Samudragupta (reigned 350-375) was the second emperor of the Gupta dynasty of India. His reign ushered in the Golden Age of India, and he is remembered both as a benevolent imperial conqueror and as a patron of the arts and letters.
A detailed record of the reign of Samudragupta is preserved in the shape of an inscription—a prasasti, or panegyric, composed by the poet Harisena and engraved on the same pillar on which Emperor Asoka, centuries before, had had an edict carved. The two inscriptions make a contrasting reading: Asoka's, written in simple Pali, speaks of peace and righteousness; Samudragupta's, written in elegant and classical Sanskrit, glorifies war.
At the time of his accession, Samudragupta's territories comprised present-day north Bihar and north and west Bengal. Acting on his father's dying behest, the young ruler embarked upon digvijaya, a lofty Hindu political ideal to conquer the four quarters of the Aryan universe. The prasasti divides Samudragupta's opponents into four categories: rulers slain, whose dominions Samudragupta annexed out-rightly; rulers defeated, but reinstated as tributaries; "frontier" kings, who were forced to pay homage; and "distant" kings, who acknowledged Samudragupta as an emperor by sending him embassies. Among the first were independent potentates of the Gangetic Basin; their extermination made Samudragupta the ruler of all territories from the Ravi in the west to the Brahmaputra in the east, and from the Himalayan foothills in the north to the Narbada in the south. In the second category were 12 potentates with territories between the Mahanadi and the Godavari. In the third category came more than a dozen tribal leaders of Assam, Malwa, Gujarat, and western Punjab and Rajputana. Lastly, Saka satraps of western India and Kushan rulers of northwest India and Afghanistan seem to have paid him homage. The ruler of Ceylon sent an embassy to secure privileges for Sinhalese monks at Bodhgaya. About 365 Samudragupta offered the horse sacrifice, the traditional symbol of lordship over Aryan India.
Samudragupta issued gold dinars: they weigh as much as 123 grains and have a gold content of 87 percent. One shows him performing the horse sacrifice; another shows him playing a harp. He was a gifted musician, a poet, and a person who took part in religious discussions. None of the many buildings he appears to have erected has survived. Though personally a Hindu, he extended his patronage to other religions, and one of his chief courtiers appears to have been the great Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu. Not much is known of his administrative system, but he must have been an ideal ruler as is evidenced by the introductory portion of a late Javanese text, the Tantri Kamandaka, which refers to him in eloquent terms.
The best biography is Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, Samudra Gupta: Life and Times (1962). Information is also in John F. Fleet, ed., Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings and Their Successors (1888; rev. ed. 1963). □