Essay: Local tradition in a global religious community in modern day Java

Ghosts and spirits often come up in conversation but attitudes are changing

Leo Barry

It was only my first night in Yogyakarta when someone told me they believed in ghosts. At a street stall in the thick and sticky evening air a young man explained to me how he had come to accept their existence. He had never used to believe in ghosts, he told me, having always been content to pass them off as tales. This was until, one night, one had appeared at the end of his bed in the form of a little girl. She didn’t seem to him to be anyone in particular. Nor had she come bearing any message. From then on, he had been certain that they were real, evidently taking it upon himself to warn others not to take such matters lightly.

Ghosts, spirits, roh, hantu, lelembut, or whatever moniker one prefers, often come up in conversation on the island of Java, Indonesia’s most populated island. It is surprising how quickly a conversation may turn to talk of the supernatural, whether you are being warned not to daydream absentmindedly (so as not to allow spirits to enter you) or being urged to conduct yourself with good behaviour when climbing a volcano (so as not disturb its awesome spiritual power). Foreigners, and Javanese themselves, will often refer to people that populate the central and eastern provinces of the island as superstitious. The term ‘superstitious’ deliberately distinguishes beliefs, practices and customs from those that fall within the bounds of conventional Islamic religious expression.

While this perception is in part constructed by outsiders through exoticised accounts of Javanese mysticism and magic, it is also much self-affirmed. Belief in a world that extends beyond the purview of human senses and religious doctrine has become a common marker of Javanese ethnic and cultural identity. Despite this, attitudes towards what one could term a ‘spirit world’ and its place within Javanese and, more broadly, Indonesian Islamic society have changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Under increasing pressures of globalisation, urbanisation and a rationality-demanding modernity, Javanese Islam, once a byword for syncretic and unique expressions of the faith, is struggling to maintain its unique identity.

While Islam has existed in Java for the better part of the last millennium, it was only really in the last 200 years that the majority of Javanese Muslims have begun to practise their faith strictly in line with Qur’anic doctrine. While Islam has slowly but surely became a cornerstone of ‘Javaneseness’, the conception of the faith and its practical expression have often been highly unorthodox, incorporating Hindu, Buddhist and animist traditions. Anthropologists arriving as late as the 1960s in eastern Java would describe religious systems incorporating Islamic and spirit beliefs that seem a far cry from more orthodox Islam practised in many Muslim nations today. Some anthropologists would adopt the Javanese term abangan, repurposing it to describe a broad cross-section of Javanese peasant society where Islam made up only one component of a patchwork of spiritual beliefs and practices. In this system, spirits did not just exist but also had to be appeased with offerings, consulted for major events and harnessed to bring about favourable outcomes.

This system holds many parallels with religion as it is practised by Hindus in Java’s neighbour, Bali. Bali is the only Indonesian island to retain its majority pre-Islamic Hindu–Buddhist heritage; as such, observation of the island’s religious practices aids many who attempt to imagine what Javanese religious life encompassed before the arrival of Islam. In Java, a modern belief in spirits may be a continuation of such religious traditions, a professor from one of the universities explained to me over dinner. He told me he too had encountered spirits before, relating a tale similar to the man at the street stall about initial scepticism giving way to unqualified belief after a chance encounter one night. ‘The good thing is’ he said, ‘that the Qur’an acknowledges the existence of spirits…We do not have to compromise Islamic practices in order to be Javanese’.

This healthy equilibrium between ‘traditional’ Javanese culture and Islam is proudly proclaimed by many Javanese increasingly self-conscious of the global religious community in which they take part. Visitors to Yogyakarta are often enamoured with the charm of a city that strongly values its cultural heritage. Highly refined traditions of dance, music, puppetry and textile making; a passionate commitment to Javanese language and literature, and a reverence of the island’s Hindu–Buddhist heritage are all easily found here. It is also, perhaps, the only place within the Islamic world where devout Muslims will not hesitate to perform Sanskrit epics, where personal names bear that of the Prophet himself alongside Hindu deities and where Hindu–Buddhist monuments are held in such high esteem as proud indications of a glorious history.

While pre-Islamic relics often exist as important contributions to national and cultural identities within Muslim societies, the level to which Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, literature and religious concepts are accepted as unproblematic marks Java as unique in this respect. This is, at least, the impression one gets upon first visiting the city. Longer periods of time spent here reveal the extent to which Javanese Islamic identity is undergoing negotiation, and that many of what we consider quintessential markers of Javanese culture are increasingly relegated to the domain of ethnographic museums and cultural festivals.

In a small tourist village nestled in the hills to the southeast of Yogyakarta there sits a peculiar tree. Close to the ticket centre, where men often pass the day chain smoking clove cigarettes and drinking sweet black instant coffee, a small banyan tree is enclosed by a low wooden fence. Around the fence lie several woven baskets filled with slowly rotting fruit and flowers alongside bundles of cooked rice wrapped in banana leaves. When I ask a young man why this tree has what seems to be some sort of offerings around it, he tells me it is a practice continued from olden days, where people used to ‘pay respect’ to the trees and the spirits that occupied them. I press on, asking why people don’t do this anymore. He pauses, briefly considering the question. ‘I don’t know’ he offers with a smile.

If one were to visit Bali, lying to Java’s east, one would observe small offerings like this around almost every house and building. There they exist as essential conduits in a religious system that prioritises spiritual harmony between humans, gods and spirits. Complex in both symbolism and function, they remain an essential component of Balinese religious life. Here in Java, these days, they are found comparably few and far between. If they do exist, they seem to occupy an increasingly aesthetic role, a kind of cultural nostalgia still transmitted generationally but to which the original significance has largely faded.

Offerings like this typify Java’s Hindu–Buddhist but also animist spiritual heritage, where religious life extended beyond humankind’s relationship with God to encompass a broader community of interlocking spiritual forces. Where, in order to navigate the mundanity of everyday life, one had to bargain with multiple sources of metaphysical power. As such, the crucial difference in past and present attitudes to the spirit world seems to be that while many Javanese still believe in spirits, they no longer consider them part of an integrated religious system. In effect, religious life has been separated from the profane, becoming the sole prerogative of canonised Islamic scripture and those who are trained in it.

Some may attribute this to patterns of urbanisation pointing out that mass migration to big cities dislocates individuals from rural life, within which the spirit world is often grounded. Many will also point to the increasing influence of orthodox Islam in Indonesia which, while certainly accepting the existence of spirits, categorically forbids humans to attempt to deal with or appease them. To do so would be to commit syirik, Islam’s greatest sin, to deify or worship any powers other than God alone. The nature of the spirit world, and humanity’s relationship with it, has thus become an important battleground for competing visions of the Islamic community. As an imam from this village explained to me ‘Javanese traditions are fine…as long as they don’t interfere with Islam’. In the hierarchy of belief systems, Javanese customs (adat) will now always sit below those of Islam (agama).

In the narrativised court chronicle of the Kingdom of Mataram, Javanese civilisation begins with the clearing of the land of Java (mbabad tanah Jawi). As the forests are razed to build villages and construct rice fields, the spirits are driven further and further into the remaining wilderness. Spiritual power in Java has always had its nexus in the natural world. When I return to the village near Yogyakarta a few months later, a previously beautiful piece of forest surrounding a waterfall has been destroyed to make a highway. The once picturesque scene marked only by the running of water and calling of birds now rings out with the sounds of trucks and jackhammers. A bookish young man laments to me over a coffee ‘They are not just destroying nature, they are destroying history itself’. And with it, perhaps, the spiritual uniqueness of Java.

Leo Barry ([email protected]) is an honours student and research assistant at the University of Sydney. Images courtesy of the author.

Inside Indonesia 155: Jan-Mar 2024

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