North Indian shaman
North Indian shaman

There are numerous forms of mysticism. The majestic grandeur of nature evoked an intuitive awe in man and a feeling of unity. Some time in history members of the homo sapiens species began directing their attention inside themselves as they received indications of a magical and spiritual nature.
In early cultures groups formed around a person who seemed through some strange play of nature be possessed with extraordinary powers and insights. Some call them medicine man, or shamans.

In modern culture mysticism is seen as the practice of communion and adoration of man of his divine nature.
It takes all forms, though. On this page an introduction to Javanese mysticism, the origins of which little is known as its early adherents committed little to writing.


During the last decades Javanese mysticism has become more and more of interest to anthropologists. They base their books, articles, doctoral theses, etc. partly on Dutch studies during their colonial past, partly on their own observations during field-work. Java is particularly fascinating because its culture bears traces of various religions.

'Kresna', wayang puppet
Wayang shadowplay puppet 

The original religion of Java was animistic. Prevailing was the belief in powers, nature-spirits and souls of the deceased hidden in the unseen world. The selamatan is considered to be part of that folklore. This gathering is held at specific dates such as the third, seventh, fortieth, hundredth, and thousandth anniversary of the decease of a relative. The food eaten is meant to be a sacrifice for the soul of the dead person. After a thousand days the soul is supposed to have disintegrated or reincarnated. Prof.J.M.van der Kroef writes: "The homeostasis sought via the selamatan has an animistic background which is part of the Javanese cosmology: man is surrounded by spirits and deities, apparitions and mysterious supernatural forces, which, unless he takes the proper precautions, may disturb him or even plunge him into disaster."

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz divides the Javanese population in three main groups: the abangan, the priyayi and the santri. The Abangan (Agami Jawi) are nominal Muslim, but to a great extent they are guided by the ancient belief, the kejawen. Dr.S. de Jong: "Flora and fauna have like man a soul. The animal and vegetable soul is deeper sunk in material existence than the human soul. Therefore certain plants and animals may be harmful...The Godhead towers above in serene rest and offers no assistance. The abangan remain two possibilities: surrender -rela-, and worship -bekti. The primitive main concepts recur in 20th century mystical groups, may have never been absent."

In the 5th century Hinduism was introduced in Java and struck root. One thousand years later it was followed by Islam. The form of Islam that reached Java had already undergone Ishmaili Shi'ah influences. In Java it was again adapted to suit the existing Hindu and animistic elements. Sufi mysticism was embraced particularly, because it coincided with the existing way of thought. Sufi brotherhoods - tarekats - of the Sufi orders of Naqshabandiyya, Qadiriyya, and Shattariyya were formed and spread slowly.

Towards the middle of the 19th century opportunity arose for the Muslim population to have more contact with their fellow-believers. This led to a reform movement to rid Indonesian Islam of Hindu-Javanese elements. The Santri belong to this part of the population. They condemn such diversions as Wayang performances and selamatans. They reject the belief in the unity of man and God, in rasa(feeling) over akal(reason).

Eling, the deepest aspect of the inner life of the Javanese

Mysticism may be said to permeate Javanese life and consequently its vocabulary. Certain Javanese words are hard to understand for us in all their shades of meaning. One is "culture". Another is "jiwa," which may mean life, but also enthusiasm, spirit, inner self, thought, feeling, mentality, essence, and implication.
Eling (pronounced "ailing") is another one of these frequently used terms that defy translation. The word can only be understood by looking at its context. Javanese will understand it intuitively. It may mean "one of the jiwa's powers", "an ethical value", or "a level of depth in religious awareness".

Eling as one of the jiwa's powers

Basically eling means "remember." With reference to the powers of the jiwa the word covers everything ever experienced physically or spiritually. Next to the faculties of the jiwa of sight, hearing, speaking, and thinking, eling connects earlier experiences to what is being experienced now, making one aware that personal experience is an ongoing process. The I, who was in bad shape financially last year, is now making money. Memory underlies all personal identity. Not only that, it means being conscious of the consequences of our actions and our individual responsibility. Therefore, eling in its basic meaning is of great importance to the concept of self-awareness, considered of great importance in Javanese philosophy.

Another meaning of "eling" is a return to consciousness after fainting.

Eling as an ethical value

When a person loses self control, as in sorrow, anger, or disorientation, the Javanese will usually advise that it is necessary to eling. In other words not be overwhelmed by feelings, mixed-up thoughts, or anger. In this case, eling means to regain self control.

Self control to the Javanese is of high value, if not the highest. In this context, eling has more the meaning of consciousness than remembering. It refers to a high level of self-awareness that enables the individual to observe and control all movements of the self, both inner and outer - its actions, words, and thoughts. By being on guard we enable ourselves to remain in the state of eling

In his life the Javanese must be willing and able to see into the depths of everything he encounters and to remain always in a state of eling. It requires the highest level of awareness to observe and maintain control over all the movements of the outer and inner selves. This involves two-way traffic. Being in a state of eling his words and thoughts will attract attention as being important and thus will be heeded.
He will be prevented from falling for the five forbidden things: getting drunk, smoking, opium, stealing, gambling, and whoring. Not only that, he will be saved from an overly materialistic outlook of desiring only for his own benefit.

Being attracted to inward and outward pleasures is in conflict with eling and prevent the Javanese from staying in that state. That is why he is advised to eat and sleep less in order to reduce the conflict in himself caused by the nafsu (passions). This will help him to become more aware and capable of self control.

Other dangers are lying, boasting, and hypocrisy - all ways of showing off the ego and overstepping the boundaries of self control. A Javanese saying states it well: "We have to learn to feel pain when we are glad and gladness when we are in pain." Then we can be said to have become eling.
The method for achieving this is based on inner quietness.

Eling as a level of depth in religious awareness

In this context eling refers to a high level of religious awareness or experience. This is based on meneng (being silent) and wening meaning clarity, purity, transparency. This requires that the role of the ego be reduced so that the person is no longer vulnerable to arrogance, pride, outward pleasures, or material gain.

If the aspiring Javanese trains himself by means of silence, he will see more clearly with his inner eyes, making it possible to see the essence of things, to remove the veil of mere appearances and temporary values. Once he reaches this stage of eling he will draw closer to God. There will no longer be a separation between subject and object, microcosm and macrocosm, or creature and Creator. The sweetness will no longer be separate from the honey.

At a still higher level of eling all names and forms will vanish. There will be only emptiness. This is called the experience of ilang (lost), suwung (vacant), sirna (gone), komplang (empty), also called "dead in life". It requires a strong faith to overcome all obstacles and fear.

To conclude, Eling is a much used word in Javanese because of its close connection to the deepest attitude of the Javanese to his inner life. It is operative not only in religion, but also in everyday life and in their ethical norms. So religious and mystical life, which is usually considered exclusive and individual, permeates the way Javanese people live from day to day. The inner levels neng, ning, and eling are not reserved for religion and mystical observances alone, but are embedded in the Javanese way of life. They are in the background of their dealing with ordinary problems involving ethics, education, economics, philosophy, security, and politics. The Javanese try to solve problems with a clear eye and an inner calm that arises from their deepest inner attitude: eling.
(Subagio Sastrowardoyo, (free) translation Mansur Medeiros)

How a good Javanese should deport himself properly against the background of mysticism has been laid down in two books in the nineteenth century: Wulangreh (Lessons in behaviour), by Paku Buwana IV) and Wedhatama (Excellent teaching), by R.Ng. Ranggawarsita. Both are very similar short works in tembang (fairly modern Javanese song lyrics). They are still being read and reprinted.


The above observations are particularly true for the priyayi type Javanese. To this group belong the descendants of the aristocracy of the Javanese courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, who the Dutch won over to become members of the appointive civil service in colonial times. Nowadays they constitute the intelligentsia of Java. They have their roots in the Hindu-Javanese courts of pre- colonial times. A noble and pure character is attributed to them. They were the bearers of the mystic court-traditions taught to them by highly revered guru's.

Wayang shadowplay performance

Priyayi conserved and cultivated the art of dance, drama, music and poetry. Sunan (=king) Kalidjogovan(also called Kalidjaga) is credited by some to have given the ancient Wayang play its present form. Before it was part of the Javanese ancestor-worship. The shadow figures represent the spirits of the dead. Subsequently the Hindu epics Mahabharta and Ramayana were introduced and integrated in Wayang performances.

The language used is often based on Sanskrit words: Susila = chaste,ethical; Budhi = Buddhi = intelligence; Dharma = norm, customary observance (J.Gonda).
In mysticism, as we have seen above, these words take on a different meaning. To live according to one's dharma and the rules of social order is to fulfil "the will of God"(kodrat).
In Javanese mysticism one learns that it is good to honour one's superiors...justice and well-being are expected to flow from above, to originate from a bapak who in his turn derives his power for protection from a higher bapak, etc., until one reaches the realm of supernature and the leader "by the grace of God"

All of nature is endowed with souls. Prof.van der Kroef notes: Monistic identification is carried to great lengths: vegetable and animal "essences" shape human personality and destiny (e.g. after eating goat's meat "the goat's tendency to get lost will be manifested in the man as the desire in all circumstances to follow his own impulses") and pantheistic unity is accepted as a matter of course (e.g. "in the world of fishes there are many that serve God with faith and, moreover, are not neglectful in the manner of their prayers...").

Two characteristics of Javanese mysticism

The Javanese mystical tradition is known for its syncretism. In the course of its history it absorbed all the religious traditions that reached Java and gave it its own interpretation.

The aim of the Javanese mystical tradition is that of experiencing unity with God. Among the techniques to achieve this is the dihkr (repetitive prayer), fasting, sleep deprivation, and withdrawal from the world. The purpose of ascetism being purification, facilitating direct communication with the divine world.

Dissent between mystical movements

Between the three groups of abangan, priyayi and santri had always been an area of tension. The Santri accused the other two groups of mixing Islam with Javanism. Prof.van der Kroef: "Conflict, even violence ... has repeatedly occurred between adherents of these groups, frequently involving a clash between provisions of the local adat (customary law) and hukum (Islamic law)...".

The mystical Baduys

In West Java, near the city of Rangkasbitung, South Bantam, lies the mysterious Baduy territory. Outsiders may not enter it. The Baduys guard zealously the mysteries of Javanese mysticism from the dawn of Javanese history. They were respected and consulted by the Javanese Sultans on East Java in olden times as well as the recent rulers of Indonesia. Their territory has no direct goverment interference and as money is taboo there no taxes are levied there.

In the heart of Baduy country, enclosed by a jungle, lies the megalitic sanctuary Sasaka Domas, or Many Stones. No one is allowed to come near it.

The Baduys are regarded as one of the last surviving mandala communities on Java. Members of these communities lived an ascetic life, based on guide lines of the old Sundanese -Hindu/Buddhistic/animistic beliefs, known as Kejawen. It withstood the Islamizing of the country. The Baduy call their religion Sunda Wiwitan [earliest Sundanese]. They were almost totally free of Islamic elements (except those imposed over the past 20 years), they also display very few Hindu characteristics.

Based on a system of taboos, the Baduy religion is animistic. They believe spirits inhabit the rocks, trees, streams and other inanimate objects. These spirits do good or evil depending on one’s observance of the taboos. Thousands of taboos apply to every aspect of daily life.Their lives are governed by interdictions as to possessing property, keeping cattle, laying out sawahs (rice fields), cultivating new products, etc. Their priest-kings are not allowed to leave the territory, to pass the night outside their village, or to communicate with outsiders. The Baduy grow all their own food and make their own tools and clothes. They reject any introduction of artifacts from outside.

Outsiders are not allowed to enter the inner domain which is inhabited by forty families dressed mostly in white. Population is strictly limited. When the limit is exceeded, the surplus population is sent away to live outside the community as Outer Baduy. Though they try to observe the taboos of the Inner Baduy, there is much pressure on them to relax the rules. Even so, they maintain their identity as Baduy to a remarkable degree.

The Indonesian government has attempted to socialize them, and this effort was claimed to have led to a greater openness among the Baduy to the idea of communicating with the outside world. It remains to be seen if this opening up will not lead to a loss of this precious enclave of Javanese mysticism.

Postwar spiritual movements

In colonial times the Dutch Government kept a sharp eye on these movements including the tarekat Sufi brotherhoods who often stirred up uprisings fired by messianic and millenarian expectations. The Indonesian Government followed this policy because it was afraid of communist infiltration into these groups. To keep an eye on them it required the mystical movements (aliran kepercayaan ) to be registered.
In 1947 Subud was registered in Yogyakarta as being founded in Semarang in 1932.
The Bureau for Supervision of Religious Movements (Pakem) under the Ministry of Religious affairs had in 1964 360 movements registered. In 1982 there were 93 groups with in total 123,570 members in Central Java alone.
Pangestu claims to have 50.000 members, Sapta Darma 10.000.

Some aliran kebatinan (another name for spiritual movements) who lean towards Islam dislike being equated with the more obscure Javanese sects who are not averse towards guna-guna, Javanese black magical practices. These groups are formed around a teacher, who claims to have received enlightment (Wahyu).
Hundreds of such groups are known to exist. Their gurus usually claim originality for their revelation or intuitive insight while rejecting knowledge from books or the influence of tradition. When the guru dies, the group often dissolves.


A dissertation (D.G.Howe) and a thesis (Paul Stange) have been devoted to this brotherhood. Its founder, Sukinohartono, was opened by Subud helper Wignosupartono. The latter was known for his healing powers and was also the first person to be opened by Pak Subuh, founder of Subud. Sukinohartono had himself a revelation thereafter in 1932. He underwent a series of experiences from 1935 until 1937. After an intense cleansing Sukino was given to understand that he would receive guidance through hakiki and the angel Gabriel. He was taken in sequence through nine spiritual stages. Stange: "The dimensions he passed through parallel the realms discussed in classical mystical literature, mirror the descriptions found in wayang and Sufism."

Sukinohartono reported a.o. encounters with Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad. In 1949 Sukinohartono had another revelation. Neighbours related that they had seen a wahyu celestial light fall on Sukino's house during the night. Sukino also received "clear guidance to the effect that he had to lead humanity toward total submission to God."

In Sumarah there were two levels of practice: kanoman and kasepuhan. Kanoman exercises took three principal forms: karaga, meaning automatic movement; karasa: sensitizing of intuition; and kasuara: spontaneous speech. These were understood as being the result of the movement of God's power within the candidate.

For elders and those mature in spirit was a second initiation: the kasepuan silent meditation. The latter became the standard practice. The kanoman exercise came in disregard after 1949. The same applied to the separation of the sexes and facing Mecca during the exercise. In the early days there was also an intense "checking" of members' progress.

On their website Sumarah is explained as follows: "Sumarah is a philosophy of life and a form of MEDITATION that originally comes from Java, Indonesia. The practice is based on developing sensitivity and acceptance through DEEP RELAXATION of body, feelings and mind. Its aim is to create inside our self the inner space and the silence necessary for the true self to manifest and to speak to us. The word Sumarah means total surrender, a confident and conscious surrender of the partial ego to the universal self. The total surrender is to Life."

Recently meditation workshops all over the world have sprung up. See Sumarah Meditation International Network links below.


Subud has a place apart amongst these kepercayaan. In most movements meditation is being practised. Subud appears to lean most to the Sufi tarekat tradition, yet bears santri and priyayi influences. Their spiritual excercise, the latihan, appears to be quite unique, however. I have yet to come across a similar exercise in the descriptions of other disciplines. Of course, if one were to term the latihan "ecstatic" several other parallels may be found in other countries and in history (early Christianity).

Presentday Javanese mysticism

As seen above Indonesian mysticism developed in many forms, some clouding its deep inner essence.

It is regrettable that younger Indonesian generations seem to have lost interest to develop their innate gift to transcend sensory reality to tune into their deepest spiritual nature, especially in the present strive between religious factions. Syncretism, characteristic of Javanese mysticism, is known to bridge outer differences and foster understanding between all people.
May be the day will come that the tremendous value of Javanese mysticism will be rediscovered. Its great tradition may need to be transplanted in order to be brought into blossom again.

Incense, flowers are powerful communication tools

If the above gives the impression that mysticism has disappeared from Javanese life the Jakarta Post ran a series of articles on mysticism in August 2002. Some of its contents:

Mysticism has become a part of modern people's lives. Those seeking advice from psychics include educated people and even those who are religious, such as Minister of Religious Affairs Said Agil Al Munawar. Less than two weeks ago, the minister made headlines when he ordered a treasure hunt at a protected heritage site in Bogor, West Java, following the advice of a psychic. [In Indonesian, "psychic" = "kejiwaan."]

Agil said that if the treasure was found, it would be able to cover the country's foreign debt of US$130 billion. The Jakarta Post is running a series of stories surrounding mysticism. This story and a related one on page 8 on August 26,2002, were written by Muninggar Sri Saraswati. While cellular phones and the Internet are the most popular methods of communication by urbanites, there are some who choose kemenyan (incense) and flowers. Some people in Java burn incense and put flowers sprayed with perfume to communicate with spirits of the dead to gain peace of mind, solve problems in life or cure diseases.

The employee of a private company in the Kuningan area of South Jakarta, Soenaryo told The Jakarta Post that he started seeing a spiritualist five years ago when he was facing a problem at his company.
"Nobody could help me at the time. A friend of mine suggested that I see a spiritualist and I did. The spiritualist told me that I have to burn incense and put a plate of flowers and two eggs in my room while I meditated," Soenaryo said.

Although he felt a bit awkward, he obeyed the order and requested the spirits of his ancestors to ask God to help him. Amazingly, Soenaryo found a solution to the problem and he was promoted. He has since become a loyal client of the spiritualist's, who lives in Paseban, Central Jakarta. He has also regularly provided offerings, particularly when he has a problem in life.

"It's only a medium to God, which you might think is strange," said Soenaryo, adding that he makes the offerings every kliwon, or once every Javanese five-day week.

Another customer, Warti, told the Post that she bought incense and flowers for her employer, a middle-aged woman who is a banker.
"She has given offerings and burned incense for two years, when her marriage was in trouble. She usually does it in the morning. She also takes baths with petals in the water at night," said the maid, who buys the items for her every Friday.

Marni, an incense and flower vendor, said that business had been brisk since she opened shop 10 years ago, with most people buying the items usually for funeral rituals.
"The number of people buying these items for mystical purposes started to increase during the economic crisis," she said, referring to the Asian crisis which hit the country in 1997.

Another vendor at Rawa Belong market, West Jakarta, agreed. "There are not as many people buying flowers and incense for mystical purposes as those who buy them for funeral rituals, but they are loyal customers. They come once a week or twice a month," said Tedi, who has been in the business for over eight years.

Trances in modern Indonesian society

Spiritual fervour - going into a trance - is a rather common phenomenon in Indonesia, particularly among factory workers.
All over the Indonesian archipelago there are reports of schoolchildren, young women and factory workers going into mass trances or speaking in tongues.

National television showed in February 2008 eleven students and five teachers going into mass trance in a classroom. About 50 female workers at a garment factory near Jakarta were reported to have gone into a collective trance in June 2007, weeping and jerking their bodies around.

Religion, education and development have done little to halt widespread acceptance of the supernatural in Indonesia. In Indonesia, trance is tied up with culture, explained Lidia Laksana Hidajat, from the psychology faculty of Jakarta's Atma Jaya University.

Lina, 23, said she has been possessed many times in the past six years, always by the same "jinn" or evil spirit. Its face is exactly the same face as my older sister but the body is hard to make out. It calls my name but if I follow it, it disappears, she said. Lina said that mass trances were so common at the Malang cigarette factory, where she worked, that she quit eventually .

Indonesian media reported a group trance among workers at Bentoel's cigarette factory in Malang, Java, in March 2006. Hidajat interviewed 30 of the affected women, who say they were sitting in rows in a long hall, rolling the cigarettes by hand when it happened. They were working in silence. That's one of the requirements of a trance to happen - it's usually quiet and when they are engaged in monotonous activity, she said.
Suddenly, one of the workers started screaming and her body went stiff. The one next to her started crying and went stiff too, triggering a domino effect. A Muslim leader was summoned, but his prayers had no effect. The exhausted women fell asleep and when they awoke they remembered nothing.

Hidajat found there were common factors between the trance victims she interviewed.
Often they are people who are very religious or under pressure. They were also from low socio-economic backgrounds, she said.

Eko Susanto Marsoeki, the director of Malang's Lawang Psychiatric Hospital, said overwork was closely linked to mass trance incidents in factories. Often it is a form of protest that will not be dealt with too harshly, he said.

When more than 30 students at Kalimantan's Pahandut Palangka Raya High School fell into a trance in November, they blamed a spirit in a nearby tree. During the morning flag-raising ceremony, one of the girls started screaming and couldn't move. Soon her friends joined in until more than 30 of them were screaming and fainting, the deputy principal, Friskila said. Some of the girls woke from the trance after a student played a Muslim prayer ring tone on her mobile phone. Others were taken by their parents to local witchdoctors.

Friskila, however, favours a less superstitious explanation.
They are bored, tired and then this happened, she said. They all got a day off school.


The abovementioned doctoral documents are available from University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor MI 48106 and London WC1R 4EJ, UK


Video clips:

Foreign translations

Nederlandse vertaling:Javaanse mystieke bewegingen
German translation: Javanische mystische bewegungen
Indonesian (Bahasa) translation Tentang psikologi gerakan spiritual (provided by
Spanish: Subud. Su origen y objetivo
Portuguese: Movimentos Místicos Javaneses (for Homeyou Translations )
Italian: 'Movimenti mistici giavanese'
Greek translation: Javanese mystical movements
Norwegian translation: Javanese mysticism. (By Student Company Rasklĺn AS -https://www.rasklĺ
Russian translation of 'Javanese mysticism'.
Ukranian translation
Kazakh translation.
Hungarian translation: Jávai Misztikuz Mozdulatok
Slovenian translation
Serbian translatian: 'Javanese mystical movements'
Arabic translation of Javanese mystical movements

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