India Beyond The Ganga: The Expanse Of The Indosphere

Biman Das

Apr 14, 2023, 06:03 PM | Updated 06:20 PM IST

Anterior India and Greater India. (map by Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1864).
Anterior India and Greater India. (map by Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1864).
  • Many sceptics may regard India only from the perspective of 19th century European style nationalism, but the fact remains that India is far beyond just land.
  • India’s influence across the greater expanse of the world can only be understated for her immense spiritual and cultural significance.

    It comes to no surprise, hence, that Asian civilisations of the bygone eras looked to India as their sacred land of guidance, be it Korea, Cambodia or Tajikistan. India, essentially, weaved the various civilisations into a web of spirituality with the absence of violent measures. 

    The first day of the Vaisakha month is celebrated as the beginning of the year as per the Vikram Samvat (and the second as per the Saka calendar) in various Indian states with pomp. But many Indians may not know the deep significance this annual day holds for the Indian civilization.

    While Assam will be celebrating Bohag or Rongali Bihu to venerate the sacred bovine, Thailand will be overseeing Maha Songkran to ritualistically cleanse the bodily spirits. Such is the connection between sister cultures, that when Ugadi is celebrated in Maharashtra, it coincides with Nyepi in far off Bali.

    While Odias deck the Shaktipeeths in erstwhile Kalinga on Pana Sankranti to invoke the empyrean Adi Shakti, Burmese across Mahodadhi (Bay of Bengal) conceive Thingyan as the day Ganesha was born. During the time Vishu is celebrated in honour of Krishna slaying the debased Narakasura, Indianised Dai people of Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China) celebrate their water-sprinkling festival akin to Songrkan.

    The streets of Imphal, Manipur during Sajibu Cheiraoba get dressed in the same form of ambiance as that of Sankranti celebrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as they fall on the very same day. Thus the day transcends a mere secular nature, to a grand celebration of piety that weaves distinct communities together.

    The nation of India has been thoroughly personified as a divine mother by her inhabitants that come to her refuge at all times of their need. Religious figures have equated Mother India or Devi Bharati to be another personification of Bhudevi (Mother Earth).

    This identification can also be observed in other lands where Vedic philosophies have disseminated. A notable example of this phenomenon is the archipelago nation of Indonesia (called Nusantara by its inhabitants). The country has likewise been personified as Ibu Pertiwi (Prithvi Devi).

    The reverence for maternal figures in Indian philosophies has been rooted from time immemorial.

    The dissemination of Vedic values is not merely just a majoritarian concept, as falsely argued by many. Various smaller minor tribal communities living in isolated pockets have also adopted Vedic concepts which can be observed today despite rigorous propaganda from nefarious interests.

    In Northeast India, essentially every tribal community has their own form of celebration during Vaisakha Sankranti such as Bwisagu (Bodos), Bishuwa (Koch Rajbanshis), Buisu (Triprasa), Bizhu (Chakmas), Sangkhen (Tai Phake) and so on.

    A wandering tourist visiting a Santhal village in Jharkhand may mistake the pratima of Tusu Devi, as just that of Saraswati, as the two goddesses are celebrated on the auspicious day of Vasanta Panchami.

    The history of India can be debated to be as old as time immemorial, drawing from ancient the Sindhu-Saraswati civilisation and the succeeding descendants across the Gangetic plains.

    Although many of the various kingdoms across the various parts of India differed in languages and localised traditions, they were part-and-parcel of an all-encompassing Vedic civilisation.

    With the due course of time, Indic philosophies travelled out in all visible directions acculturing into the cultures that inhabited the new-found lands with no opposition from locals. Hence, it may not be foolish to argue that India grew with the dissemination of traditions from the banks of the Sindhu and Saraswati rivers.

    At its glorious peak, the Vedic civilisation stretched from the fertile plains of Sogdiana and Bahlika in Central Asia to the Rajahnate of Butuan, in present day Philippines.

    An ascetic could attend the kumbhabhishekam (ritualistic consecration) of a Shiva lingam in Panchekant in Sogdia and subsequently witness the same ritual in the Mataram kingdom in Java, on travelling across the vast terrain.

    Despite people speaking different languages, eating different foods and wearing different garments, they made the same oblations to the Vedic divinities nonetheless.

    Classical Chinese records put the borders of Tianzhu (literally heaven) in present day Iran, as they could not distinguish the local culture of Afghanistan from that of the rest of India.

    Where India begins and ends becomes hazy as the cultures of these regions have adopted Indian values to varying degrees.

    Hu Shih, the famous twentieth century Chinese philosopher and then vice-chancellor of the Peking university once stated, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border”.

    Indian ideologies such as karma, reincarnation and moksha have embedded themselves so deeply into Chinese society through the vessel of Buddhism, that the Indian faith is considered an indigenous religion to the Han community now. Perhaps, this might be one of the reasons why some Han Chinese have a misconception that Indians are largely Buddhists even today.

    Voyages of famous Buddhist monks such as Fa-Hsien and Moksadeva (colloquially called Hsiuen Tsang) wrote extensively on the characteristics of India speaking of the virtuous natures of the kings and the inhabitants alike.

    It is interesting to note that China and India, two ancient civilisations that form the bulk of humanity even at present, never came into conflict until the rise of communism in the middle of the twentieth century.

    De-Indianisation of China has been directly proportional to discontent and mockery towards India and her people as a whole.

    Many may also be astonished to know that Japan which is known in the West for its Kobe beef was almost entirely vegetarian until the late 19th century, when the Meiji Restoration under Christian influence forced the traditional Buddhist teachings to give away.

    This would also be reinforced by respect for Kojin-sama, the deity of the hearth or Ushi-gami-sama (literally Cow god) in the traditional Shinto-Buddhist pantheon.

    Similarly has been the case with the neighbouring nation of South Korea, renowned for its flashy K-Pop culture and scrumptious snacks. The largely non-vegetarian nation today also saw a rise in consumption of beef following the weakening of Buddhist traditions that emphasised on vegetarianism. This also corresponded with the destruction of traditional values and ancestral shrines under the influence of Protestant missionaries.

    This would culminate in the infamous misin tapa undong (“overthrow the gods”), an iconoclastic movement which saw mass desecration of ancestral deities and Shindo shrines on accusation of them being false deities.

    The ensuing vacuum would be filled up by Christian missionaries resulting in South Korea being a stronghold of Christianity today.

    The same holds true for other nations of the erstwhile Indosphere as well, such as Malaysia. Once home to various Indian kingdoms such as the Malay Dharmasraya and Tambralinga, Malaysia looks down upon Indians at present.

    The once honorific term keling (Kalingan) has now been reduced to a racial slur for Indians. So much has been the cultural importance to these countries that these nations have been called East Indies, or the Indian islands even during the colonial era — British East Indies (Malaya), Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Spanish East Indies (The Philippines).

    Even predating the colonial era, medieval sources would record the various Indianised kingdoms of Southeast Asia as Farther India.

    Atisa Dipankara (born as Chandragarbha), the esteemed Bengali Buddhist teacher took the teachings of the Buddha to the snowclad mountains of Tibet, after an extensive study period in Suvarnabhumi (present Sumatra) under the sublime Srivijayan kingdom.

    Many sceptics may regard India only from the perspective of 19th century European style nationalism, that disguises Church backed morals in a secular veneer, but the fact remains that India is far beyond just land.

    She embodies the faith of devotees and a rich legacy that has endured centuries of resistance against external and internal threats that seek to undo her.

    It would be intellectually dishonest to belittle a civilisation that has survived the sands of time, while her peers have vanished altogether or lost their cultural continuity with that of their ancestors.

    From the oblations to Surya in Chhath somewhere on the banks of the sacred Kaushika (present day Kosi river) to the heartfelt prayers to the  sacrosanct bovine during the Govatsa Dwadashi in a village in Andhra Pradesh, Hindus of India still follow the codes and rituals their ancestors set for them.

    For all intents and purposes, the concept of India is difficult for denigrators to comprehend as they judge India from the lens of modern day European style nationalism. So, a civilisation that has enriched cultures through spirituality and respect seems almost unimaginable to reflect upon.

    The lingering trace of Indian influence can be experienced even to this day, despite the glorious civilisation having been pushed down from its precipice overtime. Yet India continues to live in the values, traditions, heritage and spirituality of these regions even to this day.

    All that once existed may be brought back into prominence with collective efforts of both the governments of these nations, as well as, active support from the locals that are intrigued by their glorious heritage. 

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