Gupta Empire Economy – Political Organisation – Religion

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Gupta Empire Economy

 During the Gupta period agriculture formed a significant part of the empire’s economy. However, the trade and commerce activities of the Gupta Empire grew steadily. The merchant and other traders were organized into guilds. These guilds were given concessions in the taxes that were liable to be paid to the government.

The guilds played a chief role in the goods industry and also helped to further strengthen the economic condition of the empire. The guilds had regulated their own laws and all the member merchants were expected to abide by these laws.

At the time of the Gupta dynasty rule kings gave land grants to the Buddhist church. The church or the sangha took up the role of a banker and provided monetary support on interest to those in need. During this period, borrowing money was less expensive as compared to the Mauryan Empire. There was no fixed rate of interest since there was none prescribed by the government.

However, the rate of interest could be more than the existing one only when it was so agreed by both the parties involved. The easy accessibility of money to those in need and that to at a reasonable rate was a positive factor which helped the economy of the Gupta Empire to progress.

There was industrial development during the Gupta period. The textile industry was an essential industry of this empire. Some of the major items of produce included silk, muslin, calico, linen, wool and cotton. These goods were also exported.

There were other flourishing industries of the Gupta empire like ivory work, stone cutting and carving of stones like jasper, agate, quartz, carnelian, lapis- lazuli, etc; metal work of precious metals like gold, silver, copper, iron, bronze, lead, etc. Pearl industry was also very popular. However, the most important industry was pottery.

Trading activities within the empire were carried out very smoothly and efficiently. Animals were used for transporting goods from one place to another. Goods were also transported via sea- route with the help of ships. The Gupta rulers issued large number of gold coins. These gold coins were known as dinars.

After the Saka- Kshatrapa kingdom of Gujarat was invaded, the Gupta rulers also issued silver coins. During the reign of the Gupta dynasty, lead and rare copper coins were also issued. Gupta Empire carried out trade with China, Ceylon and other European countries. After around 550 AD, trading activities with the Roman Empire were relaxed. The Guptas imported Chinese silk and ivory from East Africa. During this time, South- East Asia became a trade centre for the Gupta Empire.

 

Political Organisation

 The Gupta period marked an important phase in the history of ancient India. The long and efficient rule of the Guptas had a huge impact on the political, social as well as cultural spheres. In spite of the Gupta Empire not being as widespread as the Mauryan Empire, yet the Gupta dynasty was successful in creating an empire which is significant in the history of India.

It is purely due to the significance of the Gupta Empire that this period was also popularly known as the Golden Age of India. The lifestyle and culture of the Gupta dynasty can be inferred through the availability of various ancient coins, scriptures, inscriptions, texts, etc. belonging to that era.

Apart from the several similarities which the Gupta Empire shared with the Mauryan Government, one was the setup of government though it a whole distinct style of government. Like the Mauryan system, the Gupta kings were at the epicenter of the entire administration.

The empire was divided into several provinces each of which had viceroys who were appointed from amongst the members of the royal family. These Viceroys undertook the task of carrying out the administration for the province allotted to them. The provinces were further sub-divided into a series of districts.

Each district had its own separate administrative centers. The local administration of the district was at liberty to take decisions on governing the area, essentially free from central control, except in matters which may have dealt with central policies. The highest officer in a district was known as the ‘kumaramatya’ and he acted as the link between the centre and the district.

Contrary to their Mauryan counterparts, the Gupta kings were not concerned with every nuance of local administration. An efficient central government allowed trade to prosper and provided a stable background for advances in learning and the arts.

Villages were organized under rural bodies which consisted of the headman and village elders. The most respected people of the village served on the council. In the cities there was a council which consisted of several officers like the President of the City Corporation, the chief representative of the guild of merchants, a representative of the artisans along with the chief scribe.

The Gupta system of urban and rural administration was based on encouraging local participation unlike the Mauryan system where administration came to be carried out by the royally appointed councils were the norm. Initially, women were allowed to serve on councils.

However, eventually, Hindu law placed greater restrictions on women thus excluding them from any kind of such participation.

Local leaders were elected by merchants and artisans. In each village, a headman and councils made decisions for the village. The Gupta Empire’s government had a system that work to keep order.
A significant change which took place during the Gupta regime was the increasing trend of paying salaries in land grants instead of paying cash.

Land grants usually gave the beneficiary hereditary rights over the land, although it was generally the king who retained the right to repossess the land if he was unhappy with the conduct of the beneficiary.

Brahmins were usually granted tax free lands which were another concession to an already existing privileged class. Land grants undermined the authority of the king as more and more land came to be taken away from his direct control.

Also since the beneficiaries of land grants were usually Brahmins or government officials the king was not really able to exercise the repossession option with the apprehension of a political backlash.

The government revenue essentially came from land as commercial activity was no longer as big a contributor as it once was. Land revenue came from a variety of sources, like direct tax on the land as well as a tax on the cultivated produce of the land.

Apart from this, the Guptas also had a fairly good judicial system. Gupta emperors ruled over a spectacular court at Pataliputra. At the bottom, there were various councils which were authorized to resolve disputes that arose like for instance there was the village assembly or the trade guild.

Hence, justice was usually available in the place a person lived or worked. The king presided over the highest court of appeal and he was usually assisted by various judges, ministers and priests etc, depending upon the nature of the case. The judgments were usually made based on legal texts, social customs or specific edicts from the king.

Social Structure

The social structure of the Gupta Empire was highly influenced by religion. Hinduism divided the people of the Gupta Empire into five classes.

The highest was composed of the priest and teachers, underneath that were the rulers and warriors, then the merchants and artisans, and ending with the unskilled workers.

Of course there was a class of untouchables that was hardly considered a part of society, making it the lowest class. This division of the people was called the Caste system. People from different classes were never allowed to speak or even look at each otherThe belief in one’s Dharma, or purpose in life, was to be in their own class and do what that class demands of you kept people in line.

The men of a family were always valued above the women of a family. Men had more rights than women and could inherit property. Women were often in the background and treated with little respect. In addition to having the gender divisions in a family, having siblings also affected marriage, especially the eligibility of a woman.

Women had no say in political affairs or in the affairs of their husbands. Despite this, women who were wealthy or who had powerful families could get educated. Some women became philosophers, wrote poetry and played music.

Women were not allowed to remarry and widows sometimes committed Sati, or suicide by setting themselves on fire. Women who were widows committed Sati because they lost a place to live (property was not inherited by the widow from their husbands).

Religion

The Gupta Period was marked by great transformation in Hinduism and Buddhism. Gupta rulers themselves were very sophisticated and benevolent. Though they were patrons of Brahmanism, yet the Guptas were highly tolerant towards the other creeds.

The Gupta period had witnessed the synthesis of Brahmanical Hinduism with heterodox creeds. The integration of various heterodox creeds like Saivism, Vaishnavism and Shakti cult with Brahmanical Hinduism, had marked the culmination of the Gupta period. The synthesis of heterodox creeds gave rise to neo-Hinduism or Puranic Hinduism, the flavour of which is still found in contemporary Hinduism.

The ideal of Neo-Hinduism had almost changed the concept of Vedic Brahmanism, but the form however remained unchanged. Neo-Hinduism had shed its concept of multi-cult creators. The concept of three gods connected with life, death and destruction united together as “Trinity” or “Trayi” had first materialised during the Gupta Period. According to neo-Hinduism, the three gods Brahma-Vishnu-Maheswar were united in the trinity concept or Trayi.

According to scholars, due to religious admixture of heterodox creeds, the concept of “monism” or the doctrine of different schools of thought had evolved during the Gupta period. Gradually Brahma, considered the God of creation, passed into oblivion. Only Siva and Vishnu dominated the neo-Hindu doctrine of the Gupta period. The Puranas were rewritten in order to accommodate Siva and Vishnu as the chief Gods. Not only they were considered the chief Gods, but were also attributed with extraordinary powers.

Most of the Vedic Gods passed into oblivion and were replaced by new Gods according to the concept of neo-Hinduism. Gods like Siva, Vishnu, Kartikeya, and Ganesha who belonged to the heterodox creeds formerly replaced all the Vedic Gods. Thus due to religious movements during the Gupta Period, Hinduism became the vast mosaic of various religious patterns, combining religious ideas of both the old and the new.

One of the interesting features of religious development during the Gupta Period was the wide prevalence of worship of ‘Shakti’ or mother goddess.

‘Tantricism’, or the cult of Tantra that preached the worship of female deities, had initiated the fertility cult.

Hinduism, prevalent in the contemporary Gupta Period could not escape the influence of the Shakti cult. Henceforth it gave rise to worship of several female gods, who themselves were considered the wives of the chief gods. The cult of mother Goddess became very popular.

Originally “Shakti” was worshipped as the goddess of force in the form of Kali, Chamunda and Bhima. In the “Markandeya Purana” Chandi is described as a destroyer of Mahishasura, the symbol of evil. Gradually the character and concept mellowed down into goddess Shakti, who was considered the wife of Siva and mother of Kartikeya, Ganesha etc.

The Puranas described the cult of neo-Hinduism and narrated the mutual relationship of various gods and goddesses, worshipped according to the concept of neo-Hinduism.

Prevalence of idol worship was another feature of Puranic Hinduism of the Gupta period. Specification of images of different gods and goddesses were incorporated from Puranas.

The cult of Kartikeya and Ganesha was also very prominent during that period. The Kartikeya cult was popular among the Kushanas is evident from the figure of Kartikeya on the coins of Hubiskha, a Kushana chief. Kartikeya was originally considered the war God. Later he was included in the family of Shiva-Parvati. Ganesha was also unknown before the 300 A.D. In the Gupta period he became a popular God.

Many images of Ganesha made of stone and terracotta, belonging to the Gupta period has been found. The concept of Goddess Lakshmi underwent an evolutionary change during the Gupta Period

In the Gupta era, the Vedic form of worship by performance of yajna did not survive much. In order to make a synthesis with Vedic Hinduism, ‘yajna’ or sacrifice was retained along with idol worship. Yajna lost its prominence in the form of image worship. Bhakti or the devotion of the worshipper became more important.

Apart from Hinduism, Buddhism also underwent transformation during the Gupta Period. Nalanda received patronage from the Guptas. However the typical change that entered the folds of Buddhism was the rise of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism. Buddhism adopted worship of mother goddesses like Tara. Buddhism also accepted the theory of incarnation of Buddha and thus prepared the way for assimilation by Hinduism. Jainism however remained much original in its creed. It received the patronage of the merchant community of western India.

Jainism continued to flourish in south and western India, while neo-Hinduism became a dominating creed of north India.

The religious movement in India during the Guptas therefore is a synthesis and integration of different heterodox creeds with Brahmanical Hinduism, which ultimately led to a complete transformation of Brahmanical Hinduism prevalent in ancient India.

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