Gupta Dynasty Reaches Its Peak Under Chandragupta II

The Gupta era was India’s golden age, a time when arts and literature flourished under the rule of enlightened kings. Chandragupta II reigned at the very apex of the dynasty’s glory.

Summary of Event

Although the names of the Gupta rulers are celebrated throughout the annals of Indian history, regrettably little is known about the individual kings. Most of the available information has been recovered from fewer than thirty fragmentary inscriptions. Archaeological materials and literature, both sacred and secular, provide, however, tantalizing glimpses of a highly refined and sophisticated world. Chandragupta I
Chandragupta II

There is no doubt that Chandragupta II ruled the Gupta Empire (c. 321-c. 550 c.e.) at the height of its glory. It was, however, Chandraupta I, his grandfather and a ruler of a small principality located in either modern-day Bengal or Bihar, who envisioned an empire that reclaimed Indian soil from the foreign Kushān Dynasty that had ruled for more than three hundred years. The Guptas were also fervent Hindus who sought to reestablish their Brahmanical religion as the primary spiritual authority in the land. Toward these goals, the first king began his program of westward expansion of the ancestral kingdom through war and the politics of marriage. He is represented on one side of his minted coins and his queen Kumāradevī on the other. A princess of the esteemed Licchavi line, her marriage alliance with the ruler brought prestige and undoubtedly great tracts of land. It is assumed that the Gupta era, which began on February 26, 321 c.e., was founded by Chandragupta I to commemorate his coronation, and probably at that time, he took the regal title Mahārājādhirāja (great king of kings). He chose Pataliputra as his capital, a city associated with the earlier imperial Mauryan Dynasty.

On his accession, Samudragupta, son of Chandragupta I and Kumāradevī, inherited his father’s dreams and his titles but added the epithets Digvijaya and Dharṇībhanda, meaning “conquest in all directions to bind the country as a single unit.” His imperial ambitions were made clear by the titles. Inaugurating a series of military campaigns throughout his long reign, Samudragupta expanded his control over a large part of north India, but it was his son Chandragupta II who finally realized the imperial mandate to exterminate foreign rule in the west and extend the empire from sea to sea. Uniting all of ancient Bhārata (India) from the Himalayan Mountains in the north to the Vindhya Mountains to the south and from the Arabian Sea in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, he had driven out the last of the foreign rulers. Reconquest of western India, land crossed by the major trade routes, meant increased revenues, particularly through possession of important ports and harbors connecting India with the outside world. Also the long-held city of Ujjayini in western Malwa was so strategic to trade that Chandragupta later designated it as his second capital after he captured the region.

More important than recovering the trade revenue from foreigners was the establishment of dominion over the ancient land by a righteous Hindu king. Hindu treatises on governance such as the Arthaśāstra (dates vary, c. fourth century b.c.e.-third century c.e.; Treatise on the Good, 1961) by Kauṭilya and the Manusmṛti (probably compiled 200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Laws of Manu, 1886) set down the ideal standards for sovereigns and stated unequivocally that a righteous king’s foremost duty was to preserve the purity and the integrity of Hindu society and culture throughout the land. In other words, the kings were responding to a divine mandate to ensure the purity of Bhārata. Like his grandfather, Chandragupta II formed marriage alliances with some powerful ruling families as a way to extend his influence across the land. His marriage to Kuveranāgā of the Nāga family was a political maneuver. They had a daughter named Prabhāvatīgupta, who, when she came of age, was married to the Vākāṭaka king Rudrasena II, who ruled a kingdom in the western Deccan. Both the Nāgas and Vākāṭakas were rulers of important feudatory states, whose support augmented Gupta prestige and at least indirect control across the subcontinent.

A Chinese pilgrim named Faxian (Fa-hsien) traveled through India between 400 and 411 c.e. Although he never mentioned Chandragupta’s name, he described his rule and realm in his journal. He related that the people whom the monarch governed were happy and, among other things, were not subject to taxes or corporal punishments. The pilgrim’s chronicle provided glimpses of an empire in which peace and prosperity prevailed.

Having expelled the foreign interlopers, Chandragupta set about creating a model Hindu state, one in which the caste system was affirmed. Despite the Guptas’ strong personal Hindu affiliation, the rulers were tolerant of all religions. The archaeological remains of the Gupta Empire indicate that the country was secure, peaceful, and exceedingly prosperous.

Part of Chandragupta’s drive against foreign adversaries included the creation of stone temples and icons. Chandragupta’s patronage is largely responsible for the inauguration and development of Hindu art and architecture. Although Buddhists and Jains had been creating stone monuments for centuries, only a few small stone icons of Hindu deities had been created before the time of Chandragupta II. During his reign, a new tradition of creating impressive and enduring Hindu monuments was formulated. The first artistic campaign occurred at Udayagiri near modern-day Bhopal. The twenty-some cave temples there have the distinction of being the only works that can be personally associated with a Gupta monarch. An inscription dated to 401-402 c.e. attests to the king’s presence at the site.

For the first time, an elaborate exegesis in stone gave visual form to the major Hindu deities, including representations of the goddess Durga with ten arms, the Saptamātṛkās, Śiva in his linga form, Viṣṇu, Varāha, Brahma, Skanda, Gaṇeśa, and a host of supportive figures. From that point on, religious monuments were erected throughout the Gupta kingdom. The temples were decorated with icons imbued with a numinous beauty, achieving such a degree of aesthetic perfection that they serve as the classical standard by which all Indian art is evaluated.

The astonishing beauty of Gupta painting is demonstrated by the paintings in the Ajanta Caves in the Deccan; they are among the greatest surviving paintings of any ancient civilization. Most of the caves were excavated and decorated with great murals during the reign of King Hariṣena Vākāṭaka, whose family line was allied with the Guptas through marriage. Although the caves are Buddhist, the painting style nevertheless is highly evolved and sophisticated. In the paintings, thousands of figures, in courtly dress and ornaments, are rendered with supreme mastery and lyrical grace. These vivid paintings reveal courtly Indian life in the fifth century c.e. in minute detail. Although the Ajanta caves technically are not located within the borders of the Gupta Empire, it can be assumed that the elegant paintings represented there were like those used to ornament Gupta temples and palaces.

During the reigns of the early Gupta kings, the great two Indian epics, Rāmāyaṇa (c. 550 b.c.e.; English translation, 1870-1889) and Mahābhārata (c. 400 b.c.e.-400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896) with its famous sermon, Bhagavadgītā (c. 200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Bhagavad Gita, 1785; literally the divine song or song of the lord), are believed to have seen their final development. This same period fostered the compilation of several major Hindu texts known as Purāṇas. In the field of literature, Gupta poetry, prose, and drama are regarded as works of a great intellectual renaissance.

The language of the court was classical Sanskrit and the works were written mainly for recitation or performance at court, or for an elite circle of literati, well versed in the canon of the courtly, flowery conventions. Generally, the subjects of the poets included love, nature, moralizing, and storytelling. Religious subjects relating the legends of the divine were common as well.

Kālidāsa was the best-known and greatest Sanskrit poet/dramatist of his day; his reputation is celebrated even today. He probably flourished during the reigns of the emperors Chandragupta II and his son Kumāragupta. Works that have survived the centuries are: Abhijñānaśākuntala (c. 45 b.c.e. or c. 395 c.e.; Śākuntala: Or, The Lost Ring, 1789), Kumārasambhava (c. 60 b.c.e. or c. 380 c.e.; The Birth of the War-God, 1879), Raghuvamśa (c. 50 b.c.e. or c. 390 c.e.; The Dynasty of Raghu, 1872-1895), Meghadūta (c. 65 b.c.e. or c. 375 c.e.; The Cloud Messenger, 1813), and Ṛtusaṁhāra (c. 75 b.c.e. or c. 365 c.e.; English translation, 1867). Kālidāsa’s masterpieces brought the classical courtly Sanskrit tradition to a state of perfection. Daṇḍin, Subandhu, and Bāṇabhaṭṭa were other great writers of the age; many of their works have survived the centuries.

Indian intellectual progress soared during the Gupta era, especially in the fields of science, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. In the fifth century c.e., it was recognized that Earth revolved around the Sun and rotated on its axis, facts not acknowledged in the West for centuries. Although generally the Arabs are credited with the invention of the decimal system and other mathematical notions, Arabs called mathematics an Indian lore (hindisat). Much of the mathematical investigations date to the Gupta era.

The peaceful empire secured by Chandragupta II was severely disturbed during the reign of his son Kumāragupta I when the empire suffered a severe blow. Late in his reign, a new group of foreign invaders swept across the land. A central Asian people known as the Huns conducted brutal raids, decimating many of the great institutions of the previous centuries. Their incursions were the death blow to India’s greatest empire, which completely vanished by 550 c.e.


The names of the great rulers of the Gupta Dynasty dominate the history of India. It is an age as memorable as the time when Aryan Brahmanical religion evolved into Hinduism and the three great cults of Viṣṇu, Śiva, and the goddess Durga took final shape. During the 250 years that the Guptas held sway over north India, Hinduism became the state religion, Sanskrit became the dominant and official language, and all of the arts achieved classical perfection. Chandragupta II, in particular, established a righteous Hindu rule and an affluent, prosperous, and efficiently administered kingdom that became the model for later rulers throughout India.

Further Reading

  • Dikshitar, V. R. R. The Gupta Polity. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993. Excellent study of Gupta military and civil organization as well as religious policies. Bibliography.
  • Khosla, Sarla. Gupta Civilization. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989. Focuses on the emergence of the Gupta Dynasty and its importance as a model for later Hindu civilization. Bibliography.
  • Smith, Bardwell L. Essays on Gupta Culture. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983. Collection of informed essays by specialists on various aspects of Gupta history, art, literature, and culture. Bibliography.
  • Sudhi, Padma. Gupta Art: A Study from Aesthetic and Canonical Norms. New Delhi: Galaxy Publications, 1993. A consideration of major Sanskrit textual references to Indian aesthetics as applied to various fields and particularly as they relate to Gupta art and architecture. Bibliography.

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