How Hinduism was introduced in Indonesia:
Records of foreign trade with Indonesia exist from the early AD centuries. Consequently, it was earlier thought that Hinduism was introduced to Indonesia through traders arriving from India.
However, recent discoveries of Sanskrit transcriptions in places like eastern Kalimantan, a considerable distance from the international trade route, and also in western Java have given rise to a new theory that it was introduced to the Indonesian islands through rishis and their Indian and Indonesian disciples.
References in Balinese literature about Pura Pucak Raung (in the Eastern Javanese district of Glenmore), where Maharishi Markandeya is said to have visited and gathered followers, further bolster this claim.
But as is common with most of the religions, Hinduism in Indonesia (known formally as “Agama Hindu Dharma” in Bahasa Indonesia) got influenced with local beliefs, customs and traditions and developed a distinctly Indonesian flavor.
It shares all the main beliefs of Hinduism like a belief that all of the Gods are manifestations of the Supreme Being, belief in the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu (Wisnu), Mahesh (Ciwa) representing the creator, preserver and destroyer roles of the Supreme Being, belief in sacred texts of Vedas, Puranas and Itihaasas, etc.
However it lacks the traditional Hindu emphasis on cycles of rebirth and reincarnation, but instead is greatly influenced by the Chinese and Eastern Asian concept of ancestral spirits. Brahmins are regarded as the prestigious class but instead of being affiliated with any temple, they act as spiritual leaders and advisers to individual families.
Being accepted as an Indonesian religion, Hinduism is reflected in early Indonesian polity as well. Various Hindu kingdoms began to emerge in the main islands of Java and Sumatra. Most notable amongst them are Srivijaya and Majapahit which flourished to become empires and influenced the events of the region.
Srivijaya kingdom was based in Palembang, in the island of Sumatra. Accounts of its origins vary from 200 AD to 500 AD. But mainly from 7th century AD, it appears in contemporary Chinese and other trade records as an important maritime Indonesian kingdom.
Srivijaya established suzerainty over large areas of Sumatra, western Java and much of the Malay Peninsula. Dominating the Malacca and Sunda straits, it controlled both the spice route traffic and local trade, charging a toll on passing ships. Serving as an entrepôt for Chinese, Malay, and Indian markets, the port of Palembang, accessible from the coast by way of a river, accumulated great wealth.
In 903 AD, a Muslim writer Ibn Rustah was so impressed with the wealth of Srivijaya’s ruler that he declared one would not hear of a king who was richer, stronger or with more revenue. Srivijaya also maintained close relations with the Pala Empire in Bengal and an 860 AD inscription records that the maharaja of Srivijaya dedicated a monastery at the Nalanda University in Pala territory.
Fall of the Srivijaya Kingdom: Relations with the Chola dynasty of southern India were initially friendly but deteriorated into actual warfare in the eleventh century. Although Srivijaya managed to survive Chola invasion and conquest, it got gravely weakened, lost its regional hegemony and gave rise to formation of small kingdoms. As the decline went further, Islam made its way to the Aceh region of Sumatra.
In 13th century, the kingdom of Pasai in northern Sumatra converted to Islam putting further pressure on Srivijaya. In 1365 AD, Srivijaya was conquered by the Hindu Majapahit Empire from Java. A rebellion in 1377 AD was squashed down by Majapahit, but left the area of Southern Sumatra in chaos and desolation giving further impetus to the growth of Islam.
By 1402 AD, Parameswara, the last prince of Srivijaya who had fled Palembang after being defeated by Majapahits, married a Muslim princess of Pasai and founded a kingdom on the Malay Peninsula. In 1414 AD, at the age of 70 he himself converted to Islam declaring his kingdom as the ‘Sultanate of Malacca’.
Other Hindu Kingdoms: During the same time period some other Hindu kingdoms like Sailendra and Singhasari existed on the island of Java. Some of the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia are built-in that time frame.
The Borobudur temple complex, in honor of Mahayana Buddhism, contains 2,000,000 cubic feet of stone and includes 27,000 square feet of stone bas-relief. Shiva’s great temple is less than 50 miles away at Prambanan.
Based in eastern Java in since 1293 AD, Majapahit was the last Hindu empire in Indonesia. It reached its height in the mid-14th century under King Hayam Wuruk (1350AD-89AD) and his Prime Minister Gajah Mada.
The New Year ceremony during the Majapahit era was a major religious ceremony which used to be attended by Indian scholars as well. Thus in one of the inscriptions, the poet asserts that the only famous countries in the world were Java and India because both contained many religious experts! However, after the death of Hayam Wuruk, the kingdom grew internally weaker due to family feuds and found itself unable to control the rising power of the Sultanate of Malacca.
Finally in 1478, Brawijaya the last Majapahit ruler converted to Islam. The last remaining courtsmen of Majapahit were forced to withdraw eastward. A large number of courtiers, artisans, priests, and Hindu members of the royalty moved east to the island of Bali at the end of Majapahit’s existence; where they remained isolated before being colonized by the Dutch.
Conversion to Islam:
In both Java and Sumatra, as the royalty converted to Islam, the citizens followed suit. And although many cultural aspects of the religion were preserved, Hinduism ceased to exist as a major spiritual force after being the main Indonesian religion for centuries.
This is undoubtedly a major event in the history of Hinduism and should be studied and understood in great detail by all those who love this ancient continuous tradition. It would reveal the conditions and reasons behind the downfall of Hinduism from one of its strongholds and might prove as a guidance to avoid such circumstances elsewhere in the future.
Hindus Renaissance and Challenges:
Preserved by Balinese Hindus through their turbulent history, Hinduism is experiencing a revival in all parts of Indonesia in the recent times. While many Javanese had retained aspects of their indigenous and Hindu traditions through the centuries of Islamic influence, under the banner of ‘Javanist religion’ (kejawen), no more than a few isolated communities upheld Hinduism as the primary mark of their public identity.
Even officially identifying their religion as Hinduism was not a legal possibility for Indonesians until 1962 AD, when it became the fifth state-recognized religion. This recognition was initially sought by Balinese religious organizations and granted for the sake of Bali, where the majority was Hindu.
The largest of these organizations, Parisada Hindu Dharma Bali, changed its name to P.H.D. Indonesia (PHDI) in 1964, reflecting subsequent efforts to define Hinduism as a national rather than just a Balinese affair. Religious identity became a life and death issue for many Indonesians around the same time as Hinduism gained recognition, namely in the wake of the violent anti-Communist purge of 1965-66.
Persons lacking affiliation with a state recognized-religion tended to be classed as atheists and hence as communist suspects. Despite the inherent disadvantages of joining a national religious minority, a deep concern for the preservation of their traditional ancestral religious practices made Hinduism a more palatable option than Islam for several ethnic groups in the outer islands.
In the early seventies, the Toraja people of Sulawesi island were the first to realize this opportunity by seeking shelter for their indigenous religious practices under the broad umbrella of ‘Hinduism’, followed by the Karo Batak of Sumatra in 1977 and the Ngaju Dayak of Kalimantan in 1980. The rate of conversion (or re-conversion) to Hinduism accelerated dramatically during and after the collapse of former President Suharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998.
For some Indonesians this return to the ‘religion of Majapahit‘ was a matter of nationalist pride. PHDI, in an annual report claims the ‘Hindu congregation’ (umat hindu) of East Java province to have grown by 76,000 souls in 1999 alone.
Apart from political environment, socio-economic factors also contributed to this trend. In the last few decades, especially after being formally recognized as an official Indonesian religion, some of the ancient Hindu temples are being revived in Indonesia with the generous donations from wealthy Balinese Hindus.
Surge in the number of households proclaiming themselves as the followers of Hinduism has been seen around these revived temples. Prominent among them include Pura (temple) Blambangan in the regency of Banyuwangi completed around 1978, Pura Mandaragiri Sumeru Agung, located on the slope of Mt Sumeru, Java’s highest mountain completed in 1992 and recently completed Pura Loka Moksa Jayabaya in the village of Menang near Kediri and Pura Pucak Raung in the Eastern Javanese district of Glenmore. Similar resurgence was observed around major archaeological remains of ancient Hindu temple sites in Trowulan near Mojokerto. Economically, the newly built temples have brought new prosperity to local populations.
Apart from employment in the building, expansion, and repair of the temple itself, a steady stream of Balinese pilgrims to this now nationally recognized temple has led to the growth of a sizeable service industry. In the recent international environment, pondering on the secret to the economic success of their Balinese neighbors, several local inhabitants have also concluded that Hindu culture may be more conducive to the development of an international tourism industry.
What the future holds:Contributed by all these factors, a slow yet certain revival of Hinduism in Indonesia is observed. However, it also should be noted that simultaneously, a steady increase in the number of Wahabi mosques funded by Saudi oil money has contributed to the increased radicalization of Southeast Asian Muslim populace. It would be interesting to see how the Hindu revival movement proceeds under such circumstances in future.
Shreyas Limaye is a PhD student in the Industrial Engineering department at University of Washington, Seattle