Chapter 15. Indic Transformation: The Sanskritization of Jawa and the Javanization of the Bharata

S. Supomo

Table of Contents

The Earliest Indic State: Kutai
The Sanskritization of Jawa
The Spread of Literacy
Śrīwijaya: A Centre of Learning?
“Temples of Language” in Ancient Java
The Javanization of the Mahābhārata

This chapter gives an account of the earliest Indian contacts with Indonesia according to first millennium AD inscriptions from East Kalimantan and Java. It discusses the changes which occurred in social, religious and political organization, particularly in Java, as a result. The dissemination of literary into Indonesia is examined in detail and a comparison is made of the rather limited literary output of Śrīwijaya (Sumatra) and the flowering of literature in Hindu-Buddhist Java. The Javanese not only adopted many literary works of Indian origin, but also transformed them in the process.


Although contacts between the western mainland of Southeast Asia and India had existed since prehistoric times, it was only in the beginning of the Christian era that the Sanskrit civilization of India began to spread more rapidly across the Bay of Bengal into the western parts of the Austronesian world. The exact circumstances will probably remain unknown, but the following factors have been most often mentioned as the main causes of this new development.

The first was the expanding international trade which, from about 2000 years ago, greatly increased the number of traders and adventurers voyaging from India to Southeast Asia, and vice versa. Navigational skills were, after all, one of the characteristics that the Austronesians had possessed since prehistoric times. The existence of a Western Malayo-Polynesian language in Madagascar, which shows Sanskrit borrowings via Malay, is clear evidence that Austronesians had sailed as far as the east coast of Africa shortly after the introduction of Sanskrit words into Southeast Asia (Adelaar, this volume). Later evidence from Chinese accounts shows that the western Austronesians continued to supply transport facilities for merchants and cargoes from many parts of maritime Asia.

The second factor was the transformation of Buddhism into a world religion and the revival of the Hindu cult, especially the emergence of the bhakti movement (devotion to a personal God), which gave the impetus for Buddhist monks and Hindu Brahmans to travel to foreign countries to disseminate their faiths. It is now generally agreed that, while it may not be possible to disregard completely the possibility that the princes and warriors (kṣatriya) and the traders (vaiśya) might have played a significant part in the process of the spread of the Indian influence, it was the brahmaṇa (that is, the Hindu and Buddhist learned men) who were the main disseminators of the Sanskrit civilization in the region.

By the third century AD, kingdoms organized according to the Indian conception of royalty had begun to appear in certain parts of Southeast Asia, first in the mainland and then slightly later in the Indonesian archipelago. The rulers of these kingdoms embraced the Indian religions, either Buddhism or Hinduism, and adopted Sanskrit as their official language, at least for ritual purposes. Sanskrit literature, especially the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa epics and the Pūraṇas, provided mythological resources.