Discrimination in the Gupta Period

Image contains map of Indian subcontinent with location of Gupta Empire in blue. By Deepak Gupta (Own work) [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image contains map of Indian subcontinent with location of Gupta Empire in blue. By Deepak Gupta (Own work) [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hello everyone! For our first blog post we would be covering The Gupta Empire. More specifically we would be going through the practices and customs of the Guptas. As Professor Heather said that no one has done a blog post on the Gupta Empire for the past five semesters we decided to take on this task.. Here’s a brief summary and introduction of the Guptas. Let’s head back to 320-550AD where they ruled the Indian subcontinent , ultimately ushering into a golden age of Indian civilization. They are forever remembered as a period during which literature, science, and the arts flourished in India as never before. As discussed in class, nothing is ever perfect. Although the Guptas managed to flourish and bring much prosperity to the Indian civilization, this period curtailed social issues in its time. We have divided our blog into two different sections. Our initial discussion primarily pertains to the caste system of the Gupta Period. And the various rules associated from the uppermost to the lowest class. The second part constitutes of gender roles, leaning toward the oppression faced by women majorly through the practice of Sati.


Discrimination in Gupta Period: Untouchability

The caste system in India is one of the oldest systems of social stratification, dating back to more than 3,000 years. The caste system divides Hindus by hierarchy, with different practices conducted across different castes.

As you would expect, discrimination was a part and parcel of the caste system. And the entire concept of Jati and Varna is called the caste system in today's day. People were classified according to their occupation or the family they were born into. Once you are born into a family that belongs to a specific social status, you cannot change your position in society, and must follow your dharma (duty).

The caste system divides the people into the following castes (varnas) (from top to bottom of the hierarchy): Brahmins (the priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (farmers and traders), Shudras (servants). Anyone below the Shudras or outside of the system were achhoots, or more commonly known as the Untouchables.

The Untouchables were discriminated against in practices like marriage, religion and in social situations.

Ceremonies like marriage amongst different social ranks was strictly not allowed. Be it downward or upward, matrimonial matches could not have been formed from consecutive or different castes.  Caste system dates back to much before the Gupta period but the rules that forbids inter-caste marriage was articulated during this era in the text ‘Dharmshastra’ (Indian Express, 2016). This was practiced in order to keep two castes from mixing, as that would be a sign of mockery to religion.

Mithuna. India, Gupta Period, 5th century A.D. By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "Department_of_Trife". [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mithuna. India, Gupta Period, 5th century A.D. By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "Department_of_Trife". [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

Secondly, the rules for different castes varied in social settings as well. A person belonging to a Brahmin class could not have accepted a meal from anyone below his/her rank. Only a Brahmin could serve a Brahmin. Not doing so would pollute him/her. An untouchable could not quench his/her thirst from public wells or use public toilets, as that would contaminate the property and it would be deemed useless since no one else would touch it after that. While all the other classes were allowed to study Vedas, Sudras and the untouchables were not allowed to do so. In terms of rewards and punishments, higher ranks faced milder punishments and gained greater rewards than the lower castes. Untouchables were pretty much treated like animals. For instance, on being touched by an untouchable, a Brahmin would be polluted, so untouchables had to lay face down every time they saw a Brahmin coming from a distance.

According to India: The Ancient Past, The Untouchables had to sound a 'clapper' in the streets so that the caste people would be warned of their presence, and that an upper-caste person would have to take a ritual bath in the event of close proximity with an Untouchable ("The era of the Imperial Guptas", p. 194)

Finally, religious practices mostly favored the upper class. Brahmins being the priestly class, used to carry out all religious practices like worshipping, celebrating festivals, marriages and funerals. Kshatrya and Vaisya were entitled to attend all the ceremonies and religious practices. Vaisyas could only attend some of them whereas untouchables were strictly forbidden to enter these venues/temples. So much so, they could not put their feet on/near this property, as that would make the premise impure.


Discrimination in the Gupta Empire: Sati & Gender Roles

Sati (or suttee) is commonly coined as widow burning, and is a practice which developed particularly from 500CE – 1000CE. In the act of sati, a recently widowed woman, by coercion or voluntarily, would commit suicide by burning herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, as he is being cremated ("Bana", p. 185).

The Sati of Ramabai, Wife of Madhavrao Peshwa (reigned 1761-1772), via LACMA

The Sati of Ramabai, Wife of Madhavrao Peshwa (reigned 1761-1772), via LACMA

Historically, this term, ‘Sati’ refers to either the woman who follows her husband to death (“a virtuous woman”), or to the act itself. It was said to come about from the story of the Goddess Sati, aka Dakshayani, who went through self-immolation because she could not bear her father’s humiliation of her husband, Shiva. As the practice spread, Sati became associated as an honourable act for women - a display of devotion and fidelity towards the husband.

While Sati is not a practice restricted to the Gupta period, one of its first existing accounts came from that era – in the form of a pillar inscription dated 510 CE. This was a relic which recorded the death of Goparaja, a chieftain who had served the Gupta emperor Bhanu-Gupta, and the act of Sati by his wife.

Bhojpur, Madhya Pradesh. India. Sati pillar at the temple. By zippymarmalade (Own work) []. vi Wikimedia Commons

Bhojpur, Madhya Pradesh. India. Sati pillar at the temple. By zippymarmalade (Own work) []. vi Wikimedia Commons

The inscription reads like this ("Family" p. 372):

Hither came the great king,
the glorious Bhanu-Gupta,
the bravest man on earth...
And hither Goparaja escorted him...
And here he fought a great and famous battle,
and passed to heaven, a lord among chieftains.
His beloved wife, loyal, loving and beauteous,
followed him quick into the flames.

As you’d probably guess by now, Sati was a practice that was supported by the community – priests, relatives and family. However, it was not something people of those ages talked openly about, and the rite was rare enough for Sati stones to be erected as memorial for the Sati women. These Sati pillars are situated largely in Eran (city was an administrative division of the Gupta empire). One of the earliest Sati pillars was discovered by General Alexander Cunningham. What was comprehended from this pillar was that a warrior named, Gopraj of a Gupta ruler had lost his life in war and his wife became sati in his pyre. Hindu scriptures also alluded to Sati as a sacred act, and the ‘Sati Hymn’ of the Rig Veda was actually recited during the burning:

Let these women, whose husbands are worthy and are living, enter the house with ghee (applied) as corrylium (to their eyes). Let these wives first step into the pyre, tearless without any affliction and well adorned” (Rig Veda 10.18.7)

Getting oneself burned as a sacrifice may seem frightening, but for the widowed women in ancient India, who were ostracized by their society, death may have been an easier choice. As Abraham Eraly describes, the most disgraceful act for a widow was to agree to Sati, and then retract her decision ("Family", p. 371). Even the widows who did not agree could be pressured, drugged or dragged by force to the funeral pyre. Given that the Gupta period advocated early marriage, with women married off as young as 6 or 7 (to insure chastity), women had to be dependent on their husbands; and as such, their devotion may not have been that unbelievable. To end off the discussion on Sati, let’s look at a verse, or two from the poem, The Last Suttee, by Rudyard Kipling.

He passed at dawn—the death-fire leaped
 From ridge to river-head,
From the Malwa plains to the Abu scars:
And wail upon wail went up to the stars
Behind the grim zenana-bars,
When they knew that the King was dead. 

The dumb priest knelt to tie his mouth
 And robe him for the pyre.
The Boondi Queen beneath us cried:
“See, now, that we die as our mothers died
“In the bridal-bed by our master’s side!
“Out, women!—to the fire!” 


All in all, we can see how interesting and special the Gupta’s were as a community. However , as our UGC classes and discussion have taught us, while there is rich development of the Indian civilization, certain communities still remained ostracized and/or slighted. For example, the classification of people into different social classes ; Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas , Shudras and Untouchables, has affected people both socially and culturally. Additionally, widowed women faced discrimination and isolation from their families and societies, and after often pressured to succumb to unfair gender rules.

The research we have gathered would help us relate to what was happening during that point of time. As we can never imagine this happening to us at such a young age, we wish to conclude by saying that although the Guptas thrived and aided much to the Indian civilization, like many others they faced much discrimination and unfairness during their time.


Written by: Gina, Rukman and Keane