Indian History and Culture 320 to 750 AD by K M Munshi, founder Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan

  • Precis covers cultural, social changes and political events. It includes Aryavarta, Gupta kings, Golden Period of India, Evolution of Caste, Hun Invasion, Sri Harsha, Revival of Dharma, Military Changes & Repulse of Arab Invasion.

Shri V Balachandran (ex-Special Secretary Cabinet Secretariat) wrote in The Tribune Chandigarh Neglecting cultural czar Munshi’s efforts This goaded me to do a precis of Foreword of 11 Volumes of The History and Culture of Indian People. The books are a masterpiece & my constant reference book

Shri K M Munshi was an educationist, freedom fighter, founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (1938), author and worked closely with Sardar Patel. He initiated the writing of The History and Culture of the Indian People. Shri R.C. Majumdar was General Editor. A.K. Majumdar and A.D. Pusalker were Assistant Editors of Vol 3. It was first published in 1954, fourth edition in 1988.  


K M Munshiji said, “That although efforts to prepare this massive history-writing had started in 1938, it could assume concrete shape only in 1944 with generous help from GD Birla and the Shri Krishnarpan Charity Trust.” 


Precis is split in parts. Each part has a number and title that represents content. Let us hope these books become part of the mainstream educational system. 


Period 320 to 750: Volume 3 title is The Classical Age. It coverscultural, social changes and political events & includes Aryavarta, Gupta kings, Golden Period of India, Evolution of Caste, Hun Invasion, Sri Harsha, Revival of Dharma, Emergence of Kanuaj, Military Changes & Repulse of Arab Invasion.


Period 750 to 1000 includes Age of Strength & Achievement, Big Three Empires, Arab Invasions, Battle for Kanauj (India’s cultural capital) Impact of Hunas invasions, Age of Unity and Mihir Bhoja, Views of Medhatithi, a political sage and Status of Women.


Period 1000-1300 includes state of Indian society around 1000, why did it survive the earlier 2,000 years, status of Sanskrit, social impact of Muslim invasions, why lower strata of society adopted Islam, South Indian kings, rise of Desabhashas and Bhakti.


Period 1300 to 1526 includes did Khilji/Tughluq rule all of India, Timur invasion, what is common between Timur and Vasco da gama, Religious Life then, Impact of Islam, Religious life and Language Literature and did Muslim or Hindu ruler of Orissa support Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.


Period 1526-1707 includes Mughal rule esp. intolerance towards Hindus, warrior Hemu and Tansen.


Period 1707 to 1818 includes Political situation post Aurangzeb and rise of the Marathas, Changes due to influence of Western World and Economic exploitation of India by British.


Period 1818 to 1905 (Part 1) includes Characteristics of British rule, History from a British standpoint/Famines-Poverty, Was British Empire in India an accident and three events that require attention.


Period 1818 to 1905 (Part 2) includes Hindu Muslim relations in the 19th century, changes in religious and social ideas, growth of new types of literature, rise of the Press and state of slavery and semi-slavery of Indians.


Period 1905 to 1947 includes the purpose of history, why was Pakistan created, creation and Sub-nation States and Linguistic chauvinism, Hindu Muslim riots 1918 to 1927 and Hindu Muslim Pact 1923. 


My only contribution is doing a precis of the foreword. Note that the Aryan Invasion Theory is, since when this volume was published, no longer accepted. This piece is courtesy the publisher Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Mumbai. 


The Age of Imperial Kanauj 350 to 700 A.D.-Foreword by Dr. K M Munshi.

I Introduction to period

This volume covers period from 320 when the Gupta Empire was founded to about 740 A.D. when Yashovarman of Kannauj died. The creative urge of the time has contributed both character and richness to the evolution of the national mind in every succeeding century.


Throughout the history of India, the process of integration of two simultaneous movements, one owes it origin to Aryan culture and the momentum that is culture possess, the other the way of life of the Early Dravidian and other non-Aryan cultures in the country into the framework of Aryan Culture, weaving a harmonious pattern continuously without effecting its fundamentals.

The adjustment made is symbolised by the sacredness accorded to the Nigama, the Vedic tradition and Agama, the Dravidian tradition. It must be remembered that Sri Krishna and Veda Vyasa, were both sons of high-browed Aryans of non-Aryan mothers. When the two movements failed to support each other, growth ceased to be vigorous and disintegration began as in the start of the 11th century when Mahmud Ghazni defeated Prithviraj Chauhan.


II Aryavarta

The best elements of society had, from the earliest time developed a ruling purpose-the fulfilment of Rita or Dharma which gave them the capacity to will themselves into a well-defined and vigorous social organism.


The Magadhan Period (referred to in volume 2) closed with the invasion of the Yueh-chis. Disintegration followed in northern and western India. But there is little doubt that by the beginning of the 4th century, the forces of disintegration had lost their momentum. In Southern India, the old forces were given new forms.


Inspite of unsettled conditions, India was free from foreign invasions. The race memory looked back with pride when chakravarti-samrats or universal emperors like Mandhata and Bharata held their sway over the whole world. The notion of a universal emperor, supported by a universal church, popular in medieval Europe, was different from this concept. The chakravarti was the political and military counterpart of Dharma. The chakravartis were born in each age as the essence of Vishnu.


The conception of Aryavarta, the sacred land of the Aryas, was a living one, for it was impregnated with an abiding veneration for the fathers who had lived and died so that it might live, great and eternal.


III Chandragupta I, Samudra-Gupta and Vikramaditya

In the start of the 4th century, the powerful Pallava king Sivaskanda-varman celebrated the asvamedha in southern India. About 320 A.D, Chandragupta-I, the founder of the Gupta Empire revived the chakravarti ideal in northern India.


Placed between A.D.335-380, Samudra-gupta the next emperor laid the foundation of a military machine. The territory from Haridwar to the borders of Assam was consolidated into a compact homeland which he directly administered.


Politically, this was the age of integration in India. After more than 300 years of fragmentation, northern India was again united under the vigorous rule of a powerful king.


Next was his son Chandragupta-II or Vikramaditya, acclaimed as the greatest of the Gupta Emperors (reign placed between 376 to 414). The direct sway of Pataliputra extended from the Bay to Bengal to the Arabian Sea. The country to the south of the Narmada was dominated by two friendly powers- the Vakatas and Pallavas who too were keen on strengthening Dharma.


Vikramaditya, in the Collective Unconsciousness of India, symbolised the highest aspirations of national greatness.

Vikramaditya statue in Ujjain. 

IV Gupta rule – the Golden Prime of India

Next was his son Kumara-gupta (415 to 455) and his grandson Skand-gupta (455 to 467) who defeated the invading Hunas.


The 150 years of Gupta rule can rightly be called the Golden Prime of India.


The Gupta emperors upheld Dharma in all its aspects. The Puranas, which sang of sacred legends of rivers, mountains etc. and semi-divine heroes etc, the past remained a glorious heritage to inspire the future with fresh vigour.


In this age, the most powerful integrating force was the Dharma-sastras. Theoretically, the social structure envisaged a four-fold order of social groups, chaturvarnya. Opportunity was given to those who were alien to Indian culture to rise in the scale of life, but never so rapidly as to endanger the stability of the existing social order.


The bedrock of the social organization was the patriarchal family. Father was head of the family and devotion of wide to her husband and family was imperative.


Castes mixed in marriage with comparative freedom.


The Dharma-sastras were not enforced at the point of the sword. Even the backward and immigrant classes dropped their group custom and usages, and cheerfully adopted the social system prescribed to them.


Sanskrit, a living language, possessing a rich, varied and beautiful literary achievement, the living embodiment of Dharma and a powerful integrating force. Inscriptions began to be written in Sanskrit even in the South.


Under the Gupta emperors, the Mahabharata acquired a unique position as an integrating psychological force.


The cultural uprising was based upon the central idea underlying Dharma from early time. It predicated self-restraint and self-discipline (tapas). Emphasis was laid on individual experience rather than on belief and scriptural word. It was reached only when man shed his limitations and become divine in this life. All conduct, in order to be worthy of respect, had be harmonised by ethical and spiritual values calculated to help the fulfilment of this ideal.


The age saw the speculative thought among others of Vasabandhu and the Nayanmars; the perfect lyric and drama of Kailidasa; the astronomical discoveries of Varahamihira; the iron pillar of Delhi, the starting of structural temples, the beauty of the early Ajanta frescoes; the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism; and the completion of the Mahabharata and the composition of the Vayu and the Matsaya Puranas. The greatness of the empire lay in its integral outlook. Its roots were drawn from ancient tradition and race-memory which they maintained, re-interpreted and replenished.


The Vakatakas and Pallavas of the far south closely allied with the Guptas.


The Gupta emperors became the symbols of national upsurge. Life was never happier, our culture never more creative.  


V Hunas invasion/Indian liberators/Kanauj now capital of north India 

About 455 A.D. the Hunas began to pour into India. Skhand-gupta drove them back. After his death, the barbarian hordes, after destroying the Kushana rulers of north-west, began to pour into India.


By 512 the Hunas under Toramana overran north India. His son Mihirakula spread fire from Punjab to Gwalior and by 525 became the master of a vast territory. North India fought back through two great liberators.


Yasodharman Visnuvardhana fought the Hunas grimly. His victories arrested the progress of Mihirakula. His conquest covered from Himalayas to Ganjam district.


In Madyadesha or modern day Uttar Pradesh Isana-varman Maukhari barred the progress of the Hunas in the east and defeated them during several encounters.


Isana-varman possibly overthrew the descendants of Yasodharman, became the unchallenged master of Malwa and Madhyadesa. He established himself at Kanauj, which thereafter was the imperial capital of north India for close to 5 centuries. The Guptas became weak, was dissolved. The Maukhari took over. With their rise was a new phase in Indian history. Kanauj was a symbol of a new order.


The Golden Prime became history, the superiority of Magadha disappeared. New dynasties appeared: the Maukharis of Kanauj, Pushpabhutis of Thaneswar, Maitrakas of Valabhi and Chalukyas of Badami. The Pallavas of Kanchi continued to flourish. In the west, the warrior clans of what is now Rajasthan living in the region of Mount Abu and descended from Brahmana ancestors, emerged with the Pratiharas as their head.

Badami Caves, Aihole are wonders of Chalukyan Architecture  

VI Sri Harsha-Chalukyas of Badami-Pallavas of Kanchi

Sri Harsha for various reasons given more than his share of importance. He preserved the importance of Madhyadesa but suffered a serious defeat at the hands of Pulakesin II of Badami and had to make terms with the Maitrakas of Valabhi.


Unfortunately neither did Sri Harsha leave successors nor create a common hierarchy which could carry forward his work. Harsha was a Buddhist with a marked antipathy to Hinduism. He could not restore the life-blood of the old social organization or revive the chakravarti tradition.


During 550-750 the strength and vigour of India was found in the South. Pulakesin I of the Chalukya family founded a kingdom with capital in Badami. His son Pulakesin II had subdued the Pallavas of Kanchi, repulsed the invasion of Sri Harsha in 620 and adopted the style ‘Lord of the 3 Maharashtras containing 99 villages.’ 


After a rule of about 200 years during which the Chalukyas provided the greatest stabilising influence in the country, they were replaced by the Rashtrakutas. The Pallava king Mahendra-varman I (600-630) defeated Pulakesin II who avenged this loss soon. Yet the Pallavas remained the most powerful kingdom in south.


The political interest during this time is primarily concerned to history of northern India (due to the Gupta Empire). However, the contribution of the Chalukya and Pallava king in stabilising this country should not be under-estimated.

Seashore Temple Mahabalipuram. Built by Pallava king Rajasimha (700-728).

VII Revival of Dharma/Saivism and role of Puranas

Within the first few years of Mihirakula (Huna king) death there was a new and vigorous impulse to revive Dharma, relate it to the new life in the north and particularly in the south. Some aspects of this new impulse can be traced.


The Puranas were the most popular gospels during the new impulse. They revived the glories of the distant past, invested new places with stimulating sanctity, weaving the unity of Bharatavarsha; they also reinterpreted old values in light of new conditions.


Saivism became an integrating movement. Worship of Siva as Pasupati is as old as Mohenjo-daro. The new cult, which Sankaracharya called Lakulesa Pasupata was the most influential protagonist of Dharma and which had spread throughout.    


Inspite of the Gupta kings being devotees of Vishnu, the worship of Siva was more popular. Mihirakula and some early Kushana kings were devotees of Siva. Mahendra-varman the great Pallava king became a Siva devotee too and built temples. Kanchi became a great centre of faith and his successors identified themselves with the renaissance associated with Saivism.


VIII Buddhism, Bhakti, Sanskrit, Role of Epics, Caste  

The Gupta Emperors were broad-minded. Buddhism was tolerated and lavishly supported.


The lay Buddhists were an integral part of society regulated by the canons of Dharma-sastras. Thus, when Savisim and Vaishnavism became powerful integrating forces Buddhism was at best a protestant movement.  Its spiritual nihilism, when exposed to the Bhakti movements, tried to approximate to the latter in its external aspects, and finally got absorbed in Hinduism; and later when Buddha was accepted as an avatara of Vishnu, no trace of its separate existence was left. As a cult, it continued for a few more centuries.


After 500 A.D. Bhakti cults gave to the religious movements the emotional content, which for centuries, remained of significance to Indian life, it helped to form enduring values which gave strength after the disaster which the Turks brought. Alvars of Tamil Nadu played a role.


Sanskrit continued to be the language of religion, ritual, law texts and learning. It was one, all-Indian. Thus Sankaracharya from Malabar was in a short time able to organise religious institutions and inaugurate a sweeping religious and intellectual movement throughout the country.


The Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas continued to be the source of countrywide unity. The Katha became an important educative and integrating force. The Pauranikas were the missionaries of the new age.


In North India, the dialects, which the higher classes spoke, were not far removed from Sanskrit. The south Indian languages continued to develop on their own lines, influenced by Sanskrit. The medium of growing dialects became subsidiary forces of integration.


Chaturvarnya came under strain due to the need to absorb foreigners. A change came. Varnasrama took shape – an organization of interdependent castes, not a four-fold social order. The history of the following centuries show that as the social structure became inelastic, the political sanction of a chakravarta was denied to cultural and social solidarity, and the people ceased to have an expansive outlook.


The leading role as a highly trained agency was played by the Brahmanas; men of learning and teachers. Smarta Brahmanas were also expounders of Dharma besides being commentators etc. Brahmanas gradually reclaimed and raised millions of backward people. Under their inspiration, communities were lifted and cultural and spiritual elevation of the individual secured.


System of education did not change. Universities like Nalanda, great centres of learning came into existence.

Teli ka Mandir, Gwalior Fort made by Pratihara king.

IX Social and Military Changes 

Aryavarta consciousness had 3 aspects; Aryavarta was the land of Dharma; chaturvarnya the social basis was its eternal law and the chakravarti was to maintain both.


The chakravarti idea lost its meaning, Dharma need not be linked with the idea maintaining the whole country within its fold. Wars of conquest lost their spiritual significance. They were undertaken for dynastic ends and not, as earlier, an expression of people and culture on the move. Aryavarta consciousness, as a result receded into race memory.


The Kshatriya community was no longer a compact caste of Madhyadesha dominated by a single military tradition. It came to be dominated by foreign and non-Aryan groups, not yet acclimatized to Dharma. Marriages between Kshatriyas and Brahmanas became rare. The former saw no justification for undergoing rigorous intellectual training.


The segregation of dvija castes into water-tight compartments and difficulty of social fusion, became disintegrating factors.


An empire could only be built on the shoulders of a hierarchy. The change in social structure created conditions in which such a hierarchy, homogenous in culture and looking forward to political unity, could not be brought into existence.


After the Guptas, conquest of large scale became difficult.


The army from ancient times, was divided into elephants, cavalry, infantry and chariots. During this period chariots were rarely used in warfare. The king rode on an elephant. Horses were brought by feudal chiefs just as they brought foot-men. These chiefs had their own estates and their code of honour prescribed by the sastras and traditions. Their head was mostly connected to the ruling family by blood. So a conqueror had to depend on these chiefs and could scarcely aspire to be a chakravarti like earlier.


Samudra-gupta succeeded where others did not because he extirpated the small states of North India and could rely on the military strength of Madhyadesa. With the fall of the Gupta Empire the regional attachments of Kshatriyas increased; and with that the Brahmanas who depended on them developed regional loyalties.


Kingdoms became smaller and small-state-mindedness became a part of the national mind.


The only exception was the emergence of the Pratiharas, the Chahamana and Chalukya clans, closely allied in marriage. The Parmaras and other clans of Gurjardesa were either off-shoots of these or absorbed over time. That was why the Pratiharas were able to found an empire.


X Inter-caste weddings and continuity in Administration

The third community i.e. Vaisyas-atleast in north India belonged to the same class as Brahmanas and Kshatriyas. The fourth community, the Sudras, may be termed ‘the rest’. Marriages between Sudras and the members of ‘other classes’ were common. Bana, the Brahmana friend of Sri Harsha, had himself a brother born of a Sudra step-mother.


The administrative machinery, introduced by the Guptas, in consonance with the Dharma-sastras and adopted in the advances parts of the whole country, continued to function. For all practical purpose, administration continued to be in the hands of the same class of people and was regulated by age-old traditions and generally accepted canons of social conduct.

Hindu resistance to Islamic conquest of Punjab and Kabul

XI Arab Invasions Repulsed  

About the end of the period of review, the Arabs appeared on the Indian scene but their progress was halted. The naval raids against Thane, Broach and Debal were repulsed. The attempts to reach the Khyber Pass, then guarded by the states of Kabul and Zabul failed. Though some sort of Arab suzerainty was established between 700-714, for the next century and a half Kabul and Zabal maintained their autonomy practically impaired.


The Arabs tried to enter through Bolan Pass but the Jats of Kikan, never yielded.


The Arabs then attempted to advance through the Makran coast. Nehrun and Siwistan in Southern Sindh, opened their gates to the invaders. The unpatriotic nature of the Buddhists, the general superstition of a section of the people and the want of loyalty towards the family of royal usurpers, left the issue in no doubt. Sindh was conquered in 712 A.D.


Also read Hindu resistance to Islamic conquest of Punjab and Kabul


About 725 one Arab army, sent to invade North India, met a setback at the hands of Nagabhata I of the Pratihara dynasty; another which had entered South Gujarat was destroyed by Pulakesin A in a battle that took place near Ansari. Inspite of the unremitting pressure, exerted for 2 centuries the Arabs were left with 2 petty states Mandura and Multan in the 9th and 10th centuries.


When compared with their dazzling success in the Middle East, Persia and Europe this insignificant result in India was a tribute to the superior military strength and political organization of the Indians.


The key chapters in this volume are the Rise and Fall of the Gupta Empire, the Chalukyas, the Pallavas, Pandyas, Kadambas etc amongst the Dynasties of South India, Ceylon, Literature and Language, Religion and Philosophy, Art and Sculpture, Intercourse with the Outside World and Colonial and Cultural Expansion in S.E.Asia.


The above excerpts are courtesy and copyright the publisher the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Kulapati K.M. Munshi Marg, Mumbai-400007, India. eSamskriti has obtained permission to share from the Editorial Advisory Board of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


To read full Foreword visit the Bhavan site and HERE (shall be uploaded shortly)

To buy book The History and Culture of Indian People at Bhavan’s Online Store or on Amazon

To read on Culture To read Vande Mataram (English translation by Sri Aurobindo)


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