1.3G: Cultural Developments in South and Southeast Asia


AP Theme

Cultural Developments and Interactions

Learning Objective 1H

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 began in South Asia and was an important influence on the formation of Indian society.

Buddhism also began in South Asia and adopted many of the beliefs and practices of Hinduism.

Turkish Islamic armies invaded North India in the 13th century leading to the expansion of Islamic culture in the region.

Indian culture influenced the government and culture of Southeast Asia. By the 14th century, Islam’s political and economic power in the region had grown.


Hinduism In South Asia

Main idea

Hinduism began in South Asia and was an important influence on the formation of Indian society.

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.

Hindu beliefs

Hinduism is the oldest major world religion 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. Good dharma in life equals 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. Castes traditionally had specific jobs within the community. One caste might be responsible for milking cows, while another would be responsible for trash collection. 
Comparison between civilizations

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 standing. While in the Islamic culture, merchants had a high status because Mohammad and his wife had been merchants.

Reforming Hinduism: the Bhakti movement

The Bhakti movement developed in India between the 7th and 12th centuries. It began in South India before spreading into Central and Northern India. The Bhakti movement’s main idea was that devotion to God was enough to achieve union with Brahma and break the rebirth cycle. 

  • Bhakti followers worked against the power of the high caste Brahmins to control religious ceremonies.
  • Bhakti followers believed that all castes were equal in God’s eyes and equal on earth. 
  • Poetry was an influential medium of expression for Bhakti followers to spread their ideas. Bhakti poets left behind an extensive collection of poetry. 
  • Mira Bai was a 16th-century female Bhakti poet. Her songs about love and devolution to lord Krishna are still familiar to most in modern India. 
  • Another Bhakti poet named Kabir was born a Muslim. He preached that there was a single god who came in many forms and that spirituality and worship of God mattered, not whether one prayed to Shiva or Allah.
Historical trend

Reform movements that seek change within a social, economic, or political system are important agents of change in history. Reform movements have many purposes, including strengthening the state or fixing a social injustice. The Bhakti Movement sought to make Indian society more tolerant of religious diversity. When Japanese Prince Shotoku (574-622) adopted a Chinese-style bureaucratic government in Japan, he was reforming the Japanese state to strengthen it against the growing power of the Chinese state.

Buddhism Also Began in South Asia

Main idea

Buddhism also began in South Asia and adopted many of the beliefs and practices of Hinduism.

Buddhism also began in India. Its founder was a prince from the Kshatriya caste named Siddhartha Gautama, who, unsatisfied with royal life, went on a journey to seek out the causes of suffering in life. Siddhartha wandered around North India and Nepal for years on his journey. Buddhists believe the Buddha’s search for answers led to his enlightenment.

  • The Buddha developed a series of teachings to help his followers achieve enlightenment and break the rebirth cycle.
  • Buddhism incorporated many Hindu beliefs and ideas, such as karma, dharma, and reincarnation. Meditation is also a Hindu spiritual practice.
  • Like Jesus, Buddha was not trying to start a new religion. His followers, after his death, transformed Buddhism into a religious belief system.
  • 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.

Buddhist monasticism

Buddhist monasteries, where monks and nuns lived as near as possible to Buddhist ideas, functioned as Buddhist thought and learning centers. Followers studied, taught, and preached Buddhist thought in these Buddhist monasteries. 

  • Nalanda University (6th century CE – 13th century CE) 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.
Historical trend

Before the 15th century and the expansion of more modern college systems, much of the world’s learning occurred in religious centers. Learning in the Buddhist and Christian worlds took place in monasteries. Monks and nuns were often some of the most educated in society. In the Islamic world, Islamic schools and learning centers were often in mosques.

Comparing Hinduism and Buddhism

Buddhism and Hinduism seek to help followers break the cycle of rebirth by following a path of inner reflection. In traditional Hinduism, following one’s caste duties breaks the cycle of rebirth. 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

Main idea

Turkish Islamic armies invaded North India in the 13th century leading to the expansion of Islamic culture in the region.

Islam first arrived in South Asia with Islamic traders who traded along the East coast of India. The oldest mosque in India dates to 629—less than 20 years after the initial founding of Islam in Arabia.

Islamic armies invaded North India: Islamic troops 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 Vijayanagar 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

Main idea

Indian culture influenced the government and culture of Southeast Asia. By the 14th century, Islam’s political and economic power in the region had grown.

Before the 15th century, South Asian (Indian) kingdoms significantly influenced Southeast Asia. South and Southeast Asia traded goods and culture across trade networks. Hindu and Buddhist cultures blended with local traditions and became dominant belief systems across Southeast Asia.