In reading Strange Parallels I am struck by the broad cross-cultural tendencies in mainland Southeast Asia to transition from a Hindu sacral state to a Theravada Buddhist sacral state. Granted, the latter does not seem to be at great rupture with the former, as is evidenced by the “Hindu” aesthetic resonances of Thai and Khmer culture to this day. There are still two customarily explicitly Hindu ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, the Balinese and the Cham Balamon of Vietnam. But even in Muslim Javanese culture there is still a strong undercurrent of Hindu religious culture (e.g., the popularity of the Ramayana). In other words, very few Southeast Asians are Hindu in name, but a far greater proportion are Hindu in cultural patrimony.
On a parenthetical side-note, I would encourage all readers of this weblog with a genuine interest in the intellectual aspects of human history to actually read broadly across various cultures, on not just their “own.” There’s a great deal of insight to be had, and you’ll sound a lot less like a moron. It seems that most people’s attitude toward history is like their attitude toward shit, they’re only interested in their own. That’s all fine if you’re a dull creature from whom rooting in your own dirt is bliss (that’s most humans, so I have no issues with that, but I don’t want to hear your bleating if you’re such a thing), but to understand the human condition one has to try and gain a sense of humans unlike oneself. Whenever I wade into new intellectual waters I’m struck by the startling generalities which become incredibly clear, as well as the melting of foolish visions enabled only by the narrowness of one’s lens.
My own preconception had been that the success of Buddhism outside of India proper, and the failure of Hinduism, had to do with the fact that the former was a fundamentally universal religion from its inception while the latter is suited only to a South Asian cultural frame. This was a stylized sketch, but even early on the legends of Ashoka imply the universal aims of the Buddhist sangha at that stage. If you can credit the veracity of these records then Buddhism was arguably the first universal creedal religion. Judaism shifted from henotheism to montheism at around this time, but its ambitions were not universal (arguably Christianity is the manifestation of Judaism’s universal ambitions, as it may be the heir to Hellenistic Judaism).
The standard history-of-religion sketch implies that Hinduism as we understand it today arose as a response to the shramanic sects which challenged the Hindu religion conceptualized as Veda oriented Brahmanical cults. Arguably the crystallization of Hinduism as we understand it today did not occur until after 1000 A.D., with the dominance of Vedanta at the elite levels, and the marginalization of Jainism and Buddhism in mainland South Asia, and the rise of Islam. Some historians suggest that there is a peculiarity of elite Hindu discourse during the period after the arrival of foreign Muslims as the elite political class across much of the subcontinent in that it operates as if the Muslims did not exist. I don’t think this is so exceptional actually, you can see the same tendency in much of pre-modern Judaism, which was embedded in a much more overpoweringly non-Jewish environment. Jewish thinkers created a world where naturally gentiles were marginal players, because their concern was their own people. Similarly, I see no reason why the same could not apply to Hindu intellectuals. A more explicit analogy might be St. John of Damascus, the last of the Church Fathers, who served in the administration of the Umayyads. Though there is some mention of Islam in his writings, his primary preoccupations are Christian, and interestingly his focus of energy after his retirement was a series of polemics against iconoclast Byzantine Emperors (in that that they sanctioned the destruction of icons).
And yet despite this neglect of the Other in the writings of Jews and Christians who were subject peoples, it would be foolish to deny that the milieu did not effect the Jews and Christians who lived under the rule and domination of the Other. On occasion this manifests explicitly, as Eastern Christians turned away from the sort of public pageantry which is still common in the Roman Catholic Church clearly to mollify the iconoclast sensibilities of their Muslim rulers. Similarly, the question of whether Christians are monotheists is handled with much more delicacy by rabbis who lived under Christian rule than amongst those who lived amongst Muslims (the point at issue is the Trinity, which both Jews and Muslims consider to be a violation of monotheism, and whether therefore Christians are pagans).
Even if Hindus “forgot” the power of Islam in the Indian subcontinent in the geographies of their minds, it seems implausible that over time they would not be influenced and shaped by the ideas of Muslims. Of course this is not a one way process, especially in light of the demographic heft of Hindus, or the collection of religious ideas which became Hinduism. In the earliest years of Islam there was a cross-fertilization between the two cultures, that of Islam and India, and there is some thought that the Sufi orders who arguably came to influence Indian devotional religion were themselves a product of the “Indian period” in early Islam, when Hindu and Buddhist monastic and ascetic traditions helped to shape the mystical sects of Muslims.
This sort of last dynamic, where it is “not even wrong” to tease apart the integrated whole of what history has become moves me back to Southeast Asia. My question frankly put is this: if Islam for some reason turned west and not east, would the world of South Asia look more like Southeast Asia, with a Buddhist elite ideology overlain atop a Hindu cultural substrate? The issue here is that terms like “Buddhist” and “Hindu” are old, but also only understood in a modern light. As noted by many Hindu was simply the generic term for Indians, before becoming imputed to the constellation of religious practices indigenous to India. In other words, India might be Hindu because all Indians would be Hindu, but the political structures of South Asia at the highest levels might have patronized a sort of Buddhism, which itself is an expression of Dharmic religious sensibilities.
What I’m getting at here is that many Hindus assert, somewhat hegemonically, that Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, are simply variants of Hinduism. This is not a universal assertion amongst Hindus, and even those who would bracket these religions under the umbrella of Hinduism would likely acknowledge the differences between them and mainstream Hindu thought (dominated at the elite level by Vedanta). But if we grant that the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism is quantitative, and not qualitative (as it is between the Dharmic and Abrahamic and Chinese religions), then I think we might imagine a world without a dominant Abrahamic reference where a Hindu religious ideology never develops in a coherent sense as it did under Islam. Rather, like Bon-po, Shinto, or the Hindu cultural substrate in all Theravada societies, Buddhism and Hinduism-that-never-was may have operated as two different cultural tracks within South Asia, ultimately in complementation and not conflict (the “defeat” of pre-Buddhist religious thought in Tibet, Japan, and Southeast Asia, often resolves itself in terms of assimilation and integration, not extinction and extermination).
I am not confident of this model, and need to read up more on the religious literature of medieval India, Hindu and non-Hindu, as well as the history of mainland Southeast Asia. Unfortunately the textual evidence is going to be a bit on the thin side, but I am sure there is much more to mine.
Book recommendations are welcome!