Coin of Gupta period depicting Samudragupta playing the veena.
|Reign||c. 335–c. 375 CE|
|Titles||Vikramank, Kaviraaj, Ashwamedhkarta, Napoleon of India|
|Royal House||Gupta dynasty|
Samudragupta, ruler of the Gupta Empire (c. 335 – c. 375 CE), and successor to Chandragupta I, is considered to be one of the greatest military geniuses in Indian history. He was the third ruler of the Gupta Dynasty, who ushered in the Golden Age of India. He was perhaps the greatest king of Gupta dynasty. He was a benevolent ruler, a great warrior and a patron of arts. His name appears in the Javanese text `Tantrikamandaka'. His name is taken to be a title acquired by his conquests (samudra referring to the 'oceans'). Samudragupta the Great is believed to have been his father's chosen successor even though he had several elder brothers. Therefore, some believe that after the death of Chandragupta I, there was a struggle for succession in which Samudragupta prevailed. It is said that Samudragupta became the ruler after subduing his rival Kacha, an obscure prince of the dynasty. He ranks with Ashoka, though in fundamentals both differed radically from each other. 'While Ashoka' says R.K. Mukerjee,'stands for peace and non-violence, Samudragupta for the opposite principle of war and aggression. The one had contempt for conquests, the other had a passion for them'.
Chandragupta I, a Magadha king, and was the first ruler of Gupta Dynasty married a Lichhavi princess, Kumardevi which enabled him to gain a hold over the Ganges river-basin, the main source of North Indian commerce. He ruled for about ten years in the north-central India with son as an apprentice in the capital of Pataliputra, near the modern day Patna in Bihar state of India.
After his death his son, Samudragupta started to rule the kingdom and did not rest until he conquered almost the whole of India. His reigning period may be described as a vast military campaign. To begin with he attacked the neighboring kingdoms of Ahichchhatra (Rohilkhand) and Padmavati (in Central India). He conquered the whole of Bengal, some Kingdoms in Nepal and he made Assam pay him tribute. He absorbed some tribal states like the Malvas, the Yaudheyas, the Arjunayanas, the Abhiras and the Maduras. The rulers of Afghanistan, Central Asia and Eastern Iran; Kushanas and the Sakas were made his tributaries.
The main source of Samudragupta's history is an inscription engraved on one of the rocks edicts found in Kausambi (near present day Allahabad). In this inscription Samudragupta details his conquests. Written on this inscription is, "whose most charming body was covered over with all the beauty of the marks of a hundred confuse wounds caused by the blows of battle axes, arrows, spears, pikes, swords, lances, javelines". This inscription is also important because of the political geography of India that it indicates by naming the different kings and peoples who populated India in the first half of the fourth century AD. The inscription to Samudragupta's martial exploits states that its author is Harisena, who was an important poet of Samudragupta's court. he was a great ruler in north but was not good in south.
Eran Stone Inscription of Samudragupta
Eran Inscription of Samudragupta Presently store in Kolkata National Museum.
(Lines 1 to 6, containing the whole of the first verse and the first half of the second, are entirely broken away and lost.) (Line 7.)— ....................................in giving gold ...................................... [by whom] Prithu and Râghava and other kings [were outshone.] (L. 9.)— . . . . . . . . . there was Samudragupta, equal to (the gods) Dhanada and Antaka in (respectively) pleasure and anger; . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . by policy; (and) [by whom] the whole tribe of kings upon the earth was [overthrown] and reduced to the loss of the wealth of their sovereignty;— (L. 13.)— [Who], by . . . . . . . . . satisfied by devotion and policy and valour,—by the glories, consisting of the consecration by besprinkling, &c., that belong to the title of 'king,'— (and) by . . . . . . . . . . . combined with supreme satisfaction, — .................. (was) a king whose vigour could not be resisted;— (L. 17.)— [By whom] there was married a virtuous and faithful wife, whose dower was provided by (his) manliness and prowess; who was possessed of an abundance of [elephants] and horses and money and grain; who delighted in the houses of .............; (and) who went about in the company of many sons and sons' sons;— (L. 21.)— Whose deeds in battle (are) kindled with prowess; (whose) . . . . . . very mighty fame is always circling round about; and whose enemies are terrified, when they think, even in the intervals of dreaming, of (his). . . . . . . that are vigorous in war; — (L. 25.) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . in a place in Airikina, the city of his own enjoyment. . . . . . . . . . . . . has been set up, for the sake of augmenting his own fame. (L. 27.) — . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . when the king said . . . . . . . (The rest of the inscription is entirely broken away and lost.)
The beginning of Samudragupta's reign was marked by the defeat of his immediate neighbours, Achyuta, ruler of Ahichchhatra, and Nagasena. Following this Samudragupta began a campaign against the kingdoms to the south. This southern campaign took him south along the bay of Bengal. He passed through the forest tracts of Madhya Pradesh, crossed the Odisha coast, marched through Ganjam, Vishakapatnam, Godavari, Krishna and Nellore districts and may have reached as far as Kancheepuram. Here however he did not attempt to maintain direct control. After capturing his enemies he reinstated them as tributary kings. This act prevented the Gupta Empire from attaining the almost immediate demise of the Maurya Empire and is a testament to his abilities as a statesman. His ambition was inspired by becoming "Raja Chakravarti" or greatest emperor and "Ekrat", undisputed ruler. In the North, he adopted the policy of "Digvijaya" which meant the conquest and annexation of all territories. In the South, his policy was "Dharma Vijaya" which meant conquest but not annexation.
Samudra Gupta was chosen as emperor by his father over other contenders and apparently had to repress revolts in his first years of rule. On pacifying the kingdom, which probably then reached from what is now Allahabad (in present-day Uttar Pradesh state) to the borders of Bengal, he began a series of wars of expansion from his northern base near what is now Delhi. In the southern Pallava kingdom of Kanchipuram, he defeated King Vishnugopa, then restored him and other defeated southern kings to their thrones on payment of tribute. Several northern kings were uprooted, however, and their territories added to the Gupta empire. At the height of Samudragupta’s power, he controlled nearly all of the valley of the Ganges (Ganga) River and received homage from rulers of parts of east Bengal, Assam, Nepal, the eastern part of the Punjab, and various tribes of Rajasthan. He exterminated 9 monarchs and subjugated 12 others in his campaigns. That Samudragupta was a brilliant commander and a great conqueror is proved by Harisena's description of his conquests. He mentions that Samudragaupta exterminated nine north Indian states, Subdued eithteen Atavika kingdoms near Bajalpur and Chhota Nagpur, and in his blitz-like campaign humbled the pride of twelve South Indian Kings, Nine border tribes, and five frontier states of Smatata, Devaka, Karupa, Nepal and Krtripur 'paid taxes, obeyed orders and performed obeisance in person to the great Samudragupta'. The conquests made him the lord-paramount of India. Fortune's child as he was, he was never defeated in any battle. His Eran inscription also stresses his being 'invincible' in battle. Samudragupta is called the 'Napoleon of India' because he waged many wars.
The details of Samudragupta's campaigns are too numerous to recount (these can be found in the first reference below). However it is clear that he possessed a powerful navy in addition to his army. In addition to tributary kingdoms, many other rulers of foreign states like the Saka and Kushan kings accepted the suzerainty of Samudragupta and offered him their services. Samudragupta is called 'Napoleon of India' because he waged many wars. At first he defeated the rulers of Western UP and Delhi and brought them under his direct rule. Next, frontier states of Kamrupa(Assam),Bengal in the East and Punjab in the West, were made to accept his suzerainty. He also brought the forest tribes of the Vindhya region under his rule.
Policy of Matrimonial Alliance
The most important event of his reign was his matrimonial alliance with the Vakataka king Rudra Sena II and the subjuqation of the peninsula of Saurashtra of Kathiawar which had been ruled for centuries by the Saka dynasty as the Western Satraps. Matrimonial alliances occupy a prominent place in the foreign policy of the Guptas. The Lichchhavi alliance had strengthened their position in Bihar;Samudragupta had accepted gifts of maidens from neighbouring courts. With the same purpose, Chandragupta II married the Naga Princess Kubernaga and gave his own daughter, Prabhabati, in marriage to Vakataka king, Rudra Sena II. The Vakataka alliance was master stroke of diplomacy as it secured the subordinate alliance of the Vakataka king who occupied a strategic geographical position. It is noteworthy that Rudra Sena died young and his widow reigned until her sons came of age. Other dynasties of the Deccan also married into Gupta royal family. The Guptas thus ensured friendly relations to the south of their domain. This also means that Chadragupta II did not renew Samudragupta's southern adventures preferring to seek room for expansion towards the South-West.
Much is known about Samudragupta through coins issued by him and inscriptions. These were of eight different types and all made of pure gold. His conquests brought him the gold and also the coin-making expertise from his acquaintance with the Kushana. Most certainly, Samudragupta is the father of Gupta monetary system. He started minting different types of coins. They are known as the Standard Type, the Archer Type, the Battle Axe Type, the Ashvamedha Type, the Tiger Slayer Type, the King and Queen Type and the Lyre Player Type. They exhibit a fine quality of technical and sculptural finesse. At least three types of coins — Archer Type, Battle-Axe and Tiger type — represent Samudragupta in martial armour. The coins bearing the epithets like parakramah (valour), kritanta-parashu (deadly battle-axe), vyaghra parakramah (valourous tiger), prove his being a skilful warrior. Samudragupta's Asvamedha type of coins commeorate the Ashvamedha sacrifices he performed and signify his many victories and superemacy.
Samudragupta is also known to have been "a man of culture". He was a patron of learning, a celebrated poet and a musician. Several coins depict him playing on the Indian lyre or veena. He gathered a galaxy of poets and scholars and took effective actions to foster and propagate religious, artistic and literary aspects of Indian culture. Though he favoured the Hindu religion like the other Gupta kings, he was reputed to possess a tolerant spirit vis-a-vis other religions. A clear illustration of this is the permission granted by him to the king of Ceylon to build a monastery for Buddhist pilgrims in Bodh Gaya.
Samudragupta was a man of exceptional abilities and unusual varied gifts - warrior, statesman, general, poet and musician, philanthropist, he was all in one. As a patron of arts and literature, he epitomized the spirit of his age. Coins and inscription of Gupta period bear testimony to his 'versatile talents and Indefatigable energy'.
According to Allahabad Prasasti's exaggerated picture, 'Samudragupta was man of many sided genius, who put to shame the preceptor of the Lord Gods and Tumburu and Narada and others by his sharp and polished intellect and Chorla-skill and musical accomplishment. His title of Kaviraj (King of poets) is justified by various poetical compositions.' Unfortunately none of these compositions have survived. The presence of the two celebrated literary personalities like Harisena and Vasubandhu definitely proves that he was a great patron of men of letters. Harisena's commemoration of Samudragupta's knowledge and proficiency in song and music is curiously confirmed and corroborated by the existence of a few rare gold coins depicting him comfortably seated on a high-backed couch engaged in playing the Veena.
Vedic Religion and Philanthropy
Samudragupta was the up-holder of Brahmanical religion. Because of his services to the cause of religion the Allahabad inscription mentions the qualifying title of 'Dharma-prachir bandhu' for him. But he was not intolerant towards other religions. His patronage to Buddhist scholar Vasubandhu and the acceptance of the request of Mahendra, the king of Ceylon to build a Buddhist monastery at Bodh Gaya amply prove that he respected other religions. His Ashvamedha types of coins together with other coins bearing the figures of Lakshmi and Ganga together with her 'vahana'(transport) makara (crocodile) testify his faith in Brahmanical religions. Samudragupta had imbibed the true spirit of religion and for that reason, he has been described as 'Anukampavan' (full of compassion) in the Allahabad inscription. He has been described 'as the giver of many hundreds of thousands of cows'.
Despite the small size of coins and the limitations of reproducing the real image in the die during that time, it can be judged from his figures on the coins that he was 'tall in stature and of good physique.' He has strong muscular arms and a fully developed chest.
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- Fleet, John F. Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum: Inscriptions of the Early Guptas. Vol. III. Calcutta: Government of India, Central Publications Branch, 1888, 20-21.
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- Text of the Allahabad Stone Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta
- Catalogue of Coins of Samudragupta
- Coins of Samudragupta
Chandragupta II the Great