Hinduism was the first religion to arrive in Indonesia, followed by Mahayana Buddhism. Prior to the coming of these two religions Indonesians practiced animism.
By Monidipa Dey
“The story of Rama was so popular that it flooded each and every corner of our country and overflowed to many countries abroad. We have seen ups and downs, rise and fall in the events of Indian history but the Ramayana remained an ever-lasting source of inspiration to every section of Indian people…Similar to air and water, the story of the Ramayana has become an indispensable constituent of the life of our countrymen. Its eternal message penetrates into the heart of people residing even in the remotest part of the vast country through popular tales, paintings, episodes, folklore’s, oral tradition, etc.” ~ Sitanath Dey, Historian.
Indian-epic poetry (Mahabharat and Ramayan) can be categorised into two parts 1. Itihas and Puranas 2. Kavyas. While Mahabharata combines both the classes, Ramayana in most cases is more a fine example of a Mahakavya with Itihas (history) interwoven in it. This historical Mahakavya, which depicts the journey (Ayana) of Rama, explores various aspects of human values and the meaning of living and abiding by the Dharma, and has somehow managed to capture the imagination of Hindus living in the sub-continent and across the world for many centuries. The story of the Ramayan extends across a long historical period, and is believed to have been compiled over many centuries. Within India itself there are many regional versions coupled with language variants; however, Valmiki’s Ramayan (Sanskrit) with its seven Kandas (parts) and 2400 shlokas is seen as the main one.
Ramayan, is four times longer than the two Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey put together. Ever since its composition by Valmiki many millenniums back, Ramayana has slowly turned from a ballad possibly sung by bards, to a hugely loved and inseparable part of Indian life, religion, and culture. While the Ramayan has been told in many ways, the varying narratives by different writers reflect how their perspectives were shaped or influenced by regional cultures, literary styles of that region or community, religious beliefs of different communities, political inclinations, and social norms. Thus, the term ‘Ramayana Tradition’ while showcasing these variations, also binds together people across India and many other countries with the same story written in different styles, languages, and perspectives. This concept of ‘The Ramayana tradition’ can almost be viewed as the second language of the Indians, as the characters and incidents in Ramayan is where Indians always turn to and cite as examples while sharing their relationships, daily experiences, and ordeals. As the Ramayana characters in course of time turned into benchmarks, defining perfect relationships, such as those of father-son, mother-son, husband-wife, brother-brother, king-subjects, etc., they also became an integral part of the Indian family, culture, and social scenarios.
As Thein Hen Zawgi (one of the original members of the Mynamar Historical Commission, 1955) had summarised: “Ramayana is not only a literary treasure but also a source of ennobling influence of the relationship of men as parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, relations and friends, teachers and pupils, and rulers and the ruled”. The ethical, cultural, and moral codes embedded in the Ramayan still thrive as ‘living tradition’, and have become a part of Indic consciousness across all social strata in India.
It is historically believed that the two Great Indian Epics were carried to Indonesia by various traders, warriors, craftsmen, priests, and poets. Various Indonesian and Javanese inscriptions (Sanskrit) dating from 8 th to 10 th century CE frequently mention the terms Raghav, Bharat, Lanka, Ravan, Sita, Ram, Vali, Ramayan, and Lakshman. While the earliest known written copy of Ramkatha in Indonesia known as the Ramayan Kakawain was written by Yogiswar (10th century), later various other versions were written too. It is believed by many experts that East Java by itself claims to hold 1200 versions of Ramayana. The first portrayal of the Ramayan on stone was seen in Central Java, where the epic was carved onto the courtyard balustrades in the Chandi Shiva and Chandi Brahma temples, locally known as Lara Jonggrang. Lara Jonggrang, also has the glory of holding a full pictorial representation of the Ramayan (Balakanda to Uttarakanda). Interestingly, the town closest to this temple is known as Yogyakarta, which in old Javanese means Ayodhya (Ram’s birthplace).
Hinduism was the first religion to arrive in Indonesia, followed by Mahayana Buddhism. Prior to the coming of these two religions Indonesians practiced animism. Without competing with each other, Hinduism and Buddhism merged and blended with the native animism, and a peculiar Shiva-Buddha sect was started. In many parts of Indonesia, the banyan tree is still held as holy; and during harvest, Sri (devi Lakshmi) is held in great reverence in order to avoid offending her. Islam, which was brought to Indonesia by Indian traders from Kerala and Gujarat in the 16th century, slowly took control over the next three hundred years. However, Indonesian Islam remained separated from the orthodox Middle-east, and amalgamated with Buddhism and Hinduism, changing the religious landscape but touching nothing else for many centuries. While now 95 per cent of the Indonesians follow Islam, majority of them still believe in syncretism. Thus, a common citizen of Indonesia accepts his current duties as a Muslim, while accepting and respecting the religion of his forefathers.
In Indonesia (especially Java), the Ramayana (and also Mahabharata) form the base for the famous shadow or leather puppet show known as the Wajang Kulit that starts after the harvest season and continues until the rains start. This Wajang forms an inseparable part of the Indonesian life, reflecting complex social scenes, with the final glory in the act of good winning over evil. Such is the hold of this Wajang Kulit that orthodox Muslims failed to stop it, and seeing their failure declared that Wajang was started by a Muslim saint named Sunan Kalijaga. While the main themes in Wajang Kulit are from Ramayan and Mahabharat, there have been many changes based on local traditions and norms, thereby further increasing its popularity and helping it grow.
A reading of the various Ramayanas found across the SouthEast Asian countries show the widespread influence Rama’s tale once had across various nations. While narratives vary, and often perspectives seem different owing to religious and cultural differences, these Ram Kathas have become an integral part of people’s lives in these foreign nations. Despite some attempts to erase the past history, Indonesia has shown how strongly Ramayana has been imbibed into the consciousness of the common people, and that it cannot be forcefully taken away.
(The author is a well-known travel writer and history buff. Views expressed are personal.)