Hindu Influence and Southeast Asia

Did the Hindus get there first?

The flow of Indian cultural values and institutions into Southeast Asia is one of the most remarkable aspects of the region’s history and an intriguing counterpoint to China’s claims that the South China Sea is a Chinese lake because the diplomat and seafarer, Admiral Zheng He, sailed it sometime in the late 14th or early 15th Century.

In fact, an exhaustive study of the cultural values of the region makes it impossible to say that any one ethnic group or civilization has dominated. Hinduism has been a force in mixing distinctly disparate religions together for thousands of years in Southeast Asia to the point that often Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism and animism simply fuse so that one resembles the other despite their vastly divergent roots.

Buddhism is practiced in Hindu temples in Cambodia, Muslim wedding rituals and wedding dress in Malaysia are based on Hindu rites. The Garuda is the name of Indonesia’s airline; a likeness of the mythical bird sits proudly on the front of the Bank of Thailand headquarters in Bangkok. The Naga, the sacred Hindu serpent, is prevalent in both Buddhist and Hindi cultures. There are Mount Merus-- the sacred golden mountain in Hindu text--in many countries all the way to Tanganyika.

Despite a powerful onslaught by Buddhism between the first and fifth century AD, Islam in the 15th century and Christianity in the early 16th, Hindu influences have survived and remain visible, mixed as they are into Thai Buddhism and Indonesian and Malaysian Islam. By the beginning of the Christian era, Hindus had thoroughly colonized the region from Burma in the north to Java and Annam in the south and southeast. This is corroborated by the discovery of the Amravati style of images of Buddha on the islands of Sumatra, Java and Celebes and on the mainland of Siam and Annam.

Hindu social customs have also prevailed although they have been diluted by time and by interaction with other religions. The caste system, though not as rigorous as in India, was introduced to some degree in all the countries although more so in Java, Madura, Sumatra and Bali. The word Caturvarna, or four castes, occurs in early records of those Indonesian islands, and there are frequent references to the four castes in literature and inscriptions.

There are numerous inscriptions in these countries in addition to the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism, leading to speculation that the Brahmins – the highest caste -- played a central role in the religious lives of the people from the very beginning of India’s influence. A sixth-century inscription in Kambuja, as Cambodia was once known, refers to a Brahmin who made a gift of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Purana texts to a temple and had them recited on a daily basis. The practice of reciting scriptures was well known in India, and it must have helped in influencing the religious life of the people.

Ashrams and monastic orders were also established, which then were used to diffuse Hindu culture in Kambuja. In the 9th century AD, King Yashvarman of Angkor is said to have built 100 ashrams, each headed by a priest, which were primarily centers for higher learning and promoting religious and spiritual practices, attracting large followings.

These ashrams offered hospitality to a variety of peoples in strict accordance with prescribed rules and regulations for each category of guest. One of the rules prescribed that with the exception of the king, anyone who passed the gates of an ashram had to get down from his chariot and walk covered under an umbrella. No one seeking refuge out of fear of being arrested needed surrender until proven guilty. However, there are no records about such religious institutions in ancient India, on which those in Kambuja were modeled.

Generally speaking, the position of women seems to have been better than in India, both in terms of social status and political rights. Javanese women could become rulers and occupied high office. Women also had property rights and could dispose of it at their own free will. There was no purdah (veiling of the face), it most likely arrived with the advent of Islam. Women mixed freely with men and were free to choose their own husbands.

Unfortunately, suttee, sometimes spelled sati – the tradition of a widow burning herself alive on the funeral pyre of her departed husband, was practiced, at least in Bali, though in later times the custom was confined to royal families, where even slaves and concubines committed sati. In some instances the widow would first kill herself with a sword and her body would be placed on her husband’s pyre.

The Javanese are known to have practiced some form of ancestor worship, though not as intense as the Confucian Chinese. They also accepted the theory of reincarnation, except for the santris -- fundamentalist Muslims -- who condemned it as heretic.

There is also evidence that the Hindu institution of the devadasi was also introduced into some countries of Southeast Asia. These women were known as “women who take to religious life.” In Khmer language, it literally means, “females who enter into religion for the sacrifice (yajamana) of the god.” Although the exact meaning is not clear, it is not difficult to find in them the devadasis of the Hindu temples in India. However, the Indian anthropologist and scholar D N Majumdar believes that there are no references to the devadasis in Hindu scriptures of early times.

And so he raises a question “whether such a pernicious custom originated in India or was it derived from contact with countries where moral laxity of this type among females is known to have prevailed in more obnoxious form even in later times.”

Another inscription refers to the dancing girls, musicians, slaves and servants. The name of dancing girls and the musicians emanated from Sanskrit, such as Charumati, Priyasena, Arunamati, Sarangi, Ratimati, and Ghandhini. The names of the slaves and servants were mostly indigenous, such as Bhagya, Dasami and Manjari.

The use of Indian names for the dancing girls and musicians and indigenous names for slaves and servants, both male and female, raises an interesting question. It is possible that the Indians who arrived from India occupied a higher position and status and did not work in these low professions.

Therefore, even the pure indigenous people, or those who were born of union with Indians, were given purely Indian names. This then could be interpreted that even one parent of the Indian origin meant higher position for the child in the society. At the same time, indigenous names were still used. The Kamboja inscriptions have preserved many personal names which inform us the extent of the Indianization of Kambuja (ancient Cambodian) society.

Taken together, the cultural influences that Hinduism brought have contributed enormously to the vast tapestry that is Asia.

(Alexandra Fic is a Canada-based scholar and author who has held a variety of teaching, research and international aid jobs through Asia. She currently lives and works in Niagara, Ontario, Canada.

For readers who wish to follow hindu influences more closely, Ms. Fic has written a 20,000-word study of the spread of Hinduism across Asia. It can be found here.)

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