Power of tradition often trumps religion in Indonesia

Many traditional and superstitious beliefs have become part and parcel of established religions
Power of tradition often trumps religion in Indonesia

This picture taken on May 20 shows members of the Dayak tribe attending the Gawai Dayak Festival in Pontianak, West Kalimantan. The Gawai Dayak festival by Dayak tribes in Kalimantan is a thanksgiving festival to celebrate their harvest. (Photo by Louis Anderson/AFP)

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's Disaster Management Agency, is usually one of the country's most popular people.

Unlike typically secretive bureaucrats, he goes out of his way to make sure the media is closely informed about the country's multitude of natural disasters.

When appropriate, he spices the serious information with occasional wisecracks, and a recent revelation that he is being treated for cancer brought a wave of sympathy.

Nugroho hasn't kept everyone happy. He recently upset the Dayak tribes of West Kalimantan, blaming them for a pall of haze over the province. They summoned him to a traditional council to tell him they took offense, in a reminder that traditions — adat — often outweigh formal religion and even the law in modern Indonesia.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines adat as "the unwritten, traditional code governing all aspects of personal conduct from birth to death."

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Adat may vary from place to place, depending on influences over the course of centuries that have impacted one defined area but not one nearby. Often, adat rules will overrule religion, requiring often athletic contortions on the part of religious authorities.

Nugroho took his telling off like a man, turning up for the Dayak council meeting. The Dayak leaders explained that the gawai he'd blamed for the haze was an annual celebration for the harvest season. And, they noted, they'd been managing forests by controlled burning for thousands of years in a pattern of shifting cultivation that recognized the stages of regeneration after fires that allowed them to nurture a sequence of crops to sustain their communities.

The concept of a harvest festival is very familiar and may be a universal concept. The vagaries of the weather are such that in many areas of the world, communities feel it sensible to express their thanks to the elements.

To some degree, such traditions have become part and parcel of established religions.

The traditional Dayak method of working with the forests is now under pressure from the law in Indonesia, with the government insisting that any lighting of fires is banned.

At the moment the law appears to be winning, not least because most Dayak communities no longer practice shifting agriculture in the manner they used to, with their traditional lands now squeezed between plantations and forestry concessions.

Nevertheless, they cling to their adat ways as a means of maintaining their culture. In a national environment in which they are a small minority, association with allies is vitally important. Many are Christians, seeing the church as a natural ally, and peak Dayak groups are active in national-level adat councils.

Then there is superstition. Many residents of developed countries retain some old superstitious beliefs, even if they may joke about them.

Walking under ladders remains difficult for many, and in Asia, the Chinese abhorrence for the number four — a symbol of death — means that most high-rise buildings have neither a fourth nor a thirteenth floor.

Such superstitions are rife in Southeast Asia. In Bali, a young student's accident on her motorbike, costing her two teeth and a number of stitches to her face, sees her father rushing to perform a ceremony — upacara — at the accident location to reduce the risk of a similar misfortune befalling anyone else.

This suggests an assumption that an evil 'spirit' was responsible for the accident — a belief that would predate religious beliefs and which is not substantiated by any Vedic scriptures that form the basis of the Hindu religion, whether in India or Bali.

Beliefs in the mystic penetrate virtually every level of society in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Outside of the cities, many communities boast a resident wise man or woman, or dukun, who can provide advice. Usually benign, they can also be malevolent.

Amongst her close circle, Megawati Sukarnoputri, former president of Indonesia and the daughter of founding president Sukarno, makes no secret of her belief that she continues to talk to her father, who has been dead for close to 50 years. At times of political stress, she will often go off by herself to talk with him and listen to his advice on the best direction to take.

Such is the level of belief in the supernatural that some take advantage of the gullible. Fraudsters regularly trap the unsuspecting by promising to multiply their money, conveniently disappearing with the cash they promised to conduct spiritual exercises over to make it worth many times its value.

Such schemes involve large amounts of cash and put your life at risk: in one case at the end of 2017, a self-proclaimed shaman was arrested for allegedly murdering two people in Grising district, Batang regency, Central Java.

The suspect, who claimed to possess the supernatural ability to multiply money, allegedly admitted murdering the people, who had been pestering him for the money he had promised them.

Such fraudsters often cloak their deceptions in religious garb. In August 2017, Dimas Kanjeng Taat Pribadi, a spiritual leader from Probolinggo in East Java was sentenced to two years in prison for his role in money multiplication scams, after he was previously sentenced to 18 years for masterminding two murders of followers who had apparently lost faith in him. He is believed to have defrauded hundreds of people out of a total of some Rp25 billion — around US$170,000.

At the same time belief in adat and in mystic superstitions continues to be rife, Islam's austere Salafi movement is attempting to sterilize Indonesian culture from such 'primitive' influences.

Opposed by mainstream Muslim movements Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which between them may have as many as 80 million adherents, Indonesia's traditionally moderate and tolerant Islam may also have another ally working to preserve it: age-old beliefs that may well predate formal religion and be rooted in ancient superstitions and mysticism.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.

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