Thursday, March 23rd, 2023 17:27:28

Indonesia’s Hindu Legacy

Updated: August 3, 2013 3:53 pm

A Muslim, that too the President of the world’s largest Muslim country, chanting Hindu verses and participating in a Hindu ritual may sound strange to our “secularists”, who find the national song of the country – “Vande Mataram”—communal


Such is the state of secularism in India that an Indian Prime Minister, and that too belonging to a party which is often described as “Hindu nationalist”, could have done it. The Prime Minister was Atal Behari Vajpayee. The year was 2003. In Indonesian island of Bali to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, Vajpayee literally broke the heart of the then Balinese Governor Dewa Made Bertha that India was a secular state and that it was not possible for India to promote the Hindu religion in Bali, more than 90 per cent of whose population is Hindu.

What was the Governor asking for? He just wanted Indian government’s help in reviving the rich historical and cultural ties between the peoples of India and Bali so that the Balinese would not lose touch with India and that their religious and cultural practices would not lose meaning. But Vajpayee was not convinced as he was more concerned about the likely fallouts of any sympathetic response to the Governor’s plea in India. And as expected, he got a very good press on his return to the country, with leading Indian “secularists” lauding his “Bali wisdom”.

I was reminded of this “unpleasant episode” by a “proud Hindu” (who declared himself to be a “proud Indonesian” at the same time) of Bali, where I had gone to attend the three-day (June 15-17) “Second World Hindu Summit” (WHS). However, in sharp contrast to what Vajpayee did (and I am sure any other Indian Prime Minister would have done the same), just see what Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a proud Muslim leading the world’s most populous Muslim country (205 million, constituting 12.7 per cent of the world’s Muslims) did on June 15. He formally inaugurated the Hindu summit, along with the 35th Bali Arts Festival. He began his inaugural speech by remembering “Allah” as a true Muslim, but spent the next half an hour by extolling the virtues of Hinduism, greeting the Hindu saints from all over the world present on the occasion, and most important, reciting wellknown Sanskrit “shlokas”, including the Gayatri Mantra, and ending his speech by uttering “Om Shanti, Om Shanti, Om Shanti”.

A Muslim, that too the President of the world’s largest Muslim country, chanting Hindu verses and participating in a Hindu ritual may sound strange to our “secularists”, who find the national song of the country—“Vande Mataram”—communal, not to talk of their protests against Yogic exercises in schools, lighting lamps and breaking coconuts at the government functions. But that was exactly what President Yudhoyono did at Bali on that day. In fact, inaugurating the essentially Hindu Bali festival has become an annual duty for him ever since he became the country’s President in 2004. And this was the second year in succession that he inaugurated the opening Hindu Summit, which also is going to be an annual feature henceforth.

And for the increasingly vocal fundamentalist Muslims in India, who have got the total support of the “secularists”, let me quote few lines of what President Yudhoyono said. “During the first Hindu Summit in 2012, it produced a Bali Charter. A peace charter agreed by the Hindu followers from all over the world, to unite in commitment and a deep rooted dedication, in the pursuit of creating a civilised world, one that promotes the principles of harmony, peace and prosperity for all humanity,” he stated, adding, “and through this second Word Hindu Summit, I invite the Hindu followers to develop the religious tradition that embodies a life of togetherness, tranquility and harmony. I am urging all Hindu devotees from all around the globe to always develop religious traditions that provide a role model for harmonious life.”

Yudhoyono described the country’s great diversity and pluralism as a blessing from God, and said that this heritage must be managed wisely to prevent conflict and tension that would only bring losses to the community. “It is an oath and responsibility of all of us to defend the unity, the harmony and the tolerance in the midst of such diversity we possess. For that reason, let me once again say that our nation must be firm and hard on anybody that tries to destroys our unity, our harmony and our tolerance. Every leader, wherever their level or whatever background, possess a responsibility to continue defending these values and moral behaviour, of harmony, of tolerance, and of brotherhood. We must firmly reject all forms of violence that are performed in the name of any religion or identity. Because such acts are not the values, not the character and not the identity of our diverse nation, a nation that holds paramount and implement the teachings of Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity),” he reaffirmed.

The Indonesian President, who was accompanied by First Lady Ani Yudhoyono and several ministers, including Education and Culture Minister Muhammad Nuh and Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Mari Elka Pangestu, clapped loudly when Bali Governor Made Mangku Pastika (a Hindu very fluent in reciting mantras, he revealed during the dinner he hosted for us the next day at his residence that he always kept an idol of Lord Ganesh in his pocket. Formerly, the Chief of Bali Provincial Police and Chairman of Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency, he has just been reelected for a second term) said that the Hindu summit had a strategic role in determining the Hindu position in the world. “Bali deserves to be the global centre for Hindus,” Pastika said.

What impressed me further was that unlike our high dignitaries in India who when invited as the Chief Guests at the functions leave the stage immediately after delivering their speeches under some pretext or the other, Yudhoyono sat through the entire function and watched hundreds of artists displaying the richness of Balinese culture, the most prominent of which was the collaborative dance drama piece, Garuda Digjaya Mahambhara (the Powerful Garuda, Master of the Sky), performed by students and lecturers from Denpasar’s Indonesia Arts Institute. And this despite the fact that the event was marked by a heavy downpour. The President, though drenched, continued to sit through and applaud the participating artists who enchanted, in turn, thousands of spectators.

It is also a tribute to Yudhoyono’s leadership in asserting the country’s pluralism and showcasing the unmistakable Hindu influence that early this month his government sent a team of sculptors to erect a statue of 5.2 meters tall Goddess Saraswati (goddess of knowledge) in the Indonesian Embassy yard in Washington DC. The statue features the beautiful Goddess standing over three sitting children—two American kids and one Indonesian—reading books.

But then, all told, Yudhoyono, who will be completing his second tenure next year (no Indonesian President can have more than two terms), faces the rising challenge of Islamic fundamentalism in the country, with extremists denying their Indian legacy and opting for Arabian identity, thanks to liberal funding from Saudi Arabia. Though they still are in a minority in a country where people define themselves not by their faith but by nationalism and regional pride, their numbers are rising, and that is disturbing.


The Second World Hindu Summit, attended by 500 Hindu leaders and scholars from 21 countries, agreed to establish the World Hindu Parishad, a forum for discussions and deliberations aiming at expanding the network of Hindus around the globe. It was also decided at the summit to establish the World Hindu Centre, the implementing structure of the World Hindu Parishad. Both the Parishad and the Centre are to be based in Bali.

Hindu high priest Ida Pedanda Gede Ketut Sebali Tianyar Arimbawa was elected as the president of the World Hindu Parisad. He said that the world today is confronted by the rising menace of intolerance among various faiths and people and that the Hindus have to take a leading role in spreading the principle of peaceful coexistence.

The three-day summit declared the spirit of tolerance and harmony in the world. “We happily announce to the world that harmony and tolerance shall prevail and that acceptance is the basic principle of our relationships, either with our brothers of the same faith or with our brothers of different faiths. Hinduism believes in one world, one Supreme God and one world family. There are no boundaries or borders in Hindu Dharma. We are all one, we share the same fate and destiny,” the summit declaration stated.

Organising committee chairman, Gde Made Sadguna, said that Bali should do its best as it has been entrusted by global Hindu leaders. “Bali should be proud of the trust that world Hindu followers have given to us. This is a big challenge for Bali. We should answer the challenge by doing our best for Hindus from all around the world. We are also hoping that Indonesian government will support us, as this also upholds the image of Indonesia and Bali globally,” he added. “We are eager to create a real programme that contributes to enhancing tolerance and harmony, both facing challenges all over the world.”

The decision to establish the World Hindu Parishad and World Hindu Centre is part of the implementation of the “Bali Charter”, mandated during the first World Hindu Summit in 2012. The ‘Bali Charter” says that the World Hindu Parishad will be an umbrella to synergise the services and spiritual activities of the Hindu organisations around the world. The World Hindu Centre will be its executing agency.

The summit was marked by discussions among the participants on many contemporary issues, including tolerance, the environment, health, science, human rights, and globalisation. It was decided that through the World Hindu Parishad, Bali would lead the implementation of several programmes, including for child development, women empowerment, elderly care, education, and the economy.



Indonesia is not a religion-based state. Indonesia’s ideology is Pancasila (five principles) which are: belief in the one and only God; just and civilised humanity; the unity of Indonesia; deliberation for consensus; and social justice for all of Indonesia’s people. Pancasila stresses that Indonesia is neither a secular nor religious-based state. It assures that every religion can exist in Indonesia. Incidentally, Indonesia officially recognises five religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. For those religious adherents, Indonesia’s constitution provides for “all persons the right to worship according to his or her own religion or belief” and states that “the nation is based upon belief in one supreme God”.

In 1969, the Indonesian government issued a joined-decree of the minister of religious and internal affairs about preserving harmony among the members of religious communities. This decree was renewed in 2005. Generally, it mandates government leaders in the provinsi (provinces) and kabupaten (districts) to take part in sustaining harmony among religious communities. Additionally, those leaders must support the communities that have begun to establish a forum
called Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama/Inter-religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). This forum aims to build dialogue among religious leaders, accommodate aspirations from religious organisations and communities, and give recommendations to the government about the feasibility of erecting places of worship. Members of this forum are religious leaders from the various traditions. Currently, FKUB can be found in most of the provinsi and kabupaten in Indonesia. If this forum can function properly, it can bridge miscommunications that often occur among multi-religious communities.


India had played a big role in Indonesian culture, which is a fusion of Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and indigenous Indonesian culture. The trace of Indian influences is most evident in great numbers of Sanskrit words in Indonesian languages. Majority of Indonesians today may be Muslims, but their names still remain Sanskrtised. In Bahasa Indonesia, the word for heaven is “surge”, the word for hell “neraka”.

Till Islam became the dominant religion in the country in the 16th century (Islam went to Indonesia through traders from Gujarat), the country was under the influence of a blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, which also went there through the traders from Odisha and South India.

The Indian Epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (which is still the “national epic”)—play an important role in Indonesian culture and history, and are popular amongst Indonesians to this day. Javanese Muslims perform the Ramayana dance during full moon nights. Indonesian Muslims have been essentially followers of what is called “Indicised Islam” “that talks of toleration and coexistence and is different from rigid and orthodox Arabian Islam”.

Indonesia’s national airline is named “Garuda” (the mythological king of birds associated with Lord Vishnu). Indonesia also circulates the Ganesh-inscribed 20,000 rupiah currency note of Bank Indonesia. the official mascot of Military Intelligence in Indonesia is Hanuman, the rationale being that it was Hanuman who was able to trace Sita, kidnapped by Ravana, who was kept in confinement at the Ashok Vatika in Sri Lanka. Two landmarks of Indonesian capital Jakarta are the huge statutes of Pandav strongman Bheem and Shri Krishna-Arjuna pair mounted on a multiple-horse-drawn chariot.

The national motto of Indonesia “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (One is many, many is one) is inspired by an Indonesian Hindu scripture Sutasoma Kakavin. The complete quotation is as follows: “It is said that the well known Buddha and Shiva are two different substances; they are indeed different, yet how is it possible to recognise their difference in a glance, since the truth of Buddha and the truth of Shiva are one? They may be different, but they are of the same kind, as there is no duality in truth.”

And when one comes to Bali, the Indonesian province with overwhelming Hindu majority (about 4 million), the Hindu practices there will embarrass an average Indian Hindu.

Rishis of India, whose names are no longer familiar in India, are common in the schools of Bali—Markandeya, Bharadwaja, Agastya. Trikala Sandhya (Sun worship three times a day) is practiced in every Balinese school. The Gayatri Mantra is recited by every Balinese school child three times a day. Many of the local radio stations also relay Trikala Sandhya three times a day. Can we even think of introducing something like this to our schools in India?

The national Balinese dress for both, men and women, girls and boys, is dhoti. No one can enter a temple without wearing a dhoti.

The social, economic and political system of Bali is based on the principle of tri-hita-karana…three benevolent, beneficent principles— that every human being has three aspects …the duty, the relationship that we have with God (Parahyangan); the relationship that we have with human beings (Pawongan); and the relationship that we have with nature (Palemahan) and these are the three principles on which the entire culture of Bali is built.

The brand logo for the Island of Bali is a manifestation of country’s Hindu traditions. An Indonesian Ministry of Tourism publication explains the logo as “The triangle (shape of logo) is a symbol of stability and balance. It is formed out of three straight lines in which both ends meet, taking the symbols of a blazing fire (Brahma the creator), lingga or phallus. The triangle also represents the three Gods of the universe (Trimurti—Brahma, Wisnu, and Siwa), three stages of nature (Bhur, Bwah and Swah Loka), and three stages of Life (Born, Live, and Die). The tagline ‘Shanti, Shanti, Shanti’ represents peace upon Bhuwana alit dan agung (yourself and the world) that will deliver a sacred and holy vibe that awakens a deep aura that balances and makes peace to all living creatures”.

Every rice farm in Bali has a temple dedicated to Shri Devi and Bhu Devi (Lakmi the Goddess of wealth and mother earth – the two divinities that stand on the either of side of Tirupati Balaji in India). No farmer will perform his agricultural duties without first making offerings to Shri Devi and Bhu Devi. This is called the “Subak System”.     (PN)


However, things are ominous. The numbers of radical Muslims, those who seek to order every aspect of society and the state—from burqas to banking—by the medieval dictates of Shariah law are growing. Arab names are becoming fashionable. As journalist Sadananda Dhume has found out from his trips to many parts of Indonesia, “In universities throughout the archipelago, students congregate in mosques to study the writings of the Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb, or to enroll in Hizbut Tahrir, another group banned in many countries for its call to unite all Muslims in a single superstate that recalls the Ottoman Caliphate. To be sure, only a fraction of orthodox Indonesian Muslims espouse violence, but that has been enough to make the past decade the bloodiest in the country’s history since the anti-communist pogroms of the 1960s. Terrorist attacks—Bali bombings, and the Jakarta hotel bombings—make headlines. But much more goes on under the international radar screen. In the Moluccas, the once fabled Spice Islands, the aftermath of a bloody civil war has segregated Muslims and Christians on religious lines. Across Java, Christians complain of church burnings and intimidation by local militias.”

With roots of democracy deepening in Indonesia in recent years, following the long military-rule of Suharto, politics is becoming highly competitive and, as in India, politicians are finding great virtues in vote-bank politics. And that explains why some of Yudhoyono’s predecessors took the dubious decision of allowing the Aceh province to adopt parts of Shariah law. Maybe, by so doing they wanted to prevent the Acehnese from joining the rebellious Free Aceh Movement (GAM). In 1999, the then President BJ Habibie signed a special law on Aceh that, among other things, granted the province a special status and the right to partially implement Shariah. Two years later, President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed into law an autonomy package that included comprehensive regulations on establishing Shariah courts and Shariah bylaws. Based on these two pieces of legislation—that were drafted, discussed, and approved in Jakarta—Aceh established its first Shariah court in 2003, and publicly caned its first violator in 2005.

Many Indonesian scholars and activists find the above decisions going against the basic principles of Indonesia’s Pancasila, state ideology, which asserts that the country is multi-religious but secularly governed. They are right in concluding that these decisions allowed a creeping Islamic fundamentalism to gain a foothold, with other provinces and districts steadily applying Shariah-inspired bylaws since 2003 under pressure from hardline groups. The Hindus of Bali are naturally worried. For instance, they have protested against a so-called “anti-pornography” law, which they see as an attempt to impose orthodox Islamic values on non-Muslims.

As has been seen in other parts of the world, the reason fundamentalism “creeps” and is incredibly difficult to turn back once it has taken hold is that people are afraid of appearing not to be “good Muslims.” The fear of criticism of appearing less than devout, of appearing “un-Islamic”, is proving strong in Indonesian polity.

Viewed thus, it is understandable why Yudhoyono is serious in emphasising the principles of peace and tolerance to preserve Indonesia’s pluralism. The saving grace here, however, is that despite these inroads by radicals, the Indonesian government, military, business class and majority of the Indonesian people value their pluralist culture and freedom to choose one’s way of living. In short, Indonesians, over all, still love their Hindu legacy.

By Prakash Nanda from Bali





Comments are closed here.