Sunday, April 24, 2005

Maha-Bharat: The Wheel of Dharma

The world is the wheel of God, turning round
And round with all living creatures upon its rim
The world is the river of God ,
Flowing from him and flowing back to him.
On this ever-revolving wheel of being
The individual self goes round and round
Through life after life, believing itself
To be a separate creature, until
It sees its identity with the Lord of Love
And attains immortality in the indivisible whole."
- Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1.4-6.
Farther India, Indochina, East Indies. The great story of India and the Indic civilisational legacy in Southeast Asia is perhaps most remarkable in terms of the differing levels of cultural diffusion achieved in comparison to Southeast Asia's other giant neighbour - China.

Whilst Chinese culture spread primarily in the regions that were military occupied by it or were vassal states like Vietnam, Indian civilisation on the other hand, with its process of peaceful penetration rather than military conquest (much like with the great Buddhist Emporer Ashoka centuries later) was able to leave a far greater and more enduring imprint on the region, providing the basis and inspiration for the great Hindu empires that flourished like that of the Angkor-Khmer empire in Cambodia, the Chams in Vietnam, as well as Mataram, Majapahit and Sri Vijaya empires in Indonesia and Malaysia among many others including Buddhist kingdoms in Thailand and Burma.

To paraphrase George Coedes in his work 'The Indianized states of Southeast Asia' - The expansion of Indian culture was a very broad process, the results of which differ in various countries. The speed and ease with which the Indian immigrants propagated their more advanced culture is in no doubt due to many common underlying traits beneath the Indian veneer already shared with monsoon Asia.
The sacred scholarly Sanskrit language of India was instrumental in transmitting parts of our culture or at least a copy of it, including aspects of its customs and laws, holy scriptures and alphabet as well as social and religious establishment into the region. Indeed the most ancient Sanskrit inscriptions in Southeast Asia are not much less older than the first Sanskrit inscriptions in India itself.

Even so, Indianised civilisations in Southeast Asia were more so the civilisation of the elite. The Hindu concept of Deva-Raja (God-King) gave the local king divine status, effectively being an intermediary between heaven and earth, maintaining the balance between the two worlds and ensuring the protection and prosperity of his people. As per the Indian concept of Mandala, at the center was where Indianisation was strongest with concentric circles spreading out from that point and gradually diminishing in influence at edges of kingdom and empire.

Apart from lucrative trade relations, it is not clear what exactly prompted the Indian expansion especially considering that crossing the seaswas thought of as polluting by the Brahmans atleast. Nonetheless over time Brahman advisors came to hold enormous sway over the local royal rulers in their courts. Indeed according to one Cambodian legend as to the origin of their people, they believe they are descended from the union of an Indian Brahman named Kaundinya who married a local mythical Cambodian princess, thereby establishing the foundation for the first Indianised state of Funan and of classical Cambodian civilisation.

After thousands of years of glorious civilisation and its great achievements, Theravada Buddhism began to slowly displace both Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism in mainland Indochina. In Indonesia the coming of Islam (ironically brought moslty by Indian seafarers from the Coromandel coast and Gujarat) and the rise of coastal muslim sultanates saw the gradual disintegration of the last great inland Hindu empire of Majapahit and the forced exile of the royalty along with a large number of its retainers eastward to the Hindu Island of Bali.

Today Indonesia is the world largest muslim nation, but beneath the surface some of the former local Hindu culture still endures. The great Indian epics of the Mahabharat and Ramayana, though no longer with their same previous religious significance are still quite popular throughout the archipelago especially Java and obviously also Bali. Indeed to this day, a Ramayana ballet is apparently still being performed by a muslim troupe of artists in the shadow of the Prambanan temple near Yogyakarta.

With the recent re-articulation of India's "Look East Policy", there will hopefully at long last be a concerted effort to shift some of our attention away from our immediate west and instead focus it on Southeast Asia with which we have equally long and deep historical, cultural and civilisational ties. This is even more pertinent in consideration of the so called "peaceful" rise of Chinese power in the region. Once again Southeast Asia has assumed its historical role as a commercial trading hub and a important source of resources in the middle of the India-China trade route, therefore it is vital for India to get its act together and present itself as a friendly counterbalance of sorts to South East Asian nations wary of the Chinese juggernaut.


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