The Transmission of Vaiṣṇavism Across the Bay of Bengal: Trade Networks and State Formation in Early Historic Southeast Asia
A large array of Viṣṇu images has been known for long in Southeast Asia, particularly in Southern Cambodia and Peninsular Thailand, but also, to a lesser extent, in Insular Southeast Asia. Biased approaches rejected this considerable corpus of Vaiṣṇava statues into late Indianization times and implicitly denied Hinduism a significant role in the early phase of this process. It took renewed approaches by art historians and the find of mitred statues of Viṣṇu in securely dated archaeological contexts to reverse this subjective chronology, the only remaining debate being that of their earliest appearance in Southeast Asia, the balance now shifting towards the fifth or early sixth centuries. Epigraphic records of the sixth and seventh centuries also help better document this spread of Vaiṣṇava cults to Southeast Asia and the circumstances of the adoption of Brahmanical cults across the Bay of Bengal. Commerce and the accumulation of wealth were intricately associated with Vaiṣṇavism in India: a favourable circumstance, considering the historical context of much of coastal Southeast Asia, where overseas trade is known to have been one essential ingredient of state formation. In the wake of the brilliant Gupta state, no doubt perceived as a source of modernity, sectarian, devotional forms of Vaishnavism that spread over the western part of Southeast Asia attracted newly urbanised citizens of developing states, giving such people a sense of belonging to a larger community of thought. Sectarian Vaiṣṇavism appears to have locally provided a powerful instrument for assimilating and adjusting Southeast Asian rulers and their people into the new Brahmanical social order.