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Cultural, Religious and Civilisational Influence of Hindutva on Southeast Asia

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Hindu Dharma has had a profound impact in Southeast Asia’s cultural development and its history. As the Indic scripts were introduced from India, people of Southeast Asia entered the historical period by producing their earliest inscriptions around the 1st to 5th century CE. Hindu civilisation also transformed and shaped the social construct and statehood of Southeast Asian regional polity. Through the formation of Indianized kingdoms, small indigenous polities led by petty chieftain were transformed into major kingdoms and empires led by a maharaja with statecraft concept akin to those in India. The civilisation of India influenced the languages, scripts, written tradition, literature, calendars, beliefs system and artistic aspects of these peoples and nations. Indian influence started around 200 BC until around the 15th century, when local politics absorbed Hindu-Buddhist influence. Kingdoms in the south-east coast of the Indian Subcontinent established trade, cultural and political relations with Southeast Asian kingdoms. Unlike the Hindu kingdoms within the Indian sub-continent, the Pallava kingdom of the southeastern coast of the peninsula did not have culture restrictions on crossing the sea. This led to the Indian influences through the sea routes into Southeast Asia.
Ancient Era
Indian scholars wrote about the Dwipantara or Jawa Dwipa Hindu kingdom in Java and Sumatra around 200 BC. “Yawadvipa” is mentioned in India’s earliest epic, the Ramayana. Sugriva, the chief of Rama’s army dispatched his men to Yawadvipa, the island of Java, in search of Sita. It was hence referred to in Indian by the Sanskrit name “yāvaka dvīpa” (dvīpa = island). Southeast Asia was frequented by traders from eastern India, particularly Kalinga, as well as from the kingdoms of South India.
The Indianised Tarumanagara kingdom was established in West Java around 400s, produced among the earliest inscriptions in Indonesian history. There was a marked Buddhist influence starting about 425 in the region. Around the 6th century, Kalingga Indianized kingdom was established in northern coast of Central Java. The kingdom name was derived from Kalingaeast coast of India. These Southeast Asian seafaring peoples engaged in extensive trade with India and China. Which attracted the attention of the Mongols, Chinese and Japanese, as well as Islamic traders, who reached the Aceh area of Sumatra in the 12th century. Examples of the Hindu cultural influence found today throughout Southeast Asia owe much to the legacy of the Chola dynasty. For example, the great temple complex at Prambanan in Indonesia exhibits a number of similarities with the South Indian architecture.
According to the Malay chronicle Sejarah Melayu, the rulers of the Malacca sultanate claimed to be descendants of the kings of the Chola Empire. Chola rule is remembered in Malaysia today as many princes there have names ending with Cholan or Chulan, one such being Raja Chulan, the Raja of Perak. The Chola school of art also spread to Southeast Asia and influenced the architecture and art of Southeast Asia. Some scholars have pointed out that the legends of Ikshvaku and Sumati may have their origin in the Southeast-Asian myth of the birth of humanity from a bitter gourd. The legend of Sumati, the wife of King Sagar, tells that she produced offspring with the aid of a bitter gourd.
Modern Era
Today, vibrant Hindu communities remain in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Medan city of Indonesia and the Philippines mainly due to the presence of Indians, such as Tamil people, who migrated from the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia in past centuries. One notably Southeast Asian aspect of Tamil Hinduism is the festival of Thaipusam, while other Hindu religious festivals such as Diwali are also well-observed by Hindus in the region. In Thailand and Cambodia, Thai and Khmer people practised Hindu rituals and traditions along with their Buddhist faith, and Hindu gods such as Brahma are still widely revered.
In Indonesia, it is not only people of Indian descent who practice Hinduism; Hinduism still survives as the major religion in Bali, where native Indonesians, the Balinese people, adheres to Agama Hindu Dharma, a variant of Hinduism derived from ancient Java-Bali Hindu traditions developed in the island for almost two millennia that often incorporates native spiritual elements. In other parts of Indonesia, the term Hindu Dharma is often loosely used as umbrella category to identify native spiritual beliefs and indigenous religions such as Hindu Kaharingan professed by Dayak of Kalimantan. The resurgence of Hinduism in Indonesia is occurring in all parts of the country. In the early 1970s, the Toraja people of Sulawesi were the first to be identified under the umbrella of ‘Hinduism’, followed by the Karo Batak of Sumatra in 1977 and the Ngaju Dayak of Kalimantan in 1980. In an unpublished report in 1999, the National Indonesian Bureau of Statistics admitted that around 100,000 people had officially converted or ‘reconverted’ from Islam to Hinduism over the previous two decades. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, as of 2007 estimates there to be at least 10 million Hindus in Indonesia.
The growth of Hinduism has also been driven by the famous Javanese prophecies of Sabdapalon and Jayabaya. Many recent converts to Hinduism had been members of the families of Sukarno’s PNI, and now support Megawati Sukarnoputri. This return to the ‘religion of Majapahit’ (Hinduism) is a matter of nationalist pride. Next to Indonesian Balinese, today, the Balamon Cham is the only surviving native (non-Indic) Hindus in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam there are roughly 160,000 members of the Cham ethnic minority, a majority of them adheres Hinduism while some are Muslims. After centuries being dominated by Kinh (Vietnamese), today there are some efforts to revive Cham culture.
Hinduism in Kampuchea
Cambodia( modern day Kampuchea) was first influenced by Hinduism during the beginning of the Kingdom of Funan. Hinduism was one of the Khmer Empire’s official religions. Cambodia is the home of the holy temple of Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple in the world. The main religion adhered in Khmer kingdom was Hinduism, followed by Buddhism in popularity. Initially, the kingdom revered Hinduism as the main state religion. Vishnu and Shiva were the most revered deities, worshipped in Khmer Hindu temples. Temples such as Angkor Wat are actually known as Preah Pisnulok (Vara Vishnuloka in Sanskrit) or the realm of Vishnu, to honour the posthumous King Suryavarman II as Vishnu. Hindu ceremonies and rituals performed by Brahmins (Hindu priests), usually only held among ruling elites of the king’s family, nobles, and the ruling class. The state religion was Hinduism but influenced by the cult of Devaraja, elevating the Khmer kings as possessing the divine quality of living gods on earth, attributed to the incarnation of Vishnu or Shiva. In politics, this status was viewed as the divine justification of a king’s rule. The cult enabled the Khmer kings to embark on massive architectural projects, constructing majestic monuments such as Angkor Wat and Bayon to celebrate the king’s divine rule on earth.
Angkor Wat (Khmer “Capital Temple”) is a temple complex in Cambodia and one of the largest religious monuments in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares (1,626,000 m2; 402 acres). It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. It was built by the King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors. Angkor Wat is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology.
The empire’s official religions included Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism until Theravada Buddhism prevailed, even among the lower classes, after its introduction from Sri Lanka in the 13th century. Since then, Hinduism slowly declined in Cambodia, and finally being replaced by Theravadan Buddhist as the major faith in the kingdom. Despite this, Hindu rituals continue to play an important role in the kingdom. Like in neighbouring Thailand, the ceremony of coronation is conducted mostly by royal Brahmins, during which the sovereign swears in front of the idols of gods Vishnu and Shiva to maintain the ancient national traditions.
Hinduism in Indonesia
Today in Indonesia, Hinduism is practised by 3% of the total population, they constitute 92.29% of the population of Bali and 15.75% of the population of Central Kalimantan, as of the 2000 census. However, between the 4th century to 15th century, Hinduism and Buddhism was adhered by the majority of the population, along with native indigenous animism and dynamism beliefs that venerated natural and ancestral spirits. By 15th to 16th century Islam had supplanted Hinduism and Buddhism as the majority religion in Indonesian archipelago. The influence of Hinduism has profoundly left its marks on the culture of Bali, Java and Sumatra. Bali has become the last remnant of once Hindu dominated region.
Hindu influences reached the Indonesian Archipelago as early as the first century. In 4th-century, the kingdom of Kutai in East Kalimantan, Tarumanagara in West Java, and Holing (Kalingga) in Central Java, were among the early Hindu states established in the region. Several notable ancient Indonesian Hindu kingdoms are Mdang i Bhumi Mataram, famous for the construction of the majestic 9th-century Trimurti Prambanan temple, followed by Kediri, Singosari, and reached the peak of its influence in the 14th-century Majapahit, the last and largest among Hindu-Buddhist Javanese empires. The Hindu civilisations have left its marks in Indonesian culture. The epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, became enduring traditions among Indonesian art forms, expressed in Wayang shadow puppet and dance performances. Many Indonesian names are Sanskrit-based, and Bahasa Indonesia contains loads of loan words of Sanskrit origin. The vehicle of Vishnu, Garuda, was adopted as both national emblem Garuda Pancasila and flag carrier national airline named Garuda Indonesia. Today, the Indonesian government has recognised Hinduism as one of the country’s six officially sanctioned religions, along with Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
The new Hindu communities in Java tend to be concentrated around recently built temples (pura) or around archaeological temple sites (candi) which are being reclaimed as places of Hindu worship. An important new Hindu temple in eastern Java is Pura Mandaragiri Sumeru Agung, located on the slope of Mt Semeru, Java’s highest mountain. Mass conversions have also occurred in the region around Pura Agung Blambangan, another new temple, built on a site with minor archaeological remnants attributed to the Kingdom of Blambangan, the last Hindu polity on Java, and Pura Loka Moksa Jayabaya (in the village of Menang near Kediri), where the Hindu king and prophet Jayabaya is said to have achieved spiritual liberation (moksa). Another site is the new Pura Pucak Raung in East Java, which is mentioned in Balinese literature as the place from where Maharishi Markandeya took Hinduism to Bali in the 5th century.
An example of resurgence around major archaeological remains of ancient Hindu temple sites was observed in Trowulan near Mojokerto, the capital of the legendary Hindu empire Majapahit. A local Hindu movement is struggling to gain control of a newly excavated temple building which they wish to see restored as a site of active Hindu worship. The temple is to be dedicated to Gajah Mada, the man attributed with transforming the small Hindu kingdom of Majapahit into an empire. Although there has been a more pronounced history of resistance to Islamization in East Java, Hindu communities are also expanding in Central Java near the ancient Hindu monuments of Prambanan. The current estimates of Hinduism in Indonesia range from 4 to 8 percent.
Hinduism in Laos
Hinduism make less than 0.1% of the population of Laos. Approximately 7,000 People of Laos are Hindus.In Ancient Time Laos used to be a part of Ancient Hindu Empire Khmer Empire. The Wat Phou is one of the last influences of that period. The Laotian adaptation of the Ramayana is called Phra Lak Phra Lam.
Hinduism in Malaysia
Hinduism is the fourth largest religion in Malaysia. About 1.78 million Malaysian residents (6.3% of the total population) are Hindus, according to 2010 Census of Malaysia. Most Malaysian Hindus are settled in western parts of Peninsular Malaysia. Indian Hindus and Buddhists began arriving in Malaysia during ancient and medieval era. A large number of Hindus from South India were brought to Malaysia by British colonial empire during the 19th and 20th century, as indentured labourers to work on coffee and sugarcane plantations and tin mining; later they were deployed in large numbers, along with Chinese Buddhists, on rubber plantations. The British kanganisystem of recruitment, designed to reduce labour turnover and enhance labour stability, encouraged Hindu workers to recruit friends and family from India to work in British operations in Malaysia. The kangani system brought numerous Tamil Hindus into Malaysia by early 1900s.[20] By 1950s, about 12.8% of Malaysian population professed to be a Hindu.
After Malaysia gained its independence from British colonial empire in 1957, it declared its official state religion as Islam, and adopted a discriminatory constitution as well as the Sedition Act of 1971 which limited public debate on Malaysia’s treatment of religion, language and citizenship policies. In recent decades, there have been increasing reports of religious persecution of Hindus, along with other minority religions, by various state governments of Malaysia and its Sharia courts. Hindu temples built on private property, and built long before Malaysian independence, have been demolished by Malaysian government officials in recent years.[25] Since the 1970s, there has been large scale emigration of Hindus (along with Buddhists and Christians) from Malaysia.Malaysian Hindus celebrate Deepavali (festival of lights), Thaipusam (Lord Murugan festival), Pongal (harvest festival) and Navaratri (Durga festival).
Hinduism in Myanmar
Hinduism in Burma is practised by about 840,000 people. Since a reliable census has not been taken in Burma since colonial times, estimates are approximate. Most Hindus in Myanmar are Burmese Indians. In modern Myanmar, most Hindus are found in the urban centres of Yangon and Mandalay. Ancient Hindu temples are present in other parts of Burma, such as the 11th century Nathlaung Kyaung Temple dedicated to Vishnu in Bagan. Hinduism in Myanmar has also been influenced by Buddhism with many Hindu temples in Myanmar housing statues of the Buddha.
Aspects of Hinduism continue in Burma today, even in the majority Buddhist culture. For example, Thagyamin is worshipped whose origins are in the Hindu god Indra. Burmese literature has also been enriched by Hinduism, including the Burmese adaptation of the Ramayana, called Yama Zatdaw. Many Hindu gods are likewise worshipped by many Burmese people, such as Saraswati (known as Thuyathadi in Burmese), the goddess of knowledge, who is often worshipped before examinations; Shiva is called Paramizwa; Vishnu is called Withano, and others. Many of these ideas are part of thirty seven Nat or deities found in Burmese culture.
Hinduism in the Philippines
Before the arrival of an Arab trader to Sulu Island in 1450 and Ferdinand Magellan, who sailed in behalf of Spain in 1521, the chiefs of many Philippine islands were called Rajas, and the script was derived from Brahmi. Karma, a Hindu concept is understood as part of the traditional view of the universe by many Philippine peoples, and have counterparts such as kalma in the Pampangan language, and Gabâin Visayan languages. The vocabulary in all Philippine languages reflect Hindu influences.There are smaller number of followers of Hinduism today at 0.1% of the Philippine population.
Today, there is a “Hindu Temple” (attended mostly by Sindhīs) on Mahatma Gandhi Street and a “Khalsa Diwan Indian Sikh Temple” (attended mostly by Sikhs) on United Nations Avenue. Both are in Manila city’s Paco-Pandacan area, the traditional Indian enclave, and are about 15 minutes walk away from each other.[34] As per estimate there are 22 gurudwāras all over the Philippines today, although most of the adherents are Indians, Sri Lankans and Nepalese. There are various Hare Krishna groups in the country that are gaining in popularity.
Hinduism in Singapore
The introduction of Hinduism into Singapore dates back to the early 10th century, during the Cholaperiod. Immigrants from southern India, mostly Tamils, arrived as labourers for the British East India Company, bringing with them their religion and culture. Their arrival saw the building of Dravidian temples throughout the island, and the beginnings of a vibrant Hindu culture. The first temple, Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore’s Chinatown. There are currently about thirty main temples in Singapore, dedicated to various gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon. Today, two government bodies deal with all Hindu affairs: The Hindu Endowments Board and The Hindu Advisory Board.Hindus are a minority in Singapore, comprising about 5.1% of its citizens and permanent residents in 2010. Among 15 years or older population, there were about 158,000 Hindus; 37% of all Hindus in Singapore speak Tamil at home, another 42% speak English. Deepavali is a major Hindu festival and a public holiday observed in Singapore.
Hinduism in Thailand
A number of Hindus remain in Thailand. They are mostly located in the cities. In the past, the nation came under the influence of the Khmer Empire, which had strong Hindu roots. Despite the fact that today Thailand is a Buddhist majority nation, many elements of Thai culture and symbolism demonstrates Hindu influences and heritage. For example, the popular epic, Ramakien, is based on the Ramayana. The Royal emblem of Thailand depicted Garuda, the vahana (vehicle) of Vishnu.
The Thai city, Ayutthaya near Bangkok, is named after Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama. Numerous rituals derived from Brahmanism are preserved in rituals, such as the use of holy strings and pouring of water from conch shells. Furthermore, Hindu deities are worshipped by many Thais alongside Buddhism, such as Brahma at the famous Erawan Shrine, and statues of Ganesh, Indra, and Shiva, as well as numerous symbols relating to Hindu deities are found, e.g., Garuda, a symbol of the monarchy. Reliefs in temple walls, such as the 12th-century Prasat Sikhoraphum near Surin (Thailand), show a dancing Shiva, with smaller images of Parvati, Vishnu, Brahma and Ganesha.
The Devasathan is a Hindu temple established in 1784 by King Rama I. The temple is the centre of Brahminism in Thailand. The royal court Brahmins operate the temple, they perform several royal ceremonies per year.An annual Giant Swing ceremony known as Triyampavai-Tripavai was held in major cities of Thailand until 1935, when it was abolished for safety reasons. The name of the ceremony was derived from the names of two Tamil language Hindu chants: Thiruvempavai and Thiruppavai. It is known that Tamil verses from Thiruvempavai — poet pratu sivalai (“opening the portals of Shiva’s home”) — were recited at this ceremony, as well as the coronation ceremony of the Thai king. According to T.P. Meenakshisundaram, the name of the festival indicates that Thiruppavai might have been recited as well. The swinging ceremony depicted a legend about how the god created the world. Outside shops, particularly in towns and rural areas, statues of Nang Kwak as the deity of wealth, fortune and prosperity (the version of Lakshmi) are found.
The elite, and the royal household, often employ Brahmins to mark funerals and state ceremonies such as the Royal Ploughing Ceremony to ensure a good harvest. The importance of Hinduism cannot be denied, even though much of the rituals have been combined with Buddhism.
Hinduism in Vietnam
The first recorded religion of the Champa was a form of Shaiva Hinduism, brought by sea from India. Hinduism was the predominant religion among the Cham people until the sixteenth century. Numerous temples dedicated to Shiva were constructed in the central part of what is now Vietnam. The Champa civilisation was located in the more southern part of what is today Central Vietnam, and was a highly Indianized Hindu Kingdom, practising a form of Shaivite Hinduism brought by sea from India. Mỹ Sơn, a Hindu temple complex in central Vietnam built by the Cham people is still standing albeit in ruins in Quảng Nam Province, in Vietnam. Since the 15th century under the growing Vietnamese kingdom from the north, Champa was conquered and reduced as a polity. The Chams were subsequently absorbed by the Vietnamese and today are recognised as one of the many ethnic minorities of Vietnam.
The Chams Balamon (Hindu Brahmin Chams) form a majority of the Cham population in Vietnam while most of the remainder are Cham Bani followers of Islam. The term Balamon is considered to have been derived from Brahmin, however, another study suggests that 70% are considered to descend from the Nagavamshi Kshatriya caste (pronounced in Cham(?) as “Satrias”), and claim to be the descendants of the Champa Empire. In any case, a sizeable proportion of the Balamon Hindu Cham are considered Brahmins.Hindu temples are known as Bimong in the Cham language and the priests called Halau Tamunay Ahier.
The exact number of Hindus in Vietnam are not published in Government census, but there are estimated to be at least 50,000 Balamon Hindus, with another 4,000 Hindus living in Ho Chi Minh City; most of whom are of Indian (Tamil) or of mixed Indian-Vietnamese descent. The Mariamman Temple is one of the most notable Tamil Hindu temples in Ho Chi Minh City. Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan Provinces are where most of the Cham ethnic group (~65%) in Vietnam reside according to the last population census. Cham Balamon (Hindu Cham) in Ninh Thuan numbered 32,000 in 2002 inhabiting 15 of 22 Cham villages. If this population composition is typical for the Cham population of Vietnam as a whole then approximately 60% of Chams in Vietnam are Hindu.
The Indian Horizon
The rise of India’s influence had taken place when the Khmer kings spread it to other regions and decline began with the coming of Islam. But even though it was a long time ago that India’s influence on Southeast Asia’s culture and civilisation more or less halted, the impact can be seen and felt even today on its customs, culture, architectural designs. Finally, the decline of India’s influence in Southeast Asia began from around the 13th century when conversions to Islam took place in many major countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
India’s cultural conquests were peaceful and without forced conversions. There was no evidence of violence, colonisation and subjugation and there was no extensive migration from India to the countries of Southeast Asia. The Indians who went there did not go to rule nor had any interest in controlling from afar. A Mahabharata Monument depicting Krishna and Arjun riding a chariot pulled by eleven horses is placed prominently in a park in central Jakarta. Southeast Asia absorbed and retained its past Indian influence in a very distinctive manner over the centuries and today it has melded into the Southeast Asian culture. The influence of India can also be felt in the food and flavours of South East Asia. There are many spices in common between Indian and Southeast Asian foods. Nearly all the people of Southeast Asian region eat rice and curry like the people of Eastern India with many common ingredients. Indian herbal medicines also reached Southeast Asia from ancient times and are used even today in many countries. Closer links with the Southeast Asian region is thus a natural outcome for India and its ‘Act East policy’.
The Government of India’s ‘Act East policy’ aims at improving economic and political relations with the Southeast Asian region which has had close contacts with India for centuries and is linked culturally and geographically with it. India has been able to make inroads in trade and investments with members of the ASEAN by signing a Free Trade Agreement in 2009 which will aim at increasing business between the two and renew the partnership and contact with member countries with similar culture, artistic tradition, family values and customs.
– Colonel Manoj Joe Purakel (Rtd)

Source: Organiser

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