Indianization of Southeast Asia
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Indianization of Southeast Asia

Dating back to the first century, Indian culture started making its way into the region of Southeast Asia. The expansion of Indian culture into these areas was given the term Indianization.[1] The term was coined by French archaeologist, George Coedes in his work Histoire ancienne des états hindouisés d'Extrême-Orient (The Indianized States of Southeast Asia). He defined it as the expansion of an organized culture that was framed upon Indian originations of royalty, Hinduism and Buddhism and the Sanskrit dialect.[2] A large number of nations came under the influence of the Indosphere becoming a part of Greater India, the cultural expansion caused the Sanskritization of South East Asia, the rise of Indianized kingdoms, spread of Hinduism in Southeast Asia and the Silk road transmission of Buddhism. Indian honorifics were adopted into the Malay, Thai, Filipino and Indonesian languages. The Indian diaspora, both historical (PIO or Person of Indian-Origin) and current (NRI or Non-Resident Indian), play an ongoing key role in the region in terms of geopolitical, strategic, trade, cultural traditions, and economic aspects, with most Southeast Asian countries having sizable Indian communities alongside often much larger ethnic Chinese minorities.

The spread of Indianisation

Expansion of Hinduism in Southeast Asia.

There are many different theories for how Indianization spread throughout insular and mainland Southeast Asia. These differing theories each argue for a different caste of Indians as being the main propagator of Indian language and culture into Southeast Asia.

Theory of the Vaishya traders

The first of these theories focuses on the caste of Vaishya traders, and their role for bringing Indian traditions into Southeast Asia through trade. Southeast Asia was rich in resources that were desired in the Indian sub-continent, the most important of which being gold.[3] During the 4th century c.e. the Indian subcontinent was at a deficiency for gold due to extensive control of overland trade routes by the Roman Empire, and this period is when we see the first evidence of Indian trade in Southeast Asia. Vaishya traders had turned to maritime trade to acquire gold, and they set their sails for Southeast Asia. However, the conclusion that Indianization was just spread through trade is insufficient, as Indianization permeated through all classes of Southeast Asian society, not just the merchant classes[4]

Theory of the Kshatriya warriors

Another theory states that Indianization spread through the Kshatriya class of warriors. This hypothesis does a good job at explaining state formation in Southeast Asia, as these warriors came with the intention of conquering the local peoples and establishing their own political power in the region. However, this theory hasn't attracted much interest from historians as there is very little literary evidence to support it.[3]

Theory of the Brahmins

The most widely accepted theory for the spread of Indianization into Southeast Asia is through the class of Brahmin scholars. These Brahmins used the maritime routes established by the Vaishya traders, and brought with them many of the Hindu religious and philosophical traditions to spread to the elite classes of Southeast Asia.[3] Once these traditions were adopted into the elite classes, it disseminated throughout all the lower classes, thus explaining the Indianization present in all classes of Southeast Asian society. Brahmins had influence beyond just the fields of religion and philosophy however, and soon Southeast Asia had adopted many Indian influenced codes of law and architecture.

A combination of all three theories can explain the Indianization of Southeast Asia, rather than just choosing one. There was an extensive maritime trade network, which allowed for traders to extract gold and spices from Southeast Asia.[5] Once these trade networks had been established, it paved the way for new classes of warriors to exert military prowess over select Southeast Asian areas. Finally, these extensive trade networks also allowed for the influx of Brahmin scholars, who impressed many Southeast Asian elites with their knowledge of law, arts, philosophy.[5] Thus through the Brahmin scholars many of these Indian and Hindu practices were propagated throughout all social classes Southeast Asia.


Scripts in Sanskrit discovered during the early centuries of the Common Era are the earliest known forms of writing to have extended all the way to Southeast Asia. Its gradual impact ultimately resulted in its widespread domain as a means of dialect which evident in regions, from Bangladesh to Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand and additionally a few of the larger Indonesian islands. In addition, alphabets from languages spoken in Burmese, Thai, Laos and Cambodia are a variations formed off of Indian ideals that have localized the language.[5]

The utilization of Sanskrit has been prevalent in all aspects of life including legal purposes. Sanskrit terminology and vernacular appears in ancient courts to establish procedures that have been structured by Indian models such as a system composed of a code of laws.[5] The concept of legislation demonstrated through codes of law and organizations particularly the idea of "God King" was embraced by numerous rulers of Southeast Asia.[2] The rulers amid this time, for example, the Lin-I Dynasty of Vietnam once embraced the Sanskrit dialect and devoted sanctuaries to the Indian divinity Shiva. Many rulers following even viewed themselves as "reincarnations or descendants" of the Hindu gods. However once Buddhism began entering the nations, this practiced view was eventually altered.[2]


The effects of Hinduism and Buddhism applied a tremendous impact on the many civilizations inhabiting Southeast Asia which significantly provided some structure to the composition of written traditions. An essential factor for the spread and adaptation of these religions originated from trading systems of the third and fourth century.[5] In order to spread the message of these religions Buddhist monks and Hindu priests joined mercantile classes in the quest to share their religious and cultural values and beliefs. Along the Mekong delta, evidence of Indianized religious models can be observed in communities labeled Funan. There can be found the earliest records engraved on a rock in Vocanh.[6] The engravings consist of Buddhist archives and a south Indian scripts written in Sanskrit that have been dated to belong to the early half of the third century. Indian religion was profoundly absorbed by local cultures that formed their own distinctive variations of these structures in order to reflect their own ideals.

The Mandala

The Mandala is a religious symbol representing the universe and is also involved in the political system of Southeast Asia. The center of the Mandala is considered to contain the power while the power then spreads outwards. This replicates the how the political system within Southeast Asia has a powerful center of administration. The Mandala, just like a political system changes from empire to empire with its relation to the King and the empire.[2]

Caste System

The caste system divides Hindus into a hierarchical groups based on their work (karma) and duty (dharma).The caste system, defined by authoritative book on Hindu law wrote that the system is a basis of order and regularity of society. Once born into a group, one can not move into different levels. Lower castes are never able to climb higher within the caste system, limiting the economies progress from growing. The system divides Hindus into four categories - Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Brahmins consist of those who teach and educate such as priest and teachers. Kshatriyas include those who maintain law and order. Vaishyas consist of businessmen such as farmers and merchants. Shudras contain all skilled and unskilled laborers.[7]

The Brahmins from the Indian culture spread their religion to southeast Asia. By traveling to these countries they were able to inform others on their beliefs and spark the beginning of the Hindu and Buddhist cultures in Southeast Asia. These Brahmins introduced the caste system to all the countries; however, more so in Java, Bali, Madura, and Sumatra. Unlike India the caste system was not as strict.[2] As a result of all these different writings, there are big speculations that the Brahmins has a big role on their religion. There are multiple similarities between the two caste systems such that both state that no one is equal within society and that everyone has their own place. It also promoted the upbringing of highly organized central states. Although they have some similarities, Southeast Asians did not use the Hindu system enitirely and adjusted what they did use to their local context. The Brahmins were still able to implement their religion, political ideas, literature, mythology, and art[2]

Historiography of South East Asia

The history of South East Asia was mostly always written from the perspective of external civilizations that influenced the region.The prevalent interpretation caused mainly because of the ontological differences, fundamentally dichotomous histories of Europe and pre colonial Asia, was apparently that the despotism, obscurantism, servile equality of Asian societies along with innovation becoming prey to tyranny had rendered history cyclical, immobile and non-linear.

The belief in the idea that South East Asia had never engendered its own civilization,and of indigenous incapacity or external benefaction gained additional support, such was the tremendous evidence of Indian architectural and religious influence in South East Asia and we're fundamentally identified as being derivative and thus Indianization was perceived as occurring more so due to the Indian initiatives rather than the indigenous initiatives of South East Asia.[8]

Development of caste system

Another main concern for indianization was the understanding and development of caste systems. The debate was often whether or not the caste systems were seen as an elite process or just the process of picking up the Indian culture and calling it their own in each region. This had showed that the Southeast Asian countries were civilized and able to flourish their own interests. For example, Cambodia's caste system is based on people in society. However, in India, the caste system was based on which class they belonged to when they were born. Based on the evidence of the caste system in Southeast Asia, shows that they were applying Indian culture to their own, also known/seen as indianization[9] Similar to the caste systems, the cultures were a huge part of determining the legitimacy of indianization. Many argue that only writing could really date the culture and prove indianization. The lives of rulers, daily lives of people, rituals of funeral, weddings and specific customs were a few that helped anthropologists date the indianization of countries. The religions found in India and Southeast Asian countries was another piece of evidence that led anthropologists to understand where the cultures and customs were adopted from.[2]

Decline of Indianization

Rise of Islam

Islamic control took over as well in the midst of the thirteenth century to trump the Hinduist kingdoms. In the process of Islamism coming to the traditional Hinduism kingdoms, trade was heavily practiced and the now Islamic Indians started becoming merchants all over Southeast Asia.[2] Moreover, as trade became more saturated in the Southeast Asian regions wherein Indianization once persisted, the regions had become more Muslim populated. This so-called Islamic control has spanned to many of the trading centers across the regions of Southeast Asia, including one of the most dominant centers, Malacca, and has therefore stressed a widespread rise of Islamization.[2]

Distinction from colonialism

Acharya[year needed] at amitavacharya.comTemplate:Verifiy credibility argues that "Indianization is different from traditional colonialism" due to the fact that "it doesn't involve strangers coming in and taking over an unknown land." Instead, Indian influence from trade routes and language use slowly permeated through Southeast Asia, making the traditions a part of the region.The interactions between India and Southeast Asia were marked by waves of influence and dominance. At some points the Indian culture solely found its way into the region, and at other points the influence was used to take over. Indianization and its influence was seen in nearly all aspects of Southeast Asian society and history. Before the rise of Indianisation, influence of Indian culture, and the introduction of Islam the history of Southeast Asia and its people was unrecorded. The beginning of Indianization marked the start of cultural organization,rise of monarchichal kingdoms in Southeast Asia[10]

See also


  1. ^ Acharya, Amitav. "The "Indianization of Southeast Asia" Revisited: Initiative, Adaptation and Transformation in Classical Civilizations" (PDF).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Coedes, George (1967). The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Australian National University Press.
  3. ^ a b c Lukas, Helmut (May 21-23, 2001). "1 THEORIES OF INDIANIZATIONExemplified by Selected Case Studies from Indonesia (Insular Southeast Asia)". International SanskritConference.
  4. ^ Krom, N.J. (1927). Barabudur, Archeological Description. The Hague.
  5. ^ a b c d e Smith, Monica L. (1999). ""INDIANIZATION" FROM THE INDIAN POINT OF VIEW: TRADE AND CULTURAL CONTACTS WITH SOUTHEAST ASIA IN THE EARLY FIRST MILLENNIUM C.E.')". Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. 42. (11-17): 1-26. doi:10.1163/1568520991445588. JSTOR 3632296.
  6. ^ Kleinmeyer, Cindy. "Religions of Southeast Asia" (PDF). Northern Illinois University. Retrieved June 2004. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  7. ^ "What Is India's Caste System?". BBC News. 20 July 2017.
  8. ^ Lieberman, Victor (2003-05-26). Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830. ISBN 9781139437622.
  9. ^ O'Reilly, Dougald J. W (2007). "Early Civilizations of Southeast Asia". AltaMira Press.
  10. ^ Acharya, Amitav. "The "Indianization of Southeast Asia" Revisited: Initiative, Adaptation and Transformation in Classical Civilizations" (PDF).

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