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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Post independence Hindu renaissance in Indonesia

In the previous post, we covered an overview of Indonesia’s ancient and medieval Hindu past as well as how the Hindu kingdoms collapsed and made way for Islamic sultanate. In this post, I attempt to highlight the dogged struggle of the minority Indonesian Hindu community to preserve their Dharma and identity against State power that aimed to de-legitimize Hindu Dharma under pressure from orthodox Muslim groups making Hindu community sitting ducks for conversion. Today, Indonesia is celebrated as a beacon of religious tolerance especially in comparison to others countries with Muslim majority. But that was not how it began.

Early on during my stint in Jakarta, I visited Pura Aditya Raya, one of the 10 Balinese Hindu temples here. To my surprise, this temple was very different a Hindu temple I would have expected to find. I mean, yes, there was Ganesha, there was Saraswati too in the complex but these weren’t the main deities. The central figure was a pillar.

A fellow devoted mentioned this is Padmasana pillar symbolizing Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh. Why was a pillar so important to the local Hindus? What happened to the Lingas and murtis? Curiosity caught the better of me and I was catapult on this journey of studying Indonesia’s Hindu past and present. That’s how I stumbled upon this  story of Hindu renaissance in Indonesia. A fascinating story it is.  Read on.

Pura Aditya Raya – Jakarta (Source: Self)

The fall of Hindu empires led to mass conversion of populace to Islam. Some converted under duress, some to gain patronage, some to avoid paying the jizyah and some to survive. There is little documentation about this topic but we have seen how Islam progressed in other places, so it’s not an outlandish assumption.

Around the same time when Hindu kingdoms collapsed and Islam gained ground Dutch and Portuguese colonial powers had also made their way to these South East Asian islands. By 1800, all of Indonesia had been established as a Dutch colony.

Like in Bharat, so in Indonesia freedom struggle ensued uniting Indonesians from across religions and communities. On 17th August 1945, Indonesia became an independent country. The Dutch, however acknowledge the loss of colony only in 1949. Nevertheless, Indonesia became a free country and the question about its national identity and national narrative came to the fore.

There was a group (Darul Islam) that wanted Indonesia to be an Islamic sharia compliant state and there was another which wanted a more plural republic that lived by the motto of ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ (Unity in Diversity – miss not the Sanskrit in there). Islam was by far the majority with over 85% of the population Muslims but not all shared Darul Islam’s view.

With the intention to find a common ground, indulging both Darul Islam and the plurality group, the founding fathers drafted the Pancasila – the five principles that would define the Indonesia state ideology. These are as shown in the image below. Check out the one marked in red and yellow.

Panca Sila (Source: Google)

The very first of the Pancasila principles is : Belief in the One and Only God.  On the face of it, because no religion is named, it does look inclusive. But effectively it excluded not just atheists but all non-Abrahamic faiths. Hinduism, Buddhism and other polytheists, animist faiths being practiced in many islands of Indonesia were deemed ‘not valid religions’. For a religion to be valid, it needed to be monotheistic (belief in One God), have a defined set of doctrines, a holy book, uniform praying ritual and international recognition.

Even among monotheistic religions ‘of the book’, only Islam and two larger denominations of  Christianity were included, not Judaism.  What more, no one was allowed to not have a religion. One of Islam, Catholicism or Protestantism had to be chosen. In essence, this was an attempt at State sponsored conversion of non-Muslims and non-Christians. The policy achieved some success too as many animist tribes gave in to state pressure and gave up their native faiths.

What a glaring paradox this was. The Bahasa word used for ‘One God is Maha Esa (महा ईश)’, that is Mahesh (महेश), a Sanskrit word traditionally used for Shiva! Maha-Esa was being to deny Mahesha!

The Hindus of Indonesia, however, chose to remain steadfast in their allegiance to Dharma . Being less than 3% of the population, they had little clout to overtly challenge the discriminatory policy. They chose not to convert but convince the state that Hindu Dharma was definitely a valid religion that could be expressed within the framework of state defined ‘valid religions’.

The leaders of the community got together to explore possibilities of giving an ‘acceptable structure’ to their faith and preserve it for the coming generations without losing its inherent sahajta (naturalness), prakritic samanvayta (symbiotic relationship with nature) and bahutvata (plurality).

Rigorous discussions, debates, consultations ensued and thus began the process of recasting Dharma into the mould of  Religion.

Role of Bharat

Bharat too had a role to play in this churning process. Hindu students and intellectuals from Bali came to Bharat to study and consult Dharma experts in Shanti Niketan, Banaras Hindu University and International Academy of Indian culture. Bharatiya scholars also visited Bali for consultations and discussions. The most prominent figures amongst Bharatiya intellectuals were Shri Narendra Dev Pandit Shastri and Shri Raghu Vira.

Shri Shastri found his way to Bali from Lahore after erstwhile British India was partitioned. He married a Balinese woman and made Bali his eventual karmasthan. Shri Shastri was pivotal in defining key structures of Indonesian Hinduism (rituals, doctrines, prayer etc.) His book Dasa Sila Agama Bali, published in 1951 helped provide ideological/ theological framework for formalization of Agama Hindu as it was eventually namedHe was also the brain behind setting up of Parishada Hindu Dharma – an overarching organization that works for the  cause of Hindus in Indonesia.

Shri Raghu Vira was the founder of International academy of Indian Culture. He was in Bali during this time of churn conducting research in cultural History of Bali. He was instrumental in initiating the knowledge exchange between Bharat and Bali by arranging for study trips of Balinese students to Bharat.

How was this recast accomplished? Here’s a simplistic summary

Panca Shraddha

The first step was to define key principles of ‘State acceptable Hinduism’. Just like the 10 commandments of Christianity and five pillars of Islam (arkān al-Islām), five overarching beliefs for Indonesian Hinduism were stated. Named Panca Shraddha (पञ्च श्रद्धा), the principles drew heavily from the booklet of Shri Narendra Dev Shastri – Dasa Sila Agama Bali. For one to be Hindu, she needs to profess shraddha (faith) in following five concepts

1. Sang Hyan Widhi – One Almighty God Almighty
2. Atman –  Existence of Atman or spirit in every creature
3. Karmaphala – Every action has a consequence (karma theory)
4. Punar Bhawa –  Reincarnation or rebirth after death .
5. Moksha – Complete liberation from the cycle of birth and death consequence of good and detached conduct when alive.

Essentially, the same concepts of Dharma that we associate with in India too, except for the first one possibly.

One Almighty God

Hindu Dharma has many Gods. Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva being the supreme trinity accompanied by Goddesses (Saraswati, Lakshmi, Parvati) the avatars and other deities (Ganesha, Indra, Surya, Varuna, Bhu-devi etc.). At a deeper spiritual level, Hindu philosophy also posits the monistic concept of Brahman – the one source of all that is, was and will be. But Brahman (ब्रह्मन्) is passive, very different from the Abrahamic God.

To get around this issue, a supreme Almighty God was re-imagined as a unity of the the Tri-murti of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva. This unifying entity was called Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa or Acintya (अचिन्त्य).  Acintya is that which is beyond human imagination, rather that which transcends human imagination.

In this sense, it is actually not different from Brahman. A thing to note is dual connotation of  ‘Sangh Hyang Widhi’. It could imply ‘Divine ruler of the Universe’ as well as ‘Divine, Absolute Cosmic Law’.  In the former, it satisfies the first Pancasila. In the latter, it equates to Dharma thus retaining the Sanatan essence of Hindu Dharma.

The term Sang Hyang Widhi itself isn’t a new one though. The Shaivite Hindus had used it from long before, but for Shiva. The term ‘Sang Hyang’ has been used as a respectable epithet for religious figures and prophets. Hence, Buddha is called Sang Hyang Adi Buddha, Adam as Sang Hyang Adam, Noah  as Sang Hyang Noah …and so on.

Standardization of representation

Hindus are murti-worshippers – a murti being symbolic (चिन्ह) of  the Gods and deities. Every murti is sanctified with specific characteristics of the corresponding deity. But Sang Hyang Widhi is Acintya, beyond imagination. How does one represent that?

Again, the answer was found in an existing practice of installing Padmasana pillar in Bali initiated in the 16th century by a Shaivite Javanese Hindu priest Dang Hyang Nirartha. Nirartha popularized the concept of ‘Acintya and Moksha’ in Bali. The Padmasana pillars were supposed to represent Shiva Mahesh.

The Padmasana Pillar indicating the seat of  Acintya or Sang Hyang Widhi was adopted as the central Shrine in Indonesian temples. Other Gods were not discarded. Temples have shrines to other deities too as well as murtis sometimes, especially of Ganesha, Sarawati, Garuda etc. Just that Padmasana pillar takes centre-stage.  Today, every Hindu House at  the least Padmasana pillar, more often along with shrines for Saraswati, Shiva or Vishnu, one for Pitrus (ancestors) and sometimes one for family deity as well.

Given the Hindu penchant for symbols though, Acintya has also been given a form – that of a naked being surrounded emanating flames indicating pure consciousness that has transcended the bondage of senses. A Padmasana pillar may be empty or sometimes have an image of Acintya mounted on the top like in the image below.
Acintya – Sang Hyang Widhi (Source: Google)

Common Book(s) of religion

The sacred texts for Hindus across the globe are Veda-Upanishas, Bhagvad Gita. The same were formally established as holy canons for Indonesian Hindus as well, along with two Javanese works- Sarasamuccya and Sanghyang Kamahanyanikan. The Ramayana and Mahabharata continue be the most historical works but these are not considered ‘Holy’. Rama, Krishna are revered more as Heroes than God avataars.

Uniform prayer ritual

On the lines of Islamic Namaz read five times a day, Hindu scholars defined Puja Tri-Sandhya to be performed three times a day – at dawn, at noon and at dusk. The version of the prayer that is taught today to local Hindu children and sung in household and temples was only adopted in 1991.  The initial draft of Puja Tri Sandhya was prepared by Shri Narendra Dev Shashtri back in the 1950s.

Puja Trisandya (Source: Google)

To be clear, Tri-Sandhya is a new concept. Sandhya Vandana (संध्या वन्दन) has been and is still being practiced in Hindu households all over since forever, though not always as often or as regularly as Namaz now-a-days. Though, the mantras chanted and style of Sandhya Vandana tend vary by sub-community and family tradition.

Puja Tri Sandhya is a more compact rather a toned down version of the original Sandhya Vandana. The mantras recited are very much from the Vedas.

Today, the Puja Tri Sandhya is broadcast thrice a day on Bali radio thrice a day – 6 am, 12 pm and 6 pm. Do not miss it when in Bali. You might hear it in your guest house in the morning or may be at some shop in the evening or possibly while passing by a school during noon. That’s how I heard it.


The above is just a summary of the bhageerathi task undertaken by Indonesia Hindus to remain Hindus. The efforts bore fruit. In 1963, 18 years after independence, Hindu Dharma was finally recognized as an official religion by the Indonesian state. Eventually, Buddhism and Confucianism were also accepted.

What also helped Hindu Dharma to get recognition was the silent backing by some in the State’s leadership, especially President Sukarna who was influenced by Hindu Dharma in his formative years growing up as a Muslim, (probably) due to influence of his Balinese mother.

The state acceptance of Hindu Dharma gave a revival shot to other communities as well that were struggling to preserve their native faiths. Many communities chose to identify with with Hindu Dharma as their religion given its inclusive and non-predatory nature. This movement towards Hindu Dharma has gained ground in recent years especially among tribal groups in east Java and Kalimantan.

Furthermore, the entire exercise helped unite different sects and sub sects of Hindus in Indonesia, a unity that has served them well since. Formation of Parishada Hindu Dharma Indonesia (PHDI) as the foremost body for Hindus has helped strengthen the unity further and has given the community some clout in dealing with the government.

Present day Hindus in Indonesia are proud, assertive and even protective of their faith. Visiting Bali feels like a pilgrimage of sorts for Hindus who seek so!

(This article was first published on the author’s blog and is being reproduced with permission, after minor edits to conform to HinduPost style-guide)

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Ami Ganatra
Ami Ganatra
Management Professional, Yoga Instructor, IIM-A alum. Blogs at dharmorakshtirakshitah.wordpress.com Twitter: @6amiji


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