The term Greater India has several related meanings:
- In medieval literature and geography: the term "Greater India" (P. Indyos mayores) was used at least from the mid 15th century. The term, which seems to have been used with variable precision, sometimes meant only the Indian subcontinent; however, at other times, in some accounts of European nautical voyages, "Greater India" (or "India Major") extended from the Malabar (present-day northern Kerala) to India extra Gangem (lit. "India, beyond the Ganges," but usually the East Indies, i.e. present-day Malay Archipelago) and "India Minor," from Malabar to Sind.
- In late 19th-century geography: The term "Greater India" included: "(a) Himalaya, (b) Punjab, (c) Hindustan, (d) Burma, (e) Indo-China, (f) Sunda Islands, (g) Borneo, (h) Celebes, and (i) Philippines." (Similarly "Greater Australia" included "(a) West Australla, (b) East Australia, (c) New Zealand, (d) Melanesia, (e) Micronesia, (f) Polynesia.")
- In 20th-century history, art history, linguistics, and allied fields: The term "Greater India," now largely out of favor, consists of "all the Asian lands including Burma, Java, Cambodia, Bali, and the former Champa and Funan polities of present-day Vietnam," in which pre-Islamic Indian culture left an "imprint in the form of monuments, inscriptions and other traces of the historic ‘Indianising’ process." In some accounts, many Pacific societies and "most of the Buddhist world including Ceylon, Tibet, central Asia, and even Japan were held to fall within this web of Indianising ‘culture colonies’" This particular usage—implying cultural "sphere of influence" of India—was spurred by the formation of The Greater India Society by a group of Bengali men of letters and does not go back to before the 1920s (lasting well into the 1970s in history and later in other fields).
- In late 20th- and 21st-century geology: The term "Greater India," still current, is used to mean "the Indian sub-continent plus a postulated northern extension, in plate tectonic models of the India–Asia collison. Although its usage in geology pre-dates plate tectonic theory, the term has seen increased usage since the 1970s.
Indian cultural sphere
The meaning of "Greater India" as Indian cultural sphere
was popularized by a network of Bengali scholars in the 1920s who were all members of the Calcutta-based Greater India Society
. The movement's early leaders included the historian R. C. Majumdar
(1888–1980); the philologists Suniti Kumar Chatterji
(1890–1977) and P.C. Bagchi (1898–1956), the historians Phanindranath Bose and Kalidas Nag (1891–1966). Some of their formulations were inspired by the then ongoing excavations in Angkor
by French archaeologists and by the writings of French Indologist Sylvain Lévi
. The Greater India Society
scholars postulated a benevolent ancient Indian cultural colonization of South-east Asia, in stark contrast—in their view—to the colonialism of the early 20th century.
"The ancient Hindus of yore were not simply a spiritual people, always busy with mystical problems and never troubling themselves with the questions of ‘this world’ . . . India also has its Napoleons and Charlemagnes, its Bismarcks and Machiavellis. But the real charm of Indian history does not consist in these aspirants after universal power, but in its peaceful and benevolent Imperialism—a unique thing in the history of mankind. The colonisers of India did not go with sword and fire in their hands; they used . . . the weapons of their superior culture and religion [to bring] the world under their sway. Wherever they went, they conquered the world through their culture . . . . This fascinating and forgotten chapter of Indian history is being gradually reconstructed by the constant efforts of Indologists . . . .The Buddhist age has attracted special attention, and the French savants have taken much pains [sic] to investigate the splendid monuments of the Indian cultural empire in the Far East.
The term was used in historical writing in India well into the 1970s. For example, the fifteenth chapter of the popular text-book, An Advanced History of India. titled, "Colonial and Cultural Expansion (of Ancient India)", and written by R. C. Majumdar, concluded with:
We may conclude with a broad survey of the Indian colonies in the Far East. For nearly fifteen hundred years, and down to a period when the Hindus had lost their independence in their own home, Hindu kings were ruling over Indo-China and the numerous islands of the Indian Archipelago, from Sumatra to New Guinea. Indian religion, Indian culture, Indian laws and Indian government moulded the lives of the primitive races all over this wide region, and they imbibed a more elevated moral spirit and a higher intellectual taste through the religion, art, and literature of India. In short, the people were lifted to a higher plane of civilization. A greater India was established by a gentle fusion of races, which richly endowed the original inhabitants with the spiritual heritage of India.... The colonial and cultural expansion of India is one of the most brilliant, but forgotten, episodes of Indian history, of which any Indian may justly feel proud."
The term "Greater India" as well as the notion of an explicit Hindu colonization of ancient Southeast Asia have been linked to both Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism, however, many Indian nationalists, like Nehru and Tagore, although receptive to "an idealisation of India as a benign and uncoercive world civiliser and font of global enlightenment,stayed away from explicit "Greater India" formulations. In addition, some scholars have seen the Hindu/Buddhist acculturation in ancient Southeast Asia as "a single cultural process in which Southeast Asia was the matrix and South Asia the mediatrix.
In the field of Art History, especially in American writings on the Indian Art History, the term survived longer due to the influence of art theorist Ananda Coomaraswamy. Coomaraswamy's view of pan-Indian art history was influenced by the "Calcutta cultural nationalists.
A defining characteristic of the cultural link between South East Asia and Indian subcontinent is the spread of ancient Indian Vedic
culture and philosophy into Myanmar
. Indian scripts are also found in South East Asian islands ranging from Sumatra
, south Sulawesi
and most of the the Philippines
. The impact of Indian culture is visible in the following notable examples:
- Language variation: Papers on variation and change in the Sinosphere and in the Indosphere in honor of James A. Matisoff, David Bradley, Randy J. LaPolla and Boyd Michailovsky eds., pp. 113–144. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
- Ankerl, Guy Global communication without universal civilization. Geneva: INU Press.