|Reign||c. 335/350-375 CE|
|Predecessor||Chandragupta I, possibly Kacha|
|Successor||Chandragupta II, possibly Ramagupta|
|Issue||Chandragupta II, possibly Ramagupta|
Samudragupta (Gupta script: Sa-mu-dra-gu-pta, r. c. 335/350-375 CE) was a ruler of the Gupta Empire of present-day India. As a son of the Gupta emperor Chandragupta I and the Licchavi princess Kumaradevi, he greatly expanded his dynasty's political power.
The Allahabad Pillar inscription, a prashasti (eulogy) composed by his courtier Harishena, credits him with extensive military conquests. It suggests that he defeated several kings of northern India, and annexed their territories to his empire. He also marched along the south-eastern coast of India, advancing as far as the Pallava kingdom. In addition, he subjugated several frontier kingdoms and tribal oligarchies. His empire extended from Ravi River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east, and from the Himalayan foothills in the north to central India in the south-west; several rulers along the south-eastern coast were his tributaries.
Samudragupta performed the Ashvamedha sacrifice to prove his imperial sovereignty, and according to his coins, remained undefeated. His gold coins and inscriptions suggest that he was an accomplished poet, and also played music. His expansionist policy was continued by his son Chandragupta II.
Modern scholars variously assign the start of Samudragupta's reign from c. 319 CE to c. 350 CE.
The inscriptions of the Gupta kings are dated in the Gupta calendar era, whose epoch is generally dated to c. 319 CE. However, the identity of the era's founder is a matter of debate, and scholars variously attribute its establishment to Chandragupta I or Samudragupta. Chandragupta I probably had a long reign, as the Allahabad Pillar inscription suggests that he appointed his son as his successor, presumably after reaching an old age. However, the exact period of his reign is uncertain. For these reasons, the beginning of Samudragupta's reign is also uncertain.
If Samudragupta is regarded as the founder of the Gupta era, his ascension can be dated to c. 319-320 CE. On the other hand, if his father Chandragupta I is regarded as the founder of the Gupta era, Samudragupta's ascension must be dated to a later date. Samudragupta was a contemporary of king Meghavarna of Anuradhapura Kingdom, but the regnal period of this king is also uncertain. According to the traditional reckoning adopted in Sri Lanka for Buddha's death, he ruled during 304-332 CE; but the modified chronology adopted by modern scholars such as Wilhelm Geiger assigns his reign to 352-379 CE. Accepting the former date would place Samudragupta's ascension to c. 320 CE; accepting the latter date would place it around c. 350 CE.
The end of Samudragupta's reign is also uncertain. Samudragupta's granddaughter Prabhavatigupta is known to have married during the reign of his son Chandragupta II, in c. 380 CE (assuming c. 319 CE as the epoch of the Gupta era). Therefore, the end of Samudragupta's reign can be placed before this year.
Various estimates of Samudragupta's regnal period include:
Samudragupta was a son of the Gupta king Chandragupta I and queen Kumaradevi, who came from a Licchavi family. His fragmentary Eran stone inscription states that his father selected him as the successor because of his "devotion, righteous conduct, and valour". His Allahabad Pillar inscription similarly describes how Chandragupta called him a noble person in front of the courtiers, and appointed him to "protect the earth". These descriptions suggest that Chandragupta renounced the throne in his old age, and appointed his son as the next king.
According to the Allahabad Pillar inscription, when Chandragupta appointed him as the next ruler, the faces of other people of "equal birth" bore a "melancholy look". One interpretation suggests that these other people were neighbouring kings, and Samudagupta's ascension to the throne was uncontested. Another theory is that these other people were Gupta princes who made a rival claim to the throne. If Chandragputa I indeed had multiple sons, it is likely that Samudragupta's background as the son of a Lichchhavi princess worked in his favour.
The coins of a Gupta ruler named Kacha, whose identity is debated by modern scholars, describe him as "the exterminator of all kings". These coins closely resmble the coins issued by Samudragupta. According to one theory, Kacha was an earlier name of Samudragupta: the king adopted the regnal name Samudra ("Ocean"), after extending his territory up to the ocean. An alternatively theory is that Kacha was a distinct king (possibly a rival claimant to the throne) who flourished before or after Samudragupta.
The Gupta inscriptions suggest that Samudragupta had a remarkable military career. The Eran stone inscription of Samudragupta states that he had brought "the whole tribe of kings" under his suzerainty, and that his enemies were terrified when they thought of him in their dreams. The inscription does not name any of the defeated kings (presumably because its primary objective was to record the installation of a Vishnu idol in a temple), but it suggests that Samudragupta had subdued several kings by this time. The later Allahabad Pillar inscription, a panegyric written by Samudragupta's minister and military officer Harishena, credits him with extensive conquests. It gives the most detailed account of Samudragupta's military conquests, listing them in mainly geographical and partly chronological order. It states that Samudragupta fought a hundred battles, acquired a hundred wounds that looked like marks of glory, and earned the title Prakrama (valourous). The Mathura stone inscription of Chandragupta II describes Samudragupta as an "exterminator of all kings", as someone who had no equally powerful enemy, and as a person whose "fame was tasted by the waters of the four oceans".
Modern scholars offer various opinions regarding Samudragupta's possible motivations behind his extensive military campaigns. The Allahabad Pillar inscription suggests that Samudragupta's aim was the unification of the earth (dharani-bandha), which suggests that he may have aspired to become a Chakravartin (a universal ruler). The Ashvamedha performances by the Nagas, whom he defeated, may have influenced him as well. His southern expedition may have been motivated by economic considerations of controlling the trade between India and South-East Asia.
The early portion of the Allahabad Pillar inscription mentions that Samudragupta "uprooted" Achyuta, Nagasena, and a ruler whose name is lost in the damaged portion of the inscription. The third name ends in "-ga", and is generally restored as Ganapati-naga, because Achyuta-nandin (presumably same as Achyuta), Nagasena, and Ganapati-naga are once again mentioned in the later part of the inscription, among the kings of Aryavarta (northern India) defeated by Samudragupta. These kings are identified as the rulers of present-day western Uttar Pradesh (see below). According to the inscription, Samudragupta reinstated these rulers after they sought his forgiveness.
It is not clear why the names of these three kings is repeated later in the inscription. According to one theory, these three kings were vassal rulers who rebelled against Samudragupta after the death of his father. Samudragupta crushed the rebellion, and reinstated them after they sought his forgiveness. Later, these rulers rebelled once more, and Samudragupta defeated them again. Another possibility is that the author of the inscription thought it necessary to repeat these names while describing Samudragupta's later conquests in Aryavarta, simply because these kings belonged to that region.
Samudragupta dispatched an army to capture the scion of the Kota family, whose identity is uncertain. The Kotas may have been the rulers of present-day Punjab, where coins bearing the legend "Kota", and featuring a symbol of Shiva and his bull, have been discovered.
The inscription states that the Gupta army captured the Kota ruler, while Samudragupta himself "played" (or pleased himself) in a city called Pushpa (the name Pushpa-pura referred to Pataliputra at Samudragupta's time, although it came to be used for Kanyakubja in the later period). Modern scholars have interpreted the word "played" in various ways: According to one theory, this portion describes Samudragupta's achievements as a prince. An alternative interpretation is that Samudragupta dispatched his army on these campaigns, while he himself stayed at the capital. It is also possible that the poet intended to convey that these campaigns were minor affairs that did not require the king's direct involvement at the battlefront.
The exact identification of several of these kings is debated among modern scholars, but it is clear that these kings ruled areas located on the eastern coast of India. Samudragupta most probably passed through the forest tract of central India, reached the eastern coast in present-day Odisha, and then marched south along the coast of Bay of Bengal.
The inscription states that Samudragupta later released these kings, and favoured (anugraha) them. Most modern scholars theorize that Samudragupta reinstated these rulers as his tributaries. M. G. S. Narayanan interprets the word anugraha differently based on its occurrence in the Arthashastra; he theorizes that Samudragupta gave "protection and aid" to these kingdoms in order to secure their alliances.
Some scholars, such as J. Dubreuil and B. V. Krishnarao, theorized that Samudragupta only advanced up to the Krishna river, and was forced to retreat without fighting a battle, when the southern kings formed a strong confederacy to oppose him. According to these scholars, the claim that Samudragupta released these kings is an attempt by Samudragupta's courtier to cover up the emperor's failure. However, there is no evidence of the southern kings forming a confederacy against Samudragupta. Historian Ashvini Agrawal notes that setting free a captured king is inline with the ancient Indian political ideals. For example, Kautilya defines three types of conquerors: the righteous conqueror (dharma-vijayi), who restores the defeated king in exchange for his acknowledgment of the conqueror's suzerainty; the coveteous conqueror (lobha-vijayi), who takes away the possessions of the defeated king but spares his life; and the demoniac conqueror (asura-vijayi), who annexes the territory of the defeated king and kills him. Such political ideals existed in the Gupta period too, as evident from Kalidasa's statement in Raghuvamsha that "the righteous victorious monarch (Raghu) only took away the royal glory of the lord of Mahendra who had been captured and released, but not his kingdom." Therefore, it is likely that Samudragupta acted like a righteous conqueror, and restored the defeated kings as his vassals.
Unlike the southern kings, the inscription does not mention the territories ruled by these kings, which suggests that their kingdoms were annexed to the Gupta empire. The inscription also mentions that Samudragupta defeated some other kings, but does not mention their names, presumably because the poet saw them as unimportant.
According to the Allahabad Pillar inscription, Samudragupta reduced all the kings of the forest region (atavika) to subservience. This forest region may have been located in central India: the inscriptions of the Parivrajaka dynasty, which ruled in this area, state that their ancestral kingdom was located within the 18 forest kingdoms.
The Allahabad Pillar inscription mentions that rulers of several frontier kingdoms and tribal oligarchies paid Samudragupta tributes, obeyed his orders, and performed obeisance before him. The inscription explicitly describes the five kingdoms as frontier territories: the areas controlled by the tribes were also probably located at the frontier of Samudrgupta's kingdom.
Historian Upinder Singh theorizes that the relationship of these frontier rulers to the Gupta emperor had "certain elements of a feudatory relationship". According to historian R. C. Majumdar, it is likely that Samudragupta's conquests in Aryavarta and Dakshinapatha increased his reputation to such an extent that the frontier rulers and tribes submitted him without a fight.
The frontier kingdoms included:
The tribal oligarchies included:
Samudragupta's inscription mentions that several kings tried to please him by attending on him personally; offering him their daughters in marriage (or, according to another interpretation, gifting him maidens); and seeking the use of the Garuda-depicting Gupta seal for administering their own territories. These kings included "Daivaputra-Shahi-Shahanushahi, Shaka-Murundas, and the rulers of the island countries such as Simhala".
Samudragupta's empire included a core territory, located in northern India, which was directly controlled by the emperor. Besides, it comprised a number of monarchical and tribal tributary states. Historian R. C. Majumdar theorizes that Samudragupta directly controlled an area extending from the Ravi River (Punjab) in the west to the Brahmaputra River (Bengal and Assam) in the east, and from the Himalayan foothills in the north to the Vindhya hills in the south. The south-western boundary of his territory roughly followed an imaginary line drawn from present-day Karnal to Bhilsa.
In the south, Samudragupta's empire definitely included Eran in present-day Madhya Pradesh, where his inscription has been found. The Allahabad Pillar inscription suggests that he advanced up to Kanchipuram in the south. However, since the claims in the Allahabad Pillar inscription are from a royal eulogy, they must be treated with caution. The southern kings were not under his direct suzerainty: they only paid him tribute.
According to historian Kunal Chakrabarti, Samudragupta's military campaigns weakened the tribal republics of present-day Punjab and Rajasthan, but even these kingdoms were not under his direct suzerainty: they only paid him tribute. Samudragupta's claim of control over other kings is questionable. Historian Ashvini Agrawal notes that a gold coin of the Gadahara tribe bears the legend Samudra, which suggests that Samudragupta's control extended up to the Chenab river in the Punjab region.
Some earlier scholars, such as J. F. Fleet believed that Samudragupta had also conquered a part of Maharashtra, based on the identification of Devarashtra with Maharashtra, and Erandapalla with Erandol, where some Gupta-era remains have been found. However, this theory is no longer considered correct.
The coinage of the Gupta Empire was initially derived from the coinage of the Kushan Empire, adopting its weight standard, techniques and designs, following the conquests of Samudragupta in the northwest of the subcontinent. The Guptas even adopted from the Kushans the name of Dinara for their coinage, which ultimately came form the Roman name Denarius aureus. The standard coin type of Samudragupta is highly similar to the coinage of the later Kushan rulers, including the sacrifical scene over an altar, the depiction of a halo, while differences include the headdress of the ruler (a close-fitting cap instead of the Kushan pointed hat), the Garuda standard instead of the trident, and Samudragupta's jewelry, which is Indian.
The following types of Samudragupta's coins have been discovered:
Various scholars, including numismatist John Allan, consider that the gold coins bearing the portraits of Chandragupta and Kumaradevi were issued by Samudragupta to commemorate his parents, while others have attributed the issue of these coins to Chandragupta himself.
Two inscriptions from Samudragupta's reign have been discovered:
Fleet theorized that the Allahabad Pillar inscription was posthumous, and was issued during the reign of Chandragupta II, but modern scholars disagree with this theory.
Two other records are attributed to Samudragupta's reign, but the genuineness of these records is disputed:
Both these inscriptions state that they were written at the order of the Gupta officer Gopaswamin. Like the Mathura stone inscription of Chandragupta II, these records describe Samudragupta as the "restorer of the Ashvamedha sacrifice". It seems suspicious that records issued so early in Samudragupta's reign mention this claim, which does not appear in the later Allahabad Pillar inscription. One possibility is that these records were issued during Samudragupta's reign, and were damaged after sometime, because of which they were restored during the reign of Chandragupta II.
At Eran, an inscription by Samudragupta seems to succeed that of a local Saka ruler named Sridharavarman, already known from the Kanakerha inscription at Sanchi and another inscription in Eran. Samudragupta may therefore have ousted Sridharavarman in his campaigns to the West. The Eran Inscription of Samudragupta is presently stored in Kolkata Indian Museum. The inscription, in red sandstone, was found not far to the west of the ruined temple of the boar. It reads:
(Lines 1 to 6, containing the whole of the first verse and the first half of the second, are entirely broken away and lost.)
(Line 7.)-- ....................................in giving gold ...................................... [by whom] Prithu and Râghava and other kings [were outshone.]
(L. 9.)-- . . . . . . . . . there was Samudragupta, equal to (the gods) Dhanada and Antaka in (respectively) pleasure and anger; . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . by policy; (and) [by whom] the whole tribe of kings upon the earth was [overthrown] and reduced to the loss of the wealth of their sovereignty;--
(L. 13.)-- [Who], by . . . . . . . . . satisfied by devotion and policy and valour,--by the glories, consisting of the consecration by besprinkling, &c., that belong to the title of 'king,'-- (and) by . . . . . . . . . . . combined with supreme satisfaction, -- .................. (was) a king whose vigour could not be resisted;--
(L. 17.)-- [By whom] there was married a virtuous and faithful wife, whose dower was provided by (his) manliness and prowess; who was possessed of an abundance of [elephants] and horses and money and grain; who delighted in the houses of .............; (and) who went about in the company of many sons and sons' sons;--
(L. 21.)-- Whose deeds in battle (are) kindled with prowess; (whose) . . . . . . very mighty fame is always circling round about; and whose enemies are terrified, when they think, even in the intervals of dreaming, of (his). . . . . . . that are vigorous in war; --
(L. 25.) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . in a place in Airikina (Eran), the city of his own enjoyment. . . . . . . . . . . . . has been set up, for the sake of augmenting his own fame.
(L. 27.) -- . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . when the king said . . . . . . .
(The rest of the inscription is entirely broken away and lost.)-- Eran inscription of Samudragupta
Samudragputa's Eran inscription records the installation of a Vishnu idol in a temple. The Nalanda and Gaya inscriptions attributed to Samudragupta explicitly call him a devotee of Vishnu (parama-bhagavata), but the authenticity of these inscriptions is doubtful. He was also tolerant towards Buddhism, and permitted the construction of a Buddhist monastery commissioned by the Anuradhapura king Meghavarna at Bodh Gaya in his territory.
The Allahabad Pillar inscription states that Samudragupta was engaged in the performance of the Brahmanical ceremonies of Sattra (Soma sacrifices) and Diksha. It describes him as "the giver of many hundreds of thousands of cows". The Mathura stone inscription of his son Chandragupta II also describes him as the giver of "millions of cows and gold". It appears that Samudragupta donated these cows to the Brahmins who officiated his Sattra and Diksha ceremonies. The Eran inscription states that Samudragupta surpassed Prithu, Raghava and other legendary kings in giving gold.
The Allahabad Pillar inscription alludes to his divine kingship, comparing him to the Parama Purusha (supreme being), and also with deities such as Dhanada (Kubera), Varuna, Indra, and Antaka (Yama). The Eran inscription states that he was equal to Kubera and Yama in pleasure and anger respectively. The Mathura stone inscription similarly describes him as equal to the deities Kubera, Varuna, Indra, and Yama.
Samudragupta performed the Ashvamedha ritual (horse sacrifice), which was used by the ancient Indian kings to prove their imperial sovereignty, and issued gold coins (see Coinage section) to mark this performance. The copper-plate inscriptions of Samudragupta's granddaughter Prabhavati-gupta, who was a Vakataka queen, describe him as the performer of multiple horse sacrifices. According to one theory, Samudragupta indeed performed more than one horse sacrifices, as attested by the presence of two different legends on his Ashvamedha coins. Another theory dismisses the claim on Prabhavati-gupta's inscriptions as an exaggeration or a scribal error, since this claim does not appear on the inscriptions of Samudragupta or his successors.
The Mathura stone inscription of Chandragupta II describes Samudragupta as "the restorer of the Ashvamedha sacrifice that had been long in abeyance" (Smith's translation). This claim also appears in the inscriptions of the subsequent Gupta kings, as well as the spurious Gaya and Nalanda inscriptions attributed to Samudragupta. However, several kings including those from Bharashiva, Vakataka, Shalankayana, and Pallava dynasties had had performed Ashvamedha in the preceding years. Different scholars have attempted to explain this anamoly in different ways: H. C. Raychaudhuri suggests that the Gupta court poet did not know about these kings. According to R. C. Majumdar, Samudragupta was the first king several centuries to perform the sacrifice in the Magadha region. Majumdar also theorizes that the Ashvamedha ceremony performed by Bharashiva, Vakataka, and other near-contemporary kings was "more of a religious nature", while Samudragupta's ceremony actually involved proving his imperial sovereignty. Similarly, scholars such as S. K. Aiyangar and D. R. Bhandarkar, theorize that unlike the other kings, Samudragupta performed a "full-fledged" Ashvamedha ceremony. Others, such as V. S. Pathak and Jagannath Agrawal, interpret the verse to mean that Samudragupta performed the horse-sacrifice that lasted for a long-time.
The surviving verses of Samudragupta's own Allahabad Pillar inscription do not mention the Ashvamedha ceremony. According to one theory, this inscription was put up to mark the beginning of the ceremony, as the pangyerics of the sacrificer were an essential part of the Ashvamedha ceremony. It is possible that its first four lines, which are now lost, contained a reference to the ceremony.
Samudragupta's coins depict him as a man of tall stature and muscular physique. The Allahabd Pillar inscription presents him as a compassionate ruler, stating that his "mind was engaged in providing relief to the low, the poor, the helpless, and the afflicted". It also mentions that he reinstated many royal families which had lost their kingdoms, including the kings defeated by him. At the same time, it states that he maintained strict administration ("prachanda shasana").
The inscription states that Samudragupta became famous among the learned people because of his poetical works, and earned the epithet "king of poets". This suggests that he composed some poetical works, but none of these works now survive.
The inscription also boasts that Samudragupta put to shame the celestial musician Tumburu and Narada by his lovely performances of music. Samudragupta's musical talents are also corroborated by his gold coins which depict him playing a veena.
The official records of the Gupta dynasty state that Samudragupta was succeeded by Chandragupta II, who was his son from queen Dattadevi. Based on a reconstruction of the partially-lost Sanskrit play Devichandraguptam, a section of modern historians believe that Samudragupta was succeeded by Ramagupta, who was later dethroned by Chandragupta II.