The Golden Age of Hindu Thought and Rule

The Golden Age of Hindu Thought and Rule

We pass into light and knowledge again in A.D. 320. Magadha, which had sunk into dependence on the warlike north-west, broke free from a powerful Scythian dynasty known as the Kushan, and its ruler, another Chandragupta, made himself a strong kingdom. His successor, Samudregupta, who reigned for close on half a century, conquered all India north of “the belt.” Tribute was paid by territories beyond his borders, and those territories he sometimes invaded. About A.D. 380 the third great Gupta king, Chandragupta II., succeeded. He took the name of Vikramaditya, or “sun of Prowess,” and is probably the king of that name who is famous in Hindu story. This king reigned with great splendour at Ujjain, in Central India, and at his court, according to tradition, were “nine gems.” Of these the greatest was Kalidasa, the poet; his Sakuntala is a drama that has been famous in the West ever since Sir William Jones made it known. All his works have abundant beauty; but perhaps the loveliest is The Cloud-Messenger, a  long lyric, whose rich slow elaboration in no way lessens the reader’s consciousness of the open air and breezes drenched with the first heavy rains of mid-summer. The poem may be considered an important political document; by its air of infinite leisureliness, as the cloud journeys over India, it conveys the impression of regions free from the menace of war and of a time that was untroubled. This impression comes from all Kalidasa’s work, the product of an age of prosperity and strength as unmistakably as is the Aeneid.

The “nine gems” do not exhaust the achievement of this age. We have good plays by unknown authors that were probably written now ; and sculpture of great beauty, as well as the marvellous frescoes of the Ajanta caves, was produced between the fourth and seventh centuries. Hinduism definitely overshadowed Buddhism, and, though the latter religion had periods of political prosperity, it began to disappear from the land of its origin. After two more great emperors, Kumaragupta and Skandagupta, the Gupta empire was driven back to its original borders; but Ujjain remained a splendid city, a centre of Hindus culture. It was well known to Bhavabhuti, a famous eighth century dramatist.

We know the Gupta rule from outside evidence. From A.D. 401 to 410 a Buddhist pilgrim, Fa-Hien, travelled in India. A Chinese pilgrim’s lot was full of interest in those days; in the mountains of northern Kashmir, for instance. “there are poison-dragons, who when evil-purposed spit poison, winds, rain, snow, drifting sand, and  gravel-stones; not one of ten thousand meeting these calamities escape.” However, Fa-Hien reached India, where he heard of many other marvels. He was able to travel in peace and free from fear, as if he were Kalidasa’s cloud; and, though his main interest was in the Buddhist holy places, he shows us a country happier and better governed than almost any other has ever been. The Gupta administration was pure from the terrible stain of cruelty. “The kings govern without corporal punishment; criminals are fined, according to circumstances, lightly or heavily. Even in cases of repeated rebellion they only cut off the right hand.” Trials were conducted without torture. There was no bother about passports from one part of the empire to another, and the people had that best of all possible governments, one that governed and interfered as little as it could. It is no wonder that its kings ruled so long, and that its art and literature were so good. The only harm that properity brought was spiritual; there were “ninety-six sects, all of whom allow the reality of worldly phenomena.”

The Gupta empire succumbed to another invasion from Central Asia, that of Huns. The result was anarchy in more than the political realm; even tradition, the memory that the people keep, became disordered, and it is lucky that again we have the testimony of Buddhist pilgrims from China. One of these, Hiuen Tsang, reveals the seventh century to us; we have also light from within India, and the figure of a great king, Harsha, is thrown into clear relief. He began in A.D. 606 the work of bringing order out of anarchy, and for nearly six years his “elephants were not unharnessed, nor the soldiers unhelmeted.” He was only sixteen when he became king of Sthanesvera, near Delhi; “after thirty years his arms reposed, and he governed everywhere in peace. He then practised to the utmost the rules of temperance, and sought to plant the tree of religious merit to such an extent that he forgot to sleep or to eat.” In other words, his Buddhism became practice, and not merely creed. Hiuen Tsang says he had 60,000 elephants, an almost incredible number, and 100,000 cavalry; his empire included all India north of “the belt” and between Assam and the Indus, with independent Rajputana jutting into it. Even Assam acknowledged his suzerainty. His rule was personal, and he travelled continually in magnificent state over his vast territory. Punishments were far severer than under Vikramaditya, though Hiuen Tsang thought them mild enough, as one supposes a person from China was bound to do. Harsha delighted in the expositions of his illustrious visitor, and announced that if anyone argued against the Master of the Law his tongue would be cut out; “but all those who desire to profit by his instructions, relying on my good will, need not fear this manifesto.” Hiuen Tsang’s biographer notes that “from this time the followers of error withdrew and disappeared, so that when eighteen days had passed there had been no one to enter on the discussion.”