UPSC History The Gupta Empire NCERT Extracts - Life in the Gupta Age

NCERT Extracts - Life in the Gupta Age

Category : UPSC

 System of Administration


  • In contrast to the Maurya rulers, the Gupta kings adopted pompous titles such as Parameshvara, Maharajadhiraja and Paramabhattaraka which signify that they ruled over lesser king in their empire.
  • Kingship was hereditary. The throne did not always go to the eldest son.
  • The Guptas made munificent gifts to the brahmanas, who expressed their gratitude by comparing the king to different gods.
  • King was looked upon as Vishnu, the protector and preserver. The goddess Lakshmi is represented invariably on the Gupta coins as the wife of Vishnu.
  • The king maintained a standing army, which was supplemented by the forces occasionally supplied by the feudatories.
  • Horse chariots receded into the background, and cavalry came to the forefront. Horse archery became prominent in military tactics.
  • Land taxes increased in number, and those on trade and commerce decreased.
  • Probably the king collected taxes varying from one-fourth to one-sixth of the produce.
  • In central and western India the villagers were also subjected to forced labour called vishti for serving the royal army and officials.
  • The judicial system was far more developed under the Guptas than in earlier times.
  • Several law books were compiled in this period.
  • For the first time civil and criminal law were clearly demarcated.
  • Theft and adultery came under criminal laws.
  • Disputes regarding various types of property came under civil law.
  • Elaborate laws were laid down about inheritance.
  • Like earlier times, many laws continued to be based on differences in vamas.
  • The guilds of artisans, merchants and others were governed by their own laws.
  • Seals from Vaishali and from Bhita near Allahabad indicate that these guilds flourished exceedingly well in Gupta times.
  • The Gupta bureaucracy was not as elaborate as that of the Mauryas.
  • The most important officers in the Gupta empire were the Kumaramatyas.
  • The Guptas organized a system of provincial and local administration.
  • The empire was divided into divisions (bhuktis), and each bhukti was placed under the charge of an uparika. The bhuktis were divided into vishayas which were placed under the charge of vishayapati.
  • The village headman became more important in Gupta times.
  • The seals from Vaishali show that artisans, merchants and scribe served on the same corporate body.                                
  • The administrative board of the district of Kotivarsha in north Bengal (Bangladesh) included his chief merchant, the chief trader and the chief artisan. Their consent to land transactions was considered necessary.
  • Artisans and bankers were organized into their own separate guilds. We hear of numerous guilds of artisans, traders, etc. at Bhita and Vaishali.
  • At Mandasor in Malwa and at Indore silk-weavers maintained their own guilds.
  • In the district of Bulandshahar in western Uttar Pradesh oil-pressers had their own guilds.
  • The major part of the empire was held by feudatory chiefs, many of whom had been subjugated by Samudragupta. The vassals who lived on the fringe of the empire carried out three obligations.
  • They offered homage to the sovereign by personal attendance at his court, paid tribute to him and presented to him daughters L; marriage.
  • It seems that in return for these they obtained charters for ruling in the areas.
  • The charters marked with the royal Garuda seal seem to have been issued to the vassals. The Guptas thus had several tributary prices in Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere.
  • The second important feudal development that surfaced under the Guptas was the grant of fiscal and administrative concessions to priests and administrators.
  • Started in the Deccan by the Satavahanas, the practice became a regular affair in Gupta times, particularly in Madhya Pradesh.
  • They did not require too many officers also because, unlike the Maurya state, the Gupta state did not regulate economic activities on any big scale.


Trends in Trade and Agrarian Economy


  • We get some idea of the economic life of the people of Gupta times from Fa-hsien, who visited different parts of the Gupta empire.
  • Among other things, he informs us that Magadha was full of cities and its rich people supported Buddhism and gave charities.
  • In ancient India, the Guptas issued the largest number of gold coins.
  • The gold coins were called Dinaras in their inscriptions.
  • Although in gold content these coins are not as pure as Kushan ones.
  • After the conquest of Gujarat, the Guptas issued a good number of silver coins.
  • Compared to the earlier period we notice a decline in long-distance trade.
  • Around A.D. 550 the people of the Eastern Roman empire leamt from the Chinese the art of growing silk, which adversely affected the export trade of India.  
  • Even before the middle of the sixth century A.D. the demand for Indian silk abroad had slackened. In the middle of the fifth century a guild of silk-weavers left their original home in western India in the country of Lata in Gujarat and migrated of Mandasor, where they gave up their original occupation and took to other professions.


Social Developments


  • Land grants of the brahmanas on a large scale suggest that the brahmana supremacy continued in Gupta times.
  • The brahmanas accumulated wealth on account of numerous land grants. So they claimed many privileges, which are listed in the Narada Smriti, the law book of Narads, a work of about the fifth century A.D.
  • The castes proliferated into numerous sub-castes as a result of two factors.
  • A large number of foreigners had been assimilated into the Indian society, and each group of foreigners was considered a kind of caste.
  • Since the foreigners mainly came as conquerors they were given the status of the kshatriya in society.
  • The Hunas, who appeared in India towards the close of the fifth century, ultimately came to be recognized as one of the thirty-six clans of the Rajputs.


The position of shudras improved in this period.

  • They were now permitted to listen to the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas.
  • They could also worship a new god called Krishna. They were also allowed to perform certain domestic rites which naturally brought fee to the priests.
  • All this can be attributed to a change in the economic status of the shudras.
  • From the seventh century onwards they were mainly represented as agriculturists.
  • The chandalas appeared in society as early as the fifth century B.C.
  • In the Gupta period, like the shudras, women were also allowed to listen to the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas, and advised to worship Krishna. But women of higher orders did not have access to independent sources of livelihood.
  • The fact that women of the two lower vamas were free to earn their livelihood gave them considerable freedom, which was denied to women of the upper vamas.
  • It was argued that the vaishya and shudra women take to agricultural operations and domestic services and hence they are outside the control of their husbands.


The first example of the immolation of widow appears in Gupta times in A.D. 510.

  • However, some post-Gupta law-books held that a woman can remarry if her husband is dead, destroyed, importent, has become a renouncer or has been excommunicated.
  • Woman lacked proprietary rights.
  • Gupta and post-Gupta law-books substantially enlarged the scope of these gifts.
  • According to them, presents received by the bride from her parents and parents-in-law at marriage time and on other occasions formed the stridhana.
  • Katyayana, a law-giver of the sixth century, holds that she could sell and mortgage her immovable property along with her stridhana.
  • Generally a daughter was not allowed to inherit landed property in the patriarchal communities of India.


State of Buddhism


  • Buddhism no longer received royal patronage in the Gupta period.
  • It was not so important in the Gupta period as it was in the days of Ashoka a Kanishka.
  • However, some stupas and viharas (monasteries) were constructed, and Nalanda became a centre of Buddhist education.


Origin and Growth of Bhagavatism


  • Bhagavatism (worship of Vishnu or Bhagavat) originated in post-Maurya times.
  • Vishnu was a minor god in Vedic times. He represented the sun and also the fertility cult.
  • In 200 B.C. he was merged with Narayana and came to be known as Narayana-Vishnu
  • Originally Narayana was a non-Vedic tribal god. He was called bhagavat, and his worshippers were called bhagavatas.        
  • Vishnu came to be identical with a legendary hero of the Vrishni tribe living in western India who was known as Krishna-Vasudeva.
  • By 200 B.C. the three streams of worshippers and their gods merged into one.
  • This resulted in the creation of Bhagavatism or Vaishnavism.
  • Bhagavatism was marked by bhakti and ahimsa. Bhakti meant the offer of loving devotion. The new religion was liberal enough to attract foreigners.
  • Bhagavatism or Vaishnavism overshadowed Mahayana Buddhism by Gupta times.
  • It preached the doctrine of incarnation, or avatara.
  • History was presented as cycle of ten incarnations of Vishnu.
  • It was believed that whenever the social order faced crisis, Vishnu appeared in an appropriate form to save it.
  • Each incarnation of Vishnu was considered necessary for the salvation of dharma which was identical with the varna -divided society and institution of patriarchal family protected by the state.
  • By the sixth century Vishnu became a member of the trinity of gods along with Shiva and Brahma. After the sixth century several texts were written to popularize the virtues of worshipping him, but the most important was the Bhagavata Purana.
  • A few Gupta kings were worshippers of Shiva, the god of destruction.
  • Idol worship in the temples became a common feature of Hinduism.
  • The Gupta kings followed a policy of tolerance towards the different religious sects.




  • The Gupta period is called the Golden Age of ancient India.
  • Both Samudragupta and Chandragupta II were patrons of art and literature.
  • Samudragupta is represented on his coins playing the lute (vina), and Chandragupta II is credited with maintaining in his court nine luminaries or great scholars.
  • In ancient India art was mostly inspired by religion.
  • Buddhism gave great impetus to art in Maurya and post-Maurya times.
  • It led to the creation of massive stone pillars, cutting of beautiful caves and raising of high stupas or relic towers. The stupas appeared as dome-like structures on round bases mainly of stone. Numerous images of the Buddha were sculpted.
  • In the Gupta period we find an over two metre high bronze image of the Buddha, which was recovered from Sultanganj near Bhagaipur.
  • Beautiful images of the Buddha were fashioned at Samath and Mathura.
  • But the greatest specimen of Buddhist art in Gupta times is provided by the Ajanta paintings. Although these paintings covered the period from the first to the seventh century A.D., most of them belong to Gupta times.
  • They depict various events in the life of Gautama Buddha and previous Buddhas.
  • The Gupta period was poor in architecture.
  • All we get are a few temples made of brick in Uttar Pradesh and a stone temple.
  • We may mention the brick temples of Bhitargaon in Kanpur, Bhitari in Ghazipur and Deogarh in Jhansi.
  • The Buddhist University at Nalanda was set up in the fifth century.




  • The Gupta period is remarkable for the production of secular literature.
  • To this period belong thirteen plays written by Bhasa.
  • The Mrichchhakatika or the Little Clay Cart written by Shudraka, which deals with the love affair of a poor brahmana with the beautiful daughter of a courtesan, is considered one of the best works of ancient drama.
  • Kalidasa wrote Abhijanashakuntalam which is considered to be one of the best hundred literary works in the world.
  • It tells up about the love story of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, whose son Bharata appears as a famous ruler. The Shakuntalam was one of the earliest Indian works to be translated into European languages, the other work being the Bhagavadgita.
  • Two things can be noted about the plays produced in India in the Gupta period.
  • First these are all comedies. We do not come across any tragedies.
  • Secondly, characters of the higher and lower classes do not speak the same language; women and shudras in these plays use Prakrit while the higher classes use Sanskrit.
  • During this period we also notice an increase in the production of religious literature. The two great epics, namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were almost completed by the fourth century A.D.
  • The Ramayana tells us the story of Rama, who was banished by his father Dasharatha from the kingdom of Ayodhya for 14 years on account of the machinations of his step mother Kaikeyi.
  • He faithfully carried out the orders of his father and went to live in the forest, where his wife Sita was abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka. Eventually Rama with the help of his brother Lakshmana brought back Sita.
  • The story has two important moral strands. First, it idealizes the institution of family in which a son must obey his father, the younger brother must obey his elder brother and the wife must be faithful to her husband in all circumstances.
  • Second, Ravana symbolises the force of evil and Rama symbolises the force of righteousness. In the end righteousness triumphs over the forces of evil, and good order over bad order.
  • Many versions of the Ramayana are found in important Indian languages and also those of South-East Asia.
  • The Mahabharata is essentially the story of conflict between two groups of cousins, Kauravas and the Pandavas. It shows that kingship knows no kinship.
  • This story also represents the victory of righteousness over the forces of evil.
  • The Bhagavadgita forms an important part of the Mahabharata.
  • It teaches that a person must carry out the duties assigned to him by his caste and ray under all circumstances without any desire for reward.
  • The Puranas follow the lines of the epics, and the earlier ones were finally compiled in Gupta times. They are full of myths, legends, sermons, etc.
  • The Puranas were meant for the education and edification of the common people. The period also saw the compilation of various Smritis or the law books in which social and religious norms were written in verse.
  • This period also saw the development of Sanskrit grammar based on Panini and Patanjal
  • Amarakosha was compiled by Amarasimha, who was a luminary in the court of Chandragupta-
  • Overall the Gupta period was a bright phase in the history of classical literature.
  • It developed an ornate style, which was different from the old simple Sanskrit.
  • Sanskrit was undoubtedly the court language of the Guptas.
  1. Science and Technology
  • In the field of mathematics we come across during this period a work called Aryabhatiya written by Aryabhata, who belonged to Pataliputra.
  • It seems that this mathematician was well versed in various kinds of calculations.
  • A Gupta inscription of 448 A.D. from Allahabad district suggests that the decimal system was known in India at the beginning of the fifth century A.D.
  • In the field of astronomy a book called Romaka Sidhanta was compiled. It was influenced by Greek ideas, as can be inferred from its name.
  • The Gupta craftsmen distinguished themselves by their work in iron and bronze.
  • We know of several bronze images of the Buddha, which began to be produced on a considerable scale because of the knowledge of advanced metal technology.
  • In the case of iron objects the best example is the iron pillar found at Mehrauli in Delhi.
  • Manufactured in the fourth century A.D., the pillar has not gathered any rust in the subsequent 15 centuries, which is a great tribute to the technological skill of the craftsmen.

NCERT Extracts - Life in the Gupta Age
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