Custom and Religion In Indonesia – An Eclectic Tradition


While all of Indonesia’s more tha 160 million people are officialy listed as adherents of one or another of four great ” World Religions”

Practised in the archipleago: Islam, Christianty, Hinduism and Budhism – with the vastmajority, about 140 million registered as Muslims (which, incidentally, makes Indonesia by far the world’s largest Muslim nation), Indonesians actually exhibit almost infinite variety in waht they do and believed in spiritual matters. The reason is that here, as elsewhere, religious beliefs and practicies are strongly tinged, if not entirely dominated, by local traditions – the corpus of private rites, public rituals, communal knowledge and customary laws that is passed from generation to generation and forms the distinctive fabric of each society – known throughout  Indonesia as the adat (custom) of an ethnic group or community.

So great is the identification of most Indonesians with their respective adat and religion, that these are commonly said to constitute ethnic identity. To a Malay, for example, conversion to Islam is regarded as masuk Melayu – becoming a Malay. Likewise, a Balinese who leaves off worshipping with his fellow villagers, and converts to Islam or Christianity, is said to be no longer Balinese. And among the Javanese, children not yet familiar with the social values and mystical sensibilities of their elders are concidered durung Jawa – not yet Javanese.

An Electtic Tradition: To the great consternation of religious purists (and much to the confusion of foreign observers). the adat  and religion of any given Indonesian group tend to be remarkably electic. The classic example citied is that of the average Javanese, a self – declared Muslim who yet firmly believes in the existence of Indian deities and indigenous folk heroes portrayed in the ever – popular wayang kulit shadows play, as well as in a host of goddesses, ghosts, spirits, demons and genies said to inhabit his worldly envirinment. Typically, in addition to fulfilling the requierenments of the Islamic faith, he will engage in a number of other activities: burn incense and ;eave small offerimngs to local spirits; hold frequent communal feasts (selamatan) to celebrate major holidays, births, marriages or business successes and to mitigate the disruptions of unsettling events, moves or changes; seek and heed the advice of a local dukun or mystic in times of distress; trust the magical potency of an inherited keris dagger and a variety of other talismans; and make occasional pilgrimages to a sacred spring, tomb or hilltop sactuary, there to accumulate the potent spiritual emanations (semangat) to the place, meditate or otherwise augment his own inner spiritual ” capital.”

A similiar situation obtains among Balinese self – declared Hindus (a term which is by no means well defined in its Indian context) whose temples are filled with a multitude of shrines dedicated not only to teh Hindu trinity (Siva, Brahma, Vishnu) and a host of their lesser manifestations and acolytes, but also to native Balinese mountain spirits, deified ancestors, rice – and water – goddesses, heavenly “spokesmen” and other supernatural beings. Few Balinese are familiar with the more exalted Hindu deities, much less knowledgable about their worship – this is left to the learned brahmanic specialist in such matter. For most, it is sufficient to participate in the busy calender of vilalage – and island – wide temple celebrations; to obey the ritual instructions and provide the sacrificial offerings prescribe by temple priests and village mediums; and to perform elaborate rites of passage marking birth, puberty, marriage and death, many of which are undoubtedly much older than the presence of Hinduism in the island.

Similiarly, among many Christian communities in Indonesia, one finds that shamans and mediums are still frequently consulted; that births, marriages, deaths and traditional fashion; and that Christian services and holy celebrations have more often than not incorporated many local elements, such as the famous Black Virgin who walks in the yearly Easter parade at Larantuka. (See “Nusa Tenggara.”)

Some scholars liken these syncretic adat and religious patterns to cultural layer cakes, and interpret the layers historically. In this view, the native animism is seen as predating and underlying later Indic, Islamic, Christian and other foreign accretions. Sociologists prefer to analyze these patterns structurally, categorizing various beliefs and practices according to the class of people who espouse them and to their apparent or supposed purpose.

A common conclusion is that aristocrats are rather mystically inclined and the majority of ritual peasants are supertitious, while the urban middle class is more inclined to Muslim or Christian orthodoxy.

–> Read Also : Custom and Religion In Indonesia – Feasts and Sacrifices

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