The Tradition of Kshaatra in India: Samudragupta, the Torchbearer

The multi-volume History and Culture of the Indian People, a definitive work authored by numerous scholars, contains the most accurate and clear history of the Guptas. R.C. Majumdar, the General Editor of the volume titled The Classical Age, and K.M. Munshi, who has written a foreword to the volume have held that the glory of the Gupta Era was extraordinary. Indeed, Munshi has written that this extraordinary glory was possible because of Dharma.

It needs to be clarified that “Dharma” doesn’t mean religion or sect. It is the highly magnanimous philosophy underlying Sanatana Dharma. It is the universal system that sustains and nurtures everything, everybody. It is wedded to spirituality and is not a sectarian delusion. When we examine Munshi’s own words in this regard, its essence becomes clear.

Politically, this was the age of integration in India. After more than three hundred years of fragmentation and foreign domination, northern India was again united under the vigorous rule of a powerful monarch of versatile talents. A brilliant general, a farsighted statesman, a man of culture and a patron of arts and letters, he became the symbol and architect of a mighty creative urge among the people which, while drawing vitality from tradition and race-memory, took on a new shape and power.

Samudragupta was succeeded by his no less brilliant son, Chandra Gupta II known as Vikramaditya, acclaimed as the greatest of the Gupta Emperors. In his reign…the last vestige of foreign rule disappeared from the land and the direct sway of Pataliputra extended from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea.

Our history textbooks while narrating the expanse of the Gupta Empire, which included the entire region of North India up to the Narmada River, paint a picture portraying that all the other kings beyond this region were the enemies of the Guptas. But Munshi clearly says,

The country to the south of the Narmada was dominated by two friendly powers—the Vakatakas and the Pallavas—who shared the Guptas emperors’ enthusiasm for strengthening Dharma. The dominions of the descendants of Vakataka Vindhyasakti extended from Bundelkhand to Hyderabad. A daughter of Chandragupta II was married to one of them, and she ruled as regent for thirteen years; and till the dynasty disappeared, the Vakatakas continued in subordinate alliance with the Guptas. The Pallavas who held unquestioned sway over the south, maintained friendly relations with the Guptas, even when they were not subject to their hegemony.  

Chandragupta Vikramaditya’s daughter Prabhavatigupta was given in marriage to the home of the Vakatakas. The chief value upheld during that period was the reinvigoration of Dharma. We can recall the words of Dr. S L Bhyrappa in this context: “Every country has its own language. The language of India was Dharma.” It is only when we speak in that language that our people will understand things quickly and easily. Dharma stands on the edifice of Yajna-Dana-Tapas (Sharing-Charity-Penance), which brings peace and virtue to the world.

The foundations that the Guptas and their friends laid back then survives almost intact even to this day. If the life-pulse of our country has survived today, it is simply a continuation of what was instituted during the Gupta period. It was the same thing that the Badami Chalukyas, Kalyana Chalukyas, Gurjara-Pratiharas, the Yadavas of Devagiri, Hoysalas, Rashtrakutas, and Pala-Senas upheld and fostered. As also did the Cholas, Pandyas, Pallavas, and Cheras in Tamil Nadu. Equally, the Kakatiyas and Reddy kings of the Andhra country promoted this. What’s more, the Vijayanagara Empire and Shivaji followed the same path. But in the period that ensued, we lost this spirit and inspiration inherent in Sanatana Dharma as a consequence of which, all of India plummeted down.

One can regard Samudragupta’s example in order to understand the meaning of Kshatra. Samudragupta was well-versed in all manner of weaponry. He had undergone rigorous practice in archery and swordsmanship. Additionally, a study of his coins reveals that he was also an expert in wielding the axe. These coins variously, depict pictures of Samudragupta taming a tiger, performing the Ashwamedha Yajna, waiting for the Deity’s Prasada with folded hands, and playing the Vina. Harishena writes in the Prayagashasana (Prayaga Inscription):

Samudragupta was a good poet and Vina exponent. He had taken a vow that he would not play the Vina till such time that his Empire was not happy and prosperous. He ruled for more than forty years. The first twenty years were spent in instituting proper systems in place. He travelled extensively in the Dakshinapatha (roughly: South India). He made everyone his feudatory. He lived a truly peaceful and contented life in the last twenty years of his rule and spread this peace among his people.     

Samudragupta displayed the same expertise in playing the Vina that he showed on the battlefield as a seasoned, expert warrior. He also showed this prowess in composing poetry. He was sagacious in literature and music. Samudragupta had performed the Ashwamedha Yajna. Owing to this fact, one cannot brand him as an orthodox and a rigid ritualist. This is because one of the key figures in his court was the renowned Buddhist scholar, Vasubandhu, who was also his minister and guide. We learn of the exact greatness of Buddhism From Vasubandhu’s works. It must be clarified that the Buddhism of Vasubandhu is not the Buddhism of today.

The Guptas took immense pride in declaring that they were the descendants of the Licchavi ancestry. In the Gupta coins, there is a mention that Chandragupta Vikramaditya was the “grandson of the Licchavis” (or daughter’s son). The Guptas spoke glowingly about the glory of their maternal clan.

When the Nagas became boundlessly powerful and posed a threat to the integrity of Sanatana Dharma, Samudragupta softened them and through gentle persuasion, influenced them to see the value in accepting Sanatana Dharma. The Nagara Brahmanas emerged as a consequence of this. In the Gupta Empire, we discern the harmony that is mentioned in the Manu and other Smritis. The other specialty of Samudragupta is the fact that he restored the empires of the kings that he had defeated, and didn’t usurp any of them. It appears that the details that Kalidasa provides in the fourth canto of the Raghuvamsha regarding Raghu’s campaign of military conquest applies to Samudragupta:

आपादपद्मप्रणता: कलमा इव ते रघुम् ।
फलै: सम्वर्धयामासुरुत्खातप्रतिरोपिता: ॥ (IV-37)

In his campaign of military conquest, Raghu defeated the kings of various countries and then restored them to their previous positions. This (action) yielded plentiful fruit like the saplings of rice that are plucked out and then replanted in the same place.

Even today, those people who are well-aware of the nuances of cultivating paddy will appreciate the beauty of this verse. For the purposes of planting the seeds, a garden-bed is filled with sprouts. Then these sprouts are plucked out and planted in neat rows with a distance of a span between each sapling. This process ensures that the crop grows well. Every sapling will be provided with an ample supply of manure and water resulting in the healthy growth of the ear. In the same manner, those (conquered and restored) kingdoms witnessed prosperity.

We can also note the same strain in yet another verse.

गृहीतप्रतिमुक्तस्य स धर्मविजयी नृप: ।

श्रियम् महेन्द्रनाथस्य जहार न तु मेदिनीम् ॥  (IV-43)

Because Raghu was a Dharmavijayi King he received only a symbolic tribute from Mahendra, the King of Kalinga and did not gobble up his kingdom.

Arthashastra and Dharmashastra texts classify victorious kings into three types: Dharmavijayi, Lobhavijayi, and Asuravijayi.

Of these, the Dharmavijayi King is the greatest. He extracts only a symbolic tribute from the vanquished. The Lobhavijayi King is second-best. He gobbles up both the territory and the treasury of the vanquished. The Asuravijayi King is the most despicable. He not only slaughters everybody in the camp of the defeated king, he also seizes territory and treasury.

The unfortunate fact is that all the Islamic raids and invasions against India are far viler in nature than the aforementioned Asuravijayi. These raids devastated countless families of the defeated kings and reveled in demonic joy by subjecting their women and children to unspeakable atrocities. What’s more, it inflicted the same horror upon the subjects of the conquered region as well. It authored a dark tale of forcible religious conversions and large scale temple destructions in alphabets dipped in blood.

The history of Christianity isn’t too different from this. Communist savagery too, isn’t any lesser in intensity or extent; in some aspects, it’s far more horrific and base.

The Sunrise of Cultural Kinship


It was the Guptas who infused cultural kinship through art. The Ajanta paintings reached their artistic pinnacle during the Gupta reign. Their era also marked a transition from Ashwaghosha’s poetry characterized by extreme and pathetic renunciation to that of Kalidasa’s life-affirming poetry.

Only one example is sufficient to show this stark difference between Buddhism and Sanatana Dharma.

The eleventh canto of Ashwaghosha’s Buddhacharita relates to “Maaraapajaya,” where Kama is defeated by the power of Buddha’s penance. In the third canto of Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava, Shiva burns down Kama. When we compare the two, we derive great clarity: Kalidasa’s Shiva burns Kama and then brings him back to life; as a consequence, the entire world also survives. Ashwaghosha’s Buddha banishes Kama forever. No matter how much we reject the natural impulses and hard realities of life, they will invariably resurface from some or the other depth of our fundamental impulses.

Ajanta the tradition of kshaatra The Tradition of Kshaatra in India: Samudragupta, the Torchbearer Ajanta

Painting of Ajanta Caves. Pic Courtesy: Sandeep Balakrishna

In reality, Buddha had understood this truth. Primary Buddhist texts aver that Buddha asked Mara the following: “I will rebuild your empire after a few years. Till then, give me the time and opportunity to disseminate philosophy and to turn the wheel of Dharma.” Buddha did not preach negation of life. But this was interpreted by the confused Buddhists as meaning something entirely different. The neo-Buddhists did not participate in the process of Buddha’s spiritual evolution. Buddha drank deep from numerous waters. Buddha’s admonition of, “don’t ask me this question at present” was interpreted to mean, “that very thing which was asked didn’t exist at all.” This was the root of all the dangers that followed.

Kalidasa made creative and positive corrections to Ashwaghosha. Samudragupta did the same to Ashoka. One must indeed perceive these as creative modifications and corrections. When we mutually compare the triads of Ashoka-Kanishka-Ashwaghosha and Samudragupta-Chandragupta II-Kalidasa, we will clearly understand where each stands in relation to the other. Ashwaghosha never became a model for any great Indian poet who came after him. Likewise, Ashoka never became a model for any great Indian monarch who followed him. However, Kalidasa became both the Guru and the Kavikulaguru of every Indian poet. Samudragupta and Chandragupta Vikramaditya became the inspiration for every Indian Samrat, or Emperor. Their Varaha flag was adopted by and became the proud Flag of Victory of the Badami Chalukyas, Kalyani Chalukyas, Vengi Chalukyas, and above all, the Vijayanagara Empire. It became the compass of all manner of progress and prosperity.

Dwaita is that which takes into account everyday realities. Given this, what is the value of an Advaita which doesn’t respect Dwaita? Likewise, a Dwaita which does not love Advaita will not have a ground to stand on. One must always bear this integrated approach in mind. This integration is the integration between the Trivarga (Dharma, Artha, and Kama) and Apavarga (Moksha). Because this integration is part and parcel of Sanatana Dharma, the proverbial common folk are not tormented too much by confusions. Equally, the highly learned people do not face such confusions. These confusions haunt only those who have neither scaled the philosophical heights nor have condescended to descend to the level of the common folk. One needs to examine the splendor of India’s highly-refined tradition of Kshatra in this backdrop.

In the early days of the West’s acquaintance with India, they branded Samudragupta as India’s Napoleon. Napoleon Bonaparte lived in the eighteenth century CE. Samudragupta was a great warrior-emperor who predated him by least thousand two hundred years. When a similar comparison is drawn between Kalidasa as India’s Shakespeare, the intent is merely to show that Kalidasa was as popular and as renowned in India. But then such comparisons also reflect a colonialist’s arrogance. Which is okay because normally, we attempt to recognize strangers in a language and idiom that is our own. Be that as it may, our critical faculties must always be alert to put things in their proper place without getting carried away by comparisons originating in feelings of superiority or inferiority.

Translated by Hari Ravikumar and Sandeep Balakrishna

To be continued

Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh the tradition of kshaatra The Tradition of Kshaatra in India: Samudragupta, the Torchbearer r ganesh

Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh

Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.
Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh the tradition of kshaatra The Tradition of Kshaatra in India: Samudragupta, the Torchbearer r ganesh