FAITH IN INDONESIA

FAITH IN INDONESIA
The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, June 30, 2006

DUKUN AND KEROKAN

Dr Haryadi Suparto
DOCTOR DUKUN WILL SEE YOU NOW © Duncan Graham 2006

Have you ever been coined? No, not conned. We’ve all had that experience.

Coining (kerokan) is scraping the back ribs with the edge of a coin or spoon to bring up long red welts.

The fancy word is ‘dermabrasion’ and it’s similar to ‘cupping’ where hot glasses or cups are put on the skin to raise blood to the surface.

Coining looks primitive and cruel to Westerners who first encounter this weird household ritual. But Indonesians swear it’s an effective cure for masuk angin. Literally this means ‘wind entering’ so catching a cold, or having indigestion seems the right term.

Not so, according to Dr Haryadi Suparto: “Maybe a general feeling of being a bit drained, under the weather, not our usual self - is a better translation.

“Of course coining appears bizarre to foreigners who prefer to take a chemical pill after visiting a doctor and checking all the literature. But we know coining works.”

Dr Haryadi is the head of the Health Department’s Health Services Research and Development Centre in Surabaya. He’s one of those flexible people who can operate in the logic of modern Western health care and the Javanese tradition of Kebatinan (the search for harmony and inner wisdom), without abusing either.

He was trained at Surabaya’s Airlangga University then studied at medical schools in Lancaster and London, and in the US. He’s been an adviser to the World Health Organisation and for the past 15 years has been assigned to studying alternative medicines. It was a job he accepted with some reluctance but is now hooked.

Due to retire this year he says his quest will continue for he still has much more to learn about ‘inner healing’. This is the term he uses for traditional health practices, the sort of alternative medicine that’s been blamed for maintaining sickness in Indonesia.

This is because many will seek help from a paranormal or dukun (indigenous doctor) rather than someone in a white coat collared with a stethoscope.

There are many reasons: Doctors are rare in rural areas and more expensive than dukun. The foreign drugs they prescribe are invariably costly.

Doctors’ explanations often sound absurd; how can a heavy smoker get cancer when other tobacco users don’t? More likely the sufferer has been cursed for his adultery so needs the help of a paranormal.

“’Inner power’ healing isn’t scientific,” said Dr Haryadi. “To the mind trained in Western medicine it’s not rational and it competes with modern health care practices.

“But we should keep an open mind. There are many mysteries in life that can’t be easily explained and people do get well after following traditional practices.

“For example acupuncture is now widely accepted as a legitimate treatment which can be effective in some cases – but in the past it was condemned as primitive and useless.”

During his research Dr Haryadi has collected scores of curios, which are now kept in a Health Department museum. Apart from a ‘brain tumor’ allegedly extracted without surgery by a dukun and looking more like a cut up earthworm, the ‘cures’ include amulets, herbs, magic stones and ‘water magnets’.

To show that the pragmatic West isn’t completely hooked on Pfizer’s products he’s also included ‘holy’ relics (religious therapy?), New Age crystals, pyramids (for meditating beneath) and an Ouija board.

Also known as a ‘talking board’ this is a disc on a smooth-surface surrounded by a circle of letters and numbers. When used in a séance by a group of non-sceptics the disc is supposed to move around and spell out spirit messages from the afterlife.

Consulting the Ouija (a combination of the French (oui) and German (ja), words for ‘yes’) was a popular ritual in 19th century industrial and rational US, particularly among the well read middle classes.

“There’s another sense apart from the traditional five of seeing, hearing touching, smelling and tasting,” said Dr Haryadi. “This is the sense of feeling or instinct which can be strong in some people – particularly women.

“It can’t get measured so it’s often discounted. Yet many doctors know that people who exercise their ‘inner power’ when sick often recover. Perhaps this is because they’ve released the body’s natural hormones which fight the infection.”

Similar stories exist in the West allegedly proving the power of prayer, or that mind can triumph over matter. This is particularly so when the unwell person is absolutely determined to recover.

Disbelievers claim that so-called psychic cures are the result of misdiagnosis and that the patient was not seriously ill; other surveys have shown that 80 per cent of sick people recover without the help of doctors. Having someone listen sympathetically to your complaint may also bring about an improvement.

Dr Haryadi is currently studying the effects of fasting. The Javanese have several systems, including fasting on alternate days or excluding certain foods from the diet.


In 1985 a healthy-living movement called Satria Nusantara started in Yogya. It has since spread across the archipelago and into Holland and other parts of Europe. It’s part faith belief, part sport and consists of breathing exercises that are supposed to expand the blood vessels.

Dr Haryadi has tried to test the healing qualities of ‘inner-power’ using members of Satria Nusantara in Surabaya who went through their exercises.

In studies on hypertension he claimed benefits measured by blood and urine tests while schizophrenic patients were able to communicate more clearly.

“’Inner power’ can’t be scientifically defined and proved, but many people including scientists believe it exists and can be inherited,” he said.

“More research is required, but as part of Indonesian traditional culture it could possibly strengthen community health through treatment, rehabilitation and disease prevention.

“Maybe it has a place in complementing other treatments in the national health program. I want to see proof – but I also know there are many things we don’t yet understand and which we can’t explain using ordinary methods.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 June 06)
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