Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Javanese Syncretism

Right now our neighborhood is celebrating the anniversary of the area. Actually it's not the anniversary, it's just sort of a celebration of the area, with some religious significance. It's sort of like a thanksgiving, or perhaps also an effort to ward off ill-favor by celebrating blessings?

The events began in the morning with a mass Muslim prayer ceremony. Throughout the day there were rides, kids events, food stands, singing, etc. Late at night, after dark was the last event, called "kuda lumping". It's a traditional Javanese dance accompanied by traditional music. The dancers are all decked out in crazy costumes. What makes it unique and such a draw is that the dance group calls for spirits to enter the dancers, and as the dance goes on they can go into a trance state and do things like eat glass. I'm told that at the end of the evening dancers were rolling on the floor, ripping coconuts open with their teeth, and eating flowers. People say that occasionally the dancers will run to local cemeteries, and sometimes will touch a spectator who will also go into a trance-like state. Sometimes kuda lumping is just a ceremonial dance with no intentional spiritual involvement, but most of the time the crowds seem drawn to see and wonder just how crazy it will get.

I saw a part of the beginning of the event and it was so odd to watch, the hypnotic music and jerky spastic dancing, the massive crowd of spectators, and the contradiction of having that sort of demonic ritual contrasted with traditional Muslim prayers that morning. I asked a neighbor if she, as a Muslim, was okay with "kuda lumping". "Oh yes!" she enthusiastically affirmed, "it's just tradition." 

That is one of the strangest things about living here. This culture is Muslim. The vast majority of people around me are Muslims who participate in Ramadan and Idul Fitri. Prayers are broadcast at ear-splitting decibels around our house from multiple mosques. 

And yet - this place is nothing like the Middle East. It feels a bit like waves of Buddhist, Hindu, and now Islamic cultures have come in and influenced Java, but underneath it all there is a core that has remained, deeply, at its core, Javanese.

We went to see a Catholic site nearby where there have been visions of Mary and so a shrine was built with the stages of the cross and also various depicted scenes from the life of Jesus in a beautiful park. The shrine section is visited by Christians of all types and even Muslims. When I asked what people are thinking I was told that it just fits with Javanese traditional belief - the offerings of flowers and burning of candles in front of spiritual statues, so it just feels right to them.

An instructor of mine asked with concern about something she'd heard about an American friend doing - having a birthday cake for Jesus at Christmas. To her, living here, seemed like this, like offering a candle as a sort of syncretistic idolatry thing.

The culture is deeply, deeply sensitive to the spiritual world and it feels like everything has some connection to spirits in some way. Nearly everyone will tell you stories of seeing ghosts, kuda lumping is popular, a spiritual calendar is used to determine nearly everything, offerings are made to local deities, and there are spiritual explanations for everything. In that way it is much like the animistic village religions of Papua. 

At the same time I find this culture to hold to quite a universalist perspective on religion.They look at most differences in religion and culture and shrug. Yeah, it's different. Let's all just get along. We just won't point out of the differences and heaven help us if anyone were to actually get mad about the differences. In the end we're all the same.

That's the attitude I get from most people. It's different in other areas of the nation, but this is what I see here. Things that might be terrible in other Muslim lands are just sort of ignored here. Tolerance is highly valued. It's as if humanistic Buddhism actually lays the foundation underneath this worldview, below the Islam and Christianity and Hinduism. 

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