It was in 320 A.D. when the Gupta Dynasty came to prominence, a new era of imperial unity started again. The period which intervened between the fall of the Kushanas and the rise of the Gupta Empire is called ‘Dark Age’ in Indian history.
Origin of the Guptas
Not much is known about the origin of the Guptas, but we know that by 3rd century A.D. Srigupta had brought Magadha under his control. He was succeeded by his son Ghatotkachagupta. Neither the father nor the son seemed to have possessed any considerable power.
But with Chandragupta I, the son of Ghatotkachagupta, began a new epoch in the history of the family. He was the real founder of the Gupta dynasty.
Chandragupta I (320-335)
Chandragupta I ascended the throne in 320 A.D. He assumed the title of Maharajadhiraj and started a new era known as the Gupta era which dates from 320 A.D. From the available sources we learn that he came to prominence after marrying Kumardevi, a Princess of the powerful Lichchavi clan. According to Dr. Goyal, the Lichchavi marriage obtained for Chandragupta I the possession of valuable iron, copper and coal mines of south Bihar. This enabled the Guptas to become the greatest power in northern India. Chandragupta I extended his rule over Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
King Chandragupta I was undoubtedly the first great monarch of the Gupta dynasty and laid the foundation of large kingdom that later on developed into the mighty Gupta Empire.
After the death of Chandragupta I, his and Kumardevi’s son Samudragupta ascended the throne. His succession to the throne might not be smooth. Allahabad Pillar Prasasti composed by the court poet Hansena throws light on Samudragupta’s reign.
Samudragupta was a great military genius. After consolidating his position he went out on a career of conquest. From the Allahabad inscription we learn that Samudragupta at first defeated nine rulers of north India. Among them three rulers belonged to the Naga clan. In order to establish supremacy in north India it was necessary to destroy the power of the Naga rulers. After defeating these kings he annexed their kingdoms. After his victory in north India, he conquered the Atavika Rajyas or forest kingdoms of Ghazipur and Jabalpur. This was necessary to clear his ways to South India.
King Samudragupta then launched a great campaign to subdue the powerful rulers of south India. He defeated twelve south Indian rulers, but in south India he pursued the policy of Dharmavijaya and did not annex the kingdoms of the defeated kings. Thus the south Indian kings were allowed to continue their rules as feudatory chiefs.
The Allahabad Prasasti also informs us that the five kingdoms of eastern India and nine tribal states also accepted his suzerainty. His fame spread beyond the limits of India. Meghavaram, the king of Ceylon, sent an embassy to him with presents, requesting his permission to build a monastery at Bodh Gaya for the benefit of the Ceylonese Buddhist pilgrims visiting the holy places. After his successful campaign Samudragupta performed the Asvamedha sacrifice to indicate his imperial status. He also assumed the title of Parakramanka.
Estimate of Samudragupta: Samudragupta’s fame rests not only on his great conquest but also on his statesmanship. He knew that it would be difficult to impose direct rule in south India. So he remained satisfied with the tribute they paid to him. But he annexed the kingdoms of northern India and brought them under his direct control.
Samudragupta was one of the greatest generals of Indian history. That is why V.A. Smith called him ‘Indian Napoleon‘.
Chandragupta-II ascended the throne and assumed the title Vikramaditya. Like king Bimbisara of the 6th century B.C. and his grandfather Chandragupta I, he also pursued a policy of matrimonial alliance to further his political ambitions. He strengthened his position by giving his daughter Prabhavati in marriage to Rudrasen II, the Vakataka ruler. He further consolidated his position by entering into matrimonial alliances with a Naga ruling family and Kuntala royal house.
His conquest: After making preliminary preparation King Chandragupta-II started his campaign against Saka satrapas of western India. He obtained great success in the war and he conquered and annexed three satrapal kingdoms. After destroying the Sakas he assumed the title Sakari, the destroyer of the Sakas. The Gupta Empire was now extended to the shores of the Arabian Sea. The three great sea ports of western India, Broach, Cambay and Sopara, fell into the hands of the Gupta emperor. It was through these parts that the Gupta monarchs developed trade links with the outside world, especially the Eastern and the Western Roman empires. This trade fetched great profit and made the Gupta Empire prosperous. He also established peace and order in his kingdom. Dr. Goyal has described this as the establishment of ‘Gupta Peace’ which was maintained from the Hindukush to the Indian Ocean. During this period gold flowed in the country from all directions and filled the treasury of the rulers and the coffers of the wealthy.
Estimate of Chandragupta II: Chandragupta II was the worthy son of a worthy father. He not only maintained the empire built by his father, but also expanded it.
King Chandragupta II was an astute diplomat. His matrimonial alliances with the Vakatakas and the Nagas showed his skill in diplomacy. Chandragupta’s greatness lies not only as a great conqueror and good administrator but also on his attitude of tolerance to other religions and as patron of art and literature.
Religious Policy of Chandragupta II: He himself was a devout Vaishnava, but he was equally tolerant towards other religions. One of his ministers was Shaiva and possibly one of his foremost generals was Buddhist. From the accounts of the Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hien, we learn that during his time India was well administered and a prosperous country. Chandragupta II is usually identified with the great king Vikramaditya of Indian legend, whose court is said to have been adorned by the celebrated navaratna (nine jewels) including Kalidasa. Vikram Sambat is also associated with Vikramaditya.
Kumargupta I (415-455)
Kumargupta I was the son and successor of Chandragupta II. He maintained the integrity of the vast empire which he inherited form his father. Most probably he also extended its boundary. He adopted the title Mahendraditya. It was during his reign that the Gupta Empire reached its zenith. Like his grandfather Samudragupta he also performed horse-sacrifice.
During the later part of his reign threatening clouds began to gather over the Gupta Empire. At first the ferocious Pushyamitra tribes invaded the Empire. Their repulse was followed by the Huna raids which were stopped after some hard fighting under the leadership of Kumargupta’s son Skandagupta.
After his father’s death Skandagupta ascended the throne. Soon after his accession he had to face fresh Huna invasion. The invasion was effectively checked by Skandagupta. Indeed, his victory was so decisive that for the next fifty years the Hunas were not in a position to make fresh raids against the Gupta domains.
After the death of Skandagupta the empire began to disintegrate. It appears that by the middle of the sixth century the Gupta empire faced a rapid decline.
Culture and Civilization in the Gupta Age
The period of the Imperial Gupta has often been described as the golden age of the ancient Indian history. The Gupta period was characterized by all round peace, prosperity and intellectual development.
Golden Age of Sanskrit Literature
The first Gupta monarchs were patrons of Hinduism. Under them Brahmanical Hinduism flourished. The revival of Hinduism caused revival of Sanskrit language as well. Patronage of the Gupta rulers gave impetus for its further development. Shakuntala, a drama written by Kalidasa is regarded as a gem of the world literature. His imageries and similes are charming. Dandin’s Kavyadarshana is noted for the beauty of the words he used. Harisena, the renowned composer of Allahabad Stambh Prashasti is another notable poet of the period.
Vishakhadatta was another great poet and dramatist. His MudraRakshasa is perhaps the best historical drama in Sanskrit literature. The drama Mrichhakatika, written by Sudraka is admired for its vigor, life and action. It is also assumed that the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, some of the Puranas, especially the Vayu Purana, the Manu Samhita etc. received their existing forms in the Gupta period.