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Chapter 12 – The Gupta Empire and the White Huns

From 455 to 606 A.D.

The general prevalence of Buddhism in Northern India, including Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Suwat, during the two centuries immediately preceding, and the two next following the Christian era, is amply attested by the numerous remains of Buddhist monuments erected during that period and a multitude of inscriptions, which are almost all either Buddhist or Jain. The Jain cult, which was closely related to the Buddhist, does not appear to have gained very wide popularity, although it was practised with great devotion at certain localities, of which Mathura was one.

But the orthodox Hindu worship, conducted under the guidance of Brahmans, and associated with sacrificial rites abhorrent to Jain and Buddhist sentiment, had never become extinct, and had at all times retained a large share of both popular and royal favour. Kadphises II, the Kushan conqueror, was himself conquered by captive India, and adopted with such zeal the worship

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of Siva as practised by his new subjects, that he constantly placed the image of that Indian god upon his coins and described himself as his devotee. Many other facts concur to prove the continued worship of the old Hindu gods during the period in which Buddhism was unquestionably the most popular and generally received creed.

In some respects, Buddhism in its Mahayana form was better fitted than the Brahmanical system to attract the reverence of casteless foreign chieftains, and it would not be unreasonable to expect that they should have shown a decided tendency to favour Buddhism rather than Brahmanism; but the facts do not indicate any clearly marked general preference for the Buddhist creed on the part of the foreigners. The only distinctively Buddhist coins are the few rare pieces of that kind struck by Kanishka, who undoubtedly, in his later years, liberally patronized the ecclesiastics of the Buddhist Church, as did his successor, Huvishka; but the next king, Vasudeva, reverted to the devotion for Siva, as displayed by Kadphises H. So the later Saka satraps of Surashtra seem to have inclined personally much more to the Brahmanical than to the Buddhist cult, and they certainly bestowed their patronage upon the Sanskrit of the Brahmans rather than upon the vernacular literature.

The development of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which became prominent and fashionable from the time of Kanishka in the second century, was in itself a testimony to the reviving power of Brahmanical Hinduism.

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The newer form of Buddhism had much in common with the older Hinduism, and the relation is so close that even an expert often feels a difficulty in deciding to which system a particular image should be assigned.

Brahmanical Hinduism was the religion of the pandits, whose sacred language was Sanskrit, a highly artificial literary modification of the vernacular speech of the Panjab. As the influence of the pandits upon prince and peasant waxed greater in matters of religion and social observance, the use of their special vehicle of expression became more widely diffused, and gradually superseded the vernacular in all documents of a formal or official character. In the third century B.C. Asoka had been content to address his commands to his people in language easy to be understood by the vulgar, but in the middle of the second century A.D. the western satrap Rudradaman felt that his achievements could be adequately commemorated only in elaborate Sanskrit. It is impossible to go more deeply into the subject in these pages, but it is certain that the revival of the Brahmanical religion was accompanied by the diffusion and extension of Sanskrit, the sacred language of the Brahmans.

Whatever may have been the causes, the fact is abundantly established that the restoration of the Brahmanical religion to popular favour, and the associated revival of the Sanskrit language, first became noticeable in the second century, were fostered by the western satraps during the third, and made a success by the Gupta emperors in the fourth century. These princes,

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although apparently perfectly tolerant both of Buddhism and Jainism, were themselves beyond question zealous Hindus, guided by Brahman advisers, and skilled in Sanskrit, the language of the pandits.

An early stage in the reaction against Buddhist condemnation of sacrifice had been marked by Pushyamitra’s celebration of the horse-sacrifice toward the close of the second century. In the fourth, Samudragupta revived the same ancient rite with added splendour, and in the fifth, his grandson repeated the solemnity. Without going further into detail, the matter may be summed up in the remark that coins, inscriptions, and monuments agree in furnishing abundant evidence of the recrudescence during the Gupta period of Brahmanical Hinduism at the expense of Buddhism, and of the favour shown by the ruling powers to “classical” Sanskrit at the expense of the more popular literary dialects, which had enjoyed the patronage of the Andhra kings.

Good reasons can be adduced for the belief that Chandragupta II Vikramaditya, who reigned at the close of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century and conquered Ujjain, should be regarded as the original of the Raja Bikram of Ujjain, famed in popular legend, at whose court the Nine Gems of Sanskrit literature are supposed to have flourished. Whether Kalidasa, poet and dramatist, the most celebrated of these authors, actually graced the durbar of Chandrashgupta Vikramaditya at Ujjain, or lived under the protection of his son or grandson, is a question still open,

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and it is even possible that he was a courtier of one of Chandragupta’s satrap predecessors; but popular tradition certainly appears to be right in placing the greatest of Indian poets in the age of which Vikramaditya is the most conspicuous political figure.

To the same age probably should be assigned the principal Puranas in their present form, the metrical legal treatises, of which the so-called Code of Manu is the most familiar example, and, in short, the mass of the “classical “

Sanskrit literature. The patronage of the great Gupta emperors gave, as Professor Bhandarkar observes, “a general literary impulse,” which extended to every department and gradually raised Sanskrit to the position which it long retained as the sole literary language of Northern India. The decline of Buddhism and the diffusion of Sanskrit proceeded side by side, with the result that, by the end of the Gupta period, the force of Buddhism on Indian soil had been nearly spent and India, with certain local exceptions, had again become the land of the Brahmans.

Bathing-place at Ujjain

The literary revolution was necessarily accompanied by corresponding changes in the art of architecture. The forms of buildings specially adapted for the purposes

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of Buddhist ritual dropped out of use, and remarkable developments in the design of the Hindu temple were elaborated, which ultimately culminated in the marvellously ornate styles of the medieval period, extending from the ninth to the end of the twelfth century.

Brahman priests at Secundra – India

The golden age of the Guptas, glorious in literary, as in political, history, comprised a period of a century and a quarter (330–455 A.D.) , and was covered by three reigns of exceptional length. The death of Kumara, early in 455, marks the beginning of the decline and fall of the empire. Even before his death, he had become involved, about the year 450, in serious distress by a war with a rich and powerful nation named Pushyamitra, otherwise unknown to history. The imperial armies were defeated, and the shock of military disaster had endangered the stability of the dynasty, which was “tottering” to its fall, when the energy and ability of Skandagupta, the crown prince, restored the fortunes of his family by effecting the overthrow of the enemy.

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When Skandagupta came to the throne in the spring of 455, he encountered a sea of troubles. The Pushyamitra danger had been averted, but one more formidable closely followed it, an irruption of the savage Huns, who had poured down from the steppes of Central Asia through the north-western passes, and carried devastation over the smiling plains and crowded cities of India. Skandagupta, who was probably a man of mature years and ripe experience, proved equal to the need, and inflicted upon the barbarians a defeat so decisive that India was saved for a time.

It is evident that this great victory over the Huns must have been gained at the very beginning of the new reign, because another inscription, executed in the year 457, recites Skandagupta’s defeat of the barbarians, and recognizes his undisputed possession of the peninsula of Surashtra (Kathiawar), at the extreme western extremity of the empire. The dedication, three years afterward, by a private Jain donor of a sculptured column at a village in the east of the Gorakhpur District, distant about ninety miles from Patna, testifies to the fact that Skandagupta’s rule at this early period of his reign included the eastern as well as the western provinces, and the record expressly characterizes the rule of the reigning sovereign as being “tranquil.”

Five years later, in the year 465, a pious Brahman in the country between the Ganges and Jumna, which is now known as the Bulandshahr District, when endowing a temple to the Sun, felt justified in describing the rule of his king in the central parts of the empire as

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“augmenting and victorious.” The conclusion is, therefore, legitimate that the victory over the barbarian invaders was gained at the beginning of the reign, and was sufficiently decisive to secure the tranquillity of all parts of the empire for a considerable number of years.

But, about 465 A.D., a fresh swarm of nomads poured across the frontier, and occupied Gandhara, or the North-western Punjab, where a “cruel and vindictive” chieftain usurped the throne of the Kushans and “practised the most barbarous atrocities.” A little later, about 470, the Huns advanced into the interior and again attacked Skandagupta in the heart of his dominions. He was unable to continue the successful resistance which he had offered in the earlier days of . his rule, and was forced at last to succumb to the repeated attacks of the foreigners. The financial distress of his administration is very plainly indicated by the abrupt debasement of the coinage in his later years.

The death of Skandagupta may be assumed to have occurred in or about the year 480. When he passed away, the empire perished, but the dynasty remained, and was continued in the eastern provinces for many generations. Skanda left no heir male capable of undertaking the cares of government in a time of such stress, and was accordingly succeeded on the throne of Magadha and the adjacent districts by his half-brother, Puragupta, the son of Kumaragupta I by Queen Ananda.

The reign of this prince was apparently very brief,

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and the only event which can be assigned to it is a bold attempt to restore the purity of the coinage. The rare gold coins, bearing on the reverse the title Prakasaditya, which are generally ascribed to Puragupta, although retaining the gross weight of the heavy suvarna, each contain 121 grains of pure gold, and are thus equal in value to the aurei of Augustus, and superior in intrinsic value to the best Kushan or early Gupta coins.

Puragupta was succeeded by his son Narasimhagupta Baladitya, who was followed by his son, Kumaragupta II. Although these kings continued to assume the high-sounding titles borne by their imperial ancesshtors, their power was very circumscribed, and confined to the eastern portions of what had been the Gupta empire.

The imperial line passes by an obscure transition into a dynasty comprising eleven princes, who appear to have been for the most part merely local rulers of Magadha. The last of them, Jivitagupta II, was in power at the beginning of the eighth century. The most considerable member of this local dynasty was Adityasena in the seventh century, who asserted a claim to paramount rank, and even ventured to celebrate the horse-sacrifice.

In the western province of Malwa we find the names of rajas named Budhagupta and Bhanugupta, who cover the period from 484 to 510, and were evidently the heirs of Skandagupta in that region. But the latter of these two princes, at all events, occupied a dependent position,

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and was presumably subordinate to the Hun chieftains.

Toward the close of the fifth century, a chief named Bhatarka, who belonged to a clan called Maitraka, probably of foreign origin, established himself at Valabhi in the east of the peninsula of Surashtra (Kathiawar), and founded a dynasty which lasted until about 770 A.D., when it was overthrown by Arab invaders from Sind. The earlier Kings of Valabhi do not appear to have been independent, and were doubtless obliged to pay tribute to the Huns; but, after the destruction of the Hun domination, the Kings of Valabhi asserted their independence, and made themselves a considerable power in the west of India, both on the mainland and in the peninsula of Surashtra.

The city was a place of great wealth when visited by Hiuen Tsang in the seventh century, and was famous in Buddhist Church history as the residence of two distinguished teachers, Gunamati and Sthiramati, in the sixth century. After the overthrow of Valabhi, its place as the chief city of Western India was taken by Anhilwara (Nahrwalah, or ratan), which retained that honour until the fifteenth century, when it was superseded by Ahmadabad. The above observations will, perhaps, give the reader all the information that he is likely to want concerning the principal native dynasties which inherited the fragments of the Gupta empire.

But the Huns, the foreign savages who shattered that empire, merit more explicit notice. The nomad Mongol tribes known as Huns, when they moved westwards

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from the steppes of Asia to seek subsistence for their growing multitudes in other climes, divided into two main streams, one directed toward the valley of the Oxus, and the other to that of the Volga.

The latter poured into Eastern Europe in 375 A.D., forcing the Goths to the south of the Danube, and thus indirectly causing the sanguinary Gothic war, which cost the Emperor Valens his life in 378 A.D. The Huns quickly spread over the lands between the Volga and the Danube, but, owing to chronic disunion and the lack of a great leader, failed to make full use of their advantageous position, until Attila appeared and for a few years welded the savage mass into an instrument of such power that he was “able to send equal defiance to the courts of Ravenna and Constantinople.”

His death in 453 A.D. severed the only bond which held together the jealous factions of the horde, and within a space of twenty years after that event the Hunnic empire in Europe was extinguished by a fresh torrent of barbarians from Northern Asia.

The Asiatic domination of the Huns lasted longer. The section of the horde which settled in the Oxus valley became known as the Ephthalites, or White Ilium, and gradually overcame the resistance of Persia, which ceased when King Firoz was killed in 484 A.D. Swarms of these White Huns also assailed the Kushan kingdom of Kabul, and thence poured into India. The attack repelled by Skandagupta in 455 A.D. must have been delivered by a comparatively weak body, which arrived early and failed to effect a lodgement in the interior.

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About ten years later the nomads appeared in greater force and overwhelmed the kingdom of Gandhara, or Peshawar, and starting from that base, as already related, penetrated into the heart of the Ganges provinces, and overthrew the Gupta empire. The collapse of Persian opposition in 484 must have greatly facilitated the eastern movement of the horde, and allowed immense multitudes to cross the Indian frontier. The leader in this invasion of India, which, no doubt, continued for years, was a chieftain named Toramana, who is known to have been established as ruler of Malwa in Central India prior to 500 A.D. He assumed the style and titles of an Indian “sovereign of maharajas,” and Bhanugupta, as well as the King of Valabhi and many other local princes, must have been his tributaries.

When Toramana died, about 510 A.D., the Indian dominion which he had acquired was consolidated sufficiently to pass to his son Mihiragula, whose capital in India was Sakala in the Panjab, which should be identified apparently with either Chuniot or Shahkot in the Jhang District.

But India at this time was only one province of the Hun empire. The headquarters of the horde were at Bamyin in Badhaghis near Herat, and the ancient city of Balkh served as a secondary capital. The Hun king, whose court, whether at Bamyin or Herat cannot be determined, was visited by Song-Yun, the Chinese pilgrim-envoy in 519 A.D., was a powerful monarch le vying tribute from forty countries, extending from

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the frontier of Persia on the west, to Khotan on the borders of China in the east. This king was either AIihiragula himself, or his contemporary overlord, most probably the latter. The local Hun king of Gandhara, to whom Song-Yun paid his respects in the following year, 520 A.D., must be identified with Mihiragula. He was then engaged in a war with the King of Kashmir (Ki-pin), which had already lasted for three years.

All Indian traditions agree in representing Mihiragula as a bloodthirsty tyrant, stained to a more than ordinary degree with the “implacable cruelty” noted by historians as characteristic of the Hun temperament. Indian authors having omitted to give any detailed description of the savage invaders who ruthlessly oppressed their country for three-quarters of a century, recourse must be had to European writers to obtain a picture of the devastation wrought and the terror caused to settled communities by the fierce barbarians.

The original accounts are well summarized by Gibbon:–

“The numbers, the strength, the rapid motions, and the implacable cruelty of the Huns were felt and dreaded and magnified by the astonished Goths, who beheld their fields and villages consumed with flames and deluged with indiscriminate slaughter. To these real terrors they added the surprise and abhorrence which were excited by the shrill voice, the uncouth gestures, and the strange deformity of the Huns. . . . They were distinguished from the rest of the human species by their broad shoulders, flat noses, and small

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black eyes, deeply buried in the head; and, as they were almost destitute of beards, they never enjoyed the manly graces of youth or the venerable aspect of age.”

Gwalior, from Morar

The Indians, like the Goths, experienced to the full the miseries of savage warfare, and suffered an added horror by reason of the special disgust felt by fastidious caste-bound Hindus at the repulsive habits of barbarians to whom nothing was sacred.

The cruelty practised by Mihiragula became so unbearable that the native princes, under the leadership of Baladitya, King of Magadha (probably the same as Narasimhagupta), and Yasodharman, a raja of Central India, formed a confederacy against the foreign tyrant. About the year 528 A.D., they accomplished the delivery of their country from oppression by inflicting a decisive

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defeat on Mihiragula, who was taken prisoner and would have forfeited his life deservedly but for the magnanimity of Baladitya, who spared the captive and sent him to his home in the north with all honour.

But Mihiragula’s younger brother had taken advantage of the misfortunes of the head of the family to usurp the throne of Sakala, which he was unwilling to surrender. Mihiragula, after spending some time in concealment, took refuge in Kashmir, where he was kindly received by the king, who placed him in charge of a small territory. The exile submitted to this enforced retirement for a few years, and then took an opportunity to rebel and seize the throne of his benefactor. Having succeeded in this enterprise, he attacked the neighbouring kingdom of Gandhara. The king, perhaps himself a Hun, was treacherously surprised and slain, the royal family was exterminated, and multitudes of people were slaughtered on the banks of the Indus. The savage invader, who worshipped as his patron deity Siva, the god of destruction, exhibited ferocious hostility against the peaceful Buddhist cult, and remorselessly overthrew the stupas and monasteries, which he plundered of their treasures.

But he did not long enjoy his ill-gotten gains. Before the year was out he died, and “at the time of his death there were thunder and hail and a thick darkness, and the earth shook, and a mighty tempest raged. And the holy saints said in pity: ‘ For having killed countless victims and overthrown the law of Buddha, he has now fallen into the lowest hell, where he shall

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pass endless ages of revolution.’ ” Thus the tyrant met the just reward of his evil deeds in another world, if not in this. The date of his death is not known exactly, but the event must have occurred in or about the year 540, just a century before Hiuen Tsang was on his travels. The rapidity of the growth of the legend concerning the portents attending the tyrant’s death is good evidence of the depth of the impression made by his outlandish cruelty, which is further attested by the Kashmir tale of the fiendish pleasure which he is believed to have taken in rolling elephants down a precipice.

Yasodharman, the Central Indian raja, who has been mentioned as having taken an active part in the confederacy formed to obtain deliverance from the tyranny of Mihiragula, is known from three inscriptions only, and is not mentioned by Hiuen Tsang, who gives the credit for the victory over the Huns to Baladitya, King of Magadha. Yasodharman took the honour to himself, and erected two columns of victory inscribed with boasting words to commemorate the defeat of the foreign invaders. Nothing whatever is known about either his ancestry or his successors; his name stands absolutely alone and unrelated. The belief is therefore warranted that his reign was short and of much less importance than that claimed for it by his magniloquent inscriptions.

The dominion of the White Huns in the Oxus valley did not long survive the defeat and death of Mihiragula in India. The arrival of the Turks in the middle of

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the sixth century changed the situation completely. The Turkish tribes, having vanquished a rival horde called Joan-joan, made an affiance with Khusru Anushirvan, King of Persia, grandson of Firoz, who had been killed by the Huns in 484 A.D., and at some date between 563 and 567 the allies destroyed the White Huns. For a short time the Persians held Balkh and other portions of the Hun territory, but the gradual weakening of the Sasanian power soon enabled the Turks to extend their authority toward the south as far as Kapisa and to annex the whole of the countries which had been included in the Hun empire.

In later Sanskrit literature the term “Hun” (Huna) is employed in a very indeterminate sense to denote a foreigner from the northwest, in the same way as the Yavana had been employed in ancient times, and as Wilayati is now understood. One of the thirty-six so-called “royal” Rajput clans was actually given the name of Huna. This vagueness of connotation raises some doubt as to the exact meaning of the term Huna as applied to the clans on the north-western frontier against whom Harsha of Thanesar and his father waged incessant war at the close of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh century. But it is unlikely that within fifty years of Mihiragula’s defeat the true meaning of Huna should have been forgotten, and the opponents of Harsha may be regarded as having been outlying colonies of real Huns, who had settled among the hills on the frontier. After Harsha’s time they are not again heard of, and were presumably either

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destroyed or absorbed into the surrounding population.

The extinction of the Ephthalite power on the Oxus necessarily dried up the stream of Hun immigration into India, which enjoyed immunity from foreign attack for nearly five centuries after the defeat of Mihiragula. The following chapters will tell how India made use, or failed to make use, of the opportunity thus afforded for internal development unchecked. by foreign aggression.

Very little is known about the history of India during the second half of the sixth century. It is certain that no paramount power existed, and that all the states of the Ganges plain had suffered severely from the ravages of the Huns, but, excepting bare catalogues of names in certain local dynastic lists, no facts of general interest have been recorded. The king called Siladitya of Mo-la-po by the Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, has no political connection with Harsha-Siladitya of Kanauj and Thanesar, as has been commonly supposed, or with the history of Northern India.

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