Javanese Culture – Religion and beliefs

In the first article of this series on Javanese culture, I have introduced the Javanese history, language and cultural tradition. This second article will focus on the diversity of the religious practices among the Javanese.

According to the last census data available (2010), 97% of the inhabitants of the provinces of Central and East Java are Muslims, 2,5% Christians and the rest belonging to Hindu or Buddhist communities.

Yet the attitude of Javanese towards Islam can be very different from a person to another ; and the general attitude has also generally evolved dramatically in the last decades, mostly towards deeper Islamisation.

This article is largely based on the late work of historian M.C. Ricklef about the Islamisation of Java (2006, 2007 and 2012 books). I have also tried to capture the typical traditional beliefs of the Javanese that started to erode from the 1970s.

How the Javanese became Muslims

The Javanese have been exposed to successive foreign religions through history. Hindu temples from the 8th century are still standing on the Dieng plateau. The rulers of Java adopted Hinduism and Buddhism and combined them into a Javanese-Hindu-Buddhism.

From at least the 14th century, some Javanese aristocrats converted to Islam. But Islam most likely really started to circulate in the 16th century.

From the 16th century we have Javanese manuscripts which confirm that orthodox Islamic mysticism was taught in Java, but their use of Javanese rather than Arabic terms for crucial concepts tells us also of Islam’s accommodation within Javanese society, and of Javanese concepts being assimilated within local Islam” (Ricklefs, Polarizing Javanese Society).

Based on those writings (usually written as songs called suluk), it is assumed that mysticism – in the form of Sufism – was the dominant style of Islam.

In the Javanese tradition, Islam has been propagated through Java by 9 semi-historical missionaries called the Wali Sanga. The most famous of them is Sunan Kalijaga, who is credited with the building of the great mosque of Demak, allegedly the first one built in Java in the 15th century.

The graves of the Wali Sanga “became places of pilgrimage and through their legends they remain today symbols of how some people think Islamization should take place, by a process of accommodation with local culture. But there is no reliable historical evidence at all about these men or their doings” (Ricklefs, Islamisation and its opponents).

This early period of mutual assimilation reached another stage when in 1527 the last great (but then declining) Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Java, Majapahit, was defeated by the Islamized port-state Demak.

From this point, the following history of Java is sometimes depicted as a struggle between Islamized port-state influenced by foreign merchants and kingdoms of the interior striving to preserve their pre-Islamic heritage. But this is blatant oversimplification. We know for instance that members of the Majapahit elite converted to Islam 150 years before the fall of the kingdom.

Soon, the power returned to the interior kingdoms, holder of the ancient keraton (court) culture. Sultan Agung of Mataram kingdom, who reigned for 33 years over the Javanese heartland acted to reconcile Islamic and Javanese-Hinddu-Buddhist traditions.

But from his death (1646) until roughly 1755, Java will experience a century of wars and rebellion (often led by leaders claiming to act on the name of Islam).

After a final 5 years Java war (1925-1930), the actual colonial rule on Java start. By then, Rickliefs’ theory is that what he calls a ‘Mystic Synthesis’ had emerged. “From the beginning of Islam in Java in the 14th century to the 18th century, the society went through several stages of conflict and reconciliation of religious identities. By the end of this period the dominant mode of religious identity was what is here called mystic synthesis“. He defines it as following :

Within the capacious boundaries of Sufism, this synthesis rested on 3 main pillars :

  • A strong sense of Muslim identity : being a Javanese was to be Muslim.
  • Observation of the five pillars of Islamic ritual.
  • Despite the potential contradiction with the first two, acceptance of the reality of local Javanese spiritual forces such as Ratu Kidul (the Goddess of the Southern Ocean), Sunan Lawu (the spirit of Mount Lawu, essentially a wind god) and a host of lesser supernatural beings” (Ricklefs, Polarizing Javanese Society).

This ‘synthesis’ is attested by literature, for instance the Javanese classic poem Serat Centhini published in 1814, or by the story of prince Diponegoro (the leader of the Java war).

Based on reliable but limited evidence (early European observations), Ricklefs argues that the ‘Mystic Synthesis’ was found among the elite but also the commoners. So the Javanese society is supposed to be religiously rather homogenous at this period.

The polarization in the 19th century : abangan, santri and priyayi

According to Rickliefs, in the context of the new colonial rule (emergence of a middle class, improved transportation and communication), population explosion and Islamic reform and revivalism abroad, the consensus around the ‘Mystic Synthesis’ eroded.

In the course of about a century (1830-1930), a minority of the Javanese (the santri) adopted a more purified form of religious life while the majority (the abangan) rejected their pressure by neglecting their observance of Islam rituals.


A minority of the population even came to a point that they converted to Christianism.

The aristocracy of Java, coopted in the colonial administration and exposed to new ideas and intellectual horizons through the Dutch also detached herself from the first two groups. Abangan‘s practices and beliefs were often ridiculed and their relative proximity with the colonial state distanced themselves from the santri generally hostile to the Christian Dutch.

As political parties formed in revolutionary and newly independent Indonesia, Javanese society was mainly organized politically along putihan[santri]-abangan lines. This produced a communitarian rather than class-based political system based on what were called aliran (stream or channels)” (Ricklefs, Polarizing Java Society).

The outcome of this process was captured by the very influencial work of US anthropologist Clifford Geertz working in the village of Pare near Kediri in the 50s. He observed that the Javanese society was deeply divided in 3 distinct sociological groups :

  • Most of the peasants were abangan : they held communal feasts called slametan and believed in a variety of sprits. The dukun (witch doctor) played an important role in their daily life. They could be described as nominal Muslims, considering Islam as a mystic science among others.
  • Javanese that were taking the Islamic doctrine seriously were called santri. They lived together in specific wards of villages (the kauman) and sent their children to the pesantren (Islamic boarding school). They tended to be better off than the peasants, with many traders among them.
  • The traditional Javanese aristocracy had long defined itself as priyayi. They lived almost all in towns and usually served as functionaries under the Dutch administration. The major focus of their cultural identity were etiquette, art and mystical practices.

By Geertz’s time, the nominally Muslim abangan formed the majority of the population. They did believe in one God (called either Allah or Gusti) and in its prophet Muhammad, practiced circumcision, pronounced the Muslim confession of faith and had adopted the Muslim-style burial instead of the Hindu-Buddhist cremation. Generally they would believe that one’s actions during his lifetime will send him either to heaven or hell in the afterlife.

Yet many of them didn’t perform the 5 daily prayers, didn’t go to the Mosque on Friday and sometimes ate pork. They recognized the Qu’ran but usually had practically no knowledge of it. Most of them fasted during Ramadhan, but fasting was a already a popular practice inherited from Buddhism.

This view had such an impact that it is sometimes still taken for valid today. Retrospectively, Rickliefs comments that “by the time that Geertz and his collegues did their research in the 1950s, those categories – only a century old in some places, and probably much less than that where the Geertz team worked – seemed to be so profound that they must be very old, deeply rooted and enduring

But it was not that. It was not something that had existed from the beginning of Islamisation in Java at all. It was instead, a contingent circumstance arising from the specific historical experience of Javanese society over about a century.” (Ricklefs, Polarizing Java Society).

The deeper Islamisation of the 20th century

By 1965, 15 years-old Indonesia is more polarized and politicised than ever. There are the nationalist party (led by the President Suharto and sympathetic to the abangan), Muslim parties (supported by santri), the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) largely supported by abangan and the army whose leadership is both anti-PKI (after its attempt to take Madiun in 1948) and anti-Islamic (in response of the Darul Islam rebellion in West Java started in 1948).

In 1965, after a failed coup blamed on the PKI, the army led by General Suharto took power and engaged in large-scale eradication of Communists supporters (actual or suspected). No one clearly knows how much people were executed by it is estimated to be between 500’000 and 2 millions people. What is sure is that the PKI was eventually anihilated and the nationalist party of Sukarno (then president) sidelined (all political parties were banned from having local branches after 1971).

The nominal-Muslim abangan were in large parts simple villagers, without much of political culture. There was no religious education or doctrine among them, children simply absorbed the tradition by participating to rituals. Their life was their village, its harmony and solidarity were the most important values.

Besides the PKI and the PNI, there were not anymore national institutions defending and promoting their social, cultural and spiritual styles. In the villages, the santri institutions, that supported further Islamisation, could operate without structured opposition.

The New Order regime also didn’t intended to let existing Muslim organisation lead the religious life of Java, probably out of fear that political opposition could form in such an independent space. NU that had by the time the upper hand on rural education through its pesantren network was especially feared. The regime decided then to compete with them “to reshape and control the spirituality of Javanese” (Ricklefs).

From 1967, the Indonesian state required 2 to 3 hours of religious instruction a week in state schools. For Muslims (including the vast majority of abangan that officially identified as so), orthodox Islam was taught. “Pious Islam was identified with progress, modernity and development. Abangan were regarded as backward, ignorant peasants” (Ricklefs, Islamization and Its Opponents).

Progressively, large tracts of abangan communities became more observant Muslims, while others, a clear minority, became followers of other faiths such as Christianism or Hinduism (in its modern Balinese form).

For a majority of Javanese, “deeper Islamisation offered a template to define the parameters of restored village harmony – one sanctioned by supra-village authorities, both governmental and religious, and associated with modernity and development.

Thus we can reasonably presume that when deeper Islamisation was promoted by religious organisations in the interests of their pious agendas and by the government in the interest of its social-control agenda, many Javanese villagers willingly embraced it in the interest of restoring village harmony.” (Ricklefs, Islamisation and Its Opponents in Java).

The consequence of this evolution are captured in this comment by anthropoligist Robert Hefner (quoted in Ricklefs) : “By the 1980s anthropologists and journalists were reporting that normative Islam was making great progress in many former strongholds of secular nationalism, while public Javanism was in decline. The institutions of public Javanism were hit particularly hard. In most of the countryside, for example the lavish communal rituals (slametan desa) celebrated by Javanists at village spirit shrines (dhanyang), so vividly captured in Clifford Geertz’s Religion of Java had disappeared by the late 1980s. Where they survive, most operate as private celebrations no longer sanctioned by local authorities… By the 1980s, there was clear evidence of Islamic revival and Javanist decline… The policies of the New Order state made … full-blown public Javanism untenable”.

Visible symbols from this period are for instance the or the considerable popularisation of Islamic veil (while in the late 70s only 3% of the female students on the campus of Gajah Mada University of Yogyakarta wore the jilbab, they were over 60% by early 2000s).

Starting in the 1980s, through foreign influence both inside and outside Indonesia, “Revivalist and Islamist approaches to Islam became more visible, more active and more confident“.

The military elite saw a potential ally – and encouraged – Revivalist and other generally conservative views of Islam as a way of countering globalization with its human rights and democratization agendas” (Ricklefs, Islamization and Its Opponents).

Beyond their global influence on the practice of Islam by the Javanese, this process also led to the later emergence of clearly Islamist political parties (like modern PKS or the HTI movements) defending the instauration of a caliphate instead of the Republic or the instauration of Islamic law in Indonesia.

The dominant status of Islam in modern Java

Despite our lack of actual statistics, it is probably true that Javanese santri were a minority by the time of the Independence (1945). By 1998 (the fall of the New Order regime) there were still no accurate statistics (neither now), but it’s most likely that the abangan have became a minority “and in any case were politically voiceless and insignificant” (Ricklefs, Islamization and Its Opponents).

It is reasonable to conclude that by the early 21st century, a strong sense of Islamic identity and widespread orthopraxy characterized much of Javanese society. Even if people who responded to the surveys exaggerated their Muslimness, their doing so would reflect the dominance of an Islamised identity and discourse in Javanese society” (Ricklefs, Islamization and Its Opponents).

In the 1950s, abangan had no hesitation to express their lack of interest in prayer or fasting or the pilgrimage, even to show contempt for santri practice and belief; sixty years later, such views – where still held – were more likely to be concealed” (Ricklefs, Islamization and Its Opponents).

As opposed to the 50s and the early 60s, there is now no more significant political opposition to the deeper Islamisation of the Javanese society.

There is only difference of opinion about what shape Islamic life should take, the extent to which variety and pluralism within Islam are acceptable or desirable, how Islamic society should relate to the significant non-Muslim minorities in its midst and what role Islam (or, indeed, religion more generally) should pay in public life“. The core of the debate nowadays is about :

  • The acceptability (or not) or what the Islamists want : and Islamised state and public space.
  • A profound competition about how to know what the Islamic revelation means and who can claim authority to interpret that revelation. So we see an ongoing contest among differing epistemologies – mainly Traditionalist, Modernist (which look increasingly like each other) and Revivalist – and competing social, cultural and political agendas.” (Ricklefs, Islamization and Its Opponents).

Pre-Islamic elements of the Javanese culture

Despite this centuries-old process of Islamisation that I have just described, the Javanese culture remains largely influenced by its ancient heritage. In this section, I attempted to described some of its aspects, basing myself mostly on the Religion of Java written by Clifford Geertz in the 60s.

The origin of Java old magic

In an old manuscrit from the Majapahit era (15th century), the Tantu Pagelaran, one can finds an origin myth for the island of Java.

Java was initially an island floating freely on the ocean, which made it very unstable. When Batara Guru (Shiva) commanded that the island must be populated, the God decided to attach a part of the Indian moutain Mahameru to Java to stabilize it.

The detached piece of moutain (the Meru) was carried through the ocean by Wisnu transformed into a turtle and Brahma into a giant naga serpent. It was eventually laid at the place of the current Mount Semeru, while the fragments that it dropped on its way became the other Javanese volcanoes.

Shiva then came to Java and made the summit of the Semeru its abode. He became the first ruler of Java and men took its succession afterwards. As in other places of South-East Asia, Hindu kings of Java were thus considered as the incarnation of the supreme God (here Shiva because Shivaism prevailed).

Thanks to its divine origin, Javanese kings and princes were thought to have magical spiritual powers (kasekten or sakti) that would then radiate throughout their kingdom.

In the wayang (shadow theatre) stories, the heroes concentrate so much power when they meditate that they can make the sea boil. They can fly through the air or shot arrows that turn into thousands of serpents or demons.

A land of spirits

The traditional landscape of the Javanese was populated by a wide array of spiritual forces.

In myths, such as the royal chronicles of the Badad Tanah Jawi from the 17th century, Java is even depicted at its origin as covered with primeval forests and without inhabitants but the native spirits. As men populated the island, cleared the forests for ricefields and set up villages, the spirits fled into the craters of volcanoes, to the woods or to the depths of the Southern Sea.

The most powerful of them were attached to specific places such as Nyai Lara Kidul, the Goddess of the Southern Sea (which was thought to marry all the kings of Java) or Sunan Lawu, a kind of wind God that inhabitated the summit of Mount Lawu.

Every Javanese village had in the past at least one major danjang, inhabiting a shrine and protecting them if appropriately propitiated. Many places such as small Hindu ruins, large banyan trees, old grave, specially-shaped rock were believed to be punden, a sacred place inhabited by its resident spirit.

In the countryside, Javanese also used to believe in a very diverse variety of spirits that could be potentially dangerous : sundel bolong which appears as a beautiful naked woman with a large hole in the middle of her back behind her long black hairs, lelembut that are invisible beings able to possess one’s body, tujul that were children spirit able to steal without being detected that could be controlled by a human master in a kind of devil pact …

The list is potentially endless. As Geertz has noted : “abangan spirit beliefs are not part of a consistent, systematic and integrated scheme, but are rather a set of concrete, specific, rather sharply defined discrete images – unconnected visual metaphors giving form to vague and otherwise incomprehensible experiences“.

Through the wayang puppets (inspired by the Hindu mythology as well as Buddhist sacred stories), Javanese were familiar to several deities (dewata) called either Batara (for male) or Dewi (for female), for instance their king Batara Guru (associated to Shiva in the Hindu mythology). But they had “very little meaning in the religious and ceremonial life of the Javanese” (Koentjaraningrat).

The exceptions are Dewi Sri, the goddess of fertility and rice, who plays a central role in rituals pertaining to agriculture. Batara Kala, god of time, decay, destruction and death, is also important for the ruwatan ceremony to repel misfortune and calamities.


An another important Javanese belief was that power could be accumulated in special objects. The most powerful of them were undoubtedly the keris daggers. Some legendary keris were even believed to possess their own will and to be able to kill without physically touching anything.

Keris Java
An exposed keris in Solo

Besides keris, spears, banners or gamelan could possibily be charged with kasekten. In 1931, the Sultan of Yogyakarta under its people pressure paraded the royal regalia in his streets to ward off an epidemic.

Protective amulets (jimat) prepared by a dukun (shaman) were also routinely worn. Similar beliefs were held towards gemstones (batu akik) that are thought to host a spirit. Every design has its own name and is supposed to bring special benefits : tapak jalak make the wearer strong and powerful, kendit brings protection against one’s ennemy, cempaka favors romantic life…

The dukun

The master of the Javanese lore of curing, sorcery and magic is the dukun, the general magical specialist. They are still common in nowadays Java.

Being a dukun means dealing with powerful forces that can drive one’s crazy is not spiritually strong enough. For this reason, the office of dukun is often hereditary. The dukun must learn the science (ilmu) from a mentor.

The most common kind of ilmu is specific : a dukun will be proficient in finding lost objects or getting someone rich or attracting the affection of someone else spouse… Memories of ancient “generic” ilmu that allowed some dukun to turn into a tiger or to fly have been passed on the oral tradition but it is widely believed to be lost now.

Besides the ilmu (Javanese ngelmu), the dukun is well versed in a number of mystical practices that help him to fulfill his office. Ascetic discipline (like extended fasts or long time of wakeful meditation), chanted passages from the Koran and magical formulas written in Arabic, amulets, herbs and spells are common tools of the dukun. As Geertz noted : “partial skeptism about dukun and their ability to do the things they claim to do is nearly universal. Everyone believes in dukun in general but opinions about a particular ones vary tremendously“.

Dukun most prestigious duty is to cure afflictions. They are well aware of the psychological aspects of their powers and they often make a clear distinction between diseases with a physicial causes, that can be adressed by Western medicines, and the others one for which doctors cannot find anything. The most common cause of the second category of illness is to be entered by a spirit.

The key in the dukun‘s curing abilities is his spiritual powers. Patients very often get herbal medicine or massage, but the dukun will always add a spell to it to make it powerful by chanting or spitting over it. The most powerful dukun simply gives tea in which they have spat to their patients.

The dukun through its concentration and his chanting also acts as a medium between the patient and the spirits. He can locate the entry point of a lelembut in one’s body and pulling it out by massaging the point or call back the two guardian spirits of the patient to chase them off.

Sometimes, the dukun will simply advise to move the position of the toilet in the house or to rebury one’s child umbilical cord.

Dukun can cure but can also deal damages to people, even if they usually deny to practice sihir (sorcery).

Black magic is mostly used to make the victim horribly sick. But it also has the power to make a person come to place against his will (gendam), fall in love with someone (guna-guna) or to fall asleep (sirep) so that they can be robbed without risk. The only defense against sihir is to hire another more powerful dukun that can return the magic against the ennemy.

I found this interesting comment in Mulder : “it is politic to distinguish the guru kebatinan [mystical teacher] from other practitioners of Javanese esoterism, such as dukun. Mystical masters see themselves as sepuh or wong tuwa – respected and respectable elders whose wisdom, revealed wahyu, and benevolent inclinations make them father-figures in relation to those who depend on their insights and advice. The source of their wisdom is with and within themselves. In this sense, they are very different from dukun who are basically shaman, people who go into trance, who are possessed by spirits and who cultivate contacts with an underworld of black-magical forces. The power comes from without, they do not harbour power within the own person. Besides, they exercise their craft for a fee; they are not free of pamrih such as the mystical teacher should be“.

Movements within Javanese Islam

Traditionalists and Modernists

In the late 19th century, santri Javanese going on the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca in growing numbers were exposed to reformist Islamic movements from Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood) and Saudi Arabia (Wahhabism) that praised the necessity to return to the “uncorrupted” Islam of the time of the prophet. At their return they started to spread this new vision, alongside new immigrant Arab traders (most of them Hadhramauts) that settled at this period in Indonesian towns.

They were called Modernist because they defended a reformed Islam opposed, in their eyes, to the archaic practices of the Traditionalists.

So even at a time when pious Muslims were largely in minority, different conceptions of Islam were prevailing in Java.

  • The Traditionalists claim the historical heritage of Javanese Islam. Their Islam is primarily based on customs inherited from their parents and the consensus of the kyai (charismatic religious leader), “with its legal thinking rooted in the four orthodox schools of Sunni Islam and is much influenced by Sufism and the long history of Islam in Javanese cultural contexts” (Ricklefs, Islamization and Its Opponents).

They are mostly found in the countryside that is dotted by their network of independent boarding schools (pesantren). They are represented by the Nahdlatul Ulama, an organisation claiming 40 millions members today.

They tend to believe that anything good that is not specifically forbidden in the Qu’ran and Hadiths as religious practice can be accepted. They are also familiar with certain forms of mysticism : kyais are, still today, widely regarded as having supernatural powers. They can obtain ilmu laduni, a knowledge of divine origin that God can gift to a Sufi practitioner. Such mystical knowledge can grant the ability to communicate with the dead, to cure the sick (often via a magical blowing of the breath called nyuwuk), confer invulnerability or have the gift of prophecy.

Overall they historically accomodated Javanese traditions to promote Islamisation. On the other hand, they were often behind Modernists on social issues : for instance NU approved the education of women only in 1943 while Muhammadiyah promoted it from its inception in 1912.

  • The Modernists defend an Islam based on the Qu’ran and the Hadith. Doing so imply to be able to read, understand and analyse the texts hence Modernists have from the beginning been very active in the field of education (both religious and secular). They deny the authority of the four Sunni schools of law to understand Islam, because they see them as a source of medieval obscurantism. They are also opposed to Sufism.

Their general rule is that any religious practice not allowed by the Qu’ran and Hadiths should be rejected.

They dominate urban areas and are represented by the Muhammadiyah organisation claiming around 30 millions members.

The Modernists are long-opponents of many traditional Javanese rituals such as slametan, grave cults, mysticism and spirits that they tend to consider as backwards nonsense.

  • Both Muhammadiyah and NU are usually described, both by observers and themselves, as ‘moderate’ organisations. They accept the existence of the Republic of Indonesia and oppose to violent groups.

As Masdar Hilmy observed : “despite their wide reputation as being ‘moderate’ organisations, some segments of these organisations are surprisingly sympathetic to key points of the Islamists’ agenda. That is why their rethoric can at times be remarkably similar to that of Islamist groups“.

Both movements are in practice animated by complex struggles for leadership between Liberal and Conservative factions. Nonetheless they have always strongly reacted against attempts from Islamist militants to infiltrate their ranks.

Such ‘extremists’ movement such as the Front Pembela Islam (a mass organisation of clear Salafist obedience), the terrorist Jemaah Islamiyah or the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (that supports the instauration of an Islamic caliphate) have emerged publicly in the 2000s.

Javanese Islam today

Already in the early 90s, anthropologist Andrew Beatty observed in the far east of Java (Banyuwangi) that “in Geertz’s presentation, one gains the impression that practitioners of the three religion variants inhabit separate worlds and each is constituent of his or her separate identity. However, as we know, much of rural Java is populated by heterogeneous communities, and many individuals in these communities are neither clearly santri nor abangan but something in between“.

There are obviously kejawen extremists persuaded that Java was corrupted by Islam and who wants to return to Majapahit golden age. There are also Islamist militants that advocate the instauration of the Islamic law and the disappearance of the Republic of Indonesia to join a global Islamic caliphate. Both points of view exist but represent a tiny minority of the Javanese that in their majority navigate between these two extrems (even though the Islamists are sometimes able to influence Indonesia’s politics while kejawen are insignificant).

The “gravity center” of the Javanese society has obviously shifted towards more orthodoxy but in their private life, many Javanese still practice a tolerant and rather relaxed Islam. The apparent popularity of the hijrah movement (rather nominal Muslims deciding to suddenly turn very pious and strict on the prayers and other Islamic rituals) illustrates both the ongoing trend towards deeper Islamisation but also that many Indonesian (and in turn Javanese) are still not much concerned by religious matters.

The role of the keraton of Yogyakarta and Surakarta

In Central Java (but not in East Java), the keraton (court) have long been regarded as the repositary of the older Javanese spiritual ideas. They were believed to have intimate connections with the Goddess of the Southern Seas (they would marry) and the spirits of Mount Merapi and Mount Lawu.

Because of his role in the Revolution, the Sultan of Yogyakarta remained in office and still holds the authority over the Special District of Yogyakarta. The Sultan of Surakarta on the other hand lost all authority outside of his court.

The current Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwana X took office in 1988. Shortly after, he became the first Javanese ever to undertake the pilgrimmage to Mecca. The Sultan identifies as a Muslim but also seem to accept local spiritual phenomena. It is thus the heir of the 200 years old Mystic Synthesis.

The Yogyakarta keraton still continue to carry out the traditional rituals such as the bathing of the royal pusaka or the yearly labuhan offerings carried by a procession to the Southern Ocean and the summit of sacred volcanoes.

In Surakarta, offerings are still made to the pre-Islamic goddess Durga in the forest of Krendawahana north of Surakarta.

In both courts, the sacred bedhaya dance are still performed, even though their invocation of the presence of the Goddess of the Southern Ocean is fading out.

Kebatinan and kejawen

Kebatinan is the name given to Javanese mystic sects. Batin is a term derived from Arabic that designates the “inner core” of man (as opposed the the lain). So kebatinan can be translated as a “science of the inner man”.

The practice of kebatinan can best be observed through participation in the aliran kebatinan (mystical groups or sects) with which many Javanese have some experience or other. Invariably, these groups grow around the person of a guru. His science, or ngelmu, may have been taught to him by his father or another guru, or may derive from the study of Javanese ethical and mystical literature.

But the real source of his knowledge is his wahyu, the revelation he received as a result of his successful and conscientious practice of the mystical discipline“.

Because of this latter characteristic,Javanese mysticism lacks a systematic theology, and the theories, practices, and methods of advancing along the mystical path vary considerably among the sects. Most guru stress the originality of their revelations or intuitive insights while denying knowledge from books or the influence of tradition. They feel that they start anew, and most aliran kebatinan do not survive the death of their originators for long” (Mulder).

In the 1950s and 60s, several groups had nonetheless become more organized such as Sapta Darma or Pangestu. They typically seek to teach their members about, what they regard, as the true understanding of the world.

Andrew Beatty described the teaching of the Sangkan Paran group in the 90s :

The sect claims not to teach religion or occult science (ilmu) but merely ‘knowledge of humanity’. This is partly a matter of religious politics since Javanism survives in modern Indonesia by keeping a low profile.

The teaching of the sect are contained in a series of progressively more secret writings and in complementary oral tradition, part of which is also secret :

  • Little official handbook issued to members containing litany, a set of moral prescriptions and a digest of the founder Joyokusomo’s ideas concerning the human constitution. This booklet is periodically inspected by the authorities, usually after complaints by santris, and is the official face of the sect
  • A fuller account of the ideas is found in a hand-written text compiled by one of Joyokusomo’s closest disciple : obscurely phrased and depends for its understanding on further elucidation.
  • Two esoteric manuals compiled by disciples for the advanced student ; contain mantras and prayers, schemes of correspondences between parts of the body, letters, numbers, as well as diagrams of human ontogeny and schemas based on the Sufi-derived doctrine of emanation.

The key formulas, which contain the essence of the teaching are communicated verbally, in pitch darkness, during initiation

In 1955, 70 kebatinan groups founded the All Indonesia Kebatinan Congress Body (Badan Kongres Kebatinan Seluruh Indonesia, BKKI) in Semarang. Until the early 70s, they were some efforts to have the government to recognize kebatinan as an official religion recognized by the Constitution.

But the kebatinan faced government suspicion (despite having many elements of the military including Suharto himself well-versed in Javanese mysticism) as well as Muslim leaders’ antipathy. In 1965, many kebatinan groups regarded as close to Communists were banned by the New Order and in the tense context of the anti-Communist slaughter, many followers of the kebatinan converted to one of the official religion in the fear of being accused of lacking a religion (which was shortly interpreted as Communism).

In 1973, the status of kebatinan was definetly settled when the government placed them under the authority of the Ministry of Culture as a ‘beliefs’ denying them for good the for a time desired status of official religion.

Across the whole Indonesia, Sapta Dharma claimed to have 4 millions followers in 2008. But their influence on the Javanese society is clearly lower than it was before Suharto.

  • Kejawen (litteraly Javanese or Javanist) has emerged as a new term for those who claim their authentic Javanese identity. It is also a response to the old accusation of being without religion ; kejawen claim to possess a coherent set of beliefs assimilated to a religion.

Up into the 60s, the word kebatinan equated with Javanist mysticism. Yet not everybody appeared to be happy to be regarded as such. According to certain modern mystical movements, such as Pangestu, the kejawen mystical tradition entailed much more than training the batin (inner core of man) to meet with its divine origin” (Mulder).

Modern kebatinan followers also seem to prefer to call themselves kejawen.

The persistance of old Javanese rituals

It is clear that key institutions of the abangan Javanese have largely died out. The reciprocal series of slametan feasts that rythmed the life in the village have mostly disappeared. Nonetheless if you spend some time living in Java, you’ll realize that on signficiant occasions a nasi tumpeng (rice pyramid) will be often bring along at one point or another.

Many village shrines have been left unattended or even destroyed. But the fear of spooks and ghosts is still extremely common in Java. Sometimes they are referred to as Islamic djinns but often under their old local name.

Dukun are still an institution in Java and are routinely consulted. Jimat (amulets) are especially sought after by young Javanese during examination. Some entire families do make a living in modern Indonesia as pawang hujan (rain shaman).

In villages, you can still attend rituals such as bersih desa (village spiritual cleaning) or ruwatan (mass exorcism) on special occasions. Abangan practice is most often mixed with Traditionalist Islam such as the observance of tahlilan (repetitive chanting of the first part of the confession of faith ‘that there is no God but God’, slawatan (songs about the life of the Prophet in Javanese music style) or dhikr (recitation of pious formulae as a mystical exercice).

Javanese Culture Series


  • C.Geertz – The Religion of Java (1960).
  • Koentjaraningrat – Javanese Culture (1985).
  • Andrew Beatty – Varieties of Javanese Religion (1999)
  • Niels Mulder – Mysticism in Java. Ideology in Indonesia (1998).
  • B. Anderson – Language and Power. Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (reprint from 1990).
  • M.C. Ricklefs – Polarizing Javanese Society. Islamic and others visions (c.1830-1930) (2007)
  • M.C. Ricklefs – Islamisation and Its Opponents in Java (c.1930 to the Present) (2012)

I compiled a general bibliography about Indonesia in this article.

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