The Mauryan Empire and Gupta Empire

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Mauryan Empire

By about 500 BC, there were small kingdoms scattered throughout the Ganges River valley. Magadah was the strongest, largely due to its favorable location. It controlled trade along the rivers and also had the advantage of a wealth of natural resources.

In 321 BC, Chandragupta Maurya became king of Magadah. Within about fifteen years, he ruled most of northern India, including present-day Afghanistan. Historical sources are ambiguous; Chandragupta may have ruled his empire as a monarch or as something more like a president in charge of a bureaucracy. His son and successor expanded the Mauryan Empire far into the south. The third Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, presided over a politically united India, except for the extreme southern tip of the subcontinent.

Ashoka’s is the first Indian reign for which there are detailed and reliable written records. The emperor and his royal council ruled supreme over a society based on the caste system. Ashoka commanded the loyalty of a royal army, a bureaucracy, and even a secret police. The reign of Ashoka was an era of peace and prosperity; he made efforts to unify society by stressing ideals of tolerance and respect among his diverse subjects. Ashoka also sent a Buddhist missionary to Tibet, with far-reaching consequences. The missionary converted the king, who then established Buddhism as the state religion. Tibet remains Buddhist to this day.

The unified Mauryan Empire disintegrated into smaller kingdoms after Ashoka’s death in 231 BC. Various peoples invaded India from the northwest, although most did not go beyond that immediate area. The general pattern was to assimilate into the local population, which in turn absorbed various cultural elements from the newcomers.

One group, the Sakas, arrived about 130 BC and penetrated much farther into India’s interior, eventually gaining control over a vast territory. The Par- thians and the Kushans, other Central Asian tribes, followed the Sakas. These groups loosely controlled northwestern India until the third century AD. In the end, the Gupta Empire took over northern India.

The Kushan kings claimed to rule by divine right, stating that the king was a manifestation of the god Siva. This would become a fundamental tenet of Hin- duism. Although they were inclined toward the Hindu religion, the Kushans were tolerant monarchs. During their era of dominance, their subjects represented all known religions except possibly Judaism.

The Gupta Empire

Chandragupta I (not the same Chandragupta as the Mauryan king Chandra- gupta) established the Gupta Empire in AD 320. A series of successful military campaigns gave his son and heir Samudragupta control over all of northern India; he became emperor in 335 and would rule for twenty years. The Gupta period was characterized by a religious revival, a shift toward a mercantile economy, and a major flowering in the arts.

At first, the Gupta rulers tolerated the practice of various religions, just as had the Kushan kings; however, a major revival of Hinduism eventually shouldered the other faiths aside. During the same period, Buddhism put down strong roots in China, Japan, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. The Gupta economy became more mercantile as international trade increased. Like all economies before modern times, however, it was still heavily dependent on agriculture.

Artistically, the Gupta Empire is considered the classical era in Indian his- tory; artists, writers, and builders created the classical Indian styles of poetry, drama, painting, and architecture. The Indian poet and playwright Kalidasa, who was active around AD 400, holds the same place in Indian regard as Shakespeare does in the English-speaking world. The great Indian literary classics the Mahabharata (an epic poem about war) and the Ramayana (a love story of good versus evil) had been told and retold orally since at least 600 BC, but it was during the Gupta Empire that they were written in the versions we know today. The Indians regard the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in much the same way Westerners regard the Homeric epics and the Bible; they are the most influential literary works of an entire culture.

The Gupta Empire was not politically unified; the government allowed the local rajas to continue ruling their kingdoms within the empire. This system had the advantage of providing a continuum of government and society for the people, allowing everyday business to continue uninterrupted by any major reorganization of the government. The greatest disadvantage to this political decision was that the empire was not a centrally controlled state; instead, it was an empire of small monarchies whose rulers were potential rivals for imperial power.

In the end, the Gupta Empire fell apart from three linked causes. The first was rival claims to the throne from the small kingdoms and among the ruling family. The second was the bickering factions that grew up around the various claimants. The third was a series of popular uprisings that probably began because the government was weak and ineffectual. A civil war resulted from all the chaos, and in AD 510, the Huns took advantage of the situation to sweep into India from Central Asia. They sacked many cities and razed a large number of Buddhist monasteries, thus contributing to the ultimate failure of Buddhism in India. The Huns were so destructive and divisive that they crushed any Indian pretense at empire. Culturally, India remained unified, at least in the north, but politically it was once again a collection of small independent kingdoms.

Southern India

Slowly, the culture of northern India began to spread into the south, which for many years had remained largely unaffected by outside events. The scholars of southern India adopted Sanskrit as their universal language (Pali was also spoken throughout the region), and both Buddhism and Hinduism spread through the south. Ambitious leaders in the region began to establish independent kingdoms. Southern India was geographically too far from the Silk Road to use it for trade, but it did profit handsomely from overseas trade with the Roman Empire and also with China and the Southeast Asian islands.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: 

Early Asian Empires Practice Test

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