In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hinduism in Southeast Asia

  • Introduction

Hinduism Hinduism in Southeast Asia
Elizabeth Fuller Collins
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0112


In the early centuries of the 1st millennium CE, Southeast Asia was at the hub of land and sea routes connecting Han China (206 BCE–220 CE) and the Roman Empire (27 BCE– 476 CE). In wealthy Southeast Asian ports and centers where traders gathered, elites sought to establish a new kind of political order that superseded clan loyalties. The adoption of political and religious concepts of India enabled ambitious leaders to forge cosmopolitan polities based on the claim that they ruled in accord with universal moral principles represented in the Buddhist concepts of the dharmaraja and chakravartin (Pali cakkavatti), or as the representative of a Hindu deity who was king of the gods. The epic traditions of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa gave legitimacy to a ruler identified with a god who battled the demonic forces that threaten the ethical order of the world. Worship of Shiva (Skt. Śiva) ensured the prosperity of the kingdom dependent on the rains and the fertility of the land. In Southeast Asia, as in India, local ancestor and spirit worship traditions were blended with Hindu and Buddhist conceptions. In particular, the worship of Shiva and Vishnu (Skt. Viṣṇu) was combined with ancestor worship, so that Khmer, Javanese, and Cham rulers claimed semidivine status as descendants of a god (or as consecrated by a deity). Hinduism and Buddhism apparently were not clearly differentiated, as rulers often patronized both religions. However, Brahmins from India with knowledge of Sanskrit appear to have played a key role in sacralizing rulers through Brahmanic rituals. In the 8th century CE, powerful, more centralized kingdoms emerged in Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, Burma, and along the central and south coasts of Vietnam. The Śailendras (Sailendras) of Java and Śrīvijaya (Srivijaya; Sriwijaya) were identified with Mahayana Buddhism, as was Pagan. The rulers of Cham kingdoms in coastal Vietnam, and rulers in Cambodia, Java, and later Bali predominantly identified with Hindu deities, most often Shiva. Despite the wealth of scholarship on these kingdoms, much is uncertain. Scholars debate whether it was Indian merchants or Southeast Asian mariner-merchants who played a central role in bringing Indian religious conceptions to Southeast Asia. Not until the 1960s was the idea that Indians had “colonized” Southeast Asia rejected, as the pendulum swung to emphasizing the agency of Southeast Asian rulers. The history of early Southeast Asia is still highly contested. Early theories that had become dogma are being challenged by new archaeological finds and the reinterpretation of Chinese sources and Southeast Asian inscriptions. The political cultures of Java, Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand today still reflect the heritage of early kingdoms in which Indian religious concepts were welded to local traditions, and Brahmin priests played a central role in royal rituals. A very different Indian heritage was brought to the British colonial possessions in Southeast Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Laborers from South India imported to work on the rubber estates and docks of Malaya brought their village Amman goddess and various guardian and clan deities, most notably Murugan, the son of Shiva and Parvati (Pārvatī), who is worshipped on Thaipusam (Tai Pūcam). The Chettiar caste of moneylenders also made their way to Burma and Malaya. Today, people of Indian origin form a significant minority group in Malaysia and Singapore.

“Indianization” in Southeast Asia

Early scholarship on Southeast Asia emphasized the role of Indian colonizers in bringing Hinduism to the region, reflecting the ideology that justified European colonization as a civilizing force. Since the 1960s, scholars have placed more emphasis on the agency of Southeast Asian mariners and local rulers who selectively adopted and adapted Indian religious conceptions to enhance their prestige. In his trailblazing work Majumdar 1927–1937, R. C. Majumdar argues that early in the 1st millennium CE, Indians colonized Southeast Asia. Cœdès 1968 provides the historical framework that still undergirds our understanding of early Southeast Asia. Initially, Cœdès referred to Southeast Asia as “Further India.” Oliver Wolters was among the first to challenge this view of “Indianization,” in Early Indonesian Commerce: A Study of the Origins of Sriwijaya (1967). As factors that had been neglected in earlier theories of “Indianization,” Wolters pointed to the expertise of early Southeast Asian mariners and the ambitions of local rulers who appropriated Indian political and religious concepts to enhance their status. Wheatley 1983 explores the relationship between trade and the rise of cities in Southeast Asia, laying out the conditions under which Hindu and Buddhist political concepts were adopted and adapted by Southeast Asian chiefs. Casparis and Mabbett 1992 is a summary of the scholarly consensus on the history of religion in early Southeast Asia. Manguin, et al. 2011 draws together the most recent archaeological findings on the prehistory and early history of Southeast Asia, including relations with India. Pollock 1996 describes how, for more than a millennium (300–1300 CE), Sanskrit was used in what the author calls the “Sanskrit Cosmopolis,” that is, southern India and Southeast Asia. Images of Hindu deities and monuments can be found at ARTstor.

  • ARTstor Digital Library.

    ARTstor is a collection of images that can be searched by geographical area or topic. It contains many images of Hindu deities and monuments from early Southeast Asia, with short essays providing context for the object.

  • Casparis, J. G. de, and I. W. Mabbett. “Religion and Popular Beliefs of Southeast Asia before c. 1500.” In The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. Vol. 1, From Early Times to c. 1800. Edited by Nicholas Tarling, 276–339. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 1992.

    Discusses the sources for the study of religion in early Southeast Asia and the way in which local traditions were fused with Indian religions. Argues that Brahmins played a central role in Southeast Asian courts. There is information on the role of Shiva and Vishnu in royal cults throughout the region.

  • Cœdès, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Edited by Water F. Vella. Translated by Susan Brown Cowing. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1968.

    A translation of the third edition of Les Etats hindouisés d’Indochine et d’Indonésie (1964). Scholars still rely on this essential study of Southeast Asian history prior to 1500 CE. It develops a chronological framework, based on Sanskrit inscriptions and Chinese sources, that unifies Southeast Asia.

  • Majumdar, R. C. Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East. 2 vols. Lahore, Pakistan: Punjab Sanskrit Book Depot, 1927–1937.

    Volume 1 on Champa is divided into two books. Book I is a history of Champa; Book II focuses on religion in Champa. Volume 2, Suvarnadvipa (Land of Gold), consists of four books: “The Dawn of Hindu Colonisation,” “The Sailendra Empire,” “Rise and Fall of the Indo-Javanese Empire,” and “Downfall of Hindu Kingdoms in Suvarnadvipa.”

  • Manguin, Pierre-Yves, A. Mani, and Geoff Wade, eds. Early Interactions between South and Southeast Asia: Reflections on Cross-Cultural Exchange. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011.

    Twenty-three specialized essays summarize new archaeological findings. In the 1st millennium CE the prosperity and exchange of ideas associated with trade provided the basis for the selective adoption and local adaptation of Indian artistic, linguistic, and religious traditions by elites in the urbanized polities of Southeast Asia.

  • Pollock, Sheldon. “The Sanskrit Cosmopolis, 300–1300: Transculturation, Vernacularization, and the Question of Ideology.” In Ideology and Status of Sanskrit: Contributions to the History of the Sanskrit Language. Edited by Jan E. M. Houben, 197–247. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1996.

    Describes how Sanskrit was transformed from a religious language into a means of political and literary expression and used by rulers to make claims to a form of semidivine, universal authority.

  • Wheatley, Paul. Nāgara and Commandery: Origins of the Southeast Asian Urban Traditions. Research Paper 207–208. Chicago: University of Chicago, Department of Geography, 1983.

    An account of the rise of cities in Southeast Asia in relationship to trade with China and the Mediterranean World. Wheatley identifies the conditions under which Hindu and Buddhist political concepts were adopted and adapted by Southeast Asian chiefs.

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