Indonesian Religions

Indonesia is one of the most ancient homes of man. In 1891 a fossil skull of Homo erectus was found in Central Java that is half a million years old, and later an even more primitive type was unearthed. In 1931 the more advanced Solo Man was discovered in the same area.

But these prehistoric people were obliterated by incoming migrants. 30,000 years ago came Negrito pygmies from an unknown region. Most peoples today in Indonesia speak Austronesian languages and linguistic evidence suggests that these languages originated on Taiwan and the nearby coast of China. By 2,500 BCE these Austronesians had reached Borneo and were infiltrating eastern and western Indonesia. This common source of peoples is reflected in the traditional religions, which share important features.

The subsequent history of Indonesia is a succession of invading cultures - Indian, Chinese, Cambodian, Melanesian/Polynesian, Portuguese, Arabian, English, Dutch - that has resulted in a rich and complex civilisation in which the main religions of the world - Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity - have been grafted on to the traditional religions of Indonesia. In this interweaving of religions there have been fascinating local variations and this is a dynamic process that is continuing today.

The first Hindu inscriptions date from the fourth century CE, though Indian traders had arrived in Sumatra, Java, and Sulawesi two centuries earlier. By the fifth century Hinduism was established on Java with Brahmanist cults worshipping Siva. By the sixth century Buddhism was important in Sumatra and Java, with the port of Srivijaya in southern Sumatra becoming a centre of learning in the seventh century. Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world, was built in the ninth century, and depicts the Buddhist cosmos. In contrast to India, Hinduism and Buddhism in Indonesia lived in harmony and by the ninth century syncretism was appearing. In the tenth century students travelled to Nalanda, the great Buddhist monastic university in India, and even to Tibet. During the twelth and thirteenth centuries Srivijaya exerted an influence over all South-East Asia. The peak of Hindu-Javanese civilisation was the Majapahit Empire in the fourteenth century, described as the golden age of Indonesian history.

The Indonesian population is today classified as 89 per cent Muslim. Arab trade with Indonesia started about the fourth century CE, though Islam did not become established until the fourteenth century, coming from Gujarat in India. The early Islamic centres were in north and west Sumatra, spreading then to west and north-central Java. Twenty Islamic kingdoms were prospering by the end of the fifteenth century. The Bugis officially became Muslims between 1605 and 1610. Batak contact with Islam came in the 1820's. There was an Islamic reform movement in the early twentieth century with the establishment of Muhammadiyah in 1912 and Nahdatul Ulama in 1926 (see entries on these).

Though the statistics make Indonesia a predominantly Islamic country, the most populous in the Islamic world, Bali is an important traditional Hindu-Buddhist island and there have been recent Hindu conversions in south Java. Besides the growth of Neo-Hinduism there has been a Neo-Buddhist expansion. This is rooted in the Tengger, the only extant folk-Buddhist population, living near the volcano of Mount Bromo on Java. Since 1965 the Indonesian Buddhist Association says it has built ninety monasteries and has won fifteen million followers. These Hindu-Buddhist revivals incorporate indigenous Balinese and Javanese traditions and huge festivals are held at Borobudur and other ancient sites. There are traces of Hindu-Buddhist religion throughout Indonesian culture. The symbol of Indonesia is the mythical Garuda bird, the mount of Vishnu.

On Java only about ten per cent of the people follow the pure santri form of Islam, some thirty per cent follow a syncretic Javanese form of Islam - a blend of Sufism, Hinduism, and traditional religion, while the remainder adhere to traditional Javanese beliefs, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The religious complexity of Java is reflected in the hundreds of sects on the island.

Christians account for seven per cent of the population and are found in centres all over Indonesia. Catholicism arrived with the Portuguese about 1512, who stayed for 150 years. The Dutch reached Indonesia in 1596 and brought Protestantism. In the early seventeenth century the English were rivals to the Dutch. There was Batak contact with Christianity in the 1850's and 1860's. It was also in the nineteenth century that Christianity spread from the coastal ports of Borneo and missionaries arrived among the Torajans on Sulawesi. Indonesia became free of the Dutch with independence on 27 December, 1949.

Chinese Indonesians are usually classified as Buddhist but can be Taoist, Confucianist, or Christian. There was a Chinese invasion of Java in 1293.

In 1965 after the killing of half a million so-called Communists, the Indonesian government required all people to profess a recognised religion. Traditional religions were not recognised and some peoples have been classified under recognised religions. For example, tribal religions from various islands have beeen included under Bali-Hindu, which is an official religion.

There are important areas of traditional religion surviving in Indonesia. Sometimes these are blended with a major religion, as with the Aceh and Islam, and the Batak and Christianity. Traditional religious groups are considered as separate entries: see Acehnese Religion, Balinese Religion, Batak Religion, Bornean Religions, Bugis Religion, Javanese Religion, Toraja Religion. In addition, there are survivals of isolated peoples who follow a hunter-gatherer way of life with a little cultivation. Examples of these are the Sakkudei who live on the island of Siberut off western Sumatra, the Kubu in the forests of Sumatra, the Punan in Borneo (Kalimantan), and the Da'a of Sulawesi. Sumba is the only island in Indonesia where a majority of the population adhere to their traditional religion.

There are several basic concepts and practices found in the traditional religions of Indonesia, which are common to the Austronesian religious conceptual framework

First, there is a prevalence of complementary duality. The Toraja believe that the universe originates from the marriage of heaven and earth. The chief deity of the Sumbanese is a paired being, Amawolo/Amarawi. Sacred space is divided into an upper world and an underworld, inside and outside, upstream and downstream, and in terms of classes of people. This parallelism and dualism is enacted in ritual celebration and even pervades Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, as for example in the wayang, shadow theatre.

Second, there is belief in the immanence of life. It is too simplistic to refer to this as 'animism.' There is typically a multitude of life forms. Many traditional religions do not have a single origin of mankind. The origin of some types of humans is not explained. In some religions, all spirits are evil, while other religions recognise benevolent spirits who are called on to intervene against the malevolent spirits. The aim of all the traditional religions is a ritual balance in which each life form has its due place. The human body, a village, a house, or a ship can be the symbolic representation of the cosmos. Characteristically, life depends on death and the dead play an important role in religious life, as with the slametan ritual of Java. Sacrificial animals can be identified with the dead, such as the water buffalo of the Toraja.

Third, there are rituals of life and death. These are part of a cycle to enhance life and commonly have an agricultural theme with planting, growing, and ripening into old age. Death rituals are highly important and these can have stages continuing for years to assist the dead in the journey through the afterworld. Headhunting was formerly an integral part of these death rituals.

Lastly, there is the celebration of spiritual differentiation with an openness to life and acceptance of its manifold manifestations. Such manifestations - sun, moon, stars, thunder, lightning, strong winds, mountains, volcanic craters, caves, old trees, ancient sites, royal regalia, and amulets - tend to be personalised. These life forms are venerated for their potency. All traditional societies have social hierarchies. These may be based on different spiritual origins. Heroic journeys of folk heroes are echoed in the importance given to journeys in life to gain knowledge, experience, and wealth. Rituals involve journeys, such as a ship of the dead. Through mortuary ritual, the dead can give benefits to the living.

Traditional religion in Indonesia is today under threat, especially from Islam and Christianity. These religions teach transcendence rather than the immanence of life and spiritual equality over spiritual differentiation. Examples of important 20th century Islamic movements are Muhammadiyah and Nahdatual Ulama. However, the rise of the kebatinan movements show that traditional religion is still of vibrant importance in Indonesia. Kebatinan is from the Javanese word batin, of Arabic origin, meaning "inner." There are a thousand kebatinan sects flourishing, mainly on Java, and most were founded this century. The beliefs and practices of the kebatinan sects go back to the eighth century CE and the start of Javanese Hindu-Buddhist civilisation (See Subud.). It seems likely that the twenty-first century will see religious movements in Indonesia playing thieir earlier reformative role independent of central government.


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