India has Been the Inspiration for the Arts, Cuisine, Architecture of Indonesia: June McDaniel

India has Been the Inspiration for the Arts, Cuisine, Architecture of Indonesia: June McDaniel

Dr June McDaniel, specialist in the study of religious experience,  Professor Emerita at the College of Charleston, has done fieldwork in India as a Senior Fulbright Scholar and earlier on a grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies.

In this interview with CSP, Professor McDaniel speaks about the course that Indonesia has chartered to accommodate different religions, the spread of Hinduism in Indonesia and the impact of Sanatana Dharma on the arts and thoughts of the people.

How and when did your interest in religion studies start?

My interest in religion came about through my interests in art, and later psychology. At the undergraduate level, I was studying painting and illustration, with an appreciation for symbolic and surrealist styles of art. I was interested in the origin of the imagery, which led to a study of psychology, especially Jungian analytic psychology and the collective unconscious. But the psychology classes at the time had no interest in the unconscious, their focus was behavior, learning, and brain states. I started having mystical experiences in college, and I realized that religious experience was what interested me most of all. Religious Studies was the closest I could get to the study of mystical states, and it guided my studies in graduate school.

Are there adequate and accurate sources in universities abroad to study Hinduism and other Indian faiths?

When I was an undergraduate, there were no Religious Studies classes available, and certainly none on Indian religions. The closest I came was study with a Philosophy professor with an interest in Eastern religions. I studied Hinduism and Buddhism with him, often through Independent Study classes. Today there are many schools with Religious Studies programs, and professors who specialize in Indian religions. But in those days, there was much less information available, so it was harder to study.

What are the main areas of departure between the Sanathana Dharma in India and Hinduism in Indonesia?

Comparing Sanatana Dharma in India and Hinduism in Indonesia would be very complex. To begin with, there is no single Indian Hinduism. We have the various Bhakti schools, the approaches of the Yoga schools, there are Vedanta and other philosophical schools, there are interpretations of the dharma shastras and Vedic ideas for everyday life, which have been developed in popular and nationalist forms of Hinduism, there are the different forms of tantra and there are folk religions with their possession states and closeness to nature, among others. We have in Indian Hinduism monotheism, polytheism, henotheism, non-theism, animism, pantheism, dualism, monism, and other doctrinal approaches. It has perhaps the broadest range of beliefs in the world. There is no single ‘Indian’ approach to religion.

As for Indonesia, Hinduism came there through traders, sailors and priests from India. We see the first evidence of Hinduism in Indonesia by the first century CE, and it grew over time, and grew especially important on the island of Java. There it fused with Buddhism to create a Shiva-Buddha syncretism. With the Muslim invasions of the fifteenth century, the Hindus in Java fled to the island of Bali, which is still the center of Indonesian Hinduism. There are also Hindu populations in eastern Java, as well as parts of South Sulawesi, North Sumatra, Central and South Kalimantan.

We see two major forms of Hinduism in Indonesia. Agama Hindu Dharma Indonesia is the government-approved religion, organized by priests, writers and politicians to fit the official Indonesian requirements for religion: one god, a prophet, and a sacred book (and later a universal ethical system and daily rituals). Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and their understanding of a legitimate religion was influenced by Islamic ideas. So Agama Hindu Dharma Indonesia has a monotheistic god (called Sanghyang Widhi Wasa), the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita as inspired texts, which were brought by rishis, prayers three times a day, and a focus on dharma and ethics. The other form of Hinduism, Agama Tirtha, is the old and traditional Hinduism of Bali and the islands. It emphasizes closeness to nature and the sanctity of holy water, keeping the universe in balance, and honoring the ancestors. Its religious leaders are the Shaiva brahmin high priests called pedandas, who are assisted by temple priests (pemangkus). It is more experiential and less legalistic, with a life full of rituals to the gods (who are understood as emanations of Shiva).

Prof June McDaniel

How did Hinduism first get defined in Indonesia? Were there many followers initially?

Hinduism grew in different ways on different islands in Indonesia. It developed its fusion with Buddhism early on, and there are still both Shaivite and Buddhist pedandas. Indonesia has the fourth largest population of Hindus in the world, though the numbers are debated. While the 2010 census of Indonesia listed about four million Hindus, the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs listed the number as ten million. The 2011 United States State Department Religious Freedom Report on Indonesia notes, “The Ministry of Religious Affairs estimates that 10 million Hindus live in the country and account for approximately 90 percent of the population in Bali. Hindu minorities also reside in Central and East Kalimantan, the city of Medan (North Sumatra), South and Central Sulawesi, and Lombok (West Nusa Tenggara). Hindu groups such as Hare Krishna and followers of the Indian spiritual leader Sai Baba are present in small numbers.” So there is a range of estimates on the number of Hindus in Indonesia.

What aspects of Hinduism are most prominent in Indonesia which are followed perhaps by even non-Hindus?

All of the accepted religions in Indonesia follow monotheism and have sacred books and prophets. Hinduism in Bali has acted as a great inspiration for art, especially painting and sculpture, and the religious arts flourish in music and dance. To some extent, the Hindu styles of food and dress influence other communities. The redefinition of Rama and Krishna as human heroes rather than gods has allowed performances of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (called the Pandava saga) to be attended by Muslims and members of other religious communities.

Do you think that non-Abrahamic faiths can be understood through the lens of Abrahamic religions? How has this accommodation happened in Indonesia?

We see in Indonesia a way for non-Abrahamic religions to be understood by Abrahamic ones. When Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, there was debate about whether Indonesia would become a strict Muslim country or a religiously tolerant one with many legitimate religions. A compromise was worked out, and it can be seen in the preamble to the constitution. Indonesia would follow five rules or principles, the Panchasila, which stated that the country would believe in one God, a just and civilized humanity, Indonesian unity, social justice for all people, and representative democracy. This allowed the country to be a religious one, but not a strictly Muslim one. All legitimate religions had to follow the role of one God, which clearly comes from the Abrahamic faiths. This was easy for Islam, which was the dominant religion. It was a bit harder for the two forms of Christianity that were accepted, Catholic and Protestant. They had to define the Trinity as a Unity. Hinduism (and later Buddhism and Confucianism) had to go through much theological effort to define their religions as ethical monotheisms. The story of how this was done in Hinduism is a long and interesting one. But basically, they came up with one God, called Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa (an Indonesian name to avoid possible sectarian disagreements), with various lower emanations which are compared to angels. Now the public schools teach Indonesian Hinduism in Hindu communities, with their own textbooks, rituals and holidays. As an accepted religion, Hinduism is free from proselytizing from other accepted religions (especially Islam and Christianity). I was so impressed with their textbook series, full of detailed information on Hindu philosophy and theology, that I wrote an article on it a few years ago.

Are Hindu practices in Bali different from the rest of Indonesia?

Bali is the major center for Indonesian Hinduism. Their practices are followed to varying degrees on other islands with Hindu populations. Some of these groups chose Hinduism to get away from attempts at conversion by missionaries of other religions, others thought it would go well with their own traditions. The practices of Agama Hindu Dharma Indonesia, the government-accepted form of Hinduism, are standardized. However, the local forms of Agama Tirtha Hinduism have much more leeway in ritual and belief.

How has India impacted the arts, cuisine, architecture of Indonesia?

India has been the inspiration for the arts, cuisine and architecture of Indonesia, and Indonesian Hindus often go on pilgrimages to India to see the origins of their religion. The stories from the Indian puranas and histories are often incorporated into Balinese plays, dramas and dances, though Bali has more dances that involve trance states. Indeed, there is a current debate in Indonesia whether Balinese Hinduism should be considered a subcategory of Indian Hinduism, or a religion of its own.

How is Hinduism taught and practiced among the younger generation?

As to how Hinduism is taught in Indonesia, I will attach the paper on teaching ( This gives the information from the required religion classes. As to practice, the younger generation seems to be more interested in performing the music and dance of traditional Agama Tirtha, and doing the rituals for local gods and ancestors, than in studying Hindu philosophy in school. However, their parents still worry that they will lose their traditions, between the official classes and the motorcycles and video games that also take up their attention. There is also the distraction of Indian gurus who visit claiming to have the ‘true’ Hinduism, with ISKCON members claiming that only vegetarians are truly Hindu (the Balinese eat meat), and that gods demand intense emotion from devotees (not a focus in Bali). Then we have Western yoga teachers with lots of money, claiming that Vinyasa Flow is true Hinduism, and Sai Baba groups claiming miracles. Many younger Hindus try to mix and match approaches.

Is Indonesia unique in having this kind of a multi-religious political arrangement? Has it helped bring harmony?

There is no other country in the world that follows the Indonesian Panchasila rules. In that way, it is unique. As to my opinion on how it has worked, I would say that it is not perfect, but it has worked well. Its most important aspect has been to protect religious practitioners from the missionaries of other religions. It has guaranteed religious tolerance to all accepted religions, even among fundamentalists who do not approve of other religions. It gives rights to religious minorities, and it gives a common language that different religions can understand. It has allowed for the creation of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, whose representatives go out into the islands and act as peacemakers when there are disagreements and fights between religious groups.

Its weaker side is that only monotheisms are legitimate religions, so if you want to have a religion which is not monotheistic, you will not be officially accepted. Such religions are considered ‘streams of belief’ or ‘not yet religions,’ and while they are not generally harmed, they do not have government protection. There are many tribal traditions in this situation, and it includes even popular Indonesian groups like Sumarah and Subud. At times, the Ministry has also given in to the Muslim majority, in maintaining the blasphemy law, and hesitating to limit the power of Muslim religious groups. There is often a difference between the ideal and the real.