How were the Javanese and Khmer able to create their magnificent religious monuments, such as Borobudur, the Prambanan temple complex and Angkor Wat? Did slave labor employed to lift and transport the stone blocks? Was there an artistic community that carved the friezes? If not, where did the manpower come from?
What we know about the early history of Java comes mainly from inscriptions. These indicate a distinct hierarchy between the king, the officials and the agricultural peasantry. However, there was no feudalism in the sense of providing soldiers or military service.
Instead the king gave land grants to officials and family to promote religious institutions. He also gave tax benefits to promote crafts and trade. The grantee could levy taxes and commandeer labor to build and maintain the temple/shrine. The rights and duties of those given the land grants were straightforward: look after the religious institution.
By providing the land for religious purposes, the king gains merit and loses responsibility. By taking on the responsibility of maintaining the shrines, the officials also gain merit. By working on shrines, the peasantry also gains merit. Gaining merit furthers the path of transmigration to eventual Bodhisattvahood. In this way, temple building and maintenance was a win-win situation for all involved.
The king’s power was restricted by dharma, as interpreted by Hindu priests and Buddhist monks. Dharma determined the responsibility of subjects and king – everyone’s mutual rights and duties. The king was expected to provide peace and protection from natural calamities, including volcanic eruptions. In turn, it was the duty of the male population to work for the state in the off-season.
While the men did the heavy work during harvest time, the women did most of the tedious year-long work in rice fields, for instance tying the rice bundles together. After providing the necessary muscle-power in the fields, the men worked for the king or official. This meant that wherever rice was grown, for instance mainland Southeast Asia and Java, there was an enormous labor pool of men to work on temples in the off-season.
This ‘reserve of manpower’ presumably provided both the muscle-power to move the stone blocks and the artistic talent to carve the friezes. There were simply too many panels for an artistic class to have sculpted all the friezes. Some have calculated that it took far more manpower to create the bas-reliefs at Borobudur than it did to build the temple.
This relationship between king and subjects seems to have been voluntary, as there is no evidence of slavery. Although there were bondsmen, peasants could easily move elsewhere due to the abundance of fertile land. If conditions were unbearable in one kingdom, they could simply move to a neighboring kingdom. When the king had a reliable administration, the labor force would be reluctant to resist the king’s demands because they obtained merit.
As further evidence, the same artistic relationships between villagers and state persist into the 21st century. In both Bali and mainland Southeast Asia, villages are organized into larger communities. These larger communities tend to have some kind of artistic specialty, whether wood sculpture, fabric, dance or music that they provide to the larger community and/or tourists. Simultaneously, these peasant artists tend their rice fields.
The evidence past and present seems to indicate that a harmonious relationship between the king and subjects led to the creation of the magnificent temple complexes. Further the enormous reserve of manpower required for construction and sculpture was due to the unique circumstances surrounding rice-growing.
Besides providing an opportunity to obtain merit, temple building served to legitimize leadership. Prior to the advent of India’s maharajah system, the Southeast Asia’s islanders had organized themselves in smaller egalitarian tribes. The hierarchical organization of Hinduism and China, with the potential for nation and empire building, was foreign to the islanders. To establish legitimacy for his rule, the devaraja engaged a large percentage of the population in these public works projects. This not only bound the populace to the new aristocracy for employment, but also was a cultural bonding experience.
Previously the individual might have considered himself a part of his tribe with no need for a centralized government. Once the citizen was involved in one of these national projects, it would increase his tendency to identify with the larger group. Hence the national temple building projects served a dual function. They both legitimized the power of the king and also served the purpose of building national pride. Participation in this community activity led to a shift from tribal to national identification.
In many ways, these massive community endeavors created the nation, rather than being a manifestation of national or religious pride. This may have been why each successive king continued building temples. It legitimized their rule and created the idea of nation as opposed to tribe. Further the emphasis upon Buddhist and Hindu mythology minimized the importance of spirit and ancestor worship, which was so prevalent.
This is a universal phenomenon - the replacement of pride in family heritage with national identification and patriotism. This is quite apparent in modern American society. Many people have little knowledge or concern for their personal ancestry. Instead, the cultural propaganda from our education system and media encourages civic or national pride.
The theory that temple building created the state is supported by the rapid demise of these Javanese kingships once the temple building ceased. The Khmer civilization of Cambodia experienced a similar phenomenon.
While the art and temples of the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms were quite different, the practical role of these rulers of Java was nearly identical. The Hindu king was considered a devaraja - a god-king, and the Buddhist king was considered a Bodhisattva, Buddha’s helper. However they both tended to the spiritual well being of their people. Both types of kings inspired their subjects to create religious monuments. And in both cases the religious monuments were meant to incorporate religious philosophy. Because the practical manifestations of the two types of kings is so similar, we use the terms interchangeably.
Buddhists might object to this merger of the notions of kingship. However in actual practice, the Hindu god-king and the Buddhist Bodhisattva king served a nearly identical function. Both were meant to assist the spiritual growth of their subjects by ruling wisely. The words of the two religious philosophies contain significant differences and emphases, but the end result was the same for Southeast Asian culture.
One reason that Buddhism faded out in India was that many of their teachings were already incorporated in Hinduism. Buddhism divided humanity into two categories, those on the serious quest for enlightenment (the Buddhist monks), and householders (the rest of humanity). In contrast, Hinduism dealt more effectively with the social obligations of each class. Although Hinduism could be criticized for being too obsessive in its class distinctions, Buddhism could be criticized for its simplistic view of humanity.
In practice, the two religions easily accomodated each other. Mahayana Buddhists allow for the persistence of local traditions. Alternately, Hinduism easily accommodates Buddhism as one of their myriad cults. This accomodation and toleration of each others belief systems is why the two religions coexisted and cooperated to create a political system that existed for the good of the entire nation.
Tantra further blurs the distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism. Tantra was mentioned in association with the Mahayana Buddhism of Borobudur. However both Buddhist and Hindu statuary and relics indicate a common involvement with tantric magic. Tantra is associated with both Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. Tantra also achieved prominence in India at same time, i.e. the 2nd half of the 1st millennium. This indicates regular cross-cultural mixing, rather than some mystical synchronism.
Tantra is associated with process rather than ideas. Some even say that tantrics employ magical procedures for achieving supernatural ends. Saivism, the worship of Shiva, features the path of asceticism. Under Tantra’s influence, Saivism developed special rites to awaken the divine energy through sex with a consort.
Tantra is also inextricably linked with temple building. At the core of Buddhism and Hinduism, there is a rejection of the external world as transitory in that it is based in materialism, which always crumbles. On the other hand Tantra, like Saivism, with which it is associated, reject the dualism of ideology. Tantra is based in the almost instinctive quest for spiritual vitality. The method of active application is stressed rather than the manifestation of ideas – action, rather than words. With freedom from conceptualization, the artistic urge is encouraged to flourish. This creative urge is at the foundation of personal vitality. In this manner, Tantra freed the Javanese to be themselves and create these religious masterpieces that transcend thought.
The Austronesian speakers of Southeast Asia’s islands quickly perceived Tantra’s contribution to the development of personal spiritual vitality. They overlaid these principles on local practices, which included and still include visiting sacred mountains for power. This merger of religious practices shows the vitality of the indigenous religious practices. Again this illustrates that Southeast Asia’s islanders were not subservient to India and China, but instead created their own great Austronesian civilization.
One reason that Southeast Asian culture is unique rather than derivative is that their religion is a multi-cultural synthesis. Political, economic and religious traditions emanated from both China and India. Southeast Asians blended these foreign imports with their indigenous traditions. These traditions included animism and the worship of ancestors and sacred places, including mountains and the ocean. The synthesis of three unique cultural became an emergent set of religious beliefs. Neither one, nor the other, but all.
This might seem odd to those of us from the Biblical West, where our societies used to, and sometimes still do, regularly persecute and exterminate those who do not have the same beliefs. Based in trade amongst myriad cultures, Southeast Asians were more interested in cooperation than domination. They treated the traders from India and China as spiritual brothers and sisters on the same path. They chose to share information, rather than compete against each other for dominance. Rather than a military culture based in domination, Southeast Asians participated in a religiously tolerant culture founded in trade and crafts,
These sophisticated self-selected representatives of different cultures met and mixed due to the alternation of monsoons in the trading islands of the East Indies. Subsequently a unique syncretic religion emerged. Like companions on the path, Southeast Asians adopted and assimilated ideas that resonated with and extended their own religious conceptions. Many stories and ideas from China and India found widespread acceptance - including the story of Ramayana, mentioned earlier.
Gratefully, Southeast Asians rejected those features that contradicted their indigenous beliefs, such as the subjugation of women. They also mitigated the extreme caste and class system of their influential neighbors. In brief, they took the good ideas of Buddhism/Hinduism, but rejected its sexism and elitism.
The island cultures blended the tenets and gods of this diverse cultural mix. For instance, the Buddhist Sailendra kings were also Shaivites, worshippers of Shiva, a Hindu god. Although unusual from the either/or perspective that is prevalent in the West, this blending was quite natural for the both-and mentality of the Southeast Asians.
For instance, the Islanders combined Hindu gods with Buddhism. As an example, on the central plateau of Java, there is both Borobudur, which is distinctly Buddhist, and also the impressive Lara Janggrang, the exquisite Hindu temple devoted to Shiva. In fact, the same Hindu ruler who created Lara Janggrang completed the Buddhist temple of Borobudur. The Khmer of Cambodia were no different. Like the Islanders, the Khmer combined Hindu gods with Buddhism. Even unto modern times, Buddhist Thailand has many Hindu and Shaivite elements, including a reverence for the Ramayana.
Again let us stress the difference between East and West. In the Biblical West there is an unbridgeable gulf between God and humans. In the Hindu East, there is a continuum between the gods and humans. Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the highly influential Hindu classics, are based upon gods incarnating as humans on a regular level to intervene in earthly events. However, the human incarnation does not remember his divine origin. In other words, anyone might be a divine incarnation.
As potential divine incarnations, each of us has a divine and human component. We must purify ourselves of our human tendencies, for instance greed and pride, to realize our god-essence. Buddhism interprets this entire process from a human perspective. Self purification leads to the realization of our Buddha nature. In this sense, the intent of Hinduism and Buddhism is identical, the realization of our higher self through refinement.
Presumably, the Sailendra kings who produced Borobudur had realized their god or Buddha nature through purification practices. The Sailendra kings also worshipped Shiva as another manifestation of Buddha. Shiva was considered the god of the religious ascetic, the yogi. The yogi/king realized his divine nature through a rigorous program of meditation and practicing austerities. Restraint is associated with the traditional meaning of yoga. Through the practice of yoga, the king realized his Buddha nature. In the realization of his Buddha nature, he naturally manifested as a Bodhisattva in this world. The devaraja could be called a purified human or a divine incarnation. It pretty much amounts to the same thing.
To reiterate, the Javanese king practiced yogic asceticism in order to cleanse his inner self of all the social accretions so that he could lead his population to enlightenment. One way that the Javanese devaraja achieved this goal was by focusing the attentions of his entire population on creating a spiritual masterpiece, such as Borobudur. In this fashion, the Javanese culture became a Bodhisattva, in the sense that they were assisting others on the path to enlightenment.
Where did the notion of devaraja come from?
It could have easily been derived from or inspired by the Ramayana and Mahabharata. As mentioned, the influence of these Hindu novels on Southeast Asian culture can hardly be overestimated. In both stories, a semi-divine human being becomes a righteous god-king.
Yudhishthira, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, and Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, could have provided primary role models for the god-king. The Ramayana remains one of the most widely disseminated stories in Southeast Asia. In the tale Vishnu, one of the supreme gods of Hinduism, incarnates as the human prince, Rama, to save the human world as well as the realm of the gods. Rama epitomizes the ideal warrior-king. Besides risking his life to fight injustice, he is also wise and compassionate. As further evidence, Yudhishthira, the son of Dharma and also a benevolent king, has his own shrine on the Dieng Plateau.
Told over and over through dramatization, sculpture and painting, these influential stories inculcated the consciousness of the entire Southeast Asian culture with the notion of a devaraja. Inspired by this powerful literature, the King might consider himself to be a divine incarnation of Vishnu or an instrument of Dharma and the populace would believe it to be true.
Let's briefly summarize our findings. Due to the geographical location of Cambodia with its proximity to the Gulf of Thailand, the city of Vyadhapura became the first important Southeast Asian entrepôt. Because of the influx of foreign traders and the resulting wealth, the native tribal culture blended with Hindu culture to create the kingdom of Funan. This was symbolized by the marriage of the Naga Princess with a Hindu prince, whose child was the Khmer.
Chinese civil wars impoverished Funan’s best client. Disastrous floods destroyed their port city of Vyadhapura. Accordingly, the Funan kingdom declined in economic and cultural importance. The Chenla kingdom replaced Funan as the dominant kingdom of mainland Southeast Asia. However, the cultural and political energy of Funan actually shifted to the island-based Srivijaya Empire of Sumatra and Java. This empire captured the China trade by controlling trade routes and funneling the profits through Palembang in Sumatra. This new entrepôt, which supplanted the Funanese entrepôt, generated the wealth that funded the Srivijaya mandala empire. The multi-cultural exchange created a vibrant mixing pot of international ideas.
A Khmer prince was then educated in Java under one of the most artistic dynasties of the Srivijaya Empire, the Sailendra. He returned to Cambodia with great plans, which re--energized the Southeast Asian mainland. The prince assumed the role of devaraja or god king. The prince, now Jayavarman II, laid the foundation for the Khmer Empire at Angkor. Extending irrigation techniques that were already in place, he was able to feed a larger population due to multiple annual growing seasons. Further he inspired the local population to create great works of art, which bound them together as a community.
It is easy to idealize the devarajas/god-kings of the Khmer Empire at Angkor and ancient Java. We would love to believe that these rulers were totally devoted to the well being of their subjects. Yet, these devarajas were in fact human. While perhaps not quite as preoccupied with the accumulation of personal wealth and power as the rulers in much of the rest of the world, it is hard to imagine that this basic human urge didn’t play a part in decision making from time to time. However, it is apparent that many of the rulers of the Southeast Asian kingdom/empires seemed to be obsessed with creating public religious art that would inspire the populace. This intent manifested in their many temples.
Let’s take a glimpse at how this devaraja notion extends into the future. After quite a few centuries, the Khmer temple building sputtered out - probably due to ecological, as well as cultural devolution. At this point, the Thai people, forced out of Southern China by Genghis Khan and the Mongols, moved onto the mainland of Southeast Asia. They conquered the Khmer, but they also assumed their spiritual, cultural and political mantle. The Thai continued the tradition of the devaraja, which they maintain to this day - particularly in Bangkok. The Thai King, named after Rama of the Ramayana, looks after the spiritual health of the country by encouraging local culture and funding the creation and renovation of temples. These projects employ the artistic community as well as providing for the edification of the greater community, including the rest of the world.
As seen the devaraja concept connects the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia into a tight little bundle that goes back thousands of years. Now we can move into the next millennium. Although the 2nd half wasn't as kind to the people of Southeast Asia, the forthcoming period was a continuation of the prosperous trade and the amicable cultural exchange of the first millennium.