IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 23 | Theme Modern Hinduisme


Guest Editor
Martin Ramstedt

Martin Ramstedt was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1962. In München he studied Indian Studies, Prehistory, Psychology, and Folklore Studies, majored in Ethnology, and specialized on Indonesia. Already in 1981 he had taken up playing the Balinese gamelan which roused his interest for Bali. His master thesis, which he published in several articles, dealt with the influence of Indonesian cultural policy on the development of the performing arts in Bali. For his PhD on the world view and legitimacy of rule in pre-colonial Bali he studied with Balinese priests, priest puppeteers, and artists. Later, he again turned to the present, to modern Indonesia, and to the study of Hinduism which enabled him to look beyond Bali. He added South Sulawesi, Java, and, recently, India to his scope. In the autumn of this year he is travelling to Sumatra and Kalimantan for an investigation of Hindu communities there. For the last three years Martin Ramstedt has been working at the IIAS, with funding from the ESF Asia Committee, to write his 'Habilitation' (professorial thesis).

Its strong ability to adapt and reinvent itself under difficult circumstances made Indonesian 'Hinduism' an interesting topic for Martin Ramstedt. 'Hinduism has a difficult status in Indonesia. The so-called "religions of heaven", based on divine revelations, such as Islam and Christianity, have discriminated against ethnic religions that are supposedly man-made and rooted in local tradition. Some of these ethnic religions were classified as currents of Indonesian Hinduism between 1958 and 1980. During Bali's colonization between 1849 and 1908, Christians and Muslims alike sniffed their noses at the Balinese who, to their minds, had no religion, a term which they reserved exclusively for monotheistic traditions. They even denied them the status of being "Hindu" while European orientalists praised Bali to be "the last Hindu enclave" in the whole archipelago. Later, the Indonesian government pursued to rationalize the religiosity of the people to prepare them for modernity. Magic, trance, and other local traditions were to be ignored.'

'For these reasons, the Balinese had to officially reformulate their theology in the 1950s. From their pantheon of gods, they chose one Almighty God, classifying the rest as relative aspects of God, akin to the Muslim and Christian angels. Rituals were standardized, a new emphasis was laid on reading texts. The Bhahagavad Gita, a previously unknown text, became one of the Holy Books of Indonesian Hinduism that copied much from neo-Hinduism in India. This Sanskritized version of "Hindu" religiosity stood in fact in great contrast to the folk Hinduism that had long existed in Bali. Previously, India had not been a reference point for Balinese identity.'

'Members of other ethnic groups followed the example of the Balinese when having a "religion" became imperative under Soeharto's anti-Communist regime, seeking recognition for their local religions as "Hindu sects". The Balinese, however, have monopolized important positions in the supra-local Hindu bureaucracy. This bureaucracy has been the dominant representative of Hinduism in Indonesia until now. The Indonesian or even Balinese Hindu community is now far from unified. With liberalization and 'democracy' Balinese have tried to disempower the Hindu bureaucracy as the only decision-maker concerning religious affairs. Some affluent Balinese and Javanese have turned to India for guidance, expressing themselves against animal sacrifice and propagating vegetarianism. Hare Krishna, Ananda Marga, Transcendental Meditation, Brahma Kumaris, Shri Shri Ravi Shankar, and, most of all, Sai Baba have gained considerable ground. On the other hand, some influential people are against Indian influence. They say that the Balinese tradition is unique and should not be hegemonized by India.'

Martin Ramstedt sees Indonesian Hindus turning to India for reasons of strengthening their positions against hegemonic Indonesian Islam as well as Christianity. Through this issue's theme he hopes to stimulate the debate on this rapprochement. 'The Indianization of Southeast Asia has often been described for the period from the beginning of this era to the fifteenth century, but modern relations have largely been neglected. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 India lost its main trading partner. India then shifted focus to the Asia Pacific and tried to establish better relations with East and Southeast Asia on the basis of a common Hindu-Buddhist heritage. Most Indians do not know about Indonesian Hinduism though, but there is an increase in awareness on the part of different Indian institutions. Due to his increasing influence in Indonesia, and Southeast Asia in general for that matter, Sai Baba is a case in point.' Ramstedt has visited the ashram of Sai Baba in Puttaparthy, India, where he found several books on Sai Baba's preaching in the Indonesian language as well as other references to both the Balinese and Javanese culture. Alternatively, more and more books on Indian Hinduism are appearing in Indonesia while Hare Krishna ashram, Sai Study Groups, and Yoga centres have been set up in Bali and Java, and Balinese travel agencies have organized annual pilgrimages to India since 1993.'

'The future of Indonesian Hinduism will be determined by a growing orientation towards Indian Hinduism, boosted by the increasing islamization of the Indonesian society. This in turn may lead to an increasing fragmentation of the already diversified community. Christianization is threatening Hindu communities in South Sulawesi and North Sumatra. Since they are economically and education-wise lagging behind, converting to Christianity often means moving upwards socially and economically. Moreover, traditionalists among the "Hindu" communities tend to reject the reformation of local religion, hence preventing Indonesian Hinduism to become a viable medium of modernisation for the marginalised communities. Because the traditional rituals related to the agricultural cycle cost both time and money, "Hindus" increasingly turn to less costly forms of religious practice. In South Sulawesi and North Sumatra, this often means conversion to Christianity. In Bali and Java, however, this trend has encouraged the boom of Indian spiritual movements.'

After completing his Habilitation entitled Diversity in Peril? 'Hinduism' in Modern Indonesia in 2001, Martin Ramstedt would like to look further into Indonesian Studies by concentrating on avenues of tolerance within Indonesian Islam. 'To understand contemporary Indonesia, it is imperative to tackle the question of religious pluralism and tolerance' he says. ­ (EvdH) *

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 23 | Theme Modern Hinduisme