What Is Considered to Be India's Classical Age?

by Scott Thompson

The era of the Gupta empire in northern India is often referred to as India's classical age, although the term can be extended to include the Maurya empire and the centuries in between the two great dynasties. Many of the most recognizable aspects of modern Indian culture first developed during the rule of the Maurya and Gupta dynasties between about 300 B.C. and 400 A.D.

Asoka and the Maurya

The Maurya dynasty ruled much of what is now called India from its capital at Pataliputra. The Buddhist religion was very influential in India at that time, and the greatest emperor of the Maurya was a Buddhist convert named Asoka. Asoka ruled between 268 and 233 B.C. In his early years as emperor, he was focused on warfare and conquest. After converting to Buddhism, he became an advocate of "ahimsa" or nonviolence, and had pillars erected across the empire to proclaim this new policy. These pillars are the oldest surviving written documents from ancient India. Asoka also sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka, Egypt and even Rome.

The Gupta Dynasty

Although the Maurya dynasty may be considered part of India's classical age, that term is more often restricted to the later Gupta dynasty that ruled northern India beginning in about 320 A.D. from Pataliputra. The Gupta were not as powerful as the Maurya had been, but were very wealthy and able to provide such comfortable living conditions for their subjects that visitors from ancient China such as the philosopher Hsuan-Tsang were favorably impressed.

Sculpture and Architecture

The Gupta empire is so often referred to as India's classical age because the religious sculpture and temple architecture produced during the period is similar to that of ancient Greece or Rome. In the early Vedic religion of India, gods were worshiped outdoors rather than in temples and were not represented by statues or carvings. Greek influence reached the Gupta through the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms in the area of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, and elaborate temples with beautiful statues and carvings of Buddhist and Hindu religious figures began to be built. This development marked the end of the Vedic religion and the beginning of modern Hinduism.

Literature and Religion

Some of the most important works of Indian literature were either composed or finalized during the Gupta period. India's most significant playwright, Kalidasa, lived during the Gupta empire. Important religious scriptures such as the "Yoga Sutras" and some of "The Upanishads" were written during this era, and the epics known as "The Mahabharata" and "The Ramayana" reached their final forms. "The Mahabharata" is believed to be the longest epic poem in the entire world, and both epics are still fundamental texts in Hindu religious practice.

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