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Historic Inscriptions Of India: Part V(B) – The Prayāga Praśasti Of Emperor Samudragupta

In the previous article we tried to understand the campaigns of Dakṣiṇāpatha undertaken by Emperor Samudragupta. We will now make an attempt to first present the data of the rest of his victories and then analyze the Praśasti from different angles. We will commence our discussion with Samudragupta ̍s encounters with the kings of Āryāvarta.

The land known in ancient sources as Āryāvarta roughly corresponds to the region north of the Vindhya ranges. Eight kings of Āryāvarta were completely uprooted by Samudragupta. The reasons underlying these campaigns could be many. The most fundamental cause could be the fact that unlike the kings of Dakṣiṇāpatha, the kings of Āryāvarta posed an immediate threat to the suzerainty of the Guptas. The Guptas were very certain about their imperial plans and Samudragupta ̍s war policies best exemplify these. The region of Āryāvarta was the nucleus of the Gupta Empire and the valiant kings of this dynasty definitely did not favour their antagonists thriving in such close proximity to their empire. We cannot say with exactitude about the relations Candragupta I or for that matter even his predecessors shared with these northern powers but one point that we must note is that Candragupta I either did not attempt or was unsuccessful in trampling these powers and the task was left to his able son Samudragupta.

Another reason which could have prompted Samudragupta to completely overthrow these kings could be the prospect of controlling the fertile tracts of the Gaṅgā-Yamunā plains. This region, with its abundant produce would be a consistent source of a good yield of taxes, thus strengthening the royal treasury. It was imperative for the Gupta Empire to be backed by a stable treasury and state finances and this was to be achieved by gaining control over the Gaṅgā-Yamunā plains. In his advice to Yudhiṣṭhira in the Śānti Parvan of the Mahābḥārata, Bhīṣma emphasizes the need of a strong treasury. This holds especially true in the case of a fledgling kingdom.

Figure 1

(Coin issued by Emperor Samudragupta)

With this background let us now take a review of Samudragupta ̍s policy towards the kings of Āryāvarta. In the period following the downfall of the Kuṣāṇa Empire, a number of kings belonging to the dynasty of the Nāgas came to power in northern India. Apart from the Guptas, the Nāgas were the most powerful power in Āryāvarta and controlled western Uttar Pradesh and northern Madhya Pradesh. The Nāgas, like the Guptas, were also associated with the revival of Sanātana Dharma. The Bhāraśiva Nāgas of Padmāvatī are said to have performed as many as ten Aśvamedha yajñas. The Nāgas also established matrimonial relations with other powerful royal houses like those of the Vākāṭakas.  The daughter of a king called Bhavanāga was married to Gautamiputra, the son of Pravarasena I, the Vākāṭaka ruler.  This alliance in particular and the political dominance of the Nāgas in general served as a major challenge to the rise of the Guptas.

The Nāgas were a serious challenge to the Gupta expansionist policies and if the Guptas desired to control the whole of Āryāvarta the Nāgas had to be completely uprooted. To add to this, the Vākāṭaka power was also emerging a formidable one and there was every possibility that the Vākāṭakas could ally with the Nāgās and prevent the political ascendancy of the Guptas. This necessitated swift military action against the Nāgas on part of the Guptas.

The Nāgas were a formidable power in North India and the greatest contenders to the growth of the Gupta Empire. They too like the Guptas, were followers of the Vaidika-Purāṇic Dharma and performed a number of Aśvamedha Yajñas. The contention between Samudragupta and the Nāga kings seems to be one directed towards political gains rather than any cultural or religious factors.

Figure 2

(Extent of Vākāṭaka Dynasty)

The first among the rulers of Āryāvarta to be subjugated was one Rudradeva. He was identified by K N Dikshit as Rudrasena I of the Vākāṭaka dynasty. This identification seems improbable as the Vākāṭakas were a Dakṣiṇāpatha power. Rudradeva was completely uprooted by Samudragupta, this cannot be said of Rudrasena Vākāṭaka I as the Balaghat plates of Pṛthvisena II tell us that Vākāṭaka kingdom was flourishing for a 100 years. The identification of Rudradeva with Rudrasena III or the Śaka ruler Rudradāman II seems to be untenable. However, in the opinion of S R Goyal, Rudradeva of the Prayāga Praśasti is identical to the Vākāṭaka ruler Rudrasena I.  Samudragupta was only interested in gaining control of the northern territories belonging to Rudrasena I ̍s domains and not his entire kingdom. Given Samudragupta ̍s imperial ambitions and his inroads into the Deccan and further south, a confrontation with the Vākāṭakas was inevitable. It is quite improbable that there was a total lack of friction between the Guptas and Vākāṭakas when the former under Samudragupta had launched a series of campaigns to subdue the powers of the Deccan and Southern India. It is very unlikely that the Vākāṭaka monarch could have remained passive or indifferent to the conquests of Samudragupta. Moreover there is absolutely no evidence of any treaty or tacit agreement between the Guptas and Vākāṭakas during the reign of Samudragupta.

Mattila is the next king of Āryāvarta. He is identified with one Mattila whose seal was discovered from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. However Allan has commented that since there is an absence of an honorific, this individual cannot qualify as a royal personage and in all probability was a private seal. Jagannath Agrawal on palaeographic grounds assigns the seal to the 6th century CE and thus under no circumstances can this Mattila be the same as the one mentioned in the Praśasti. Nāgadatta is mentioned next and in all probability, judging by his name, must have been one of the Nāga kings and he is not known from any alternate sources. Gaṇapatināga who finds the next mention was the Nāga king who had established his rule over Mathurā. Coins bearing the legend ‘Gaṇapati’ have been found at sites like Padmāvatī, Vidiśā and Mathurā. These coins share a similarity with other issues of other Nāga kings like Skandanāga, Bṛhaspatināga and Devanāga. D R Bhandarkar had suggested Vidiśā as the capital of Gaṇapati Nāga but Mathurā seems more accurate as his capital as Altekar had found thousands of his coins at Mathurā. After the annihilation of Gaṇapati Nāga, Mathurā came under the control of Samudragupta and it continued to be a part of the Gupta Empire even during the rule of Candragupta II Vikramāditya and this fact is supported by epigraphic evidence.

Figure 3

(Sisunia Rock Inscription)

Nāgasena comes next in the list of the Āryāvarta rulers. The well known Sanskrit literary genius Bāṇabhaṭṭa (7th century CE) mentions one Nāgasena in his Harṣacarita who was the ruler of Padmāvatī. As indicated by his name, we can say with certitude that he was one of the many Nāga kings of Northern India and perhaps met his end at the hands of Samudragupta. Following Nāgasena, we come across a king bearing the name Candravarman who is identified with the Candravarman of the Sisunia rock inscription in the Bankura District of West Bengal. He is described as the Lord of Puṣkaraṇa which is identifiable with the modern village of Pokhran situated to the north – east of Sisunia. The extermination of Candravarman possibly paved the way for the establishment of the Gupta rule over a part of Bengal. The ruler named as Acyutanandi was also completely wiped out by Samudragupta. The Purāṇas- mention some Nāga rulers whose names end with Nandi. K.P. Jayaswal considers him as the ruler whose coins are inscribed with the legend Acyu which have been found in large numbers from the site of Ahichchhatrā in Uttar Pradesh. Ahichchhatrā was one of the prominent cities of Northern India and the capital of Uttara Pañcāla. It was also a major religious centre, a Śaivite one to be more precise during the Gupta period.   The coins bearing the legend ̍ Acyu ̍ are similar to other Nāga coins in fabric. Judging by the aforementioned evidence, Acyutanandi was perhaps the Nāga ruler of Ahichchhatrā. The list of the Āryāvarta rulers concludes with a king named Balavarman. K. N. Dikshit has identified him with Balavarma, an ancestor of Bhāskarvarman of Kāmarūpa who was an ally of Harṣavardhana but this suggestion is fully baseless. V. V. Mirashi has identified him with a king belonging to the Magha dynasty of Kauśāmbī. Ashvini Agrawal considers Balavarman to be the successor of Rājan Mahākṣatrapa Śridharavarman who ruled in the Eran-Sāñcī region and this Śaka dynasty was overthrown by Samudragupta.

The complete annihilation of the kings of Āryāvarta made Samudragupta the sovereign of the Gaṅgā Valley and this region came to be considered as the nucleus of the Gupta Empire. In the opinion of S.R. Goyal, ” …the areas which presented no geographical barriers and could easily be retained were incorporated in the empire while those which were difficult to conquer and still more difficult to retain were brought within the sphere of the Gupta influence, usually without disturbing their existing system of administration and government.”

We now move further to the Āṭavika kings or kings of the forest kingdoms. They were turned into the servants of the Emperor i.e., paricārakikṛta. These forest kingdoms were mostly located in the Bundelkhand region though the region itself has not been specified in the inscription. The Āṭavika Rājās are mentioned immediately after the kings of Āryāvarta. The former could have been forest chiefs and establishing hegemony over them might have turned out to be essential for the territorial expansion and exploitation of forest resources. In contrast to the kings of Dakṣiṇāpatha and Āryāvarta which have been mentioned individually, the Āṭavika kings have been mentioned as a group without naming each and every king. Moreover the policy followed towards this category of rulers was markedly different from those implemented with respect to the first two groups of kings. This could well be an indicator of the potential danger that these rulers may have posed to the Gupta kingdom or the economic benefits which may have been reaped by bringing them within the gamut of the Gupta power. By giving them the status of servants, these forest kings may have had to forgo their independence and abide by the regal orders issued by Samudragupta. Though not explicitly expressed, the forest kings could have sent tributes-both in cash and kind to the Emperor apart from joining forces with him in the series of his conquests. Major trade routes to western, southern, eastern and central India passed through the forest tracts of Bundelkhand. By the full subjugation of chiefs of this region, Samudragupta must have procured the control of these trade routes and the mercantile traffic which passed through these routes. There is also a possibility that Samudragupta may have initiated the spread of plough agriculture in this tract by clearing the jungles.

We now move ahead to review Samudragupta ̍s expeditions against the ̍pratyanta states ̍ or the frontier states. Some of these states had a republican model for governance in operation whereas the others possessed a monarchical government. To the first category belonged the Gaṇa Saṅghas or Gaṇa Rājyas. The first to be listed in the praśasti is Samataṭa which is also mentioned in the Bṛhatsaṃhitā (5th century CE) of Varāhamihira. Fleet explains this name as the region where rivers have banks of equal height and identifies this region with lower Bengal. The next is Davāka which corresponds to the Kampili valley of Nowgong district of Assam where there is a place called Doboka. Kāmarupa is the ancient name for Assam, specially the Kāmarupa district and this identification is beyond doubt. Samudragupta ̍s control over Kāmarūpa was induced by economic factors as well. The land of Kāmarūpa was acclaimed for its garments, sandal and agaru woods and Samudragupta may have felt it necessary to control the brisk trade of these products. Similarly the state of Nepala corresponds to the modern nation of Nepal. Karttripura was initially identified with Kartarpur in Jalandhar district of Punjab but Kartarpur is a medieval city founded by the Sikh Guru Sri Arjan Dev in the 17th century CE.  Vincent Smith located this state in the Western Himalayas whereas Oldham placed the state of Karttriputra in the Garhwal and Kumaon districts of Uttarakhand.

We will now discuss the republican states which were subdued by Samudragupta. The Mālavas are the first power mentioned in the inscription. They had earlier settled in the region which now comes under Pakistan but in the 4th century CE they established themselves in the Jaipur district of Rajasthan. Their capital was ancient Karakoṭanagara i.e. modern Nagara near Jaipur.  Coins of the Mālavas with the legend ‘Mālavānām jayaḥ’ are found in this region. Arjunāyanas were next vanquished by Samudragupta. They have been mentioned by Pāṇini in his Aṣṭādhyāyī.  Varāhamihira, the multi-dimensional scholar who lived in the 5th-6th centuries CE, associates them with the Matsyas and the Sārasvatas. According to Allan the territory of the Arjunāyanas lay within the Delhi-Jaipur-Agra triangle. Next come Yaudheyas who have also been mentioned by Pāṇini among communities who were professional warriors. Their coins have been found at sites like Behat, Sonepat, Sirsa, Hansi and Panipat. Their coin moulds have been found near sites like Rohtak, Sunet and Sanghol. A stone inscription of a Yaudheya chief was found at Bijaygadh in Rajasthan.  They have also found mention in the Junagadh inscription of Mahākṣatrapa Rudradāman. This gaṇa rājya was successful in defeating the Kuṣāṇas and captured the territory between the rivers Sutlej and the Yamunā from them. The Mādrakas who hailed from the Madra Region can be placed between the rivers Ravi and Chenab in Pakistan. They too met their defeat at the hands of Samudragupta. It may be surmised that they may have shared some of their territory with the Yaudheyas. The next tribe is the one known as the Abhiras. Patañjali makes a reference to them in his Mahābḥaṣya. In the Mahābhārata there is an allusion to the Abhiras. Further it is believed that Lord Kṛṣṇa was brought up in Vraja by the Abhiras who were nomadic cattle herders. The Viṣṇu Purāṇa groups them with western Indian communities like the Aparāntas, Saurāṣṭras, Śuras and Arbudas. Matsya, Vāyu and Brahmāṇda Purāṇas state that the Abhiras belong to the lineage of the Āndhra-bhṛtyas.  Mahābhārata and Bṛhatsaṃhitā also locate the Abhiras in Western India. The text known as Periplus on the Erythraean Sea written by an anonymous Greek sailor, places the Abiria on the western coast of India. Abhira king Iśvarasena, son of Śivadatta is mentioned in an inscription at the Nasik Caves. The Abhiras perhaps ruled the Nasik region in the 4th century CE.

The Kākas too were subjugated by Samudragupta. According to some scholars they may have accorded their name to the Buddhist establishment at Sāñcī known from ancient inscriptions as Kākanadabota. However, this correlation does not seem to have a very strong ground.

Figure 4

(Probable image of Candragupta II, paying homage to Varaha, avatar of Vishnu, Udayagiri Cave:  Credit-Wikipedia)

Next comes the group known as the Sanakānikas. A Sanakānika chief is mentioned in an inscription at Udayagiri (year 82) in Madhya Pradesh as a donor. It is rather difficult to say whether he belonged to the adjacent Vidiśā region or had come there to execute the orders of his overlord Candragupta II Vikramāditya. It could be possible that the Sanakānikas were brought under the suzerainty of the Gupta Empire by Samudragupta and they might have rendered military help to him and his son Candragupta II Vikramāditya. The Prārjunas were the next power who came under the sway of the Gupta Empire. There is, however no clear indication of their location. They are mentioned by Kauṭilya in his Arthasastra. Vincent Smith located them in the Narsimhapur district of Madhya Pradesh whereas D R Bhandarkar placed them in Narsinghgarh in Madhya Pradesh.  There are various theories about the identity of the Kharaparikas who too could not endure the war campaign of Samudragupta. Vincent Smith placed them in the Seoni and Mandla districts of Madhya Pradesh though this cannot be taken as a foolproof identification.

We have thus seen how Samudragupta established his control over the numerous states which existed in northern, western and central India during the middle of the 4th century CE. The policy that he followed with regard to these powers was sarvvakaradāna- ājñākāraṇa-praṇāmāgamana which implied that these states had to surrender all or a large share of their taxes into the Gupta treasury. These powers had to abide by all the imperial orders of Samudragupta and eventually the rulers had to personally come to the court of Samudragupta to pay their respects to him. This policy virtually brought these states under the domain of the Guptas and they lost their sovereignty to the Garuḍadhvaja of the Guptas. The taxes offered by these states must have significantly strengthened the finances of the Gupta Empire. Though they might have remained titular ruling powers, they could in no way violate the commands issued by Samudragupta. The leaders of these states had to endorse their subordinate positions with respect to the sovereign Gupta monarch by traveling to the Gupta court and presenting their praṇāms to Samudragupta. Thus the economic and political independence of these powers was substantially curtailed by Samudragupta. However, this policy of Samudragupta also helped in unifying a great part of northern and central India under the hegemony of the Gupta emperor. Such unification could have terminated the internecine wars between these localized kingdoms and brought them as well as their subjects under the strong and stable rule of the Guptas. Historian Romila Thapar has made a remark that had Samudragupta not subjugated these so called tribal states, they could have served as buffer states against the Huṇa invasions. However, it is highly doubtful that these states were equipped with the strength and resources to endure the barbaric Huṇas. Only a formidable imperial power like the Guptas had the potential to resist the Huṇa attacks. Thus Thapar ̍s argument stands no real ground.

Let us now orient our attention to the foreign powers conquered by Samudragupta. The first such power was that of the Daivaputra Shahi Shahanushahi. This was the manner in which the erstwhile Kuṣāṇas referred to themselves in their inscriptions and coin legends.  According to D R Bhandarkar Daivaputra is a taddhita form of Devaputra, meaning the son of the Deva. The Kuṣāṇas addressed themselves as Devaputras thus reiterating their divine status. The Kuṣāṇa ruler in the present inscription could be identified with Kidāra Kuṣāṇa. He most probably left Bactria on account of the attacks of the White Huṇas and established his rule in the Kabul valley and Gandhāra around 350 CE. There is a possibility that initially he may have accepted the overlordship of the Sassanian ruler Shapur II but later he may have allied with Samudragupta to defeat Shapur II.  This may have been reflected in the Raghuvaṁśa where Raghu won a victory over the Pārasikas. For the Daivaputraśāhi Śāhānuśāhi, Śaka Muruṇḍas and the other islands including Siṁhala had to offer themselves in service to Samudragupta (ātma nivedana), present maidens to the emperor (kanyopayanadāna) and request for charters with seal of  Garuḍa (Garuṭmada-aṅka-sva-viśaya-bhukti-śāsana yācanā). The last implies that the rulers of these aforementioned powers had to seek the consent of Samudragupta to rule their own territories and had to entreat the emperor to grant them the same. The charters bearing the Garuḍa Seal of the imperial Guptas must have been allocated to these rulers and though they had the freedom to rule their own states, they had to accept the overlordship of Samudragupta and they could enjoy royal power only and only with his ascent.

The next ̍foreign power/s’ in the praśasti are the Śaka –Muruṇḍas. Generally scholars opine that they are two separate powers. Indologist Sten Konow is of the view that they were a single power. Muruṇḍa in the Śaka language meant ‘Lord’ which were used as a title by the Kuṣāṇas and Śakas. However scholars like Fleet, Allan, R. D. Banerji, K.P. Jayaswal are of the opinion that the Muruṇḍas were a separate power. According to Smith, the Śakas were the Western Kṣatrapas who ruled western Mālavā and Saurāṣṭra till 388 CE till their complete annihilation at the hands of Candragupta II Vikramāditya. The animosity between the Guptas and the Śakas may have been a long winded one. Though the Śakas were subjugated by Samudragupta they seem to have risen again and waged a war with Rāmagupta. Rāmagupta was another son of Samudragupta who succeeded him on the throne. However, he did not equal his father in prowess and administrative acumen and had to accept defeat at the hands of the Śaka overlord. His brother Candragupta II Vikramāditya completely routed the Śakas and saved the day for the Gupta Empire. He deposed Rāmagupta and himself assumed the reins of the ever expanding Gupta Empire.

Samudragupta also established diplomatic relations with Simhala and dwellers of other islands The ruler of Simhala, Meghavarna asked permission from Samudragupta to build a monastery at Bodh Gaya for pilgrims from Simhala and dispatched rich presents to him. Samudragupta is said to have granted him this permission. It is believed that when Xuan Zang visited Bodh Gayā in the 7th century CE this particular monastery had around a thousand monks. The other islands identified with Cambodia, Java and Sumatra also came under the impact of Samudragupta ̍s conquests which also resulted in the penetration of Gupta influence in art and epigraphy of these islands. Siṁhala played a crucial role in international exchange networks. Tāmralipti or modern Tāmluk had close trade links with Siṁhala. Indian merchants had established major trade connections with countries of the Indian Archipelago which were known for their minerals, metals, spices and other commodities. It seems rather unlikely that all the kings of the border-states as well as the islands submitted their daughters to the Emperor or personally came to pay him their respects.

Most scholars agree on the point that it was the Prayāga Praśasti which served as the source of inspiration for Kālidāsa to pen the account of Raghu ̍s digvijaya. Further the conquests and policies of Gupta Emperors must have stimulated Kālidāsa to compose the Raghuvaṁśam. Let us briefly review the points of concurrence between the Prayāga Praśasti and the description of Raghu ̍s digvijaya. We are told that the path of the chariots of the kings of the Ikṣavāku dynasty reaches heaven (Raghu. 1.2). These kings desired a Digvijaya only for Yaśas (Raghu. 1.4). The coins of the Gupta monarchs echo a similar declaration. The legends on their coins declare that after winning the entire earth, the Gupta Emperors conquered heaven. Going further, the text states that there were only two sources of Artha for Dilipa (the father of Raghu) – the intellect engaged in the study of the Śāstras and the Pratyañcā stretched on his bow (Raghu. 1.19). Similarly, Emperor Samudragupta too was adept in the study of the Śāstras and the wielding of Śastras. Raghu, the son and successor of Dilipa inaugurated his digvijaya by marching towards the east.  Raghu got rid of the kings who came in his way, he took away their treasuries and completely uprooted them. (Raghu 4.33). Raghu completely uprooted those kings who did not show respect to him (Raghu. 4.35). Raghu defeated the kings of Baṅga Deśa and erected victory pillars in the Gaṅgā Delta (Raghu 4.36). He uprooted the kings of Baṅga but reestablished them (Raghu 4. 37). The text further states that:

Gṛhitpratimuktasya Sa dharmmavijayi Nṛpaḥ |

Śrīyam Mahdendranāthasya Jahāra Na Tu Medinīm || (Raghu 4. 43)

Though Raghu had undertaken a digvijaya, he was a Dharmavijayī king. He only took away the Śrī of Mahendranātha and not his land. He freed those kings whom he had initially imprisoned. From the east, Raghu marched ahead in the southern direction and the Pāṇḍyas presented Raghu with pearls (Raghu.4. 50).  The king of Aparānta (the Konkan Region in Maharashtra) gave tax to Raghu just like the sea had made way for Rāma i.e. Paraśurāma (Raghu 4.58).  Kālidāsa explains that the fury of great men can be pacified only by surrender to them (Raghu. 4.64). This assertion too reflects the ethos of the Prayāga Praśasti.

Figure 5

(Emperor Samudragupta playing vina:  Not only was he a skilled warrior and administrator but also an accomplished musician)

Samudragupta, like many other rulers of Ancient India possessed a multidimensional personality. The Prayāga Praśasti declares that the emperor was the upholder of the Śāstras. This statement clearly indicates that the emperor extended full support to Hinduism and was a staunch believer in the Śāstras. The Praśasti also makes a reference to Samudragupta ̍s penchant for association with men of learning and we may assert here that he must have readily provided royal patronage to scholars and artists. He might have even accorded some of them with positions in the royal court. The emperor, if we go by the verses in the Praśasti, was a special connoisseur of poetry and music. The Gupta Emperors were certainly individuals with a high taste as far as learning and art were considered. It is quite plausible that it was because of the firm support forwarded by the Gupta monarchs to poets, musicians and scholars that many outstanding works of Sanskrit literature were produced during the Gupta Period. Most of the Sanskrit Purāṇas, in their earliest forms are said to date back to the same era. The Praśasti itself embodies the ornate classical Sanskrit prose and poetry which were themselves one of the most conspicuous markers of the Indic Civilization during the Gupta Period.

The Praśasti affirms that the fame of Samudragupta was pervading the whole world. He established his rule over the whole world by the strength of his own arm. The coins of the Gupta Emperors which bear legends in chaste Sanskrit also ascribe to them an empire covering the whole surface of the earth. Statements like these no doubt reiterate the Cakravartin ideal as symbolized by the Gupta kings. The term Cakravartin as given by Swami Harshanandaji literally means one whose wheels (of the chariot) move (unimpeded). The term Cakravartin is applicable to a universal sovereign emperor who has under his command a widely spread empire and numerous vassal states. The Prayāga Praśasti unequivocally represents Samudragupta as a Cakravartin and his conquests across the Indian Sub-continent endorse his acclaim as a universal monarch. There are ample references to Cakravartins in Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina literature. In fact, as far as the Buddha is considered, he is perceived as a Dharma Cakravartin- the Universal Sovereign of Moral Teaching and Righteousness. In Jainism, the term ̍Cakravartin ̍ has been applied to twelve virtuous men like Bharata and Brahmadatta who ruled over the spiritual domains.  As per the norms of Hindu physiognomy, a person having the sign of a cakra (wheel, discus or lotus) on his hand is designated as a cakravartin and there is every possibility of his becoming a sovereign universal ruler. The term cakra could be also used to suggest a maṇḍala or circle of feudatory kings with the emperor exercising control over them. There are in all seven ̍jewels ̍ or sapta ratnāḥ in possession of the Cakravartin- cakra, ratha, jewel, queen, wealth, horse and elephant. The cakra in this context, as Swami Harshanandaji has commented could be considered as the Sudarśana Cakra- the āyudha of Lord Viṣṇu.

This is in spite of Praśasti lauding Samudragupta as a soft hearted ruler who was full of compassion towards his adversaries. Ceaseless devotion and veneration to the emperor were definite means to move his heart and win favour.  He is also credited with the establishment of goodness in the world and the total destruction of all things evil. These lines in a way suggest that Hariśeṇa, the author of the Praśasti considered Samudragupta to be God-incarnate on earth. The Praśasti projects Samudragupta as a king endowed with divinity. He was a mortal only as far as the fulfillment of duties as a human being was concerned and he was actually a God residing on earth.  We have already seen that Samudragupta was committed to the practice of Sanātana Dharma and the Praśasti makes it a point to clearly note his donation of numerous cows in all probability to Brāhmaṇas and men of learning. Samudragupta is said to have embodied kindness itself and was ever engaged in alleviating the miseries of the weaker sections of the society. The Praśasti probably hints here that though Samudragupta was a terrific warrior of the first order, he was extremely kind-hearted to those who took refuge in him and the less fortunate ones. The theme of a king uplifting the dispossessed sections of his subjects is an oft repeated one in Ancient Indian Eulogies. We find a reflection of this in the inscriptions of Aśoka, Uṣavadāta, Gautamīputra Sātakarṇi as well as Rudradāman.

Continuing with the theme of the emperor ̍s generosity, the Praśasti adds that his officers were always occupied in restoring the wealth of those kings subdued by Samudragupta. This being said, we cannot circumvent the fact that certain kings had to offer all their revenues at the feet of Samudragupta. Going further, a few other facets of his personality are listed by the Praśasti. In intellect, the emperor was equal to none other than the preceptor of Indra i.e. Bṛhaspati. As an accomplished musician, Samudragupta out performed divine singers like Tumbaru and Nārada. We find an affirmation to this statement in the gold coins issued by Samudragupta. He minted a certain category of coins which have been named by numismatists as the ̍ Lyricist Type of Coins. In these coins, one finds the depiction of Samudragupta playing the viṇā or the lyre. Similar types of coins were also issued by Samudragupta̍’s grandson Emperor Kumāragupta. Samudragupta who was even a highly talented poet who had earned the sobriquet of ̍Kavirāja ̍ and his poetic creations served as sources of livelihood for many others. All this literary and archaeological evidence indicate that Samudragupta indeed had a multi-dimensional personality and was equally adept in war, art and learning. In the Indic tradition, a ruler was not evaluated on the basis of his skill and achievements in warfare alone. Along with being a man of valour, he had to possess a good administrative acumen and a cultivated persona who respected and encouraged art and learning. If the king himself was a practitioner of any of the arts, he certainly earned greater reverence from his subjects.

The inscription next furnishes the genealogy of the Guptas commencing from one Mahārāja Śrī Gupta who was succeeded by his son Mahārāja Ghaṭotkaca Gupta. Mahārājādhirāja Candragupta I assumed the reins of the Gupta kingdom after his father Ghaṭotkaca. Candragupta I married the Lichchavi princess Kumāradevī and the two of them were blessed with an illustrious son like Emperor Samudragupta. It is for the first time that we find the genealogy of the Guptas originating with the founder of this lineage right down to Samudragupta. The first two kings, as is obvious, were known with a relatively modest title of Mahārāja. This has made certain historians to conclude that both Śrī Gupta and Ghaṭotkaca Gupta were not full fledged kings but feudatories of some stronger power. These two kings must have flourished around the last quarter of the 3rd century CE or the first quarter of 4th century CE. Our knowledge of the political situation in North India concurrent with this time period is rather scanty. However, one thing which we can clearly state is that following the downfall of the Sātavāhanas in the Deccan around the first quarter of the 3rd century CE, the Vākāṭakas had established themselves firmly in eastern Maharashtra and perhaps parts of Madhya Pradesh. A point to be highlighted is that Candragupta I certainly held more political power than his predecessors. The reason underlying this is the fact that he was married to the Lichchavi princess Kumāradevī and this matrimonial alliance paved the way for the political ascent of the Gupta house. It is very probable that Candragupta received some territory from his queen ̍s maiden family and he himself must have exerted to extend the frontiers of the Gupta kingdom. The Lichchavis could have extended the much needed political, military and economic support to Candragupta I who was readying to carve out an empire. Candragupta I was no doubt successful in his endeavour and earned the title of Mahārājādhirāja. The Lichchavis in no uncertain terms played a crucial role in the Samudragupta ̍s inheriting the kingdom from his father. This is borne out by the reference to Samudragupta as Lichchavi Dauhitṛ or the son of the daughter of the Lichchavis. A class of gold coins issued by Samudragupta featuring his parents bears a legend – Lichchvayaḥ or the Lichchavis. This legend clearly suggests that the Lichchavis certainly had a say in the matters of the Gupta kingdom, at least during the reigns of Candragupta I and Samudragupta.

Samudragupta was such a valiant and able ruler that his fame purified the three worlds in a manner similar to the river Gaṅgā issuing forth from the matted hair of Lord Paśupati or Śiva. This statement is another instance where the author of the Praśasti has accorded a divine status to Samudragupta. Samudragupta championed the cause of the Vaidika-Purāṇic Dharma and he himself performed an Aśvamedha Yajña and minted gold coins with an image of the sacrificial horse to commemorate this occasion. This Aśvamedha Yajña may have been initiated by him after the completion of all the conquests as listed in the Prayāga Praśasti. In the Praśasti, Samudragupta ̍s glory has been equaled to gods like Dhanada (Kubera), Varuṇa, Indra and Antaka (Yama). A point worth noting is that the aforementioned deities had received the status of the Lokapālas who guarded the four quarters of the world. This comparison could imply that Samudragupta ̍s Empire was spread over the four quarters of the world and he protected them in a manner much similar to the Lokapālas. Further, the Manu Smṛti asserts that the supreme lord created the king by extracting out the necessary qualities of Indra, Vāyu, Yama, Sūrya, Varuṇa, Candra and Kubera (Manu Smṛti VII.4).

The last lines of the Praśasti give the details regarding the composer and engraver of the Praśasti. The composer was one Hariśeṇa who worked in various capacities like Khādyapākika, Saṃdhivigrahaka, Kumārāmātya and Mahādaṇḍanāyaka. His father Dhruvabhuti was also in the service of the Guptas where he held the office of the Mahādaṇḍanāyaka. Hariśeṇa describes himself as the slave of the feet of the Bhaṭṭāraka and is always moving in his presence. The meaning of the word Bhaṭṭāraka is ̍the one who is eligible to receive homage ̍. Many kings of ancient India assumed this title. Such titles reflect the elevated position of the king and the growing power of the institution of monarchy.  He has composed this ornately poetical Praśasti for the well being of the whole creation. Similarly the engraver is one Tilabhaṭṭaka who mediates on the feet of the Parama Bhaṭṭāraka. The identity of the Parama Bhattāraka of the Praśasti in the view of J.F. Fleet is Candragupta II, the son of Samudragupta and not Samudragupta himself. It may be also spelt out here that the immediate successor of Samudragupta was his not so capable son Rāmagupta who enjoyed a very short rule which was ridden with political exigencies. The Praśasti could have been written during the reign of Rāmagupta as well though the honorific ̍ Paramabhaṭṭāraka ̍ is more apposite for Candragupta II. Both Hariśeṇa and Tilabhaṭṭaka served in senior positions under the Guptas and it may be seen as fitting that the herculean task of composing a Praśasti as a tribute to Samudragupta was entrusted to them. Hariśeṇa, apart from his administrative positions was an accomplished poet who, through the genius of his pen, created an ever memorable literary homage to the departed emperor.

Three ślokas (ślokas 94-95) in the opening sarga (Sarga 1) of the Bālakāṇḍa of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa express the prospective rule of Lord Rāma in Ayodhyā. The ślokas declare that during the reign of Lord Rāma, all will lead very happy and contented lives as one would find in the Satya Yuga. The king i.e. Lord Rāma will invoke the Lord by the performance of hundreds of Aśvamedha Yajñas as well as other Yajñas which would involve the use of abundant quantities of gold. Lord Rāma will donate large amounts of money to the Brāhmaṇas and give away billions of cows to the learned. Not only this, Lord Rāma would establish numerous ruling houses with strong financial support and would give due recognition to their sovereignty.  This description matches well with the personality and pious acts of Samudragupta as put forth by the Prayāga Praśasti.

The Prayāga Pillar itself has a long chequered history and it would not sound as an exaggeration if one states that it encapsulates a fairly substantial part of Indian History. The Pillar which was erected by Aśoka in the 3rd century BCE consists of the following edicts of the emperor:

  1. The initial six edicts of the Delhi-Toprah Pillar
  2. The Queen ̍s Edict
  3. The Kauśāmbī Edict

On the basis of the last mentioned edict which is addressed to the Mahāmātras at Kosambī, Alexander Cunningham surmised that the pillar was originally at Kosam (modern name of Kauśāmbī) and was transported later to Prayāga.

The first of the Delhi-Topra Pillar Inscriptions of Emperor Aśoka which is also found inscribed on the Prayāga Pillar was written when the king had completed twenty-six years of his reign. In this inscription the emperor stresses the pertinence of morality. The king says that securing happiness in this world and the next is indeed very difficult in the absence of morality, careful examination, proper obedience, great fear of sin and high levels of energy. All the agents and Mahāmātras appointed by the king are striving for the enhancement of morality. The second pillar edict is also pertaining to morality.  The emperor speaks of morality as constituting a less number of sins, good deeds, compassion, liberality, truthfulness and purity. The emperor has endowed his subjects with the gift of spiritual insight and numerous benefits have been instituted by him on all creatures. In the third pillar edict the emperor comments on noble and ignoble deeds. Vices like fierceness, cruelty, anger, pride and envy are considered sinful by the emperor and he clearly expresses his intention of not being influenced by them. The fourth inscription discusses the duties of the rājukas (a class of officials) with respect to the promotion of Dhamma. The rājukas had been given freedom by the emperor to administer justice as per their discretion. However, the emperor expected the rājukas to not violate his orders as well as those of his agents who were aware about his aspirations. In addition, the emperor declares that the rājukas have been entrusted by him with the task of ensuring the happiness and welfare of the country’s people. The fifth rock edict espouses the policy if non-violence as formulated by Aśoka. The inscription furnishes a list of animals, birds, amphibians and insects that were not to be killed. The emperor also prohibited the burning of forests. He also restricted the sale of fish and other animals on certain tithis and on certain days he imposed a ban on the castration of animals like bulls. The sixth edict has as its main theme the issue of morality or dhamma and the well being of all. The king instructs all in such a way as to secure their welfare. The king ̍s policies were not constricted to his kin alone but to all of his subjects. He honoured all sects and this fact is borne out by inscriptional and archaeological evidence. He personally visited his people and this may have been done with a view to know their grievances and then act upon them. The Prayāga Pillar also has an edict mentioning the donations of Kāluvākī, the second queen of Aśoka and the mother of Tīvala. On the emperor ̍s orders the mahāmātras have been enjoined that gifts given by the queen like the mango grove, gardens or alms houses have to be registered in her name. This is a request made by the queen herself.

The last of the inscriptions is addressed to the Mahāmātras of Kauśāmbī. Some words from this inscription are illegible. This pillar edict takes up the cause of Saṅghabheda. The first schism in the Buddhist Saṅgha pre-dates Aśoka and perhaps the matter of Saṅghabheda must have been very critical during his reign. As per literary sources, Aśoka had convened the Third Buddhist Council for the purification of the Buddhist doctrines and the Saṅgha. Through this particular inscription, Aśoka sends a strong warning to the Buddhist bhikkus and bhikkunis who will try to create fissures in the Saṅgha and those doing so will not only be expelled from the Saṅgha but will be given white garments and will be made to take up residence in places of non-residence. Aśoka, though a Buddhist layman, in his capacity as the sovereign monarch operated his power and influence over the Saṅgha and the monks and the nuns could, under no circumstances disobey his orders.

Though one can ascertain hardly any points of congruence in the inscriptions of Aśoka and Samudragupta, they nevertheless symbolize the ethos of two of India ̍s most powerful monarchs. Aśoka ̍s inscriptions elucidate the principles which he upheld and promoted and were included in the term ̍Dhamma ̍ which were not exactly tantamount to the Buddhist Dhamma though the former was certainly inspired by the latter. Samudragupta ̍s inscription on the other hand is a tribute to the late emperor and confirms to the ideals of Rājadharma as espoused in the texts belonging to the fold of Sanātana Dharma i.e. Dharmasūtras and Smṛtis. The Manu Sṃṛti declares that the duties of the Kṣatriya are protecting his subjects (prajānām rakṣaṇam), giving dāna, performing yajña and engaging in svādhyāya. (Man. Smr. 1.89).The Parāśara Sṃṛti lays down precisely the duties of a Kṣatriya in the society in its first adhyāya. It clearly enjoins that a Kṣatriya must protect his people, conquer the armies of the adversaries by the prowess of his arm wielding weapons and protect the earth through dharma. (Par. Smr. 1.57). Continuing further, the text considers that a Kṣatriya should win victory by the means of his sword i.e. by resorting to war and only those who possess valour can enjoy the sovereignty of the earth. (Par. Smr. 1.58). Both the rulers consolidated their empires through the employment of military force, though Aśoka is believed to have given up war after the destructive Kaliṅga War. The two rulers come forth as sovereigns who were, at least to some degree, feared by their subjects. In the last of Aśoka ̍ s inscriptions on the Prayāga Pillar, he, in no uncertain terms declares his domination on the Buddhist Saṅgha. The Buddhist monks and nuns, in no way, could violate the dictates of the emperor. He was the pivot of political as well as sacerdotal powers.

Concluding Remarks

The Prayāga Praśasti of Emperor Samudragupta is a landmark in Indic History. The most remarkable hallmark of this inscription is the detailing of the war conquests of the emperor. This detailing not only facilitates in understanding the various rulers and their respective kingdoms which existed in India around the middle of the 4th century CE but also helps in knowing the different kinds of political strategies that Samudragupta extended for the various categories of rulers. The variation in the policies pursued by the emperor with respect to his foes is a clear pointer of his political acumen and how well he fathomed the location of kingdoms, the potential threat a certain category of rulers would pose to his own empire as well as the prowess of the kings and formulated his strategies accordingly. Mere valour and chivalry are not adequate in the making of a sovereign emperor. One also needs to be a prudent strategist. The war campaigns that Samudragupta undertook must have involved a high degree of planning, especially with regard to the military strategies and finances to support them. The Prayāga Praśasti is the first inscription to mention the genealogy of the Guptas, starting from the founder Srī Gupta, right down till Samudragupta. The Praśasti also accords respect to the emperor ̍s mother who hailed from the clan of the Lichchavis who in no uncertain terms had a lion ̍s share in Samudragupta ̍s ascent to power. Considering his conquests covering a substantial part of South Asia, Samudragupta exemplifies the Cakravatin ideal in totality. The king was regarded a form of Viṣṇu on earth and the Prayāga Praśasti almost bestows a divine status on the emperor. The more soft aspects of his personality like his penchant for music and poetry are also highlighted in the Praśasti. The purpose of the Praśasti was to perpetuate the memory of Samudragupta and his extraordinary feats for posterity. It may have been engraved also to create a feeling of awe and fear among the subjects as well as those who might entertain ambitions to challenge the Gupta Power. One wonders why the panegyric was inscribed on an Aśokan Pillar instead of a new pillar erected specially for this purpose. At a few sites in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh we find Gupta Period Dhvaja Stambhas being constructed and some of them even have inscriptions engraved on them. The Aśokan Pillar was a redoubtable monument with its sheer height which was an embodiment of monarchical power. It is plausible that it dominated the entire landscape of Kauśāmbi where it was originally erected and the people, even in the 4th century CE continued to perceive and revere it as an epitome of sovereignty and royal edicts. It may have been a medium to assert that Samudragupta was no less a king than Aśoka and the former had the entire earth under his sway. Almost six hundred years after his demise, Aśoka may have continued to be some sort of an ideal for kings though in no way is the author stating that Samudragupta was inspired by Aśoka. Emperors like Samudragupta were active participants in the revival of Sanātana Dharma in the early centuries of the Common Era though they were equally cordial to their Buddhist and Jaina subjects.


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