Nation Building: A Golden Leaf from Indian History – M.S. Srinivasan

History is sometimes considered or rather dismissed as a useless story of the past. But not many recognize in this flow of events, personalities and ideas in time the great story of human evolution with valuable lessons for the future, especially for human development. One such great epoch in Indian history is the age of the Guptas, called the “Golden Age” of Indian civilization. This golden leaf in Indian history has important lessons for nation building. This article examines this period of Indian history in the context of national development.

Key – Perspectives:

The Indian vision; military strength; social well being; economic prosperity; cultural vigour; lessons for the future

The Indian Vision

To assess rightly the achievements of a great epoch in history, we should have a clear understanding of the ideals which inspired the age. The Indian collective ideal is based on the concept of Dharma. We need not go into the philosophical intricacies of the ideal of Dharma. As applied to the problem of social and political development, the ideal resolves itself into two collective aims.

    The first aim is a balanced and harmonious development of all the four orders or organs of the society—Culture shaped by the Brahmanas working for the intellectual, moral, aesthetic and spiritual elevation of the community; Polity led by the Kshatriyas providing the military, administrative and political leadership to the community; eco­nomy organised by the Vaishyas creating wealth and working for the prosperity of the community; and, finally, the Shudras serving all the others and the community with their work and labour. The Indian social thinkers conceived the ideal society as the one in which each individual or organ of the society grows in harmony with the inborn self-law, swadharma, of his or its psychological and typal nature and in doing so, is spontaneously and unconsciously in harmony with that of other organs and individuals of the community and all contribute together co-creatively to the well-being and progress of the community as a whole. The other major intuition behind this Indian ideal is that all the capacities and energies of the community have to be integrally developed. As Sri Aurobindo explains:

The nation or group is not like the individual who can specialize his development and throw all his energies into one line. The nation must develop military and political greatness and activity, intellectual and aesthetic greatness and activity, commercial greatness and activity, moral sanity and vigor; it cannot sacrifice any of these functions of the organism without making itself unfit for the struggle for life and finally succumbing and perishing under the pressure of more highly organized nations. The purely commercial State like Carthage is broken in the shock with a nation which has developed the military and political as well as the commercial energies. A purely military state like Sparta cannot stand against rivals who to equal military efficiency unite a greater science, intellectual energy and political ability. A purely aesthetic and intellectual state like the Greek colonies in Italy or a purely moral and spiritual community like the empire of Peru are blotted out of existence in the clash with ruder but more vigorous and many sided organisms. No government, therefore, can really be good for a nation or serve the purposes of national life and development which does not give full scope for the development of all the national activities…1

    The second aspect of the Indian ideal is an emphasis on the cultural progress of the community with the highest encouragement and motivation to the self-expression of the cultural genius and values of the nation in every department of national life.

    The great empire builders of ancient India made a sincere and persistent attempt to live out this philosophy in the collective life. And this attempt reached its grand finale in the “Golden Age” of the Guptas. The Gupta Empire is one of the few empires in world- history where economic prosperity, commercial progress, political stability, military strength, administrative efficiency, social well-being and cultural development were successfully pursued simultaneously and went together.

    It would be interesting and rewarding to examine briefly this achievement of the Gupta sovereigns and see what lessons it can teach us for the future.

The Splendour of the Gupta Empire

It is now recognised by most of the leading Indian historians that the architects of India’s Golden age were the Gupta Emperors. It was primarily the work of two great Kshatriya personalities: Samudragupta, the great conqueror, warrior and military genius who established the empire and Chandragupta-II or Vikramaditya, the great organiser who consolidated the empire.

Military Strength:

    The most striking achievement of the Gupta Empire was organisation. The political unity, strength and stability of the nation were maintained by a strong and efficient military and administrative organisation. A strong and well-organised defence kept aggressors at bay, repeatedly repelling the powerful barbarian invasions and gave to the people a sense of security, peace and stability which are the indispensable foundations for the economic and cultural progress of the nation.

    The military achievements of the Guptas in this task were especially noteworthy when we consider the fact that barbarian tribes, the Huns, who were trying to invade India during this period, were a powerful, cruel and ruthless race. And if the Huns had succeeded in invading India in this period when her cultural values and ideals were in the process of taking a new form suitable to the age and getting established in the consciousness of the masses, it would have been a great setback for the progress of Indian civilisation and culture. And finally when Skandagupta inflicted a crushing defeat on the invading barbarians, broke the back of the menace and thereby prevented its recurrence for nearly another half a century, the Indian soul must have heaved a sigh of relief. The eminent Indian historian R. C. Majumdar brings out the crucial importance of the military prowess and genius of the Gupta emperors in saving the Indian civilisation:

We know, however, definitely that some time during his reign Skandagupta had to encounter the invasion of Hunas who had already proved themselves to be a formidable power and a terror to both Europe and Asia… Skandagupta had once saved the empire while he was yet a crown prince. This new danger, perhaps a graver one, again put his military prowess to a severe test. But he was equally successful on this occasion as well. The verse describing his conflict with Hunas though mutilated leaves no doubt that the struggle was severe but he won a complete victory. The utter discomfiture of the Hunas is also borne out by the fact that for nearly half a century the Gupta empire was immune from their depredations… it was a great achievement for which Skandagupta may well go down in history as the saviour of India. The full significance of the great task performed by him can only be understood against the background of contemporary events. Shortly before Skandagupta ascended the throne, the Hunas had established supremacy in Europe and the Roman Empire quailed before these barbarians… shortly after their defeat by Skandagupta, they overwhelmed Persia and killed its King. Wherever they went, they carried devastation by fire and sword and the most prosperous towns and villages were reduced to utter desolation. If we remember all this, we can well realise the value of the great victory of Skandagupta over them.2

    Any other civilisation with such formidable invaders at its borders would have become an autocratic military state, like Sparta. But the Gupta emperors trained in the enlightened and benevolent traditions of Indian polity still faithfully upheld the ideal of Dharma.

Social Wellbeing:

    In the social sphere, the Gupta regime humanised and liberalised the penal code and made it the most liberal and lenient ever among ancient civilisations. It allowed the loosening of the caste-system and permitted a freer and more flexible mobility among the different classes; the judicial system was also restructured and systematized on a more enlightened basis. In this process the Gupta government incorporated all the progressive tendencies of the thought of the age coming from both the Buddhist and the Hindu thinkers. The Chinese traveller Fa Hsien’s observations on the Gupta age indicate a healthy, peaceful, contented, vigorous and prosperous society. The following remarks by an American scholar of history on the Gupta Empire are interesting:

    “Fa Hsien who had no reason to bestow unmerited praise (he does not even mention the name of the great king Vikramaditya) described the government as just and beneficent. The roads, he indicated, were well maintained, brigandage was rare, taxes were relatively light and capital punishment was unknown. He testified to a generally high level of prosperity, social contentment and intellectual vitality when the nations of Western Europe were sinking into semi-barbarism.”3

Economic prosperity:

    In the economic sphere, a general and all-round prosperity is maintained by an efficient land and revenue administration and a flourishing internal and international trade. The main feature of the ancient Indian commercial system is the growth of autonomous trade-guilds of the merchants and artisans. Each such corporate guild was not only an autonomous economic unit but also a social and cultural unit which managed its own affairs according to its own self-evolved laws, swadharma. The other unique feature of these trade guilds was their mobility and flexibility of functioning. These guilds were often mobile, moving from one place to another in order to improve their trade prospects. And the members of a guild were not necessarily of the same trade or profession but given the full freedom to pursue the business of their choice or even a profession other than business like religion or astrology etc. The third unique feature of these trade guilds was their philanthropic spirit, spending their wealth generously in public works like hospitals, roads, charity for the poor etc. The Gupta regime’s economic policy can be described as supportive and encouraging non-interference. The governmental role is to provide a safe, secure and encouraging environment and the necessary infrastructure for the free and manifold activity of the business community.

    At this time India was the centre of an intercontinental market and had a flourishing international trade with the outside world, especially the Roman Empire in the West. It was said that the trade balance was so decidedly in India’s favour that Roman emperors became alarmed at the drainage of gold to the East and tried to curtail the use of silk for wearing apparel. We must also note here that the Indian export to other countries was not merely raw materials but “value-added” products like jewellery, handicraft, fine muslin cloth, silk garments, etc. which required intricate artistry, craftsmanship and manufacturing skill.

Cultural Vigour:

    In ancient India, preserving the nation’s culture and promoting cultural progress in and through education, art, religion learning and literature are regarded as a very important part of governance. The Gupta emperor patronized several centres of education and a large number of individual teachers. As a matter of fact, education seems to have been regarded as an essential part of the state administration. The Gupta sovereigns evinced special interest in the proper functioning and progress of the educational and cultural centres of the nation like the ashramas and the universities. They considered it their principal duty to create for those centres conditions of security and well-being and a special officer were appointed for the purpose. But the most remarkable feature of the Gupta policy towards culture was that they saw to it that the cultural energy of the nation was not confined to a few elite centres but widely diffused throughout the society. As the eminent indologist Dr. Dandekar writes in his insightful study of the Gupta age:

    “The Imperial Guptas were renowned for the large numbers of grants and endowments. Several Indian sovereigns, in other periods of history were also equally, if not more, famous for their munificent gifts. But as can be seen from the Yajnavalka smrti, there must be a distinct philosophy underlying the charities of the Guptas. They gave gifts not to all and sundry but only to the true apostles of culture; not in order to show off their munificence, but with a view to promoting the cultural activities of their dominions; not in a spirit of patronising condescension but in respectful humility. They founded several agraharas all over the country so that these selfless missionaries of Hindu culture should be enabled to carry on their work in the remotest parts of the empire without any financial anxieties to worry them. True charity is intended for securing economic independence for the votaries of culture without in any way undermining their independence in cultural matters. It was this ideal sponsored by the Yajnavalka-smrti which guided Samudragupta and Vikramaditya and their successors and which eventually helped the propagation of Hindu culture in the Gupta Empire.”4

    In other domains of culture like art, architecture, literature, philosophy and religion the classical age of the Guptas was a period of extraordinary creativity. Temple architecture, Ajanta – Ellora paintings, six systems of philosophy, poetry of Kalidas and Bathrihari, scientific works of Aryabhatta, innovations of Tantra are some of the creative manifestation of the classical age of the Guptas. Thus, the favourable economic, social and political conditions created by the Gupta sovereigns released the cultural genius and energy of the nations. The unique and inherent spirituality of the Indian soul expressed itself through the intellectual, aesthetic and ethical temperament of the Indian mind with a prolific creative elan.

Lessons of the Golden Age

    What are the lessons we can learn from the Golden Age of India? The achievements of the Gupta emperors is a classic example to show what a strong and benevolent political leadership and an enlightened policy of national development can do for the all-round progress and prosperity of a nation. It also shows that economic prosperity, social well-being, political stability, military strength and cultural progress can be pursued simultaneously without sacrificing any one of these aims for the sake of others.

    The second lesson we have to learn from the Gupta emperors is that as long as there are strong, aggressive and hostile neighbours surrounding the national borders a strong defence is indispensable for national progress. As long as the Law of the Jungle prevails in the world, the sword of the Kshatriya is needed to protect, nourish and enforce the higher ideals and values of the Brahmana and the Truth has to speak from a platform of strength to make herself heard.

    The other factor which we have to take note in the Gupta achievements is that economic prosperity and political unity were not pursued as ends in themselves but as means towards the cultural regeneration of the nation or, in other words, towards conscious emergence of the unique cultural genius and identity of the nation. In the Gupta period ancient India came nearest to achieving a self – conscious cultural and political unity based on Aryan values and ideals. We see for the first time in Indian history the emergence of a nation – wide feeling of patriotic cultural nationalism proud of its cultural heritage. If the ancient Vedic sages tried to arrive at political unity on the foundation of an inner spiritual and cultural oneness , the Gupta emperors tried to consciously revive and rejuvenate this inner cultural unity — on the foundations of outer peace, order, security and stability provided by a highly efficient and centralized economic, social and political organization.


  1. Sri Auorbindo, Bande Mataram, SABCL, Vol. 1, pp. 306-07.
  2. History and Culture of Indian People, Vol. 3, ed. R. C. Majumdar, Bharatiya      Vidya Bhavan, pp. 26-27.
  3. World Civilisation, Vol. II, Eduard Mchall Burns and others, p. 305.
  4. Gupta Age and Other Essays, R. K. Dandekar, p. 42.
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