes as its own?
Do not do to others what you know
has hurt yourself.
It is best to refrain from willfully hurting
anyone, anytime, anyway.
Why does one hurt others
knowing what it is to be hurt?
The hurt you cause in the forenoon self-propelled
will overtake you in the afternoon.
Hurt comes to the hurtful; hence it is
that those don't hurt who do not want to be hurt.3

Valluvar went even farther when he wrote, "Even at the cost of one's own life one should avoid killing." (327) For death is but a sleep, and birth an awakening. (339)

In the part on artha (wealth) Valluvar defined the unfailing marks of a king as courage, liberality, wisdom and energy. (382) The just protector he deemed the Lord's deputy, and the best kings have grace, bounty, justice, and concern. "The wealth which never declines is not riches but learning." (400) "The wealth of the ignorant does more harm than the want of the learned." (408) The truly noble are free of arrogance, wrath, and pettiness. (431) "A tyrant indulging in terrorism will perish quickly." (563) "Friendship curbs wrong, guides right, and shares distress." (787) "The soul of friendship is freedom, which the wise should welcome." (802) "The world is secure under one whose nature can make friends of foes." (874) Valluvar believed it was base to be discourteous even to enemies (998), and his chapter on character is also worth quoting.

All virtues are said to be natural to those
who acquire character as a duty.
To the wise the only worth
is character, naught else.
The pillars of excellence are five - love, modesty,
altruism, compassion, and truthfulness.
The core of penance is not killing,
of goodness not speaking slander.
The secret of success is humility;
it is also wisdom's weapon against foes.
The touchstone of goodness is to own one's defeat
even to inferiors.
What good is that good which does not return
good for evil?
Poverty is no disgrace
to one with strength of character.
Seas may whelm, but men of character
will stand like the shore.
If the great fail in nobility, the earth
will bear us no more.4

Kamandaka's Nitisara in the first half of the 8th century was primarily based on Kautilya's Arthashastra and was influenced by the violence in the Mahabharata, as he justified both open fighting when the king is powerful and treacherous fighting when he is at a disadvantage. Katyayana, like Kamandaka, accepted the tradition of the king's divinity, although he argued that this should make ruling justly a duty. Katyayana followed Narada's four modes of judicial decisions as the dharma of moral law when the defendant confesses, judicial proof when the judge decides, popular custom when tradition rules, and royal edict when the king decides. Crimes of violence were distinguished from the deception of theft. Laws prevented the accumulated interest on debts from exceeding the principal. Brahmins were still exempt from capital punishment and confiscation of property, and most laws differed according to one's caste. The Yoga-vasishtha philosophy taught that as a bird flies with two wings, the highest reality is attained through knowledge and work.

The famous Vedanta philosopher Shankara was born into a Brahmin family; his traditional dates are 788-820, though some scholars believe he lived about 700-750. It was said that when he was eight, he became an ascetic and studied with Govinda, a disciple of the monist Gaudapala; at 16 he was teaching many in the Varanasi area. Shankara wrote a long commentary on the primary Vedanta text, the Brahma Sutra, on the Bhagavad-Gita, and on ten of the Upanishads, always emphasizing the non-dual reality of Brahman (God), that the world is false, and that the atman (self or soul) is not different from Brahman.

Shankara traveled around India and to Kashmir, defeating opponents in debate; he criticized human sacrifice to the god Bhairava and branding the body. He performed a funeral for his mother even though it was considered improper for a sannyasin (renunciate). Shankara challenged the Mimamsa philosopher Mandana Mishra, who emphasized the duty of Vedic rituals, by arguing that knowledge of God is the only means to final release, and after seven days he was declared the winner by Mandana's wife. He tended to avoid the cities and taught sannyasins and intellectuals in the villages. Shankara founded monasteries in the south at Shringeri of Mysore, in the east at Puri, in the west at Dvaraka, and in the northern Himalayas at Badarinath. He wrote hymns glorifying Shiva as God, and Hindus would later believe he was an incarnation of Shiva. He criticized the corrupt left-hand (sexual) practices used in Tantra. His philosophy spread, and he became perhaps the most influential of all Hindu philosophers.

In the Crest-Jewel of Wisdom Shankara taught that although action is for removing bonds of conditioned existence and purifying the heart, reality can only be attained by right knowledge. Realizing that an object perceived is a rope removes the fear and sorrow from the illusion it is a snake. Knowledge comes from perception, investigation, or instruction, not from bathing, giving alms, or breath control. Shankara taught enduring all pain and sorrow without thought of retaliation, dejection, or lamentation. He noted that the scriptures gave the causes of liberation as faith, devotion, concentration, and union (yoga); but he taught, "Liberation cannot be achieved except by direct perception of the identity of the individual with the universal self."5 Desires lead to death, but one who is free of desires is fit for liberation. Shankara distinguished the atman as the real self or soul from the ahamkara (ego), which is the cause of change, experiences karma (action), and destroys the rest in the real self. From neglecting the real self spring delusion, ego, bondage, and pain. The soul is everlasting and full of wisdom. Ultimately both bondage and liberation are illusions that do not exist in the soul.

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