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India's Impact on Southeast Asia

Causes and Consequences

The transmission of Indian culture of distant parts of Central Asia, China, Japan, and especially Southeast Asia is certainly one of the greatest achievements of Indian history or even of the history of mankind. None of the other great civilizations - not even the Hellenic - had been able to achieve a similar success without military conquest. In this brief survey of India's history, there is no room for an adequate discussion of the development of the 'Indianised' states of Southeast Asia which can boast of such magnificent temple cities as Pagan (Burma; constructed from 1044 to 1287 AD,) Angkor (Combodia; constructed from 889 to c. 1300 AD), and the Borobudur (Java, early ninth century AD). Though they were influenced by Indian culture, they are nevertheless part and parcel of the history of those respective countries. Here we will limit our observations to some fundamental problems oncerning the transmission of Indian culture to the vast region of Sotheast Asia.

Who Spread Indian Culture in Southeast Asia ?

Historians have formulated several theories regarding the transmission of Indian culture of Southeast Asia :
(1) the 'Kshatriya' theory;
(2) the 'Vaishya' theory;
(3) the 'Brahmin' theory.

The Kshatriya theory states that Indian warriors colonized Southeast Asia; this proposition has now been rejected by most scholars although it was very prominent some time ago.

The Vaishya theory attributes the spread of Indian cultura to traders; it is certainly much more plausible than the Kshatriya theory, but does not seem to explain the large number of Sanskrit loan words in Southeast Asian languages.

The Brahmin hypothesis credits Brahmins with the transmission of Indian culture; this would account for the prevalence of these loanawards; but may have to be amplified by some reference to the Buddhists as well as to be amplified by some reference to the Buddhsits as well as to the traders. We shall return to these theories, but first we shall try to understand the rise and fall of the Kshatriya theory.

It owed its origin to the Indian freedom movement. Indian historians, smarting under the stigma of their own colonical sujection, tried to compensate for this by showing that al leat in ancient times Indians had been strong enough to establish colonise of their own. In 1926 the Greater India society was established in Calcutta and in subsequent years the renewed Indian historia R.C. Majumdar published his series of studies, Ancient Indian colonise in the Far East. This school held that Indian kings and warriors had established such colonise and the Sanksrit names of South east Asian rulers seemed to provide ample supporting evidence. At least this hypothesis stimulated further research, though it also alienated those intellectuals of Southeast Asia who rejected the idea of having once been colonized by a 'Greater India'. As research progressed it was found that there was vary little proof of any direct Indian political influence in those states of Southeast Asia. Furthermore, it was demonstrated that Southeast Asian rulers had adopted Sanskrit names the mselves - thus such names could not be adduced as evidence for the presence of Indian kings.

The Vaishya theory, in contrast, emphasized a much more important element of the Indian connection with Southeast Asia. Trade had indeed been the driving force behind all these early contacts. Inscriptions also showed that guids of Indian merchants had established outposts in many parts of Southeast Asia. Some of their inscriptions were written in languages such as Tamil. However, if such merchants had been the chief agents of the transmission of Indian culture, then all their languages should have made an impact on those of Southeast Asia. But this was not so : Sanskrit and, to some extent, languages. The traders certainly provided an important transmission belt for all kinds of cultural influences. Nevertheless, they did not play the crucial role which some scholars have attributed to them. One of the most important arguments against the Vaishya theory is that some of the earliest traces of Indianised states in Southeast Asia are not found in the coastalareas usually frequented by the traders, but in mountainous, interior areas.

The Brahmin theory is in keeping with what we have shown with regard to the almost contemporary spread of Hindu culture in Southern and Central India. There Brahmins and Buddhist and Jain monks played the major role in transmitting cultural values and symbols, and in disseminating the style of Hundu kingship. In addition to being religious specialists, the Brahmins also knew the Sanskrit codes regarding law (dharmasastra), the art of government (arthasastra), and art and architecture (silpasastra). They could taus serve as development planners' in many different fields and were accordingly welcome to Southeast Asian rulers who may have just emerged from what we earlier described as first-and second phase state formation.

Next » India's Impact on Southeast Asia: The Dynamics of Cultural Borrowings