World History 1 81 - 5.4.5 The Gupta Dynasty

From the fourth to the seventh centuries, an empire founded by the Gupta dynasty (320–600 CE) ruled over northern India. As revealed by the name he took, Chandragupta, the founder, emulated the Mauryans and its famous founder, Chandragupta Maurya. He hired scribes working in Sanskrit to promote learning and the arts, and during this age, Sanskrit became the basis for a classical literature that influenced generations of Indians and the world. Texts such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana glorified ideas about duty, valor, and performing a proper role in society (Figure 5.24). The first was a collection of thrilling poems featuring feuding rulers and powerful families, the other an epic tale of a warrior prince’s journey to recover his honor.

A painting is shown in rich colors and a black border. Some of the edges are worn and creases show throughout the image. A red wall with black vertical stripes is shown in the lower half of the image. In front of the wall on the left, a woman in a black skirt with gold stripes, red half shirt and gold cloth on her head is seen standing, her left arm out in front of her and her right hand holding the cloth on her head as she looks down to the left. A pile of clothes in various colors lays all around her. A figure to the right in a pink and dark pink long coat stands in gold boots atop some of the clothes on the floor. He wears a gold crown, has a moustache that extends to his ears and is pulling at the gold cloth on the lady’s head. In the right forefront of the image, five people of various skin colors sit on the ground in black, blue, pink, yellow, and white with black dots robes, all wearing gold crowns and sporting moustaches. In the top half of the image, three arched openings are seen with red and black curtains rolled up and tied with a black string above them. In the left opening, six figures wearing crowns can be seen facing to the right with moustaches and beards in black and white and varying colors of clothing. In the middle opening at the left, a figure sits on a pink carpet with black trim. He wears a long black robe, wears a gold crown, and has a long white moustache. His eyes are closed and his hands rest in front of him. On the right side of this opening, a figure in a red shirt with gold adornment, gold crown, and long black moustache extends his right hand out toward the figure of the woman in the gold cloth on her head in the left forefront of the image. The right opening shows five figures with gold crowns and varying colors of clothes facing to the left. A figure in red and blue stands on the left and a figure in pink and white stands on the right. Behind all of the openings, a yellow wall can be seen in the lower half and a gray wall with arched recesses shows across the top.
Figure 5.24 The Mahabharata is possibly the longest poem even written, with over 200,000 verse lines describing the lives and conflicts of several noble families. One of the main women featured in the stories is Draupadi, known for her beauty and morality. This eighteenth-century watercolor painting depicts a story in the epic when Draupadi’s enemies attempt to humiliate her by stripping her naked. However, she’s saved by the Hindu god Krishna who miraculously clothes her anew each time her dress is removed. (credit: “The disrobing of Draupadi” by Howard Hodgkin Collection, Purchase, Gift of Florence and Herbert Irving, by exchange, 2022/Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In Ramayana, Rama, an avatar for the Hindu deity Vishnu, triumphs over the demon Ravana on the island of Sri Lanka and rescues his wife Sita before going on to found a perfect Indian society from his capital of Ayudha. His noble virtues and ideal society became models for Hindus to aspire to as rulers and aristocrats, while his exploits were retold for centuries in countless paintings, sculptures, carnivals, plays, and shadow theatres.

The Sanskrit classics Mahabharata and Ramayana soon spread far and wide in Southeast Asia, where they became part of the cultural fabric for a multitude of non-Indians as well. Other intellectuals of the Gupta era proved themselves in the field of mathematics by using decimals and a mark to denote the concept of zero for precise measurements and recordkeeping. Among the more notable was the astronomer Brahmagupta, who in the seventh century CE pioneered the use of multiplication and division and the idea of negative numbers.

Link to Learning

You can read a brief synopsis of the Ramayana and a description of the epic’s major characters at the British Library website.

An animated English-language version of the epic is also available.

In politics the Guptas were innovators as well. In return for their loyalty, rulers granted tracts of land as gifts to powerful families, Brahmans, and temple complexes, guaranteeing these followers a share of the harvest and consolidating their own control. In return, the Brahmans elevated the Gupta rulers to new heights in rituals honoring Vishnu and Shiva. Yet as these deities became more important, worship among the commoners turned more personal and private; singing as a form of prayer and ritualism inside the home became essential to daily lives. Many Indians began to believe in the sanctity of bhakti, a direct personal relationship between a follower and the deity. This idea bypassed the role of Brahmans as intermediaries, displeasing the Brahmans but gaining popularity in southern India, where poems written in the Tamil language became foundational to the new practice of personalized worship among Hindus.

The Gupta’s dynasty marked a flourishing of art and religion and the heyday of Buddhism in India. Painted caves with beautiful sculptures found in the Ajanta caves illustrate the sophistication of the artists patronized by the dynasty. While Hinduism remained the official religion of the state and the Guptas, Buddhist universities such as Nalanda were among the first of their kind in the ancient world and attracted throngs of students and pilgrims from China. India’s educated classes ranked among the most learned and knowledgeable of the ancient world, and at times they turned their attention from math and morality to explore the depths of passion, love, and eroticism. During this period, the Kama Sutra, a treatise on courtship and sexuality, became a seminal piece of Indian literature, inspiring and titillating generations worldwide ever since.

The opulence and stability provided by the Guptas dissipated under the threat of invaders from the north known as the Huns. While northern India fractured into smaller states after this point, southern India’s ties and trade with South Asia deepened and matured. By the eleventh century, the region’s profitable exports of goods such as ivory, pepper, spices, Roman coins, and even animals like the peacock had led to the formation of notable southern kingdoms, such as the Tamil Chola dynasty. But the most influential exports from India to the rest of South Asia—Hinduism, Buddhism, and the art and learning each inspired—long outlived these states.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax