Guptas: Literature, scientific literature- Part I

Guptas: Literature, scientific literature- Part I

  • Sanskrit language and literature after centuries of evolution, through lavish royal patronage reached to the level of classical excellence. Sanskrit was the court language of the Guptas.
    • The Sanskrit language acquired its classical form, both in poetry and prose.
  • Gupta period was a bright phase in the history of classical literature and one that developed an ornate style that was different from the old simple Sanskrit. From this period onwards we find a greater emphasis on verse than on prose, and also a few commentaries.

Epics and Puranas:

  • The Puranas had existed much before the time of the Guptas in the form of bardic literature; in the Gupta age they were finally compiled and given their present form.
  • A section of the Visnudharmottara Purana deals with painting and gives detailed instructions about surface preparation in fresco paintings and the use of different colors in them.
  • The two great epics namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were almost completed by the 4th century A.D.
  • Although the epics and Puranas seem to have been compiled by the brahmanas, they represent the kshatriya tradition.
    • They are replete with myths, legends, and exaggerations.
    • They may reflect social developments but are not dependable for political history.
  • Bharavi is best known for Kiratarjuniya, written around 550 CE.
    • Kirat is Shiva who speaks to Arjuna in for form of a mountain dwelling hunter.
    • This is epic style Kavya in Sanskrit.


  • The period also saw the compilation of various Smritis or the law-books written in verse.
  • Several Dharmashastra works were composed in this period:
    • Yajnavalkya Smriti,
    • Narada Smriti,
    • Katyayana Smriti, and
    • Brihaspati Smritis
  • The phase of writing commentaries on the Smritis begins after the Gupta period.

Secular literature:

  • The Gupta period is remarkable for the production of secular literature.
  • Ashvaghosha (1st century CE) was the first known writer to use Sanskrit for non-religious compositions.
  • There was an increase in the use of prose in Sanskrit literature during this period.
  • The Allahabad prashasti is in mixed prose and verse (this style is known as champu kavya).
  • This is also the time when the transition from Prakrit to Sanskrit in royal inscriptions became complete.
    • Natyashastra prescribes that in Sanskrit drama, the ‘high’ characters such as kings, ministers, etc. speak in Sanskrit, while the ‘low’ characters such as women (even queens) and servants generally speak in Prakrit.
    • This sort of convention was in fact followed in Sanskrit dramas.
  • Principles of poetics and dramaturgy:
    • Apart from kavya literature, there were works that laid down the principles of poetics (kavyakriyakalpa) and dramaturgy (natyashastra). There is considerable overlap in these two subjects.
      • Bhamaha’s Kavyalankara and Dandin’s Kavyadarsha deal principally with poetics.
      • The main function of kavya, according to these treatises, is to produce delight or joy.
      • There must have been interaction between the writers (kavis) and theoreticians.
      • The Natyashastra is the oldest known treatise on drama.
    • Apart from select performances for elite audiences consisting of kings and wealthy patrons, kavya probably obtained its widest audience in dramas performed in popular festivals.
    • Plays were performed in kings’ palaces and some kings were themselves gifted kavis.
    • Nagarakas were supposed to organize and participate in social gatherings (goshthis) and festivals (samajas) that included dramas.
    • Most of the kavis seem to have been Brahmanas.
    • The plays produced in India during the Gupta period have two common features. ‘
      • First, they are mostly comedies; no tragedies are found.
      • Secondly, characters of the higher and lower classes do not speak the same language; women and shudras featuring in these plays use Prakrit whereas the higher classes use Sanskrit.
  • Natyashastra:
    • The Natyashastra is the oldest known treatise on drama.
    • The Natyashastra tells us that natya was created as a plaything (kridaniyaka) to give pleasure and divert minds weary of the problems, conflicts, and miseries of daily life.
    • The text tells us that the Natyashastra was passed on by Brahma to a sage named Bharata as a fifth Veda in order to save the world from evil passions by a means which, unlike the four Vedas, was accessible to all people.
    • The Natyashastra is a composite work reflecting the codification and compilation of earlier material. This may have initially existed in the form of oral traditions, and later in the form of prose sutras, to which verses and commentary were subsequently added.
    • The Natyashastra deals with all aspects of dramatic performances:
      • It discusses abhinaya, i.e., the ways in which actors can communicate a dramatic experience to the audience through speech, expressions, various movements of the body, props, costumes, and ornaments.
      • It also discusses:
        • the construction of the theatre,
        • types of plays,
        • the plot and structure of plays,
        • characters, dialogues, the ideal time of performances, and the ideal qualities of actors and audiences.
      • Elaborate props and a drop curtain are noticeably absent.
      • Song and dance were important elements of plays and there are references to street plays.
    • Rasa:
      • One of the central concepts discussed in the Natyashastra is rasa.
      • The combination of the causes and effects of emotions give rise to a particular rasa or aesthetic experience in the audience, leading to pleasure and satisfaction.
      • The text lists eight rasas associated with eight corresponding basic emotions: shringara rasa, hasya rasa, karuna rasa, raudra rasa, vira rasa, bhayanaka rasa, bhibhatsa rasa and adbhuta rasa.
    • Scenes not to be shown on stage:
      • death, eating, fighting, kissing, and bathing.
    • The hero was supposed to triumph at the end of the play.
      • Unlike Greek drama, Sanskrit drama does not have a tradition of tragedy.
      • There may be plenty of sorrow and suffering in the course of the play, but it usually ends on a positive note.
  • Kalidasa:
    • Among the known Sanskrit poets of the period, the greatest name is that of Kalidasa who is believed to live in the court of Chandragupta II.
    • His dramas and poems are considered masterpieces of Sanskrit literature.
    • Dramas:
      • Abhijnanashakuntalam
        • It relates the love story of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, whose son Bharata appears as a famous ruler.
      • Malavikagnimitra
      • Vikramorvashiya
    • Poems:
      • Raghuvamsha
      • Kumarasambhava
        • deals with the union of Shiva and Parvati and birth of their son Kartikeya
      • Meghaduta
      • Ritusamhara
    • Known for his beautiful poetic descriptions of love, his works also display an element of humour in some places.
    • His style is considered an example of the Vaidarbhi style, i.e., the style of the Vidarbha region.
    • Banabhatta and Dandin praise the sweetness (madhurya) of his writing.
    • However, Kalidasa also invited some criticism from ancient critics.
      • For instance, Mammata in his Kavyaprakasha describes some part of the Kumarasambhava, where Kalidasa describes the love making of Shiva and Parvati, as improper.
  • Bhasa:
    • Bhasa was an important playwright in the early phase of the Gupta period and wrote thirteen plays.
    • He wrote in Sanskrit, but his dramas also contain a substantial amount of Prakrit.
    • Works:
      • Madhyamavyayoga
      • DutaGhatotkacha
      • Dutavakya
      • Balacharita
      • Charudatta
    • He was the author of a drama called Dradiracharudatta, which was later refashioned as Mrichchhakatika or the Little Clay Cart by Shudraka.
      • The play deals with the love affair of a poor brahmana trader with a beautiful courtesan, and is considered one of the best works of ancient drama.
    • In his plays Bhasa uses the term yavanika for the curtain, which suggests Greek contact.
  • Shudraka:
    • He wrote the drama Mrichcbhakatika or the little Clay cart.
  • Vishakadatta:
    • He is the author of the Mudrarakshasa, which deals with the schemes of the shrewd Chanakya.
    • The Devichandraguptam another drama written by him, has survived only in fragments.
  • Mentha:
    • Author of a work called Hayagrivavadha, was a great dramatist of the time but he is known through references and quotations in the writings of later writers and literary critics.
  • Dandin:
    • He had written Kavyadarshana and Dasakumarcharita.
    • He lived in Kanchi and is best known for Dasakumarcharita “The Tale of the Ten Princes” which depicts the adventures of 10 princes.
    • Dasakumarcharita was first translated in 1927 as Hindoo Tales and The Adventures of the Ten Prince.
  • Philosophical texts:
    • Philosophical texts reflect the debates of the time and refute their rivals’ positions.
    • New sections added in this period to the Brahmasutras, Yogasutras, and Nyayasutras, included a refutation of the Buddhist and Jaina schools.
    • The many philosophical texts and scholars belonging to this time include:
      • Samkhya-karika of Ishvarakrishna, which gives a systematic account of Samkhya philosophy, and seems to belong to the 4th/5th century.
      • Vyasa’s commentary on Patanjali’s Yogasutra may also belong roughly to this period.
      • Vatsyayana was the author of Nyaya Sutra Bhashya, which was the first commentary on Gautama’s Nyaya Sutras.
        • He also wrote Kamasutra, a treatise on Human Sexual behavior and makes the part of the Kamashashtra.
      • Prashastapada’s Padarthadharmasangraha, a commentary on the Vaisheshika Sutra of Kanada, can be assigned to the 5th century.
      • Noted scholars of Mimamsa included Prabhakara and Kumarila Bhatta, who lived in the 7th century.
  • Panchatantra:
    • It is a storybook of that era.
    • It seems to have been originally composed with a view to imparting to young princes instruction in political science and practical conduct.
    • The Panchatantra is an example of a nidarshana— a work which shows through illustration what should and should not be done.
    • Its stories are presented as narrated by a sage named Vishnusharman.
    • The three princes whom Vishnusharman instructs in niti (policy, statecraft) through many engaging stories have names ending in the suffix ‘shakti’, which suggests the possibility that the work was composed in the Vakataka empire.
    • The text is divided into five sections illustrating the following topics:
      • splitting an alliance that is contrary to one’s interest,
      • forming an alliance,
      • waging war,
      • getting the better of a fool, and
      • the results of action without reflection.
      • Most of the Panchatantra stories are amusing, satirical tales in which animals play an important role.
      • The style is elegant prose, interspersed with verses.

Sanskrit grammar:

  • The Gupta period also saw the development of Sanskrit grammar based on Panini (Ashtadhyayi) and Patanjali (Mahabhashya).
  • Bhartrihari (5th century):
    • He wrote a commentary on Patanjali’s Mahabhashya.
    • Bhartrhari composed the Vakyapadiya, which deals with philosophy of language in general, and discusses sentence and word in Sanskrit language.
  • Bhatti’s Ravanavadha (7th century) illustrates the rules of grammar while telling the story of Rama’s life.
  • Amarakosha by Amarasimha, who was a luminary in the court of Chandragupta II.
    • This was lexicon to learn Sanskrit.
  • A Buddhist scholar from Bengal, Chandragomia, composed a book on grammar, named Chandravyakaranam.
    • It was very popular in Kashmir, Nepal and Tibet and later reached Sri Lanka.

Buddhist and Jaina literature:

  • Buddhist and Jaina literature in Sanskrit were also written during the Gupta period.
  • Buddhist scholars Arya Deva, Arya Asanga and Vasubandhu of the Gupta period were the most notable writers. Most of the works are in prose with verse passages in mixed Sanskrit.
  • First regular Budhist work on logic was written by Vasubandhu. His disciple, Dignaga, was also the author of many works.
  • Epics and Puranas were recast in Jaina version to popularise their doctrines.
    • Vimala produced a Jaina version of Ramayana.
    • Siddhasena Divakara laid the foundation of logic among the Jainas.

Prakrit Language and Literature:

  • The Gupta age witnessed the evolution of many Prakrit forms such as Suraseni used in Mathura and its vicinity, Ardhamagadhi spoken in Oudh and Bundelkhand, Magadhi in Bihar and Maharashtri in Berar.


  • The Allahabad Pillar inscription of Samudragputa by his court poet Harisena and the Mandasor inscription by Vatsabhatti possess some characteristics features of Sanskrit Kavya.
  • Three other inscriptions may be mentioned in this connection and these can be named as the Junagadh inscription, the Mehrauli iron pillars inscription and the Mandasor inscription of Yasovarman by Vasula. All the three inscriptions show considerable literary merit.
Important Literary Works During the Gupta Period
Works Creators
Ramayan Valmiki
Mahabharata Ved Vyasa
Raghuvansa, Ritusamhara, Meghaduta Kalidas
Ravanabadha Batsabhatti
Kavyadarshana and Dasakumarcharita Dandin
Kiratarjuniyam Bharavi
Nitishataka Bhartrihari
Vikramovarshiya, Malvikagnimitra and Abhijnansakuntalam Mrichchakatika Kalidasa
Pratignayaugandharayana Bhasa
Mudrarakshasa and Devichandraguptam Vishakhadatta
Pragya-Prasasti Harisena
Sankhyakarika Ishwar Krishna
Nyaya Bhasya Vatsyayana
Vyasa Bhasya Acharya Vyasa
Amarakosha Amarsimha
Chandravyakarana Chandragomin
Kavyadarsha Dandin
Narrative Story
Panchatantra and Hitopadesha Vishnu Sharma
Mathematics and Astronomy
Aryabhattiya Aryabhatta
Brihatsamhita and Panchasidhantika Varamihira
Suryasidhanta Brahmagupta
Miscellaneous Works
Nitisastra Kamandaka
Kamsutra Vatsyayana
Kavyalankara Bhamah

2 thoughts on “Guptas: Literature, scientific literature- Part I”

  1. In the table given by you in the last which is titled “Important literary works from Gupta period” has plays and playwrights from 1/2nd century AD and some are of even before this period.
    This is kind of misleading please correct the mistake.

    1. You will find the same in standard books also as many of those don’t have clear date or became famous or written during Guptas

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