Southeast Asian Religions: New Religious Movements in Insular Cultures

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Uprisings with religious content have occurred throughout insular Southeast Asian history, but religious movements show a distinctive focus. They are not anarchic protests but organized efforts, of national or international scope, to achieve reforms or some other positive objective. Such movements are apparent especially since the beginning of this century. By limiting the discussion to such movements, we can at least begin to summarize a complicated fabric of history in which local processes are as varied as they are fascinating. For the sake of simplicity, it is convenient to group the myriad insular Southeast Asian religious movements under the three streams of religious tradition from which they draw, in part, their inspiration: Buddhism and Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. These are discussed with reference to the major island or peninsular areas of Southeast Asia: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Hindu-Buddhist Movements

The first important twentieth-century Hindu-Buddhist movement was Budi Utomo ("high endeavor") founded in 1908 by three students from the colonial Netherlands Indies medical school (STOVIA). The movement gained early adherents in other colonial technical schools, those for veterinarians and engineers, suggesting that the Western technical training was leaving the native students without any cultural or religious grounding, and that such grounding is what they sought in movements like Budi Utomo. Budi Utomo hoped to revitalize the deeply cherished Hindu-Buddhist-Javanist core of the Indonesian identity, so that a meaningful and respectable alternative could be found to the values offered by the West. Looking to India's Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi as inspirations in the revival of these traditions, Budi Utomo was controlled by the aristocracy and intelligentsia and never gained a broad popular following, although it had amassed some ten thousand members within a year of its founding.

Another movement, Taman Siswa ("garden of learning"), has a cultural grounding similar to that of Budi Utomo, but, unlike the earlier movement, it emphasized education. Taman Siswa was founded by Suwardi Surjaningrat, later known as Ki Hadjar Dewantara ("teacher of the gods").

Inspired by Tagore as well as such critics of Western education as Maria Montessori, Dewantara founded schools designed to restore lost traditions and identities by combining Western and Javanist-Hindu-Buddhist values. Taman Siswa schools taught the Javanese arts to encourage the child to express its inner identity, and they encouraged a family like school community in which students and teachers were mutually involved as "brothers in learning." By 1940, Dewantara had succeeded in building some 250 schools throughout the islands, some of which survive today.

A third major Hindu-Buddhist movement is really many movements and cannot be reduced to any single date of founding. These are known as kebatinan, from the Javanese word (of Arabic origin) batin, meaning "inner." Something in the range of one thousand different kebatinan sects now flourish, primarily on Java, most founded since the beginning of the twentieth century but rooted in practices and beliefs that go back to the beginnings of the Javanese Hindu-Buddhist civilizations in the eighth century ce.

The aim of Javanese kebatinan is to mute the crude feelings and perceptions of the material world in order to experience the underlying reality that is simultaneously god, self, and cosmos. The techniques are ascetic practice (abstinence from food, sleep, or sex), philosophical and psychological speculation, and meditation. Guidance in kebatinan meetings is provided by a teacher who is believed to possess charismatic and sacral qualities. The objective is not only to reach ultimate truth but also to balance and unify the self and, in this way, the wider society and world. Some kebatinan movements, such as Subud, have established branches in the West, while others, such as Sumarah, have attracted Westerners to Java; but, on the whole, kebatinan movements remain a quintessentially Javanese phenomenon.

While Budi Utomo, Taman Siswa, and kebatinan are primarily Javanese movements, Balinese Hinduism has been an important stimulus for a revival of Hindu traditions as an organized movement spreading through Java as well as Bali. Associated with this Neo-Hinduism is a Neo-Buddhism that claims as a root the only surviving folk-Buddhist population, the Tengger, who live near Mount Bromo on Java. The Indonesian Buddhist Association claims to have built ninety monasteries and acquired fifteen million adherents since 1965 (when, following the massacre of an estimated half-million so-called Communists, all Indonesians were required to declare some explicit religion or risk being branded atheistic and, therefore, Communist). These revivals, which hold massive celebrations at such revered monuments as Lara Janggrang and Borobudur, combine indigenous Bali-Java traditions with Hindu-Buddhism.

Muslim Movements

Where the Hindu-Buddhist movements of insular Southeast Asia have been confined primarily to Java and Bali, the Muslim movements have ranged more widely: throughout the three thousand miles of Indonesian islands and into Singapore, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines. The stimulus for these movements was the opening in 1870 of the Suez Canal and associated increase in steamship travel, which encouraged great numbers of Southeast Asian Muslims, many of whom remained in the Near East for study, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. By the beginning of the twentieth century, several Malay, Indonesian, Arab, and Indian citizens of insular Southeast Asia had come under the influence of the proponent of Islamic modernism, Muhammad Abduh of Cairo's al-Azhar center of learning. Returning to Singapore or other ports of embarkation and disembarkation to the Near East, these students founded schools, journals, and associations that spread through the islands and were known as the Kaum Muda ("new faction") of Southeast Asian Islam.

Pressing for a return to the fundamental truths of text and tradition, the Qurʾān and the adīth, while rejecting the authority of teachers, scholars, and the ornate speculations of medieval Islam, modernists extolled the method of itjihād : analysis of the original Arabic scriptures in order to read for oneself the word of God. Paradoxically, the return to scripture stimulated an advance to modernity, at least in certain respects. Folk practices that were not in the text were excised, while proper reading was held to demonstrate an Islamic basis for modern economics, science, medicine, and law. In what they themselves termed a "reformation" (reformasi), the devout Muslim could rediscover a pure identity and inspiration while equipping himself for the challenges of modernity.

Gaining impetus first in Singapore, where returning scholars founded such still-existing schools as Alsagoff, the Kaum Muda encountered resistance in Malaya but spread rapidly throughout the islands of Indonesia. Of the many Indonesian organizations standing for the Kaum Muda viewpoint, the most successful is the Muammadīyah, founded in 1912 by Kiai H. A. Dahlan, in the court city of Jogjakarta, Java. Muammadīyah worked not only to purify Islamic practice to accord with Qurʾān ic teaching but also in education and welfare, building a large system of schools as well as clinics, orphanages, and hospitals. Muammadīyah has been notable, too, in the strength of its women's movement, Aisjajah. Having survived periods of turmoil and repression, Muammadīyah now boasts some six million members.

In reaction to Kaum Muda, the so-called Kaum Tua ("old faction") took steps to cement its cherished traditions, which the reformers threatened to sweep away. In Malaya, where Islam was identified with the state, the old could be buttressed simply by stiffening the established hierarchy of Islamic officialdom. In Indonesia, lacking such an establishment, reaction took the form of a counterreformation. In 1926, Indonesian traditionalists founded the Nahdatul Ulama ("union of Muslim teachers") to withstand the threat of reformism. Ruled by a dynasty centered around a famous religious school in East Java, Nahdatul Ulama has outstripped Muammadīyah in gaining support from the rural masses. While Nahdatul Ulama's membership is larger, its organization is looser, and this organization has not equalled Muammadīyah in educational and welfare activities.

Christian Movements

Although significant Christian populations are found in Indonesiaespecially among the Batak, the Amboinese, the Toraja, and the Minahasand among the Chinese throughout insular Southeast Asia, the only Christian nation is the Philippines. More than 80 percent of the Philippine population is Roman Catholic but an estimated 350 distinct Christian bodies exist there today, many of which could be termed "movements." Most significant, perhaps, is the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI, or Philippine Independent Church). The foundations for this offshoot of the Roman Catholic church were laid during the Philippine revolt against Spain in 1896, but the IFI was officially founded in 1902 by Gregorio Aglipay, who became its first archbishop. When the Spanish were defeated, the Filipino priests of the IFI took over parishes held by the friars and achieved a membership of 1.5 million, or 25 percent of the Christian population. Highly nationalistic, the IFI has been known to raise the Philippine flag at the time of the consecration of the Host in the Mass.

At one time the IFI canonized José Rizal, the Filipino novelist and nationalist martyr, and other movements, too, deify Rizal as a Christ of the Malays. An example is Iglesia in Cristo, founded in 1914 by Feix Manalo and now a highly organized movement based on a special method of meditation. Another Rizalist group, Lapiang Malaya, attacked the city of Manila in 1967. Believing themselves immune to bullets, they provoked the police and military into violent reaction and thirty-three of them died. Such movements fuse Christian inspiration with nativism, nationalism, and millenarianism, often opposed to westernization, modernization, and oppression.

Religious Movements and Contemporary Society in Insular Southeast Asia

At different periods and in different places, these religious movements have contributed differently. Most of them, regardless of affiliation, were inspirational catalysts in giving rise to the striving for independence and modernity that led to the more directly political nationalist movements that began in the early twentieth century and culminated in the independence of these new nations soon after World War II. Since independence, their role has varied. In Indonesia, the Muslims have generally acted as an oppositional force complementing the government, while the Hindu-Buddhist streams have either fed into the Javanist-oriented national culture and government or provided personal fulfillment outside the governmental arena.

In Malaysia, the Muslims have identified more strongly with the government, while Hindu-Buddhism has not claimed a place in the national political culture equal to that of Hindu-Buddhism in Indonesia. In the Philippines, Islam has been oppositional, entrenched in the south against Christian incursions identified with the national polity; Christianity has been identified more with governmental authority, although Christianity, too (exemplified by such movements as the Christians for National Liberation and church support of Corazon Aquino during her rise to power in 1986), has had an oppositional role. In Singapore, the Muslims have played an oppositional role in relation to the dominant government party, but in this highly modernized, formally pluralistic society, religious movements have not played a postwar role equal to that in the other insular Southeast Asian nations.

In all of these countries, religious movements were dominant sources of nationalism and creative ferment in the early twentieth century. Later, as the impetus toward independence was seized by more purely political movements, the religious movements became relatively less important. After independence was achieved, the regimes in these countries (especially the two largest, Indonesia and the Philippines) have tended to become authoritarian, while religious movements (such as the Muslim fundamentalists) have eclipsed the Communists and others as the locus of aspiration independent of the government. The beginning of the twenty-first century could parallel the beginning of the twentieth, in that the stage is set for religious movements to resume their earlier role as a reformative force independent of the central power.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Christianity, article on Christianity in Asia; Gandhi, Mohandas; Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia; Tagore, Rabindranath.


An outstanding account of religiously grounded uprisings before the twentieth century is P. B. R. Carey's Babad Dipanagara: An Account of the Outbreak of the Java War, 18251830 (Kuala Lumpur, 1981). Other excellent accounts for Java include Sartono Kartodirdjo's The Peasants' Revolt of Banten in 1888: Its Conditions, Course and Sequel; A Case Study of Social Movements in Indonesia (The Hague, 1966). For Sumatra, see Christine Dobbin's Islamic Revivalism in a Changing Peasant Economy: Central Sumatra, 17841847 (London, 1983).

On Budi Utomo, see Bernard H. M. Vlekke's Nusantara: A History of Indonesia, rev. ed. (The Hague, 1959), pp. 348391. On Taman Siswa, see Ruth T. McVey's "Taman Siswa and the Indonesian National Awakening," Indonesia 4 (October 1967): 128149; on Sumarah, David Gordon Howe's "Sumarah: A Study of the Art of Living" (Ph. D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1980); on kebatinan, J. A. Niels Mulder's Mysticism and Daily Life in Contemporary Java: A Cultural Analysis of Javanese Worldview and Ethics as Embodied in Kabatinan and Everyday Experience (Amsterdam, 1975).

For Islamic reformism in Malaya and Singapore, see chapters 2 and 3 of William R. Roff's The Origins of Malay Nationalism (New Haven, 1967). For Indonesia, see Taufik Abdullah's Schools and Politics: The Kaum Muda Movement in West Sumatra, 19271933 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1971); my Muslim Puritans: Reformist Psychology in Southeast Asian Islam (Berkeley, 1978); and, specifically for Muhammadiyah, see Howard M. Federspiel's "The Muhammadijah: A Study of an Orthodox Islamic Movement in Indonesia." Indonesia 10 (October 1970): 5779.

A good summary of the religious situation in the Philippines can be found in David Joel Steinberg's The Philippines: A Singular and a Plural Place (Boulder, Colo. 1982.)

For an overview of contemporary movements, see Robert W. Hefner's (ed.) The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia (Honolulu, 2001); Raymond L. M. Lee's and Susan E. Ackerman's Sacred Tensions: Modernity and Religious Transformation in Malaysia (Columbia, S.C., 1997); and Tony Day's Fluid Iron: State Formation in Southeast Asia (Honolulu, 2002).

James L. Peacock (1987 and 2005)

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Southeast Asian Religions: New Religious Movements in Insular Cultures

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Southeast Asian Religions: New Religious Movements in Insular Cultures