Buddhism is the second oldest religion in Indonesia, just after Hinduism. Before the arrival of these two religions, people believed that nature had supernormal power. Trees and stones were worshipped as sacred object, where beings with supernormal power reside.
Hinduism came to Indonesia at around the second century. The first two major kingdoms (Tarumanegara in Western Java and Kutai in Western Borneo) were based on Hinduism. Buddhism came to Indonesia a few hundred years after Hinduism. It reached its peak at the time of the Sriwijaya's dynasty rule, which was once the largest Buddhist kingdom in South East Asia, from around the 7th century until the 14th century. During that time, many Buddhist colleges and monasteries were built, and famous Buddhist scholars, such as Dharmapala and Sakyakirti, were teaching there. Another major Buddhist kingdom was the Mataram kingdom, which was ruled by the Sailendra clan during the eight and ninth century in Central Java. Many Buddhist temples were built and Buddhist texts were inscribed on the stones tablets (called prasasti) during this time.
The best known of these temples is Borobudur one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Borobudur represents three views of the universe according to the Indian Vajrayana tradition. The apex of the structure is a stupa, which represents the concept of Emptiness or Sunnata. Every year on the full moon in May, the Vesak celebration (called Tri Suci Waisak in Bahasa Indonesian), commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of the Buddha is held at Borobudur.
During the rule of the Majapahit kingdom between 13th to 15th century, Buddhism and Hinduism coexisted peacefully. After the fall of Majapahit, Islam was brought to Indonesia by traders from Gujarat, India. The influence of Buddhism started to decrease substantially after that, and was mainly confined to the areas of Eastern Java and Bali.
The Revival of Buddhism
In 1934, Venerable Narada Thera, a famous missionary monk from Sri Lanka, visited Indonesia for the first time as part of his journey to spread the Dhamma in Southeast Asia. This opportunity was used by a few local Buddhists to revive Buddhism in Indonesia. A Bodhi tree planting ceremony was held in front of Borobudur on 10th March 1934 under the blessing of Narada Thera, and some Upasakas were ordained as monks.
In about 1955, Buddhism started to make a comeback in Indonesia when a monk called Ashin Jinarakkhita started a tour across various regions in Indonesia to spread the Dharma. Since that time there has been a revival of Theravada Buddhism in Indonesia led by indigenous monks trained in Thailand, although the Mahayana tradition is still well represented.
Buddhism is one of five religions recognized by the Indonesian government, besides Islam, Catholic, Protestant, and Hinduism. According to a census conducted in 1990, the majority of the population is Moslem (around 87%). About 1.8 million people (which was slightly more than 1% of the population) are Buddhism. The breakdown of followers of different religions in Indonesia is shown in the table below:
Percentage of followers
Provinces with relatively high percentage of Buddhists are Jakarta, Riau, North Sumatra, and West Borneo. The majority of Buddhists now practice in the Theravadin tradition. Two of the large Buddhist monasteries are located in North Jakarta (Sunter) and West Java (Pacet). Unfortunately, because Confucianism and Taoism are not recognized in the Constitution, followers from these two religions also call themselves “Buddhist” (therefore, the actual numbers of Buddhists are believed to be less than the official figure).
‘India and Thailand have enjoyed a close and mutually enriching relationship for over a millenium and the friendship seems to be growing by leaps and bounds even to this present day. I stand before you today to celebrate and pay tribute to this close friendship.
This close and cordial relationship between India and Thailand is rooted in centuries of continuous interaction. The importance of the influence of Indian culture on the development of Thai culture cannot be over emphasized. Thailand’s relationship with India spans over a thousand years and understandably this resulted in an adaptation of Indian culture to suit the Thai environment. Evidence of strong religious, cultural and linguistic links abound.
The single most significant cultural contribution of India, for which Thailand is greatly indebted to India, is 'Buddhism’. Propagated in Thailand in the 3rd Century B.C. by Buddhist monks sent by King Asoka, it was adopted as the state religion of Thailand and has ruled the hearts and minds of Thais ever since. Presently 58,000,000 Thais, an overwhelming 94% of the total Thai populace adheres to Buddhism. Due to King Asoka’s missionary zeal Buddhism quickly spread out through the length and breadth of Asia particularly to China, Japan, Myanmar, Laos, Kampuchea, Vietnam and Thailand. Tradition credits the Indian Bhikkus Sona and Uttara sent by King Asoka with introducing Buddhism into Thailand.
Historically, the cultural and economic interaction between the two countries can be traced to roughly around the 6th Century B.C. However, direct contact can be said to have begun only in the 3rd Century B.C. when King Asoka sent Buddhist monks to propagate Buddhism in the Indo-Chinese peninsula. Besides Buddhism, Thailand has also adopted other typically Indian religious and cultural traditions. The ceremonies and rites especially as regards the ‘Monarchy’ evidence a strong Hindu, more of which I will deal with a little later.
Buddhism as a religion promotes liberty and freedom. It respects the rights of a person to his/her beliefs and practices. I believe India and Thailand are basically tolerant counties, partly because of the influence of Buddhism. Though Buddhism all but vanished from India, its best precepts have been adopted by and incorporated into Hinduism. Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of Ahimsa or Non-violence echoes the teachings of the Lord Buddha. It is interesting to note that though both countries have one religion, which is adhered to by an overwhelming majority of the total population, both permit and promote all religious communities and beliefs.
Thailand has also been influenced by other typically Indian religious traditions, besides Buddhism. These are Hinduism, Islam and Sikkhism.
The Indians who moved into Thailand in the Sukhothai period (1275-1350) were either merchants who came to Siam or Thailand, for the purpose of trading or Brahmans who played an important role in the Siamese court as experts in astrology and in conducting ceremonies. The first group of Indian Brahmans who entered Siam before the founding of Sukhothai as the first capital of Siam (1275 – 1350) popularized Indian beliefs and traditions. During the Sukhothai period Brahman temples already existed. Brahmans conducted ceremonies in the court. The concepts of divine kingship and royal ceremonies are clear examples of the influence of Brahmanism.
The ceremonies of Coronation of Thai kings are practiced more or less in its original form even up to the present reign. The Thai idea that the king is a reincarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu was adopted from Indian tradition. Though this belief no longer exists today, the tradition to call each Thai king of the present Chakri dynasty Rama (Rama is a reincarnation of Vishnu) with an ordinal number, such as Rama I, Rama II etc. is still in practice.
In the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767), more Indian merchants entered the South of the country by boat as evidenced by the statues of Hindu gods excavated in the South.
After the year 1855, the Indians who migrated to Thailand can be classified into three groups according to the religion they believed in, namely, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.
Those who practiced Hinduism came from the North and South of India and the Punjab. Few northern Hindus engaged in trade in Thailand. Some who were well educated worked in Indian or British companies while others worked as middlemen between Indian merchants and government agencies or as exporters and importers. The poorer and uneducated ones made a living by selling cow milk or newspapers or by working as servants and watchmen.
The Hindus from the South of India were mostly Tamilians. They became teachers and company officers in Thailand. Those with a good financial status did Jewelry and export business. The temple, which is the center of faith of Thai Hindus, is Maha Uma Devi Temple or Wat Khaek in Silom District in Bangkok.
Those from Punjab traded in textiles in Phahurat and Sampheng Districts. Their religious center is Devasathan or temple in the Giant Swing District, Bangkok. There are many sects in Brahmanism-Hinduism, each having a different supreme god but with the same highest goal to attain salvation. The religion teaches that ‘karma’, i.e. the totality of a person’s actions in his or her former and present life, plays a significant role in the humans’ fate, a belief very similar in content to Buddhism. According to this philosophy, both happiness and sorrow in the present life are a consequence of actions in one’s past life.
Muslims from India are mixed with those from Persia, the Malay Peninsula and Khmer in Thailand. It is hard to distinguish them from one another. Muslims live mostly in the Southern province bordering Malaysia. Indian Muslims were engaged in trading and agriculture in Thailand. In Bangkok, they mostly inhabited Si Phraya District. Some merchants settled on the west Bank of the Chao Phraya River. Affluent Muslims owned jewelry, stationery and import & export business.
The Indian Sikhs migrated from Northwest India, Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Pakistan-occupied-Punjab. They went to Thailand with the hope of a commercially prosperous life. Today, many of them do textile business in Sampheng and Phahurat Disricts. Their religious center is Guru Singh Sabha located in Phahurat. The Sikhs believe in one supreme God. According to Sikh tradition God’s purpose in allowing us to be born into a human form is for the human being to return and become one with God.
Many Indian descendants still zealously retain their customs and traditions, adhering strictly to the religious tenets of their faith. According to the latest statistics of the department of Religious Affairs, there are 21, 125 Sikhs, Brahmans and Hindu is Thailand. Muslims are around 2,977,434 in number. It is unknown though, how many Thai Muslims are of Indian origin.