Religion in Indonesia

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The following essay is an excerpt from the Country Studies issued by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1992. The text is in the public domain.

Religion in Indonesia was a complex and volatile issue in the early 1990s, one not easily analyzed in terms of social class, region, or ethnic group. Although Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions influenced many aspects of life, the government generally discouraged religious groups from playing a political role. The state guaranteed tolerance for certain religions (agama) regarded as monotheistic by the government, including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but only as long as these creeds remained outside of politics.

Islam in Indonesia

Islam was the dominant religion by far in Indonesia, with the greatest number of religious adherents: around 143 million people or 86.9 percent of the population in 1985, which when adjusted for 1992 estimates represents between 160 million and 170 million adherents. This high percentage of Muslims made Indonesia the largest Islamic country in the world in the early 1990s. Within the nation, most provinces and islands had majority populations of Islamic adherents (ranging from just above 50 percent in Kalimantan Barat and Maluku provinces to as much as 97.8 percent in the Special Region of Aceh).

According to orthodox practice, Islam is a strictly monotheistic religion in which God (Allah or Tuhan) is a pervasive, if somewhat distant, figure. The Prophet Muhammad is not deified, but is regarded as a human who was selected by God to spread the word to others through the Quran, Islam's holiest book, the revealed word of God. Islam is a religion based on high moral principles, and an important part of being a Muslim is commitment to these principles. Islamic law (sharia; in Indonesian, syariah) is based on the Quran; the sunna, Islamic tradition, which includes the hadith (hadis in Indonesian), the actions and sayings of Muhammad; ijma, the consensus of a local group of Islamic jurisprudents and, sometimes, the whole Muslim community; and qiyas or reasoning through analogy. Islam is universalist, and, in theory, there are no national, racial, or ethnic criteria for conversion. The major branches of Islam are those adhered to by the Sunni and Shia Muslims.

To a significant degree, the striking variations in the practice and interpretation of Islam--in a much less austere form than that practiced in the Middle East--in various parts of Indonesia reflect its complex history. Introduced piecemeal by various traders and wandering mystics from India, Islam first gained a foothold between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries in coastal regions of Sumatra, northern Java, and Kalimantan. Islam probably came to these regions in the form of mystical Sufi tradition. Sufism easily gained local acceptance and became synthesized with local customs. The introduction of Islam to the islands was not always peaceful, however. As Islamized port towns undermined the waning power of the East Javanese HinduBuddhist Majapahit kingdom in the sixteenth century, Javanese elites fled to Bali, where over 2.5 million people kept their own version of Hinduism alive Unlike coastal Sumatra, where Islam was adopted by elites and masses alike, partly as a way to counter the economic and political power of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, in the interior of Java the elites only gradually accepted Islam, and then only as a formal legal and religious context for Javanese spiritual culture.

These historical processes gave rise to enduring tensions between orthodox Muslims and more syncretistic, locally based religion--tensions that were still visible in the early 1990s. On Java, for instance, this tension was expressed in a contrast between santri and abangan, an indigenous blend of native and Hindu-Buddhist beliefs with Islamic practices sometimes also called Javanism, kejawen, agama Jawa, or kebatinan. The terms and precise nature of this opposition were still in dispute in the early 1990s, but on Java santri not only referred to a person who was consciously and exclusively Muslim, santri also described persons who had removed themselves from the secular world to concentrate on devotional activities in Islamic schools called pesantren--literally the place of the santri.

In contrast to the Mecca-oriented philosophy of most santri, there was the current of kebatinan, which is an amalgam of animism, Hindu-Buddhist, and Islamic--especially Sufi--beliefs. This loosely organized current of thought and practice, was legitimized in the 1945 constitution and, in 1973, when it was recognized as one of the agama, President Suharto counted himself as one of its adherents. Kebatinan is generally characterized as mystical, and some varieties were concerned with spiritual self-control. Although there were many varieties circulating in 1992, kebatinan often implies pantheistic worship because it encourages sacrifices and devotions to local and ancestral spirits. These spirits are believed to inhabit natural objects, human beings, artifacts, and grave sites of important wali (Muslim saints). Illness and other misfortunes are traced to such spirits, and if sacrifices or pilgrimages fail to placate angry deities, the advice of a dukun or healer is sought. Kebatinan, while it connotes a turning away from the militant universalism of orthodox Islam, moves toward a more internalized universalism. In this way, kebatinan moves toward eliminating the distinction between the universal and the local, the communal and the individual.

Another important tension dividing Indonesian Muslims was the conflict between traditionalism and modernism. The nature of these differences was complex, confusing, and a matter of considerable debate in the early 1990s, but traditionalists generally rejected the modernists' interest in absorbing educational and organizational principles from the West. Specifically, traditionalists were suspicious of modernists' support of the urban madrasa, a reformist school that included the teaching of secular topics. The modernists' goal of taking Islam out of the pesantren and carrying it to the people was opposed by the traditionalists because it threatened to undermine the authority of the kyai (religious leaders). Traditionalists also sought, unsuccessfully, to add a clause to the first tenet of the Pancasila state ideology requiring that, in effect, all Muslims adhere to the sharia. On the other hand, modernists accused traditionalists of escapist unrealism in the face of change; some even hinted that santri harbored greater loyalty towards the ummah (congregation of believers) of Islam than to the secular Indonesian state.

Despite these differences, the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (literally, Revival of the Religious Scholars, also known as the Muslim Scholars' League), the progressive Consultative Council of Indonesian Muslims (Masyumi), and two other parties were forcibly streamlined into a single Islamic political party in 1973--the Unity Development Party (PPP). Such cleavages may have weakened Islam as an organized political entity, as demonstrated by the withdrawal of the Nahdlatul Ulama from active political competition, but as a popular religious force Islam showed signs of good health and a capacity to frame national debates in the 1990s.

Christianity in Indonesia

Although Christianity--Roman Catholicism and Protestantism--was the most rapidly growing religion in Indonesia in the 1980s, its numbers were small compared to Islam (9 percent of the population compared to 86.9 percent Muslim in 1985). Christianity had a long history in the islands, with Portuguese Jesuits and Dominicans operating in the Malukus, southern Sulawesi, and Timor in the sixteenth century. When the Dutch defeated Portugal in 1605, however, Catholic missionaries were expelled and the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church was virtually the only Christian influence in the region for 300 years. Whereas the United East Indies Company (VOC) was primarily a secular and not a religious enterprise, and because Calvinism was a strict, austere, and intellectually uncompromising variety of Christianity that demanded a thorough understanding of what, for Indonesians, were foreign scriptures, Christianity advanced little in Indonesia until the nineteenth century. Only a few small communities endured in Java, Maluku, northern Sulawesi, and Nusa Tenggara (primarily Roti and Timor). After the dissolution of the VOC in 1799, and the adoption of a more comprehensive view of their mission in the archipelago, the Dutch permitted proselytizing in the territory. This evangelical freedom was put to use by the more tolerant German Lutherans, who began work among the Batak of Sumatra in 1861, and by the Dutch Rhenish Mission in central Kalimantan and central Sulawesi. In addition, Jesuits established successful missions, schools, and hospitals throughout the islands of Flores, Timor, and Alor.

The twentieth century witnessed the influx of many new Protestant missionary groups, as well as the continued growth of Catholicism and of large regional and reformed Lutheran churches. Following the 1965 coup attempt, all nonreligious persons were labelled atheists and hence were vulnerable to accusations of harboring communist sympathies. At that time, Christian churches of all varieties experienced explosive growth in membership, particularly among those people who felt uncomfortable with the political aspirations of Islamic parties.

In the 1990s, the majority of Christians in Indonesia were Protestants of one affiliation or another, with particularly large concentrations found in Sumatra Utara, Irian Jaya, Maluku, Kalimantan Tengah, Sulawesi Tengah, and Sulawesi Utara. Catholic congregations grew less rapidly in the 1980s, in part because of the church's heavy reliance on European personnel. These Europeans experienced increasing restrictions on their missionary activities imposed by the Muslim-dominated Department of Religious Affairs. Large concentrations of Roman Catholics were located in Kalimantan Barat, Irian Jaya, Nusa Tenggara Timur, and Timor Timur provinces.

Hinduism in Indonesia

Hinduism is an amalgam of related traditions and cults that seeks to explain cosmology in primarily deistic terms. The religion has countless gods but no exclusive creed. One of Hinduism's primary ethical concerns is the concept of ritual purity. Another important distinguishing feature, which helps maintain the ritual purity, is the division of society into the traditional occupational groups, or varna (literally, color) of Hinduism: Brahmans (priests, brahmana in Indonesian), Kshatriya (ruler-warriors, satriya in Indonesian), Vaishya (merchants-farmers, waisya in Indonesian), and Shudra (commoners-servants, sudra in Indonesian).

Like Islam and Buddhism, Hinduism was greatly modified when adapted to Indonesian society. The caste system, although present in form, was never rigidly applied. The Hindu religious epics, the Mahabharata (Great Battle of the Descendants of Bharata) and the Ramayana (The Travels of Rama), became enduring traditions among Indonesian believers, expressed in shadow puppet (wayang) and dance performances.

Hinduism in Indonesia is primarily associated with Bali. Hindu believers in the early 1990s were relatively few outside of Bali, where they made up more than 93 percent of the population. Others were scattered throughout the other twenty-six provincial-level units. Among these non-Bali communities were groups labeled as Hindu by the government--for example, the adherents of the Kaharingan religion in Kalimantan Tengah, where government statistics counted Hindus as 15.8 percent of the population. Nationally, Hindus represented only around 2 percent of the populaiton in the early 1990s.

It is difficult to describe the Balinese version of Hinduism in the same doctrinal terms as Islam and Christianity, since this unique form of religious expression is deeply interwoven with art and ritual, and is less closely preoccupied with scripture, law, and belief. Balinese Hinduism lacks the traditional Hindu emphasis on cycles of rebirth and reincarnation, but instead is concerned with a myriad of local and ancestral spirits. As with kebatinan, these deities are thought to be capable of harm.

Balinese place great emphasis on dramatic and aesthetically satisfying acts of ritual propitiation of these spirits at temple sites scattered throughout villages and in the countryside. Each of these temples has a more or less fixed membership; every Balinese belongs to a temple by virtue of descent, residence, or some mystical revelation of affiliation. Some temples are associated with the family house compound, others are associated with rice fields, and still others with key geographic sites.

Ritualized states of self-control (or lack thereof) are a notable feature of religious expression among the people, famous for their graceful and decorous behavior. One key ceremony at a village temple, for instance, features a special performance of a dance-drama (a battle between the mythical characters Rangda the witch and Barong the dragon), in which performers fall into a trance and attempt to stab themselves with sharp knives.

Rituals of the life cycle are also important occasions for religious expression and artistic display. Ceremonies at puberty, marriage, and, most notably, cremation at death provide opportunities for Balinese to communicate their ideas about community, status, and the afterlife. (The tourist industry has not only supported spectacular cremation ceremonies among Balinese of modest means, but also has created a greater demand for them.)

Balinese religion is hierarchically organized, with one small segment of the aristocracy--the Brahman, or priestly, class--being the most prestigious. A Brahman priest is not affiliated with any temple but acts as a spiritual leader and adviser to individual families in various villages scattered over the island. These priests are consulted when ceremonies requiring holy water are conducted. On other occasions, folk healers or curers may be hired.

Buddhism in Indonesia

Indonesian Buddhism in the early 1990s was the unstable product of complex accommodations among religious ideology, Chinese ethnic identification, and political policy. Traditionally, Chinese Daoism (or Taoism), Confucianism, (agama Konghucu in Indonesian) and Buddhism, as well as the more nativist Buddhist Perbuddhi, all had adherents in the ethnic Chinese community. Following the attempted coup of 1965, any hint of deviation from the monotheistic tenets of the Pancasila was regarded as treason, and the founder of Perbuddhi, Bhikku Ashin Jinarakkhita, proposed that there was a single supreme deity, Sang Hyang Adi Buddha. He sought confirmation for this uniquely Indonesian version of Buddhism in ancient Javanese texts, and even the shape of the Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur in Jawa Tengah Province.

In the years following the 1965 abortive coup, when all citizens were required to register with a specific religious denomination or be suspected of communist sympathies, the number of Buddhists swelled; some ninety new monasteries were built. In 1987 there were seven schools of Buddhism affiliated with the Perwalian Umat Buddha Indonesia (Walubi): Theravada, Buddhayana, Mahayana, Tridharma, Kasogatan, Maitreya, and Nichiren. According to a 1987 estimate, there were roughly 2.5 million followers of Buddhism, with 1 million of these affiliated with Theravada Buddhism and roughly 0.5 million belonging to the Buddhayana sect founded by Jinarakkhita. Other estimates placed Buddhists at around only 1 percent of the population, or less than 2 million. Buddhism was gaining in numbers because of the uncertain status of Confucianism. Confucianism was officially tolerated by the government, but since it was regarded as a system of ethical relations rather than a religion per se, it was not represented in the Department of Religious Affairs.

Although various sects approach Buddhist doctrine in different ways, a central feature of the religion is acknowledgment of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths involve the recognition that all existence is full of suffering; the origin of suffering is the craving for worldly objects; suffering ceases when craving ceases; and the Eightfold Path leads to enlightenment. The Eightfold Path invokes perfect views, resolve, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

Buddhism originally was an intellectual creed, and only marginally concerned with the supernatural. However, political necessity, and the personal emotional desire to be shielded from the terrors of the world by a powerful deity, have led to modifications. In many ways, Buddhism is highly individualistic, with each man and woman held responsible for his or her own self. Anyone can meditate alone; no temple is required, and no clergy is needed to act as intermediary. The community provides pagodas and temples to inspire the proper frame of mind to assist the worshippers in their devotion and self-awareness.


Article by U.S. Library of Congress. Last updated: July 26, 2013.