Buddhism in Palembang.
Shrivijaya-Palembang's importance has been established by Arab and Chinese historical
sources spanning a long period of time. Its own records, in the form of Old Malay
inscriptions, are limited almost entirely to the second half of the 7th century (682-686).
The inscriptions reveal that the ruler was served by a hierarchy of officials and that he
possessed wealth. The period when the inscriptions were written was an agitated one.
Battles are mentioned, and the ruler had to reckon with disaffection and intrigues at his
capital. Indeed, the main theme of the inscriptions is a curse on those who broke a
loyalty oath administered by drinking holy water. The penalty for disloyalty was death,
but those who obeyed the ruler were promised eternal bliss.
I-ching recommended Palembang, with more than a thousand monks, as an excellent centre
to begin studying Buddhist texts. The 7th-century inscriptions, however, are concerned
with less scholarly features of Buddhism. They deal with Tantric aids to magical power
(see below), in the form of yantra symbols, which were distributed by the ruler as favours
to faithful servants. Some of his adversaries disposed of them, too. Especially
interesting as evidence of the influence of Buddhism within the context of royal power is
the Talang Tuwo inscription of 684, which records the king's prayer that a park he has
endowed may give merit to all living beings. The language and style of this inscription,
incorporating Indian Tantric conceptions, make it clear that the ruler was presenting
himself as a bodhisattva--one who was to become a Buddha himself--teaching the several
stages toward supreme enlightenment. Here is the first instance in the archipelago's
history of a ruler's assumption of the role of religious leader.
The inscriptions show that the teachings of the Tantric school of Mahayana Buddhism,
with its magical procedures for achieving supernatural ends, had reached Palembang before
the end of the 7th century. Tantric Buddhism came into prominence in India only in the 7th
century, and the synchronism of its appearance in Palembang reflects not only the
regularity of shipping contacts between Sumatra and India but, more importantly, the
Malays' quick perception of the contribution of Tantric Buddhism as a source of personal
spiritual power. The word for "curse" in the inscriptions is Malay, and it is
reasonable to suppose that the Malays grafted Tantric techniques onto indigenous magical
procedures. The vitality of Malay religion is probably also reflected in the prestige of
the sacred Seguntang Hill near Palembang, which was visited by those in search of
spiritual power. Seguntang Hill would not suddenly have become such a centre as a result
of traffic in Tantric conceptions during the 7th century. In other words, the disturbances
reflected in the inscriptions are less likely to have been the growing pains of a rising
kingdom than the efforts of an already important kingdom to achieve, or perhaps recover,
hegemony in southern Sumatra.