The Influence of India on Malay Cultures

HINDU influence in the Malay Peninsula was initially limited more or less rigidly to the upper class of old Malay society - the ROYALTY. Malay royalty was essentially Hindu royalty descended, accoding to the Malay Annals, "SEJARAH MELAYU", from a legendary half-Indian and half-Greek monarch, Raja Suran (decendents of Alexander the Great), whose sons all bearing Indian proper names, Sang Nila Utama, Krishna Pendita, Nila Pahlawan, then descended on Bukit Siguntang Mahameru in Sumatera from whence Malay royalty spread.

Early Malay literature is almost completely derived from Hindu epics, from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Even today, a major portion of Malay vocabulary is made up of Sanskrit words. Today, when a Malay speaks a sentence of ten words, probably five of them will be Sanskrit words, there Arabic and the remaining either of English, Chinese, Persian, Portuguese or some other origin. One expert even made the sweeping claim that there are only four words in the Malay vocabulary which are genuinely Malay i.e. :-

"Api" (fire), "besi" (iron), "padi" (rice), and "nasi" (cooked rice).

Words such as :-

"putera" (son), "puteri" (daughter), "asmara" (love), "samudra" (ocean),
"belantara" (jungle), "kenchana" (gold), "sukma" (soul),

and literally thousands of other words are all Sanskrit words, either in original or in modified form.

What of the influence of India on the religious developments of the Malaysian peoples ?

Malay folk-lore and Malay literature show that during the period before the coming of ISLAM, about 1400 A.D., the greater Gods of the Malay pantheon were really borrowed Hindu divinities. They were, in some respect, modified by Malay ideas, but only the lesser Gods and Spirits were actually native to the Malay religious system. It is true that these native Gods and Spirits can be identified with the great powers of nature, such as the Mambang Angin (Spirit of the Wind), the Mambang Air (Spirit of the Water) and the Mambang Kuning (Spirit of the Sun). But none of them appears to have the status of the chief Gods of the Hindu system. Both the land and water, Shiva and Betara Guru or Kala, are supreme.

In Malay folk-lore we find Vishnu, the preserver, Brahma the creator, Betara Guru (Kala) and S'ri all invoked in Malays, especially by Malay mystics (Pawang and Bomoh). Of all the greater deities of the Hindu system, Betara Guru is unquestionably the greatest. In Hikayat Sang Sembah, the tales of Sang Sembah, Betara Guru appears as a supreme God with Brahma and Vishnu and some subordinate deities. It is Betara Guru who alone has the "water of life", the elixir of life, which can restore life to dead humans and animals. To the Malay of old, then, and to the Malay bomohs even of the present day in whom are preserved these notions, "Tok Betara Guru" or any one of the corruptions which his name now bears, was all-powerful God who held the place of Allah before the advent of Islam, and was a Spirit so powerful that he could restore the dead to life. All prayers were addressed to him.

Of the lesser deities of Hinduism, the most notable who have remained in Malay superstition and folk-lore are the "gergasi", half-human forest spirits of Hindu epic represented in Malay folk-lore as tusked orgres that feed on human flesh. Then there is "Raksaksa", a race of cannibal giants ruled, according to the Hindu Puranas, by Ravana. A tribe of raksaksa is mentioned in the Kedah annals, Hikayat Merung Mahawangsa, which tells of a giant king, Merung Mahawangsa, who led a tribe of giants and founded the present state of Kedah which they called Langkasuka. All in all, that a form of Hinduism was the accepted religion of the Malays prior to the advent of Islam is certain, and it is a fact amply proved by Malay folk-lore and superstition, Malay literature, Malay customs and various archaeological inscriptions.

Muslim religious teachers in Malaysia today still preach the Islamic concept of heaven in a terminology which is neither Malay nor Arabic, but Hindu. The Sanskrit word "Syurga" is always used in connection with the Islamic concept of paradise. The proper Arabic word for this is actually "Al-Jannah". In the same way, the Hindu religious term "neraka" or hell is used by Muslim Malays to explain the Islamic concept of hell. The Arabic word for hell is "Al-Nar" or the place of fire. Then the Muslim fast, the annual religious abstention from food and drink, is known by the Sanskrit term "puasa". A Muslim religious teacher is often called "guru", another Hindu religious term, in fact the name of a Hindu deity, Betara Guru. The Muslim prayer is among the Malays, called "sembahyang". "Sembah" in Sanskrit means to pray, and "yang" is a Sanskrit term meaning divinity or conjuring respect, as in "Sang Yang Tunggal", the most divine one, and "Yang Dipertuan".

There are many other Hindu religious terms that have lost their original meaning and are being freely and unconsciously used by Muslim Malays in connection with the religion of Islam. This shows that Hinduism exerted a profound influence on Malay culture before the coming of Islam to Malay peninsula. And this influence has survived, despite the strict monotheistic restrictions of the Islamic faith, to the present day. So, in religion as well as in other aspects of Malaysian culture, we cannot treat the influences of India as something belonging to the past. The political influence of old India which was climaxed by the great Empires of Sri Vijaya and Majapahit is today at an end, but the cultural influence of India which began at the beginning of the Christian era is still very much alive, and it will be alive for many, many centuries to come because it has become part of life of the Malaysian peoples.

Source: SUVARNABHUMI -- The Influence of India on Malay Cultures

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