Monday, May 15, 2023


Devi Chandraguptam - The Forgotten Emperor

Ramagupta – the Akhenaten of India!

Did Chandragupta II of the famed Gupta empire, the great Vikramaditya, actually murder his elder brother Ramagupta to seize the throne?? What made him commit such a heinous crime and even worse marry his brother’s wife Dhruvaswamini?

Did Ramagupta even exist? Or was this just a tall tale that grew from the literary references made in some text’s centuries later? Or was this emperor just a figment of imagination?  

The story gets murkier as it weaves itself into a tale that seems impossible to unravel. Mysteriously, not just the royalty but the poets and sculptors who adorned the Gupta courts for the next two hundred years or so seem to have wantonly avoided mentioning Ramagupta’s name in any of their inscriptions or in any of their literary works. Were they ashamed of something?? Or were they instructed by the powers that be, that the Ramagupta name should never be spoken about, and more importantly, the generations to come should never ever get a whiff of his existence. What did Ramagupta do, that prompted the Guptas to completely relegate him to oblivion. What horrendous, unpardonable sin did he commit to deserve their wrath?

It looks like they succeeded in their task as he was forgotten for fifteen hundred years relegated to myths and brief utterances in some works centuries later. His name was erased with clinical precision.

The story has an uncanny resemblance to the Akhenaten story from Egypt. The renegade pharaoh, Akhenaten, had abandoned the traditional Egyptian polytheism and started a monotheistic religion worshipping the Sun god– the Aten. The monotheistic god concept of Akhenaten had few takers and after his mysterious death his name was systematically erased from all inscriptions and texts akin to Ramagupta. The similarity in the story line ends here. For the story of Ramagupta to come alive, we need to dwell into the masterful play of Visakhadatta – Devi Chandraguptam.

The story unravels:

Emperor Ramagupta was unknown to the world, until in 1923, one Sylvain Levi, an influential Indologist published some extracts of a Sanskrit play, named Devichandraguptam written by the famed poet Visakhadatta in the sixth century. He had quoted six verses from Natyadarpana, which were originally from the play Devichandraguptam. Here in these six verses the purported gist of the story emerges. To understand more we go back to the surviving fragments of Devichandraguptam - the supposed story obviously is a lot more clearer here.

The play opens in the Gupta military camp. Ramagupta has been defeated and besieged by Rudrasimha III, the Shaka ruler and his condition to free Ramagupta is an ignominious one – that he surrender his wife Dhruvaswamini to him. Ramagupta agrees to these humiliating terms.

Act 1 and 2 is about Chandragupta planning to go to the enemy dressed as Dhruvaswamini and killing the Shaka king. Act 3 is about how Chandragupta kills the Shaka king and in Act 4 Dhruvaswamini says that she no longer loves the King and is full of “ Shame, anger, despair, fear and discontent”. Act 5 is about how Chandragupta comes to know of danger from a rival and how he feigns madness on his way to the court. The last act 6 is unclear from the fragments but we can reconstruct that the enemy is none other than Ramagupta.

Although in pieces, we can still stitch the skeletal story together to understand what happened during Ramagupta’s reign that prompted Chandragupta to do something extraordinary to save the queen and the kingdom. The fragments make up a fascinating story. Soon after ascending the throne, Ramagupta was challenged in the west by the Kshtrapa Rudrasimha II, a Saka invader, and was captured and made prisoner. Ramagupta in an effort to negotiate his release does the unthinkable – despicable in some sense – offers his wife Dhruvaswamini (or Dhruvadevi). Chandragupta would have none of it - he impersonates the queen Dhruvaswamini by dressing up as her and once in Rudrasimha’s camp, kills him. And then soon after Chandragupta becomes the king.

We could surmise that this act of Chandragupta made him quite the hero with both the queen Dhruvaswamini and the people. And quite obviously, the opposite with Ramagupta. In the play Devi Chandraguptam, it becomes amply clear that Ramagupta had become envious of his brother’s popularity within his kingdom and is trying to kill him. It is not clear as to how Chandragupta kills his brother instead, but we do know that he does eventually marry Dhruvaswamini and becomes the new emperor.

This incident had serious repercussions on the prestige of the Gupta empire and Visakhadatta, the writer of Devi Chandraguptam, probably took it upon himself to restore the lost glory of the Gupta house from this shameful episode. Perhaps in order to clear Chandraguptas name from this unsavoury act, he justifies his master’s unorthodox act of killing of his own brother and marrying his widow. And in a way restores the glory of Chandragupta through his play Devichandraguptam.

Harshacharita, by the renowned poet Bana, in the 7th century and Shankara 14th century commentary on Bana’s work also talks about how the Shaka king coveted Dhruvaswamini  and how Chandragupta killed him. Not all works and inscriptions are kind to Chandragupta – the 871 AD Sanjan inscription of Rashtrakuta ruler Amoghavarsha was particularly stinging on Chandragupta. He says despite his charity the Gupta king was a despised donor who killed his brother and took away his kingdom and wife. He goes further and says that the glory of this Gupta King was “ashamed” before the glory of Amoghavarsha. The 930 AD Khambhat inscription of Rashtrakuta king Govinda IV is more brutal to Chandragupta and says he became “Sahasanka” (valorous – a title of Chandragupta) without being cruel to his elder brother and without committing the evil deed of having intercourse with his wife. The Persian version of Devichandraguptam “Majmal-ut Tawarikh“ narrates the exact story. Chakrapanidatta’s commentary on Charaka Samhita refers to Chnadragupta’s murder of his brother. All of these literary anecdotes and references strongly point to the fact that Chandragupta had an elder brother who was the legitimate heir to the throne of Pataliputra and in fact ruled the Gupta empire before he took over.

Although we have various literary works that refer to Ramagupta, what was grossly missing was that one tangible evidence of his existence – an inscription or coins issued by him. And that’s exactly what was found in 1969. The mystery surrounding the existence of Ramagupta ends in Durjanpur – a small village near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. A farmer clearing his land finds three Jain theerthankara statues. At the base of these three statues there is an inscription that talks about a certain Maharajadhiraja Ramagupta, an emperor, who built these statues at the behest of a Jain saint. To lend credence to the certainty of Ramagupta, the inscriptions found were in the Gupta Brahmi script of 4th-5th centuries CE, proving beyond doubt that Ramagupta was indeed a historical Gupta emperor.  More importantly there is no mention of any other Ramagupta in that period. This Maharajadhiraja who was the emperor couldn’t have been anyone else than Ramagupta, the heir to Samudragupta and the elder brother of Chandragupta.

Additionally, coins issued by Ramagupta himself have been found in eastern Malwa and in Eran with Garuda on one side and the name Ramagupta on the obverse. It is a well-established fact that the Guptas were staunch Vaishnavites and that the mythical Garuda was the emblem of the imperial Gupta dynasty. The Garuda depiction on the coins point to the fact that this Ramagupta was from the famed Gupta clan and on the basis of Palaeography, these coins were assigned to the fourth century AD, which fits the reign after Samudragupta. These coins were indeed issued by Ramagupta.

In his own Mathura stone pillar inscription Chandragupta in a departure from convention describes his ascending the throne as having been “accepted by his father”. Gupta kings are usually described as “meditating on the feet” of their fathers. This description lends weight to the fact that the ascension to the thrown was not a straight forward one – pointing to the possibility that another heir was in the contention. We can only assume that this was Ramagupta.

Epigraphic evidence clearly shows that Chandragupta ascended the throne after his father Samudragupta. However, literary evidence shows otherwise and brings in the name of Ramagupta as the original heir to the Gupta empire. Evidence from several literary works conclude that Ramagupta was a king of the imperial Gupta dynasty and the apparent heir to Samudragupta. The story of Chandragupta killing the enemy in disguise, seizing the throne, and marrying Dhruvadevi whom he rescued from the enemy seems to be the common thread across all sources of information. This cannot be a coincidence. And in the story , Chandragupta in order to save his own life from his jealous brother feigns madness and in one opportune moment kills his brother – as the story goes. This part of the story finds a resonant echo in quite an unexpected quarter- the commentary of Chakrapanidatta on the Charaka Samhitha- a treatise on Charaka’s famous ayurvedic text. Here, while giving the example for pretence the commentator refers to the murder of Ramagupta by Chandragupta after feigning madness. Although the example doesn’t necessarily exemplify Chandragupta, it does bring in some sort of proof of the existence of Ramagupta , his elder brother and emperor.

If the Devichandraguptam and the other works that talk about this incident were mere stories there wouldn’t be such an overpowering need for Chandragupta or anyone else to bury the fact that he had an elder brother Ramagupta. The Gupta dynasty and the subsequent writers centuries after, did their best to conceal this “shamefull” episode and were persuasive in their works on justifying the actions of Chandragupta. The desperation with which they tried to erase him is probably the best reason for us to believe that he actually existed.

This story is more about throwing light in into the disappearance of Ramagupta in the annals of history much like Ashoka and Akhenaten, and less about justifying the rationale for Chandragupta killing his brother. When you diligently skim Devi Chandraguptam, the truth that percolates to the top is that Chandragupta had an elder brother Ramagupta who ruled before him.

Ramagupta was indeed real - “à la manière de” Akhenaten.