No faith in figures Duncan Graham / Lumajang
Hinduism is the fourth largest official religion in Indonesia with more than 4 million adherents, according to the census. But those who practise the faith of the Majapahit dynasty claim double that number. Data juggling – or a seer’s predicted resurgence?
The headscarves worn by goat-milk distributor Novi and her five sightseeing friends wandering the temple courtyard made one thing clear: The women were not at the East Java Mandara Giri Semeru Agung complex to worship.
“We’ve just tourists and have come to look,” she said. “We’re curious. We are Muslims, but that’s no problem. Why should there be?”
Indeed. The women just walked through the unguarded red brick candi bentar [split gate] and started smartphone snapping, unaware the interfaith situation hasn’t always been so relaxed. According to cultural anthropologist Martin Ramstedt in the 1950s the Indonesian government declared the Hindu Balinese as ‘people still without religion’ and ‘targets for Muslim and Christian proselytizing.’
Yet a decade earlier Hinduism had been recognized in the foundation of Indonesia. The national emblem features the Garuda, a mythical bird-beast that carried Lord Vishnu, one of the religion’s three supreme deities.
Indonesian law requires citizens to be monotheistic, while traditional Hindus worship many gods. The impasse ended when a translation of Hindu scriptures settled on the term ‘undivided one’ as essence of the belief.
Despite this it was not until 1962 that Hinduism officially joined Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism and Buddhism as an approved religion. [Confucianism was de-listed in 1978 and reinstated in 2000.]
Mandara Giri is the center for Hindus in East Java. It was built in the village of Senduro on the eastern slope of Mount Semeru and opened in 1992. There’s nothing secretive - it’s a massive construction that looms over the main street
“There are at least 7,500 Hindus just in and around Lumajang [the closest city],” said Ngatemin, a juru mangku [temple priest]. “They worship here though most come from Bali. On holy days and on full moon nights hundreds participate.”
Even during normal weekdays car loads of pilgrims come to pray before a shrine so weathered it looks authentically ancient; at the bottom is a giant turtle – at the top an image of Acintya, the supreme god of Indonesian Hinduism. The Sanskrit word translates as ‘the inconceivable one.’
Families dressed in white sit together on the grass before a small pavilion where the priest rang a bell and chanted prayers. Flower and food offerings were made.
Hinduism probably arrived in Java about 1,900 years ago. Until the 16th century it dominated the island though often mixed with Buddhism and local traditional beliefs.
Islam appeared in the 13th century and spread rapidly, often through the faith change of a feudal ruler like Madura’s Sultan Pragalbo. He switched to Islam on his deathbed in 1531 so his subjects had to dump their own beliefs.
Islam is now Indonesia’s major faith though legally the Republic is secular; there are more Muslims here than any other nation, and more than all the Middle East countries combined.
According to government census figures only 1.7 per cent of the population is registered as Hindu. That’s about 4.25 million. Most live in Bali.
Like other minorities, Hindus dispute these figures. They allege the discrepancy is because Islam is the default religion used by officials when confused or indifferent citizens are registered. Finding a factual figure is next to impossible.
Said Wayan Swardhani Wiraswastiningrum, a Brawijaya University cultural studies lecturer: “It’s important to understand that there are two groups of Hindus; the Bali Aga, or original Balinese people, and the Javanese Hindus, descendants of the Majapahit kingdom.
“Some of the Bali Aga descendants have moved to Java and of course they want to practise their faith.”
It’s one of Indonesia’s many great mysteries: Why and how did a religion that once flourished widely almost disappear – and so rapidly?
The obvious answer is a war with the losers fleeing, but historian Wayan Legawa, father of Wayan Swardhani Wiraswastiningrum, disagrees.
“There was no clash, no battle between Islam and Hinduism,” said the Malang State University academic. “The exodus to Bali was more political. It involved disputes in the royal family of the Majapahit kingdom centered on Trowulan in East Java.
“Some of the priests went further east as the families fractured and the people followed. They included the descendants of the ancient households, like the Tenggerese now farming the slopes of Mount Bromo.”
The Tenggerese population is reported to be about 600,000, though some have converted to Islam and Christianity.
Not all made it across the Bali Strait. The Osing people in Banyuwangi on the far south-east coast of Java also claim Majapahit ancestry. The population is around 400,000 though not all are Hindu.
A supporting theory is that the decline of Hinduism and Java’s Golden Age began after the 1364 death of the Majapahit Prime Minister Gadjah Mada. His Machiavellian political and military skills helped the empire conquer and control the archipelago across to Timor, and lands beyond Java, into present day Malaysia and the Southern Philippines.
Once Gadjah Mada’s funeral pyre had cooled civil wars weakened the kingdom allowing vassal states to recover their independence and embrace a new religion.
Dr Wayan believes there are around eight million Hindus in Indonesia. Outside Bali most live in East Java.
“The position of Hindus in Indonesian society is that there’s been little change socially, though in dealings with authorities the situation has improved,” he said.
“Relationships between the faiths deteriorated after 1974 when the Soeharto government banned mixed-faith marriages. That’s still in place and it has affected all religions.”
On the way back?
This is the question that’s usually whispered rather than shouted such is its potency: Is Hinduism on the way back?
The 12th century Javanese soothsayer Joyoboyo predicted a return; if it’s underway the pace is pedestrian and the evidence patchy. Measured against the strides of Islam and Christianity, Hinduism seems almost stationary.
Even if eight million is accepted that’s still below five per cent of the Muslim population.
Outside Bali the world’s third most followed religion has its best toehold in East Java with shrines, temples and primary schools in places like Gresik, Kediri and Surabaya. Santika Dharma, a small high school opened five years ago in the forest outside Malang. It caters for around 120 students and is still the only one in Java.
Principal Ketut Sudhiartha, said getting building permission had taken a long time though few people lived nearby. The school is close to the well-hidden Pura [shrine] Luhur Dwijawarsa on the western side of Semeru, the highest mountain in Java and an important spiritual landmark.
Luhur Dwijawarsa was built during the late 1950s. It was hit by arsonists following the 1998 fall of President Soeharto. At the time churches were also burned. Outhouses were destroyed but the community has rebuilt and not pursued action, preferring to let the issue drop for the sake of religious harmony.
After Majapahit’s collapse temples like the world-famous 9th century complex at Prambanan in Central Java, and the 12th century Penataran in East Java, fell into disrepair. They were looted and overgrown till rediscovered in the 19th century.
Not all old temples are suitable as many have become tourist sites, so Hindus have been building new. In 2006 a temple 11-meters high, claimed to be the tallest in Java, was opened in the village of Karangpandan near Malang, in an area where most follow Islam and mosques are common.
A Hindu primary school runs behind the temple. Kampung Topeng, the village next door, is the center of East Java’s mask dancing and carving – a tradition which pre-dates the arrival of Hinduism. If there is fundamentalism and hostility to pluralism it’s not evident here.
(First published in The Jakarta Post Sunday 13 September 2015)