Much power was left in the hands of individual villages and city governments elected by merchants and artisans. Faxian (FAH shyahn), a Chinese Buddhist monk who visited India in the 400s, reported on the mild nature of Gupta rule:

The people are numerous and happy … Only those who cultivate the royal land have to pay [a portion of] the grain from it. … The king governs without corporal punishment. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances [of each case].

—Faxian, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms

Trade and farming flourished across the Gupta empire. Farmers harvested crops of wheat, rice, and sugar cane. In cities, artisans produced cotton cloth and pottery, and made advances in metal-ware. Their goods were sold in local markets and exported to East Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The prosperity of Gupta India contributed to a flowering in the arts and learning.

Illustration of an Indian doctor treating a patient at home, lying in bed. Doctor is checking the patients pulse and has a kit of bottles and salves open.

Indian physicians often used a medical system called Ayurveda, which treats illness by addressing every part of the patient's life, from diet and exercise to herbal remedies. This method is still used in India.

Gupta Rule Encourages Learning

In India, as elsewhere during this period, students were educated in religious schools. In Hindu and Buddhist centers, learning was not limited to religion and philosophy. The large Buddhist monastery-university at Nalanda, which attracted students from many parts of Asia, taught mathematics, medicine, physics, languages, literature, and other subjects.

Indian advances in mathematics had a wide impact on the rest of the world. Gupta mathematicians devised a simple system of writing numbers that we use today. These numerals are often called “Arabic” numerals because Arabs carried them from India to the Middle East and Europe. Indian mathematicians originated the concept of zero and developed the decimal system of numbers based on the number 10, which we still use today.

Advances in mathematics spurred progress in astronomy. Books by Indian mathematicians were translated into Arabic, which influenced learning in the Middle East. From there, advances in astronomy eventually reached Europe.

By Gupta times, Indian physicians were using herbs and other remedies to treat illness. Surgeons were skilled in setting bones and in simple surgery to repair facial injuries. Doctors may also have begun vaccinating people against smallpox about 1,000 years before this practice was used in Europe.

Expanding India's Literature

During Gupta times, many fine writers added to the rich heritage of Indian literature. They collected and recorded fables and folk tales in the Sanskrit language. In time, Indian fables were carried west to Persia, Egypt, and Greece.

The greatest Gupta poet and playwright was Kalidasa. His most famous play, Shakuntala(shahk oon TAH luh), tells the story of a king who marries the lovely orphan Shakuntala. Under an evil spell, the king forgets his bride. After many plot twists, he finally recovers his memory and is reunited with her.

The Decline of the Gupta Empire

Eventually, Gupta India declined under the pressure of civil war, weak rulers, and foreign invaders. From central Asia came the White Huns, a nomadic people who overran the weakened Gupta empire, destroying its cities and trade. Once again, India split into many kingdoms. It would see no other great empire like those of the Mauryas or Guptas for almost 1,000 years.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments