Historians have formulated several theories regarding the transmission of Indian culture to Southeast Asia: (1) the ‘Kshatriya’ theory; (2) the ‘Vaishya’ theory; (3) the ‘Brahmin’ theory. The Kshatriya theory states that Indian warriors colonised Southeast Asia; this proposition has now been rejected by most scholars although it was very prominent some time ago. The Vaishya theory attributes the spread of Indian culture to traders; it is certainly much more plausible than the Kshatriya theory, but does not seem to explain the large number of Sanskrit loan words in Southeast Asian languages. The Brahmin hypothesis credits Brahmins with the transmission of Indian culture; this would account for the prevalence of these loan words, but may have to be amplified by some reference to the Buddhists as well as to the traders. We shall return to these theories, but first we shall try to understand the rise and fall of the Kshatriya theory. It owed its origin to the Indian freedom movement. Indian historians, smarting under the stigma of their own colonial subjection, tried to compensate for this by showing that at least in ancient times Indians had been strong enough to establish colonies of their own. In 1926 the Greater India Society was established in Calcutta and in subsequent years the renowned Indian historian R.C.Majumdar published his series of studiesAncient Indian Colonies in the Far East. This school held that Indian kings and warriors had established such colonies and the Sanskrit names of Southeast Asian rulers seemed to provide ample supporting evidence. At least this hypothesis stimulated further research, though it also alienated those intellectuals of Southeast Asia who rejected the idea of having once been ‘colonised’ by India. As research progressed, it was found that there was very little proof of any direct Indian political influence in those states of Southeast Asia. Furthermore, it was demonstrated that Southeast Asian rulers had adopted Sanskrit names themselves—thus such names could not be adduced as evidence for the presence of Indian kings.
The Vaishya theory, in contrast, emphasised a much more important element of the Indian connection with Southeast Asia. Trade had indeed been the driving force behind all these early contacts. Inscriptions also showed that guilds of Indian merchants had established outposts in many parts of Southeast Asia. Some of their inscriptions were written in languages such as Tamil. However, if such merchants had been the chief agents of the transmission of Indian culture, then their languages should have made an impact on those of Southeast Asia. But this was not so: Sanskrit and, to some extent, Pali words predominated as loan words in Southeast Asian languages. The traders certainly provided an important transmission belt for all kinds of cultural influences. Nevertheless, they did not play the crucial role which some scholars have attributed to them. One of the most important arguments against the Vaishya theory is that some of the earliest traces of Indianised states in Southeast Asia are not found in the coastal areas usually frequented by the traders, but in mountainous, interior areas.
The Brahmin theory is in keeping with what we have shown with regard to the almost contemporary spread of Hindu culture in southern and central India. There Brahmins and Buddhist and Jain monks played the major role in transmitting cultural values and symbols, and in disseminating the style of Hindu kingship. In addition to being religious specialists, the Brahmins also knew the Sanskrit codes regarding law (dharmashastra), the art of government (arthashastra), and art and architecture (shilpashastra). They could thus serve as ‘development planners’ in many different fields and were accordingly welcome to Southeast Asian rulers who may have just emerged from what we earlier described as first- and second-phase state formation.