Although India repeatedly was invaded by foreign armies, Indian empires themselves never expanded beyond the subcontinent. Despite this fact, India has had a profound impact on societies elsewhere. This power has been civilizational rather than political and it has relied on exchange rather than on the force of arms. This process is often referred to as “Indianization.” Indianization, in other words, refers to the way the cultural practices of the Indian subcontinent, 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. But it is clear that Indian influences spread along trade routes, both those in Central Asia and in the Indian Ocean. In the Indian Ocean, thanks to the monsoons, it was quite easy to cover even large distances. Since the winds changed with the seasons, a trader in southern India could set sail for, say, the Malacca peninsula in the summer and then return home in the winter when the direction of the winds changed.
In the third century CE, there were already well-established contacts between ports all around the Indian Ocean. This was where Indian merchants came to settle. With the trade and the traders came various Indian religious practices but also ideas regarding politics and society together with some of the institutions required to implement them. In Southeast Asia, a strong Indian influence is detectable from the eighth century, and it was to continue for at least five hundred years. This was when Hinduism spread, followed by Buddhism and then Islam. But this was also how the Pali and Sanskrit languages were exported, together with Indian music, theater and dance, food, ways of dressing and much else besides. Many aspects of Indian society were highly elaborate and urbane and thereby quite alien to the agricultural and rather rustic traditions of Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, a local ruler who could surround himself with the trappings of Indian culture was quite automatically regarded as both powerful and legitimate. In addition, the rulers of Southeast Asia were eager to adopt any institution or technique that might help them strengthen their hold on power. This included Indian manuals on statecraft, political institutions, and the Indian legal system.
There were many Indianized states throughout East Asia. This is a small sample:
- Langkasuka, 200s-1500s, the oldest kingdom in the Malay Peninsula thought to have been created by descendants of Ashoka the Great. 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, 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 ocean, 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. The Medang rulers oversaw the translation of Indian texts but the culture included distinct Javanese influences. Medang buildings are known for their bas-reliefs which often contain quotations from Buddhist sutras.
- Champa, 192-1832, 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 here too 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 that existed between the ninth and thirteenth 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.
- Kingdom of Tondo, 900s-1589, was an Indianized kingdom in today’s Philippines. They traded with China and participated in the Chinese international system.
- Pagan, 849-1297, was a kingdom in central Burma, predominantly Buddhist but also incorporating Hindu beliefs. They were invaded by the Mongols in 1297 and never 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. Their armies made extensive use of war elephants.
- Majapahit, 1293-1527, was another thalassocratic empire, based in Java in today’s Indonesia. They had some ninety-eight 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. 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. Unusually for Southeast Asia, an Indian-style caste system was in place here, although it was greatly simplified. Hinduism is practiced in Bali to this day but it is combined with many Buddhist beliefs and native religious practices.
It is at the same time clear that the indigenous people of Southeast Asia were far more than the passive recipients of these influences. For one thing, they often traveled to southern India themselves. Southeast Asian rulers would place orders for specific goods with Indian producers or they would convince Indian craftsmen to come and settle at their courts. Before long they produced their own versions of Indian products. Cultural practices too were first adopted and then adapted to suit local needs. For example: although the indigenous 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 implemented only within the temple compound of Angkor Wat itself. Clearly, this way of organizing social relations, with its many fine-tuned gradations between classes, fit badly in Southeast Asian societies where next to everybody was a farmer. This also shows that there were limits to how far Indian cultural references could spread. In many cases, it was only the local elite that was thoroughly steeped in Hinduism.
We see the same mixing of cultural references when it comes to religious practices. For one thing, the nuclear family was always more powerful in Southeast Asia than in Indian society itself. Thus in Bali, reincarnation was thought to happen within the family lineage and not randomly in society at large. Women have also played a more prominent role than they did, or do, in India, and the adoption of Indian cultural practices did not change this fact. Or consider the use of Sanskrit. Today languages such as Thai and Burmese are written with letters that remind us of Indian letters, but they have been greatly modified and the writing systems are entirely different. This mixing of religions was further facilitated by the fact that neither Hinduism nor Buddhism are monotheistic faiths. A religion with only one omnipotent God will always reject the possibility of there being other competing divinities. For Buddhism and Hinduism, there were no such problems, and both religions happily borrowed references from each other. 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 would not make a sharp distinction between the two.
“Indianization” is consequently a contested term. Indeed, the first ones to use it were Indian nationalists in Bengal in the 1920s, at the time when India 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 an empire, they explained, but rather a civilization. India had brought progress and prosperity to its neighbors but not, like the British, through military conquest, but instead through trade and peaceful exchange. Yet as we have seen, while Indian traditions certainly were widely disseminated they were often diluted or completely reconfigured in the process. 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. Indianization is not the spread of Indian culture as much as the creation of a new species of culture which draws heavily from India but which at the same time is adapted to local traditions and needs. Indian culture has continued to have a profound impact on other societies, but in the twenty-first century, its influence is nothing short of global.