Great Expectations: Hindu Revival Movements in Java, Indonesia

Hindu empires had flourished in Java for a millennium until they were replaced by expanding Islamic polities in the 15th century, setting the stage for Indonesia becoming the world’s largest Muslim nation. In the 1970s, however, a new Hindu revival movement began to sweep across the archipelago. Hinduism is gaining even greater popularity at this time of national crisis, most notably in Java, the political heart of Indonesia. Based on preliminary ethnographic research in five communities with major Hindu temples, this paper explores the political history and social dynamics of Hindu revivalism in Java. Rejecting formalist approaches to the study of religion, including the notion of ‘syncretism ‘, the Hindu revival movements of Java are treated as an illustration of how social agents employ religious or secular concepts and values in their strategic responses to the particular challenges and crises they may face in a specific cultural, social, political and historical setting.

Expectations of a great crisis at the imminent dawn of new golden age, among followers of the Hindu revival movement in Java, are an expression of utopian prophesies and political aspirations more widely known and shared among contemporary Indonesians. These utopian expectations are set to shape the prospects of Indonesia’s fledgling democracy. In this paper, I will reflect on the different historical conditions under which these and similar utopian expectations and associated social movements arise, and may either either incite violent conflict or serve a positive role in the creation or maintenance of a fair society.

My interest in Java is recent and arose inadvertently from nearly a decade of earlier research on the neighboring island of Bali. The majority of Balinese consider themselves descendants of noble warriors from the Hindu Javanese empire Majapahit who conquered Bali in the 14th century. A growing number of Balinese are conducting pilgrimages to Hindu temples in Java, most of which have been built in places identified as sacred sites in traditional Balinese texts (often written in Old-Javanese language). Balinese have been heavily involved in the construction and ritual maintenance of these new Hindu temples in Java. They further dominate organizations representing Hinduism at a national level. Finally, many Javanese Hindu priests have been trained in Bali.

I had the opportunity to gain a first hand impression of the expansion of Hinduism in Java and of Balinese involvement therein during a field trip in late 1999. Following preliminary ethnographic research in eight different Hindu Javanese communities it became evident that this movement has its own dynamics and rationale, no matter how much it may have been spurred by Balinese support. Most thought-provoking, perhaps, were the emotional accounts of events since 1965 leading up to a resurgence of Hinduism, and the constant references to the famous Javanese prophesies of Sabdapalon and Jayabaya.

On an earlier field trip in 1995, I was also able to visit central and southern Kalimantan where a large Hindu movement has grown among the local Ngaju Dayak population. The lead-up to a mass declaration for ‘Hinduism’ on this island was rather different to the Javanese case, in that conversions followed a clear ethnic division. Indigenous Dayak were confronted with a mostly Muslim population of government-sponsored (and predominantly Javanese) migrants and officials, and deeply resentful at the dispossession of their land and its natural resources. Compared to their counterparts among Javanese Hindus, many Dayak leaders were also more deeply concerned about Balinese efforts to standardize Hindu ritual practice nationally; fearing a decline of their own unique ‘Hindu Kaharingan’ traditions and renewed external domination.

The Javanese Hindu revival movement is in many ways unique, and its recent expansion may surprise a casual observer. Java is often viewed as the headquarters of Islam within the world’s most populous Muslim nation. On its own, however, this superficial image fails to do justice to the immensely complex and varied cultural history of this island; a history that continues to exert a profound influence on contemporary Javanese society. A glance at one of the many ancient monuments scattered across its landscape would suffice to remind one of a very different Java, where a succession of smaller and larger Hindu kingdoms flourished for more than a millennium, producing a unique and dynamic mixture of Indic and indigenous Austronesian culture. At the peak of its influence in the 14th century the last and largest among Hindu Javanese empires, Majapahit, reached far across the Indonesian archipelago. This accomplishment is interpreted in modern nationalist discourses as an early historical beacon of Indonesian unity and nationhood, a nation with Java still at its center.

That the vast majority of contemporary Javanese and Indonesians are now Muslims is the outcome of a process of subsequent Islamization. Like Hinduism before it, Islam first advanced into the archipelago along powerful trade networks, gaining a firm foothold in Java with the rise of early Islamic polities along the northern coast. Hinduism finally lost its status as Java’s dominant state religion during the 15th and early 16th century, as the new sultanates expanded and the great Hindu empire Majapahit collapsed. Even then, some smaller Hindu polities persisted; most notably the kingdom of Blambangan in eastern Java, which remained intact until the late 18th century.

Islam met with a different kind of resistance at a popular and cultural level. While the majority of Javanese did become ‘Muslims’, following the example of their rulers, for many among them this was a change in name only. Earlier indigenous Javanese and Hindu traditions were retained by the rural population and even within the immediate sphere of the royal courts, especially in a context of ritual practice. In this sense, the victory of Islam has remained incomplete until today.

To proclaim on these grounds that Javanese religion, or any other religion, is a product of ‘syncretism’ is to say no more than that it has a history, as every religion inevitably does. Given that history has no definite beginning, ‘syncretism’ has been a feature in all world religions from the start.[1] Even a more modest distinction between degrees of ‘syncretism’ or ‘orthodoxy’ in the religions of different societies, or in those of the same society at different times in its history, is rather unproductive unless this or similar distinctions are situated in relation to much broader historical processes affecting the societies concerned as a whole. A process of religious ‘rationalization’ (in the Weberian sense), in particular, may needs to be situated within a broader context of modernity.

Insofar as it is justifiable to speak of a trend toward increasing ‘orthodoxy’ in Indonesian Islam in the 20th century, a trend which applies similarly to Indonesian Hinduism and Christianity, this phenomenon must be assessed against the historical background of colonialism, the subsequent establishment of an independent Indonesian state, and the advent of modernity. In the colonial and post-colonial era, an ever more popular and educated acceptance of Islam was gained, in Java and elsewhere, through the work of independent or government Islamic organizations with an anti-colonial and modernist socio-political orientation. In the wake of this still continuing process of rationalization, a conceptual potential has been created for greater socio-political polarization among the followers of different and, now, more precisely distinguishable ‘religions’. Nevertheless, the more orthodox among Javanese Muslims, who tend to identify themselves with a more modern and global notion of Islamic religion, are still a minority and are themselves divided into factions (for example, over the issue of whether to aspire toward a secular or an Islamic Indonesian state). Most recently these divisions became apparent during the dismissal of President Wahid on charges of incompetency.

To a large and growing number of equally ‘modern’ Javanese, however, their ancient Hindu past is still very present indeed, and prophesied to come alive once more in the near future. A utopian Hindu revival movement has emerged in Java over the last three decades of the twentieth century, and is gathering momentum in the turmoil of Indonesia’s continuing economic and political crisis. Drawing on ancient prophesies, many of its members believe that a great natural cataclysm or final battle is at hand in which Islam will be swept from the island to conclude the current age of darkness. Thereafter, they say, Hindu civilization will be restored to its former glory – with Java as the political center of a new world order that will last for a thousand years.

Adding to the concern of Muslim observers, the Javanese Hindu movement is part of a wider national phenomenon of Hindu revivalism and expansion. Situated at the heart of Indonesia, however, the Hindu movement in Java may have the most serious implications yet for the social and political stability of the nation as a whole. In addition, the same mood of apocalyptic fear, utopian expectation and revivalist zeal is shared by many Javanese Muslims. This is made evident in a number of revivalist Islamic movements, whose members also tend to describe the present as an age of moral and social decay.

Recent incidents of inter-religious violence in the Moluccas and Lombok, and the major importance afforded to religious affiliation in Indonesia’s recent parliamentary and 1998 presidential elections are both indicative of a national trend towards religious polarization (Ramstedt 1998). Such polarization has not been characteristic of Javanese society, particularly at a community level, where neighborhood cooperation and social peace have been valued more highly than religious convictions (Beatty 1999). With nominal Muslims now openly converting to Hinduism this could well change, tearing away at the delicate web of compromises that is the very fabric of Javanese society. On a more positive note, Indonesians of all confessions also share an urgent desire for political reform and genuine democracy, and may still be prepared to cooperate in the struggle to achieve this common aim.

The emergence of a self-conscious Hindu revival movement within Javanese society is thus a highly significant development. The following preliminary outline of this movement is to provide an appraisal of some of the deep social divisions and widely shared utopian aspirations in contemporary Indonesian society which are set to shape the immediate future of this fragile nation.

Hindu Revivalism in Historical and Political Context

While many Javanese have retained aspects of their indigenous and Hindu traditions through the centuries of Islamic influence, under the banner of ‘Javanist religion’ (kejawen) or a non-orthodox ‘Javanese Islam’ (abangan, cf. Geertz 1960), no more than a few isolated communities have consistently upheld Hinduism as the primary mark of their public identity. One of these exceptions are the people of the remote Tengger highlands (Hefner 1985, 1990) in the province of Eastern Java. The Javanese ‘Hindus’ with whom this paper is concerned, however, are those who had officially declared themselves ‘Muslims’ prior to their recent
conversion to Hinduism.

In an unpublished report in 1999, the National Indonesian Bureau of Statistics tacitly admits that nearly 100.000 Javanese have officially converted or ‘reconverted’ from Islam to Hinduism over the last two decades. At the same time, the East Javanese branch of the government Hindu organization PHDI (below) in an annual report claims the ‘Hindu congregation’ (umat hindu) of this province to have grown by 76000 souls in this year alone. The figures are not entirely reliable or objective, nor can they adequately reflect the proportions of Java’s new Hindu revival movement, based as they are on the religion stated on people’s identity cards (kartu tanda penduduk or ‘KTP’) or on other measures of formal religious affiliation. According to my own observations, many conversions are informal only, at least for now. In addition, formal figures often do not adequately distinguish between religious conversions and general population growth, given that most government agencies only record people’s religion at birth.

Problems with estimating rates of conversion aside, it is remarkable that despite their local minority status the total number of Hindus in Java now exceeds that of Hindus in Bali. Data collected independently during my preliminary research in Eastern Java further suggest that the rate of conversion accelerated dramatically during and after the collapse of former President Suharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998.

Officially identifying their religion as Hinduism was not a legal possibility for Indonesians until 1962, when it became the fifth state-recognized religion.[2] This recognition was initially sought by Balinese religious organizations and granted for the sake of Bali, where the majority were 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 (Ramstedt 1998). In the early seventies, the Toraja people of Sulawesi were the first to realize this opportunity by seeking shelter for their indigenous ancestor religion under the broad umbrella of ‘Hinduism’, followed by the Karo Batak of Sumatra in 1977 and the Ngaju Dayak of Kalimantan in 1980 (Bakker 1995).

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 (Beatty 1999). 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 ancestor religions made Hinduism a more palatable option than Islam for several ethnic groups in the outer islands. By contrast, most Javanese were slow to consider Hinduism at the time, lacking a distinct organization along ethnic lines and fearing retribution from locally powerful Islamic organizations like the Nahdatul Ulama (NU). The youth wing of the NU had been active in the persecution not only of communists but of ‘Javanist’ or ‘anti-Islamic’ elements within Sukarno’s Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) during the early phase of the killings (Hefner 1987). Practitioners of ‘Javanist’ mystical traditions thus felt compelled to declare themselves Muslims out of a growing concern for their safety.

The initial assessment of having to abandon ‘Javanist’ traditions in order to survive in an imminent Islamic state proved incorrect. President Sukarno’s eventual successor, Suharto, adopted a distinctly nonsectarian approach in his so-called ‘new order’ (orde baru) regime. Old fears resurfaced, however, with Suharto’s ‘Islamic turn’ in the 1990s. Initially a resolute defender of Javanist values, Suharto began to make overtures to Islam at that time, in response to wavering public and military support for his government. A powerful signal was his authorization and personal support of the new ‘Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals’ (ICMI), an organization whose members openly promoted the Islamization of Indonesian state and society (Hefner 1997). Concerns grew as ICMI became the dominant civilian faction in the national bureaucracy, and initiated massive programs of Islamic education and mosque-building through the Ministry of Religion (departemen agama), once again targeting Javanist strongholds. Around the same time, there were a series of mob killings by Muslim extremists of people they suspected to have been practicing traditional Javanese methods of healing by magical means.

Repeated experiences of harassment or worse have left adherents of Javanist traditions with deep-seated fears and resentments. In interviews conducted in 1999, recent Hindu converts in eastern and central Java confessed that they had felt comfortable with a tenuous Islamic identity until 1965, but that their ‘hearts turned bitter’ once they felt coerced to disavow their private commitment to ‘Hindu Javanese ‘ traditions by abandoning the specific ritual practices which had come to be associated therewith. In terms of their political affiliation, many contemporary Javanists and recent converts to Hinduism had been members of the old PNI, and have now joined the new nationalist party of Megawati Sukarnoputri. Informants from among this group portrayed their return to the ‘religion of Majapahit’ (Hinduism) as a matter of nationalist pride, and displayed a new sense political self-confidence. Political trends aside, however, the choice between Islam and Hinduism is often a highly personal matter. Many converts reported that other members of their families have remained ‘Muslims’, out of conviction or in the hope that they will be free to maintain their Javanist traditions in one way or another.

These observations provide no more than a preliminary sketch of the changing landscape of cross-cutting and sometimes contradictory social, political and religious identities wherein the Javanese Hindu revival movement is taking shape. In essence, the collapse of the authoritarian Suharto regime has allowed old rivalries between Islamic and Nationalist parties to resurface in a changed environment and in a new guise. This has led to a degree of socio-political polarization as has not been seen since the 1960s revolution, although it may have been an inherent conceptual possibility throughout modern Indonesian history.

Hindu Revivalism in Social and Economic Context

A common feature among new Hindu communities in Java is that they tend to rally around recently built temples (pura) or around archaeological temple sites (candi) which are being reclaimed as places of Hindu worship. One of several new Hindu temples in eastern Java is Pura Mandaragiri Sumeru Agung, located on the slope of Mt Sumeru, Java’s highest mountain. When the temple was completed in July 1992, with the generous aid of wealthy donors from Bali, only a few local families formally confessed to Hinduism. A pilot study in December 1999 revealed that the local Hindu community now has grown to more than 5000 households. Similar mass conversions have occurred in the region around Pura Agung Blambangan, another new temple, built on a site with minor archaeological remnants attributed to the kingdom of Blambangan, the last Hindu polity on Java. A further important site is Pura Loka Moksa Jayabaya (in the village of Menang near Kediri), where the Hindu king and prophet Jayabaya is said to have achieved spiritual liberation (moksa). A further Hindu movement in the earliest stages of development was observed in the vicinity of the newly completed Pura Pucak Raung (in the Eastern Javanese district of Glenmore), which is mentioned in Balinese literature as the place where the Hindu saint Maharishi Markandeya gathered followers for an expedition to Bali, whereby he is said to have brought Hinduism to Bali in the fifth century AD. An example of resurgence around major archaeological remains of ancient Hindu temple sites was observed in Trowulan near Mojokerto. The site may be the location of the capital of the legendary Hindu empire Majapahit. A local Hindu movement is struggling to gain control of a newly excavated temple building which they wish to see restored as a site of active Hindu worship. The temple is to be dedicated to Gajah Mada, the man attributed with transforming the small Hindu kingdom of Majapahit into an empire. Although there has been a more pronounced history of resistance to Islamization in East Java, Hindu communities are also expanding in Central Java (Lyon 1980), for example in Klaten, near the ancient Hindu monuments of Prambanan.

It is a common feature of social organization in neighboring Bali to find temples at the hub of various networks of social affiliation (Reuter 1998). Temples may be equally important for Hindu Javanese, though for different reasons. Clear ethnic or clan-like divisions are generally lacking in Javanese society, and in any case, would be too exclusive to promote a rapid expansion of new Hindu communities. How social relations take shape within the support networks of Javanese Hindu temples and how they differ from those among patrons of Balinese temples remains to be explored, as is also true of the ritual practice of Javanese Hindus. Some of the resemblances observed so far seem to reflect not only the common historical influence of Hinduism in Java and Bali, but also a common indigenous cultural heritage shared among these and other Austronesian-speaking societies (Fox & Sathers 1996).

Taking Pura Sumeru as an example, it is also important to note that major Hindu temples can bring a 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. Ready-made offerings, accommodation, and meals are provided in an ever-lengthening row of shops and hotels along the main road leading to Pura Sumeru. At times of major ritual activity tens of thousands of visitors arrive each day. Pilgrims’ often generous cash donations to the temple also find their way into the local economy. Pondering with some envy on the secret to the economic success of their Balinese neighbors, several local informants concluded that “Hindu culture may be more conducive to the development of an international tourism industry than is Islam”. Economic considerations also come into play insofar as members of this and other Hindu revival movements tend to cooperate in a variety of other ways, including private business ventures which are unrelated to their joint religious practices as such.

Hindu Revivalism as a Utopian Movement

Followers and opponents alike explain the sudden rise of a Hindu revival movement in Java by referring to the well-known prophecies of Sabdapalon and Jayabaya. In this they reveal a number of shared utopian and apocalyptic expectations, even though their interpretations of the prophesies differ significantly. These mixed expectations have been a reflection of growing popular dissatisfaction with the corrupt and dictatorial Suharto government in the 1990s and until its demise in 1998, following student riots and popular demonstrations in many major Javanese cities in the wake of the Asian economic crisis. They also draw inspiration from a deeper crisis of political and economic culture still current in Indonesia today. The Indonesia’s present first democratically elected government under President Abdurahman Wahid’s leadership again has attracted criticism, increasingly so in during recent months, as the nation continueds to be threatened by religious conflict, secession movements in Aceh and West Papua, and by government corruption scandals.[3] Under the new presidency of Megawati Sukarnoputri (from 23 July 2001) this sense of political instability is widely expected to persist. At the same time many also fear a possible return to the repression of the Suharto years. It is the prophesies of Sabdapalon and Jayabaya that provide perhaps the most ready vehicle for the interpretation of these tumultuous political events, to the members of Hindu revival movements as well as their opponents. The prophesies of Sabdapalon and Jayabaya provide a ready vehicle for the interpretation of these events, to the members of Hindu revival movements as well as their opponents.

Sabdapalon is said to have been a priest and an adviser to Brawijaya V, the last ruler of the Hindu empire Majapahit. He is also said to have cursed his king upon the conversion of the latter to Islam in 1478. Sabdapalon then promised to return, after 500 years and at a time of widespread political corruption and natural disasters, to sweep Islam from the island and restore Hindu-Javanese religion and civilization. Some of the first new Hindu temples built in Java were indeed completed around 1978, for example Pura Blambangan in the regency of Banyuwangi. As the prophesies foretold, Mt Sumeru erupted around the same time. All this is taken as evidence of the accuracy of Sabdapalon’s predictions. Islamic opponents of the Hindu movements accept the prophesies, at least in principle, though their interpretations differ. Some attribute the Hindu conversions to a temporary weakness within Islam itself, laying blame on the materialism of modern life, on an associated decline of Islamic values, or on the persistent lack of orthodoxy among practitioners of ‘Javanese Islam’ (Soewarno 1981). In their opinion, the ‘return of Sabdapalon’ is meant to test Islam and to propel its followers toward a much needed revitalization and purification of their faith.

A further prophesy, well-known throughout Java and Indonesia, is the Ramalan (or Jangka) Jayabaya. A recent publication on these prophesies by Soesetro & Arief (1999) has become a national best seller. The predictions of Jayabaya are also discussed frequently in daily newspapers. These ancient prophesies, indeed, are very much a part of a current public debate on the ideal shape of a new and genuinely democratic Indonesia.

The historical personage Sri Mapanji Jayabaya reigned over the kingdom of Kediri in East Java from 1135 to 1157 AD (Buchari 1968:19). He is known for his efforts to reunify Java after a split had occurred with the death of his predecessor Airlangga, for his just and prosperous rule, and for his dedication to the welfare of the common people. Reputed to have been an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu, Jayabaya is also the archetypal image of the ‘just king’ (ratu adil) who is reborn during the dark age of reversal (jaman edan) at the end of each cosmic cycle to restore social justice, order, and harmony in the world. Many believe that the time for the arrival of a new ratu adil is near (as the prophesies put it, “when iron wagons drive without horses and ships sail through the sky [i.e. cars and airplanes]”), and that he will come to rescue and reunite Indonesia after an acute crisis, ushering in the dawn of a new golden age. These apocalyptic and utopian expectations evoke the notion of a revolving cosmic cycle, of a glorious past declining into a present state of moral decay, where the ideal order of things is momentarily inverted, only to be restored again in a future that is in effect a return to the past.

Hindu Javanese emphasize with pride that their ancestors Sabdapalon and Jayabaya represent a golden pre-Islamic age. Islamic opponents, in turn, claim that Jayabaya was in fact a Muslim and that Sabdapalon had only resisted conversion because what he was confronted with at the time was but a muddled and impure version of Islam (Soewarno 1981). Nevertheless, Muslim and Hindu interpreters agree that this is the time of reckoning, of major political reform if not a revolution. They also tend to agree that a truly democratic system of government may only be realized with the help of a leader of the highest moral caliber, thus blending modern notions of democracy with traditional notions of charismatic leadership.

That the prophesies of Jayabaya are of profound significance to Indonesians of very different persuasion and from all walks of life is illustrated by the secret visits (once before he was nominated as a presidential candidate and again before his election) of President Abdurahman Wahid (then head of the NU) to the ancestral origin temple of Raja Jayabaya in Bali, the remote mountain sanctuary Pura Pucak Penulisan.[4] After a solitary nocturnal devotion at this ancient Hindu temple, as local priests told me, Gus Dur (the president’s popular nickname) spoke with them at length about Jayabaya’s prophesies and the imminent arrival of a new ratu adil. Opponents of Gus Dur have prefered to identify his government with another passage in the prophesies, which refer to “a king whose [interim] rule shall last no longer than the life span of a maize plant”.

In conversations in Java and Bali in late 1999, I was continuously struck by the spirited political idealism of my informants, and their readiness even to risk their lives in the pursuit of political reform. It was sobering to note that they were envisaging for their Indonesia of the future so ideal a system of government as even western democracies could not claim to have achieved so far. I became rather concerned as well, in contemplating a very different attitude of cynicism and a sense of futility that now seems to permeate political life in western societies, and is reflected in the decline of popular participation and the silent attrition of important democratic institutions, such as independent universities (Ellingsen 1999). Studying Hindu revivalism in Java, in particular, reminded me also of persistent utopian and apocalyptic undertones in western scientific and technological worldviews, such as the early utopian predictions of a new cyber-democracy among Internet users and the more recent apocalyptic hysteria about the ‘Y2K’ computer bug.


The study of ‘revival’, ‘millenarian’, ‘cargo-cult’ or ‘revolutionary’ movements has a long and somewhat controversial history in the social sciences (Schwartz 1987). A common feature identified in studies of such movements is the linking of apocalyptic and utopian expectations, suggesting a tendency for people to readily believe what they most fear or wish to be true. Most analysts have stressed the ease with which charismatic and authoritarian leader figures can exploit such powerful beliefs and sentiments (Adorno 1978), and how mass manipulation may precipitate self-destructive behavior, such as collective suicide, or bizarre acts of violence. At the same time, social theory has produced its own visions of apocalypse and utopia, Karl Marx’ prophesy of a ‘final class struggle’ and subsequent ‘class-less society’ being the most prominent among them.

In both cases, the lingering impression is that highly fatalistic or idealistic social movements are dangerous and destructive in the extreme. This is often true enough, but not necessarily so. Utopian expectations as such, judging by the original meaning of the word utopia (‘no-place’), do not suggest a need for a single radical change so much as a continuous process of reform; a striving towards an ideal that ultimately can not be located or reached. As for apocalypticism, much may depend on whether it has some rational foundation. This may well be the case in Indonesia, now poised, as it is, at a significant historical juncture.[5]

A fundamental problem and simultaneously a source of inspiration for this field of social research has been the immense variability within the class of phenomena it seeks to describe. In the absence of a comprehensive theoretical framework that would serve to identify major categories of historical, political or situational variables in the genesis, development and outcomes of such apocalyptic or utopian movements, reporters and researchers alike are often seduced into focusing instead on their more obscure and sensational features.Although there have been repeated attempts to draw this research together under the umbrella of a single paradigm, such as Smelser’s (1962) proposal for a more general category of ‘value-focused social movements’, discussion continues to be frustrated by disagreements on matters of definition and terminology. This problem pertains to discussions both across and within the boundaries of contributing disciplines, including anthropology, political science, sociology, social psychology and comparative religion. A review of the extensive and varied literature on millenarian movements is beyond the scope of this paper.

Under these adverse conditions, most attempts to transcend the specificity of particular apocalyptic or millenarian movements have been geographically or culturally restricted, and taken shape in discussions among groups of area specialists. The more significant among recent advances in the field, on the basis of such regional comparisons, have come from anthropological research on ‘cargo-cult’ movements in Papua New Guinea (Stewart 2000) and on ‘endtime’ movements in America (Stewart & Harding 1999).

This regional focusing of the discussion has paid dividends as an interim solution, but it also has detracted attention from a broader anthropological project of understanding idealistic social movements as a possible modality of social change in all human societies. While the notion of ‘millenarian movements’ has become a kind of gateway concept for researchers in PNG and the USA, for example, those working in other regions may pay very little attention to the same topic even though they may have cause to do so. Indonesia is one of these more or less neglected regions, with only a small minority of scholars caring to comment on millenarian movements and their recent proliferation (including Lee 1999, Timmer 2000).

Collaboration among fellow Indonesianists will be essential for any future attempt to raise the level of comparative research on this topic to the same high standard that has been achieved elsewhere. Even then, such a regional research project must be firmly anchored in a general anthropological theory. Without such a broader comparative framework to bridge the gaps between regional studies, the latter may deteriorate, for example, into neo-colonial discourses about the ‘inherent madness’ of Indonesia or other non-western societies. This particular objection has been raised most vehemently in recent critiques of ‘cargo-cult’
studies (Lindstrom 1993, Kaplan 1995).

While Javanese Hindu revivalism may serve as my privileged example, an important future aim is to develop a more general theoretical approach to ‘value-oriented social movements’, on the basis of four hypothesis. Namely, that these movements; 1) can occur in all human societies, 2) are an extreme manifestation or response to social change, 3) are informed by radical some forms of ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ idealism, and 4) are accompanied by a heightened self-awareness among participants of being ‘agents’ or ‘witnesses’ of societal change. These different dimensions of idealist social movements are assumed to be interconnected. A heightened sense of agency and reflexivity, for example, may reflect in different ways on underlying material and symbolic interests that have been frustrated or denied to broad or narrow sectors of the society concerned.

The link between value-based social movements and the general phenomena of ‘socio-cultural change’ and ‘reproduction’ is a crucial issue, and it is both complex and variable. As a force operating within underdetermined and mutable socio-cultural worlds with limited cohesion such movements can not be adequately described, by evoking the metaphor of a homeostatic ‘system’, as either ‘functional’ or ‘dysfunctional’. Even if we were to define cultural reproduction and change more cautiously, as different takes on a single and largely unpredictable historical process, some of these movements may appear to be exerting a ‘reactionary’ influence while others are more ‘radical’ or a combination of both. Expressions of social critique (in relation to society as it is or is perceived) are a common theme in the discourses produced within different value-oriented social movements. But we may also find combinations of restorative or visionary idealism, in different proportions, depending on whether the critique is focused on undesirable change or undesirable stagnation in the society concerned.

In evaluating the significance of Hindu revivalism and similar movements in Java for the stability and future development of Indonesian democracy, it is thus of the utmost importance to adopt a balanced view of processes of social change and their implications. The acute danger normally attributed to rapid social change in general and to idealistic social movements in particular must be weighed against the less sensational dangers of political inactivity, cynicism and complacency. Rather than casting a condescending judgement on the state of Indonesian society, the current proliferation of millenarianism therein must be evaluated within the context of a critical project of cross-cultural comparison. In this context, it may be worth pointing to the current “anti-globalization” movement in western countries, for this movement too serves as a reminder: The creation of a just society is a continuous, often circular, and still unfinished project, as much for us as it is for the people of Indonesia.



[1] Islam, for example, incorporated elements from the tribal traditions of Arab peoples and from Jewish and Christian texts such as the ‘Old Testament’.

[2] The other four state-recognized religions (agama) are Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Buddhism (mainly Indonesians of Chinese ethnicity). Unrecognized religions are categorized by the state as minor
‘streams of belief’ (aliran kepercayaan) or are simply treated as a part of different local ‘customs and traditions’ (adat).

[3] As I am writing this, parliamentary procedures have been set into motion so as to impeach President Abdurahman Wahid on allegations of his involvement in corruption scandals.

[4] Pura Pucak Penulisan is still an important regional temple, and was a state temple of Balinese kings from the eighth century AD (Reuter 1998). Many statues of Balinese kings are still found in its inner sanctum, including one depicting Airlangga’s younger brother Anak Wungsu. Literary sources suggest that intimate ties of kinship connected the royal families of Bali with the dynasties of Eastern Javanese kingdoms, including Kediri. Jayabaya’s predecessor Airlannga, for example, was a Balinese prince.

[5] Sometimes apocalyptic expectations can reach such a pitch that members of the movement concerned may feel a need to bring about the very cataclysm the have been predicting. The poison gas attack in Tokyo launched by Japan’s AUM Shinokio sect is a recent example. It is still uncertain whether the recent bomb attacks on Javanese Christian churches over the christmas period of 2000 were the responsibility of radical religious groups, or were instigated by other political interest groups wishing to destabilize the country by inciting simmering inter-religious conflicts in Java to the same level of violence as in the troubled Molukka Province.



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Note: Dr Thomas Reuter is Queen Elizabeth II Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Anthropology, Geography & Environmental Studies. This paper was published in The Australian Journal of Anthropology and is being reproduced with their permission.

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