Legacy and Decline of the Gupta Empire

Social ScienceAncient Indian History


The Guptas, along with the Mauryans, are considered to be the two great dynasties in Indian history. The former, the Gupta Empire, ruled over the Maghada (present day Bihar) and portions of Central and Western India, ranging from the start of the 4th century, to the end of the 6th century.

Historians and academicians have regarded the Gupta Empire as the Classical Age, the heyday of development in an array of disciplines; it was a time when the rules of Indian literature, architecture, philosophy, and art were determined.

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Gupta Empire: History and Administration

The Kushanas

The Gupta Empire was one of these larger empires, which ultimately came to rule over a massive swathe of the Northern part of the Indian subcontinent. The administration of these states was dependent on Samantas, who were essentially vassals or tributary chiefs, tribal leaders who rose to positions of prominence within the empire due to the trust they held with the rulers of the time. Samantas collected revenue from local resources for their maintenance which included dominion over swathes of land. They were expected to be a part of court proceedings, in addition to paying tribute, and had duties of provision of troops to the royal army during times of war. Samantas could transcend their status and become Maha-Samantas, breaking off from their overlords, and establishing their independent kingdoms. On the other hand, ineffectual Samantas might find themselves being cut down to a position of subordination.

Further, the territory of the Guptas was split into a number of provinces, and these were further divided into lesser units referred to as Vishayas or Pradeshas. The provinces were administered by high provincial officers or members from the dynasty. Decentralization of authority, as demonstrated by the Samanta system, is a characteristic feature of the Gupta’s Empire.

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Decentralization came with its advantages and disadvantages. Firstly, it helped the Guptas maintain control over far off territories from Pataliputra by enlisting the subordination and subservience of existing rulers through the concept of suzerainty. The conquered kingdom would accept the political and military superiority of the Guptas, and they’d be allowed to maintain their autonomy, provided they delivered goods, taxes, and anything else upon request to the capital. Make no mistake about it, the Guptas asserted their dominance over these empires.

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The drawback was that decentralization gave opportunity for local powers, and entities like Samantas to usurp the power of the Guptas, by merely increasing in prominence and claiming independence. We also saw administration of Vishayas or Pradeshas was handed over to high provincial officers that were NOT a part of the Royal family. We will see it time and again through the course of history, where non-family rule, on behalf of an empire, leads to the creation of authority that is disproportionate to its position and status within the empire.

The only way for the Guptas to rule with an iron fist, would have been to restrict all rule within the family, but this was not a realistic proposition due to the vastness of the empire.

Gupta Empire: Divine Association, Titles, and Functions

Gupta Kinship is notable due to its parallels and associations to divine entities. The Guptas were compared to Vishnu, with regards to their functioning of maintaining and facilitating life, and Laxmi, Wife of Vishnu, and goddess of prosperity and wealth is inscribed on several coins, undoubtedly hinting at the Queen’s divine authority. This is similar to another concept found in Europe, which we will discuss below.

The Divine Rights of Kings

The Divine Rights of Kings, in European tradition, was a political ideology that defended the validity of the monarchy, perhaps increasing its prominence, by stating that Royalty obtained their authority through God, and were therefore immune to being judged by entities of human agency, like the parliament, or a court. 

In India, the Kushanas legitimized their rule by claiming divine associations. Kushana Kings also took up exalted titles like Devaputra, “Son of God” much like the Chinese, who referred to themselves as the “Sons of Heaven.” 

People of the time were mostly illiterate, as this was before the advent of the printing press. Knowledge was restricted to the elite, and it was abused in this way to legitimize monarchy and keep the citizens in the dark.

Ministers were variously referred to as Mantrin, Amatya, or Sachiva, and they were expected to stop the King from devolving into despotism. You might have studied about Harisena in previous tutorials. A wearer of many hats, Harisena was Mahadandanayaka (The Great Leader of Forces), Kumar-amatya (An important Minister), and Sanhivigrahika (Minister of Peace and War) – simultaneously.

As you can see, Harisena’s position within the empire made him a man of great power. The historical evidence found with regards to the Gupta Empire also indicates that at the very least, the higher level officers were paid in cash.

Military command was graded, and three tiers were existent −

  • Mahabaladhirkrta (Commander-in-Chief)
  • Mahadandanayaka (The Great Leader of the Forces)
  • Senapati (Military Commander)

The Elephant Troops, The Cavalry, and Infantry were setup under separate lines-of-authority. Amatyas and Kumaramatyas were often entrusted with military and defense responsibilities, eventually receiving promotions to the ranking of high military officers.

Bhuktis were the biggest administrative unit under Gupta control, and there were six of them, ith control given to Uparikas. There were in all likelihood, extra impositions on the peasants on top of the fixed yearly share of the agrarian produce.

Bhuktis were under the control of a Vishayapati (Ruler of Districts). They were assisted by four representatives, Nagarasreshesthi, Sarthavaha, Prathamakulike, and Prathama Kayastha. Vishayas were divided into Vithis.

The Vithi was made up of villages which comprised the smallest unit of administration: several of these are specified in Gupta inscriptions and seals. The leading aspect of handling the affairs of the village were taken by the Gramika, and elders were referred to as the Mahatma, Mahattara, or Mahattaka.

Officer Function
Mahabaladhikrita Commander-in-Chief
Mahapratihar Maintenance of Royal Palace
Mahadandanayak Chief Justice
Mahasandhivigrahak Post-war Conciliation
Dandapashika Police Department Dead
Bhandagaradhikreta Head of Royal Treasury
Mahapaksha-Patalik Head of Account Department
Vinayasthitisansathapak Head of Education Department
Sarvadhyaksha Inspector for all Central Department
Mahashwapati Controller of Cavalry
Mahamahipilapati Controller & Executor of Elephantry
Vinayapura Official to Present Different Guests at the King’s Court
Yuktapurusha Office to Keep Account of War Bounty
Khadyatpakika Inspector of Royal Kitchen
Mahanarpati Head of Infantry
Ranabhandagarika Officer in Charge of Army Stores


  • The Gupta heyday was from the start of the 4th Century to the end of the 6th Century.
  • The Gupta Empire had decentralized administration, dependent on Samantas, who were vassals or tributary chiefs.
  • Gupta territory was split into territories or provinces, further subdivided into Vishayas or Pradeshas.
  • The Gupta Empire used comparisons to Vishnu and his consort Laxmi, to legitimize their rule, akin to the Divine Rights of Kings in England.
  • Harisena was a minister in the Gupta Empire, and held several commanding positions, such as the Great Leader of Forces; he was the Chief Minister, and the Military Commander.


Q1. When was the Gupta Empire at its pinnacle?

Ans. The Gupta Heyday was the start of the 4th Century to the end of the 6th Century.

Q2. Why was the Gupta Administration decentralized?

Ans. The Gupta Administration was decentralized due to the vastness of the empire.

Q3. What is the Divine Rights of Kings? Can you think of a similar idea used by Indian empires?

Ans. Divine Rights of Kings bestowed legitimacy on monarchs of England through God, making them immune to court judgment. In India, the Kushana and the Gupta Empire used divine symbols to strengthen rule. The Kushanas claimed divine associations through exalted names like Devaputra. The Guptas were compared to Vishnu, while his consort, Laxmi was inscribed on several coins, presumably a parallel to the Queen.

Q4. Who was a Mahadandanayaka? Can you name a popular Mahadandanayaka of the Gupta Empire?

Ans. A Mahadandanayaka means “Great Leader of the Forces.” Harisena was a prominent minister, Mahadandanayaka and wearer of many hats.

Q5. A Vith was the smallest administrative unit in the Empire. What was the biggest unit of administration?

Ans. A Bhukti was the largest unit of administration

Updated on 13-Oct-2022 11:19:47