Mysticism in Java: Ideology in Indonesia

Niels Mulder

Pepin Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Most Javanese are Muslims, but there is a also a distinctive kejawen, "Javaneseness", incorporating elements of mysticism or kebatinan. In Mysticism in Java, Mulder describes both this and the ways in which it has influenced broader Indonesian ideologies.

While kebatinan draws on earlier strands (Hindu-Buddhist and Islamic), it is a product of the colonial encounter, and in particular of the courts in south-central Java in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The resurgence of Javanese mysticism has seen it given formal status by the state, but not accepted as full partner to the official religions. Accompanying this has been an increasing emphasis in kebatinan on monotheism and differentiation from klenik or black magic.

Underlying Javanese mysticism is a complex and elaborate metaphysics:

"... man actively and inevitably participates in the all-encompassing unity of material and spiritual existence. The spiritual aspect is superior, more true as it were. ... Harmony and unity with ultimate essence is the purpose of all life. ... Nature and supernature mutually influence each other, and causality is implied in their coordination."
Mulder illustrates this with a case study of lottery prediction in Yogyakarta. He goes on to look at the practice of kebatinan, at the paths to mystical union, the role of masters, the context of meetings, connections with shadow theatre, and so forth, and at its broader ethics and social philosophy. Despite emphasis on the unity of existence and respect for the social order, kebatinan is fundamentally individualist:
"The practice of kebatinan is an individual-centred endeavour that places the deep self, the 'true I' ... at the very centre of all evaluation. It is the development of rasa that becomes the measuring rod of inner growth. The ultimate stage is to realize the conviction that one lives in step with Life, and has access to truth in a direct, unmediated way, drawing power from 'God' while, at the same time, being independent from source of truth outside the deep self."

There are clear connections between kebatinan and broader Indonesian ideology, in particular the Pancasila, the five principles of Indonesian nationalism, which have become a kind of mantra. Mulder summarises the school civics syllabus at length, giving a feel for its repetition of platitudes and waffle in the service of the familial state — and indoctrination is not confined to schools, but extends through the entire apparatus of government.

A look at some fictional works illustrates the individualism of the kebatinan tradition: "While lacking in social characterization beyond the relationships with near others, the Javanese Indonesian novel emphasizes the possibility of living with oneself, reflecting the powerful kebatinan tradition in Javanese culture." And Mulder finishes with brief consideration of connections to leadership (in the career of Suharto), syncretism, and science.

Mulder fits a surprising amount into 150 pages in Mysticism in Java, but he does this by largely sticking to the abstract and general, with little in the way of concrete examples. One consequence is that the presentation tends towards the totalising, with generalisations that may be qualified but are not balanced by alternative perspectives. Another is that Mysticism in Java is not as easy to read as it might be. It is not dry, however, and will be a useful volume both for students and the curious.

November 2002

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- books about Indonesia + Indonesian history
- books about Java + Javanese culture
- more history of ideas
- books about mysticism
%T Mysticism in Java
%S Ideology in Indonesia
%A Mulder, Niels
%I Pepin Press
%D 1998
%O paperback, references, glossary, index
%G ISBN 9054960477
%P 168pp