The Tradition of Kshaatra in India: The Gupta Empire

The preeminent name among the Gupta Dynasty is Chandragupta I. He was the son of Ghatotkachagupta. He had married Kumāradevī of the Licchavi clan. Subsequently, Samudragupta and others repeatedly claim that they descended from the Licchavi dynasty. What could be the reason behind this glorification of the Licchavis?

It is well-known that the ṣodaṣa-mahā-janapada (the Sixteen Great Republics) existed during Buddha’s time. The Vajji-gaṇa (or Vṛjji-gaṇa) ruled from Vaiśālī as their capital. They were extremely valorous but that valour was admixed with coarseness. For this reason, they were derided as vrātya-kṣatriya (fallen kṣatriyas) by the others. In the Vedas, the word ‘vrāta’ also denotes ‘kṣatriya’ and ‘samūha’ (citizenry). The Licchavis were professional soldiers in one sense. They were extreme warriors. Such severity naturally erodes the discipline of any group. Chandragupta I attempted to and succeeded in building a great empire with the support and inspiration of this clan. But detailed information about him is unavailable.

Fortunately, a significant amount of information is available regarding Samudragupta, the son of Chandragupta I. Samudragupta is one among the towering emperors of India. He is among the tallest peaks of the re-invigoration of Bhāratīya Saṃskṛti (Indian Culture). He was not the eldest son of Kumaradevi and Chandragupta I. He had several older and younger brothers. Even so, his father spotted his competence and anointed him the king. We learn of this fact from the inscription in Prayag authored by Harisena:

ehyehītyupagūhya bhāvapiśunairutkarṇitai romabhiḥ
sabhyeṣūcchvasiteṣu tulyakulajamlānānanodvīkṣitaḥ ।
snehavyākulitena āṣpaguruṇā tattvekṣiṇā cakṣuṣā
yaḥ pitrābhihito nirīkṣya nikhilāṃ pāhi tvamurvīmiti ॥

Abhilekhasaṅgrahaḥ, p. 2

Chandragupta I beckoned his son and said, “Come my child! You must accept the reins of the empire. You are the suitable one. You must protect the earth.” Upon hearing this, all the wise and farsighted men present there became delighted and proud. All the elders in the assembly heaved a sigh of contentment. The other princes who were his peers became jealous and their faces darkened. Samudragupta's eyes become moist upon seeing his father’s fidelity to principle. The father washed his son’s head with his tears of joy and blessed him.

These words are not merely poetic exaggerations; they truly reflect the fulfilment of the ideal of kṣātra that Samudragupta was endowed with.

Kṣātra is required in appropriate measure both during war and peace. This is one of the great illustrations that we see in our country’s past. We see the same kṣātra in Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna in the Mahābhārata. We see the same balance of kṣātra in both war and peace starting from Chandragupta Maurya, Pushyamitra Shunga, Samudragupta, Chandragupta Vikramaditya, Kumaragupta, Skandagupta, Pulikeshi, Shiladitya Harshavardhana, Bhoja, Rāja Rāja Chola, Rajendra Chola, Bukka Raya, Praudadeva Raya, Krishnadeva Raya, up to Shivaji. This was upheld as a great ideal. Everyone aspired to live their life adhering to this ideal.

All historians aver that there was an all-round development of Sanātana dharma during the Gupta period, which has been hailed as the Golden Age or the Classical Age. All values were idealized and a model was shaped to clearly distinguish the right path. This model was built on solid foundation of values. It stood on strength, magnanimity, loftiness, connoisseurship, prosperity, goodness, and wisdom.

Coin from Samudragupta's Period. Pic Courtesy: Google Image Search

Rishi Yājñavalkya’s discourse to Maitreyi in the Maitreya Brāhmaṇa portion of the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad is as follows: “na vā are brahmaṇaḥ kāmāya brahma priya bhavatyātmanastu kāmāya brahma priya bhavati” (2.4.5)
"Even the brahman is not loved for its own sake but for my own sake (i.e. the sake of self)." If the Vedas have to aver thus, it only shows the sheer courage and audacity of our Rishis!

God is not loved for its own sake but for my sake – this is a philosophical revelation that emerged by considering the ultimate truth. This revelation is universal, rooted in nothing but ānanda (Bliss). In this backdrop, we find that Sanātana dharma, which places the highest emphasis on the freedom of the self, found its strongest expression in the Gupta period.

Prosperity Achieved by the Gupta Emperors

Even an eminent scholar like Rahul Sankrityayan has displayed his displeasure towards the Gupta period. Although I have great regard for him, I have an equal amount of differences in opinion. Even in his stories and novels, he didn't let go of his hatred towards the Guptas. He wrote a novel titled Jaya Yaudheya based on the Gupta Empire. In this, he writes that the Gupta Empire exploited its subjects. Elsewhere, he lavishes exaggerated praise on Buddhist sources. The Buddhist pilgrim Fa-Hien lived in India for ten years and toured the country between 401 to 411 CE. He also toured Ujjayini, which was ruled by Chandragupta I.

He doesn’t mention Chandragupta’s name anywhere in his travelogue. However, he has written about almost all aspects of the (Gupta) kingdom. He had neither received any support from Chandragupta nor had been rewarded by him. No such mention can be found in his travelogue. Writing about the conditions of the Gupta Empire, he records that there was absolutely no fear of thieves, no government officials harassed or tortured the citizens, the highways were safe, and every convenience was provided for travellers and business caravans.

About two hundred years after Fa-Hien, another Buddhist pilgrim named Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) visited the kingdom of Shiladitya Harshavardhana. He writes in many places about how he became a victim of thieves and records the turmoil due to the unrest unleashed by rebels. He also visited the empire of Pulikeshi II in Karnataka. He records that Pulikeshi’s rule was excellent; the citizens would peacefully sleep at night without bolting their doors.

Though well-aware of these facts, Rahul Sankrityayan and those who followed him later like R S Sharma, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, and others continued to hate the Guptas. The reason for this is amply clear: the Guptas were the greatest adherents and proponents of Sanātana Dharma. Our country reached the pinnacle of all-round prosperity during the Gupta Empire and even today the same culture continues to bind us. This is an obvious eyesore for the Communists!

One can determine the prosperity of a country by examining the coins minted there. One can deduce the economic conditions of that country observing the base metals used in the minting of coins. If we cast a glance at the coins minted in our country today, it becomes evident: in the recent past, coins were minted from nickel. These are quite valuable. We currently use stainless steel; the size and weight have also decreased. Further, by studying the style of minting coins, the skill involved in their manufacture, its artistry, technology, and the tastes of the people of that era, we can deduce the entire history of that period.

So far in the history of India, nowhere else have we obtained gold and silver coins that are comparable in the quality and quantity of those from the Gupta Period. There exists a unique stamping and minting process to manufacture coins based on native Indian arts, which are separate from the Greek and Roman models. The kind of technology, ingredients and their designs are of a high quality. Such high quality is what is designated as ‘Gold Standard.’ Will it suffice to merely print currency notes? That is perilous. It is due to this that the Zimbabwean economy is completely shattered and Greece has reached the economic abyss. The Guptas faced no such problems. The utility of kṣātra lies in preparing the kingdom for artha (prosperity). This prosperity should lead to contentment.

Rahul Sankrityayan has made malicious allegations such as: “Traders had to pay taxes to the king. Therefore, they had ensured that there were no robbers on the highways.” In which case, does it mean that only traders travel on highways? Don’t the ordinary folk use the highways? Aren’t the same highways used for transporting food grain, agricultural equipment, and clothes? Even in matters of highway safety, should there be scope for such illogic? Is there any basis for the argument that highways are safe only because traders pay taxes? To a country, roads are akin to the arteries and veins that enable blood flow in the human body.

Translated by Hari Ravikumar and Sandeep Balakrishna

To be continued



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.


Hari is an author, translator, editor, designer, and violinist with a deep interest in philosophy, education pedagogy, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited some forty books, mostly related to Indian culture.

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