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Samudragupta the warrior
The Gupta Dynasty is a powerful royal dynasty from the annals of Indian history. The dynasty rose to prominence 1700 years ago, and several generations of rulers ascended the throne to maintain their supremacy.
Chief among them is one of the forerunners of the dynasty, the man who single-handedly erected the empire, unifying the subcontinent, setting up a Golden Age of development in diverse fields; Samudragupta, who has been called the Napoleon of India.
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Samudragupta – The Man, the Myth, the Warrior
War in ancient times was no joke. It will never be, but the consequences were felt with severity, both by rulers and empires, without modern medicine. Samudragupta, the Warrior, as he is aptly called, has been praised in Sanskrit poetry (Prashasti) as a seasoned warrior, his body adorned with the scars of battle, proof of his bravery.
Ancient war was brutal and unimaginable, and so were the weapons used. According to the poems about Samudragupta, his body was adorned with scars from various weapons, and we can presume that he was proficient in using several weapons as well. He did not gain the moniker of “The Warrior” without merit.
He was a patron of the arts. The kaviraj loved poetry and played the veena.
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The Military Conquests of the Guptas
Samudragupta’s mindset, his policies of annexation and expansion, are demonstrated by the following −
- Samudragupta vanquished nine rulers of Aryavarta, annexing their empires. With the conquest of Dakshinapatha and Aryavarta, Samudragupta got closer to his aim of being ‘Chakravartin’.
- The rulers of Dakshinapatha surrendered to Samudragupta and were permitted to rule, upon accepting Samudragupta’s suzerainty.
- Large portions of north-western India, such as Assam, Nepal, Bengal, and other gana-sanghas came under his control. They had to buy tribute, abide by him, and their presence was expected in the court.
- The successors of the Shakas and the Kushanas, and the ruler of Lanka submitted to him and gave his daughters in marriage.
Observe how the rulers of Aryavarta and Dakshinapatha were treated. The formers were vanquished, their territories annexed; on the other hand, the latter regained rule over their territory. Why was this so?
The condition was that Dakshinapatha accept Samudragupta as their overlord, and bow to his authority. Autonomy was conditional based on servitude. There was no annexation, but it was agreed that Samudragupta was Supreme King, and above any ruler from Dakshinapatha.
Chakravartin − A ruler whose chariot rolls without anything, or anybody in its way.
Gana Sangha − A tribal assembly. They differ from monarchies in that the ruler is elected, instead of being hereditary.
Prashasti − Poems that are authored by poets in praise of their rulers and overlords.
Suzerainty − The position, authority, or dignity of a suzerain (a feudal overlord).
Administration of Samudragupta’s Vast Kingdom
Land revenue was an income source, villages being the basic unit of administration. Social stratification was strict, and the poor and untouchables were not treated fairly. Untouchables had to live in the city outskirts, and even touching them was considered “dirty.”
Commoners spoke Prakrit, while the Royalty and Aristocracy used Sanskrit. Diplomacy and other measures were adopted by Royalty to enlist the allegiance of men who wielded political power, either due to their economic or social status.
Partnerships with such men were coveted due to their political or military prowess.
- Hereditary succession became common in several administrative posts. Sons took over the position of their fathers upon death.
- A single individual would be responsible for several offices.
- Powerful individuals within the kingdom were valued regarding administrative matters. The nagara-shreshthi, the sarthavaha, the prathama-kulika and the head of the kayashtas were examples.
These policies proved to be beneficial, but what is to be noted is that at times, these powerful and influential men became strong enough to establish independent kingdoms.
Harisena, the Chief Minister of the Gupta Empire under Samudragupta
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Hereditary rule in administrative posts, referred to as nepotism has the following distinct disadvantages −
- Positions filled by members of a certain family, generation upon generation, give that family opportunity to know the kingdom’s secrets, perhaps even the royal family’s.
- Pursuit of power might eventually put these administrative officers at odds with the king, and their desire for success could cause them to break away from the kingdom.
- This fulfils the opposite intention of the original objective, which is to consolidate the power with the assistance of politically, socially, and economically powerful men, perhaps with strong armies.
What is the point if they are going to learn the kingdom’s secrets, and break away to form independent kingdoms? That is a ruler’s worst nightmare!
Armies, Assemblies, and the Common Man in the Gupta Empire
Refer to the image at the start of the section ‘The Military Conquests and Prowess of the Gupta Army’. The Gupta Army was diverse with various options, including chariots, elephants, infantry, and cavalry.
Previous empires looked to consolidate power in their hands. However, unique to the Guptas was decentralized administration – as we saw with Dakshinapatha. The Empire did not have extensive bureaucracy.
Land grants and friendly Samanta contracts assisted effective decentralization.
You might have learned earlier about samantas. They were tribal, military chieftains or leaders that assisted the kingdom during war. While not under the kingdom’s payroll, they were granted land which they gained revenue from.
This revenue was used to maintain their troops and upgrade their armoury. Samantas, at times, became maha-samantas, and broke away from their overlords.
Inscriptions of the Past
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Conquered Southern Kingdoms retained autonomy as long they accepted Samudragupta’s suzerainty.
They had to pay tribute to their overlord. Pallava inscriptions specify sabhas, which were Brahmin land owners who initiated sub-committees to look after village affairs, like roads, temples, and irrigation.
The Ur was an assembly of land owners who weren’t Brahmins. The nagaram was a congregation of merchants. These assemblies were controlled by the rich and the influential.
Kalidasa, while not a part of Samudragupta’s court, chronicled the lives of the common man in the Gupta Empire. He is known for his Abhijnana Shankunatalam, the play depicting the love of a king Dushyantha, for a young woman called Shakunthala. The condition of the poorer sections of society can also be seen in this play.
- Samudragupta was a seasoned warrior and patron of the arts. He played the Veena.
- He was a conqueror and either vanquished enemy kings or gave them the option of autonomy if they accepted his power.
- Administration was decentralized, and these positions in the Empire were hereditary.
- Harishena was the chief minister of Samudragupta’s court, and was a man who played multiple roles.
- Kaliasa, while not a part of Samudragupta’s court, chronicled the lives of the common man in the Gupta Empire.
Q1: Samudragupta was called the Napoleon of India. Why?
Ans: Samudragupta was a warrior and conqueror who managed to bring a major part of the subcontinent under his fold. Therefore, there is a parallel to Napoleon.
Q2: What is the difference between ‘annexation’ and ‘acceptance of suzerainty?’
Ans: Annexation is when territories are brought under the control of invading empires. Acceptance of suzerainty is when the defeated empire accepts the winning overlord, maintaining some autonomy, while paying tributes, taxes, and gifts.
Q3: Who was the chief minister of Samudragupta?
Ans: Harishena was the Chief Minister of Chandragupta.
Q4: What was the status of untouchables in the Gupta Empire?
Ans: They were expected to live in the city outskirts and had a very lowly status.
Q5: Why did the Gupta Empire follow Decentralized Administration?
Ans: Due to the vastness of the empire (stretching to the south), it was not realistic for Samudragupta to maintain full control over distant regions from his capital in the North. Therefore, accepting his status as feudal overlord became a way for kingdoms to maintain their autonomous rule, and for the Guptas to collect tributes, gifts, and taxes from them.
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