Convergence of Hindu and Islamic Traditions

Buddhism and Jainism declined significantly in India during the Post-Classical era, although small elements of both religions remain there today. They were largely supplanted and overwhelmed by the increasing dominance of Hinduism and Islam. Each religion is substantially different from the other. Hinduism has a pantheon of gods and spirits whereas Islam is strictly monotheistic. Both attracted large followings throughout the Indian sub-continent. Hinduism became the predominant religion in Southern India; Islam predominated in the North.

Hinduism: Buddhism began to decline as Buddhists were attracted to Hindu and Muslim communities. Turkish invaders destroyed Buddhist shrines and stupas; and in 1196 Muslim forces destroyed the city of Nalanda and destroyed a leading Buddhist school. Buddhist libraries were destroyed and monks were either killed or exiled. As a result, Buddhism became a minor faith in the land of its origin.

Hinduism thrived as Buddhism declined, partially due to the increasing popularity of devotional cults. The two most popular were dedicated to two of the most important deities in the Hindu Pantheon: Vishnu, the preserver of the world who observed the world from heaven and occasionally entered it in human form to resist evil and teach; and Shiva, the god of fertility. Shiva was a destructive deity who brought life but also took it away when its season had passed. A number of other gods and sub-cults were recognized, all independent of Vishnu and Shiva, but they were by far the most popular.

Both cults promised salvation and were especially popular in southern India. In that area, many groups went to great length to honor the deity of choice. From these, various local cults developed in which a local spirit or deity was associated with Vishnu or Shiva. One of the more famous was Shiva as lord of the dancers, whose followers identified a stone in the local area as a symbol of Shiva. Chola kings in the tenth century adopted the dancing Shiva as their personal family god, and as a result, the cult spread through southern India. In time, veneration of both deities became popular in Northern and Southern India. Followers of each venerated images of Shiva or Vishnu by offering them food and drink and meditation on their qualities. By this method they hoped to achieve a mystical union with the gods that would bring them grace and salvation.

Hinduism influenced prominent philosophical thought in post classical India just as Buddhism and Christianity had influenced philosophy elsewhere. Among the more prominent Brahmin philosophers were:

Islam: There was originally little incentive for native Indians to embrace Islam. Although merchants and traders often married Indian spouses, few Indians converted. Muslim influence largely came in the form of invading, conquering armies which did little to win favor; plus conquerors rarely allowed native Indians to hold important positions, even if they had converted to Islam. In time, Islamic numbers grew, such that by 1500 C.E., about 25 million Indians, roughly twenty five percent of the population called themselves Muslim. Some converted to the faith because they were members of lower castes and embraced a faith that recognized all believers as equal. Even so, their conversion did not improve their social standing. They could improve their social and economic role only if the members of their entire caste converted en masse.

Most conversions were the result of the work of Sufi mystics, as it was in other areas. The Sufis encouraged a personal, emotional, devotional approach to Islam. They did not insist on strict observance of Islamic rituals; in fact they often allowed followers to venerate spirits and follow rituals that were outside Islam. They attracted followers who were searching for a religion that could bring comfort and meaning to their personal lives.

Both Hinduism and Islam drew on long established cultural traditions. Sufis often attracted followers in the same manner as the Hindu gurus, who taught Hindu values to their disciples. Also, a new movement, the bhakti movement, encouraged love and devotion, and attempted to erase the distinction between Hinduism and Islam. The movement, which originated in southern India in the twelfth century, encouraged piety and devotion, typical Hindu values; but as it spread north, it adopted Islamic values, such as monotheism, and the equality of all believers.

In time, the Bhakti movement rejected the exclusive features of both religions. A blind weaver and one of the most famous bhakti teachers, Guru Kabir, taught that Vishnu and Shiva were manifestations of a single universal deity whom all devout followers could find in their hearts. The movement did not succeed in harmonizing Islam and Hinduism, but bhakti teachers promoted values which narrowed the gap between the two.

The Influence of Indian Society in Southeast Asia: India was the source of political and cultural traditions throughout south and Southeast Asia, as China had been for most of eastern Asia. Many people of Southeast Asia adopted Indian political structures, religions, and interests. Islam in particular gained a large following. Interestingly, it spread peaceably; Indian armies rarely invaded adjoining territories.

Indian contact with other regions originally consisted of trade. Indian merchants often traded textiles, silver, and manufactured metal goods for spices, pearls, animal skins, and other aromatic products. Rulers in Southeast Asia used the profits from trade to consolidate their political control, but also became acquainted with Indian political and cultural traditions. They adopted Kingship as the principal form of political authority and accepted Indian religious faiths.

Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced by the ruling elites. Indian literature, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata which promoted Hindu values and treatises on Buddhism were readily embraced; although they showed little enthusiasm for the Indian Caste system. Many people of the area continued to acknowledge the deities and nature spirits which they had for years venerated; but the ruling elite readily accepted Buddhism and Hinduism because they reinforced monarchical rule.

The first state to adopt Indian values was Funan, on the Mekong River Delta, and embracing parts of modern Cambodia and Vietnam. Funan rulers built a capital at the port of Oc Eo, and the nation grew wealthy because it dominated the Isthmus of Kra, the narrow portion of the Malay Peninsula where merchants transported trade goods between China and India. The rulers of Funan were thus able to control the Chinese-Indian trade and grew enormously wealthy. They used the profits from this system to construct water storage and irrigation systems so extensive that they can still be seen on aerial photographs. The end result was a very productive agricultural system.

Indian political, cultural, and religious customs influenced Funan as trade with India became important. They adopted the Sanskrit title raja ("king") and claimed divine sanction, as had the Hindu rulers of India. Official business was conducted in Sanskrit; the worship of Vishnu, Shiva, and other Hindu deities were introduced. At first, Indian legal and religious customs were observed primarily by the ruling classes; but in time they were adopted by the populace at large.

Funan was overwhelmed in the sixth century; C.E. by people from the north after the kingdom was weakened by a bitter internal power struggle. The Cham people invaded modern Viet Nam, and the Khmer people invaded Cambodia. Within one hundred years, Funan ceased to exist.

After the fall of Funan, leadership in the area passed to the Kingdom of Srivijava, on the Island of Sumatra. The kings of that area built a powerful navy and controlled commerce in Southeast Asian waters by compelling port cities in the area to recognize their authority and taxing ships passing through. By maintaining an all-sea trade route between China and India, they eliminated the need for a port at Kra. It dominated trade in the area and was a substantial empire until the eleventh century when it was defeated by the Chola people.

Following the fall of Srivijaya, the region was dominated by the Angkor kingdom of Cambodia. Although native traditions continued, a blend of Hindu, Buddhist and local religious practices soon developed. The Kings of Khmer built a capital city at Angkor Thom which reflected the Hindu world order. They built a temple represented Mount Meru in the Himalayas, believed by devout Hindus to be the home of Shiva, and also built many smaller temples reflecting other Hindu deities. The Khmers later turned to Buddhism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and added Buddhist temples to the complex, although they did not remove the Hindu temples. Angkor was ultimately abandoned in 1431 after it was invaded by people from Thailand.

In the fifteenth century, the state of Melaka near modern Singapore, dominated trading. Originally little more than pirates, Melaka built a substantial navy which controlled the waters and compelled ships to call at its port and pay taxes on its cargo. It soon became a powerful state which controlled maritime trade, as had its predecessors.

Islam in Southeast Asia: Islam reached the area through Indian influence also, primarily from Indians from port cities who traded in Southeast Asia. Small communities of foreign merchants practiced their faith in port cities but attracted little interest for some years; but over time, ruling elites, traders, and others who regularly dealt with foreign merchants became interested. Marco Polo presumably visited Sumatra and commented that many of the residents there worshiped Islam in the towns and cities while those in the country followed their traditional religions.

Ruling elites who converted to Islam continued to observe Hindu and Buddhist traditions Islam was adopted less as an absolute creed than as a faith that helped them deal with foreign Muslims and provided divine sanction for their rule. They rarely forced their subjects to convert to Islam; but did allow Sufis to preach to large audiences. The Sufi reputation for honesty and holiness made them very popular. The Sufi allowed converts to retain their inherited customs and adapt the message of Islam to their own special needs at the same time.

With the rise of Melaka, Islam spread more quickly in the area. It began as a Hindu state, but became Islamic in the mid fifteenth century when the ruling class converted. They welcomed theologians and Sufis and sponsored missionary campaigns to spread the religion throughout the region. Mosques soon appeared in Java, Sumatra, and the Malay peninsula, primarily in urban areas. It later spread to the Philippines and the Spice Islands. Islam soon became prominent in Southeast Asia and linked the area to the larger world of India and the Indian Ocean basin.