AN AURA OF SERENITY pervades a face of the Buddha carved in northern India about the Fifth Century A. D. During the latter part of the Gupta period, religious sculpture flourished among Buddhists and Hindus alike.
Every great people enjoys certain prolonged moments of supreme vigor and delicate organization, when shared attributes combine to create a splendid culture. For Europeans, such a moment occurred in the Renaissance or, going further back, in the "Glory that was Greece" and the "Grandeur that was Rome." For the Hindus of India, the greatest of all ages took place between 320 and 467 A. D., when a dynasty of kings called the Guptas ruled the northern part of the subcontinent. During those years peace, prosperity and material well-being prevailed to a degree unmatched in India before or since. Hindu literature, sculpture, painting, architecture and science reached creative peaks. At the time, in the words of one historian, India was "possibly the happiest and most civilized region in the world."
An age like this one, which is golden while it lasts and proves a culture's greatness forever after, is never a sudden or rootless event. In India, it was over 500 years in the making—years of confusion and apparent aimlessness while India, as the historian Percival Spear has put it, "was getting its second breath before the next outburst of creative activity." The first outburst, of course, had been the Mauryan Empire, which united nearly all of India during the Third Century B. C. During the centuries after the Mauryan unity, disunity was the rule, and northern India remained split into pugnacious small kingdoms and independent dynasties. Contributing to the internal disorder were waves of invasions from Persia, Afghanistan and Central Asia, but while the invaders intensified India's chaos, they also made important contributions to her future development.
The first invaders, in the Second Century B. C., were Greeks from Bactria, in Central Asia north of the Hindu Kush mountains, where the generals of Alexander the Great had founded kingdoms. Then came people known as Shakas or Scythians, from the same Oxus River region, and Parthians, or Pahlavas, who probably migrated from the Iranian plateau. Still later invaders were the Kushans, descendants of Central Asian nomads who had been forced from their native land to Bactria after the building of the Great Wall of China.
Each of these groups came to stay, displacing
Local authorities and earlier invaders to carve out north Indian kingdoms of greater or lesser importance. The Shakas established themselves in the northwest, where they built up and controlled a lucrative overland trade with Central Asia; the Bactrian Greeks helped to develop a maritime trade between India and Persia and Arabia.
In southern India, the invaders never penetrated. Indeed, southern India remained an area apart through all the centuries of northern turmoil. Mau-ryan control had never been strong in the south; even during the reign of the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka, the extreme south boasted three completely independent kingdoms—the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras—and these kingdoms remained independent. The people there were a distinct ethnic group, not Aryans but descended from the Dravidians who had lived in this part of the world from prehistoric times; their language, Tamil, was unrelated to northern languages. Southern political, economic and religious traditions were consequently different from the north, and the history of "Tamil Land" tended to be quite separate from that of Aryan India. From the time of the Mauryan Empire to the end of the 14th Century, the south for the most part went its own way.
In the north each of the successive waves of invaders left its mark on India. But only one of the many groups arriving in the centuries between the Mauryan and Gupta Empires was able to establish an extensive and durable kingdom. These people were the Kushans, who, after crossing the Hindu Kush in the First Century A. D., occupied lands in the Punjab, quickly expanded their territories to include most of the northwest, and held sway over the region for almost 200 years. The Kushans are memorable for more than political power, for during their rule and the years immediately following, religion—both Buddhism and Hinduism—underwent significant changes.
A major transformation in Buddhism was taking place during the reign of the greatest of the Kush-an kings, Kanishka, who himself became a patron of Buddhism and helped to spread that faith to Central Asia and from there to China and the rest of the Far East. In Kanishka's time, the orientation of Buddhist thought was shifting sharply. The early cult of the teacher Gautama, the Buddha, was becoming the complex religious system called Mahayana Buddhism, which reveres Buddha as a Savior God. The change in Buddhism profoundly affected art. It was during the time of the Kushans that Indian sculptors first carved the figure of the Lord Buddha as supreme God. Hindu sculptors soon began to follow the Buddhist example by depicting the major Hindu deities in symbolic human forms. From this starting point would come the masses of iconographic sculpture that are so much a part of Hinduism.
After the Kushan kingdom broke up, during the Third Century A. D., Buddhism lost the powerful support of the state. Brahmanism had always been the way of life of the majority of the Indian people, and brahmans had always kept control of India's social organization, even after many of the upper classes had become Buddhists (and, in lesser numbers, Jains). Now the brahmans reasserted themselves, building their strength as Buddhism began to decline in India.
The fall of the Kushans is one of the many mysteries of Indian history. Their kingdom may have declined when its home base in Afghanistan fell under Persian control and the source of fresh troops and material abruptly disappeared. If this was the case, the situation in northwestern India during the following hundred years presented a power vacuum curiously like the one that preceded the rise of Chandragupta Maurya back in the Fourth Century B. C. Northern India, disrupted by
Nit APOGEE OF INDIAN CULTURE lUfls reached Hoder the Gupta emperors. Originally rulers of a small kingdom in the northeast, they expanded their domain until it covered much of northern India. The Guptas lost political power in the Fifth Century A. D., but their cultural influence continued for centuries in places like the University of Nalanda and the painting center of Ajanta.
Petty wars among petty kingdoms, may have been ripe for the taking, much as it had been in the time of Chandragupta Maurya. To make the coincidence complete, the starting place of a new empire was the northeastern kingdom of Magadha—the very place from which Chandragupta Maurya began his rise to power—and the first of the new emperors bore the official name of Chandragupta I.
Whether this founder of the Gupta dynasty was indeed a direct descendant of the Mauryas is questionable, and he certainly followed a different route to power. Unlike his distant predecessor, Chandragupta I began his career with a politic marriage. He himself may have been no more to begin with than an ambitious soldier or a princeling of the Aryan warrior class, but he married a princess of the Licchavi tribe, a strong and influential clan of the northeast. The Licchavis were a martial people, with connections in Nepal and Tibet; they gave the shrewd young king the military power he needed to begin the building of an empire. By the time of his death in 335 A. D., Chandragupta I controlled a large part of northern India, stretching roughly from his starting point in Magadha to modern Allahabad.
His son Samudragupta extended the empire from Assam in the east to the border of the Punjab in the west, and his power was felt far outside the boundaries of his domain. According to an inscribed monument at Allahabad, as far south as the Deccan 12 rulers paid homage to him; in the north, nine kings were "violently uprooted" by him; and in the west, he battled against the Shakas in the region of their capital city, Ujjain.
In the reign of Chandragupta II, Samudra's son, the empire attained its greatest extent. The Shakas were finally defeated, and the emperor held sway completely across northern India, from Bengal to the Arabian Sea, with centers of govern-
Ment at Pataliputra and Ujjain. Once again, however, there was a striking coincidence between the courses of the Mauryan and Gupta Empires. Ashoka, the grandson of the warlike Chandragupta Maurya, had proved to be an apostle of peace. Though Chandragupta II, grandson of the equally ambitious founder of the Gupta Empire, was given the title of Vikramaditya, or "Sun of Prowess," in honor of his military achievements, this greatest of the Gupta emperors was to go down in history as a devoted patron of the arts and the ruler who gave India its greatest era of peace. During his reign centuries of development in sculpture, painting, literature, and science and technology culminated in great achievements that made India the most advanced country of its time.
How Chandragupta nourished this magnificent flowering of culture is one of the mysteries of his reign. Little is known about his methods of government, thanks to the habitual Indian lack of interest in recording historical events. Outsiders were always the best reporters on ancient India, and a Chinese Buddhist monk named Fa-hsien wrote the best extant impressions of Gupta India. Traveling as a pilgrim from one Buddhist monastery to another, Fa-hsien ranged the empire between 401 and 410 A. D., during the reign of Chandragupta II. His main objective was a search for authentic Buddhist texts, and he kept his comments on secular life to a minimum. But his few remarks on social affairs bring home the fact that the Gupta kings gave India an era of calm and plenty in a degree almost unmatched to the present day.
"The inhabitants [of the cities and towns] are rich and prosperous, and vie with each other in the practice of benevolence and righteousness," he wrote. His own pilgrimage was proof that, as he said, a stranger could travel from one end of the country to the other in complete safety and without a passport. Though this was a Hindu empire, the Chinese Buddhist monk never encountered any hostility against himself as a foreigner and a heretic, or any interference with his singleminded Buddhist investigations.
Fa-hsien was moving through India in the atmosphere of a new Hinduism that itself was stimulating the arts. Brahmanism had been expanded to include the devotional cults of Shiva and Vishnu. (The Guptas themselves were patrons of the cult of Vishnu.) Devotion to a chosen deity was usually expressed in homage to an image of the god. Such images were bathed and dressed, offered food and water, adorned with flowers and light, and amused with music and dancing in their homes, the temples. It was these practices that were most influential in the flowering of the arts. Sculptors were needed to create the images, architects to prepare temple homes for the idols.
Sculpture, or more specifically the art of representing the gods in stone, bronze and clay, was the central art. It was also the art that had gone through the longest period of growth from very ancient beginnings.
Indian sculptors had carved tiny figures and exquisite animal seals in prehistoric times. In the Third Century B. C. they had created the realistic, beautifully executed bull and lion capitals on the pillars of Ashoka. Later, sacred Buddhist sites began to acquire carved decorations designed to celebrate the great teacher.
The Buddhist memorials, called "stupas," were originally earthen burial mounds. When a stupa was built over Buddhist relics, the stupa itself became a symbolic object of veneration. And though the mounds themselves were usually bare, the railings and gateways surrounding them became ornate to an extreme. Indians seem always to have felt that, in the words of one art historian, "only things covered with ornaments are beautiful," and "to present an offering without profuse decoration would be an insult to the divinity."
The earliest ornamental figures carved for the stupas included guardian yakshas, non-Aryan tree-gods that Buddhists willingly accepted as objects of worship. The yakshas, solid, strong, shortnecked and thick-bellied, clearly resembled male figurines the Harappans had executed in stone.
Confidence and technique had advanced perceptibly by the First Century B. C. At Bodh Gaya, for example, where the Buddha walked immediately after his enlightenment, the railing around the holy path spills marvelous figures. The Buddha himself is not yet portrayed as a human figure. He is indicated by symbols—a wheel, an empty throne, footprints, the pipal tree. But the old Vedic gods do appear, often symbolizing the Buddha, who had taken their powers to himself. The Vedic sun-god, Surya, for example, represents the Buddha as the sun that illuminates the universe. Other gods play attendant roles. Thus, the Aryan warrior-god, Indra, is shown bearing grass for Gautama, not yet the Buddha, to sit on under the tree where he will become enlightened, while other gods pay homage to the enlightened Buddha.
At Sanchi, the greatest of the early Buddhist stupas, the carvings on gateways show how Buddhism and Hinduism were beginning to meet about the First Century B. C. Alive with their own times, they contain a bewildering variety of images, which are indicated in a summary by A. L. Basham: "Cities are besieged, riders on elephants and horses pass in procession, men and women worship sacred shrines, elephants roam the jungle; lions, peacocks. . . mythical animals and ornate floral designs fill the whole."
This same vigor and bustle of life was carried over from Buddhist carvings to Hindu portrayals of their deities. All Hindu art was religious, but it was secular, too, for Hinduism maintains that everything in the universe is One. Hindu artists were at one with their philosophical tradition; they looked straight at the world they lived in and delighted in what they saw and felt. When a sculptor created an image of a goddess, she embodied his own observation of natural things, for he was celebrating his knowledge that nature was truly one with the gods of the universe. In this way, Indian sculptors infused their work with a combination of spirituality and earthy zest that occasionally confounds the Western world.
By Gupta times, artists had so mastered their technique that they could suggest the zest in a work whose outstanding quality was majestic serenity. The great Gupta sculpture was neither Buddhist nor Hindu. It was Indian. Gupta masterpieces include Buddhas so superbly simplified that they almost seem abstract, and Hindu gods of such realistic detail that they seem almost to breathe—but for both, the tradition was Indian.
Visual arts such as sculpture represent only a part of the artistic heritage of Gupta times. In literature, particularly, the age was one of enormous accomplishment in the classic Sanskrit language. Gupta literature includes, and excels in, such forms as the fable, lyric poetry and the drama.
The fables and fairy tales had great currency and widespread distribution. No other Indian writings have traveled so far or been so influential outside India's borders. The collection of fables called the Panchantantra—stones in which animals act and speak like human beings—was read in Baghdad, Byzantium and Cairo, and later, in Europe. Such stories as that of Sinbad the Sailor, in A Thousand and One Nights, have an Indian source. And other Indian fables have given themes and plots to generations of Western writers, including Chaucer, Boccaccio and La Fontaine.
In contrast to such writings, courtly poetry did not travel well at all. Its complex techniques
MUSICIANS were popular performers in the courts of Gupta emperors. These carvings of a group with drums, horn, gong and sacred conch show only a few of the many kinds of instruments they used.
Resist translation, and its deeply Hindu spirit baffles or eludes most Westerners.
The courtly tradition in poetry created masterpieces of Sanskrit verse—and also a certain amount of wordplay and poetic fun. One poet composed verses without any sibilants, or "s” sounds, possibly for the amusement of a young prince with a speech defect. Another wrote a poem that meant one thing read left to right, something entirely different when read right to left. Poetry was so much a part of court life that poetic tournaments and competitions were held. High dignitaries— sometimes the king himself—would issue an open challenge to poets to pit their talent and virtuosity against each other. The dignitary tossed out a theme. The competitors twisted it into riddles, phrases with double meaning, puns, verses in a prearranged rhyme scheme, long speeches and erudite short poems. To become a winner of such contests was so important that many competitors were not above slipping a bribe to a judge beforehand to ensure success.
Though far less artificial than poetry in its technique and approach, drama under the Guptas was also for the most part a courtly, secular genre. In this guise it was a relatively new phenomenon, for Indian drama almost certainly began in religious plays performed for the entire community. The earliest Vedic literature contains hymns in dialogue that imply a primitive form of theater. A "frog hymn" in the Rig Veda presupposes men costumed as frogs dancing and singing for the rain-god; the "gambler's hymn" from the Rig Veda suggests men imitating the leaping and falling of dice.
Many centuries elapsed before this simple and direct acting-out of religious ideas was transformed into secular drama, designed specifically for educated audiences and appealing to few outside the noble and cultured classes. By the First Century B. C. it had come to be based upon a complex and rigid set of rules and principles. The guidelines for dramaturgy and theatrical production were established by the literary theorist Bharata in his Natyashastra, or "Art of the Play." According to Bharata, drama was designed to stimulate in its audience a dispassionate delight in the contemplation of life as a whole. The dramatist's basic device for arousing this sense of delight was the rasa, an isolated emotion or sentiment.
There were eight so-called "stable" rasas: love, laughter, anger, sadness, pride, fear, loathing and wonder. In a play, a highly conventional pattern of dialogue or plot, immediately recognizable to the sophisticated audience of the time, evoked the rasa of a scene. And by leading such an audience from the erotic rasa, to the sad rasa, to the fear rasa, to the laughter rasa, and so on, a playwright produced a complex pattern of rasas—in effect, a ninth rasa, consisting of the lofty emotion of all emotions combined in one.
This intricate patterning of emotion in scene and dialogue according to the eight basic rasas by no means exhausted the playwright's arsenal of conventional devices. Along with the eight "stable" rasas, there were no fewer than 33 "unstable" ones. They were subtle refinements or sidelights of the basic eight and ranged from discouragement, weakness and apprehension to joy, dreaming and assurance. Any or all these 33 might make a brief appearance in the course of a play, then be retired to the background.
For all their artificiality, the conventions of Indian courtly playwriting helped to produce a great dramatic literature—but a dramatic literature very different from that of the West. There were, for example, no tragedies or tragic heroes in Indian drama, because no such thing as gratuitous misfortune exists in Hindu thought. Audiences did not leave a Gupta play feeling drained or purged. They left—or were supposed to leave— with a sense of religious peace or serenity. Thus, even the secular plays of the Gupta period summed up the Hindu set of values.
A typical example is the masterwork of India's greatest dramatist and poet, Kalidasa. Probably written during the reign of Ghandragupta II, this play deeply impressed and influenced Johann von
Goethe, among other Western writers. It tells the story of King Dushyanta and his queen, Shakunta-la. Bewitched by his enemies, the king forgets his bride, and the tale plunges into a series of bewildering plot complications. Eventually, a magical ring that Dushyanta had given Shakuntala is discovered by a fisherman in the body of a fish and brought to the king; Dushyanta recovers his memory, and the loving pair is finally reunited. The fairy-tale atmosphere and fabulous incidents, the blissfully happy ending—these might have seemed unsuitable for any serious play by a Western dramatist, but they are exactly right in terms of Kalidasa's intentions and dramatic conventions. Shakuntala is a masterpiece of world literature for its rich invention and eloquence. But equally significant to its original audiences was the fact that Kalidasa found the germ of his story in a religious epic, the Mahabharata.
The creativity. that stirred the Gupta air was not confined to literature and the fine arts. Everything seemed affected by it. Achievements in drama, poetry and plastic arts were equalled by those in science and technology.
The Gupta north was sprinkled with fine universities. The university at Nalanda, for example, attracted students from all over Asia and boasted eight colleges and three libraries. In such institutions, Indian astronomers and mathematicians made advances unmatched anywhere in the world of that time. The astronomers knew that the earth was round and rotated on its axis. The mathematicians, particularly the algebraists, were even more extraordinary. They worked with such sophisticated tools as negative quantities, quadratic equations and the square root of two, and they developed two concepts that were to revolutionize the use of numbers throughout the world. One was the idea and the symbol for zero; the other was the system of so-called Arabic numerals.
Which was imported from India to the West by Arabian mathematicians centuries later.
On a still more practical level, Indian industry produced tempered steel and iron and a number of fine dyes. Indian textiles were perfected and exported. Cotton, calico, chintz and cashmere are fabrics whose names derive from India, their place of origin, and whose techniques of manufacture were to be borrowed from India by the Arabs and, later, Europeans.
The Gupta dynasty was eventually overthrown by onslaughts by the "White Huns." These invaders from Central Asia were probably not the same Huns who devastated Europe, but they were related to them and achieved the same effect. They began their fierce marauding during the reign of Kumaragupta, the son of Chandragup-ta II, and by the Sixth Century they had destroyed all Gupta authority along with a number of Gupta palaces, temples, paintings and sculpture. During the years that followed, only one large state existed in northern India, and it was short lived. In 606, a ruler named Harsha began to take over most of the lands the Guptas had held. For the 41 years of his reign, Harsha was another of those unique Indian leaders wise in statesmanship and rich in spirituality. Like the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, Harsha came under the influence of Buddhism and was tolerant of all religions; like the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II, he was a peaceful patron of poetry and art.
After Harsha's death in 647 a new age of northern Indian disunity set in—a period in which, as one historian has put it, "one can but dimly perceive jostling dynasties and commingling peoples." Once again, waves of invaders made their way into India through the mountain passes of the northwest, and the Indo-Gangetic plain was torn by wars among tiny kingdoms and principalities.
One group of military-minded aristocrats, the Rajputs, dominated the course of the next four centuries of Indian history. The clans who came to be called Rajputs may have been descended from the White Huns or from other invaders of the Hunnic period, but they were not themselves a single race or tribe; the very term "rajput," given them after their arrival in India, means simply the sons or relatives of a king. Like many invaders before them, they were accepted by Hindu society as members of the Hindu warrior class, and they considered themselves the rightful rulers of all Indians except brahmans. In their determination to exert their domination, they fought bitterly among themselves, one clan warring on another. But as part of this life of violence they developed and hewed to a code of chivalry that made Rajputs different from all other men.
The Rajput code curiously resembles that of the knights and other nobility of medieval Europe. It emphasized respect for women, succor for the helpless, mercy for a defeated enemy, and the conduct of warfare by forms and military ceremonies of the utmost elegance. Elegance was the keynote, too, of the Rajputs' courtly life. Court poets celebrated Rajput heroism; courtly manners, endlessly refined and elaborated, became a kind of art form of their own.
To be sure, the Rajput code of courtesy, courage and honor did little to bring unity to any Indians, least of all to the Rajputs themselves. But the Rajputs did maintain a sort of cultural continuity that long survived the peak of the Gupta age. Temples were built, statues were carved, plays were written and performed; the arts and sciences so magnificently created under the peaceful Gupta kings were enriched during the centuries of warfare and near chaos. Not until the 13th Century, when Muslim rulers built a new empire in India, would this continuity be seriously threatened.