Indonesia's Shadowy Mysticism

In early 1942, when Japan seized the Dutch East Indies, a boy named Harri Widodo lost his leg and found his vision.

A Japanese artillery shell killed his family and injured him, leaving him with a realization: "I was the only one who lived, so I thought I was special." After a period of fasting and meditation, "suddenly I knew everything."

Today Mr. Widodo is a spiritual adviser and interpreter of this culture's mystical undercurrents. It is as if, he says, an inner, private television conveys information about the unseen world.

Last July Indonesia entered a dark period, Widodo says, of which this country's huge economic problems are but one manifestation. The only way to stop the turmoil, he adds, is for President Suharto to step down.

Indonesia, particularly the main island of Java, is described as a mystical place, a territory of sacred daggers and unseen forces. Mingled with the imported religions are beliefs that give many Indonesians an alternative way of comprehending reality.

Mr. Suharto, who has run this nation for 32 years, is a master of using Java's culture and mysticism to solidify power. Now this dynamic may be working against him.

Role of Mysticism In the Politics of Java

In addition to the complex economic and political problems facing this country, many Indonesians say, he is facing the erosion of his mystical mandate to rule.

For a king to claim divine authority is truly the original spin, but this political device still carries weight in Asia. Thailand's king is venerated as a god and even the communist leadership in Beijing benefits from the "mandate from Heaven" long claimed by Chinese emperors.

The importance of wahyu

Since at least the early 17th century, the kings of Java, the home of half of Indonesia's 200 million people and the source of its political culture, have cited wahyu, or divine light, as evidence of their right to rule. Suharto has never proclaimed that he is a Javanese king nor has he publicly basked in his wahyu, but many have attributed the qualities to him, at least until recently.

"Most people think he lost this wahyu when his wife died" two years ago, says Daniel Sparringa, a sociologist at Airlingga University in Surabaya, the major city of eastern Java.

Mr. Sparringa could be classed as an opponent of Suharto, since he has helped student organizers who are calling for the president to step down, but he voices a view held by many Indonesians.

Paul Stange, an American expert on Indonesian cultural history who teaches at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, was in the country when Suharto's wife, Tien, passed on. "I was immediately struck by how people were interpreting her death as being a statement of the end of his power," he recalls.

In true Javanese fashion, this idea has been converted to humor.

One story imagines Suharto and the two eldest of his six children sitting down to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan this February. "Well, Father," one of the children says, "after 32 years, don't you think its time to consider stepping back and spending more time with your grandchildren?"

"What do you mean?" Suharto replies. "I've only been in charge for two years - the rest was your mother."

Whether or not Mrs. Suharto took the wahyu with her is open to interpretation, but her passing meant the end of an aristocratic sheen for the president, since she was descended from a Javanese royal family. Widodo was one of the late first lady's spiritual advisers and says the president's power resided in her. "She was born to be the wife of a ruler," he says.

The president is a skilled "supernaturalist" in his own right, he adds, but is clinging to power even though he knows he should leave office. Indonesia's troubles - among them a collapsed economy, two years of drought and forest fires, and the occasional earthquake and plane crash - are said to be signs of disordered universe in which the gods are unhappy with the earthly ruler, one whose wahyu has waned.

Wahyu is one of the many elements of Javanese culture that underlie the religious life of the island's modern-day inhabitants.

It is common for Javanese to see certain mountains, talismans, and puppet performances as sacred, even though the vast majority describe themselves as Muslims and pray to Allah.

Javanese mysticism, says Mr. Stange, offers a means for believers to strive for a sense of union with the divine. Many Javanese venerate objects, places, and ancestral spirits, but Stange says believers see a single entity "beyond all the forms."

Absorbing religions

This mystical tradition may predate Java's many infusers of foreign religion - including Hindu traders from India, Muslim merchants from the Middle East, and Buddhist and Christian missionaries - but it has certainly absorbed elements from them. Javanese shadow puppetry generally tells tales from Hindu epics, but their interpretation is considered full of mystical meaning. And Javanese mystics, Stange adds, have very deeply assimilated Islam's strong emphasis on monotheism.

A good example is Hadisukismo, a seer who lives in a village in central Java, near the cultural capital of Yogyakarta. He credits "Dragon King," his kris or sacred dagger, with spiritual power that has brought success to him and his children, one of whom is a district official.

And where Widodo says an inner television imparts spiritual information, Mr. Hadisukismo reports that some rocks in his garden serve as a "telephone" that allows periodic communication with "Allah." He has made the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and uses a stamp obtained there when he signs documents.

His assessment of Suharto's wahyu, however, runs counter to what seems to be the prevailing view. "It's still strong," he says, explaining that Indonesia's leader bathes in water from a sacred lake to stay spiritually fit.

Questioning Suharto's beliefs

Some observers, however, question whether Suharto's rituals are indeed matters of faith. "Suharto doesn't believe in that," says one Jakarta lawyer and opposition leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He does it to get attention."

The lawyer argues that Suharto has shrewdly performed his duties as a Muslim for political gain and suggests that signing a letter of intent with the International Monetary Fund was more of a ritual performance than a true commitment to reform.

At the same time, accounts circulate about steps Suharto has taken to shore up his mystical strength.

Aristides Katoppo is a journalist and author from the island of Sulawesi who manifests a certain skepticism for Javanese mysticism. Asked how much it really matters, he smiles and raises his eyebrows. "In a way, quite a bit," he says.

Of puppeteers and politics

By way of explanation, he tells a long story about Suharto asking an associate to arrange for the performance of a ceremony and shadow puppet play that would reattach the nail or pin that is said to secure the island of Java to the earth. "I was told the president's seer had told him the anchor of Java had come unstuck," Mr. Katoppo says.

The associate dutifully commissioned the ritual and the puppet performance, known as a wayang, but the depth of his loyalty was ambiguous. It seems the wayang was open to interpretation - and Katoppo suggests one meaning was to underscore the popular frustration in Indonesia.

Since the ritual was performed a year ago, things in this country have only worsened and the level of frustration has risen. "I'm a rationalist," Katoppo says. "But those are facts."

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