Gamelan Stories:
Tantrism, Islam, and Aesthetics in Central Java

Judith Becker

Program for Southeast Asian Studies Arizona State University 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Gamelan Stories begins with an introduction to Tantrism, a somewhat diffuse body of ideas stressing "correlations between the universe and the human body", the centrality of female creative force (sakti), and the union of male and female. It also provides a brief history of Javanese religion, focused on the influence of Tantric Buddhism and Saivism (worship of Shiva), derived from India and Tibet, and of Sufi Islamic mysticism.
"By now completely intertwined, Tantric and Sufi mysticism are still a strong force in contemporary Javanese society. Although persisting without a label, Tantric ideas continue to inform not only kebatinan [mystical sect] practices, but also their reflexes and reflections in the stories told about the performing arts."
An appendix provides more detail about Saivite orders and Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism in medieval Java, but Gamelan Stories offers no general introduction to Islam in Java.

Turning to etymology, Becker argues in chapter one that the words gong and gendhing in medieval texts mean gamelan. On that basis, she finds evidence for Tantric elements in gamelan: in its use for both "inner" and "outer" worship and in the names of gamelan pieces. She then looks at a 1984 work "Knowledge of Gamelan Revealed" by Sastrapustaka, which explains the esoteric meanings of the keys or notes of the gamelan, their connections with cakra (centers of energy within the body), the five senses, and the six rasas or "perceptions".

"In Tantric thought and in Sufism ... religious knowledge is to be gained through the careful and systematic development of one's spiritual faculties through meditation. The special Tantric emphasis lies in the formulations that the spiritual quest is individual and not congregational, meditative and not devotional, body-centered, inward and immanent, not transcendent. To understand the macrocosmos, one begins with the body. This essentially Tantric formulation pervades 'Knowledge of Gamelan Revealed'."
It is suggested that Sastrapustaka's Catholicism may have allowed him freedom of expression in a context where syncretic abangan approaches to Islam were suspect.

In chapter three Becker returns to the same piece, looking at more esoteric meanings of rasa. She then considers another late 20th century piece, Soerachman's "Larasing Gendhing", which mixes Sufism and Tantrism.

"Soerachman's short treatise can be read as a Tantric doctrine advocating the use of gamelan music as a yantra, the dhyana stage of meditation that precedes samadhi. ...
On the other hand, Larasing Gendhing can be interpreted with equal coherence as a Sufi statement. The 'sound of the gamelan touching the heart' can be interpreted within the Sufi ideology of sama, focused listening for the purpose of attaining fana, the Sufi experience of loss of self-hood in union with Allah, also experienced within the heart."
This is compared to two nineteenth century texts, the Sufi Surat Centini and a Balinese text Aji Ghurnita.

Chapter four looks at some of the stories about the court bedhaya dance: an Islamic story, Indic stories, and stories revolving around the Goddess of the South Sea, Kangjeng Ratu Kidul, and her union with the sultans of Surakarta. The choreography of the dance has esoteric meanings, as "a visual, metaphoric presentation of detailed and specific Tantric teachings" that may have been used as a yantra, and can also be linked to military formations.

In her conclusion Becker considers some wayang kulit performances used to ward off Kala, the demon Time — which also serves as a metaphor for the persistence of old traditions through change.

"This book is an attempt to reconstruct, for those of us who have no Javanese cultural memories, the erased writings that lie, barely visible, just beneath the gamelan stories of today."

Apart from brief comments on cultural translation issues, Gamelan Stories contains little theory — not enough either to annoy or to be of interest in its own right. It is a fascinating study in the coming together and persistence of different religious traditions, but given its specialised focus it will probably only interest Javanists and students of Tantrism.

May 2002

Related reviews:
- books about Java + Javanese culture
- books about music
- books about mysticism
- books about religion
%T Gamelan Stories
%S Tantrism, Islam, and Aesthetics in Central Java
%A Becker, Judith
%I Program for Southeast Asian Studies Arizona State University
%D 1993
%O paperback, bibliography
%G ISBN 1881044068
%P iv,222pp