Daily Archives: 25 June 2004

Naipaul on Javanese Hindu-Buddhist Christians

Naipaul’s chapter profiling a Javanese Christian poet from Yogyakarta is entitled “Below the Lava”:

It was because of the Christian preaching against polygamy, and the suffering it had brought in their own lives, that Linus’s father and mother–as recently as 1938–had converted to Christianity. They had not been Muslims before, but Javanists, with a mixed local religion made up of survivals of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism. They had both attended Christian schools; they had learned about Christianity there. The Christianity they had adopted had not meant a break with the past.

“Here even when we became Christians we continued with our old customs. Taking flowers to the cemetery, praying to the spirits of our ancestors. When someone dies even today in our Christian community we have mixed rituals. The ceremonies three days after the death, seven days, forty days, a hundred days, one year, two years, a thousand days.” Because of his father these death ceremonies would have been on Linus’s mind.

Linus said, “Christianity is important because it teaches you to love somebody as you love yourself. It means teaching us to become tender persons, not wild or aggressive persons. In Javanism also we have the concept of restraint. It is easy therefore for Javanese people to embrace Christ’s teaching.”

High up on the inner concrete wall, above the central doorway, out of which Linus’s mother and sister had come from the room at the back, there was a big brown cross. It was above a grotesque leather puppet. It was the standardized puppet figure of the clown, Semar, from the shadow play, a character, Linus said, from one or the other of the two Javanized Hindu epics, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata: “a god turned into a man, always supporting the good people.”

In 1979 there had been a leather puppet there, but I didn’t remember Semar. I remembered another figure. I couldn’t say what it was, and I didn’t ask Linus about it. It was only while working on this chapter that I checked, and found that in 1979 the mascot figure on that wall, the associate divinity of the house, above the horizontal ventilation slits and below the cross, was the Black Krishna. Not the playful Krishna of India, stealing the housewife’s freshly churned butter and hiding the clothes of the milkmaids while they swam in the river; but the Black Krishna of Java, a figure of wisdom. That Krishna would have been a sufficient protector of a man starting out as a poet. Now, in a time of deeper grief and need, Semar–the man-god who helped the good–was a more appropriate divinity….

[Linus] said, “Six or seven feet below us here are many Hindu temples or Buddha temples or Hindu-Buddha temples, buried by eruptions of Merapi a thousand years ago and also two thousand and fifty years ago.” Merapi, the active volcano of the region, creator of the lava that enriched the soil, and showed as black boulders in the beds of streams. “This creates a job for people who want to study about Java culture and religion, because behind these phenomena we can catch the spirit of Javanese people today.”

SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 81, 85

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Naipaul on the Pesantren Palimpsest

V. S. Naipaul has a keen sense of the palimpsest that is Indonesia.

In 1979 Mr. [Abdurrahman] Wahid and his pesantren [think madrassa], the Islamic boarding-school movement, had been thought to be at the forefront of the modern Muslim movement. The pesantren had the additional glory at that time of having been visited by the educationist Ivan Illich and pronounced good examples of the “deschooling” he favored. Deschooling wasn’t perhaps the best idea to offer village people who had been barely schooled. But because of Illich’s admiration the pesantren of Indonesia seemed to be yet another example of Asia providing an unexpected light, after the obfuscations of colonialism. And a young businessman of Jakarta, a supporter of Mr. Wahid’s, arranged for me to visit pesantren near the city of Yogyakarta. One of the pesantren was Mr. Wahid’s own; it had been established by his family.

There had followed two harrowing days: looking for the correct places first of all, moving along crowded country roads between crowded school compounds: usually quiet and sedate at the entrance, but then all at once–even in the evening–as jumping and thick with competitive life as a packed trout pond at feeding time: mobs of jeering boys and young men, some of them relaxed, in sarongs alone, breaking off from domestic chores to follow me, some of the mob shouting, “Illich! Illich!”

With that kind of distraction I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and I am sure I missed a lot. But deschooling didn’t seem an inappropriate word for what I had seen. I didn’t see the value of young villagers assembling in camps to learn village crafts and skills which they were going to pick up anyway. And I was worried by the religious side: the very simple texts, the very large classes, the learning by heart, and the pretense of private study afterwards. In the crowded yards at night I saw boys sitting in the darkness before open books and pretending to read….

Before Islam they would have been Buddhist monasteries, supported by the people of the villages and in return reminding them of the eternal verities. In the early days of Islam here they would have remained spiritual places, Sufi centers. In the Dutch time they would have become Islamic schools. Later they would in addition have tried to become a more modern kind of school. Here, as elsewhere in Indonesia, where Islam was comparatively recent, the various layers of history could still be easily perceived. But–this was my idea, not Mr. Wahid’s–the pesantren ran all the separate ideas together and created the kind of mishmash I had seen.

While we talked there had been some chanting going on outside: an Arabic class. Mr. Wahid and I went out at last to have a look. The chanting was coming from the verandah of a very small house at the bottom of the garden. The light was very dim; I could just make out the teacher and his class. The teacher was one of the most learned men in the neighborhood, Mr. Wahid said. The pesantren had built the little house for him; the villagers fed him; and he had, in addition, a stipend of five hundred rupiah a month, at that time about eighty cents. So, Islamic though he was, chanting without pause through his lesson in Arabic law, he was descended–as wise man and spiritual lightning-conductor, living off the bounty of the people he served–from the monks of the Buddhist monasteries.

SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 22-23

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