's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Literature, Science, and Art During the Gupta Age

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8x8 Ashtāpada.
Hindu art in the Gupta Age: Krishna Killing the Horse Demon Keshi

The peace and prosperity created under the leadership of the Guptas enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors. This period is called the Golden Age of India and was marked by extensive inventions and discoveries in science, technology, engineering, art, dialectic, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, religion and philosophy that crystallized the elements of what is generally known as Hindu culture. The Gupta period produced scholars who made great advancements in many academic fields. Of particular importance are: Aryabhata, who is believed to be the first to come up with the concept of zero, postulated the theory that the Earth moves round the Sun, and studied solar and lunar eclipses. Kalidasa, a great playwright, who wrote plays such as Shakuntala, which is said to have inspired Goethe, and marked the highest point of Sanskrit literature. The famous Sushruta Samhita, which is a Sanskrit redaction text on all of the major concepts of ayurvedic medicine with innovative chapters on surgery, dates to the Gupta period. And Vatsyayana, who wrote the ancient Gupta text Kama Sutra, which is widely considered to be the standard work on human sexual behavior in Sanskrit literature.

Chess is said to have originated in this period, where its early form in the 6th century was known as caturaṅga, which translates as "four divisions [of the military]" – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry – represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. Doctors also invented several medical instruments, and even performed operations. The Indian numerals which were the first positional base 10 numeral systems in the world originated from Gupta India.

The earliest available Indian epics are also thought to have been written around this period. The high points of this cultural creativity are magnificent architecture, sculptures and paintings.

Literature[edit | edit source]

The classical period of Sanskrit literature coincides with the Gupta period and the successive pre-Islamic Middle kingdoms of India, spanning roughly the 3rd to 8th centuries CE.


Shakuntala stops to look back at Dushyanta, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), scene from Abhijñānaśākuntalam.

Drama as a distinct genre of Sanskrit literature emerges in the final centuries BCE, influenced partly by Vedic mythology and partly by Hellenistic drama. It reaches its peak between the 4th and 7th centuries before declining together with Sanskrit literature as a whole.

Famous Sanskrit dramatists include Śhudraka, Bhasa, Asvaghosa and Kālidāsa. Though numerous plays written by these playwrights are still available, little is known about the authors themselves.

One of the earliest known Sanskrit plays is the Mrichakatika, thought to have been composed by Śhudraka in the 2nd century BCE. The Natya Shastra (ca. 2nd century CE, literally "Scripture of Dance," though it sometimes translated as "Science of Theatre'") is a keystone work in Sanskrit literature on the subject of stagecraft. Bhasa and Kālidāsa are major early authors of the first centuries CE, Kālidāsa qualifying easily as the greatest poet and playwright in Sanskrit He deals primarily with famous Hindu legends and themes; three famous plays by Kālidāsa are Vikramōrvaśīyam (Vikrama and Urvashi), Mālavikāgnimitram (Malavika and Agnimitra), and the play that he is most known for: Abhijñānaśākuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala).

Late (post 6th century) dramatists include Dandin and Sriharsha. The only surviving ancient Sanskrit drama theatre is Koodiyattam.

Scholarly treatises

The earliest surviving treatise on astrology is the Yavanajataka "sayings of the Greeks" (3rd century). The astronomy of the classical Gupta period, the centuries following Indo-Greek contact, is documented in treatises known as Siddhantas (which means "established conclusions"). Varahamihira in his Pancha-Siddhantika contrasts five of these: The Surya Siddhanta besides the Paitamaha Siddhantas (which is more similar to the "classical" Vedanga Jyotisha), the Paulisha and Romaka Siddhantas (directly based on Hellenistic astronomy) and the Vasishta Siddhanta.

The earliest treatise in Indian mathematics is the Āryabhaṭīya (written ca. 500 CE), a work on astronomy and mathematics. The mathematical portion of the Āryabhaṭīya was composed of 33 sūtras (in verse form) consisting of mathematical statements or rules, but without any proofs. However, according to Hayashi (2003, p. 123), "this does not necessarily mean that their authors did not prove them. It was probably a matter of style of exposition." From the time of Bhaskara I (600 CE onwards), prose commentaries increasingly began to include some derivations (upapatti).

"Tantra" is a general term for a scientific, magical or mystical treatise and mystical texts both Hindu and Buddhist said to concern themselves with five subjects, 1. the creation, 2. the destruction of the world, 3. the worship of the gods, 4. the attainment of all objects, 5. the four modes of union with the supreme spirit by meditation. These texts date to the entire lifespan of Classical Sanskrit literature.


Sanskrit fairy tales and fables are chiefly characterised by ethical reflections and proverbial philosophy. A peculiar style, marked by the insertion of a number of different stories within the framework of a single narrative, made its way to Persian and Arabic literatures, exerting a major influence on works such as One Thousand and One Nights.

The two most important collections are Panchatantra and Hitopadesha; originally intended as manuals for the instruction of kings in domestic and foreign policy, they belong to the class of literature which the Hindus call nīti-śāstra, or "Science of Political Ethics".

Other notable prose works include a collection of pretty and ingenious fairy tales, with a highly Oriental colouring, the Vetāla-panchaviṃśati or "Twenty-five Tales of the Vetāla" (a demon supposed to occupy corpses), the Siṃhāsana-dvātriṃçikā or "Thirty-two Stories of the Lion-seat" (i.e. throne), which also goes by the name of Vikrama-charita, or "Adventures of Vikrama" and the Śuka-saptati, or "Seventy Stories of a Parrot". These three collections of fairy tales are all written in prose and are comparatively short.

Somadeva's Kathā-sarit-sāgara or "Ocean of Rivers of Stories" is a work of special importance: composed in verse and of very considerable length, it contains more than 22,000 shlokas, equal to nearly one-fourth of the Mahābhārata. Like Kshemendra's Brhatkathamanjari and Budhasvamin's Bṛhatkathāślokasaṃgraha, it derives from Gunadhya's Brihatkatha.

Fable collections, originally serving as the handbooks of practical moral philosophy, provided an abundant reservoir of ethical maxims that become so popular that works consisting exclusively of poetical aphorisms started to appear. The most important are the two collections by the highly-gifted Bhartṛhari, entitled respectively Nīti-śataka, or "Century of Conduct," and Vairāgya-śataka, or "Century of Renunciation." The keynote prevailing in this new ethical poetry style is the doctrine of the vanity of human life, which was developed before the rise of Buddhism in the sixth century B.C., and has dominated Indian thought ever since.

Classical poetry

This refers to the poetry produced from the approximately the 3rd to 8th centuries. Kālidāsa is the foremost example of a classical poet. But a striking characteristic of Indian literary tradition is that sometimes poets show off their technical dexterity with highly Oulipian word-games, like stanzas that read the same backwards and forwards, words that can be split in different ways to produce different meanings, sophisticated metaphors, and so on. This style is referred to as Kāvya. A classic example is the poet Bharavi and his magnum opus, the Kiratarjuniya (6th-7th century). Magh is noted for his epic poem (mahAkAvya) Shishupala Vadha, the 20 cantos of which are based on the Mahabharata episode where the defiant king Shishupala is beheaded by Krishna's chakra (disc).

The greatest works of poetry in this period are the five Mahākāvyas, or "great composition"s:

  • Kumārasambhava by Kālidāsa
  • Raghuvamsha by Kālidāsa
  • Kiratarjuniya by Bharavi
  • Shishupala Vadha by Māgha
  • Naishadha-Charita by Sriharsha

Some scholars include the Bhattikavya as a sixth Mahākāvya

Other major literary works from this period are Kadambari by Banabhatta, the first Sanskrit novelist (6th-7th centuries), the Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana, and the three shatakas of Bhartṛhari.


An illustration of Varaha avatar based on the Bhagavata purana.

The puranas are a genre of important Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religious texts, notably consisting of narratives of the history of the universe from creation to destruction, genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, and descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy, and geography. The corpus of the Hindu puranas likewise falls into the classical period of Sanskrit literature, dating to between the 5th and 10th centuries, and marks the emergence of the Vaishnava and Shaiva denominations of classical Hinduism. The puranas are classified into a Mahā- ("great") and a Upa- ("lower, additional") corpus. Traditionally they are said to narrate five subjects, called pañcalakṣaṇa ("five distinguishing marks"):

Sargaśca pratisargasca vamśo manvantarāņi ca I

Vamśānucaritam caiva Purāņam pañcalakśaņam II

They are:

  • Sarga — The creation of the universe.
  • Pratisarga — Secondary creations, mostly re-creations after dissolution.
  • Vamśa — Genealogy of royals and sages.
  • Manvañtara — Various eras.
  • Vamśānucaritam — Dynastic histories

A Purana usually gives prominence to a certain deity (Shiva, Vishnu or Krishna, Durga) and depicts the other gods as subservient.

Science[edit | edit source]

Statue of Aryabhata on the grounds of IUCAA, Pune. As there is no known information regarding his appearance, any image of Aryabhata originates from an artist's conception.

This period is often known as the golden age of Indian Mathematics. This period saw mathematicians such as Aryabhata, give broader and clearer shape to many branches of mathematics. Their contributions would spread to Asia, the Middle East, and eventually to Europe. Unlike Vedic mathematics, their works included both astronomical and mathematical contributions. In fact, mathematics of that period was included in the 'astral science'. The main texts were composed in Sanskrit verse, and were followed by prose commentaries.

One of the most important works of this period is the Surya Siddhanta. Though its authorship is unknown, the Surya Siddhanta (c. 400) contains the roots of modern trigonometry. Because it contains many words of foreign origin, some authors consider that it was written under the influence of Mesopotamia and Greece. This ancient text uses sine, cosine and inverse cosine as trigonometric functions for the first time. It also contains the earliest uses of tangents and secants.

Another important text is the Chhedi calendar (594) which contains an early use of the modern place-value Hindu-Arabic numeral system now used universally.

As mentioned before, one of the most remarkable scholars of the Gupta age was Aryabhata I (476–550). Aryabhata's contributions include: the definition of trigonometric functions (sine, cosine, versine, and the inverse sine) and gave methods of calculating their approximate numerical values; spherical trigonometry; solutions of simultaneous quadratic equations, indeterminate linear equations; and accurate calculations for astronomical constants, such as solar and lunar eclipses, amongst many others.

Aryabhata wrote the Aryabhatiya. In this work, he described the important fundamental principles of mathematics in 332 shlokas. The treatise contained quadratic equations,and the value of π, correct to 4 decimal places. Aryabhata also wrote the Arya Siddhanta, which is now lost.

Another scholar of the Gupta age, Varahamihira (505–587) produced the Pancha Siddhanta (The Five Astronomical Canons). He made important contributions to trigonometry, including sine and cosine tables to 4 decimal places of accuracy and formulas relating sine and cosine functions.

The Ajanta paintings were made during the Gupta period.

Art[edit | edit source]

Chandragupta II gave great support to the arts. Artists were so highly valued under his rule that they were paid for their work — a rare phenomenon in ancient civilizations.

Architecture[edit | edit source]

Gupta architecture show the ornate and beauty seen in Gupta style, and is also a good resource for examining Gupta style sculptures and art.

Notable monuments

Ananta Padmanabha Swami Temple
  • Undavalli caves are an example of Indian rock-cut architecture and its main cave is one of the earliest examples of Gupta art. These caves are located in the village of Undavalli in Tadepalle Mandal in Guntur District, near the southern bank of the Krishna River, in India. These caves have been carved out of solid sandstone on a hillside in the 4th to 5th centuries A.D. There are several caves. The best known and largest one has four stories with a huge unknown recreated statue reclining posture sculpted from a single block of granite inside the second floor.The walls of the caves display sculptures carved by skilled craftsmen.
The Dashavatara Temple or Vishnu Temple also called Gupta temple at Deogarh.
  • Vishnu temple (or Dashavatara Temple) is located at Deogarh in Central India built in c. 500 AD. The temple is one of the earliest Hindu stone temples to still survive today. It was the first North Indian temple with a shikhara or tower, although the shikhara is curtailed and part of it has disappeared. The temple has a high plinth and is set with a basement porch.The temple faces west, with slight deviation to the south that enables the setting sun's rays to fall on the main idol in the temple. The plinth measures 55.5 feet (16.9 m), about 9 feet (2.7 m) above the bottom step (called the moon stone) of the shrine. In the nine squares layout, the Vishnu temple is in the middle square. Four stairways outside the platform provide access to the temple. However, as per excavation details, combined with the two small shrines with the central shrine seen now, the layout of the temple has been interpreted to represent a typical Panchayatana style of the temples of North India.

Sculpture[edit | edit source]

Buddha from Sarnath, 5–6th century CE.

The pink sandstone Hindu, Jain and Buddhist sculptures of Mathura from the 1st to 3rd centuries CE reflected both native Indian traditions and the Western influences received through the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, and effectively established the basis for subsequent Indian religious sculpture. The style was developed and diffused through most of India under the Gupta Empire (c. 320-550) which remains a "classical" period for Indian sculpture, covering the earlier Ellora Caves, though the Elephanta Caves are probably slightly later. Later large scale sculpture remains almost exclusively religious, and generally rather conservative, often reverting to simple frontal standing poses for deities, though the attendant spirits such as apsaras and yakshi often have sensuously curving poses. Carving is often highly detailed, with an intricate backing behind the main figure in high relief.

Painting[edit | edit source]

Fresco from Ajanta caves, c. 450-500.

It had been around 1st century BC, just before the Gupta period, when the Sadanga or Six Limbs of Indian Painting, were evolved, a series of canons laying down the main principles of the art that prevailed during the subsequent centuries, including the Gupta era. These 'Six Limbs' were:

  • Rupabheda: The knowledge of appearances.
  • Pramanam: Correct perception, measure and structure.
  • Bhava: Action of feelings on forms.
  • Lavanya: Yojanam Infusion of grace, artistic representation.
  • Sadrisyam: Similitude.
  • Varnikabhanga: Artistic manner of using the brush and colours.

The subsequent development of painting by the Buddhists indicates that these ' Six Limbs ' were put into practice by Indian artists, and are the basic principles on which their art was founded.

Paintings of the Gupta period can be broadly described as murals. Murals are large works executed on the walls of solid structures, as in the Ajanta Caves and the Kailashnath temple.

The history of Indian murals starts in ancient and early medieval times, from 2nd century BC to 8th - 10th century AD. There are known more than 20 locations around India containing murals from this period, mainly natural caves and rock-cut chambers. The highest achievements of this time are the caves of Ajanta, Bagh, Sittanavasal, Armamalai Cave (Tamil Nadu), Ravan Chhaya rock shelter, Kailasanatha temple in Ellora Caves.

Murals from this period depict mainly religious themes of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religions. There are though also locations where paintings were made to adorn mundane premises, like the ancient theatre room in Jogimara Cave and possible royal hunting lodge circa 7th century AD - Ravan Chhaya rock shelter.