CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Islam, the New Age and Marginal Religions in Indonesia:
Changing Meanings of Religious Pluralism

by Dr. Julia Day Howell, Griffith University, Nathan, Brisbane, QLD 4111, Australia
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

The Indonesian government’s religion policy stands as a significant example of the diversity that actually exists in the Muslim world in the handling of religion-state relationships, notwithstanding the ideal that for Muslims God’s truth as revealed in the Quran should shape every aspect of social life. From the time of Independence, approximately nine out of ten Indonesians have been Muslims, and Islam was important in mobilising resistance to the Dutch colonial power. This was recognised obliquely in the 1945 Constitution, which commits the state to supporting religion. It was also indirectly acknowledged in the Constitution’s famous Preamble, the ‘Panca Sila’ (loosely, five fundamental Indonesian values) that features as the first principle belief in One God (keTuhanan Yang Maha Esa) (cf. Boland 1982:25-33; Hefner 2000:37-44; Kahin 1952:122-126). Acknowledgement of a religion is thus a basic obligation of citizenship. However, due to the country’s very considerable ethnic and religious diversity, Indonesia’s founding fathers held back from using the Arabic term ‘Allah’ to refer to ‘God’ in the Constitution (using instead the Indonesian word Tuhan, ‘Lord’), and, over several decades, legally and administratively concretised ‘religion’ (‘agama’) as five named religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism (PenPres 1, 1965; UU No.5, 1969).[i] Thus, since the beginning of Indonesia’s New Order (1966-1998), the country has had a policy of what might be called ‘delimited pluralism,’ imposing on citizens an obligation to acknowledge one of a limited number of world religions.

After the fall of the New Order and under the presidency of the prominent liberal Muslim scholar Abdurrahman Wahid, the scope for religious diversity among citizens expanded when ‘Confucianism’ (Agama Khonghucu) was legitimised as a proper Indonesian religion despite its association (however unjustified) with the anathemised Communist Party and with a single ethnic community. However, as impressive as the new elevation of Confucianism to the status of religion is as an affirmation of ‘civic pluralism’ (Hefner 2000, 2003), bringing the ever precariously positioned Indonesian Chinese community more closely into the fold of full citizens, it effectively extends the range of religious choice only for people of Chinese descent.

Nonetheless, if one looks past government legal specifications of the limits of pluralism to the way the content and boundaries of religions are constructed through intra-religious community discourse, one can see in Indonesia as elsewhere in the Muslim world an expansion of the spectrum of ‘internal dialogue’ (Eickelman 1992; Eickelman and Anderson 1999:13; Hefner 1997; 2003). In Indonesia, moreover, there are signs of change for everyone in the way the ‘delimited pluralism’ policy affects their religious lives.

In Indonesia the liberal wing of the spectrum of Muslim discourse has promoted a positive valuation of diversity within the ummat and a generosity of spirit towards others of the named religions (cf. Barton 1994; Hefner 2000). This so-called ‘Neo-Modernist’ element in Indonesian Muslim discourse has come to the forefront of public debate since the 1970s, and gained sufficient influence in both the leading Modernist and ‘traditionalist’ Muslim organisations (the Muhammadiyah and the Nahdlatul Ulama) to defeat in August 2002 a constitutional amendment aimed at reconstructing Indonesia as an Islamic state. That such an amendment was proposed bespeaks the vigour of conservative and radical Muslim groups that have proliferated along with liberal parties (secular and religious) since the demise of Suharto’s authoritarian New Order. The scale of the defeat nonetheless attests to the so far predominantly positive attitude of Indonesian Muslims and others to religious pluralism in everyday religious practice.

While the reasons for the ongoing, and, in some respects growing, acceptability of pluralism to many Indonesians are indeed numerous, they can be traced in part to the substantial growth of a new middle class (Dick 1985; Tanter and Young 1990) that has become enthusiastic about Islam (Liddle 1996; Hefner 2000:119-121, 2003) but is also highly cosmopolitan.[ii] The acceptability of pluralism can also be attributed directly to the promotion of liberal Muslim scholarship through the State Islamic Institutes (IAIN) and the new-style private adult Muslim education foundations like the Paramadina Foundation, ICNIS and IiMAN (Hefner 2000:125; Howell 2002, Jamhari 2002). The latter have not only supported religious pluralism through their teaching of liberal, highly contextual approaches to exegesis (Barton 1994; Hefner 2000:117; Riddell 2001:237), but have promoted among their patrons, scholarly and otherwise, the reflexive, rational-critical attitudes to knowledge that support a distinctly modern mode of autonomous action in religious life (cf Giddens 1990; Lambert 1999; Swatos and Christiano 1999).

An earlier report by this author (Howell 2002), based on interviews with Muslims who have taken the adult education courses at Paramadina and ICNIS, shows how course ‘graduates’ are carrying their enhanced awareness of diversity within the world of Islamic scholarship, and the confidence those courses have inspired in their own critical judgment, into other self-motivated religious activities. Thus they are forming their own Islamic study groups and even exploring, sometimes individually, sometimes in the company of study-group friends, a wide variety of New Age, growth movement and spiritual psychology activities. These include Reiki, Sartori, Celestine Prophecy, Spiritual Quotient (Kecerdasan Spirituil), Parent Effectiveness Training, and a variety of yoga and meditation courses now readily available in the larger Indonesian cities from the global ‘spiritual marketplace’ (cf Lee and Ackerman 1997; Roof 1999).

Alongside the international New Age and growth movement brand names that operate, as it were, as health and psychology product providers and therefore outside the radar of the Ministry of Religion, are other organisations that attract the same sort of interest from well-educated Muslims, but have nested, somewhat awkwardly, within one of the named, legitimate religions. These include Salamullah, a locally conceived Muslim foundation, and the international Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (BKWSU or ‘BKs’), which in other countries rejects identification as a ‘religion’ but in Indonesia was initially registered with the Hindu section of the Ministry of Religion. Salamullah’s self-defined Islamic identity would suggest that the participation of well-educated and committed Muslims in that organisation raises no particular implications for the scope of contemporary attitudes towards religious tolerance, however its spirit mediumship practices and eclecticism, albeit re-contextualised in the New-Age friendly middle-class Muslim environment of the early twenty-first century, nonetheless have repeatedly jeopardised Salamullah’s status as a Muslim foundation. The involvement of committed Muslims with the Brahma Kumaris, an organisation closely identified with Hinduism, raises more obvious challenges to understanding contemporary limits to religious pluralism in practice.

A third organisation whose legal status and popularity with religiously sincere middle-class Muslims raises questions about the limits and meaning of religious pluralism in Indonesia is the Anand Ashram. Founded in Jakarta in the 1990s by an Indonesian citizen of Indian descent and Hindu family background, the Ashram promotes a spiritual appreciation of all the major religions as presented by numerous spiritual teachers, thus violating the principle that religious organisations in Indonesia will be identified with a single religion and support citizens’ submission to a single, state-recognised religious authority.

This paper focuses on the cases of Salamullah, the Brahma Kumaris and the Anand Ashram, with a view to understanding what their functioning within and outside the legal boundaries of the official Indonesian religions signifies about the meaning of religious pluralism in Indonesia today. Focus on these cases also enables us to explore what patronage by well-educated, committed Muslims of those non-mainstream organisations (two of them connected with Hinduism and one flamboyantly non-orthodox Muslim) implies about the nature of contemporary liberal Muslim religiosity.

It will be argued that the committed and well-educated Muslims who are patronising these organisations are effectively altering the meanings of religious pluralism in Indonesia. The recognised ‘religions’ have had to accept not only the participation of their members in a second tier of authorised ‘faiths’ (indigenous mystical groups), but the recovery into their own midst of practices (particularly those supporting experiential religiosity) once associated with devalued ‘traditional’ religion. Paradoxically, in the contemporary global context, such features can now appear distinctly ‘modern.’ Further, the ‘high modern’ construction of religion that undergirded the formulation of Indonesian law and administration of religion in the 1960s and 1970s is being reworked in the actual religious practice of many cosmopolitan Indonesians. That Enlightenment Protestant and early Modernist Muslim derived notion of ‘religions’ as doctrinally explicit and ‘rational,’ exclusive, congregational, and firmly bounded (the ‘world religions’ of Indonesia’s 1960s legislation) is being softened through cosmopolitan Indonesian’s awareness of diversity within their own religious traditions, commonalities with other religious traditions and engagement with ‘spiritual’ products in the global religious market place.

To demonstrate these points I begin by briefly recapitulating older meanings built into the concept of ‘religion’ under national law through legislative and administrative refinements in the first three decades after Independence. I then turn to the cases of the three religious groups (Salamullah, the Brahma Kumaris and the Anand Ashram) that, through their on-going free operation and attractiveness to well-educated Muslims, suggest substantial changes have occurred in the meanings of pluralism and nature of Muslim religious practice amongst cosmopolitan Indonesian urbanities. Where not otherwise indicated, the case material comes from interviews with the groups in Jakarta between 2001 and 2002.

Delimiting Indonesian ‘Religion’ in the First Decades of the Republic

While from the perspective of the most radical Indonesian Muslims aspiring to some form of Islamic state, Indonesia’s present policy of delimited pluralism is heinously broad, it is nonetheless narrower than many Indonesians in times past have wanted. Atheism has never been an option for a person who wishes to be considered a citizen of good character and free of associations with Communism, and few have made an issue of this.[iii] But many religious traditions and innovated religious identities passionately advocated by Indonesians have been excluded from full legitimacy through legislation and the evolving policies of the Ministry of Religion since the founding of the Republic. What has gradually been excluded, and what identities other than Islam and Christianity have managed to gain legitimacy after all, reveal the meanings attached to the term ‘religion’ in New Order (1966 – 1998) representations of the Panca Sila. That record of exclusion from, or elevation to, the status of religion thus suggests the normative pattern to which each of the recognised religions were meant to conform by the time of the transition from the Old to the New Order.

That any religions other than Islam should be accorded legitimacy was established at the declaration of Independence in 1945 by the Constitution (with the understood option for Islamic state advocates to legislatively amend the Constitution if they could get sufficient supporting votes thereafter). However, what those other ‘proper’ religions might be was not specified in the Constitution. That left the Ministry of Religion (founded principally to advance Muslim interests, but established from the beginning with small directorates for Protestantism and Catholicism) to encourage or discourage claimants to the status of religion, either by extending them limited financial support or targeting groups it branded ‘animists’ for missionising (Steenbrink 1972; Swellengrebel 1960). As it happened, those targeted for missionising included not just ‘tribal’ and other religious traditions of non-Muslim and non-Christian ethnic groups like the Balinese and Indonesian Chinese. Those targeted for surveillance also included the ‘mystical groups’ (golongan kepercayaan) increasingly disassociated from Islam since Muslim Modernists began to repudiate the Sufi traditions of Islam at the turn of the century. Under greatest pressure to dissociate from Islam were the heterodox, independent-minded mystics who increasingly incorporated elements of the Javanese Hindu-Buddhist heritage, Christianity and Theosophical representations of other religious traditions into their teachings (Howell 1976; Stange 1980, 1986).

While the majority of ethnic groups associated with non-state societies in past times could do little to resist the discrediting of their religious traditions, the Balinese and Indonesian Chinese, as well as Javanese proponents of heterodox mystical and other metaphysical groups, organised to promote their traditions and identities, and even to claim the status of ‘religions’ (Forge 1980; Howell 1978; 1982:511-514; Ngurah Bagus 1969, 1970; Stange 1986; Suryadinata 1974, 1998). Those that succeeded in gaining recognition as religions formed organisations that constructed their traditions with a number of common features strongly resembling Islam and Christianity: highly rationalised (that is, codified) beliefs relating to a transcendent deity; exclusive membership open to people of any ethnic background; congregational organisation with regular weekly services in a public place of worship; and formally organised governing and representative bodies (Howell 1978; 1982).

The successful groups included the Parisada Dharma Hindu Bali, representing Balinese religion as a monistic, congregational kind of Hinduism (Bakker 1993; Forge 1980; Howell 1978, 1982),[iv] and a number of Buddhist organisations born out of the Chinese, Balinese and Javanese communities. The Parisada fixed on ‘Sang Hyang Widi’ as the identity of the Ultimate Being (despite its previous lack of ritual importance), published a ‘Hindu Bali’ creed, and advocated the simplification of ‘wasteful’ rituals. The Buddhist organizations, struggling to accommodate in a unified position Chinese folk traditions, newly imported Theravada teachings, and resurrected Javanese Vajrayana manuscripts, agreed to recognise a figure from an ancient Javanese Buddhist text, the Adi Buddha, as Indonesian Buddhism’s creator God (Brown 1998; Howell 1978; 1982; Suryadinata 1974, 1998). These groups, which organised themselves effectively in the 1950s and lobbied the Ministry of Religion, were able to win directorates in that Ministry in 1958 (Howell 1982:513). The Ministry then published their newly formulated creeds and basic teachings to support reformist, moral rearmament style public education campaigns, aimed, however, strictly at what Geertz (1973 [1964]) called ‘internal conversion.’

The administrative elevation of Hinduism (Agama Hindu Bali) and Buddhism (Agama Buddha) to the status of ‘religions’ then set the stage for the later legislative recognition of Hinduism and Buddhism in the first clear specification of legitimate Indonesian religions by Sukarno in 1965 that became the basis of the 1969 ‘five religions’ law. Significantly, at a time when Modernist Muslims had discredited the Sufi path to knowledge of God who is ‘closer to man than his own jugular vein,’ and prescribed exclusively a ‘scripturalist’ (Geertz 1968) focus on basic prayers and legal observances, reformed Indonesian Hinduism and Buddhism also elevated a transcendent God to the pinnacle of public worship and fore grounded newly compiled doctrines and moral guidance in their publications.

Confucianism, which was acknowledged as a legitimate Indonesian religion by Sukarno’s 1965 Presidential Decision, also had been articulated as a ‘religion’ (Agama Khonghucu) by activists in the Indonesian Chinese cultural nationalist movement along with Buddhism and the ‘Three Religions’ (Tridharma, or originally Sam Kauw). Confucianism’s inclusion in the 1965 list of legitimate Indonesian religions probably owes much to its (by then partial) reconstruction on a congregational model and promotion by politically well-placed Indonesian Chinese (Howell 1978:267; Suryadinata 1974:885; Williams 1960:54ff). However its later demotion from the status of legitimate religion, not to be reversed until after the fall of Suharto’s New Order, reflects not just the distinctly Chinese liability of association with Communism under the New Order, but the negative evaluation by then placed on ethnic heritages that appeared, through their lack of systematisation, to be mere collections of ‘superstitions.’

The strategic value of dissociating religious traditions from particular ethnic group heritages and universalising them was already evident in the national parliament’s attempts in 1960 to specify the meaning of ‘religion.’ Thus its second decision of that year (Ketetapan MPRS no. 2, 1960) held that ‘religions’ (agama) deserving full government legitimation were to be understood narrowly as ‘religions long recognised by the world’. This clearly influenced the Parisada’s decision to change the name of Balinese religion in 1964 from ‘Hindu Bali’ to ‘Hindu Dharma,’ that is, simply, ‘the Hindu Religion’ (Howell 1982:514; Forge 1980). The association of Confucianism with ethnicity could not be so easily erased. However, the organisations representing it (from 1967 gathered under the Confucian Religion Supreme Council or MATAKIN) did continue to work on rationalising the tradition on the universalistic and scripturalist lines already followed by the successful Hindu and Buddhist organisations and favoured by those who spoke for ‘modern’ Islam at the time, stipulating Thian (or Tien) as the One God and making Sunday the day of weekly public worship (Howell 1978:267; Suryadinata 1998:7).

In each of the universalisations, ‘superstitious’ local customs were to be eschewed or down-played in public representations; the Divine was to be apprehended wholly or primarily as transcendent and approached through minimalist ritual, scripture and upright social living. Further, ‘good’ Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Muslims and Christians were to submit exclusively to the requirements of their separate faiths, as defined by their respective religious authorities and approved by the Ministry of Religion.

As these Enlightenment-Protestant coloured constructions of religion gained increasing influence in public discourse, the mystical and other ‘spiritual’ groups (variously known as golongan kebatinan, kerohanian, kejiwaan and kepercayaan)[v] came under intense pressure (Howell 1976:137; 1982:533-534; Stange 1986). Founded mostly by the Javanese Muslims, particularly those Geertz (1960) identified as ‘priyayi’ and ‘abangan,’ but with links to the more Javanised Sufi orders, they often revealed miraculously inspired teachings suggestive of influences from several major religious traditions (Howell 1976:137-138; Subagya 1976; Van der Kroef 1961). With growing numbers, organisational capacity and some government influence, the mystical groups asserted their own claims to legitimacy as ‘religions’ or spiritual activities compatible with Islam and Christianity. Nonetheless, the disparagingly named ‘new religions’ (agama baru) faced intense disapproval, particularly from Modernist Muslims.

That pressure had its intended result when President Sukarno’s 1965 Decision (PenPres No. 1) naming the six legitimate religions thereby removed government support and protection from any other groups that might claim to be religions.[vi] The mystical groups were called upon to ‘return each to their own home’ (kembali ke induk masing masing) in one of the named religions. Already under surveillance by the Justice Department, along with spirit mediums and healers of questionable religious credentials, the mystical groups faced abolition and other serious penalties for posing as religions or otherwise falsely using religion.

A kind of compromise was reached for those groups willing to give up claim to the status of a ‘religion’ when in 1973 the parliament (MPR) allowed them to function under the separate but hypothetically equal status of ‘faiths’ (kepercayaan) under the administration of the Ministry of Education and Culture (Howell 1982:530; Stange 1986). This nominally opened out again the limits of Indonesian religious pluralism. However the cherished goal of the mystical groups that wanted to have their ‘faith’ accepted as an alternate identity to one of the five ‘religions,’ though legally accomplished, has not been realised in practice. A certain opprobrium remained attached to the ‘faiths,’ and those that survived stress that their offerings can supplement, but do not replace, a legitimate religious affiliation.

In short, by the early 1970s, ‘religion’ (agama) had been constructed through reform organizations and their interactions with government on a particular, mid-century model of respectability in modern world religions: Indonesian religions were to be exclusivist, congregational, heavily scripturalist and universalist. The ‘irrational,’ evident in apparently disorganized folk and syncretic religions, ecstatic practices and the miraculous, were particularly anathemised (cf. Sievers 1974; Stange 1986:77). This bespoke more than simply the dynamics of Weberian rationalisation of cultural heritages through formal organization and a judicious adaptability of politically savvy leaders of minority traditions. It reflected a widely shared concern that Indonesian religions be disentangled from ‘irrational’ traditions that stood in the way of progress and be reconstructed according to current standards of modern thinking to support reliable citizenship and economic development. As Boland (1971:131) reported then President Sukarno saying in August 1965, shortly before the disastrous attempted coup that spelled his downfall, “‘Religion is not only concerned with feelings, but also with reason, reason, understanding, (Latin) ratio, ratio and once again ratio!’”

Religious Marginality Recontextualised in the Global Market

Since the 1990s, and particularly since the advent of the ‘democracy period’ in 1998, there has been a marked growth in cosmopolitan modulations of Indonesian cultural life and a refiguring in more open terms of what it is to be a Muslim in the modern world. Both Indonesians of strict Muslim, pesantren backgrounds and other Muslims growing up in the New Order period have enjoyed increased opportunities, through government support for education and spreading affluence (Dick 1985; Hefner 2003), to develop the intellectual equipment of the international marketplace of ideas and skills. This in turn has qualified the new middle and upper strata for work in occupations drawing on globalised knowledges, and often places them physically alongside colleagues from other backgrounds, whether in local offices of multinational companies and NGOs or overseas. Overseas experience of work and travel for pleasure, vastly more common in the 1990s than in the 1970s, has made increasingly common the experience of pluralistic cultures and the Western “spiritual marketplace,” whether in New Age bookshops, alternative health sections of Sunday supplements, or TV yoga classes for stress release. Moreover, all these de-confessionalised and psychologised expressions of contemporary spirituality have been enthusiastically interpreted and retailed in domestic media, and are in any case widely available through satellite television and the internet.

In this cultural environment, it should not be surprising if the formula of delimited religious pluralism (Indonesia’s five, or rather six, religions policy) is now once again being stretched in decidedly liberal directions. The cases presented below show how the field of choice both within ‘religions’ and outside has widened since the inauguration of the New Order. The cases also demonstrate that participants in non-mainstream religious activities today include not just non-Muslims and casual, Javanist Muslims such as have supported the mystical groups of the past, but highly committed, self-consciously ‘modern’ Muslims. For these modern Muslims, unlike the Modernists Muslims of the mid-twentieth century, eclecticism and experiential spirituality, rather than being markers of outmoded irrationality, are the natural outcome of a self-directed search for religious fulfillment.

The Case of Salamullah: Trance, Magic and Islamic Piety on the Borders of Kebatinan

Sufi mysticism, both within and decoupled from its traditional base in the Islamic religious orders (tarekat), has attracted the interest of cosmopolitan urbanites since the mid-1980s (Howell 2001; Van Bruinessen 1995). One new type of institution catering for this interest in Sufism is the modern, commercial adult Islamic educational institution. Paramadina, ICNIS and Tazkiya Sejati, for example, have offered formal academic study of Sufi literature. These institutions, however, have a limited capacity for supporting Sufi devotional practice (Howell 2002). For this, cosmopolitan Muslims have turned to a variety of other institutions, particularly weekend workshops and spiritual ‘foundations’ placed both within and outside the recognized religions. One example of such a foundation identified with Islam but manifesting distinctly non-normative characteristics is Salamullah. Salamullah illustrates how cultural forms associated with strict Muslim piety can now draw middle-class urbanites into the spiritual dramas once associated by the Western-educated primarily with Javanist mysticism and the devalued ‘faiths.’ Yet Salamullah has resisted reassignment into that weaker social category.

In 1974 the pious Sumatran wife of a lecturer in the Faculty of Technology at the University of Indonesia, Lia Aminuddin, was sitting on the terrace of her Jakarta home when a round yellow light spiraled down from the sky, pointed towards her, came to rest above her head and then disappeared. Mystified, she continued with life much as usual, raising her family and developing a penchant for dry flower arranging that carried her into the public eye when she was invited to do numerous TV appearances. Then, just over twenty years after that first extraordinary event, the miraculous began to intervene in her life on a more regular basis and the mystery of that earlier visitation was finally revealed, drawing to her a devoted following and creating a sensation among her fellow Muslims.

On October 27, 1995, Lia was performing the late night prayers, sholat tahajud, that devout Sufis wake to perform when all is quiet. Wrapped in her devotions, of a sudden her body shivered and she felt a presence. At first fearful of disturbance by a jin, she was calmed when the presence identified itself as “Habib al-Huda” and imparted wholesome advice. In the days and months that followed, Lia began to write poetry and songs with great fluency, and even found that she could heal people by massaging them while uttering short Islamic prayers like the Alif lam mim or the Al-Fatihah. Amongst the pleased recipients of these ministrations was the internationally acclaimed poet and playwrite Rendra.

Lia received further visitations in which the entity revealed that actually he was the Angel Jibril (Gabriel). His message was alarming: Indonesia was going to be beset by terrible trials. Indeed the last days foretold in the Quran were approaching. The details proved remarkably accurate, and, praying for Allah’s mercy and performing her healings, her following grew. They regularly came to her home to join her in the required Muslim prayers and extended Sufi devotions, during which Lia would go into trance and the Angel Gabriel would speak through her. It was revealed that the miraculous light that had descended upon her long ago was the Angel Gabriel himself, and he had initiated her as none other than the Imam Madhi, the Caliph of the coming divine order, long hidden from history. Indeed Nabi Isa (Jesus) had also returned in the person of Lia’s son Ahmad Mukti.

Not surprisingly, Lia Aminuddin and her following (formally constituted as ‘Yayasan Salamullah’) have caused a sensation, offending many Muslims. The Indonesian Council of Ulamas (MUI) in 1997 repudiated her claims to speak with the voice of the Angel Gabriel,[vii] and neighbours of Salamullah’s property in Puncak tried to evict the group. Nonetheless Lia and her following have been able to function for a number of years without being either shut down or forced to re-identify as kebatinan, despite incorporating concepts from other religions like reincarnation into their beliefs and drawing into their founder’s story motifs such as the descent of wahyu (the supernatural, power-conveying light) and the ability to handle dangerous supernatural power objects (gatranews.com/VII/42/cov42-1.html).

This may well be due to the pointedly Islamic “face” of Salamullah: the performance of the obligatory Muslim prayers in proper garb for both men and women; the use common Sufi devotions such as might be practiced in an orthodox order (except for the behaviour of Lia in trance); the firm assertion by the organisation of its Islamic identity; and the construction of members’ lives as properly guided by Islamic principles. It may also be significant that the membership includes highly educated, professionally successful people fully confident of their own judgment and choices. They are prepared to defend their unusual practices in Islamic terms[viii] and are capable of packaging their message in forms attractive to middle-class urbanites: a nicely-produced magazine, popular music CDs, art shows and the like. Moreover, in these middle class and elite circles, spirit mediumship can as readily be associated with the ‘channeling’ done by Western New Age celebrities as with illiterate village healers. Nonetheless, press attention to some of their more recent and bizarre practices, like the self-infliction of burns for spiritual purification (cf Gatra 12 May 2001:23-32), have of late linked the group in the public mind with discredited cults like the Aum Shinrikyo.

In sum, Salamullah has presented itself (until recently, successfully) as strictly Islamic and particularly suitable, indeed necessary, for the lives of modern, middle-class and affluent Muslims, formally remaining within the boundaries of delimited pluralism. Still, Salamullah, with its spirit mediumship, Javanist power objects and messianic motifs, and reincarnation beliefs, has dangerously challenged conventional Indonesian modernist constructions of religion, and its legal operation is precarious.

The Case of the Brahma Kumaris: From ‘Religion,’ to ‘Faith,’ to ‘Spirituality’

Along with the Anand Ashram and various Reiki healing centres, the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (BKWSU, or ‘BKs’) is one of the most frequently featured groups in magazine and newspaper life-style articles on religion, health and ‘spirituality’ (spiritualitas) since the 1990s. The very salience of the concept of ‘spirituality’ in up-market Indonesian periodicals suggests the inadequacy of the terminology of mid-twentieth century religious reform and government administration to accommodate the liberal end of the new religious spectrum into which the Brahma Kumaris fit. The now frequent occurrence of ‘spiritualitas’ in Indonesian parlance also points to the immersion of Indonesian cosmopolitans in the global spiritual marketplace out of which the Brahma Kumaris manifested in Indonesia in 1982.

The Brahma Kumaris movement was founded in Karachi in 1937 by a Sindhi diamond merchant, Dada Lekhraj, who, then in his later years, experienced the living presence of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu, followed by horrifying visions of world destruction. Acting thereafter as a medium for Shiva, Lekhraj guided a growing company of aspirants in using a particular style of meditation they called ‘Raja Yoga’ and a regimen of spiritual purification through vegetarianism and celibacy. Through these means the BKs cultivated ‘inner peace’ and prepared to be the elect who will be reborn into a new Golden Age after the imminent millennium (cf Babb 1986; Chander 1983).

Through the channelled messages it became clear that Shiva was not to be understood as one of many Hindu gods, but in monotheistic terms as ‘The Supreme Soul.’ In this and other respects the movement distinguished itself from Hinduism, and indeed from all religions. Its knowledge, gyan, the true knowledge, was thus identified as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious,’ and the movement as a whole was cast as a ‘university.’

The successful implantation of the Brahma Kumaris movement into Indonesia has required accommodation to domestic legal categories that ill fit it. As in London (the first overseas home of the BKs in the early 1970s [cf Howell and Nelson 1997, 2000; Walliss 2002] ), the movement in Indonesia was initially established among Hindi-speaking expatriates from the Indian subcontinent. Sister Helen Quirin, an Australian who had ‘taken the knowledge’ in India, was sent to Indonesia to start the BK branch. Her employer in the Gandhi School in northern Jakarta cautioned her not to try to broadcast the teachings in the general society out of respect for Muslim sensibilities, but just to give the BK teachings at religious gatherings of the resident Indian ladies group. Mindful of the legal environment of religions, her employer also encouraged her to call on the nearby office of the Ministry of Religion and advise the Balinese head of the Hindu section of her activities. That office encouraged Sister Helen to form a ‘foundation’ (yayasan) and provided it with suitable board members, largely from the Indian community. When processing the foundation documents, Sister Helen then consulted an official at the Department of Social Affairs, asking whether the foundation should be registered with the Ministry of Religion or the Ministry of Education and Culture. The advice was, “Your yoga is from India, is it not? Well, then you’re virtually Hindu, are you not?” Thus began a warm association with the Ministry of Religion that lasted until 1989.

In the meantime, the ‘Raja Yoga Foundation’ began to offer classes in meditation to the general public, in association with its standard introductory ‘seven day course’ on the nature of the soul, how it connects with God in meditation, and the importance of ‘purity.’ These classes attracted the attention of Indonesians, both Christian and Muslim, of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Very soon the classes also attracted the interest of the press, who reported that the Foundation ‘teaches the theory and practice of yoga…[and]…is not a religion.’[ix] This clearly expressed the position of the international BK movement, as well as the local chapter’s felt need for care in offering its teachings to Indonesian Muslims and Christians. Thus then, as now, Sister Helen stressed in her comments to the reporter: ‘One thing we never touch is a student’s religion...They are free and have no formal commitment [to the BKs].”[x]

This accommodation of meditation students with limited or no interest in BK eschatology and purity rules and who might have other ongoing religious commitments was in evidence in other countries to which the BK movement had spread by the 1980s (Barker 1992:168-170; Howell and Nelson 1997, 2000; Walliss 2002). One result was that the international movement began to generate a wealth of programming for the general public, responding to widely held interests in non-denominational ‘spirituality,’ ethics and wholistic health. These and local adaptations, like ‘Positive Thinking,’ ‘Understanding the Mind,’ ‘The Art of Communication,’ ‘Concept Total Health,’ and ‘How to Change,’ were offered in Indonesia. Thus Sister Wendy told a women’s magazine in 1984 that ‘Yoga is a form of psychological therapy (terapi psikologis).’[xi]

The highly successful initiative of Western BKs in the international movement to translate their concern for ‘inner peace’ into a force for ‘world peace’ through the formation of a UNESCO-affiliated NGO also helped promote the association of the BKs in Indonesia with a socially engaged spirituality clearly linked with modernisers across the world. This was marked in Indonesia in 1988 by the President’s wife, Madam Tien Suharto, agreeing to serve on the International Advisory Committee of the BK’s UNESCO program ‘Global Cooperation for a Better World’ (Indonesian Times 29 July 1988:3).

As the general meditation, spiritual well-being and peace programs of the BKs expanded and attracted increasing numbers of Indonesian Muslims and Christians, the inappropriateness of lodging the movement in the Ministry of Religion as ‘Hindu’ was impressed on Sister Helen by the director of Hindu affairs. ‘You’d better move,’ she was urged, ‘since you are not teaching non-Hindus.’ Thus in 1989 the original foundation (the legal face of the movement in Indonesia) was disestablished and a new foundation, the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual Study Foundation (Yayasan Studi Spiritual Brahma Kumaris), was registered with the ‘faiths’ (kepercayaan) office in the Ministry of Education and Culture.[xii] Sister Helen nonetheless still occasionally attends the national councils of the Parisada Hindu Dharma.

In other ways as well the BK image was becoming more protean than designation as a ‘faith’ was originally meant to suggest in 1973. Thus in 1992 an article in the up-market Muslim women’s magazine Amanah[xiii] referred to the BKWSU as ‘a university’ (sebuah universitas) and ‘a spiritual school of thought’ (suatu school of thought dalam hal spiritualitas). Another article in the same issue represented Raja Yoga as a spiritual practice (metode) that has parallels in all the ‘religions’ and, that, despite its provenance in another religious tradition, can be of value to Muslims. It went on to liken the BK purity practices to the Sufi tadzkiyat al-nafs (purification of the passions through ethical reflection and restraint) and the BK yoga to the Sufi practice of dzikir (meditative remembrance of God). The organisation was even likened to ‘a kind of Sufi order (tarekat)’.[xiv]

This perennialist message was again reported in 1997 in a Gatra article (25 October 1997:112) entitled, remarkably, ‘Breaking Through the Boundaries of Religion’ (Menumbus Batas Agama). It covered talks by visiting senior BK sister Didi Sudesh Sethi. Speaking at the liberal Muslim Paramadina Foundation and a five-star Jakarta hotel, she is quoted as observing: ‘Religions are one and their foundation is spirituality. We don’t need religion that is organised and rigid’.[xv] Along with this was included a sympathetic audience comment from the prominent State Islamic University professor and former senior Ministry of Religion official Dr. Komaruddin Hidayat: ‘Modern people,’ he said, ‘want freedom from materialism and formalism.’ To this the Gatra reporters added a quotation from the international best seller Megatrends 2000 (Naisbitt and Aburdene 1990): ‘Spirituality yes, organised religion no!’

More recent media coverage presents the BKs as teachers of meditation for psychological and health benefits along with other providers whose connection to a ‘religion’ or status as a ‘faith’ appears to be of no interest. What is important, however, is scientific legitimation. Thus the November-December 1999 issue of Holistik, a glossy health and life-style magazine, carried a feature on ‘Overcoming Stress with Meditation,’ complete with references to current medical literature and a description of the BK practice. Similarly, BK yoga was described as one of a dozen local meditation institutes in the January 2000 ‘New Millennium’ issue of Nirmala that made a cover feature on ‘Get off Antibiotics! This Century’s Vaccine, Meditation.’ In this environment, the precise legal status of the Brahma Kumaris is of little concern to patrons, who come seeking minimally distinguished health and spiritual benefits and not a regimented affiliation.

The Case of the Anand Ashram: Multi-Faith Centre in a Delimited Pluralism State

The Anand Ashram, founded in Jakarta on January 14, 1991, brings experiential religiosity to cosmopolitan Indonesians in a markedly differently format: a multi-faith meditation centre. Despite the Hindu associations of the organisation’s name (ashram being a term commonly used to indicate a Hindu guru’s residential teaching establishment, both in India and the West, and anand referencing both the founder’s name and spiritual bliss sought by Hindu mystics), the organization is legally constituted simply as a foundation and not registered either with the Ministry of Religion or with the kepercayaan (‘faith’) section of the Department of Education and Culture. Although reminiscent of the Theosophy Society, its cultural referents are to the New Age of the late twentieth century, not the spiritualist scene of the late nineteenth century. Moreover, its founder, Anand Krishna, has himself resisted identification with a particular religion (leaving the relevant section of his identity card blank) and strictly eschews guru status, occultism, and any suggestion of himself propounding a new, syncretic philosophy.

Anand Krishna, of Indian descent and Hindu background, was born in the Javanese court town of Solo in Central Java in 1956. However he received his schooling in India, returning to Indonesia to pursue a business career only after finishing an MBA in his family’s home country. While undertaking his formal schooling, he met a Sufi master, Shah Abdul Latif, and under his tutelage studied Islam, reading the Quran first in Hindi and only later in Arabic with the help of his master. Despite this early spiritual training, however, his business career came first, until he was stopped short by a near fatal attack of leukemia. Returning to India to look for alternative healing after his doctors had given up hope, he was able to pull back from the gate of death after an encounter with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in the Himalayas. So dramatically did this change his outlook on life, that he let go his business career and devoted himself to spiritual teaching.

The spiritual teaching actually began as small informal gatherings of members of the Jakarta international community and local friends and business associates in the cosmopolitan district of Kemang. For these gatherings Anand wrote short reflections on the teachings of the world religions that were circulated amongst the group. At the suggestion of one of the American participants, he pulled some of these together in book form. With that began his meteoric career as the author of, by now, nearly forty spiritual books. The books present the spiritual insights of all the major religions in a form easily digestible for the non-specialist but educated and spiritually engaged Indonesian, and emphasize what Anand sees as the common core of all religions. So popular have these books been that in bookstores across the country they commonly take up well over half of the shelf space in the general spiritual book section.

The warm reception to these works encouraged Anand to move to north Jakarta, to Sunter, where he could build a teaching centre onto his home and provide altars and grottos for worshippers of all the major religious traditions. This centre, The Anand Ashram, now provides a program of instruction in meditation five nights a week and serves as a meeting place for people who enjoy exploring the depth spirituality of different traditions, including their own, in each others’ company. Festivities celebrating the holy days of the major traditions are held in the centre and dramatise the commonalities in religions and the need for religious understanding. Signficantly it is one place cosmpolitan Muslims can go to cultivate, with guidance and support, a practical engagement with their own mystical tradition, Sufism. Indeed this is the attraction of the centre for a number of Paramadina past-patrons.

Such a publishing program and spiritual centre would be entirely unremarkable in most Western countries. However in Indonesia it has drawn fire from both Muslims and Catholics who see Anand’s teachings as presumptuous misrepresentations of their beliefs and, implicitly, a violation of the delimited pluralism formula for religious peace in the country. Vigorous attacks in the Muslim media in the later months of 2000 accused Anand of insulting Islam and violating the principle that a non-Muslim may not presume to interpret Islamic teachings. Media Dakwah went so far as to accuse Anand of forming an agama baru (‘new religion’), ‘like Salamullah’ (Gatra 23 September 2000: 66). For a short period his books were actually withdrawn from sale to avert violence.

Anand’s rejoinder was that his books only offered an ‘appreciation’ (cf Jawa Pos 18 December 2000: 2) of the various religions and that they were actually meant to promote urgently needed religious harmony. Further, he noted that his writings on Islam had been reviewed by scholars at the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), Jakarta, and critiqued in seminars there before publication. Significantly, he received then, and continues to receive, support from leading academics at the IAIN and in the Ministry of Religion. By 2001 his books had returned to the bookshop shelves and they continue to sell well. The Sunter centre is flourishing and a comfortable new centre has been built in Puncak, in the hills overlooking the capitol.


Each of these cases exemplifies the popularity of forms of religiosity not readily accommodated within conceptions of normative ‘religion’ that were embodied in law at the beginning of Indonesia’s New Order. The cases reveal the insistence of numerous self-confident middle class Indonesians, including Muslims, on exploring these diverse sources of spiritual enrichment, regardless of the providers’ formal legal status or the association of certain practices with once devalued traditionalism. This has made the boundaries around the authorised ‘religions’ and even the ‘faiths’ distinctly porous.

Cosmopolitan Muslims are enacting new understandings of what it is to be religiously ‘modern,’ understandings that contrast sharply with constructions of ‘religion’ evident in mid-twentieth century legislation. Earlier constructions of religion, bespeaking mid-twentieth century Modernist Muslim and Enlightenment Protestant apologetics about modernity, valorised scriptural, congregational and essentialised renderings of ‘world religions’ that carried heavy emphasis on a wholly transcendent divine being. In contrast, contemporary cosmopolitan Muslim religious practices seek to recover a sense of immanence through more (but not wholly) individualized pursuit of religious insights and helpful spiritual practices of whatever source. Much that once was rejected from ‘religion’ as ‘superstitious,’ ‘irrational’ (spiritual healing, mysticism) and ‘syncretic,’ now has acquired new valences and is being recovered through a new, ‘scientifically’ legitimised rapprochement between rationality and the experiential in matters religious. There is also evident a new confidence on the part of ‘seekers’ (Roof 1999) in learning from other traditions of religious and secular knowledge.

The three cases illustrate different ways in which once devalued eclecticism and experiential religiosity are being recuperated, each with their own distinctive strategic advantages and liabilities. Salamullah recovers one of the least valourised of the traditional Indonesian ecstatic practices, spirit mediumship, that enjoyed no legitimation in orthodox Sufi circles and little prestige amongst heterodox Javanist mystics. Spirit mediumship nonetheless generates a compelling sense of direct connection with the ‘other world’ for audiences, and now has parallels in the form of ‘channelling’ in Western New Age circles. Like Pentecostal groups, which reintroduce the miraculous into ostensibly dry, intellectualised Protestantism, Salamullah brings the Javanist world of supernatural powers (kesaktian) and mysterious occurrences back into association with fervent Islamic piety. In doing so, however, it appears to challenge, all too directly, the fundamental tenet of Islam, that God has no seconds. This, together with its theological eclecticism, puts it at high risk of closure by the authorities and in sore need of its elite political connections.

The Brahma Kumaris, along with Anand Ashram and a number of other groups, provide settings in which once highly valorised meditation practices can be explored outside the traditional Sufi orders by repackaging those practices as generic spiritual tools. In so doing, they have gone some way to liberating a non-denominational concept of ‘spirituality’ from the strictures imposed on both the ‘religions’ (agama) and the ‘faiths’ (kepercayaan).

The Brahma Kumaris’ origins in India, the strong imprint of Hinduism on their cosmology, practice and dress, and their use of South Asian expatriate contacts to become established in India, all propelled them into association with the Hindu office of the Ministry of Religion during their early years in Indonesia. This was despite the international movement’s own vehement rejection of identification with Hinduism since its founding. Later registration as a ‘faith’ (kepercayaan), however, did not prove a fully satisfactory legal status for the BKs when they expanded their teaching of deconfessionalised spiritual tools to Indonesian Muslims and Christians. As originally defined in the 1970s, the faith groups (organisasi penghayat kepercayaan) were supposed to mimic the religions (agama) in having an explicit set of doctrines, books of teachings and congregational structure, all on record with the faiths section of the Ministry of Education and Culture. In other words, the ‘faiths,’ like the ‘religions,’ were ‘pillarised.’ If citizens wished to affirm a ‘faith,’ they were meant to choose one, and, realistically, combine it with a single ‘religious’ identity (agama). The BKs, however, run a variety of spiritual self-help programs on a drop-in basis for people who like to combine those programs with the offerings of other charitable and commercial spiritual course providers. In other words, the commonly patronised programs of the BKs have been assimilated to the New Age market offerings that resist bureaucratic regulation. The wide popularity of this kind of spiritual teaching and the operation of so many providers beyond the control of the faiths office of the Ministry of Education and Culture suggests that cosmopolitan Muslims, Christians and others are practicing forms of religious pluralism far looser than law and formal administrative policy suggest.

It should be noted, however, that while the Brahma Kumaris presently function in Indonesia primarily as a provider of non-denominational spirituality and facilitator of inter-faith dialogue, the international movement carries a highly distinctive millennial eschatology that, when revealed to keen participants and fully engaged, is not easily reconciled with membership in another religion (Howell and Nelson 2000). It appears, however, that this aspect of the BK movement is finding little expression in Indonesia.

The Anand Ashram, by virtue of its origins in a multi-ethnic, partly expatriate, elite Jakarta community, has been able to survive while promoting not simply generic spiritual tools for health and well-being, but the group celebration of a perennialist spirituality in all of the recognised religions (and several others besides) under one roof. This represents a dramatic extension of the scope for eclecticism and pluralism under Indonesia’s legal framework for religions. Anand’s use of the mass media to reach a wide audience with his appreciations of diverse religious traditions and the support this has received from leading moderate Muslim intellectuals has also made him difficult to side-line. Explicitly teaching about other religions is nonetheless a high-risk strategy and exposes Anand to charges of transgressing the delimited pluralism policy, which, although softened, is not dead.

Whether indeed any of these expressions of cosmopolitan Indonesian religiosity are likely to flourish in the future cannot be prognosticated. Their affinity with the social classes that drive economic development and social modernisation, and enjoy global interconnectedness and unprecedented exposure to cultural and intellectual diversity, suggests that such forms of cosmopolitan religiosity are indeed the wave of the future. However, as Beyer (1994), Robertson and Chirico (1985), Eisenstadt (1999, 2002) and others have pointed out, the information-age extensions of modernisation that generate the social connectedness we now call globalisation are as likely to prompt radical religious denials of diversity and exclusivist rejections of pluralism as cosmopolitan acceptance of them. In a world where international conflict is being violently expressed in religious terms, one can only fear for the proponents of tolerance and inclusivism.


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[i] Actually not five but six ‘religions,’ including the ‘Confucian Religion’ (Agama Khonghucu) were named in the original 1965 Presidential Decision, but thereafter Confucianism lost tokens of legitimacy and in January 1979 then President Suharto instructed that it was not a religion (Suryadinata 1998:8). During the New Order most people, including Indonesians, connected the Panca Sila doctrine with a ‘five religions’ policy. See below.

[ii] This is not to say that changes in society, as opposed to the state, are wholly determinative of attitudes towards religious pluralism, but only to focus on one arena of social life in which significant changes have been occurring. A multitude of contrary forces, notably in the mid-1990s the manipulation of reactionary Islamic elements by the Suharto regime against proponents of pluralism, has been documented by others. (See, for example, Hefner 2000 128-66). Nor does this analysis imply that changes in class composition, patterns of communication and values are unidirectional, or that ‘late modern’ experiences of globalised communications necessarily foster increasingly liberal evaluations of religious diversity. Both fundamentalist rejection of pluralism and a liberal acceptance of its positive aspects have been evident over the last decades in societies with diverse religious heritages (cf. Beyer 1994; Eisenstadt 1999; 2002).

[iii] One of the few widely available accounts of dissenters from the Panca Sila norm is the novel Atheis (Mihardja 1972).

[iv] Clifford Geertz (1973 [1964]) captures the concerns of Balinese thinking through the ‘rationalisation’ of their religion in the mid-1950s in his classic essay, “‘Internal Conversion’ in Contemporary Bali.” That kind of thinking shaped the modernising reforms that ultimately culminated in the Parisada’s formulation of Balinese religion as ‘Hinduism.’

[v]These were drawn together in 1956 into the Badan Kongres Kebatinan Seluruh Indonesia (Howell 1982:533).

[vi] Four other ‘religions’ were actually mentioned in that Presidential Decision, Judaism, Zarathustrianism, Shintoism and Taoism. They were granted freedom of association, but on the grounds of their small numbers, had no right to government support. In contrast, mystical groups claiming to be Islamic, but having a guru and new revelation, would be prosecuted for ‘insulting’ religion by false representation and syncretic mystical groups could be charged with not accepting the strictures of one of the approved unitary religions.

[vii] Surat Keputusan Fatwa Dewan Pimpinan Majelis Ulama Indonesia Tentang Malaikat Jibril Mendampingi Manusia, No. kep-768/MUI/XII/1997.

[viii] See, for example, the organisation’s defense against the MUI fatwa (Aminuddin 1999).

[ix] Jakarta Pos 1984 (no specific date), p. 8 (From the BKWSU Jakarta clipping collection.)

[x] Jakarta Pos 1984 (no specific date), p. 8 (From the BKWSU Jakarta clipping collection.)

[xi] Femina 1984, no page or specific date. (From the BKWSU Jakarta clipping collection.)

[xii] Other international movements like Ananda Marga, Kekeluargaan (The Family) and SUBUD are also now lodged in this office.

[xiii] Amanah 155 (1992) (No page; from BKWSU Jakarta clipping file).

[xiv] Amanah 155 (1992):107.

[xv] Gatra 25 October 1997:112.


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