Introduction to Indonesian Philosophy/Leluhur as Our First Philosophers

Indonesians have a generic term for calling their forefathers in the past, leluhur (literally, ‘the virtuous ones’) or nenek-moyang (literally, ‘the clever grandmothers ‘). In fact, they are really clever and virtuous. Our first kind of Homo sapiens who lived in 6000 centuries BC, Homo Wajakensis, had thought of abstract thing such as ‘death’. It is said that the Indonesian word mati or mate (death) had been a well-known word to the Old World of Middle East that the Koran of Islam—the Arabic literary classic of 7 century AD—mentioned it as mawt, Arabic pronunciation of the Old-Polynesian mate or mati, besides the word kapur (English, camphor) which was mentioned in the Koran as kâfûr when describing joys in Paradise. We inherit many mythologies of origin, which tell the first thought of the origin of death.

In the Mesolithic age, our leluhur had understood reality as unity. They did not separate yet ‘the signifier’ (the concept we make) and ‘the signified’ (reality outside us)—using the terms of Saussure. Reality is one. Having understood this way, our leluhur made painting of a pig in the cave of Pattakere (South Sulawesi). They drew in the cave a pig with an arrow breaking its heart, hoping that what they drew would be real: they would succeed in hunting the pig with their arrows later or the next day. They thought what they drew would be real. The drawing, in their mind, is reality, because ‘the signifier’ is always ‘the signified’.[12] In the same way they decorated their bodies with red color, thinking that red color meant blood and blood meant source of life. If they colored bodies with red, they believed that they would have life energy more and more added.[13]

In the Neolithic era (3500–2500 BC), our leluhur had more developed. They had understood the spirituality of universe. They created smoothly-grinded stone axes, used for their religious rites and for talisman, since they believed that the axes had got spirit or ‘soul inside’. In Java, souls were believed to reside in stone ornaments.[14] In the Mentawai Islands (West Sumatra), our leluhur believe that everything possesses a soul—not only living beings such as men and animals, but also objects such as stones, trees, rivers, caves, the stars, the moon, the sun, rain, the rainbow, the wind. The soul is a brother, a shadow, a counterpart of everything existing in the world. The soul is an independent entity, quite capable of detaching itself from its physical brother or counterpart. The souls of different entities can meet with each other, and influence each other. When a man’s soul leaves his body, it sees many things, meets with other souls, talks to them, and listens to them, and when it comes back to the body, it may tell the man of its experiences. These are then the dreams men dream. The soul may even go wandering and traveling while the man is awake. The Mentawaian would understand when a man or a woman is moody—his or her soul is experiencing something unpleasant in its wanderings. The Batak calls the soul his tondi; the Minangkabau calls sumange; the Torajan calls tanoana, while The Nias has his noso. [15]

In the Bronze-Iron age, our leluhur had reached the knowledge of ‘two worlds’: ‘the world of dead men’ and ‘the world of living beings’. It is known from the paintings on their bronze kettledrums. They painted on kettledrums a ship, but not for sailing oceans. The ship, it is believed, is for carrying the soul of a dead man from this world of living beings to the world of dead men.[16] The motif of the boat is not only on their kettledrums, but also is to be found in the architecture of houses. In Savu Island, a house has a bow and aft, and the motif of the ship of the dead or the ship of the souls (men on a boat) is found among the Dayak (especially in the tiwah festive day) and the Lampong, while the Torajan call their coffin a prau (boat).[17]

Almost at the same age came the Megalithic age, when our leluhur began worshipping their ancestors. They felt the need to choose leader of community, since their social organization had been well established. They selected as the leader the strongest man in his body and soul, the richest of all inhabitants, the most attentive to his people. When a man was chosen to be leader of community, he had a right to build a monument to commemorate his existence, a menhir. Through this menhir, when he was dead, a generation after can commemorate his merits and deeds to his community. The menhir used for commemorational aim later changed into its use for worshipping. His people believed that the leader would always watch over them and protect the community from any danger. They then began worshipping the leaders. They also developed more the belief of the residence of soul. They believed that the leaders’ souls (which became their ancestors) resided in the highest mountain ever. That’s why their menhir is always shaped like multi-leveled structure (Indonesian, punden berundak-undak), that is, to symbolize the height of the residence of souls. Under the punden, our leluhur always buried the bodies of ancestors, so as to easily worship them.[18] The shape of punden is verily Indonesian original. The Borobudur Temple, having been wrongly believed as an Indian-style building, had been build instead on the scheme of punden berundak-undak. In the burial located under the menhir, our leluhur also put glass beads, iron and bronze tools in the same grave, since they believed those to be things to wear and to use in ‘the world of the dead’.[19]

So far as our leluhur is concerned, we can conclude that our leluhur of the past time had reached instinctively and intuitively by their budi some high level of spirituality, which later would be of very much use in their encounter with the foreign philosophies of India and of Persia.

Chinese immigrants came to Indonesia in 1122-222 BC, but they wholeheartedly assimilated to Indonesian way of life. They became part of our leluhur too. Meanwhile, Indian foreigners came to Indonesia in 320 BC and they began to attract our leluhur with their sophisticated system of philosophy. I can understand how our leluhur were very attracted by this Indian philosophy. I have been studying Hinduism and Buddhism recently and I cannot help admiring at these philosophies so much. Only at a short glance of reading these Indian authoritative texts, I believe, anyone can get verily attracted. So did our leluhur in the past.

Our leluhur had known already that the universe was full of spirits. Ancestors, when being dead, were also spirits. They also believed that the spirits or the souls had special residences. And, they reached the understanding of the ‘two worlds`. All these beliefs were more developed by the adoption of the Indian philosophy. Indian Hindus, actually, in many parts gave them new ‘names` for the things our leluhur had known or they materialized what our leluhur had spiritualized. Leluhur called spirits or souls with many names; Hindus materialized and personified them and called them deva (god) or devi (goddess), manifestations of Brahman. Leluhur had belief in punden berundak-undak as the highest residence of spirits; Hindus called it anew as Mahameru Mountain. Leluhur had known ‘the world of the dead` and ‘the world of the living`; Hindus called them as Shiva (manifestation of the Infinite Transcendental Spirit) and Kali (the finite world of Nature). What our leluhur verily lacked was the concept of Supreme Spirit, which was also the One. Hindus mentioned Him as Brahman.

Our leluhur owed Indians too in devaraja cult. Some kings like Sanjaya of Hindu-Mataram, Airlangga (1007-1049) and his descendants from Kameshvara I to Kertajaya, asked some Brahmins to consecrate them through complex Hindu rituals and to insert ‘divine essence` to their bodies, in order that they could incarnate Shiva (the god of destruction, the god of reproduction, the god of asceticism, the god of meditation, the god of dancing art, the god of salvation, manifestation of Brahman) and Vishnu (the god of preservation, the god of sustainment, manifestation of Brahman).[20]

The utmost spiritual achievement that our leluhur had gained in 8 century AD is the concept of the unity of truth of religions. Hinduism and Buddhism—two different philosophies of the same Indian origin—were considered by our leluhur as containing the same truth. King Vishnu (775-782), who was a devout Buddhist, did not feel ashamed to name himself with a Hindu god`s name. Sambhara Suryavarana, a Buddhist writer who lived in the Kingdom of Hindu Mataram, overtly praised a Hindu King Sindok in his Buddhist sacred literature Sang Hyang Kamahayanikan. Mpu Prapãnca (1335-1380) wrote Negarakertagama, in which he blended Shaivism and Buddhism, while Mpu Tantular, a writer who lived in the era of Hayam Wuruk (1350-1389), wrote Kakawin Sutasoma, who also intentionally blended Shaivism and Buddhism.[21] Mpu Tantular said in his Kakawin Sutasoma:

Rwâneka dhâtu winuwus Buddha Wiswa,

Bhinnêki rakwa ring apan kena parwanosen,

Mangka ng Jinatwa kalawan Siwatatwa tunggal,

Bhinnêka tunggal ika tan hana dharma mangrwa.[22]

(It is said that the well known Buddha and Shiva are two different substances,

They are indeed different, yet how is it possible to recognize their difference in a glance,

since the truth of Jina (Buddha) and the truth of Shiva is one,

they are indeed different, but they are of the same kind, as there is no duality in Truth.)

Our leluhur of Java learned and mastered the Indian esthetics (kavya) very fast. They applied their learning by founding clubs of ‘poet laureate’. The royal poets are called kawi-kawi or mpu, and their poetry called kakawin. The poets are so called, because they used in their poetry-writing Bahasa Kawi—esthetic Old Javanese language created and utilized amongst kawi-kawi clubs. These kawi-kawi believed in the divine inspiration, by which they were ‘guided’ to make very esthetic poems. They believed that deva or devi would fall down to earth, bless them, manifest within and ‘reside’ in their kakawin as well, like residing in temples. They prayed Indian devas like Vishnu, Shiva, Kama, Ratih or sometimes Sarasvati before writing kakawin on the firm belief that by doing so those devas would happily help them compose very artistic poems. No wonder then that their kakawins have godly quality.[23] Mpu Panuluh, a kawi who wrote a very wonderful kakawin, explained how he wrote his Kakawin Hariwangsa:

To far, faraway mountain peaks I always wander to do my worship, longing for communication with the world of gods. My heart is focused on worshipping god Vishnu, hoping that He would willingly come down to my heart as He would to a lotus. My worship of Vishnu through this Samadhi (meditation) only has one purpose, that is, I hope I can manage in writing a kalangö (an esthetic work) and I hope He willingly helps me through His power write a poem, by which I can establish my stand amongst those who deserve to be called kawi (esthetic poet).[24]

For 7 centuries our leluhur had learned many things from the Indian civilization and culture. They were fast and creative learners. Called creative in the sense that, after receiving many Indian elements, our leluhur developed them more, but even formulated new stream of thought which would verily accord to the indigenous thought. It is undeniable truth, however, that we had learned many things of India and we cannot easily escape from its attracting spell. Therefore, when a wave of Islamic thought began to band in fifteenth-century Indonesia, only its Sufism was very well welcomed by our leluhur, since it resembled the Indian spirituality in very many aspects of it. Wali Songo or ‘The Nine Muslim Saints’, who left Persia and India for Indonesia in 15th century, were best welcomed by our leluhur, for they taught the same monism like the Indian one, although with different terminology and idioms. This is beautifully expressed in the words of Ki Ageng Pengging, one of our leluhurs who eagerly learned Sufistic monism from Syekh Siti Jenar of India:

Kyageng Pengging tan riringa

Angengkoki jati ning Mahasukci

Allah kana kéné suwung

Jatine among asma

Ya asmané manungsa ingkang linuhung

Mengku sipat kalih dasa

Agama Buda Islami

Karonina nora béda

Warna roro asmané mung sawiji.[25]

(Without hesitation Ki Ageng Pengging said

that he is the All-Holy.

“God is not found here or there.

In fact, ‘God’ is only a name,

that is, a name for Great Man

who has twenty attributes.

Buddha and Islam

are never different.

The forms are two, but the names are one”)

Our leluhur learned the Islamic heritage as eagerly as they learned the Indian one. But, as they did so to Indian, they only accepted the Islamic civilization if it fitted the indigenous thought well. I don’t want to repeat what P.J. Zoetmulder has genuinely revealed in his book Pantheïsme en Monisme in de Javaansche Soeloek-Litteratuur (recently translated into English), in which he showed that our leluhur had invented complex philosophical concepts of emanation through seven levels of divine manifestation (martabat tujuh) and radical monism. I humbly ask readers to read and recite this genial work.

Our leluhur continued to be the fountain of spiritual knowledge by their inner faculty of budi, until they were stopped to be considered as ‘the virtuous ones’ and had been object of mockery. This happened when Adat (the compilation of leluhur’s traditional wisdom) has been subject to criticism by Muslim reformers inspired by Wahhabite ideals emerged in West Sumatra in the decade of 1800s. By their poisonous teaching of eradicating the indigenous civilization, later generations of Indonesia were inspired to be rebellious children who sacrificed their own civilization to get ‘the false Arabian Paradise’.