Scientific & Cultural Life of India under the Guptas

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Guptas | Administration | Hinduism | Sanskrit | Higher Education | Art & Architecture | Science | Vakatakas

The first major expositions of Indian astronomy in the last few centuries B.C. are recorded in two works, the Jyotishavedanga and the Surya-prajnapati. Contact with the Greek world introduced a variety of new systems, some of which were assimilated and others rejected. Aryabhatta was the first astronomer to solve the more fundamental problems of the astronomy, in A.D. 499. It was largely through his efforts that astronomy was recognized as a separate discipline from mathematics. He calculated pi to 3.1416 and the length of the solar year to 365.3586805 days, both remarkably close to recent estimates. He believed that the earth was a sphere and rotated on its axis, and that the shadow of the earth falling on the moon caused the eclipses. His more revolutionary theories were opposed by later astronomers, who tended to compromise with the demands of tradition and religion.

Aryabhata was the most scientific of Indian astronomers, and the later objection to his ideas may have been motivated by a wish not to displease the supporters of orthodox ideas. It is significant that in the work of his close contemporary Varahamihira the study of astronomy is divided into three branches each of equal importance - astronomy and mathematics, horoscopy, astrology - a division which Aryabhata would have rejected since Varahamihira's emphasis is on astrology rather than astronomy, an emphasis which was to destroy the scientific study of astronomy. The most interesting work of Varahamihira is the Panchasiddhantika (Five Schools of Astronomy), a concise account of the five currently used schools, of which two reflect a close knowledge of Greek astronomy.

Poetry and prose in Sanskrit were encouraged on a lavish scale, through royal patronage. It was the literature of the elite, the court, the aristocracy, and those associated with such circles. The name which immediately comes to mind is that of Kalidasa, regarded as the most outstanding writer of classical Sanskrit. His most famous work, the play Shakuntala, later came to be known in Europe through the impact it made on Goethe. Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger), his long lyrical poem, was obviously very popular at the time, since inscriptions on occasion carry echoes of it. Plays continued to he romantic comedies in the main, tragic themes being avoided, since the purpose of the theatre was to entertain; a significant exception being Mrichchha Katika (The Little Clay Cart) by Shudraka. Of the prose writers Bana was acclaimed, his biography of Harsha being held as an excellent example of the best Sanskrit prose. Bana also wrote prose fiction much quoted in a number of theories on literary criticism. The fables of the Panchatantra were elaborated in various versions, and stories from this collection became the nucleus of a number of further anthologies. Literature was judged by the manner in which it depicted emotions (rasa), and the test of good literature was that it should provoke an emotional response.

In addition to Sanskrit, literature in Prakrit (a language more closely related to the speech of the times than was classical Sanskrit) also had its patronage outside the court circle. Prakrit literature written by Jainas tended to be more didactic in style, with a substantial religious content. A notable feature in the Sanskrit plays of this period is that the characters of high social status speak Sanskrit, whereas those of low social status and all the women speak Prakrit, which indicates the standing of Sanskrit and Prakrit in the social context.

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