Friday, April 25, 2014

The Gupta Empire: India's Golden Age

Fig.1: King Chandragupta I 
showing off the classic 
"Quarter in the Ear" trick.
Every great nation has its golden age, where a stable government and a wealth of cultural achievements make life an all-around awesome experience. Examples often include England during the Elizabethan era, China under the rule of the Tang Dynasty, and Russia that one day when the temperature went above 20°F. But before all of that, India had their age of gold during the reign of the Gupta Empire from the 4th to 6th centuries AD. The strong leadership of the Gupta kings meant that citizens were able to excel in disciplines such as science, astronomy, literature, engineering, medicine, and magic tricks that impress all the ladies (fig.1). While it went downhill after the Guptas' overthrow, India has been making a comeback in recent years, hitting strides in technology, film, education, and most importantly, Miss America contests (the winner's nationality gains the right to control stock prices for that fiscal year). So let us first look at India's original golden age before they begin a new one and take our jobs.

The greatest thing about the Guptas is that they weren't supposed to be rulers to begin with! In ancient Hindu society, people were broken up into four ranks, or varna:
  • First were the Brahmins, who were the priests and scholars already pretentious enough without the label of being the top of society in their heads. 
  • Next came the Kshatriyas, who ruled as rulers, governed as governors, and warred as warriors. 
  • Then there's the Vaishyas, the average joes who farmed the land, sold goods, and pretty much did all the work so that the Brahmins and Kshatriyas could take all the credit. 
  • Finally the Shudras served and cleaned up after the three aforementioned groups, who could be pretty needy and messy sometimes (those Brahmins left their dirty underwear everywhere except the laundry basket).
There actually is the fifth group ranked below the traditional castes, but they were considered untouchable and icky, and not worthy of mention in something as noble as my Canned Histories (even referring to them requires me to suggest running a virus scan as soon as possible). Historians believe that the Guptas were Vaishya farmers, who in 240 AD rose up against Kshatriya rulers who weren't doing a smashing job. In something as rigid as the Hindu caste system, this was a monumental jump for Vaishyas not only take power, but gain the respect of people in the other varna without people writing them off as "smelly hicks." (Their words, not mine. So don't write me any nasty emails, you filthy hillbillies.)

Fig.2: This is what happens when you 
don't stay in your assigned seat.
The Guptas did a C+ job in their first eighty years as kings. They regularly came to class prepared and completed their work, but they mostly kept to themselves around their capital of Pataliputra (Ashoka's old stomping grounds) and didn't put themselves out there with the other Indian kingdoms. Maybe they would have fallen into obscurity if it wasn't for the ascension of Chandragupta in 319 AD. His role as the starting quarterback on the football team made him super popular, and he was able for forge many alliances with his neighbors. His son, Samudragupta, took it to the next level in 335, and decided to ignore the "keep your hands to yourself" rule. He took over twenty over kingdoms and made Maharajadhiraja, or "king of kings," his nickname in the yearbook. His military success have allowed historians to call him the "Indian Napoleon," which doesn't quite make sense since Napoleon lived fourteen centuries after him. If anything, Napoleon should be called the "French Samudragupta!" Let's see if that will catch on!

After a brief bout of suckiness with Samudragupta's son, Ramagupta, his brother Chandragupta II stepped in around 380 and returned the awesomeness back to the land. His conquests gave the Gupta Empire its greatest territorial extent (fig.2), which with India's population density meant they ruled approximately eight trillion people. Chandragupta II's reign is notable for the high level of religious freedom and prosperity; even though the Guptas were Hindu, other beliefs such as Buddhism and Jainism were actively promoted. This was because they followed the branch of Hinduism called Vaishnavism, which held that the god Vishnu took various forms. Therefore, it wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination for Vishnu to take the shape of other deities like the Buddha, or the Jainist propagators, or an Omastar (ヽ༼ຈلຈ༽ノPRAISE LORD HELIXヽ༼ຈلຈ༽ノ). As such, art, poetry, places of worship, as well as collectible action figures for all religions flourished under Gupta rule. Meanwhile in the Christian West, arguments about uber-specific details like the relationship between God and Jesus and whether the Holy Spirit actually was holy or a spirit had people condemning each other all over the bloody place! What barbarians...

But military conquests and religious freedom does not a golden age make. You need all that pansy stuff like art, literature, and advanced knitting techniques to truly flourish as a culture, and that's what the Guptas allowed India to do. Many of the Sanskrit classics that detail India's mythological past were composed and refined during this time, most notably the Ramayana and Mahabharata (fig.3), which are so longwinded they make the Odyssey read like a Judy Blume novel! India's greatest playwright, Kalidasa, most likely lived during the 5th century, as well as Bhartrhari, whose poems on social mores made Indians annoying prudes for centuries. The Sushruta Samhita, by author unknown, is one of the first medical textbooks in history, and contains an extensive list of diseases, injuries, medicines, surgical techniques, and all the exciting uses for phlegm. Finally, the famous Kama Sutra was composed early in the Gupta period. But yeah, I'm not touching that one. You kids at home can ask Mom and Dad all about it.

Fig.3: Rare printings of the Mahabharata would include a color-by-number feature.
Scientific breakthroughs also occurred in droves during this time, many of which still influence our lives at present. Astronomical ideas that we take for granted today, such as the Earth is round, the Earth revolves around the sun, and the Earth is truly insignificant compared to the rest of the universe were depressingly proposed in Gupta India. Notable inventions include the first cotton gin, a method to extract sugar from sugarcane, and the predecessor to the game of chess: chaturanga, played on an 8x8 board, used very similar pieces and rules, and was a perfect way to weed out the nerds in society. Perhaps the most important and most easily overlooked innovation made during Gupta rule of India is nothing. Literally. Before the 6th century, "zero" was merely a placeholder for more important numbers that got all the attention. But a mathematician named Aryabhata claimed that zero deserved its place in the spotlight, stating that it was just as useful as any other number in determining value. He did however warn against dividing by zero, which is believed to create a cataclysmic event if every seriously attempted (thus the plot of the Terminator franchise).

Fig.4: "We prefer the term 'Caucasian Huns', thank you."
Like all golden ages, the successful rule of the Gupta Empire had to tarnish at some point. Similar to the collapse of the Roman Empire, a group known as the Huns contributed to the Gupta downfall. These particular Huns, nicknamed the White Huns (to distinguish them from the Black Huns, the Red Huns, and the dreaded Tickle-Me-Pink Huns), ruled lands to the northwest of India in Central Asia, but were willing to check out additional properties nearby. They invaded around 455, but Gupta king Skandagupta was up to the challenge. Unfortunately he wasted all of his treasury's funds for the defense, and it didn't help when he decided to use solid gold coins as confetti once the invasion was repelled (the original "makin' it rain"). Flat broke with nothing but lint and moths in their pockets, they were powerless to stop a second attack by the White Huns, and the Empire collapsed by the beginning of the 6th century. Sure, a non-Gupta prince by the name of Yasodharman would eventually kick them out and take back the land, but the damage was done. India returned to regional rule after the Guptas, and the age turned from golden to bronzey at best.

These three centuries of Gupta rule were definitely the best India had ever seen. Advances that came out of this period in nearly every field except cow-eating remain influential within modern society around the world. One can even argue that between the 4th and 6th centuries, with the Han Chinese Dyansty gone, the Roman Empire collapsing, the Islamic Caliphates yet to arrive, and the Galactic Civil War wreaking havoc in galaxies far far away, India possessed the most stable government and civilized culture in the universe during this time. It's a testament to what people can achieve if respected leaders give people the freedom to pursue their interests and make life easy and enjoyable for everyone else. Hopefully one day the entire world can experience a golden age like this! Except the Untouchables, of course. Sorry for bringing them up again; you should really clear out your cache now.

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