The Gupta age has been styled variously as the Golden Age, the Classical Age, the Age of Renaissance, and the Age of Hindu Revivalism etc. This has been compared with the Periclean Age of Greece, the Augustan Age of Rome and the Elizabethan and Victorian Ages of Britain.
The conventional definition of classical age is one where literature, art, architecture and other branches of knowledge reach high levels of excellence. There was phenomenal intellectual and artistic activity during the period, which may be regarded as the culmination of Indian efforts of previous periods. Peace and prosperity of the period contributed to its glory. Benevolent adminstration and liberal patronage of culture also made a significant contribution.
The Guptas shattered the rule of foreign powers like the Sakas, sounded the death knell for the Kushanas, wiped out the small kingdoms and established a unified empire under their sovereign rule. Not only the foreign powers were defeated and thrown out but also the mighty Gupta army ensured that they would not dare to return back. Hence, a strong central rule with an army and a well-organised bureaucracy ensured the safety, security and political unity of the empire. The Gupta period is remarkable for the absence of foreign invasions. The Guptas were the first of the north Indian rulers to launch a systematic invasion of the south. Hence, for the first time, the entire country from north to south was placed under one unified administrative system, one sovereign and one army. It was the political as well as administrative unity of India that encouraged peace and stability. The Gupta Empire adopted a structure, which served as the blueprint for all medieval kingdoms.
The imperial Guptas may be described as the last great empire builders as all the empires thereafter embraced only some parts of India. From Chandragupta I to Skandagupta the dynasty produced five powerful monarchs in continuous succession for two centuries, a rare thing in Indian history.
The Gupta rulers established not only a stable government but also a benevolent administration. The king was the supreme head of the state that had assumed semi-divine character. The rulers maintained proper law and order in the state and always supported Brahmans, Sramanas and other learned men. The officers looked to the welfare of the subjects and the government aimed at the moral, material and intellectual welfare and general prosperity of the people. Fa-Hien the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who visited India during the reign of Chandragupta II states thet the king favoured without decapitation of other corporal punishments. The character of the people was marked by honesty and integrity. Fa-Hien states that throughout his travel in India during the reign of Chandragupta II he never faced any highway rubbery. The people were happy and contented.
Brahmanical Revival and Religious Liberalism :
The Gupta age can be regarded as an era of Brahmanical revival. All the Gupta rulers were patrons of Brahmanical religion. They adopted titles like Parama-Bhagabata, Parama-Bhattaraka, Parama-Purusa, Parama-Daivata etc. This becomes very vital against the background that the period preceding the Guptas saw the phenomenal rise of Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism was relegated to the background since the days of Asoka and Kanishka. However, there is no evidence to show that the revival of Brahmanism during classical age was accompanied by the persecution of other religions. On the contrary, the Gupta emperors were very catholic in their religious outlook and lavishly supported all religions in general and Buddhism in particular. There was no narrow sectarian feeling. The accounts of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa-Hien bear out the fact that Gupta rulers respected all faiths. The Gupta Emperors were liberal and tolerant in their religious approach.
Inscriptions registering endowments for the holy places of Buddhism, Jainism as well as for Hinduism abounds in all parts of the country.
Their liberal approach combined with the growth of Buddhism and Jainism brought about a radical transformation in the religious beliefs of the people. Buddhism with its rigid rules when exposed to the catholic Bhakti movement during Gupta period came to be absorbed into the wide fold of Hinduism. Buddha was accepted as one of the ten Avatars (incarnation) of Vishnu. The Vedic Gods like Surya, Varuna and Indra receded tot he background and new Gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswarcame to the forefront. The concept of monotheism with preeminence of Supreme Gods, Vishnu for Vaishnavism and Siva for Saivism developed. All these have been generally described as Bhagabatism or Neo-Hinduism.
Sanskrit Language :
The Gupta age was marked by a vigorous growth of Sanskrit literature. Sanskrit replaced Prakrit. Inscriptions like Allahabad Pillar Inscription, Mandasor Inscription and probably the Meherauli Iron Pillar Inscription began to be written in Sanskrit. The Gupta rulers were zealous admirers and liberal patrons of Sanskrit language. Many Gupta rulers themselves were very good writers in Sanskrit. Samudragupta had the title of Kaviraja. Sanskrit was not only made the official language but also was adopted as the spoken language in the royal palaces in general and that of Ujjain in particular.
Brilliant literary achievements of the period have led the scholars to consider it as renaissance of Sanskrit literature. However, this renaissance or revival theory has been considered as misleading by many others. According to them the Sanskrit language had never gone out of existence or eclipsed. The foreign invaders having conquered India Indianised themselves and greatly patronized Indian literature. Hence, Sanskrit had never lost its position to any other language. The Buddhist and Jaina literatures that began with Pali and Prakrit in the later phase used Sanskrit to a greater extent. Most of their works were in prose with verse passages in mixed Sanskrit. The Mahayana monks in particular started to write their works in Sanskrit.
Gupta literature can be classified into two groups – religious and secular. The growing influence of Brahmanism gave an impetus to the development of religious literature. The eighteen Puranas and sixteen Upapuranas received their final shape during this period. Even the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata acquired their present shape during this period. Manusmriti or the code of Manu was revised.
In Buddhism, Nagarjuna founded the Madhyamika school of Philosophy. He was the author of Madhyamika Sutra and a commetary on Prajnaparamita Sutra. Arya Deva, a pupil of Nagarjuna wrote Chatussataka. Asanga wrote Sutralankar. His younger brother, Vasubandhu wrote Ashidharmakosa, which is held in high esteem in Mahayana Buddhism. Dinaga wrote the famous treatise on logic, the Pramana-Samuchchaya.
The Jaina canonical literature was also influenced by Sanskrit and within a very short time produced many great scholars. Many Hindu classics were recast in Jaina version to popularize Jainism. Vimala produced the Jaina version of Ramayana. Devardhi Gani, Siddhasena Divakara and Akalanka Deva were other important writers of the period.