Economics of the Golden Age of India
The Gutpa Empire existed between the fourth and sixth centuries of the Common Era. It covered a large part of the country comprising primarily of the north and the north-western regions. The period of more than two hundred years under the Gupta dynasty is known as the Golden Age of India. Chandra Gupta I, Samudragupta and Chandra Gupta II are among the prominent rulers during those times.
Records show that the period was marked by prosperity, peace and high levels of achievements in different areas. There were outstanding contributions in various fields such as arts, literature, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, science, technology, philosophy and religion. Renowned scholars such as Kalidasa, Aryabhata, Varahamihira, Vishnu Sharma and Vatsayayana were products of the period.
Aryabhata, the great mathematician and astronomer, stated that it was the earth that rotated on its axis, while the rest of the world held the view that the sky was rotating. He explained the solar and lunar eclipses scientifically and put forth many new concepts. His major work called Aryabhatiya covered algebra, trigonometry, quadratic equations and table of sines. It is significant to note that the decimal numeral systems, zero and chess were the products of this period.
Kalidasa is recognized as the greatest playwright and poet in Sanskrit. Vishnu Sharma is the author of Panchatantra which is one of the most translated books in the world. It is believed that the two greatest epics of India namely Ramayana and Mahabharata were written during this period. Besides, there were many important works in technical subjects on a wide range of areas including astro-physics, medicine and veterinary science. One of the best known universities in the ancient world was established in Nalanda during this time.
There was renaissance of arts during this period. The court of Chandra Gupta II was graced by nine eminent persons (navaratnas) who were experts in literature and arts. The fields of architecture, sculpture and paintings witnessed excellent performance. The world heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora have rock-cut caves containing some of India’s finest murals and sculptures. It was during the Gupta period that most of the beautiful cave temples at Ajanta were built.
Details show that agriculture, handicrafts, industry and trade were flourishing. Irrigation works were undertaken and loans provided to the farmers for buying different items required for agriculture such seeds, lands, bullocks and agricultural implements. The state did not charge any revenue from people who undertook cultivation in barren and waste lands. There were guidelines for development of agriculture along scientific lines.
Different types of industries were functioning. The textile industry with dyeing, bleaching and embroidery was one of the major industries. Other industries include the specialized ones such as ship building, mining, pearl-fishery and metallurgy. The iron pillar at Delhi, standing tall and proud without getting rusted and retaining its inscriptions in spite of its exposure to the various changes in weather for over several centuries, stands testimony to the metallurgical expertise of the Guptas. Das quotes Ferguesson to point out the advanced knowledge possessed by Indians many centuries ahead of the Europeans. “ Taking 400 as a mean date and it certainly is not far from truth – it opens our eyes to an unsuspected state of affairs to find the Hindus at that age capable of forging a bar of iron longer than any that have been forged in Europe up to a very late date and not frequently even now.”
Trade was taking place with many countries such as China, Ceylon, Java, Sumatra, Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and Rome. Several items including precious stones, pearls, spices, clothes, cosmetics, perfumes and indigo were exported. The growth of business activities led to the development of city lives in major centres of trade.
Guilds played a very important role in the economy. The state developed industrial and commercial settlements in different parts of the empire by offering patronage and concessions to the guilds. Guilds carried on banking business. They also managed the finances of temples at times and even offered financial help to the government. Guilds were given the required freedom to conduct and regulate their activities.
Encouragement was given to those engaged in the promotion of new ventures. The states charged reasonable rates by way of duties. Systems were established to protect the interests of different sections of people and the common man. The welfare of the labourers was taken care through advanced methods. Das notes: “A very new and interesting feature of the rules regarding the labourers of this period is the existence of rules regarding bonus leave and pension and something approximating to the provident fund. Thus it has been laid down by Sukracharya that even a slight portion should not be deducted from the full remuneration of a servant who has been ill for a fortnight. And if the diseased be highly qualified he should have half the wages. The King should give the servant 15 days a year respite from work. The king should give half the wages to the man who has passed 40 years in his service for life …. He should give the servant 1/8th of the salary by way of reward every year….. He should keep with him as deposit 1/6th or 1/4th of the servant’s wages, should pay half of that amount or whole in two or three years.”
All these were possible as the rulers were committed to bring about all- round development in the state. They established the necessary infrastructure and provided the required facilities. They facilitated the society to concentrate in different economic activities without unnecessary interventions. As a result the economy progressed. Living costs were cheap. Gold coins were used in circulation.
Besides, the administration enabled a peaceful atmosphere in the society. Prosperity and peace paved the way for creative pursuits. The state encouraged the process through support and appreciation. Hence there was progress at all levels. The influence of the Guptas extended beyond the borders to the foreign lands. The noted Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hien visited India and Ceylon during 399 -414 CE. Narrating his experiences in central India, he noted: “The people are numerous and happy; ….. The king governs without decapitation or (other) corporal punishments. … Throughout the whole country the people do not kill any living creature, nor drink intoxicating liquor, ....”
The positive environment in the society enabled citizens to nurture and practice higher qualities. Writing about Pataliputra, Fa- Hien observed: “The inhabitants are rich and prosperous, and vie with one another in the practice of benevolence and righteousness.” Surely the Golden Age is a proud period, when the economic prosperity was directed towards achieving higher pursuits resulting in the citizens leading a meaningful life. Contemporary India has a lot to learn from it.
1. Santosh Kumar Das, The Economic History of Ancient India, Vohra Publishers and Distributors, Allahabad, 1980
2. A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms: Being an account by the Chinese monk Fa-Hien, translated by James Legge, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1886
( Yuva Bharati, Vol.40, No.1, Vivekananda Kendra, August, 2012)