More than half a millennium separated the fall of India’s Mauryan Empire in the late 3rd century BCE (before the common era) from the rise of the Gupta Empire in the early 4th century CE (common era). Economic and social change during the interval altered the foundations of imperialism.
Agriculture prospered, with a greater range of crops, systematic use of irrigation, and highly organised and regulated village communities.
The village was a key administrative unit. It included the homes of the villagers, their gardens, irrigation works (mainly tanks or wells), cattle enclosures, waste lands, the village common, woods around the village, streams passing through village lands, the village temple and its lands, the cremation ground, and, of course, the cultivated fields themselves, both ‘wet’ (irrigated) and ‘dry’.
Local affairs were managed by a village council, a village court, and occasional village assemblies.
There was a timelessness about the Indian village. It was largely self-sufficient, importing very little from the outside world, and its routines of work and life, tied as they were to Nature’s eternal cycles, changed very little, if at all, over centuries of time. At the level of the village, the rise and fall of distant dynasties hardly registered.
Trade also prospered. Indian merchants, as well as operating within the sub-continent, were integrated into a global market, with links to Arabia, Western Asia, and the Mediterranean in one direction, and China and South-East Asia in another. Textiles, metals, precious stones, spices, salt, and exotic animals were among the commodities traded.
The work of potters, weavers, and metalworkers, of architects, engineers, and bricklayers, and of dealers in every imaginable tradable item from corn to ivory flourished. Coins were minted in large quantities. Banking and usury became common practice. Ports and towns flourished.
Like the villagers, merchants and artisans were highly organised. Guilds, corporations, and co-operatives fixed rules of work, set the quality and prices of goods, and provided for the welfare and security of members.
The growth of commerce both facilitated the spread of Buddhism and provided a mass audience for its apostles. The Hindu religion of the elite - the rulers, landowners, priests, and soldiers associated with the dynasties - upheld a static traditional order based on caste and state. It was the religion of a class-ridden and militaristic society divided into rival polities.
Commerce cut across social boundaries, dissolved social distinctions, and created new social realities. The imperatives of commerce contradicted those of caste, state, and war. The spirit of commerce found its supreme ideological expression in Buddhism.
The Buddha (‘Enlightened One’) was a Hindu warrior-prince called Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 BCE) who had broken with his class, undergone a profound religious experience, and spent the rest of his long life preaching a new philosophy.
The essence of his teaching was that true happiness and contentment arises when one accepts the natural and social orders, recognises that everything is in a state of flux, and achieves an elevated spiritual peace of mind above the froth of everyday life.
Buddhism’s radicalism lay in its universalism and its relative marginalisation of such features of the status quo as property, rank, and status. It enjoined a way of life that was purposeful, morally upright, and equally open to all.
As with all great religions, the pristine message of early Buddhism was later corrupted by intractable social realities. Yet it would retain an enduring appeal not just to merchants, artisans, and townspeople, but to many among the class victims of ancient and medieval India’s mainly Hindu elite.
The villages, the guilds, and the temples (both Hindu and Buddhist) gave Indian civil society a form and substance which it had lacked under the Mauryans. This new socio-economic order of the ‘Classical Period’ (c. 300-700 CE) shaped and limited the Gupta Empire erected upon it.
The Gupta Empire was constructed by three successive warrior-kings, Chandra Gupta I (c. 320-335 CE), Samudra Gupta (c. 335-375 CE), and Chandra Gupta II (c. 375-415 CE). Like the Mauryan Empire, it originated in the rich Ganges Valley, having its capital at Patna, whence it spread first across the plains of northern India, then to the Deccan of central India, and finally to southern India.
The Gupta dynasty held sway over this vast domain for about a century. Then, relatively quickly during the 6th century CE, the empire broke up. The second attempt to unite India under an imperial dynasty had proved as fragile and short-lived as the first.
The catalyst of collapse was a new incursion of steppe-nomads - Huns on this occasion - entering north-western India down the traditional invasion route from Central Asia, through the Hindu Kush, and into the Indus Valley. But the fact that the Gupta Empire fragmented so easily revealed its lack of substance.
The Gupta polity was wholly parasitic. It was a hybrid tributary-feudal system. Many officials were paid in land: they did administrative or military service in return for their estates, often held tax-free. Peasant villages, on the other hand, paid a land tax of between a tenth and a sixth of their produce. This surplus supported the Gupta state’s militarism. From the point of view of peasants, it was waste expenditure.
On the other hand, the strength of civil society meant that state surplus-accumulation was limited. Local princes and chieftains enjoyed large measures of autonomy under Gupta rule. State officials functioned as feudal estate-owners. The peasants had their village councils and assemblies, the merchants and artisans their urban guilds and temples.
Gupta centralisation was incomplete. The empire’s administrative infrastructure was shallow. The arteries of state accumulation were cloggy. Consequently, the carapace of Gupta militarism shattered easily under pressure.
India again broke up into separate polities. For a millennium, it remained divided into a shifting mosaic of rival powers, permanently at loggerheads, often at war.
Throughout this period, there was a partial disconnect between the rival dynastic states and the world of village, production, and commerce. The states floated above society, parasitic upon it, creaming off surplus, yet otherwise detached.
Military competition forced the states to accumulate and made them oppressive. But none could accumulate enough to achieve the critical mass of military power necessary to defeat their enemies and establish a new empire. The resistance of landowners, merchants, and villagers was too great.
On the other hand, the weight of military infrastructures bore down on civil society. Trade declined and the pace of progress slowed. There was a ‘feudalisation’ of society. The caste system hardened. Elite culture became mystical and scholastic. Villages became inward-looking and conservative.
The cyclical theories of time which the major Indian religions shared expressed an historical reality. The separation between state and society, and the contradictory demands of each, trapped the Indian sub-continent at a political impasse.
History could only repeat itself; it could not move forwards.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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