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Javanese Religion


JAVANESE RELIGION . The Javanese occupy the central and eastern parts of Java, a moderately sized island over twelve hundred kilometers long and five hundred kilometers wide. The island constitutes only about 7 percent of the total land area of the Indonesian archipelago, which now constitutes the Republic of Indonesia. Javanese peasants have migrated to other islands in Indonesia and, because Dutch colonialists had for two centuries prior to Indonesia's independence moved Javanese unskilled laborers overseas, there are also Javanese communities in Cape Town, South Africa; in Surinam, Latin America; and in New Caledonia, Melanesia. They have in general retained the original Javanese culture and language.

Nearly all Javanese (i.e., about 97.3 percent) are Muslim, with the remainder either Roman Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, or, in South Central Java, recent converts to Hinduism. The Javanese themselves recognize two variants of Javanese Islam: The one with the greatest number of adherents is syncretistic, incorporating Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and local religious elements; the other is more dogmatic and puritan. The first is called Agami Jawi ("Javanese religion") and the other, Agami Islam Santri ("Santri Islam religion"). Adherents of both variants are to be found in all Javanese communities, although in certain regions, one of the forms will predominate. In his study of Javanese religion, Clifford Geertz calls the first variant Abangan, and the second, Islam Santri.

Javanese Religious History

Early Javanese religion must have been based on local forms of ancestor worship, and the belief in spirits, magical power in natural phenomena, and sacred objects in the human environment. Hinduism probably came to Java during the fourth century of the common era through the trade routes from South India, although the earliest traces of a Hindu-Javanese civilization can only be dated to the eighth century. During that period Javanese Buddhism also developed, and the remnants of ancient religious structures such as the Hindu Prambanan and the Buddhist Borobudur seem to indicate that Javanese Hinduism and Javanese Buddhism coexisted peacefully.

Although, initially, Hinduism and Buddhism had been spread along the trade routes, they were further disseminated by Indian brahmans and bhikus, who had quite likely been invited by Javanese rulers to act as consultants. Indian civilization was promoted and developed in the court centers of the ancient empires, first in Central Java during the eighth to tenth centuries, and later, during the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, in East Java, where it took on a specific Javanese character. Many elements of this Hindu-Javanese court civilization subsequently influenced Javanese folk culture.

Islam also came to Java through the trade routes, via North Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Islam in Java exhibits an emphasis on mystical ideas. Indeed, Islamic mysticism seems to have found fertile ground in Java because of the existing mystical elements in Javanese Hinduism: Muslim literary works written during the early period of Javanese Islamization show the importance of mystical Islam, or Sufism (Arab., tasawwuf). Dogmatic, puritan Islam, reformed Islam, and so forth arrived later, when Javanese devotees returned from making the pilgrimage (ājj) to Mecca.

As a new religion, Islam initially influenced the port towns and harbor states of Java's north coast, which subsequently became prosperous and powerful and undermined the declining power of the Majapahit empire of East Java. In the following period zealous Muslim missionaries who became holy men, called wali (Arab., walī; "saint, guardian") in Javanese folklore, spread Islam through the interior regions of East and Central Java. The Muslim religion, preached by the imam, included many mystical elements, a fact that probably facilitated the contact between the missionaries and the population, to whom mystical concepts and ideas had long been familiar. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, students and disciples recorded notes of these teachings, which, presented as magical songs, have been compiled in books called suluk.

The court center of the Central Javanese empire, Mataram, traditionally resisted the penetration of Islam from the interior of Java. During the second half of the eighteenth century, however, Islam reached the heartland of the ancient Central Javanese civilization, although not always through peaceful means. The centers of the Hindu-Buddhistic civilization in Central Java merely had to accept the presence of Islam, and thus developed the syncretistic Agami Jawi variant of Javanese Islam.

Agami Jawi

The Agami Jawi belief system includes an extensive range of concepts, views, and values, many of which are Muslim in origin: the belief in God Almighty (Gusti Allah ), the belief in the prophet Muammad (kanjeng nabi Muammad), and the belief in other prophets (para ambiya ). The Javanese consider God Almighty to be the creator and ultimate cause of life and the entire universe. They believe that there is but one God ("gusti Allah ingkang maha esa"). All human actions as well as important decisions are done "in the name of God" (bismillah ), a formula pronounced many times per day to inaugurate any small or large en-deavor.

Divine beings

The Javanese literary tradition has elaborated extensively on the nature of God and humanity. The most important source for this subject is the seventeenth-century work, the Dewaruci, written in Javanese prose. In the mystical, pantheistic view of the Dewaruci, God is conceptualized as the totality of nature: He is a tiny divine being, so small that he can enter any human heart, yet in reality as wide as the oceans, as endless as space, and manifested in the colors that make and symbolize everything that exists on earth. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries this religious concept of God was interwoven with Islamic concepts by the spiritual leaders and intellectuals who wrote the Agami Jawi literature, which includes voluminous books such as the Serat centhini and the magico-mystical suluk mentioned earlier.

In addition to the belief in God and the prophets, the Agami Jawi Javanese also believe in saints. Included among these holy persons are the nine semihistorical "apostles" (wali sanga ), or first missionaries of Islam, religious teachers, and certain semihistorical figures who were known to the people through the Babad literature. The belief in these saints is usually kept alive by the veneration of their sacred graves (pepundhen ). Local saints are also venerated, and many regions have their locally acknowledged sacred places. In certain village communities, one social class often associates itself with a particular legendary figure in order to obtain an exclusive status. Famous village leaders, wayang puppeteers (dhalang ), healers (dhukun ), or religious leaders (kiyai ) may become holy men even while they are still alive, and their graves may turn into pepundhen and objects of veneration.

Many other elements, such as the belief in a great number of deities (dewata ), are of Hindu-Buddhist origin, as one can see from their Sanskritic names. However, the roles and functions of several of the deities are different from those of the original ones. Dewi Sri, for instance, who originated from Sri, the wife of the Hindu god Viu, is in Javanese culture the goddess of fertility and rice. Bathara Kala was derived from the Hindu concept of time (kāla ), and this destructive aspect of Śiva the creator is in Javanese culture the god of death and calamity.

An indigenous pre-Hindu element is the divine trickster Semar. The Javanese believe that Semar has the power to act as an intermediary between the world of mortals and the divine. In the dramatic wayang, the Javanese shadow-puppet play, he is a clown figure who acts as both the servant and guardian of the heroes of the Bratayuda, the Javanese version of the Hindu Mahābhārata epic.

Indigenous Javanese beliefs are primarily concerned with spirits, in particular, ancestral spirits (ruh leluhur ), guardian spirits who care for the individual's well-being and are usually conceived of as the soul's twin (sing ngemong ), and guardian spirits who oversee places such as public buildings, old wells, spots in a forest, turns in a river, old banyan trees, caves, and so forth. They also believe in a number of ghosts (lelembut), spooks (setan), and giants (denawa), who are frightening and malevolent creatures (memedi), and in fairies (widadari) and dwarfs (thuyul), who are considered benevolent.

The Agami Jawi has a cosmogony (kang dumadi), a cosmology (bawanagung ), an eschatology (akhiring jaman), and messianic beliefs (ratu adil). While these are principally of Hindu origin, the Agami Jawi concepts of death and afterlife (akherat) have been influenced by Islam. Originating in pre-Hindu religious systems is their concept of magic, which imparts magical powers to certain people, parts of the human body, objects, certain plants, and rare animals.

Cultic life

The Agami Jawi ceremonial and ritual system differs essentially from the dogmatic teachings of Islam. The second pillar (rukn ) of Islam, the alāt, or ritual prayer performed five times daily, is considered unimportant and is often ignored. Instead, various kinds of sacred communal meals (slametan ) are central to its ceremonial system. The family hosting the ceremony usually invites friends, neighbors, and important members of the community. A sacred meal consisting of particular, customary dishes is served after being blessed by a religious official from the mosque who recites of verses (āyāt ) from the Qurʾān. A slametan ceremony often includes the dhikr, a monotonous chant of the phrase "La ilāha illā Allāh" ("There is no god but God"). This is repeated in chorus by all of the participants and may last for more than an hour without interruption.

The size, elaborateness, and cost of a slametan ceremony depend on the importance of the occasion and the financial resources of the host. The occasion may vary from celebrations of events associated with the individual's life cycle, of which circumcision and weddings may be considered the most important, to mortuary rites held on the day of the funeral and on the seventh, the fortieth, one-hundredth, and one-thousandth day after death. The slametan meals held as part of the funerary rites include elaborate dhikr chants.

Among the rural peasants, periodic slametan are held in connection with the stages of the agricultural cycle, whereas both rural and urban Javanese hold slametan meals on religious holidays of the Javanese Muslim calendar. Seasonal, community-sponsored slametan ceremonies, the bersih dhusun, are meant to purify the community. Intermittant slametan ceremonies are held in connection with disturbing events in the individual's life, such as a serious illness, accident, or bad dreams. More secular slametan are held to celebrate the move to a new house, the changing of one's name, the start of a long journey, an occupational promotion, or academic graduation, and the anniversaries of clubs and fraternal organizations, professional, functional, and recreational associations.

An equally important practice of the Agami Jawi is the veneration of the dead and ancestors, through visits to the graves of deceased relatives and ancestors (nyekar ). Also indispensable to Agami Jawi observance are the numerous offerings (sajen ) that appear in nearly all the ceremonies and may be performed independently as well. The latter type of offering, held at specific times, such as Thursday evenings, consists of bits of food (including tiny rice cones and an assortment of cookies), spices, and a variety of small items that are decoratively arranged on small trays of plaited bamboo. A careful analysis of the items reveals some consistency in their symbolic meanings, which relate to their names, appearance, colors, or use.

Fasting is not only practiced during the Muslim month of the fast, Ramaān, but on many other occasions as well. Other religious practices include deliberately seeking hardship (tirakat ), asceticism (tapabrata ), and meditation (samadi ). The attainment of a state of trance is an integral aspect of a number of religious and semireligious folk dances, songs, and plays. Performances of certain wayang puppet dramas and religious concerts on sacred gamelan sets also accompany religious concepts and activities.

Agami Islam Santri

The Agami Islam Santri belief system of both rural and urban Javanese is composed of puritanical Islamic concepts about God, the prophet Muammad, creation, personal ethics, death and afterlife, eschatology, the day of resurrection, and so forth. These concepts are all clearly determined by dogmatic creed. Peasant Santri Javanese generally take these for granted and are indifferent about their interpretation. The urban Santri, however, are usually quite concerned about the moral and ethical backgrounds of the doctrine. In addition to having memorized certain parts of the Qurʾān, many have also been exposed to the exegetical literature (tafsir ), and prophetic tradition (adīth ) during their education in more advanced religious schools (pesantren ). The Muslim belief system is organized and systematized in the sharīʿah (Islamic law); the dominant legal school (madhhab ) in Java, and throughout Indonesia, is that of al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820).

The Santri Javanese practice a ceremonial and ritual system that follows the dogmatic rules of the Five Pillars (arkān, pl. of rukn ) of Islam. The second pillar, the daily and Friday alāt (Jav., sembahyang ), is the central ceremony. alāt, often incorrectly translated as "prayer," is a series of religious acts of worship and prostration, accompanied by incantations that are fixed in form and content. The obligatory performance of the sembahyang is done individually five times per day and communally once per week, at noon on Friday. The Javanese also have voluntary personal prayers to God called ndonga, which may be performed at any time, using the Javanese vernacular rather than the prescribed Arabic. The third pillar is the gift to the poor, called jakat (Arab., zakat ); the fourth is the fast (Jav., siyam ; Arab., awm ); and the fifth, of great import to Javanese Santri Muslims, is the ājj, or pilgrimage.

Most of the Islamic calendrical ceremonial celebrations are observed by the Santri Javanese. Unlike the adherents of the Agami Jawi religion, the Santri do not prepare slametan meals on those holidays. They do, however, perform special alāt rituals, recite verses from the Qurʾān throughout most of the night, listen to stories about the life of the Prophet, and attend slawatan performances consisting of religious songs accompanied by drums and tambourines.

Santri Javanese also perform rites to celebrate certain events in the life cycle of the individual. However, unlike the Agami Jawi Javanese, who hold numerous slametan ceremonies, they prefer to give sedhekah sacrifices in accordance with the sharīʿah. Their funerary ceremonies do not differ significantly from those of the Agami Jawi. The alātu ʾjjināzah, absent in the Agami Jawi, is a mortuary alāt that is preceded by the act of cleansing oneself, and is performed in front of the body of the deceased person by those who come to show sympathy.

Javanese Spiritual and Religious Movements

There have always been adherents of Agami Jawi for whom recurrent slametan rituals, sajen offerings at fixed periods, and routine visits to graves represent a superficial, meaningless, and unsatisfactory religious life. Therefore, they search for a deeper understanding of the essence of life and spiritual existence. One response to the demand for a more spiritually meaningful life are the numerous kebatinan kejawen spiritual movements, which have emerged and disappeared, but have retained a constant following in the course of Javanese history. The term kebatinan refers to the search for truth, batin (Arab., bāin ). Since the late 1960s, the number of these movements has increased significantly.

Most of the Javanese kebatinan movements have a local base with only a limited number of followers (usually not more than two hundred), and are officially called "small movements" (Indonesian, aliran kecil). Others, however, have thousands of followers, and are called "large movements" (Indonesian, aliran besar ). The four largest are Susila Sudi Darma (SUBUD), Paguyuban Ngesti Tunggal (PANGESTU), Paguyuban Sumarah, and Sapta Darma. Although kebatinan movements are to be found throughout the Javanese area, the most important ones are located in Surakarta. In 1983 there were nineteen such organizations in that city, with a total of approximately 7,500 members. At the end of 1982, the entire province of Central Java listed ninety-three movements, with a total of more than 123,570 members. While most of the movements are based on mystical ideas, at least five other types can be distinguished: movements that focus on mysticism; moralistic and ethical movements that focus on the purification of the soul; messianic Ratu Adil ("just king") movements; nativistic movements, focusing on the return to original Javanese culture; and movements focusing on magical practices and occultism.

There are also movements with Santri orientation. These are usually based on a particular Islamic religious school (pesantren ). Unification with God is the central objective of most of those Santri movements. In Indonesia, and particularly in Java, as in the rest of the Islamic world, ūfīs are organized into movements called tarekat (Arab., arīqāt ). The tarekat are led by a charismatic teacher called kiyai in Javanese. Many Santri Javanese belong not only to these local tarekat movements, but also to various international ūfī orders, such as the Qādirīyah, Wāidīyah, Naqshbandīyah, Shaārīyah, and iddiqīyah. In addition to spiritual movements with a mystical orientation, Javanese Santri have also initiated puritan religious reform movements. In the early twentieth century K. H. Achmad Dahlan (b. 1868) from Jogjakarta, brought Muslim reformist ideas to Java. Influenced by the Islamic modernist Muammad ʿAbduh of al-Azhar University in Cairo, Dahlan founded the Muammadiyah in 1912 in his home city. Preaching the return of Islam to its two basic sources, the Qurʾān and the adīth, Dahlan not only attacked the syncretistic Agami Jawi Islam, but also Islam Santri scholasticism and mysticism. The Muammadiyah developed into a nationwide movement, which applied itself not only to religious reform and modernization but also to education and social welfare.

See Also

Drama, article on Javanese Wayang; Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia; Rites of Passage, article on Muslim Rites; Southeast Asian Religions, articles on Insular Cultures, Modern Movements in Insular Cultures.


Alfian. Islamic Modernization in Indonesian Politics: The Muammadijah Movement during the Dutch Colonial Period, 19121942. Madison, Wis., 1969. An excellent description of the history of the Javanese Muammadiyah modern reform movement, initiated by K. H. Achmad Dahlan in 1912.

Dhofier, Zamaksyari. The Pesantren Tradition: A Study of the Role of the Kyai in the Maintenance of the Traditional Ideology of Islam in Java. Canberra, 1980. A good description of a Javanese Muslim religious school community.

Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill., 1960. A description of the two variants of Javanese Islam. The author has ignored the written indigenous religious literature; nevertheless, this book has dominated the literature on Javanese culture and society.

Hien, Hendrik A. van. De Javaansche Geestenwereld en de Betrekking, die Tusschen de Geesten en de Zinnelijke Wereld Bestaat: Verduidelijkt door Petangan's of Tellingen bij de Javenen in Gebruik. 4 vols. Semarang, 1896. An extensive description of the Javanese supernatural world, including lists of over one hundred names with brief annotations of Javanese deities, spirits, and ghosts.

Poensen, Carl. "Bijdragen tot de Kennis van den Godsdien-stigen en Zedelijken Toestand des Javaans." Mededeelingen Vanwege het Nederlandsche Zendeling Genootschap 7 (1863): 333359 and 10 (1866): 2380. An early description of two variants of Javanese Islam.

Soebardi. "Santri Religious Elements as Reflected in the Book of Tjěntini." Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 127 (1971): 331349. A historical description of the absorption process of Muslim religious elements in the Hindu-Buddhist-Javanese syncretistic religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Zoetmulder, P. J. Pantheïsme en monisme in de Javaansche soeloek-litteratuur. Nijmegen, Netherlands, 1935. An analysis of the ancient Javanese mystical religious literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

New Sources

Beatty, Andrew. Varieties of Javanese Religion: An Anthropological Account. New York, 1999.

Beatty, Andrew. "Islamic and non-Islamic Prayer in Java." In Islamic Prayer Across the Indian Ocean, edited by David Parkin and Stephen C. Headley, pp. 3961. Richmond, U.K., 2000.

Doorn Harder, Pieternella van, and C. A. M. de Jong. "The Pilgrimage to Tembayat: Tradition and Revival in Indonesian Islam." Muslim World 91, nos. 34 (2001): 325353.

Geels, A. Subud and the Javanese Mystical Tradition. Richmond, U.K., 1997.

Iyer, Alessandra. "Archaeology, Dance and Religion in Java: The Prambanan Complex." In Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion, edited by Timothy Insoll, pp. 4858. Oxford, 1999.

Yumarma, A. Unity in Diversity: A Philosophical and Ethical Study of the Javanese Concept of 'Keselarasan'. Rome, 1996.

Zoetmulder, P. J. Pantheism and Monism in Javanese Suluk Literature: Islamic and Indian Mysticism in an Indonesian Setting. Edited and translated by M. C. Ricklefs. Leiden, 1995.

R. M. Koentjaraningrat (1987)

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