May 25, 2020

Influence of Hinduism and Buddhism in Indonesia

HistoryThe oldest inscription found in the archipelago is known as the Kutai Inscription and originated in East Kalimantan, which dates back to around 375 AD when the kingdom of Kutai Martadipura was in power. This inscription was written in Sanskrit (the liturgical language of Hinduism)) uses Palawa writing, writing developed in South India around the third century AD. In this inscription, three kings of Kutai Martadipura are mentioned, and they describe a ritual which is characteristic of ancient Hinduism. About a century later, the first (known) stone inscription on Java was carved. This inscription, also in Sanskrit, states the king Purnawarman of the Tarumanegara kingdom (fourth to the seventh century) in West Java and describes this king with the Hindu god (Vishnu). Overall, this inscription shows evidence of the enormous influence of Indian Hinduism among the elite rulers of the first ancient native kingdom known in the archipelago.

Nevertheless, trade relations between India and the Archipelago are known to have been established centuries before the Kutai inscription. The Straits of Malacca, a seafront linking the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, has been the leading cruise line for trade that transports through the sea between China, India, and the Middle East since human memory. Most of the Sumatra coastline lies along this coastline, causing traders between India and China to stop here or on the other side of the Strait (now Malaysia) to wait for the right season’s breeze to take them further.

But it is assumed that Hinduism and Buddhism were not spread to the archipelago by Indian traders. Most likely, the kings and emperors in the archipelago were attracted to the honor of the Brahmins (the class of priests of the Hindu religion, which was the highest rank of the four social castes). 

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This Brahmin, based on allegations, introduces a new religion to the archipelago, which allows native kings to identify themselves with Hindu gods or Bodhisattvas (i.e. mystical beings enlightened in Buddhism), thereby replacing ancestor worship which was held before. Therefore, through this new religious doctrine, local kings gained greater respect. Kingdoms in the archipelago that mimic the concept of India are found on the islands of Kalimantan, Java, Sumatra, and Bali.

Because of the strategic position of the coastlines of Sumatra and Malaysia close to the Malacca Strait, it is not surprising that we find the first country that had a significant influence on Indonesia’s history on the coast of Sumatra, and stretched across a large geographical area around the strait. The kingdom was named Srivijaya and controlled the trade routes connecting the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Spice Islands of Maluku between the 13th and 17th centuries. Sriwijaya is also remembered as the Center in Southeast Asia for Buddhist studies with a significant emphasis on Sanskrit studies. From Chinese sources, it is known that Chinese Buddhist monks lived in Sriwijaya for more than a decade to continue their studies.

The remains of Hindu and Buddhist temples dating from between the 8th and 10th centuries show the reign of two dynasties in Central Java. This dynasty is the Sailendra Dynasty (followers of Mahayana Buddhism and most likely the dynasty that built Borobudur Temple near Yogyakarta around 800 AD) and the Sanjaya Dynasty (Hindus who built the Prambanan temple complex around 850 AD not far from Borobudur temple and as a reaction to the Borobudur temple). The gradual collapse of Srivijaya and the emergence of a new vast kingdom on Java meant that political power gradually turned from Sumatra to Java.

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But in the 10th century, the lives of people in Central Java were suddenly not recorded due to a lack of resources. It is suspected that a massive volcanic eruption shifted political power from Central Java to East Java, where a number of new kingdoms developed.

Both of them deserve special attention because of their heritage. Namely Kediri (around 1042-1222) for the inscription and literary heritage, and his successor Singasari (between 1222 and 1292) to introduce a new chapter in Indonesian history, namely syncretism Hinduism and Buddhism. This latest round achieved its glory in the Majapahit kingdom in East Java (from 1293 to around 1500), which is probably the largest kingdom in the history of the archipelago. Majapahit has a geographical area that resembles the borders of Indonesia today (although it is still debated among scholars about how much royal power is enjoyed outside of Java and Bali. Majapahit, with its remarkable artistic and literary development, is still an important concept and is a cause of national pride for the people of Indonesia today because it is considered the basis of the modern state of Indonesia. The nationalist movement in the 20th century used this concept to justify the independence and legitimacy of territorial boundaries. Indonesian National Motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which means ‘Unity in Diversity,’ originated from an Old Javanese poem written during the reign of Majapahit.

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