Gupta Age: Was it really Golden?
All that glisters is not gold—
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Picture Credit: The Hans India
The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian kingdom that spread almost all over the Indian subcontinent from approximately 320 to 550 CE . It is in the Gupta years that the Indian intellect is reckoned to have reached its high-water mark in almost all branches of art, literature, and science. The Indian civilization is said to have reached a unique stage of development under the Guptas, the deep impression of which is incumbent upon succeeding times. The beauty of Ajanta’s frescoes, the idyllic dramas and lyrics of Kalidasa, the astronomical discoveries of Aryabhatta and Varahamihira, the miraculous iron pillar at Mehrauli amongst others are wondrous illustrations of Gupta excellence. Several architectural marvels were constructed during this time.
Ergo, the period is termed as the “Golden Age of Indian history”. However, categorizing a time period as golden entails eulogizing every aspect of life at that time, and this leads us to our first departure point: Did the Guptas really excel in every regard of life? Furthermore, it is apposite to question the veracity of the historiography that calls this period a Golden age. This leads us to our second question: Is there, in any way, a chance of an intrinsic bias in the interpretation of the historiographers?
This essay will try to explore these two questions and sieve out some abominable realities of Guptas from the existing scholarship by virtue of discussing and analysing the conditions of slaves, Shudras, and women under the Guptas. The article will further analyse the Hindu favouritism of the rulers and the atrophy of Buddhism in the age, before analysing the impetus that led to the Gupta years being called the Golden age.
Brahmans in Gupta age
The Gupta period was marked by a revival of Brahmanism. Gupta kings and Brahmans had a symbiotic relationship. Brahmans legitimised the authority of the kings. They did this by praising the kings amongst their yajmans. In return, they got swathes of land as gifts called Brahmadeya. Subsequently, the Brahmanas switched from their priestly roles to managerial roles. The administrative and executive functions of the lands began to be done by the feudatories: the Brahmanas. They collected taxes and employed slaves on their lands. The nature of labour was often forced. Inscriptions talk of prevalence of forced labour called Vishti. Narad Smriti thoroughly discusses the institution of slavery in the Gupta age. The condition of slaves reached a nadir in the Gupta period. They were treated as property, ready to be inherited and only to be freed by the process of manumission. They were reduced to serfs.
Conditions of Lower Social Orders
Social stratification became more rigid. As discussed earlier, the growing domination of Brahmanas crystallized the Varna system. Fa xian’s accounts tell us that there was an increase in the number of untouchables, especially chandalas, and the convention of untouchability began to be practiced more vigorously. A puranic text from the period connects different colours of the skin with the four varnas. This further indicates pronounced distinctions on the basis of varna becoming rampant in the Gupta age.
Women in Gupta age
Like slaves and untouchables, the condition of women in the Gupta age was also deplorable. Kamasutra, written in the Gupta period, that is otherwise considered to be the vade mecum of love, has in it a repressive code of conduct for women that justifies and elucidates their subordination. It propounds that women lead an extremely restrained life necessarily centered around their husbands. Kamasutra seeks to legitimise heterosexual relationships between upper caste men and women of any caste. The Gupta period also saw the first self-immolation (sati) of a widow after the death of her husband. This has been discussed in the Brihaspati Smriti. Women were regarded as items of property that could be loaned or given to anyone. Interestingly, women of higher varnas were subordinated to a greater degree.
Buddhism in Gupta Age
Picture Credit: Wikiwand
Buddhism flourished in the Gupta age. Various architectural developments took place in this era. The greatest achievements of the Gupta sculpture are from the three schools of Buddhist sculpture namely Mathura, Varanasi, and Nalanda. Buddhism, however, experienced a downward trend as the Gupta age advanced. Its elimination accelerated just after the decline of Guptas. This can be attributed to two factors. First, the growing camaraderie between the Brahmanas and the Gupta rulers curbed the growth of Buddhism. Buddhism was no longer the recipient of patronage by the rulers. Second, though in a restricted fashion, the Shudras in Gupta age were now allowed to worship Hindu gods and read scriptures. This led to the resurgence of Hinduism and a decline of Buddhism in the hoi polloi.
Historiography and its Role
The social set-up of the Gupta age hints that the Gupta empire was certainly not a Golden age for some sects.
Why is then the Gupta age modelled as the Golden age? This takes us to the second question of this paper i.e. was there a bias in interpreting the Gupta age? The theory put forward by the Marxist school of historiographers is that nationalist historiographers, back in the days of freedom struggle, wanted to draw an implicit moral and didactic lesson for contemporary India. It was an attempt to awaken and instil a spirit of nationalism in the masses, an archetype to follow and learn. Their interpretations of Gupta history are heavily emotional and tend to push us into a reverie of nostalgia. A much stringent version of this reasoning is propounded by contemporary Marxist historians. As per them, since the Gupta era was a period of Brahmanical revival, labelling it as a golden age would legitimize a lot of things including Hindu totalitarianism. This theory, however, can be questioned as the Gupta age was not the only time of Hindu revival. The reason for choosing Guptas over other Deccan empires could probably be the antiquity of the Guptas. A clean slate offers a lot to write. The slate, in this case, was a bygone empire. The Gupta era gave nationalist historiographers a lot of room to employ their imaginations and construct a golden age in early history.
True, the Gupta age was golden for the elite masses as can be assessed from the art and literature, but this could never have been the case for the working masses. With the bondage of peasants, a caste system more rigid than ever before, and the steadily deteriorating position of women, it can hardly be considered a golden age for lower orders. All ages are golden for the elites. We should seek golden ages in the future rather than trying to decoding them in the past. The most dangerous aspect of the implanting of the Hindutva version of history across Indian society is that the divide between professional history and the version of the past used to legitimize Hindu majoritarianism is increasing.
By Ritvij Ratn Tiwari
Ritvij Ratn Tiwari is a II year student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He likes to read the Law, both for work and for leisure. He has a keen interest in the critical study of the humanities, particularly history. In his idle time, he likes to watch gritty films and the UFC.
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