What India can learn from Indonesia on religious tolerance

Embassy Row, in Washington, DC, is decorated with flags of nations, flying in front of embassy buildings.

In front of some embassies, there are statues of national heroes. Winston Churchill graces the grounds of the British Embassy. Outside the Indian Embassy, there is Mahatma Gandhi, as is Nelson Mandela outside the South African Embassy, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in front of the Turkish Embassy, and many others.

In front of the Indonesian Embassy, one would have expected to see the statue of Sukarno, the founding father of Indonesia. But no; there is the Hindu Goddess of learning, Saraswati, glowing white and gold, with her four arms upraised. At her feet are three students -young Barack Obama and his classmates while he was in grade school in Indonesia.

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The goddess’ statue, on top of a lotus, stands tall a block away from the Indian Embassy in front of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.

Why would Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, with Hindus accounting for a mere 1.7 per cent, choose a Hindu goddess as its embassy’s symbol?

It speaks volumes about the nation’s respect for religious freedom. Indonesia is a secular nation and its constitution is planked on the philosophy of “Pancasila” which is pluralistic in its outlook. The constitution refers not to “Allah” but “Tuhan” so as to ensure that the minorities feel fully integrated.

Indonesia has the fourth largest Hindu population and the highest number of Hindus outside the Indian subcontinent (after Nepal and Bangladesh). Most Indonesian Hindus are Balinese.

Hinduism’s manifestations in myriad forms are on display in every sphere of Indonesian life. The Hindu influence is immediately brought home when a traveler boards the national airline bearing the name from Hindu mythology – Garuda, the bird and vehicle of Vishnu. The national emblem of Indonesia is Garuda Pancasila. Hanuman is the official mascot of Indonesia’s military intelligence. At the 1997 South-East Asian Games at Jakarta, the official mascot was Hanuman.

Ganesh, the God of wisdom, is inscribed on the 20,000 rupiah currency note. The logo of Institut Teknologi Bandung – Indonesia’s premier engineering institute – is also Ganesh.

The dwarpal statue is placed outside hotels, shops, public offices. He sits with the right knee on the ground and holds a formidable mace in the right hand as a protector of the establishment. Even the Bank of Indonesia in Yogyakarta is guarded by, not one, but two dwarpals.

Indonesia has issued many stamps on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata featuring Arjun, Krishan, Hanuman and scenes from the epics. Depiction of epics in the form of folk painting, shadow puppets, dramatic characters and sculpture are found across the length and breadth of the country.

Sukarno himself was named after the Mahabharata character, Karna. Sukarno’s father, fascinated by his characterisation but equally disapproving of his support to the wrong side in the war, named him Su (good) Karna. Sukarno’s daughter was named Megawati Sukarnoputri and was the president of the country from 2001 to 2004.

The language of Indonesia is Bahasa which in Sanskrit means language (Bhasha). Thousands of Tamil and Sanskrit names are found in Indonesia, many of them in their corrupted form due to the passage of time.

The National flag of Indonesia, called the “Sang Saka Merah-Putih” (The Sacred Red and White) has been influenced by the banner of the Majapahit Empire, which during the 13th century was one of the largest empires of the region. Hinduism and Buddhism were the dominant religions in the Majapahit Empire. We visited Bali recently and the Hindu influence struck us at the airport itself. The airport building’s outer walls feature pillars shaped in the Balinese temple complex style. Balinese gateways decorate the roads.

On the way to the hotel, we saw leaf trays (Canang Sari) outside houses, offices, shops and restaurants. These are tiny offerings to Acintya – the Supreme God, made daily containing an enormous range of offerings: flowers, glutinous rice, cookies, salt, even cigarettes and coffee! They are set out with burning incense sticks and sprinkled with holy water three times a day, before every meal.

Statues of Ram, Krishan and Arjun – mammoth in size, beautifully designed, tastefully lit, adorn traffic roundabouts. Jakarta even boasts a statue of Ghatotkach, Bhim’s son. Save for a shrine close to Hidimba Devi Temple in Manali, Ghatotkach has no statuary presence in India. How did this Hindu influence reach Indonesia?

Hinduism and Buddhism arrived in Indonesia in the 4th and 5th century, as trade with India intensified under the southern Indian Pallava dynasty. From the 7th to early 11th century, the Srivijaya kingdom, as a result of trade, came under the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism. After the invasion by Rajendra Chola I of the Chola dynasty, the authority of Srivijaya weakened.

Between the 8th and 10th centuries, the Buddhist Sailendra and Hindu Mataram dynasties thrived. The Hindu Majapahit kingdom was founded in eastern Java in the late 13th century, and under Gajah Mada, its influence stretched over much of Indonesia. After peaking in the 14th century, Majapahit power began to decline and was unable to control the rising power of Malacca Sultanate. A large number of courtiers, artisans, priests, and members of the royal family moved east to the island of Bali at the end of Majapahit power.

The references to Indonesia abound in the epics. Yavadvipa (Java) is mentioned as the island where Sugriv, the chief of Ram’s army dispatched his men in search of Sita. Even today there are Serayu (after Saryu) river, Narmada, Mount Semeru and other familiar landmarks in Indonesia.

Balinese Hinduism diverged from the mainstream over 500 years ago and is quite radically different from what one would see in India. The people practice a less orthodox, syncretic form of religion which draws on local customs and beliefs. The worship and depiction of Hindu gods shows a variation from what we have in India.

The primary deity is Acintya, of which other gods like Vishnu and Shiva are merely manifestations. Instead of being shown directly, he is depicted by an empty throne wrapped in the distinctive poleng black-and-white chessboard pattern and protected by a ceremonial tedung umbrella.

Throughout the year, Ramayana and Mahabharata puppet and dance shows called Wayang Kulit and Wayang Wong are staged. The art was imported from India and is believed to be developed from two art forms of Odisha – the Ravana Chhaya puppet theatre and the Chhau dance.

Wayang Kulit is a unique form of theatre employing light and shadow. The puppets are crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks. When held up behind a piece of white cloth, with an electric bulb or an oil lamp as the light source, shadows are cast on the screen.

Even today, the festival of Bali Yatra is held in Odisha, in the city of Cuttack, to mark the day when ancient Oriya mariners would set sail to the distant Indonesian islands for trade and cultural expansion. The festival marks its beginning on Kartik Purnima and goes on for a period of seven days.

There are an estimated 20,000 temples in Bali itself, each of which holds festivals at least twice yearly. With many other auspicious days throughout the year, there are always festivities going on. Each village is required by customary law to construct and maintain at least three temples: the temple of origin located at the pure side of the village, the village temple at the center for everyday community activities and the temple of the dead at the unclean end.

The nine directional temples are the largest and most prominent. These are located at strategic points across Bali and are designed to protect the island and its inhabitants from dark forces.

For the Balinese, the temple of Besakih on the slopes of Mount Agung is the most important of all. Mount Agung has huge spiritual significance for the people of the island. Balinese legend has it that Agung was created when Pashupati split Mount Meru (the spiritual axis of the universe) and formed Mount Agung with a fragment.

Mount Agung last erupted in 1963, causing devastation in the eastern part of Bali and beyond. Quite remarkably, the temple was relatively untouched. At Ubud, we visited the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary which underlines the importance of monkeys and their mythology in Balinese tradition.

If you happen to be in Bali during Nyepi, or the Hindu New Year, you will see amazing colorful giants (Ogoh Ogoh) being paraded through the streets, a sight not to be missed. Tourists are confined to their hotels and asked to be as quiet as possible for the day. After dark, lights must be kept to a bare minimum. No one is allowed onto the beaches or streets. The airport remains closed for the entire day. Ferry harbors are closed as well.

Indonesia’s respect for different religious traditions as well as its past history makes it a citadel of peace and tolerance across the globe.

We go to an Indonesian restaurant during our trip and scan the drinks menu. There is a gin-based cocktail called Ramayana Pimm’s and a mocktail called Ramayana’s on offer. And we aren’t, in the least bit, surprised!

Bron: daily O

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