Johannes Nugroho (South China Morning Post) – A diminutive female figure carrying joss sticks and a singing bowl became a viral sensation at Indonesia's MotoGP Grand Prix on Sunday (March 20).
She was not out for an ordinary afternoon stroll around the Mandalika Street Circuit in Lombok, but instead was requesting that the sky hold the rain. Most of the international reaction to the ritual of 39-year-old rain shaman, Rara Istianti Wulandari was that of bemusement.
Wulandari, a practitioner of Kejawen, an indigenous Javanese belief system with roots predating Islam, told the Indonesian newspaper, Kompas, that she started her practice as a rain shaman or pawang hujan at the age of nine.
Her new-found celebrity, however, sparked a lightning rod of controversy in the world's most populous Muslim nation.
Abu Fatihul Islam, representing the ultraorthodox Islamic Geographic Institute, lambasted her presence as a "state-sanctioned heathen outrage".
"The use of shamans, offerings and other idolatrous practices [at an international event like the Grand Prix] is proof that we as a country are experiencing a moral and intellectual crisis," he alleged.
Amid rising religiosity across the nation, many pious Indonesians, both Muslim and Christian, have also vented their disapproval online. But Wulandari found herself quite a few defenders, too, especially among Indonesians who champion diversity and pluralism, and have been calling for Indonesia's numerous indigenous faiths to be protected.
Winston Zippi Johannes, a Jakarta resident and social media influencer, wrote on his Facebook account he was proud of Wulandari's uniquely Indonesian profession of a shaman.
"It was by all accounts a victory for our Nusantara [Indonesian] heritage in the face of ongoing incursions from the 'desert' [Islamic] culture."
The tension between orthodox Muslims and minority faith followers like practitioners of indigenous beliefs such as Kejawen is an age-old phenomenon in Indonesia.
According to Amsterdam-based historian Joss Wibisono, Kejawen intellectuals were influential in the early movement for self-government during the Dutch colonial period. He pointed out that De Java Instituut, Indonesia's first scientific institution founded in 1929, had been founded by Kejawen figures.
"Our first indigenous educational institution, Taman Siswa, also had Kejawen roots. It originated from the Kejawen Selasa Kliwon Society, which met every 40 days, headed by Ki Ageng Suryomentaram."
While Kejawen remains Java's indigenous faith of note, Indonesia's other ethnic groups also have their own distinctive practices. The Batak people in North Sumatra have Parmalin and the East Nusa Tenggaranese practice the Marapu faith.
After Indonesia's independence, indigenous beliefs collectively known as Kepercayaan, thrived throughout the 1950 to the 1970s. One of their leaders, Wongsonegoro, who served in several cabinets in the 1950s, launched a campaign to have Kepercayaan recognised by the state as one of the six official religions, alongside Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.
Its growth both in numbers – there were 350 branches within Kepercayaan in the 1950s – and influence alarmed Muslim groups who saw its potential in decimating the Muslim majority.
In 1962, bowing to pressures from Islamic groups, Minister of Religious Affairs Mukti Ali issued his criteria for recognising a religion: the presence of God in its teachings, a codified holy book and a prophet. The set of conditions disqualified most Kepercayaan faiths which were rooted in animism and ancestor worship.
At their national symposium in 1970, Kepercayaan practitioners petitioned the government to guarantee the legality of marriages conducted under their rites and for the recognition of the Kejawen holy day, Satu Suro, as a national religious holiday.
But in 1978, President Suharto, in a bid to mollify fears among Muslims, issued a statement in which he said the government would not accord Kepercayaan the status of religion.
In the aftermath of the 1978 decree, many followers of Kepercayaan were pressured into choosing from among the six official religions or face discrimination. Kepercayaan marriages were ruled illegal and its practitioners were often barred from the civil service and other jobs.
Many adherents consequently went underground and professed other faiths, notably Islam, but carried on their spiritual practices in secret.
In 2017, in a move designed to restore some of the rights of Kepercayaan followers, the Constitutional Court granted its followers the right to void the religion column on their ID Cards, which had hitherto been compulsory. Two years later, the same court ruled Kepercayan practitioners had the constitutional right to have their respective faiths recorded on their ID Cards and other state documents.
Suwahyo, 52, a Kejawen practitioner from Semarang, said that while he appreciated the court's decision, the government had the duty of following it up with legislation to protect the rights of Kepercayaan followers.
Ratya Mardika Tata Koesoema, 41, a lawyer from Semarang, represents a new generation of Kejawen practitioners. Koesoema, hailing from a four-generation Kejawen family, wants to see a regeneration of the faith by going back to its primal roots.
"Historians say that Kejawen is a syncretic faith, combining Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. I strongly disagree with this assessment. The essence of Kejawen is the religion of Buddhi. Many associate this with Buddhism but I would argue that Buddhi is far older than Buddhism itself," Koesoema elaborated.
While the Javanese Buddhi religion shares many similar features with Siddhartha Gautama's Buddhism, he claimed the two faiths are different.
"In my understanding of the Javanese Buddhi, the ultimate Buddha figure is the King of the Gods, Bathara Guru. The Javanese religion recognises the karmic law but also imbues human beings with the ability to change their own destinies through spiritual practices such as Samadhi and other rituals."
Koesoema also believes in the two guardian deities for Kejawen, Sabdo Palon and Nayagenggong, were emanations of the gods Ismaya and Antaga, older siblings to Bathara Guru.
Historically, the two legendary names first appeared in a 17th century treatise by Ki Kalamwadi, Serat Darmagandul. In the work Sabdo Palon and Nayagenggong were the chief advisers to Brawijaya V (1474-1498), the last king of The Hindu Kingdom of Majapahit, who eventually converted to Islam. The treatise also contains the prophecy of Sabdo Palon which foretells the reconversion of Java to the religion of Buddhi.
But not all practitioners of Kejawen agree with Koesoema on the origins of the faith. Rendra Agusta, 30, a philologist who specialises in the Javanese language as well as a Kejawen practitioner has a different take.
"I think it's ahistorical and unhelpful to claim that Kejawen is the one true religion of Java or the oldest," he said.
He added that Kejawen probably evolved from an amalgamation of factors, pointing to its animistic roots. Other influencing factors were exodus of people from China's Yunnan province to the Indonesian archipelago, then the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism, Islam and even Indonesia's colonial experience.
As a modern practitioner of an ancient faith, Agusta is more concerned with the struggle for equal rights for Kejawen and other Kepercayaan faiths. He said that Kejawen remained on the periphery of things in Indonesia.
Only one university currently devotes one full faculty to the study of Kepercayaan faiths in the country, which is Semarang's University of Tujuh Belas Agustus, he claimed.
"Our practitioners are still at the bottom of the list when it comes to civil service recruitments. In pragmatic terms, we need greater visibility and recognition from the government to achieve equality with the others. "
This article was first published in South China Morning Post: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/lifestyle-culture/article/3171432/indonesian-rain-shaman-motogp-latest-lightning-rod