The Javanese are a large Malay language speaking group living on an equatorial island of 48,900 sq. mi. (about the size of New York State) in Indonesia, between the Asian mainland and Australia. The island boasts about 60 million Javanese as well as some 30 million Chinese, Sundanese and other assorted residents, and its population density (about 1,500 per sq. mi.) is a serious problem. A core population has been on the island for a long time, and Javanese civilization has been in evidence since about 500 A.D. when there were Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms on the island. Java has always been something of a cultural crossroads lying as it does on the trade route from China and Japan to India and Europe. Following the Indic period came the Muslim admixture and a new set of kingdoms and ideas. After that the Portuguese and then the Dutch arrived with these latter controlling the island's external and commercial affairs from about 1600 till the Japanese invasion in the Second World War.
Depicting any other people is rather like trying to explain snow to a child from the tropics; you may get the general idea across, but going beyond that requires a bit of detailed contextual illustration at times. The following is an effort in that direction.
Consciousness and History
History reflects the movement and development of
consciousness in this total being. The emphasis in
contemplating history is not on chronicling
events, but on studying the consciousness that
the manifest incidents. Consciousness is the stuff
of our articulation with existence. It is what we
receive as information, and the accuracy and
extent of the reception determine the potential
success and utility of our relationship with
reality. The broader the conscious perspective,
the better the understanding of the environment
and the more reliable the application of
information to new problems.
Leadership depends on consciousness and the greater the awareness of a leader, the more effective the leadership. This is the basis of Javanese kingship. The kings of Surakarta and Yogyakarta have the job of feeling their people and feeling the rest of existence and then putting the two together as best is possible. They are the ancient heads and spokesmen of the Javanese union of being.
Consciousness is connected with wisdom and foreknowledge. The greater the consciousness attained, the broader and clearer the vision and the subtler the understanding of events. Acceptance of existence as it is and being in accord with its purposes can bring powers of various kinds. However, this relationship implies sacrifice and suffering, "Where there is a leader, there is a servant" (Nya gusti, nya kawula), which might lead one to question the real claim to authority of the current batch of generals and their titular dictator, Suharto. Knowledge is neither a Faustian betrayal nor computerized legerdemain; knowledge is based on love, not ambition or cleverness. It comes from caring enough to suffer and learn. There are many stories about the self-sacrifice and discipline of the Javanese nobility trying to get a clear picture of the situation through fasts in order to serve and lead more effectively.
King Jayabaya is a famous example of this. His clarity and vision of coming events looking out from the Twelfth Century remain current and are often used to put the present into perspective. For example, he forecast the coming of white rulers to Java and said that they would eventually be displaced by "forces from the islands of Tembini, the members of which are short-legged and yellow-skinned, and they will occupy Java but only for the lifetime of the maise plant. After their occupation, they will return to the islands of Tembini. Java will return to its former origin and will come back to the children of Java." During the hard days of the Japanese occupation, his prediction was often recalled.
Javanese, the Jayabaya predictions constituted a
guide to the future of the country; they were also
an inexhaustible source of spiritual strength for
coping with social problems of the present and
The paradigm for understanding the role of the individual in history is found in the Javanese version of the Mahabharata, a Hindu war epic depicting the struggle for power between the Pandawa family and their cousins, the Kurawas. However, the point of the contest was not the war but the development and maturation of the characters. In its cruder manifestations, development often requires opposition -- a sparring partner. During the struggle the two sides polish their characters on each other. To view the conflict in terms of rights and wrongs is to miss its point; there are admirable and despicable characters on both sides.
History is viewed the same way. It is a unitary expression and our maturation often depends on others showing us that we are wrong so that we can see it ourselves. It is this total, combined consciousness that defines the driving motivation for our actions as individuals and groups. An individual's understanding of his behavior and purposes reflects his level of consciousness, but the actions and impulses themselves also reflect his role in Nature. Thus, a "Hitler" is not viewed primarily on the level of his own twisted understanding, but of the level of the events that his being brought forth, and evidently the Javanese saw him as loosening the Western yoke on the rest of the world. Sometimes leadership must raise the consciousness of a people to undertake the obvious, since the people are mired in their own lies.
Humanity is one body. The two hands may be rubbed together to warm them, but the linkage between the event and its unified intention is likely to be misunderstood by the "cells" of the hands. Western domination has caused pain and the two world wars are viewed as a response to and an expression of that pain. Everyone and everything have multitudinous positive and negative aspects, but they have one thing in common: they are tiny bits of the totality and moments in eternity. It is only when something is seen in its total natural context that arguments cease in acceptance and you get a clear, balanced perspective. It is only with this acceptance and understanding that you are free to move on out of your opinions into the present.
This is a culture that values the shy, the
sensitive and the unassertive -- a quiet approach
to existence that allows being to work itself out
rather than imposing some personal order on it.
In Javanese dance, two conflicting characters are generally depicted. The first is brash and self-important, red-faced and loud and crude (kasar). He struts about with head held high doing what he wants and trying to force everybody else to obey him. The second character is humble and refined (alus), quiet and polite, moving gently with eyes ever downward. Both of these characters are generally princes, but in staging the dance, men play only the crude bounder; the second, gentler spirit is always represented by women. In their fights, the first character jumps about, shouting and threatening, while the second passively waits and then deftly executes his movements. The first figure is all show and excess and violence; the second is the embodiment of grace and beauty and the acceptance of things as they are. The first behaviorally boasts, "I'm better than you. Just let me prove it." The second quietly seems to observe, "We are here together; is this not a wonder?" The gentle prince always wins.
The Kancil Tales, a long series of children's stories akin to Uncle Remus, provide another example of this same principle. The kancil (Brer Rabbit's equatorial alter ego) is a mouse deer who alternately prospers or suffers depending on the attitude he carries into each adventure. When he is proud and self-important, the kancil always gets into trouble and shows himself for a fool, but when he pays heed to what is happening, he prospers. Over and over again, the stories demonstrate that, "When you are full of yourself, there will be no room for the rest of the world. You will be blinded by your pride and become vulnerable to all kinds of problems either of your own making or brought to you by those you have left out of your vision of life. But when you are humble and cooperative and attentive, you will be able to do the best you can with whatever situation is at hand."
in a rather more abstract frame, the dance
characters and kancil stories are also reflected
in Javanese social mores, where calm (tentrem),
polite and respectful attitudes and behavior (sopan
santun) are valued. Conceit (sombong)
is deemed an improper emotional and experiential
imposition on everyone (including oneself). In a
more general sense, emotion itself is something to
be leery of in that it communicates easily and
disturbs. The longer and stronger the emotion, the
more of a disruption it is apt to be. One properly
imposes as little personal emotion as possible on
the general context, in that this private feeling
is invariably a departure from the shared
experience. A Javanese might say that a relative
has died and then laugh; the laughter is a
courtesy to protect you from his private
sentiments. Self-indulgent displays of emotion are
for children. Such flashes of passion blind, and
if they are protracted or frequent can lead to
The people of Java practice open psychology on a virtually universal scale. Sumarah is just one of hundreds of groups and the culture is rich in instruction and information about such disciplines, which can have Hindu, Sufi or local roots but have all been absorbed into the amalgamated Javanese tradition. The global aim of all these practices is stated alternatively as "to diminish the desires by getting them into perspective" (meper hawa nepsu) or "to conform to the real nature of the desires" (ngruntutake hawa nepsu). The practices can take many forms, but essentially involves trying to receive the reality within (batin) and the reality without (lahir) clearly -- when the one is in tune with the other, you have arrived here.
All behavior is based on desire, and desires can be divided into four classes. Each of the desires has positive and negative aspects depending primarily on whether it is honest and open or distorted and closed. The four desires are associated with colors, parts of the body and natural forces (see Figure 1). The Javanese theory shows an apparent connection with Roman humors (through Islamic medicine?).
The most base of the desires is aluamah which is hunger, ambition and egoism -- the cravings associated with personal survival. This appetite is black, associated with the mouth and stomach and with earth. Amarah is the passions of control and domination and anger. This urge is red, associated with the ears and with fire. Supiah is wishes, longings, the need to be with others and the desire to have children, and is yellow, associated with the eyes and with water. Mutmainah is purity, altruism and the desire to surrender self for others, and is white, related to the nose and breathing and with air. The stated parts of the body are considered the focal points of the desires. The colors are said to be produced in the aura when a desire is present.
At any given time, one of the desires will be most active and lead the rest, but the character has a tendency to settle into or center around one desire, which produces personality types. Not too surprisingly, these respectively correspond to Freud's oral, anal, phallic and genital personalities. However, the types are rather incidental: the issue is balance. You study your nature not to control your responses, change one desire into another or revel in your peculiarities, but to become more sensitive and conscious of your needs and strengths and weaknesses. You refine your desires and move toward balance by respecting and paying attention to them.
This traditional study involves meditation and various abstinences and fasts (tapa) to increase self-awareness by "looking at the back of your own neck" (tolehen githokmu dewe). Your awareness's breadth and depth depends on the balance and unity among the desires. There is a popular picture showing a chariot drawn by four horses; the horses are the power of taking (aluamah), competing (amarah), cooperating (supiah) and giving (mutmainah), while the charioteer represents the balanced self united with them as a team and moving onward.
"There is no escape from the consequences of your actions" (Ora luput saka ngunduhing panggawe). Depending on what you have been up to, this can be a terrifying notion. The Javanese deem it sufficiently daunting as to base a great deal of their approach to living on this inevitability. Perhaps because they generally live in intensely tight communities where everyone is watching everyone else all the time, this truism is so plain to the Javanese that it does not merit argument -- whatever you do, other peoples relationship with you reflects it. Though reincarnation (tumimbal lahir) and karma are naturally present in this still Hindu-Buddhist culture, they are generally satisfied with contemplating deeds in this life. Java echos with this constant attention to behavior and consequences through questions and speculation and gossip. If the members of a community do not keep track of each other, what is their function?
Living and Dying
In Java death
does not end existence; you just part ways with
your little body, but your relationships remain.
Eventually, God willing, we may come back together
again like now on this little planet. In preparing
for the death you should "always sow rice within"
padi jeru). You grow rice by behaving well, by
giving fully and freely of yourself so that you
are at peace with existence. The accumulated
result of what you do is what you are: "A noble
character does not depend on wealth, poverty or
position, but comes to anyone who is diligent in
the practices of a noble character" (Budi luhur
ora gumantung ana wong sugih, mlarat utawa
pangkat, ning sapa wae sing kuwat kanggonan budi
Your character defines the company you seek and those who seek to be with you both during and after life. "Prepare provisions for death during life" (Golek sanguning pati sajeroning urip). Death is a lifelong study and a continuous awareness of its coming takes a lot of confusion out of your life, and imparts a tender anguish to relationships: "We are here together now. Is it not wonderful? But where will we be tomorrow?"
This perspective was highlighted during the terminal illness of an elderly aristocratic (priyayi) matron whose family split into traditional and modern factions as she died. After a month she went into a coma. The traditional faction maintained a constant deathwatch; she was visited frequently by a doctor and carefully taken care of, but she was not hospitalized. This group was most concerned with her spiritual condition, and she was visited by various traditional Javanese doctors (dukun) and open psychology adepts. The consensus held that she was dying and dying quite well; her "journey of death" (perjalanan) was under way.
The other faction was from the modern Indonesian elite and they pushed for Western medicine. An IV was finally placed, and though she improved a bit, she did not recover consciousness. The traditional faction was aghast; their play with their technological toys was interfering with her entry into death, and she could suffer spiritually because of it. A niece grumbled, "They had better not do that to me when it's time for me to go." After a week she started slipping again, the IV was removed and she died a few days later.
The dying are going toward God, while the children are coming from God. You raise your children by "guiding from behind" (tut wuri handayani). A story often told to explain this describes a stranger coming to ask directions. You know where he wants to go, but to show proper respect you do not just say "Follow me" and march off in the lead. You indicate the direction, let him go first and then follow behind to quietly let him know when to turn. Your children are strangers too. You do not dominate and control them; you help them find their own way.
Parents are responsible for helping to orient their children to this world while fostering their essential openness. You help your child by teaching him to see clearly and letting him be. We lived in a neighborhood surrounded by children for two years and never so much as heard one harshly scolded. The Javanese children are gently "reminded" (diélingaké) when they get out of line, and asked not to do so again. The issue is that harsh treatment is asking for trouble later on as the child adopts your attitudes and punishes the whole community with them.
For example, one day a naughty four-year-old boy spent the whole morning crying and carrying on, and none of the gentle procedures they tried had persuaded him to stop. Finally they carried him to the bathroom and closed the door. Bathrooms often have low walls in Indonesia as did this one, and the boy was "reminded" not to make such a fuss by having ladlefuls of water tossed over the wall into the bathroom. He moved into a corner and stopped crying. They then let him out and he remained subdued for a while.
The Hindu gods worshipped in Java from about 500 A.D. to 1500 have two faces. They display a benevolent aspect to their followers, a friendly, understanding face, but those who defy them confront their wrathful aspect -- a hideous, long-fanged visage that is angrily protecting what you betrayed. Javanese childrearing is reflected in these gods. Until about the age of six a child can do no wrong; both mother and father are amazingly loving, attentive and patient. After that the mother's role remains unaltered, but the father's changes dramatically. The father becomes distant and watchful and neutral: he guards the world from your possible excesses, and he guards you from over-estimation. In effect, your mother is with you first and then with the rest, while your father is first with the rest and then with you.
Balance and Imbalance
comes from "conforming to the true nature of the
desires"; balance outside is sought through
respect, manners and avoiding disturbances.
Disturbances are dangerous. Confusion causes
blindness by stirring up the social silt and
clouding the waters of interaction, so that nobody
can see clearly for a while.
One day my wife went to visit a friend, but she was out. The servants said their matron would be home soon so my wife decided to wait. After a while the house started filling up with smoke. She was served tea. When her friend returned she explained that there had been a fire in the kitchen; of course, her servants would not disturb her guest. They had quietly gone to a neighbor to get help fighting the fire.
The respect and fear of upsetting others that underlie Javanese manners are childishly, almost neurotically intense, and reflect both the working of the two-faced god and the success of the Javanese childrearing system. When you love and serve the peace of your community, this same love and service is eventually returned; when you betray this love and disturb the peace, the wrath arises to cleanse the confusion. This confusion is like the fire in the kitchen; you try to keep the disturbance confined to as small an area as possible so that excess silt is not kicked up to cloud the rasa sea, the experiential waters we all share.
There are two words for this union of loving fear and fearful love. They distinguish whether the feeling is balanced and can be shared, or imbalanced, with the pain and disturbance paralyzing action and communication. The first type is pakewuh: no doubt the servants -- rushing about in the kitchen, serving the tea, running off to the neighbor -- were also concerned about their guest out there drinking her tea in the smoke. She must be nonplused and uncomfortable, but it is something to giggle about. The mistress will be home soon and she will explain everything.
Pakewuh is a light, sympathetic feeling for someone in discomfort. Your connection with the source of discomfort (if there is one) is involuntary. A similar feeling where your connection with the discomfort is active is nakal. Nakal is what children often are when they mirror our own postures back to us, showing us just how foolish we look and is closest to such associations as "naughty" and "mischievous" in the Western tradition.
Isin is the imbalanced version of such feelings. Isin is what happens when you cannot bear what you are seeing and feeling, when you are watching but no longer controlling your reactions, when your energy mounts in a vain attempt to deny what is here. This is the kind of intensity you find in adolescent love tangles or when a child gets surprised doing something he knows is forbidden. Isin is not something you can produce alone. It requires imbalance in your relations with others determining this blindness and vulnerability.
Isin in particular, together with all extreme emotions in general, produces imbalance -- love, hate, euphoria, despair and fury are all subject to the "law of balance" (hukum seimbang). Departures from the predominant shared state of calm are illusions if protracted; you create their continuity by not letting them relax back into the real context (rasa murni). As in the case of isin, they blind and can provoke personal and social disturbances. Impassioned people cannot be present; they are always involved in their own show.
The "law of imbalance" is part of Natural Law (Purba Wasesa, the Javanese term for the Greek palaiouV nomouV), and provides a good illustration of what is meant by this all containing concept and how it is continuously applied to the details of daily life. For example, food is eaten lukewarm, not hot; tea may be served hot, but it is the host's job to check it from time to time until it is the proper tepid temperature, and the guests are invited to drink. The more traditional folk will not drink iced drinks: too cold. Pregnant women should never drink anything cold, and should avoid shocks even more rigorously than usual.
Shocks cause imbalance and increase the risk of disease. The Javanese "cold" equivalent is masuk angin ("wind enters"), in which some vapor gets in and disturbs the system. Babies are often dressed in knitted ski caps and what appear to be snow-suits on this often sweltering equatorial island. A ride on a motorcycle requires a heavy jacket and the ski cap. The windows are never opened on buses, trains and the like: you might not get sick, but what of your neighbor?
Community balance depends on the maturity of its members, their acceptance and response to the situation as it really is. When you distort your context; when you impose some personal order on relationships or events, that is pamrih. For example, when you give someone a gift, hoping to get something in return, that is pamrih, or when you just want them to like it, that is pamrih too. But equally, when you do something just to entertain or make yourself feel good, that is pamrih as well. Pamrih is the active expression of your private version of reality. It is what you need to be there to justify being wherever you are.
On the other hand, a mature gift is eklas, "freely given"; you give it wholeheartedly, and meaning comes to it on its own, rather than being assigned and imposed by you. All behavior should be eklas, and this is the active element of a mature, open relationship with reality. Eklas is the heart, isin is the soul; they are the love and the law, the mother and father of Javanese community.
The following vignettes attempt to communicate
something of the
rasa, the shared sense, of Java as expressed
in everyday events: a thin trail of fumes rising
from Mount Merapi -- denying the awesome might of
Nature or the transience of life is difficult in
the shadow of an active volcano; the unspeakable
serenity of the rice paddies; a maid following
three-year-old around with a plate, waiting for
him to stop long enough to open his mouth so that
she can put a spoonful of food into it -- young
children are not obliged to sit at table; the host
surreptitiously touching his teacup to see if it
has cooled enough so that he can invite his guests
to drink; the Mankunegaran Palace orchestra
playing in the Palace pendapa, a huge
open-walled reception hall, with the multitude of
birds living in the roof singing along; a Jakarta
group leader/doctor/general/businessman taking his
folding chair out on the lawn to sit, meditating
in the warm darkness every evening; the lean
painter, watering down the paint so much that he
had to apply coat after coat to get the color to
take -- without ever touching the pictures on the
wall, but rather, painting ever so carefully
around them; my first Javanese teacher, going to
our neighbor to ask that he tell our maid to
inform my wife that I should be advised: the class
I had missed that morning could be made up that
afternoon -- the go-between tradition in business
and other potentially disputatious relationships;
incredible peach-colored sunsets from time to time
during the rainy season; a man waking up in the
morning, whipping his head around -- crack, crack,
crack -- the arms, legs, fingers, back -- crack,
crack, crack -- until everything is loose and
relaxed; the complicated rhythm of the kampung
(neighborhood) security committee that patrolled
the area to a syncopated chorus beat out on pots
and pans every night -- a job that rotates among
the young men of the kampung; our maid who knew
everything about everyone in the kampung in
incredible detail -- knowing about people can
prevent problems; the women from the poor area
covering their heads as they defecate into the
ditch by the side of the road -- dignity in
anonymity; you are never apt to see anyone
munching on a bag of potato chips, when they do
eat in public, they gobble their food -- your
eating is an agony for those around you that are
hungry; hundreds of silent beggars neither asking
nor apparently concerned with what they receive,
sitting so still along the path up holy Mount
Kawi; our kampung (neighborhood) free
spirit, a lunatic woman receiving food and
strutting about with her new cloth wrap but making
no attempt to cover her nakedness; the masseuse's
strong fingers that gently search out tensions as
if they could see them; the maid crawling unbidden
on her knees to serve tea to Suwondo (pictured
here with me), an honored Javanese guest.
This is the incredibly slow, measured pace of Central Java, the attention given to their work and the care and patience and respect given to whatever they are doing, whether it be sweeping, making batik, catching up on the neighbors, dancing, painting, playing an instrument, serving tea -- the relaxed attention never wanders. This vibrantly attentive form of societal interaction is an obvious social expression of maturation psychology. Solo's old sobriquet is "the City that never Sleeps", but this does not invoke pictures of partying or drinking or the like: the image connected with this is of a city on watch, with the kampung guards patrolling the streets to their syncopated beat; wayang kulit performances where people sit about listening and talking and drinking sweet tea until dawn; and all night meditation in graveyards or streams or at home.
But Solo's New Year's Eve is probably the best example. Beginning the day before, the streets coming to the city are thronged with people walking, biking or riding (sometimes many kilometers) in from the desa, the farm hamlets surrounding Solo. The people of this old Kingdom still gather in the city to celebrate their community, quietly walking the streets, paying their respects one to one another until dawn.
Muqaddimah, Princeton University Press, 1958.