Cultural Developments in South and Southeast Asia


AP Theme

Cultural Developments and Interactions

Learning Objective

Explain how the various belief systems and practices of South and Southeast Asia affected society over time.

Historical Development 1

Hinduism and Buddhism continued to shape the development of South Asia.

Historical Development 2

Islam changed South Asia following its conquest of the region.

Historical Development 3

Hindu and Buddhist practices and later Islam shaped Southeast Asia.


Hinduism and Buddhism Shaped South Asia

South and Southeast Asia have a rich and diverse cultural history. South Asia birthed two of the world’s great religions/philosophies: Hinduism and Buddhism. Southeast Asia adopted both religions/philosophies during different periods in their history, as trade links diffused South Asia’s beliefs. Starting in the 13th century, Islam’s influence in both regions increased.

Hinduism and Hindu Beliefs

Hinduism is the oldest major world religion that is still widely practiced. The earliest Hindu beliefs date back at least 1500 years before the birth of Christ.

Four concepts are essential within Hinduism:

  1. Brahma: Brahma is the universal soul that connects all life. It is the Hindu manifestation of god. All other Hindu gods and goddesses are avatars of Brahma.
  2. Dharma: Dharma is the purity of one’s soul. One achieves good dharma by living a life of righteous deeds and fulfilling one’s role in society. In traditional Hinduism, the caste system defined one’s social position.
  3. Karma: One’s dharma determines karma. If you have good dharma in life, then you will have good karma in death. With good karma, you can potentially be reborn into a higher position in the next lifetime. The inverse is also true. If you have bad karma, you could be born into a lower place in the next lifetime.
  4. Moksha: Moksha is the ending of the cycle of rebirth and the gaining of union with Brahma and the universal energy

The Hindu Caste System

The Hindu caste system is a rigid social hierarchy that defines one social status based on religious purity and closeness to god.

  • The castes fit within four larger groupings called varna: the higher their varna, the higher their status. 
  • Outside of the four varnas are the Dalits. Throughout much of Hindu history, Dalits have suffered extreme discrimination at the hands of upper-caste Hindus. Dalits continue to struggle to achieve an equal status in Indian society. 
  • One’s varna/caste traditionally also guided one’s occupation. Certain castes were assigned specific jobs within the community. One caste might be responsible for milking cows, while another would be responsible for trash collection. 
  • These traditional distinctions do not always bind modern Indian occupations among the urban and educated classes.

Historical comparison: Most societies have social ranking systems. Throughout history, different cultures have used other ranking systems to determine social status. Merchants had mid-level status in the traditional Indian caste system. In traditional China, merchants had little social status. While in the Islamic culture merchants had a high status because Mohammad and his wife had been merchants.

Buddhism and Buddhist Beliefs

India also gave rise to Buddhism in the 5th century BCE. It was started by the young Kshatriya prince Siddhartha Gautama who, unsatisfied with royal life behind palace walls, left on a journey to seek out the causes of suffering in life.

For years Siddhartha wandered around North India, meditating and searching for answers to the causes of suffering in life. Buddhists believe the Buddha’s search for answers led to his enlightenment. During the Mauryan and Gupta empires in South Asia (3rd century BCE – 6th century CE), Buddhism replaced Hinduism as the dominant religion in South Asia. However, after the 6th century CE, Hinduism experienced a revival and reasserted itself as the dominant faith in South Asia.

The Buddha developed a series of teachings to help his followers achieve enlightenment and break the rebirth cycle.

Buddhist Monasticism

Buddhist monasteries, where monks and nuns live as near as possible to Buddhist ideas, functioned as Buddhist thought and learning centers. From these Buddhist monasteries, Buddhist thought was studied, taught, and preached. 

  • Nalanda University (6th century C.E. – 13th century C.E.) in modern-day Bihar, India, was one of the world’s largest learning centers for hundreds of years. 
  • As Buddhism transferred along the Silk Road to East Asia, Buddhist monks and nuns set up monasteries along trade routes. 
  • Wealthy traders and merchants who had converted to Buddhism helped finance Buddhist temples and monasteries along these routes. This process repeated itself over hundreds of years until Buddhism reached China.

Comparing Hinduism and Buddhism

Buddhism and Hinduism both seek to help followers to break the cycle of rebirth by following a path of inner reflection. For Hindu’s breaking the rebirth cycle is accomplished by following one’s caste duties. Buddhism rejected the rigid social hierarchy and distinctions outlined in the caste system. For Buddhists, the caste system was a worldly creation that was unjust and violated the principle of showing mercy to all people. The path toward breaking the cycle of rebirth lay in detaching oneself from the world and achieving enlightenment.

The Islamic Conquest of South Asia

Islam was present in South Asia long before Islamic rule dominated the region. During the time of Muhammad, Islamic traders were trading along the East coast of India. In 629, the Cheraman Juma Mosque was constructed along the Kerala coast in South India by the Chera king.

Islamic armies entered South Asia in the 13th century and established the Delhi Sultanate. Muslim religious beliefs and practices spread throughout South Asia as portions of the population converted. Later, in the 16th century, the Islamic Mughal Empire replaced the Delhi Sultanate. Islam was most dominant in North India. Hindu rule remained dominant in Southern India under the Vijayanagara Empire until the 17th century.

The Role of Sufi Missionaries in Spreading Islam in South Asia

Sufism is a type of Islamic worship that focuses on looking inside oneself in the search for God. Sufi Muslims believe in renouncing material goods, purification of the soul, and questioning God’s nature. Sufi practices spread widely through the expanding Islamic world as Sufi followers adapted their Islamic practices to the areas in which they lived. Sufi were influential in spreading Islam into Hindu South Asia. Sufi missionaries often had the most contact with native inhabitants outside of urban areas. Their mystical practice of Islam was easier to adapt to native traditions that often looked very different than traditional Islam.

Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam Shape Southeast Asia

Before the 15th century, South Asian (Indian) kingdoms had a significant influence on Southeast Asia. South and Southeast Asia traded both goods and culture across trade and communication networks. Hindu and Buddhist culture blended with local traditions and became dominant belief systems across potions of Southeast Asia.

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