The Gupta Dynasty in India: Leaders & Arabic Numerals

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  • 0:04 Foundation of a Dynasty
  • 1:17 Expansion of an Empire
  • 2:22 A Golden Age
  • 4:13 Decline and Disappearance
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore India's Gupta dynasty. We will learn about its founding and expansion, discover the achievements of its people, and examine its decline and disappearance.

The Foundation of a Dynasty

Darkness. Chaos. Division. Collapsed empires. War. This was the condition of India for nearly 500 years. Then, in the early 300s C.E., change appeared on the horizon in the form of a raja from the Magadha region in the northeast. This raja's name was Chandragupta, and he was about to inaugurate a whole new era in India.

Chandragupta was actually the third ruler in a new royal family, and he was determined to expand his kingdom. His quest began in earnest around 308 C.E. when he married a princess of another powerful family, gaining the territory, wealth, power, and prestige that came with such an alliance. As the years passed, Chandragupta grew more and more powerful, and about 320 C.E., he crowned himself Maharajadhiraja, which means 'Emperor' or 'King of Kings.' The Gupta dynasty was well on its way to controlling India.

The Expansion of an Empire

Chandragupta didn't live to see his dynasty turn into an empire. The Maharajadhiraja told his son Samudragupta to rule the world. Samudragupta tried his hardest to fulfill his father's last wish (which suited him just fine) and actually succeeded in conquering vast areas of India after coming to power in about 335 C.E.

Over the 45 years of his reign, Samudragupta created an empire that extended all across northern India and into modern Nepal and Myanmar. Through military conquest, he subdued king after king. Those he didn't conquer directly, he forced to pay tribute, making himself their sovereign for all practical purposes. His power extended even into central and southern India, where he made alliances with kings who were all too anxious to keep their powerful northern neighbor happy. By Samudragupta's death in 380 C.E., the Gupta Empire was strong and flourishing.

A Golden Age

Samudragupta's son Chandragupta II assumed the throne in 380 C.E. and ushered in a golden age of prosperity in the Gupta Empire. In daily living, India's upper classes enjoyed the lap of luxury in their extravagant houses and gardens with plenty of food and drink, entertainment, educational opportunities, and social activities. The middle class also thrived, accumulating wealth and moving up the social scale. Even the poor classes were better off than before as charities abounded and hospitals provided free medical care to everyone.

In fact, during the Gupta reign, Indian doctors made some significant advances in medicine, including a smallpox vaccine, herbal remedies for all kinds of illnesses, and even a type of reconstructive plastic surgery. They also wrote elaborate medical treatises. Other branches of science flourished, as well. The astronomer Aryhabhata, for instance, figured out that the Earth was round and even calculated the solar year as having 365 days. He also determined the cause and timing of solar and lunar eclipses.

Scholars were busy in the field of mathematics, too, inventing the decimal system, using zero as a placeholder, and developing the system of Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) that we still use today. In the arts, writers produced great literature in the Sanskrit language, especially folktales and fables that would become the basis for such later classics as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and His Magic Lamp. Artists, too, created great paintings like those of Buddha in the Ajanta Caves and magnificent sculptures like that of the Hindu deity Shiva in a temple close to Bombay.

Decline and Disappearance

An old proverb says that all good things must come to an end. The same is true of the Gupta dynasty. Chandragupta II's successors were not nearly as powerful as their three famous ancestors. By 480 C.E., invaders from the north, called the Hephthalites or White Huns, were poised to invade the empire, and soon they came crashing down into India leaving a path of destruction in their wake.

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