The Gupta Period: Golden Age of Ancient India

The foundation of Gupta power by Chandragupta I seems to have brought the middle Ganga valley and the region around Pataliputra back into the political limelight. During the rule of the Kushanas, the seat of power was Mathura in the Ganga-Yamuna doab. This shift of geopolitical focus is particularly important as the Guptas, firmly rooted in the middle Ganga valley, sought to exterminate rivals in the Ganga-Yamuna doab, upper Ganga valley, Punjab and Haryana, central India, and the Malwa plateau, while also attempting to expand into the lower Ganga regions. The various powers of the Ganga basin were mostly monarchical. On the other hand, except for Nepal in the north, it was surrounded on all three sides by a ring of states, which were mostly gana samgha (translated as republican or oligarchical and often also as ‘tribal’). These gana-samghas were not guided by the Brahmanical ideology of monarchy and were an alternative to monarchy. However, gradually the gana samgha political tradition had to succumb to the impact of the monarchical state system.

In the initial phase of the rise of Gupta power, we find that Chandragupta I, who laid the foundation of the Gupta empire, married into the Lichchhavi family, once an old established gana-samgha of north Bihar (Vaishali in Muzaffarpur). The non-monarchical character of the Lichchhavis was known at least since the 6th century BC. This marriage is attested by a gold coin that shows the representation of the Gupta monarch along with the Gupta queen Kumaradevi, whose Lichchhavi origin is evident from the legend Lichchhavayah. The marriage finally resulted in the incorporation of the Vaishali region into Gupta territory. The discovery of Gupta seals from the Vaishali excavations points to the creation of provincial administration and a headquarters in Vaishali. The legend on one of the seals reads “[V]aisalyadhisthan adhikarana” and has been translated as ‘the chief of the government of Vaishali (city magistrate?)’. Though the Guptas never directly conquered the non-monarchical clan in north Bihar, the seals indicate the penetration of Gupta monarchical polity in Vaishali, which was a territory of strategic importance.

The transformation of non-monarchical polity into a monarchical setup can also be seen in the case of the Sanakanikas. The Sanakanikas were enlisted in the Allahabad Pillar Inscription with the other ‘tribal states’. But during the time of Chandragupta, an inscription refers to a Sanakanika maharaja who was a vassal of Chandragupta II. It is evident from the inscription that both the father and grandfather of this Sanakanika maharaja were also designated maharaja in the inscription. So, even during the time of Samudragupta, when the Sanakanikas finally pledged to pay tribute to the Gupta sovereign, the process of transformation had already perhaps begun.

In the case of the Allahabad inscription, we find that the rulers of the region are referred to simply as “narpatis” of a particular region without even mentioning their names. This indicates that these rulers were merely chiefs and did not receive enough attention from the Gupta ruler to be referred to by name. One can particularly cite the case of Samatata, which may have experienced a rudimentary form of monarchical setup in the 4th century AD. However, by the 6th century AD, Samatata definitely experienced a monarchical setup, as mentioned in the Gunaigarh copper plate dated 507 AD, where Maharaja Vainyagupta was ruling in the region. Finally, in the 7th century AD, Samatata emerges as an independent monarchical setup, with its kings being given the designation of Samatatesvara or Lord of Samatata.

A similar process of consolidation of monarchical state structure is also seen in Kamarupa in upper Assam. Kamarupa was also one of the frontier states of Samudragupta in the 4th century AD, and perhaps the incipient monarchical state was put under a ruling family by the Gupta emperor. From the genealogical account given in the Nidhanpur copper plate of Bhaskarvarman, we learn that Pushyavarman was the first historical ruler of Kamarupa, and he may be placed around 350 AD or a little earlier. Interestingly, Pushyavarman, out of his loyalty and devotion to his Gupta overlord, named his son and daughter-in-law Samudravarman and Dattadevi or Dattavati. Though Kamarupa was comparatively a small frontier kingdom in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, in the first half of the 6th century AD, it appears that King Narayanavarman performed two Asvamedha sacrifices, which evidently indicates some increase in the power of the family under him. Perhaps he threw off the yoke of the Guptas around that time. Kamarupa became powerful under the next king, Bhutivarman, around the middle of the 6th century AD, but even then, he was simply called “maharaja.” The transition from “arpati” to “maharaja” indicates the gradual crystallization of the monarchical state structure.

As for the kingdom of Davaka, located in the valley of the Kapili River in modern Nowgong district, Assam, we have a reference to its existence in AD 428 from the Chinese account of an embassy sent in that year by the king of Ka-Pi-Li. However, this kingdom, which was a part of the Gupta Empire, was incorporated within the kingdom of Kamarupa, perhaps during the time of Bhutivarman.
The Gupta emperor also reduced the forest chiefs (atavikarajas) to the position of his servants (paricharakikrta). These forest chiefs can conveniently be located in the present Baghelkhand region. It is obvious that this region was initially outside the purview of a complex state society. With the penetration of Gupta power in this region, the emergence of a state following the pattern of the Gupta administrative system can be noticed. This is reflected in the Khoh copper plate inscription of Sarvanatha, dated 512 AD, belonging to the Uchchakalpa family, and another Khol copper plate inscription of Samkshobha, dated $29 AD, belonging to the Parivrajka family. Both of these ruling houses were feudatories of the Guptas.

Thus, the pre-state atavika society ends up being transformed into a monarchical setup. With the monarchical setup, the social structure naturally became more complex, and Brahmanical or Sastric norms were championed. The Parivrajaka rulers in the atavika area boasted of upholding and maintaining the varna organization (vamasrama dharma-sthapana niratena). A complex social structure can be seen with the creation of agraharas or revenue-free settlements in favor of religious donations.

The expansion of agriculture and the advent of an agricultural society are closely linked to the gradual solidification of the varna-jati organization. The Brahmanical or Sastric norms were instruments that provided some integration in a society with increasing inequality of access to resources, status, and power. The transition from an incipient to a mature state was also made possible by the incorporation of autochthonous cults into Brahmanical belief systems and the patronage of dominant autochthonous deities by kings. The monarchical polity was expanding, and the final annihilation of the gana samgha system of polity was taking place. It is interesting to note here that not a single Dharmasastra text discusses the constitution of the republics, and this silence testifies to the Brahmanical opposition to republics. On the other hand, theoretical treatises of this period display a mature understanding of the elements of a monarchical state.

A distinct feature of the monarchical system under the Guptas was the greater use of the concept of the divinity of the ruler. Thus, Samudragupta is considered equal to Kuvera, Varuna, Indra, and Yama (dhanadavarunendrantakasama), as a being beyond comprehension (achintyapurusha), and as a deity residing in the terrestrial world (lokadhamadeva). Manu’s dictum that the king was a great deity in human form is thus translated here.

From the reign of Chandragupta I onwards, the Guptas took the title of Maharaja Dhiraj, as known from inscriptions, coin legends, and seals. Other titles mentioned in Gupta coins and inscriptions are Paramarajadhiraja, Rajadhirajarishi, and Rajarajadhiraja. In the Allahabad pillar inscription, Samundragupta is regarded as a god living on Earth. In the genealogical accounts, he is referred to as Kuber, Indra, etc.
Hereditary succession was established during this period, though the emperor chose the heir apparent. The Guptas adopted a policy of administrative decentralization. Several powers conquered by the Guptas were allowed to function independently. They were subjugated but not incorporated into the empire. These feudatories paid tribute to the Guptas, but sometimes some of them did not mention Guptas as their suzerain in their official records. The practice of land grants and grants of villages started under the Satavahanas and continued under the Guptas. These grants carried administrative rights, which led to the decentralization of administrative authority. Rights of subinfeudation were given to the land donors. Visti (forced labor) was applied to all classes of subjects.

The disintegration of the Gupta Empire was followed by the rise of monarchical states, while the ganas faded into oblivion. These states derived legitimacy from Brahmanical Puranic ideology and varnashrama dharma. The monarchical state, represented by the emergence of ruling monarchical lineages, had expanded to cover all major regions and had progressed well into peripheral areas by the end of the Gupta period.

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