History of International Relations Textbook

India and indianization

India and indianization

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The history of India is long, as long as China’s. The first human settlements here go back some 9,000 years and in the valley of the river Indus — running through what today is Pakistan — the first organized states were established some 5,000 years ago. The city of Harappa is one of the first urban settlements. The Harappans traded with Egypt and Mesopotamia, made goods in copper and bronze, and used a primitive form of writing. India, just as China, is not only a country but a world onto itself. Indeed it is often referred to as a “sub-continent” which today not only includes India but Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka too. India has always surprised its visitors with the enormous size of its population. There are thousands of ethnic groups here, each one with its separate language, customs, and sometimes religion. India is the origin of two world religions: Hinduism and Buddhism, and many smaller religions too — among them Jainism and Sikhism. Between them India and China contain about a third of the world’s population and it is estimated that India by the hear 2030 time will become the country with the largest population in the world.

Although both China and India have a long history, China’s is easier to summarize. From the third century BCE, China called itself an empire and although various dynasties have replaced one another, it is nevertheless possible to tell the history of China as the story of one political entity. In the case of India, there is no such continuity. There is no single political subject — however tenuously held together — about which a story can be told. Instead various empires have replaced each other in the course of the millennia. These different units have been independent of each other, often at war with each other, although there also have been periods when most, or at least much, of the sub-continent has been united under one ruler. Today India is a country, but throughout most of its history India was an international system of interacting states. At the same time, however, the Indian international system was held together by a strong sense of shared identity based above all around Hindu practices and beliefs.

Another similarity with China is that India constantly has been menaced by invasions. The invaders always swept down on the country from the north-west, across the mountain passes of what now is Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the reason for the invasions was always the same: the extraordinary wealth of the Indian sub-continent. In India everything grew in great abundance — in the fertile rice-fields of the south it was possible to gather three harvests per year, The surplus which the agriculture produced could pay for an elaborate hierarchy of social classes and for powerful states with rulers famous for their treasures and ostentatious displays. In the Classical period — roughly the first millennium CE — India was the richest country in the world, with a wealth approximating perhaps half of the world’s total. And well after that — during the Mughal period — India continued to be the emporium mundi, the world’s greatest hub for trade and manufacturing. In India everything could be found and consequently everybody tried to get there. And those who had nothing much to sell, like the invading armies coming from the north-west, sought to take what they could by force.

The first of these invaders were the Indo-Europeans, some two thousand years BCE. Not that much is known about them, but the Vedas — the earliest religious texts — contain traces of their rituals. [Read more: Horse sacrifices] In addition, there are words in the Indo-European language which can be found in the roots of European languages too. If we analyze these words — “horse,” “cattle,” “sheep” and so on — they may indicate a shared origin somewhere in Central Asia. Moreover, the first Indian texts contain references to cultural practices which seem to belong to people who lived outside of the Indian sub-continent. For example: there are references to a drink, soma, which may have been prepared by a plant today found mainly in Uzbekistan.

Of all the invasions, that of Alexander the Great is perhaps the most famous, but in this case because it did not take place. After having conquered the Persian empire in 331 BCE, Alexander’s armies swept into Central Asia, and he crossed the Indus river in the spring of 326. But right at the threshold of the Indian sub-continent his troops mutinied and he was forced to turn back. Yet Alexander’s presence in Central Asia, and the Indo-Greek culture that flourished in Bactria, in today’s Afghanistan, was to have a profound impact on many Asian societies. Many trade routes passed through here and merchants did not only carry goods but also cultural influences with them on their far-flung travels. This is how Indian Buddhism eventually was exported to China, Tibet, Korea and Japan. Central Asia was also the staging-post for several waves of subsequent invasions, including that of the Mughals in 1526 CE. The Mughals ruled much, if not all, of present-day India of the next three hundred years. Their Muslim culture too was to have a profound impact on India n cultur and society. It was to the Mughal empire that the Europeans first arrived in the sixteenth-century and which the British eventually came to occupy. The Europeans too, like everyone else, had been attracted by India’s immense wealth and the opportunities it offered for trade. It was India after all, not the Americas, that Columbus wanted to reach.

Despite these successive waves of invasions, Indian culture has remained strong, and even the most powerful of foreign armies have had to make compromises with Indian ways of life, eventually merging with the indigenous culture. In addition, India has exercised a strong influence over the rest of Asia, and over Southeast Asia in particular. Starting in the first centuries of the Common Era, Indian cultural practices, ideas regarding society and religious beliefs were disseminated all around the Indian Ocean, leading to new cultural combinations. We can talk about this as a process of “indianization.” It is because of the process of indianization that today’s Thailand is a Buddhist country, that Angkor Wat in Cambodia was built as a Hindu temple complex and a majority of people in Indonesia are Muslims to this day. Indeed the very name of the country — “Indonesia” — reveals some of this history, as does the designation “Indo-China” for the three countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The influence of Indian culture remains strong — although the impact today is felt on a world-wide scale.

Vedic India

The first written records of Indian history are the Vedas, dating from around 1,500 BCE. The Vedas are the written-up version of secret oral teachings which gurus, religious teachers, gave to their students. In these texts there is a heavy emphasis on the role of rituals, including sacrifices of various kinds. The Vedas are written in a very concise language and for that reason difficult to decipher. Commentaries on the Vedas, known as the Upanishads, written some time around 500 BCE, are more elaborate statements and they are considered as the founding texts of Hinduism. Because of the importance of the Vedas, this early age in the history of the sub-continent is often known as the “Vedic” period.

The followers of the Vedas were the Aryans. Who, at least according to one prominent theory, came from Central Asia some time around 2,000 BCE and established themselves in northern India, along the plain of the river Ganges as well as on the Deccan plateau in central and southern India. The Aryans were originally nomads and even once they increasingly turned to farming, cattle-breeding continued to be important in their lives. The cow was already at this time a sacred animal and the number of cows a family possessed was a measure of their wealth.

During the first millennium BCE there were a large number of different groups and tribes in northern India. They formed janapada, or nations, which gradually over time came to be associated with a particular piece of territory. All major geographical regions of contemporary India can be traced back to these Vedic nations. Already Vedic societies were divided into social classes which were rigidly separated from each other — the priests or brahmins, formed the leading class, the warriors or kshatriya, came after them, then craftsmen and merchants, and finally the servants. These four main groups were later to be subdivided into a multitude of “castes” each one responsible for a certain task and governed by its respective rules. The caste system as a whole was maintained through religious sanctions. This was the world which the gods had instituted. You were born into a caste, into a certain job and a social position, and there was basically no way to move between castes.

Around 600 BCE, the very large number of janapada had been reduced to sixteen major ones, known as mahajanapada, “great nations,” located along the Gangetic plain, the valley of the Ganges river. In each mahajanapada there was a king and each king surrounded himself with a court with courtiers, including philosophers, magicians and priests. These courts were centers of culture but also of scholarship and religious learning, but the life of the farmers was not far away. For example: teachers who had proven themselves particularly important to a king, or philosophers who had won a philosophical debate, could be rewarded with the gift of a cow.

Much as in other international systems made up of competing states, the rivalry between the various mahajanapada helped spur development. Much as in China of the Warring States period, and roughly at the same time, the small Indian states had to protect themselves against their neighbors and this required more powerful armies. But more powerful armies required a more powerful economic base and a more efficient state machinery. The military competition forced economic and political change. But, and again much as in China, the competition also produced something akin to a philosophical revolution. The various political leaders needed ideas for how to rule their states and for how to defeat their enemies, and such ideas were offered by wandering teachers. One early work on politics is the Arthashastra famous for its cynical advice to rulers. [Read more: Arthashastra] Politics, its author suggested, is a dog-eat-dog world in which only the most ruthless make it to the top. It was also now — in the late Vedic period, between 500 and 200 BCE — that the great epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were composed. The Mahabharata is still regularly staged and recited all over India, despite its massive, 200,000 verse format, and it constitutes a shared cultural reference for all Indians.

Another topic discussed at the mahajanapada courts was religion. Broadly speaking, two quite different religious traditions developed along the Ganges. To the west — towards today’s Pakistan — there was a priestly culture, described in the Vedas, which focused on rituals and on the secret teachings of the gurus. Here the emphasis was on the sacrifices which the gods required and the rewards you might get if you performed them properly. This is the religious tradition which later came to be known as Hinduism. It was the leading social class, the brahmins, who were the keepers of these traditions and the spiritual basis of their secular power.

In the eastern part of the Gangetic plain — towards today’s Bangladesh — the emphasis was rather on ascetic practices, on meditation and the religious development of each individual. It is here that we find the first writings on philosophy, psychology and morality. Much debated questions included the nature of consciousness and the status of subjectivity and of the self. There is a brahman, a “world-soul,” some teachers argued, but there is an atman too, the soul of each individual, and an important topic of debate concerned how the two related to each other. Other topics included the nature and status of the self. How can the self remain the same from one moment to the next, philosophers asked, or from one lifetime to the next? In order to investigate such questions, ascetics engaged in practices which later were to develop into yoga and meditation.

It was in this environment that two schools arose which later were to become two new religions — Jainism and Buddhism. Although they both were heavily influenced by the philosophical teachings common in the eastern parts of the Gangetic plain, and engaged in the same ascetic practices, they broke explicitly with the ritualistic culture of the brahmins. They also rejected many traditional social practices — such as the caste system. The Jains are famous for their doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violence, which not only made them renounce war but also turned them into vegetarians. As far as Buddhism is concerned, it was to have a profound impact on most of East Asia, although the religion all but disappeared from India itself. [Read more: The Buddha] In addition to Jains and Buddhists many other kinds of religious and philosophical teachings flourished at this time, including rationalists, materialists and atheists. But during the mahajanapada period mathematics flourished too and sciences like astronomy.

The Mauryan empire

The Arthashastra, the political treatise filled with cynical advice to ruthless rulers, is traditionally said to have been composed by Chanakya, an adviser at the court of Chandragupta, king of the Mauryan empire. Considering his extraordinary political and military success, Chandragupta Maurya must have been a good student of the text. He and his successors benefited from the political confusion left in northern India in the wake of the retreat of Alexander the Great’s army. They overthrew the various mahapadayana kingdoms and between 322 and 180 BCE, the Maurya kins ruled an empire which for the first time encompassed next to all of India — only the southern tip of the sub-continent remained outside of their control. At the time the Mauryan empire was one of the largest political entities in the world. Only the Mughals, in the sixteenth-century; the British, in the nineteenth-century; and the Indian republic, in the twentieth-century, were able to united the entire Indian landmass in the same fashion.

The most famous of the Mauryan kings was Ashoka, 304-232 BCE, the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, also known as “Ashoka the Great.” Ashoka was the most ruthless of the Maurya kings, or rather, this is how he started his career. In order to make himself heir to the throne, legend has it, he first had to kill no fewer than 99 of his brothers, and once he had assumed power he continued to be both selfish and cruel. Yet he eventually came to regret his behavior. Above all it was the spectacular bloodshed at the battle of Kalinga, 260 BCE, in which no fewer than a quarter of a million soldiers died, that made him change his ways. Remorseful and disgusted with his previous life, Ashoka converted to Buddhism, gave away his possessions to the poor and took up vegetarianism. He also transformed his state so as to cater to the needs of his subjects. He planted trees along the roads, dug wells and canals for irrigation, built rest-houses for travelers and hospitals for the sick, and instructed his officials to keep an eye out for the welfare of the poor, the aged and widowed. He replaced the traditional hunting parties — a favorite past-time of Indian kings — with religious pilgrimages.

Ashoka also introduced writing to India and put up a large number of pillars made in stone on which he declared himself to be the ruler of the country and explained his policies and aspirations to his people. His only aim, he proudly declared, was everybody’s happiness, and he renounced violence and condemned corruption. [Read more: Pillars of Ashoka] Ashoka’s conversion was crucial for the dissemination of Buddhism not only in India but further afield. He sent missionaries to remote parts of his empire, but also to kingdoms abroad, and his own son is said to have been the first Buddhist missionary to Sri Lanka. Yet the state that Ashoka created barely outlived him. Once again the sub-continent was invaded by various armies coming from Central Asia and the Mauryan empire fell in 185 BCE.

Given his many achievements and good deeds, Ashoka’s legacy has been surprisingly mixed. Among Indian nationalists he had admirers such as Mahattma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nerhu, but many twentieth-century Hindu nationalists were skeptical, even hostile, to him. Violence was required, they argued, if India ever was going to get rid of the British. Ashoka was considered too meek. Besides Hindu elites disliked him for conversion to Buddhism and his rejection of the caste system — there is no caste system in a Buddhist society. Over the years, Indian history textbooks have periodically been rewritten to reduce Ashoka’s roll and importance.

Classical India

The most successful of the new invaders were the Kushans who established a kingdom in northern India during the first four centuries of the Common Era. The Kushan empire stretched into Central Asia too and it included Bactria, a part of modern Afghanistan, as well as today’s Tajikistan. Bactrian culture at the time was a curious mixture of Buddhist and Greek traditions. Once the armies of Alexander the Great withdrew, some of his soldiers remained and there were Greek speaking communities here for centuries. They also continued to produce works of art in the Greek manner. Gold coins were minted with Greek text and enormous statues were erected in which the Buddha was wearing Greek togas. The most famous of these statues — at Bamiyan, in today’s Afghanistan, dating from the sixth century CE — were destroyed by the Taliban government in 2001.

During the Kushan empire, trade flourished — with Central Asia, but also with places such as Egypt and Rome far further afield. During the first centuries CE, Roman women dressed in Chinese silks and Roman patricians kept Indian peacocks in their villas. The less ostentatiously inclined of their countrymen complained that the Romans were ruining themselves buying expensive Indian fashions. Much of what we know about the Kushan empire is contained in eyewitness accounts left by visitors and mercnats from China. Returning home they did not only bring with them assorted wondrous Indian goods but also the teachings of the Buddha. This is how Buddhism came to spread through China, and later Korea and Japan too.

In the fourth century CE, the Kushan empire disintegrated into a number of small kingdoms and instead rulers of the Gupta dynasty, 319605 CE, came to dominate much of northern India. The Gupta empire was a proper state, with a bureaucracy, a system of taxation, and salaried government officials. The Gupta kings issued coins with their pictures on them, thus spreading his image throughout the kingdom and informing people who their ruler was. The economy was flourishing during the Gupta period — metallurgy in particular, and India was the world center of iron production. Enormous iron pillars were cast together with Buddha statues in copper. The sciences flourished too, and it was now that Indian mathematicians invented the number zero and determined pi to be equal to 3.14. Meanwhile Indian astronomers calculated the exact number of the days of the year and the circumference of the earth with astonishing precision.

It was during the Gupta period that many of the things we today think of as quintessentially Indian first came to be established, including music, architecture, sculpture and paintings. It was now that Hinduism first came to be institutionalized and given set texts, rituals and prayers. And it was now that the images of the Hindu gods received their iconic forms – Vishnu with his four arms; the dancing Shiva; Ganesh, the elephant god; Hanuman, the monkey god, and so on. The Kamasutra was also compiled at this time, notorious as a manual on sexual practices but also in fact a tract on morality and an investigation of sorts of the nature of human consciousness. To Hindu nationalists in the twentieth-century, the Gupta period was the “golden period” which they often referred to in their propaganda.

When the Gupta empire began to decline early in the seventh-century, it was replaced by a number of empires, yet none of them was able to conquer the sub-continent as a whole. Two of these empires are worth mentioning — the Pala and the Chola. The Pala empire, ruled in Bengal and today’s Bangladesh, from the eighth- to the twelfth-century CE. The Pala were Buddhists, but far more war-like than once Ashoka and their army was particularly famous for its war elephants. The Pala traded widely and coins from the Abbasid caliphate have been found on archaeological sites. It was now that the Muslim religion for the first time was introduced into India and Indian science and mathematics was exported to the Muslim world. The large Buddhist monastery at Nalanda attracted students from Tibet, China, Korea, and Central Asia. In addition to Buddhist texts, the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar and medicine were taught here. Nalanda is sometimes said to be the first university.

The Chola dynasty, meanwhile, dominated the land on India’s eastern coast, where a substantial part of of the population were Tamil speaking. The Chola were seafarers, traders and fishermen, and maintained close contact with lands beyond the sub-continent – from the islands of the Maldives in the south to the Indonesian archipelago in the east. The Chola kings, much as the Gupta before them, were the leaders of a centralized state with a professional and disciplined bureaucracy. They constructed great buildings, including many temples, and they were patrons of the arts. It was now that a body of literature written in Tamil first came to be developed. The ethnic division of Sri Lanka — where Tamils today constitute some 11 percent of the population — dates from the Chola period.


Although the Indian sub-continent repeatedly was invaded by various armies, Indian empires themselves never sought to expand abroad. Despite this fact, India has had a profound impact on societies throughout Asia. The power exercised in this way was civilizational rather than political and it relied on commerce rather than the force of arms. This process is often referred to as “indianization,” although the term, as we will see, is quite controversial. Indianization, on other words, refers to the process whereby the cultural practices of the Indian sub-continent, together with aspects of its political and social system, came to influence the rest of Asia — Southeast Asia most directly, but China, Japan and Central Asia too.

Since indianization never was a matter of an official policy, it is difficult to say exactly when the process began and how it developed. We are talking about osmosis here — “a mutual exchange through semi-permeable membranes” — rather than cultural imperialism. However, it seems clear that Indian influences spread along the first trade-routes. It was more than anything the Indian Ocean that helped connect various far-flung markets with each other. Of particular importance were the seasonal changes in wind-direction — the monsoons, or “trade winds” — which made it surprisingly easy to travel over large distances. Thus a trader in southern India could set sail for, say, the Malacca peninsula in the summer and just as easily return home in the winter when the direction of the winds changed.

In the 3rd to 5th centuries CE there were already well-established contacts between ports all around the Indian Ocean and this was where Indian merchants came to settle. Together with the trade and the traders came Indian religious practices, but also ideas regarding politics and society together with some of the institutions required to implement them. A strong influence from India is detectable from the 8th century CE, and it was to continue for at least some 500 years. This was when Hinduism spread to much of Southeast Asia, followed by Buddhism and then Islam. But this was also how the Pali and Sanskrit languages spread, together with Indian music, theater and dance, food, ways of dressing, and much else.

But it is at the same time clear that the indigenous populations of Southeast Asia were far more than the passive recipients of these influences. For one thing, they often traveled to India themselves, to southern India in particular, and they were active importers both of goods and Indian cultural practices. Many aspects of Indian society were highly elaborate and urbane and thereby quite alien to the agricultural, and rather rustic, traditions which characterized Southeast Asian societies. As a result, India could offer things which no one in Southeast Asia ever previously had seen or experienced. Far-away India seemed sophisticated whereas the local culture seemed hopelessly backward. India was admired and revered. Not surprisingly competition ensued regarding who among the locals that would become the most Indian.

This logic mattered in particular for the local rulers. An East-Asian king who could surround himself with the trappings of Indian civilization was quite automatically regarded powerful and legitimate. As such he would stand out from his competitors — at least as long as they did not copy the same Indian models. In addition the local rulers were eager to adopt any institution or technique than might help them strengthen their hold on power. This included Indian manuals on statecraft, the Indian legal system, and various political institutions, such as the institutions of diplomacy.

There were many indianized states throughout East Asia. This is only a small sample:

  • Langkasuka, 200s-1500s CE, was the oldest kingdom in the Malay Peninsula thought to have been created by descendants of the Indian Buddhist king Ashoka. Mixing Hindu, Buddhist and Malay culture, Langkasuka was a part of the Chinese international system and their tribute bearers are mentioned in imperial Chinese records.

  • Srivijaya, 650-1377 CE, was a kingdom on the island of Sumatra in today’s Indonesia, heavily influenced by Indian culture. Srivijaya was a thalassocracy, an empire stretching across the sea, with strong connections to the Malacca peninsula and societies bordering on the South China Sea. Srivijaya attracted pilgrims from other parts of Asia and was home to more than a thousand Buddhist scholars.

  • Medang, 800s-1100s, was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom on Java in today’s Indonesia. They built the Borobudur, a Buddhist temple complex, and the Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex. At the court of the Medang rulers Indian texts where translated, but the culture included distinct Javanese influences. Medang buildings are known for their bas-reliefs which often include long quotations from Buddhist sutras, holy texts.

  • Champa, 192 to 1832 CE, was a kingdom located in southern and central Vietnam which adopted Sanskrit as a scholarly language and made Hinduism into a state religion, although Indian influences were heavily mixed with local religious lore. In 1832 the Champa were conquered by the Viet, a society with far closer cultural ties to China. There are still people in Vietnam today who speak Chamic, a language related to Malay.

  • The Khmer was a Hindu empire which existed between the 9th and 13th centuries in today’s Cambodia. Its political and religious center was the Angkor Wat, an enormous complex of more than 900 temples. The kings were considered as incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu god. [Read more: Angkor Wat]

  • Kingdom of Tondo, 900s to 1589, was an Indianized kingdom in today’s Philippines. They traded with China and participated in the Chinese international system.

  • Pagan, 849-1297 CE, was a kingdom in central Burma, predominantly Buddhist but also incorporating Hindu beliefs. They were invaded by the Mongols in 1297 and never quite recovered.

  • Ayutthaya, 1351-1767, a kingdom in today’s Thailand. They engaged in extensive trade, sent ambassadors to foreign courts, and expanded into the Malay peninsula. The Ayutthaya kings combined Hinduism and Buddhism and were considered semi-divine rulers. Their armies made extensive use of war elephants. [Read more: War elephants]

  • Majapahit, 1293-1527, was another thalassocratic empire, based in Java in today’s Indonesia. They had some 98 states paying tribute to them from areas including Malaysia, southern Thailand, the Philippines and New Guinea. Majapahit rose to power in the wake of the Mongol invasion of the country. They combined Buddhism with Shaivism and Vaishnavism, two Hindu sects. The Majapahit built stupas in red brick, statues in terracotta, and figurines in gold.

  • Bali, in today’s Indonesia, an island strongly influenced by Hindu culture from the first century CE. An Indian-style caste-system was put in place, although it was vastly simplified. Hinduism is practiced in Bali to this day but it is combined with many Buddhist beliefs and indigenous religious practices.

But “indianization,” we said, is a controversial term. Given that much of the Indian references was knowledge confined to the brahmin caste and not something that ordinary Indian merchants would have been familiar with, it seems unlikely that commercial contacts alone could be responsible for the dissemination. We can thus imagine an exchange whereby ordinary Indian merchants first helped instill a taste for things Indian among local rulers who then, on their own initiative, invited high-caste scholars and artists from India to settle in their kingdoms. Indianization, for that reason, is best described as a process of cultural exchange, not an imposition.

The spread of the idea of the caste system illustrates the logic. Although the local rulers often were keen on the idea of castes, they were not, with the exception of Bali, able to impose the system on society at large. In the Khmer kingdom, for example, the caste system was only implemented within the temple compound of Angkor Wat itself. Clearly this way of organizing social relations, with its many fine-tuned gradations between social classes and professional groups, fit badly in societies where next to everybody was a farmer. This also shows that there were limits to how far Indian cultural references would spread. In many cases, it was only the local elite that was thoroughly steeped in Hinduism.

The final result was thus never a faithful copy of Indian culture and society. Instead, in all cases Indian influences were mixed with indigenous traditions. For one thing, the nuclear family was often more powerful in Southeast Asia than in Indian society. Thus in Bali reincarnation is thought to happen within the family lineage and not randomly in society at large. Women have often also played a more prominent role in Southeast Asian societies than they did, or do, in India, and the adoption of Indian cultural practices did not change this fact. The script used for writing Sanskrit was also adopted by people in Southeast Asia, but it was soon adapted to be used for writing indigenous scripts. Today languages such as Thai and Burmese are written with letters that may remind us of Sanskrit, but which still are entirely different.

We see the same syncretism — the same mixing of cultural references — in religion. Buddhism was of course originally an Indian religion, yet Buddhism almost completely died out in India itself while continuing to thrive throughout Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma are still predominantly Buddhist societies. Although there are many reasons for this, we can guess that the social structure of the respective societies made a difference. Throughout Southeast Asia the sangha, the community of Buddhist monks, always played an important role. The sangha constituted a brotherhood of equals which always was more amenable to Southeast Asian traditions than to India itself.

Religious syncretism was further facilitated by the fact that neither Hinduism nor Buddhism were monotheistic faiths. A religion with one omnipotent god will always reject the possibility of there being other competing divinities and as a result the religions in question have problems coexisting peacefully. For Buddhism and Hinduism there were no such problems, and both religions happily borrowed references from each other. The fact that both put more emphasis on religious practices than on beliefs also facilitated matters. The doctrines of the respective creeds mattered far less than the rituals which their adherents carried out. While doctrines often come into conflict, practices and rituals are far easier to combine. Thus you could be a Buddhist part of the day, or part of your life, and a Hindu the rest of the time. Or, more likely, you were unlikely to make a sharp distinction between the two religions in the first place.

In these respects Islam was entirely different. Like other Mosaic religions with their origin in the Middle East, Islam was monotheistic and doctrinaire; that is, based on doctrines, beliefs, which all believers were required to embrace. Islam, just like Christianity or Judaism, is not the kind of religion which easily blends with others. Yet even the Mughal rulers of India, Muslims to a man, found it difficult to insist on religious purity in a situation where the vast majority of their subjects belonged to other faiths. And once it was transported to Southeast Asia, Islam was even further relaxed. In Java, for example, various ingenious ways were often found by which indigenous traditions could be combined with the new faith. Such mixing of religious and cultural references is on display, to this day, in the traditional art of shadow puppetry. [Read more: Shadow puppets].

“Indianization” is consequently a controversial term. Indeed, the first ones to use it were Indian nationalists in Bengal in the 1920s, at the time when India itself still was a British colony. Inspired by French excavations of Angkor Wat and other ancient temple sites, they began to speculate regarding the existence of an ancient “greater India” which had spread out over much of East Asia. This had not been a political entity, they explained, but a civilizational one. India had brought progress and prosperity to its neighbors but not, like the British, through military conquest, but instead through peaceful exchange. Yet it is easy to see why people throughout Southeast Asia would object to this version of history. First because they were far more than passive parties to the exchange, and second, because it never was a question of a wholesale adoption of Indian models. As we have seen, Indian traditions were often diluted, or completely reconfigured, or perhaps they maintained their original form while being filled with entirely different cultural content. If we go on using the term, we should think of indianization as a process of hybridization — such as when two plants interbreed to form a unique combination of the two. Indianization is not the spread of Indian culture as much as the creation of new species of culture.

Indian civilization has continued to have a profound impact on other societies, but now its influence is global. Today Indian food — curries — are happily consumed by Japanese and Jamaicans alike, and many people in Europe and North America have an interest in Indian religion and spiritual practices. Women in West Africa have been known to wear saris and to put on tilaka, marks on the forehead made by a powder or paste, as a way to model themselves on the stars of the Bollywood movies they watch. The films produced in Bollywood — the Indian film industry centered in the city of Mumbai — regularly attract larger audiences than the films produced in Hollywood. [Read more: Curries, the Beatles in India and Bollywoodization]

The Mughal empire

Between the tenth and the twelfth centuries CE, another great wave of invasions swept down on northern parts of the Indian sub-continent. These peoples were nomads from Central Asia, often speakers of Turkish languages, and they were Muslim. Between 1206 and 1526, a Muslim regime — the Sultanate of Delhi — dominated much of northern India. However, the most important of the new wave of invaders were the Mughals.

The Mughal empire, 1519-1857, was a Muslim kingdom which originated in Central Asia but which conquered increasingly larger parts of India and eventually came to dominate the northern and central parts of the sub-continent, all the way from Afghanistan to today’s Bangladesh. There were altogether 19 Mughal rulers in one continuous lineage. During the first part of the reign, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the country enjoyed great wealth from trade and manufacturing. The Mughals built impressive palaces — of which the Taj Mahal is the most famous — and organized Indian administration on a continent-wide scale. [Read more: Taj Mahal] As rulers of a country which was predominantly non-Muslim, the Mughals were forced to adopt a more liberal version of their faith. Hindu religion and culture remained strong, and in India too, much as in the Muslim caliphates of the Middle East, both Christians and Jews had a protected position. There are five Mughal emperors whose names we should remember: Babur and his four direct descendants.

Babur, 1483-1530, was the first Mughal ruler. He was a 13th generation descendant of Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai, and also a relative of Timur Lenk, who had created a vast, if short-lived, empire in Central Asia in the fourteenth-century.[Read more: Tamerlane] Not surprisingly, Babur found it difficult to live up to his family traditions. Born in the fertile Fergana valley in today’s Uzbekistan, he settled in Samarkand where he surrounded himself with a small band of retainers. At this stage he was a king without a kingdom. Pushed out of Samarkand by the advancing Uzbeks, he moved on to Afghanistan and eventually settled in Kabul. From here his armies began making incursions into northern India where he gradually established more of a foothold. The Mughal soldiers used guns to great effect and eventually Babur settled in India itself. He was a great supporter of libraries and learning, and he wrote a famous autobiography.  As he confessed, he regarded life in India as something of a temporary exile and remained homesick for Central Asia to the end of his day.

Humayun, 1508-1556, was Babur’s son. His name means “the lucky one,” but he was clearly quite inappropriately named. He lost the Mughal throne and was exiled to Iran, but reconquer it in 1555 with Persian support. He died, only 48 years old, when falling down a staircase — according to one version, while running to get to Friday prayer on time.

On the unexpected death of Humayun, it was quite unclear who would succeed him, but eventually his son Akbar, 1542-1605, did. He was only 13 years old at the time and he was to rule for another 50 years. Akbar was the Mughal ruler who more than all the others put his mark on the empire. He loved hunting, horse-riding and archery, and although he remained illiterate all his life, he was clearly an exceptionally capable leader. During Akbar’s reign trade and manufacturing flourished and the country grew rich. This was a time of great expansion in world trade, and Mughal India was its hub. This was the opulent India of unspeakable wealth which so amazed all foreign visitors.

As far as relations between the religions were concerned, Akbar abolished the jizya, the tax imposed on non-Muslims, and he raised the status of women in the eyes of the law. He moved closer to Shiism than to the Sunni version of Islam, and he took several Hindu wives. He even tried to amalgamate the faiths of the country into one religion, knowns as Din-e Ilahi, which professed a belief in one god in heaven and one emperor on earth. [Read more: Din-e Ilahi]

Akbar embarked on far-reaching administrative reforms and imposed uniform rules on the bureaucracy which were tightly controlled from the center. He also reformed the military: organizing the cavalry into the same units of ten soldiers which had been a feature of Genghis Khan’s armies; establishing an elephantry; and rotating his commanders on a regular basis to stop them from rooting themselves too securely in one place.[Read more: War elephants] Once these reforms were completed, Akbar made a serious attempt to conquer all of the Indian sub-continent. He was constantly on the move, and much as Genghis Khan before him, he took his bureaucrats with him wherever he went. In the end he did not conquer all of India — a small tip in the very south remained — but it was Akbar who turned the Mughals into a proper empire.  Akbar’s reign was also a time of cultural flourishing. Persian culture was influential at his court — with Persian-style music, poetry and illuminated manuscripts as primary art forms.

Jahangir, 1569-1627, was the oldest surviving son of Akbar’s and the fourth Mughal emperor. Jahangir means “conqueror of the world” and he tried his best to live up to his name, although to posterity he is more remembered for his active love life. The economy of the country remained strong and so did the Mughal administration. He too encouraged religious debates and tolerance of other faiths.

Shah Jahan, 1592-1666, was Akbar’s grandson. He was a great builder of empire in all sense, not least architecturally. He constructed the Red Fort in Delhi and made Agra into his capital. H e was also the person responsible for building the Taj Mahal. [Read more: Taj Mahal]  He is famous for the peacock throne and the Koinoor diamond.

As for the remaining 14 descendants in the line, they were less distinguished, even though the empire continued to expand — it reached its greatest extent in 1707. But by now it was clear that Mughals had overreached themselves. The country was too large, their forces too thin on the ground, and the supply lines too difficult to maintain. Economically the country continued to prosper, but there were revolts against higher taxes and discontent regarding religious matters. In the course of the eighteenth-century the Mughal rulers became increasingly dogmatic defenders of the Muslim faith. They continued to build palaces, mosques and libraries and made Delhi, with its white marble buildings, into their permanent capital.

In the latter part of the eighteenth-century, the Mughal rulers grew weaker still and the empire eventually fell apart as a result of internal divisions and foreign pressure, from European countries — first Portugal, then Holland, France and the Great Britain. In northern India, in Punjab in particular, the Sikhs established a powerful empire under the ruler Ranjit Singh.