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3.6 SPIRITUALITY: Controversies of Belief
“Miguel, could you lead the prayers?” A few years earlier, I would have panicked upon hearing this. But in 2012, I knew what needed to be done. "Let us all pray according to our own beliefs," I said and then waited for a full minute. "Enough," I appended, to conclude the prayer. The wayang troupe was then ready to start the show, which happened to be a very contemporary version of wayang.
Most dalang, whether engaged in the creation of kontemporer shows or not, pray and light incense sticks at their homes before going to hold a performance. In this section, I will argue that spirituality is an important feature of wayang kontemporer. I will not concentrate on the aspects of spiritual preparation undergone by dalang, since that would constitute an entirely different exploration. Rather, I will focus on thematic explorations of the role of spirituality. The performances in this sections pose the question: what does it mean to be spiritual? They offer different answers, but often suggest a contrast between genuine spirituality and organized religion, making direct allusions to religious practices in Indonesia. In other cases, the answer does not include such direct references, and the ethics of spirituality are merely presented as personal paths toward perfection that demand ascetic practice. One last answer to be offered by these performances equates war with a spiritual endeavor; either of these can be a metaphor for the other.
I will begin by looking at two performances which highlight the distinction between spirituality and organized religion. This exploration will start with the the Serat Centhini, a strangely spiritual text compiled in 1814 in Surakarta. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it combines Islamic religiosity, Javanese spirituality and explicit sexual passages. This combination has shocked and amazed readers since its creation. A well-known segment of this literary work, which comprises four chapters, is Cebolang Minggat [The Exile of Cebolang], which was used as the starting point of Slamet Gundono and Elizabeth Inandiak’s eponymous performance. In the first scene, Elizabeth narrates the origin of the performance, which was commissioned by Prince Mangkunegara, who was continuously criticized by his father for his hedonist lifestyle. His goal in commissioning the literary work was to convince the king that hedonism and spirituality need not be mutually exclusive (I have also referred to this excerpt, for a different reason, in Art).
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ELIZABETH. To his father, Pakubuwono IV, who was learned in the arts of grammar and etiquette, he said: "I will demonstrate that my passions and desires one day will bring me to the science of perfection." We must get to know the temptations that linger at the doorstep of spirituality. [The Indonesian wording plays with the similarity in the sounds of the words: kebatinan – spirituality, and kebatilan - evil.] Unfortunately, after Pakubuwono IV passed away and shortly after Prince Anom inherited the crown, he was carried away by the angels of syphilis. Had he achieved the perfection he was looking for? The annals of the Kraton are silent about his short reign. You cannot be both a king and a free man. Nonetheless, "The Exile of Cebolang" bears witness to his story.
Cebolang Minggat is the story of the son of a sheik who embarks who on a journey across Java after a disagreement with his father (which justifies considering Cebolang a representation of Prince Anom). The young Cebolang wanders around, visiting opium dens, places of spiritual retreat, palaces and brothels. Through his interactions with a wide array of characters, he gains sexual and spiritual knowledge before eventually returning home to his parents. In the performance, Cebolang’s first lesson in spiritual matters will come from watching a wayang. This wayang within the play consists of a conversation between two religious experts or kyai, Partodewa and Durna. Partodewa, a young man, represents Javanist wisdom, whereas Durna, allied to the Kurawa, represents organized religion. Durna poses a riddle to the young man, who answers it with a Javanist explanation of spirituality:
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PARTODEWA. The four riddles you posed, Durna, are the tongue, the eye, the ear and the sense of smell. Those are the gifts of Allah. You must use them wisely to become a good kyai. You must not speak nonsense or bullshit [English in the original]. Do everything as said before. If you don’t act according to these four things, you will bring on God’s anger and this will wreak havoc everywhere.
DALANG. And then Cebolang smiled at the wit of the young kyai. He was different from the old and emotional Durna who had become a government official. Durna was angry.
This exchange suggests that spirituality is something to be explored in a personal way, and that striving for authenticity in mystic connection is more important than following empty rituals. This view sanctions the existence of many different approaches to spirituality, which will continue to be developed through the performance. At a later moment, Slamet uses music as an analogy for the place of the different voices in Islam.
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DALANG. This music is similar to the Islamic chants of worship. There are different kinds of voices. It’s the same as Islam itself. There are many voices within Islam. But their sounds should not be forced to become one.
This conversation serves to emphasize one of the performance's themes: the personal quest for spirituality should not conform to institutional definitions. Later on his journey, Cebolang meets an old opium addict who thinks himself an enlightened preacher. This man, called Gatoloco, discusses religious matters with three old kyai and then explains his philosophy of life to Cebolang:
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KYAI. We heard that you eat pork whenever you want to and there is an opportunity to do so. Aren’t you afraid of committing a sin?
GATOLOCO. What people say is true. I don’t only eat pork, I also eat dogs. I look after them since they’re little. I buy them small and then take care of them and when they are old I cut them up myself and then eat them. Pork, dog and monkey can be more halal than halal goods which are stolen. [...]
DALANG. When the kyai finally left the house, Cebolang approached the old addict.
CEBOLANG. I was surprised to see you discussing religion in an opium den. What is your religion, actually?
GATOLOCO. I have three religions: three rasa. Body, word and heart.
CEBOLANG. And what about praying?
GATOLOCO. My prayers? My breath is my prayer. Every time I breathe, I worship God. And that is how I show my respect to consciousness. Every time I breathe that is a sign of respect to God. He is the one where the three rasa take shelter and dissolve into each other.
Gatoloco’s attitude conforms to a Javanist view on the practice of mysticism. As Neils Mulder notes:
In mysticism, the essence of reality is grasped by the rasa and revealed in the quiet batin (inner mind). By overcoming the fetters of everyday existence and the phenomenal world, man may free himself to really understand and achieve direct knowledge of the mystery of existence (2005: 34).
It is not hard to imagine why the Cebolang Minggat excerpt quoted above would be controversial in Indonesia. It advocates that people can choose for themselves how to lead a spiritual life. The discussion about halal food states that there is no intrinsically good action, but it depends on how it is carried out. These ideas express a Javanist approach to life and mysticism. Mulder's explanation of the difference between Javanism and religion is worth taking into account:
Javanism or Kejawèn is not a religious category but refers to an ethic and a style of life that is inspired by Javanist thinking. So, while some people may express their Javaneseness in religious practice, such as, for instance, in mysticism, it is in essence a characteristic culturally induced attitude toward life that transcends religious diversity (Mulder 2005: 15).
A conflict between Javanism and religion already existed when the Serat Centhini was written in the 19th century, and it has continued until today. During the New Order government, Javanism was denied recognition as an established religion. Currently, there are two main strands of Islam in Indonesia, and they see Javanism with different eyes. Muhammadiyah, founded by Ahmad Dahlan in 1912, advocates a more strict religious practice and is heavily influenced by Middle-Eastern Islamist discourses. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), on the other hand, has traditionally been closer to Javanist thinking and practices. Slamet Gundono, a member of the latter, tacitly supports this strand in the excerpts quoted above.
Michel Piccard also believes that the religion/spirituality opposition has a long history and he points to the word agama as evidence, the most common translation of ‘religion,’ where he finds traces of conflicting philosophies. As he notes, religion “is neither a descriptive nor an analytical term, but a prescriptive and normative one” (Piccard 2011: 1). On the other hand, agama “covers a much narrower semantic field.” This difference suggests that the word is the result of amalgamating different ideas of distinct cultural origin.
In truth, agama is the peculiar combination in Sanskrit guise of a Christian view of what counts as a world religion with an Islamic understanding of what defines a proper religion: divine revelation recorded by a prophet in a holy book, a system of law for the community of believers, congregational worship, and a belief in the One and Only God. In this respect, agama is a point of contention between different sets of actors. Moreover, far from being autonomous, agama is an initial part of a semantic field which it composes along with the categories adat (‘tradition’), budaya (‘culture’), hukum (‘law’), and various signifiers involving political authority (Piccard 2011: 3).
Java’s cultural history has been marked by the influences of different religions. This has led to the development of different attitudes toward spirituality, marked by conflict and hybridization. Mulder describes such hybridization as a quest for unity:
This delight in stirring all kinds of unconnected things together, of compounding them, is, on the one hand, related to rasa-thinking and, on the other, to the obsession with oneness. This drive toward unity always subsumes distinctions, striving upwards, away from facts and analytical hair-splitting. In that process, incompatibilities gradually disappear, and it is therefore different from just syncretizing. What it seeks to accomplish is synthesis, the quiet order of undifferentiated union (Mulder 2011: 148).
These forces – conflict and hybridization – have determined the practice of Javanism and mark the trajectory of Cebolang’s travels. After his conversation with Gatoloco, Cebolang is both amazed and confused.
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ELIZABETH. Cebolang was disturbed by the ugliness of Gatoloco; a type of ugliness which fascinated and disgusted him as a distorted mirror. In him, he saw a way of living which he had not fathomed before. And this fueled his travels, turning him into an eternal foreigner.
Trying to find a way of combining what he has learned from his experiences proves difficult and Cebolang is plunged into depression. Lost in solitude, he can only think of killing himself. At this point, however, he meets another old kyai in a hut in the mountains who advises him to watch a wayang in order to better understand his own existential questions.
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OLD KYAI. If you want to understand your true identity, there is a village by the edge of the forest where they are playing wayang. The story is Dewa Ruci. Go there and perhaps you will learn something from watching that story.
DALANG. Cebolang went to that village where a wayang was being played. The wayang characters were already placed left and right and the blencong [oil lamp] was lit up. The screen was set with the banana trees in front. The kotak [wooden box] and keprak [wooden mallet to cue the gamelan] were ready. The dalang, handsome and fat, was ready. The musicians were also handsome but not too much so. The sinden was beautiful but a bit too flirty.
Cebolang finds himself reflected in Bima’s quest for the meaning of life. Advised by his teacher Durna, Bima sets out on a journey and eventually finds a miniature version of himself, called Dewa Ruci, in the middle of the ocean. Dewa Ruci instructs him in spiritual knowledge.
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DEWA RUCI. That is called "unity."
BIMA. Pukulun. I want to know, what is unity?
DEWA RUCI. Understanding unity is difficult, Werkudara [Werkudara is another name for Bima]!
BIMA. Pukulun, please.
DEWA RUCI. The requirements to understand it are very heavy.
BIMA. What are they?
DEWA RUCI. You need to be able to love your enemy. Secondly, you must be able to forgive the people who hate you. And third: you must be honest to your friends and family. And you cannot go back from there.
DALANG. Werkudara cried.
BIMA. I do not want to go back to the real world, pukulun. I don’t want to go home. I cannot stand the world. I see people destroying one another, pukulun [honofiric used for a god]. They kill in the name of religion, truth and love. And they destroy one another.
This will be the turning point in the travels of Cebolang. Eventually Bima gains understanding and goes back to the real world. And so does Cebolang. Seeing himself in Bima, Cebolang cries during the performance. After witnessing the wayang, he returns to his parental home. The choice of Dewa Ruci as the the story is not accidental, since it has often been considered as the epitome of Javanist mystical thinking:
Basically, the practice of mysticism is an individual endeavor. It is the lone search of man desiring reunification with his origin, aspiring to experience the revelation of the mystery of existence, or deliverance from all earthly attachments. Many of the stories of shadow play mythology have this lonely quest as their subject. For instance, in the well-known story Dewa Ruci, the quest of Bima ... to discover the essence of life, is vividly described. Similarly, the mystic is thought to tread a lone and dangerous path that may take him to the understanding and revelation of kasunyatan (truth) (Mulder 2011: 44-5).
After his travels, Cebolang is forgiven and welcomed back in his parents’ house. His father tells him about the science he should not forget. This perhaps is the central idea of the literary work (I quote this passage for a different purpose in Youth):
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ELIZABETH. Cebolang went back to Sokayasa. The nights and the days went very fast, as the end of the Ramadan approached. His father welcomed him with soft words. Cebolang, my child, your mother and father always thought about you after you left. This was our prayer: “Don’t forget him, so that he does not forget you.” Cebolang was silent and he approached the Mosque’s veranda. Sheik Akhadiyah repeated these wise words to his son. "Cebolang, I see from your four-colored clothes that you have already learned the spiritual teachings. Get rid of those clothes before they get stained with pride. Forget everything and concentrate on the most basic science of all. It will take you to everything else."
CEBOLANG [played by Elizabeth]. Father, what science is that?
SHEIK [played by Elizabeth]. Love.
Cebolang has been profoundly transformed by his journeys and he is now ready to be reinserted into society. His father’s last piece of advice stresses yet again the idea that true spiritual knowledge is a personal quest that should not be confused with external markers (the clothes Cebolang wears and organized religious rituals).
A similar theme is explored by another performance, Enthus Susmono’s version of Dewa Ruci in Bali. Here, though, the relevance of the story in contemporary Indonesia will be made explicit when the dalang connects Bima’s conversation with Dewa Ruci to comments made by the punokawan. But before describing the comic scene, let us look at the conversation between Dewa Ruci and Bima as portrayed in this performance, which differs slightly from the same scene in Cebolang Minggat.
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DEWA RUCI: In truth, the purity you look for is the courage to think and to pray. And then to act without anger. [...] Your spirit is your friend, and it will prepare your body and soul, both in pleasure and in pain. Then your body will be swallowed by Time. Your body will break and your soul will fall. Your spirit will leave with the angel of death. Leaving behind a broken body. And then your spirit will be born again into a more noble body. That is the essence of the Sangkan Paraning Dumadi. Bima, you are like a tree with fruits. And you can control your passions, with the fruits of virtue you have received. Pay your respects to the creator, because that is where you come from and that is where you will return to. I will wait within the cavities of your heart, Bima! Hey, Bima! Wake up, body! Wake up, soul! You must still work. Because true service is not meditation alone. It is certainly true that the only thing you need here is knowledge. Only wisdom. This is not yet the time for you to feel it completely. Return now to the real world.
Towards the end of his explanation, Dewa Ruci insists that “true service is not only meditation.” The meaning of this phrase is contextualized in the comic scene to which I will now turn. I would suggest that the objective of Enthus in this performance is to defend inter-religious tolerance hence the admonishment that true spirituality must spill into the real world, beyond the inner realm of meditation. This performance was presented in Bali in 2006, where this message had urgent importance, in the wake of increasing inter-religious violence and terrorist attacks. These ideas were made explicit in the comic interlude of the performance.
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PETRUK: Muslim people will be surprised because the ones that will get into heaven are the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Christians. The Muslim are all self-righteous and they will all go to hell. Isn’t that true?
GARENG: Astagfirulah al Azim.
PETRUK. I am afraid. So before we die, Reng, let us act to the best of our ability. And later I will say the people of Bali, Reng, the peobple of Bali really treasure their culture. But Indonesia does not value its own culture. This is also true of the Muslim people. Javanese Muslims are suffering from a case of "Arabism." Everything should seem Arabic. If your name is Darsono, you cannot go to Mecca. Your name should now be Mu'in.
PETRUK. And so on and so on. But religion should be about forgiveness. Wherever we stand, we can be religious, and we can be at peace with those of other religions. Muslim people can also marry Hindu women.
GARENG. Yes. Is that possible?
PETRUK. Yes. Why should you give priority only to the women? If you can marry a Hindu woman, why wouldn't you extend your affection to other Hindu people? That’s hypocrisy!
GARENG. That’s true.
PETRUK. Therefore, when I go back [to Java] I’ll write a suggestion. If we want Indonesia to have an identity, we should all imitate Bali. Now I really understand and admire Bima. Despite the number of obstacles he faced, he remained faithful to his teacher, even when Durna lied to him.
Through the Punokawan, Enthus (himself a devout Muslim) praises Bali and urges fellow Muslims to become more tolerant. Bali is primarily Hindu, and it was the target of terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2005 which were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists from Java. It is against this backdrop that the dialogue above is to be understood. There is also a direct criticism of the “Arabism” he identifies, which could be linked to the Muhammadiyah movement which is gaining supporters across Indonesia. As Piccard notes, “signs of the radicalization of Indonesian Islam are on the increase” (2011: 18). After reformasi, “debates shifted from the idea of Islam becoming the foundation of the state to the obligation of the government to implement sharia” (Picard 2011: 18). However, as Robert Hefner notes, there are many competing ideas of how this should be done:
The more pervasive impact of the Islamic resurgence has been not a unitary and dominant radicalism, then, but the fact that Islamic issues feature prominently in public policy debates. This will likely remain the pattern for years to come (2011: 46).
He concludes that even though secularization will probably not be regained, “Indonesia is not about to descend into an Islamic maelstrom” (Hefner 2011: 46). This remains to be seen but, in any case, Enthus’ usage of the most respected Javanese lakon (presented in Indonesian and in Bali), represents a strong stance against radicalization and in favor of inter-religious tolerance. In other words, it advocates wisdom and spirituality at the expense of the interests of the main religious institutions.
Another performance, also by Enthus Susmono, tangentially explores how particular actions contribute to spirituality. In Sugriwa dan Subali, spirituality is presented as an unfinished quest that requires education and ascetic practice. The following conversation takes place between Resi Gotama and his children who have been turned into monkeys as punishment for playing with a forbidden container of wisdom, the Cupu Manik Asthagina.
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GOTAMA. You can only beg forgiveness, Anjani, Guwarsa and Guwarsi, from God almighty. Only he can alter the fate of human beings. Only God controls the World. However, every creature is given opportunities. Anjani, your opportunity will come from practising asceticism with Bengawan Yamuna. You should imitate the actions of a frog. Do not eat anything unless the water brings it directly into your mouth. Guwarsa?
GUWARSA. At your command, father.
GOTAMA. You should go to Wana Sunya Pringga. You will practise asceticism as if you were a bat. You should only eat fruits and vegetables. In order to go unnoticed do not use the name Guwarsa, use the name Subali instead. Guwarsi?
GUWARSI. At your command father.
GOTAMA. You will follow the steps of your older brother. You will not practise asceticism like a bat but like an antelope. You will change your name from Guwarsi to Sugriwa.
GUWARSI. I will follow your commands.
GOTAMA. Do not eat anything except for grass and roots. Now go, my children. Anjani, Subali and Sugriwa, may your asceticism be successful so that God can hear you.
Asceticism as a vehicle for spiritual development is a common idea in Javanist thinking. As Sri Mulyono notes, “refraining from the desire to eat and sleep constitutes a spiritual and mental training towards self-perfection. This means that, even when eating, people are in the process of pursuing virtue, nobility and politeness” (1982: 27, my translation).
Besides asceticism, there is another activity which is articulated in kontemporer shows as a spiritual endeavor: war. Engaging in one’s predestined fights, regardless of the outcome, is seen as a spiritual obligation. The performance that explores this in greatest detail is Aneng Kiswantoro’s Sumpah Pralaya. The performance, whose English title would be "An Oath of Death," tells the story of Abimanyu’s pledge to Utari. He promised her that he would die surrounded by arrows should he ever love another woman (see Familial Ties). However, Abimanyu does fall in love with another woman and knows he must die for this. In the following excerpt, Semar is instructing Abimanyu about the role of fate in peoples’ lives:
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SEMAR. Before your Excellency was born, his fate was already known. Three things are to be found in life: fate, marriage and the third one is a gift from heaven [rhymed purwakanthi in the original.] People don’t know this, ndara [master]. And still, people will always strive for something better. Even though regret will always come in the end. However, you should not dwell in that regret. I ask you to realize something. I beg you to remember, ndara, that you are a warrior. Don’t let your tears reach the ground or they will curse the land. And don’t let your expectations wear you down, ndara. So what does ndara want to do? You cannot walk away from the words of wisdom: "Good and evil will eventually be recognized. Those who betray will die. Those who sow will reap. Those who make something will use it in the end."
ABIMANYU. Yes, kaki. But what should I do?
SEMAR. Your problem is the oath you pledged to Dewi Utari. But that is your destiny, ndara. Death is an event that no one can avoid. Death is for a warrior a form of honor, for warriors who have reached perfection. They must protect their country and people until their predestined hour of death. Ndara Abimanyu, don’t you forget, tomorrow is the sixteenth anniversary of your life in Arcapada [world of mortals].
ABIMANYU. Oh! It’s clear! My thoughts are clear now,, kaki it is as if I were walking at night, but surrounded by a thousand torches. After listening to your words my heart feels as if it has been struck by a sharp weapon. My spirits have risen again, and my strength has returned. My will is now stronger. I will walk the path that has been chosen for me.
Complying with one’s fate is fulfilling one’s spiritual quests. Abimanyu is expected to comply with the Javanese maxim sepi ing pamrih, which means “to be unselfish, not to be driven by the desire for personal gain” and which “contains a key to kejawen wisdom […] It stands for the conscious control of one’s passions, because these stand in the way of achieving a quiet heart” (Mulder 2005: 59).
Abimanyu accepts the burden his fate has imposed upon him. Dutifully, he says his goodbyes to both of his wives and marches onto the battle field, where he displays great courage and wins an important battle for the Pandawa, before a cloud of arrows rains down on him, bringing him to his predestined death.
This conception of war is not exclusive to the purwa stories. In Raden Saleh, the Java War led by Diponegoro in 1825-1830 is also presented as a spiritual affair.
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DIPENOGORO. Can my holy war defeat the enemies?
DIPONEGORO’S ADVISER. Diponegoro, this holy war should not be fought for victory or defeat. The most important thing is that you have chosen the path of the Messenger of Justice.
As Evan Winet (2010: 9) explains, Diponegoro’s popular support during the Java War stemmed from a perception of his war in spiritual rather than political terms:
“Indonesians would later claim Diponegoro as a national hero on account of the unprecedented grassroots support his rebellion inspired. However, his popular legitimacy derived not from nascent ethnic nationalism, but from the perception that he led a jihad against the infidels.”
A similar depiction of war is found in Wayang Republik, where the struggle for Independence is presented as a spiritual affair. Just as in Raden Saleh, here, winning or losing are not important.
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HB IX. Lieutenant Suharto, this war is not about winning or fighting, but about the existence of the nation.
In this passage, the Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengku Buwana IX, is seen as representing the true spiritual character of the war, as he lectures a pragmatist Suharto, then lieutenant, on the right attitude with which to engage in battle. The previous performances have shown multiple articulations of spirituality, and have offered different answers to the ethical question of how to be spiritual. The performances elaborate a distinction between authentic spirituality and organized religion, present spirituality as a path toward perfection that requires ascetic practices and describe war and acceptance of its outcome as a spiritual activity.
What does it mean, then, to be spiritual? What are the ethics of spiritual practice? The performances offer different, yet overlapping answers to these questions. In some controversial cases, true spirituality is explored as the opposite of organized religion. In a less direct fashion, other performances merely present the spiritual path as the personal, ascetic search for perfection, leaving any associations with real practices to the discretion of the spectators. Another answer suggests that real wars can be fought as spiritual endeavors, or that all true spiritual quests are, at least metaphorically, wars. Unlike traditional wayang, kontemporer performances do not have a spiritual function on their own. However, the interest in spirituality is still clearly relevant to thematic explorations of these performances.