Short Essay on Political Organisation of Gupta Period
The concept of an ’empire’, as it came into during the Gupta period, cannot be said I to have been a new one in Indian political thought, I but a special significance attaches to the Gupta I empire is as much as it practically gave the deathblow to the republican form of government, which had been a distinguished feature of Indian polity for more than a thousand years.
Invasions from without and growth of empires within the country were mainly responsible for the downfall of the republics; and we find that, under the Guptas, most of them came to be gradually absorbed into the larger governmental system of the Gupta empire. This system was characterised by spectacular expansion of agriculture, beginning of the growth of private rights in land grants afffcting the administrative structure, abundance of gold coins etc.
A major political event of the Gupta period was the victorious march of Samudragupta and Chandragupta II. This made it necessary to come loan understanding with the subjugated kings and princes. The kingship in the Gupta period was based on purely a patriarchal form of royal succession. However, the law of primogeniture was not firmly established.
Coins and inscriptions represent the Gupta king primarily as a fighter and a general who took delight in hunting and fighting. The king appointed ministers, commanders, governors, etc. He received the obeisance of his vassals and princes, and his pompous titles, parameshvara, maharajadhiraja, and paramabhattaraka, indicate the existence of lesser princes and chiefs with whom he had to come to terms in managing his empire.
The maintenance of the varnashrama dharma was an important royal duty according to the Gupta inscriptions. Protection of the subjects was another major obligation imposed upon the king. The old theory that the king was entitled to taxes in return for protecting the subjects is repeated in some Gupta legal texts.
But it is no longer emphasised; on the other hand we notice a significant new trend. Katyayana states that the king is entitled to taxes because he is the owner of the land. This theory lends a feudal character to the state and enables it to make land grants, although in actual transactions parties having interests in the land need to be consulted and informed.
The Gupta kings are repeatedly compared to different gods such as Yama, Varuna, Indra, Kubera, etc. They are compared to Vishnu as regards their function of preserving and protecting the people, and Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu and goddess of prosperity appears on many Gupta coins. The Vaishnavite affiliations of the Gupta kings, therefore, may have served some political purpose.
But the striking thing is that they are called deva, which clearly represents them as gods, although not the son of the God, as in the case of the Kushana kings. Despite the divine elements attributed to Gupta kings, the brahmanas as the chief custodians and interpreters of laws exercised a check on royal power. The king had to further share power with the guilds and corporate bodies, whose decisions he had to respect and whose usages he had to enforce. Above all, the king had to reckon with the beneficiaries and feudatories who enjoyed enormous powers.
In fact, royal power was more circumscribed in the Gupta times than in the Maurya or pre-Gupta days. Ministers too, such as matrin, amatya or sachiva, may have restrained the despotic activities of the king. Some individual ministers, such as Harishena, were very powerful because of combing the offices of the mahadandanayaka, kumaramatya, and sandhivigrahika in the same person. Moreover, the post was hereditary and devolved to the same family for several generations. Such families must have played an important part in politics.
Ministers or advisers formed part of the higher bureaucracy of the Guptas. Among the high officers we may take special notice of the kumaramatya and the sandhivigrahika, who are not known to earlier inscriptions. The kumaramatyas formed the chief cadre for recruiting high functionaries under the Guptas.
Some of the kumaramatyas functioned in their own right and maintained their regular office called kumaramatyadhikarana. Towards the end of the Gupta empire some kumaramatyas, such as the maharaja Nandana, asserted independence and issued land charters.
The office of the sandhivigrahika (minister of peace and war) first appears under Samudragupta, whose amatya Harishena held this title. The need for such an office can be well understood in the context of the relations subsisting between many warring principalities from Gupta times onwards, but his function of issuing land charters to brahmanas needs some explaining.
The practice began with the Gupta period and gained currency in early medieval times. Altekar thinks that because the foreign office possessed detailed knowledge of the family tree of the grantors, the sandhivigrahika was asked to draft the land charters. But perhaps the main duty of this officer was to deal with the feudatories, who may have been empowered to issue charters to religious parties too.
Records of land transactions however show that no land could be sold unless the recordkeepers or pustapalas certified that it was available for sale and unless the district governor or the vishayapati endorsed it.
Caste and family were important considerations in the recruitment of officers. We have some examples of higher governors belonging to the royal family, and certain families contributing a good number of amatyas and provincial governors known as uparikas. The growing hereditary character of the ministers, divisional and district officers is very evident.
In one case in central India, we find five generations of office bearers in one family, of whom the first was amatya, the second amatya and bhogika, the third bhogika, and the fourth and the fifth mahasandhivigrahika. These officers however, served the feudatories of the Guptas and not the Gupta kings directly.
The officials owed their tenure to the discretion of the emperor, but in practice they and their descendants continued to be in office because of their local strength. They gained in power and influence by combining several offices in the same person.
The discovery of numerous Gupta gold coins and their use in land transactions in Bengal coupled with the prevalence of the tax known as hiranya suggest that at least higher officers were paid in cash. However, Fa-hien appears to be indicating that members of bureaucracy were paid in cash and also by grants of revenues. The hereditary character of the officers and decreasing payment in cash would suggest that the Gupta functionaries could develop vested interests with less difficulty than their Mauryan predecessors.
In addition to high orders, we find references to a dozen other officers of high and low grades, engaged in managing military, fiscal and rural matters. The information about the military system of the Guptas is meagre. A few Gupta kings are described as excellent and unrivalled chariot warriors and horsemen and are usually repres on their coins. Archers are also depicted on which testifies to the importance of horse arc and cavalry.
The growing importance of caval” supported by seals and inscriptions which s of ashvapati, mahashvapati and bhatashva evidently the commander of horsemen. The e Gupta records do not mention any officer conn with the management of elephants. The t pilupati occurs in a 6th century inscription ft Bengal.
The other military officers mentioned mahabaladhikrita, mahapratihara and gaulm The last two find mention in pre-Gupta inscrip” but the first appears as a new military functio” in this period. Civil officials such as amat} kumaramatyas, etc., performed military fundi or were promoted to the rank of high milit officers. The discovery of a seal bearing the leg Shriranabhandagaradhikarana suggests t existence of some military store. We also hear the war office attached to the royal heir appar and of the head of the infantry and cavalry.
The taxation system of the Guptas was notv elaborate. The villagers paid in kind cert’ customary miscellaneous dues, which could measured, but these are not specified. They paid hiranya or gold. The artisans also had to ‘ some imposts and traders were subjected to custo on commodities of trade which were levied collected by the customs officers. Probably t customs officers had to deal with the corporatio of bankers, merchants and artisans which w active in Vaishali, Bhita, Indore, and Mandsor. There are refsences to officials working in t district or vishaya in connection with la transactions.
The list of taxes enumerated in t Arthashastra of Kautilya is much longer than the found in Gupta inscriptions, which would sugg that the burden of taxation decreased in Gup times. The royal share did not exceed one-sixth the produce. There are no traces of emergency tax in Gupta times.
Since the Guptas did not mainta a large administrative establishment they did n carried on administration with the help of the local office or adhikarana. But in one case in western U.P. he was placed in charge of a district called bhoga. Every district had a strong military contingent to back civil authority in times of need.
The vishaya was divided into vithis which were administered by committees. The landed and military interests – all connected with the king – were represented on the committee. The vithi consisted of villages, which formed the lowest units of administration. The leading part in managing the affairs of the village was taken by its gramika and elders known as the mahattama, mahattaka or mahattara.
In Bengal, village elders called mahattaras seem to have been organised into corporate bodies at the district level as well as at the village level. The body at both the stages was called ashtakuladhikarana, a corporate organisation comprising eight leading families. In some areas in central India local affairs in the rural areas were managed by a committee of five known as the panchamandali.
Finally, we have various janapadas, which issued their seals and coins. They were administered by a committee of five. Some towns were being administered by some kind of parishads.
The towns in the Gupta Empire were usually placed under an officer called purapala. The leading local elements were also associated with the work of administration in towns. Such elements belonged to the guilds of artisans and traders which flourished during the Gupta age. Vaishali in Bihar was an important town about whose administration we get some idea in Gupta times. We hear of separate guilds of artisans (kulika) and of merchants (shreshthi) in that town.
But the most numerous seals, as many as 274, found there belong to the nigama guild of the shresthis, sarthavahas and kulikas. The nigamas performed municipal functions in regard to bankers, traders and artisans, whom it represented, and also in relation to the employees of various civil and military offices whose headquarters were situated in Vaishali. We uire as many taxes as the Mauryas did.
Most of revenue officers mentioned in land grants seem to have been connected with the assessment and collection of land revenue. Ayuktaka and iyuktaka were connected with land transaction. While pustapala maintained records of land sales, land records were maintained by the pamakshapataladhikrita or the Ieshakshapataladhikrita. Scribes called divira, iranika kayastha, etc. were employed chiefly in the revenue office, and Yajnavalkya advises the king to protect the subjects against the oppression of the kayasthas.
Revenues may have been collected mostly in kind; but probably rich peasants paid in cash. The officer who collected dues in cash is called hiranyasamudayika and audrangika collected the royal share in kind. The only officer connected with the collection of tolls on commodities seems to have been the shaulkika. The official aurnasthanika had something to do with the regulation of the wool- market in Bengal and in Gujarat we hear of drangika who collected customs in border towns.
The Gupta kings evolved the first systematic provincial and local administration, which was primarily concerned with the collection of revenues and maintenance of law and order. The core of the empire directly controlled by the Guptas was divided into a number of provinces smaller than a Maurya province but much larger than a modern division.
The bhukti seems to have been the largest administrative unit under the Guptas, and there were at least six such divisions spread over Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. It was placed in charge of an uparika. He was a governor appointed by the Gupta king, but the literal meaning of the term bhukti suggests that the territory placed under his charge was intended to be enjoyed rather than governed by him in his own interest. The bhukti was divided into vishayas or districts.
The vishaya was in charge of the kumaramatya in early times, but later it came to be placed under the vishayapati. Ordinarily in Bengal and Bihar the vishayapati was the head of the vishaya where he learns from Narada that the niguma framed its own rules known as samayas.
The coercive role of the state had probably become far more important in Gupta times because of the widespread social disturbances as reflected in the Kali Age descriptions of about the third- fourth centuries AD The machinery for maintaining law and order in this period was based on the office of the dandanayaka, the dandika and the dandapashika. They all seem to have performed police and magisterial functions. Another officer charged with the duty of watchman was the chauroddharanika. In towns the magisterial functions were discharged by the vinayasthitisthapaka.
The Gupta period provided a landmark in the history of the administration of law and justice in early India. It produced a rich corpus of legal literature, which reflects a distinct advance in the legal system. For the first time the lawgivers of the period draw a clear line between what may be regarded as civil and criminal law.
Brihaspati enumerates eighteen titles of law and adds that 14 of these have their origin in property (dhanamula) and four in injury (himsamula). On account of the growth of private property in land, which was sold for money in Gupta times, we find very detailed law about partition, sale, mortgage and lease of land in Gupta law-books.
The legal texts of Gupta times lay down detailed rules about the constitution of court and the law of evidence. The king is asked to decide suits with the help of at least three sabhyas (shudras excluded). Civil courts seem to have functioned at important administrative centres. Two seals from Nalanda containing the term dharmadhikarana seem to belong to this type and indicate that Nalanda was the headquarter of some kind of civil court.
The law books provide for a hierarchy of local courts, which were to be recognized but not established by the king. Yajnavalkya and Brihaspati mentions three grades of local courts, kula, shreni and puga, and Brihaspati adds that the appeal shall lie to the higher court in the some order. Katyayana introduces gana in place of puga. According law-books, farmers, artisans, traders, etc. have their own courts. Katyayan advises art’ farmers, etc. to get their disputes decided by mahattaras.
The epigraphic ashtakuladhik relating to villages was evidently the countc; of the kula court of the law-books. Towar end of ihe Gupta period corporations of mere were granted considerable autonomy by charters the system of administration under several changes under the Guptas, but the striking developments related to the grant off and administrative immunities to the benefici” and to the establishment of relations with subjugated kings called feudatories.
In grants for the time of Vakataka king Pravarasena II onwa the ruler gave up his control over almost all sour of revenue, including pasturage, hides and cha salt mines, forced labour and all hidden treas; and deposits. This meant the transfer of r’ ownership over mines which was an important si of the kings sovereignty.
Equally important is fact that the donor abandoned the right to gov the inhabitants of the villages that were grant Till the 5th century AD, the ruler generally retail the right to punish thieves, which was one the main bases of the state power. However, central and Western India this right was also gnr away.
The Mauryan state is credited will “comprehensive competence based on centralir control”, which may have been true of its ruler the core area of the middle Ganga plains. The Gu’ period shows process of the devolution of the sta authority. The functions of collection of taxes, le of forced labour, regulation of mines, agricultu etc. together with those of the maintenance of la and order and defence, which were hithert performed by the state officials, were now step by step abandoned, first to the priestly class and later to the warrior class during this period we sta getting evidence of subinfeudation as well.
The earliest epigraphic evidence of the subinfeudati ofland comes from Indore where an inscription of AD 397 records the consent of a feudatory chief ‘thout royal consent. Although early examples of his type are not found in other parts of the country, we have here the beginning of the process of subinfeudation which continued in the western part of central India in the 5th century AD and aracterised the grants of the Valabhi rulers to their onees in the 6th and 7th centuries.
Land grants giving rise to feudal conditions are typical in Gupta times of those areas which were forested and mountainous and hence less exposed to commerce and the use of money. Evidently religious or other services were paid by land grants mainly in those areas which suffered from lack of money. According to the charters, in return for land grants the priests were obliged to render religious services, which might secure the spiritual welfare; of the donors or their ancestors.
The secular obligations of the priestly beneficiaries are rarely laid down; an example is the Chammak copperplate of the Vakataka king Pravarsena II. It enjoins that they (one thousand brahmanas) shall not conspire against the king and the kingdom, commit theft and adultery, slay brahmanas, and poison kings etc. Further, they shall not wage war and do wrong to other villages.
Epigraphic land grants made to officers for their military and administrative services are lacking although such a possibility cannot be entirely ruled out. Some inscriptions show that villages were granted to secular parties, who administered them for religious purposes.
Certain designations of administrative officers and units of the Gupta period suggest that land revenues were granted for remunerating government services. The titles bhogika and bhogapatika suggest that these officers were assigned offices not so much for exercising royal authority over the subjects and working for their welfare as for enjoying the revenues.
The process of conquest, by which smaller chiefs were reduced to subordination and reinstated in their positions, provided they paid regular tributes and did homage, contributed to the growth of feudal polity. The obligations of the feudatories towards the sovereign are clearly set forth in the Allahabad inscription. The term samanta is not used for the conquered feudatories of Samudragupta.
It was from the fifth century AD onwards that the term samanta was used in the sense of vassals in South India, for the phrase samanta chudamanyah appears in a Pallava inscription of the time of Shantivarman (AD455-70).
In north India the earliest uses of the term in a similar sense have been found in a Bengal inscription, and in the Barabar Hill cave inscription of the Maukhari chief Anantavarman, in which his father is described as samanta-chudamanih (the best among feudatories). Gradually the application of the term samanta was extended from defeated chiefs to royal officials. Thus, in the inscriptions dated in the Kalachuri- Chedi era, from AD 597 onwards rajas and samantas took place of uparikas and kumaramatyas.
The contrast between the Maurya and the Gupta system of administration is evident. Inspite of divine elements being attributed to him, the Gupta king was not as powerful as his. Maurya counterpart. His army, bureaucracy and taxation system were not as elaborate as those of the Mauryas. Officials tended to be hereditary and strong through occasional grants ofland revenues.
The Gupta rulers, in both rural and urban areas, initiated the first systematic provincial and local administration with which landed; military and professional interests were associated. The period marked the sudden elevation of village administration to a high position of authority.
This was a necessary concomitant of the reduction of the bureaucratic staff. Local elements also played an important part in the administration of law and justice which seems to have been far more organized in this than in any earlier period. On the whole, we notice distinct feudal traits in the Gupta system of administration which prepared the way for a complete feudal structure in subsequent times (R.S.Sharma).