29 May 2007

Keep the spirits up

For those of you who expect a pre-final exam spurt pep up monologue, I apologise for the disappointment. I will save the self-reflexive effusions for the end of academic yearpost. Instead, I will abuse my blog to revise for today's exam and at the same time, present you with the opportunity to gain invaluable insight into the most interesting spirit world of Java, followed by the significance of phalluses in Bali, as purported by my current favourite ethnographer, the late Clifford Geertz.

As a teaser, you should have a look at this funny horror clip of a Sundel Bolong:

So, Geertz distinguishes three greater types of spirits in Java:

1) Memedis: also called "frighteners". They scare the hell out of you but don't do you any harm. The motto here is "Their bark is worse than their bite". Subcategories are:
a) Panapasti: Who have their heads where their genitals should be.
b) Djims: Who pray five times a day in Arabic.
c) Sundel Bolong: The Javanese version of a succubus, more or less. Some believe she doesn't really do any harm while others say she is so beautiful that men cannot resist and follow her - only to be castrated. I daresay, the descriptions fit me a little bit: Long dark hair covering her buttocks, fair skin, the only thing I don't have is a whole through my stomach. I already wondered whether there is a fetish about that and Stacia suggested I could produce sundel bolong dolls that look like me and make a fortune in the sex industry. Well... But she also said that Super Mario was an analogy of Jesus (the fireballs! isn't it evident??) because Nintendo "could not contextualise Jesus as a Middle Eastern guy, therefore they re-contextualised him as an Italian guy". Hm.

2) Lelembut: also called "etheral ones". You really don't want to meet one of those. They live majorly in dark places and especially latrines are full of them. If you "step outside" at night, chances are high that one of them will enter you through, well... while you are squatting and possess you. Don't worry, though. People will find out eventually, once you show symptoms of madness, sickness or death.

One famous kind of lelembut is a kemomong. Some people even enter a voluntary devil's pact with them, like for example, Brataséna, the Javanese shadow-play hero. He "once died on purpose merely because he had never been dead and wanted to see what it felt like" (Since he angered the Hindu-Buddhist authorities in his afterlife - people are not supposed to decide their own fate, that is made for them - they threw him back to the living. So no harm done).

3) Tujul: also called "children who are not human beings". These are the ones you should look out for. If people become unexpectantly very rich in a short period of time (but have a Dagobert Duck attitude), people say a tujul must have taken a hand in it.

Geertz associates these three groups of spirits with the first of the three groups that Javanese society, in his view, consist of (the distinction has been contested by Mark Woodward):

1) Abangan:
the more "traditionalised peasants and their proletarianised comrades in the towns", "traditionalised" referring to pre-Islamic Hindu-Buddhist and/or syncretic beliefs.

2) Santri:
historically, rich Muslim traders, today, a group of the population that practises a more orthodox version of Islam than the abangan. The term santri refers to students of religious schools and the following of the Qu'ran, Sharī‘a and Hadith. Although it is not exclusively practised by Santris, Woodward will provide us later with a textual approach to analysing the single most important ritual feast in Indonesia, the Slametan: a ritual gathering held for various reasons throughout the year.

3) Prijaji:
the distinguished elite, white-collar nobles (a long time ago, ancestry was traced back to semi-mythical kings of pre-colonial Java until the Dutch ran out of "true" nobles to employ in administration and hired others too which were henceforth also considered to be prijaji).

Woodward, in contrast, opposes Geertz's categorisation and works with a dichotomy between kejawen/abangan/animists and shariah-abiding santris. Although the Slametan "links blessing and food and extends from Arabia to Southeast Asia" (but is called differently in other countries), "elements of the Slametan derive from pre-Islamic traditions and are interpreted in Islamic terms". He says that Geertz wrongly portrays ritual meals as an animistic rather than a Muslim thing.

I will try to summarise Woodward's argument while at the same time revealing what a slametan entails:

1) What does a Slametan look like and what are the key elements?
Who's invited? The Qu'ran and Hadith specifies neighbours, kin and the poor as people to whom one owns special obligations.

For the santri, public rituals are required by Sharī‘a to define a community.
For the kejawen, the ritual transforms a pre-existing group (ie office employees) into a religious community.

Giving food serves the same purpose of distributing blessings. So even if one cannot attend a slametan (which happens more often in urban centres than in the countryside), one at least tries to send food.

The main parts of a slametan are:
a) Invocation = ujub = a speech by the host in the most formal language possible (usually High Javanese). Woodward believes there are five theologically motivated purposes:

_ link an elaborate feast with the simple ritual meals of Muhamad
_ define the recipients of blessings (depends whether it is held after a birth, a marriage, a death, before the departure to a long journey, Muhamad's birthday...)
_ specify the saints and other beings to whom food and prayers are dedicated (santris invite more Arabic saints whereas kejawen include Hindu-Javanese kings many of which are said to have been converted to Islam before they died)
_ establish the good intentions of the host (which matches Sharī‘a ritual prescriptions)
_ establish his humility (something really important in Javanese culture, I won't go into detail)

b) Arabic prayer (a common solat/sembahjang not an individual doa/donga)
The more people pray, the more blessings are distributed.

c) The Food
You are supposed to fill your plate with more than you will eat. It is rude to empty your plate as your host will look bad. Therefore, you eat a little bit and take the rest home.

2) What is the point of all this? Featuring: The state of slamet and the role of sufism and religious text
Slametan refers to the Sufistic state of slamet which derives from Qu'ranic salām which means peace or tranquility. Slamet is the social and psychological transformation of Sufi notions of peace, blessing and tranquility.
Sufism - what? Sufis hope to replicate Muhamad's experience of Allah in their own lives. Submission to God is understood by internal terms. Kejawen mysticism was influences by 12th century Ibn ‘Arabī and especially the theory of the unity of being (wahdah al-wujûd). In Javanese, wujud = human soul + Allah. The objective is not to eliminate hierarchical differences between Allah and yourself but to underscore and articulate them.

3) Implications for the debate of syncretism
OK, so what is all this debate about? Southeast Asia in general is considered to be syncretic when it comes to religion, this does not only include Islam (prevalent in Malaysia and Indonesia) but also Theravada Buddhism (Burma, Thailand). Woodward accuses Geertz to present the Slametan as an animistic response to a strange religion. He says that both santris and kejawen see the slametan as an inherently Muslim ritual, even if they have differing opinions about it: The kejawen tend to see it as essential and the Sharī‘a-centric piety as a supplement whereas the santri consider the slametan as a supplementary source of blessing. It is therefore useful to remind ourselves that Islam, like any other world religion, is not monolithic and that there are differing textual interpretations within its different streams. Bla Bla Bla.

Finally, the patient readers (or sly scrollers-down) among you will be rewarded with why the pre-colonial polity is a huge drama in Hindu Bali and what the Negara state has to do with phalluses.

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