In contrast to the Maurya rulers, the Gupta kings adopted pompous titles such as parameshvara, maharajadhinja, and paramabhattaraka, which signify that they ruled over many lesser kings in their empire. Kingship was hereditary, but royal power was limited due to a lack of firm adherence to primogeniture. The throne did not always pass to the eldest son, creating uncertainties that the chiefs and high officials took advantage of. The Guptas bestowed munificent gifts upon the brahmanas, who expressed their gratitude by comparing the king to different gods. The king was regarded as Vishnu, the protector and preserver. Gupta coins consistently depicted the goddess Lakshmi as Vishnu’s wife.
The numerical strength of the Gupta army is not known. Evidently, the king maintained a standing army supplemented by forces occasionally provided by his feudatories. Horse chariots receded into the background, and cavalry emerged as a prominent force. Horse archery became an important element in military tactics.
During the Gupta period, the number of land taxes increased while those on trade and commerce decreased. Presumably, the king collected taxes ranging from one-fourth to one-sixth of the produce. Additionally, whenever the royal army traversed the countryside, the local population had to provide sustenance for it. Peasants were also obligated to supply animals, food grains, furniture, and other necessities for the maintenance of royal officers stationed in rural areas. In central and western India, the villagers were subjected to forced labor known as vashti imposed by the royal army and officials.
The judicial system was far more developed under the Guptas than in earlier times. Several law books were compiled during this period, clearly demarcating civil and criminal laws for the first time. Theft and adultery fell under criminal law, while disputes regarding property came under civil law. Elaborate laws were established regarding inheritance. Similar to earlier times, many laws were still based on varna (caste). It was the duty of the king to uphold the law and preside over cases with the assistance of Brahmana priests.
The guilds of artisans, merchants, and others were governed by their own laws. Seals from Vaishali and Bhita in Allahabad indicate that these guilds thrived during the Gupta era, showcasing proper differentiation.
The Gupta bureaucracy was not as elaborate as that of the Mauryas. The most important officers in the Gupta empire were the kumaramatyas. They were appointed by the king in the home provinces and possibly received cash payments. As the Guptas were possibly Vaishyas, recruitment was not limited to the upper varnas only. Several offices were combined in the hands of the same person, and positions became hereditary. This naturally weakened royal control.
The Guptas organized a system of provincial and local administration. The empire was divided into divisions called bhuktis, with each bhukti placed under the charge of an uparika. The bhuktis were further divided into districts (vishayas), which were placed under the charge of a vishayapati. In caste-based India, the vishayas were subdivided into vithis, which were then further divided into villages. The village headman gained importance during the Gupta era, managing village affairs with the assistance of elders. In the administration of a village or a small town, local leaders were associated. No land transactions could be carried out without their consent.
In urban administration, organized professional bodies had a significant influence. Seals from Vaishali indicate that artisans, merchants, and guild leaders served on the same corporate body, where they conducted town affairs. The administrative board of the Kotivarsha district in north Bengal (Bangladesh) included the chief merchant, chief trader, and chief artisan. Their consent was considered necessary for land transactions.
Artisans and bankers were organized into separate guilds. There were numerous guilds of artisans and traders in places like Bhita and Vaishali. Silk weavers in Mandasor and Indore maintained their own guilds. In Bulandshahar district of western Uttar Pradesh, oil-pressers were organized into guilds. It appears that these guilds, particularly merchant guilds, enjoyed certain privileges. They oversaw the affairs of their members and imposed punishments on those who violated the guild’s laws and customs. However, it is important to note that this system of administration described above was applicable only to the northern regions such as Seagal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Madhya Pradesh. These areas were directly ruled by officers appointed by the Gupta kings.
The majority of the empire was held by feudal chiefs, many of whom had been subjugated by Samudragupta. The vassals residing on the empire’s periphery had three obligations to fulfill. As subordinate princes, they paid homage to the sovereign by personally attending his court, paid tribute, and offered their daughters in marriage. In return, they received charters granting them authority over their territories. These charters, marked with the royal Garuda seal, appear to have been issued to the vassals. As a result, the Guptas maintained control over several tributary princes in regions like Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere.
The second significant feudal development that emerged under the Guptas was the granting of fiscal and administrative concessions to priests and administrators. This practice, which originated in the Deccan with the Satavahanas, became a regular occurrence during Gupta times, especially in Madhya Pradesh. Religious functionaries were given tax-free land grants that would be passed down through generations. They were also authorized to collect taxes from the peasants that had previously been paid directly to the emperor. The villages allocated to these beneficiaries were off-limits to royal agents, retainers, and others. The beneficiaries were also empowered to punish criminals. It is unclear whether state officials were paid through land grants during Gupta times. The abundance of gold coins suggests that higher officials continued to receive cash payments, but it’s possible that some of them were remunerated with land grants. Since much of the imperial administration was managed by feudatories and beneficiaries, the Gupta rulers didn’t require as many officials as during the Maurya period. The participation of leading artisans, merchants, elders, and others in the rural and urban administration also reduced the need for a large retinue of officers. The Gupta political system, in some ways, appeared to be feudal.
In mathematics, the Gupta period witnessed significant advancements. In the fifth century, Aryabhata, who belonged to Pataliputra, wrote a work called Aryabhatiya. This mathematician displayed knowledge of various types of calculations and demonstrated awareness of both the zero system and the decimal system. An inscription from the Allahabad district dating back to 448 AD suggests that the decimal system was known in India at the beginning of the fifth century. In the field of astronomy, a book called Romaka Sidhanta was compiled, indicating its influence from Greek and Roman ideas.
The Gupta craftsmen excelled in working with iron and bronze. They were particularly renowned for their skills in advanced metal technology, as seen in the production of bronze images of the Buddha on a large scale. One notable example of their mastery is the iron pillar found at Mehrauli in Delhi. Created in the fourth century AD, the pillar has remarkably remained free of rust over the subsequent fifteen centuries, which is a testament to the technological expertise of the craftsmen. It is worth noting that the arid conditions in Delhi may have also played a role in its preservation. Not until about a century ago was it possible to create a similar pillar in any iron foundry in the Western world. It is unfortunate that later Indian craftsmen did not further develop this remarkable knowledge and skill.