A Majestic metallic occurrence takes place every day when the rays of the sun hit the rock head of one of the world’s oldest active volcanoes-Gunung Semeru – in Indonesia. The locals here believe that the process of creation began from this mountain volcano when it first threw out lava. It is the belief of the Indonesian locals that this is the seat of the Hindu deity, Brahma, the lord of creation. 

This may well be the first direct connection of Hindus between Indian and South East Asia, however, there are several other instances where a clear impact of Hindu culture can be seen in Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia. A series of scattered evidence of Indian culture in Vietnam and Laos can be seen too.

The questions one should ask is how did Indian culture make its way to distant lands and why did the locals adopt it?

The shape of things to come in Indonesia - Asia Times
Gates to a Hindu temple on the resort island of Bali in Indonesia. Photo: iStock/Getty Images/Asian Times

Let us try understanding by reading the basics.

The Mahabharata is one of the two most read and followed epics of the Hindu culture, the other being Ramayana. Both exert a great influence on India and South Asia. The historical importance of the Mahabharata is one of the reasons for transnational adoption but it is not the main reason. The main reason for multilingual translations, performance shows, and cultural adoption of the book is its powerful and knowledge-rich text. 

The book reveals the cosmos and humanity in intriguing and frightening glimpses. It talks about divinity and an eternal bond of friendship. Mahabharata is often confused to be a story of ancient Indian rulers-brothers, Pandava and Kauravas, and their brawl over a kingdom.

 In reality, the book is about the truth as shown and talked about by Lord Krishna (one of Hinduism’s most-followed deities) to his Pandava friend Arjuna. The entire conversation about life, divinity, truth, and much more is called the Mahabharata. Mahabharata in its longest form consists of 100,000 slokas or 200,000 different lines on such topics. All of this is said by Lord Krishna himself to Arjuna in the middle of a battle of Pandavas and Kauravas in Kurukshetra over the empire in question.

The Mahabharata: How an oral narrative of the bards became a text of the  Brahmins
A manuscript illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra, fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, recorded in the Mahabharata Epic. | Wikimedia Commons

The Sanskrit epic itself is the world’s longest epic poem, at 100,000 couplets or 1.8 million words. It is ten times the combined length of the Iliad and Odyssey and three times the length of the Bible. Structurally, the Mahabharata is a compendium of ancient Indian mythology, history, political theory, and philosophy, and has sometimes been described as an ancient encyclopedia of Indian knowledge. 

The holy Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, which is considered a summary of the vast Hindu religious and philosophical literature, is also contained within the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata definitely is one of those creations of human language and spirit that has traveled far beyond the place of its original creation and will eventually take its rightful place on the highest shelf of world literature beside Homer’s epics, the Greek tragedies, the Bible, Shakespeare, and similar transcendent works.

Now that we have understood what Mahabharata is, let us understand the impact it has had on South Asian countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore.

Indonesia and Mahabharata connect

Indonesia is the most impacted country by Mahabharata. It has an entire puppet show designed to deliver the tales of Mahabharata.  More importantly, originating out of the Java islands in Indonesia is ‘Bharatayuddha’ often referred to as Javanese Mahabharata. 

This translation of Mahabharata has been on the face of Earth since the 1st century BCE, almost 7 centuries after the core of Mahabharata was compiled in India in the 6th century BCE and the events as narrated by Mahabharata taking place in the 12th century BCE. While Vyasa is credited for compiling the original text of the Mahabharata. 

Can you guess the city this photo was taken in? (for extra virtual points  can you also tell us the name of the statue?) Here… | Horse statue, Dove  pictures, Jakarta
Arjuna Vijaya Statue in the middle of Jakarta city, Indonesia | Wiki Commons

The Mahabharata was translated into (old) Javanese under the reign of King Dharmawangsa of Medang (reign 990-1006). The current version in Indonesia was started by a court poet Sedha in 1157 and finished by Mpu Panuluh. The Javanese Mahabharata is highly influenced by the original Mahabharata but also contains several other local tales. 

The Javanese Mahabharata can be called a perfect mix of Indian Mahabharata and Javanese literature. This version of the book is read a lot in the Indo-Malaya archipelago that consists of Indonesia, Malaysia, and East Timor. 

The Shailendra Kingdom of Java
Borobudur Temple, the Shailendra Kingdom’s Hindu masterpiece on Java, Indonesia. Philippe Boursellier via Getty Images

This region is also highly influenced by puppet show art called Wayang Kulit that involves music, narration, and shadow puppet show behind a screen. Along with other folk tales, the tales of Javanese and Indian Mahabharata are the most used stories for shows. If you ever visit Indonesia, this show is a must-watch especially if you are an Indian.  Have a look at the video to know how Wayang Kulit is performed.

The big sign of Mahabharata’s effect on South Asia particularly Indonesia is its numerous temples dedicated to Hindu deities where Hindu prayers are performed.

Surawana is one of such Hindu temples of the Majapahit Kingdom, located in the Canggu village of the Kediri near Pare district in East Java, Indonesia. 

Photo: Wayang kulit: A story of shadows - The Jakarta Post
Wyang Kuilt, a show of shadows | The Jakarta Post

It was believed to have been built in 1390 AD as a memorial to Wijayarajasa, the Prince of Wengker. As of today, the temple is not fully intact but still a palace to be if you are looking for a trip back to the golden age. 

Surawana Temple Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from Dreamstime
Surawana Temple, East Java, Indonesia | Wiki Commons

Another one, Plaosan Temple is situated in Bugisan Village, Prambanan Sub-district, Klaten District. 

The temple is an ancient building compound comprising two building complexes, Plaosan Lor Temple complex (lor is a Javanese word that means north) and Plaosan Kidul Temple complex (kidul is a Javanese word for south). 

The relief sculptures seen at the compound are fine and detailed, similar to sculptures found in other Hindu Temples.

From Personal Vault: Images of impact of Mahabharata found in the city squares of Jakarta, Indonesia and a fold tale show presented by the local people of Bali Islands on a tale of Mahabharata | Photos by Rajesh Mansukhani, clicked in 2016

Experts claim that Plaosan Temple, a Buddhist shrine, was built during the era of Mataram Hindu Kingdom, when Rakai Pikatan was at the helm, at the dawn of the 9th century.

Mahabharata in Cambodia

One of the biggest pieces of evidence that the Mahabharata and Hindu culture impacted South Asia are the Hindu temples of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is often confused between the city surrounding the temple and the temple complex itself. The city is called the Yashoda Puram ‘city of temples’ and was the capital of Hindu-Buddhist Khmer empire. The city was built on the orders of King Yasovarman I and the temple complex of Angkor Wat was built on the orders of King Sundavaram II. 

The Angkor Wat temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity Visnu. Vishnu is the God of Preservation, the great maintainer who often appears in various incarnations (avatar) to provide salvation for humanity. 

Lord Krishna is Lord Vishnu’s eighth incarnation and is considered to be the strongest avatar and a godhead in his own right.

Angkor - UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Angkor Wat Temple complex, constructed on the orders of King Suryavarman, II. | Picture Credits: Flickr

Indian influence on the Kingdom of Funan

In the late 4th and 5th centuries, the Indianization of Southeast Asia advanced more rapidly, in part through renewed impulses from the South Indian Pallava dynasty and the North Indian Gupta Empire. 

The only extant local writings from the period of Funan are paleographic Pallava Grantha inscriptions in Sanskrit of the Pallava dynasty, a scholarly language used by learned and ruling elites throughout South and Southeast Asia.

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India was in its Golden Age during this time with the Gupta Empire at its peak and the Southern Kingdoms embarking on naval expeditions into Southeast Asia. Funan was first discovered by the ancient Chinese explorers and cartographers as a remote land or island that has a high Indian effect on religion and culture. It was mostly home to indigenous tribes of Cambodia. Today, Funan does not exist but its indigenous people call themselves Khmers and are scattered in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. There has been no written record about their existence since the 6th century. Between the 1st and 6th centuries, it was recorded that they prayed to Hindu gods of salvation and creation. 

 The Thai Connect

Thailand is a place everyone wants to be for well-known reasons. What many forget to check out is how highly the country is influenced by the Mahabharata.

Starting street names and names of important buildings are all related to Mahabharata in some way or another. Starting with Bangkok’s international airport which has been named Suvarnabhumi-meaning the land of gold. This has reference to the golden age of India and the flow of knowledge. 

 As you may see here- this is a depiction at the airport of Lord Krisna subduing a serpent called Kaliya who had poisoned the river Yamuna in Krishna’s childhood days. Image Clicked by Harshit Mansukhani, 2012

Although Thailand has never been a majority Hindu country, it has been influenced by Hinduism. Before Thailand was a country, the land that makes up present-day Thailand was under the territory of the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire from Cambodia. 

In the past, the nation came under the influence of the Khmer Empire, which had strong Hindu roots. Despite the fact that today Thailand is a Buddhist majority nation, many elements of Thai culture and symbolism demonstrate Hindu influences and heritage. 

For example, the popular epic, Ramakien, based on the Buddhist Dasaratha Jataka, is very similar to Ramayana. The Royal emblem of Thailand depicted Garuda, the vahana (vehicle) of Vishnu

धर्मे चार्थे च कामे च मोक्षे च भरतर्षभ

यदिहास्ति तदन्यत्र यन्नेहास्ति न तत्क्वचित्

What is found here regarding the aims of human life –

righteousness, wealth, pleasure, and release –

may be found elsewhere, O Bull of the Bharatas.

But what is not here, is found nowhere.

The Epilogue to the Mahabharata exclaims with pride (18:56-33)

During the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods, evidence of the presence of a sizable number of Indians in the Thai court is described by a number of western travelers.

The Mariamman Temple, Bangkok is the first temple built in South Indian architecture. It was built in 1879 by Vaithi Padayatchi, a Tamil Hindu immigrant. 

Sri Mariamman Temple, Bangkok - Times of India Travel

Sri Mariamman Temple, Bangkok | Wiki Commons

However, most of the contemporary Indians came to Thailand after 1920 and during the first half of the 19th century.

Similar traces can be found in Singapore, Malaysia, and scattered regions in Timor, Vietnam, and Laos

What does Mahabharat teach us in the modern era?

  • There’s no point in occupying the high moral ground if you lose in the process

Contemporary Indian politics is often saturated with an obsession over maintaining the high moral ground, no matter the cost. In India, a win is considered when you crush the opposition and boast about the victory. Krishna tells us that there is no point in occupying a high moral ground when ethics and truth were not part of your process to win something. In the Mahabharata, Krishna on the other hand, recommends the use of deceitful and immoral strategies in the service of moral causes. The ends justify the means when major issues are at stake.

In an anecdotal story, the Hindu king Prithviraj Chauhan defeated and captured the Muslim Afghan invader, Mahmud of Ghor, in the 1191 first Battle of Tarain. He released his prisoner as that was considered morally correct. In 1192, Mahmud returned and defeated, captured, and executed Prithviraj, an event that led to Muslim rule.

  • War is sometimes justified

Lord Krishna also tells Arjuna that once a war breaks out, it is not only justifiable but mandatory to fight if it is for a good cause. It is also mandatory to resort to war to bring about the desired conclusion rather than to walk away from violence out of the principle of non-violence. 

  • Rules and customs ought to be interpreted flexibly

In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas felt honor-bound to play a game of dice to the end, even though it resulted in the gambling away of their kingdom and their queen. Throughout the Mahabharata, both Lord Krishna and Kauravas uncle Shakuni argue that rules and customs should serve certain social functions and that when they cease to do so, they should be discarded or loosely followed.

The Mahabharata, though an ancient epic, still has a lot to teach modern India and South Asia. This is why it still continues to be relevant and widely popular today, spawning successful shows, retellings, and plays. Its timeless lessons continue to guide the thinking, always pulling it away from extremes – the extreme of idealism and the extreme of immorality.

3 thoughts on “ Suvarnabhumi: Tracing the Impact of Mahabharata on South East Asian Countries ”

  1. I must say ur choice of topics is so varied and u do justice to each one of them. Simply wonderful.

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