The Religion of Java

 

(Clifford Geertz)

 

 

Introduction

 

Modjokuto,* the small town in east central Java within which this study was made, lies at the extreme eastern edge of a great irrigated rice plain through which a rambling, circular-swinging river flows northward toward the Java Sea. A half-day's drive from Surabaja, the Republic of lndonesiaŰs second largest city and best port, Modjokuto, marks the point at which the flat, fertile countryside begins to tilt upward toward the cluster of active volcanoes which tower over it to the east and whose periodic eruptions provide much of its fertility.

 

A commercial, educational, and administrative center for eighteen surrounding villages, the town has a population of almost 20.000, of whom about 18.000 are Javanese, 1.800 Chinese, and the remainder a handful of Arabs, Indians, and other minorities. In spatial form is determined by the juncture of three poorly paved secondary roads, one from Surabaja, the provincial capital, one from the regional capital fifteen miles to the west, and one from a large inland city on the other side of the eastern mountains. The town is surrounded on three sides by thousands of small mud-walled rice fields, most of them not more than twenty-five yards square. Flooded in the rainy season by means of an age-old irrigation system of gullies, springs, and water traps improved by Dutch-introduced cement dams and steel sluice gates, these fields are cultivated almost entirely in rice for six months of every year. In the dry season, which is pronounced in East Java, the land does not lie fallow but is planted in maize, soybeans, peanuts, onions, peppers or sweet potatoes ˇ usually two or three of these in turn. Almost all land-holdings are small ˇ under three acres ˇ and although there is, particularly near the town, considerable sharecrop tenancy, the landlords involved are not absentee nor are their holdings any larger, with one or two not very dramatic exceptions, than those or the peasants themselves.

 

On the fourth side of Modjokuto, the southwest, lies either forest or dry, broken, largely unirrigable land on which, in the early part of the century, an extensive plantation system in coffee, rubber, and sugar was built up. Dutch-owned, Dutch-managed, and Javanese-worked, the network of plantations and sugar mills had a heavy impact on the economy of Modjokuto before the war. As the town was founded only toward the latter half of the nineteenth century, the interaction between the small-scale, intensive wet-rice farming system practiced by the independent Javanese peasant and the large-scale, extensive cash-crop estate agriculture of the Dutch shaped the economic history of the region almost since the beginning.

 

The Dutch are gone from Modjokuto now, their estate and factory system shaken by the depression and shattered by the war and revolution. What remains is a peasantry very used both to money and to foreign goods, tremendous underemployment both rural and urban, and an overcomplex economic system in which the Chinese minority controls the main streams of trade. The Chinese form the heart of the economic circulatory system of Modjokuto, pressing goods, many of them imported, down through its arteries, pulling back goods, the greater part of them agricultural, through its veins, and passing them on to the large urban centers for further distribution. Javanese commercial activity becomes relevant only between the ends of the two channels ˇ where they braid out into a complex network of tiny, doubled-over, and marvelously interwound economic capillaries reaching into the small crevices of native life.

 

There are two business districts, both of them lined with small, open-front, wooden stores, almost all Chinese-run. Inside the stores one finds hardware, home furnishings, various types of food, jewelry, false teeth, automobile and bicycle parts, building materials, textiles, and drugs ˇ from sulfa to such promising herbs as crocodile tongue and cat's beard. Even more important in terms of economic power, the Chinese control the trade in dry-season crops grown in Javanese fields, and their mills process the rice from those fields (although for the past few years a great part of the actual buying has been done under government contract and, nominally, under government control).

 

They own almost all the trucking, almost all the string-and-bailing-wire jitneys which carry a great proportion (with the busses and the train) of inter-local travel, and almost all the bicycle rickshaws which, Javanese-pedaled, provide the bulk of passenger transport within the town. The larger small-scale factories in town and outside it ˇ rice, lumber, soda pop, bread, charcoal ˇ are, with a few notable exceptions, in Chinese hands. Chinese own the movie and the theater where Javanese plays are given, and they manage the carnival when it comes to town. They are prevented from totally dominating the economy by only one restriction: they are forbidden, by a Dutch law continued into the Republican period, to hold farm land.

 

The Javanese stores [are], almost all of them marginal, number about a dozen, most of them in the secondary business section. The core of native-run commercial life is the market, where each day hundreds of professional or semiprofessional Javanese salesmen and speculators, both men and women, bargain vigorously in a desperate attempt to earn a living or part of a living from small-scale, person-to-person trade. Textiles, daily food supplies, and dry-season crops probably form the bulk of the business; but buttons, dried fish, mats, baskets, perfumes, religious books, cooked food and hot coffee, chairs and tables, nails, ready-made clothing, meat, patent medicines, leather goods, parasols, pots and pans ˇ in fact, almost everything portable ˇ are each day passed from hand to hand to someone's (usually small) profit.

 

In the market you can have your hair cut, your bicycle fixed, and your pants mended while you wait. For an Indonesian quarter you can rent a spot under a tree or a wooden shed and sell cigarettes for a cent more than you just paid for them in a Chinese store across the street. You can buy a basket of corn in the morning and sell it at noon, never leaving the market ˇ getting your profit out of the slight rise in price which takes place every day as the market day wears on. (If you are a friend or a paying acquaintance of the man who runs the scales, you may make something out of the greater weight the corn has when you sell it than when you bought it.) Or, for two rupiahs a day (and a few hundred rupiahs capital), you can become one of the aristocrats of the market with a three-meters wide stall of your own, selling imported and domestic textiles for as much more than they are worth as you can wheedle an unwary peasant into paying. For the Modjokuto Javanese, whether buyer or seller, the market is the very model of commercial life, the source of nearly all his ideas of the possible and the proper in economic behavior.

 

Aside from petty commerce, three other nonagricultural activities play an important part in the Javanese sector of the economy: simple manual labor, independent craft and repair work, and white-collar office work. The manual laborers, if they find work at all, may be employed by the Chinese in their rice mills, lumber yards, or other enterprises: by the government fixing roads, building irrigation dams, or sweeping streets; or by one of the scattered "here today, gone tomorrow" Javanese cottage industries. A great many are employed on the narrow-gauge railroad which runs four short passenger trains a day from the regional capital through Modjokuto to connect with the main Surabaja Line fifteen miles northward. Many, too, are servants of the richer townsmen, although the departure of the Dutch has markedly reduced job opportunities in this field. The independent artisans ˇ carpenters, chauffeurs, bricklayers, blacksmiths, watchmakers, barbers, tailors ˇ are spread unevenly throughout the town, for they work mostly in their own homes, accepting jobs as they come fitfully to them, and drifting uneasily into unskilled occupations if forced to by economic pressure.

 

The white-collar clerks, teachers, and government officials form the intellectual and social elite of Modjokuto, inheritors of a political tradition in which the ability to read and write was confined to a hereditary court class bom to rule and venerated for doing so. Many of the old caste marks of the literati are nearly gone now ˇ the variously colored parasols symbolizing rank, the deep bow of the inferior to touch the knee of the standing superior, the proclamation of pedigree through the use of court title, the tongue-tied professional Javanese salesmen and speculators, both men and women, bargain vigorously in a desperate attempt to earn a living or part ol a living from small-scale, person-to-person trade. Textiles, daily food supplies, and dry-season crops probably form the bulk of the business; but buttons, dried fish, mats, baskets, perfumes, religious books, cooked food and hot coffee, chairs and tables, nails, ready-made clothing, meat, patent medicines, leather goods, parasols, pots and pans ˇ in fact, almost everything portable ˇ are each day passed from hand to hand to someone's (usually small) profit.

 

In the market you can have your hair cut your bicycle fixed, and your pants mended while you wail. For ail Indonesian quarter you can rent a spot under a tree or a wooden shed and scU cigarettes for a cent more than you just paid for them in a Chinese store across the street. You can buy a basket of com in the morning and sell it al noon, never leaving the market ˇ getting your profit out of the slight rise in price which takes place every day at the market day wears on. (if you are a friend or a paying acquaintance of the man who runs the scales, you may make something out of the greater weight the com has when you sell it than when you bought it.) Or, (or two rupiahs a day (and a few hundred rupiahs capital), you can become one of the aris- tocrats of the market with a three-meters wide stall of your own, selling im- ported and domestic textiles for as much more than they are worth W you can wheedle an unwary peasant into paying. For the Modjokuto Javanese, whether buyer or seller, the market is the very model of commercial life, the source of nearly all his ideas of the possible and the proper in economic behavior.

 

Aside from petty commerce, three other nonagricultural activities play an important part in the Javanese sector of the economy: simple manual labor, independent craft and repair work, and white-collar office work. The manual laborers, if they find work at all, may be employed by the Chinese in their rice mills, lumber yards, or other enterprises: by the government fixing roads, building irrigation dams, or sweeping streets; or by one of the scattered "here today, gone tomorrow" Javanese cottage industries. A great many are employed on the narrow-gauge railroad which runs four short passenger trains a day from the regional capital through Modjokuto to connect with the main Surabaja Line fifteen miles northward. Many, too, are servants of the richer townsmen, although the departure of the Dutch has markedly reduced job opportunities in this field. The independent artisans ˇ carpenters, chauffeurs, bricklayers, blacksmiths, watchmakers, barbers, tailors ˇ are spread unevenly throughout the town, for they work mostly in their own homes, accepting jobs as they come fitfully to them, and drifting uneasily into unskilled occupations if forced to by economic pressure.

 

The white-collar clerks, teachers, and government officials form the intellectual and social elite of Modjokuto, inheritors of a political tradition in which the ability to read and write was confined to a hereditary court class bom to rule and venerated for doing so. Many of the old caste marks of the literati are nearly gone now ˇ the variously colored parasols symbolizing rank, the deep bow of the inferior to touch the knee of the standing superior, the proclamation of pedigree through the use of court title, the tongue-tied shame of the peasant in the presence of the government official ˇ but the general attitude of respect and subservience on the pan of the uneducated toward the educated remains.

 

The number of the educated has been increasing rather rapidly of late with the post-revolutionary expansion of the school system. In Modjokuto there are a half dozen six-grade government elementary schools, a government technical school at the junior high level, three private junior high schools, a government school for elementary teachers, and scattered other private schools including Chinese and Catholic elementary schools. Further, each of the surrounding villages has a school of its own, and there is stilt Ânumber of old-style religious schools in the area which have recently been semi-modernized. The result of this sudden florescence of educational activity is that teachers, on the one hand, and advanced students, on the other, form two of the most clearly denned and dynamic social groups within the society, perhaps the two groups who are least closely bound to the Javanese past and whose relationships with the rest of the society are the most ambiguous.

 

There are two major government offices in Modjokuto, for it is the capital both of a district (kevedanan)** and a subdistrict (ketjamadan). The subdistrict, the lowest level to which the wholly appointive national bureaucracy reaches, administers eighteen villages all lying within ten miles of town. The district administers live contiguous subdistricts, including that of Modjokuto itself, and is in turn subordinate to the regional (kebupaten) government, the capital of which is the nearby city of Bragang. In addition, the regional headquarters of the central government police force is in Modjokuto rather than in Bragang, as are also the government pawnshop and the government hospital for the area. Offices concerned with the repair of roadways, the building and maintenance of irrigation systems, the improvement of agriculture, and the administration of the market further swell the total of white-collar workers employed or unemployed by the government, as do the post office and the office of the local representative of the Ministry of Religion.

 

These five major occupational types ˇ farmer, petty trader, independent artisan, manual laborer, and white-collar clerk, teacher, or administrator ˇ represent the Javanese population of Modjokuto, grouped according to their economic activity. The crystallized typology of work patterns reflects the underlying organization of the economic system of the town of which it is an outcome. Similarly, the same population grouped according to their world outlook ˇ according to their religious beliefs, ethical preferences, and political ideologies ˇ yields three main cultural types which reflect the moral organization of Javanese culture as it is manifested in Modjokuto, the general ideas of order in terms of which the Javanese farmer, laborer, artisan, trader or clerk shapes his behaviour in all areas of life: these are the abangan, santri, and prijaj.

 

There are, it seems to me, three main socio-structural nuclei in Java today: the village, the market, and the government bureaucracy ˇ each of them taken in a somewhat more extended sense than is common.

 

The Javanese village is as old as the Javanese, for it is likely that the first Malayo-Polynesian peoples to come to the island already possessed knowledge of agriculture. The evolution of the Javanese village to its present form has at each stage been regulated and expressed by a more or less unified religious system, itself, of course, evolving too. In the days before the Hindus, who began to come to the island around 400 a.d. or before, it seems likely that the sort of "animism" common still to many of the pagan tribes of Malaysia comprised the whole of the religious tradition; but this tradition has proved, over the course of the centuries, remarkably able to absorb into one syncretized whole elements from both Hinduism and Islam, which followed it in the fifteenth century. Thus today the village religious system commonly consists of a balanced integration of animistic, Hinduistic, and Islamic elements, a basic Javanese syncretism which is the island's true folk tradition, the basic substratum of its civilization; but the situation is more complex than this, for not only, as we shall sec, do many peasants not follow this syncretism, but many townsmen ˇ mostly lower-class displaced peasants or sons of displaced peasants ˇ do. The abangan religious tradition, made up primarily of the ritual feast called the slametan, of an extensive and intricate complex of spirit beliefs, and of a whole set of theories and pactices of curing, sorcery, and magic, is the first subvariant within the general Javanese religious system which I shall present below, and it is associated in a broad and general way with the Javanese village.

 

The second major social substructure, the market, must be taken in a broad sense to include the whole network of domestic trade relationships on the island. For the most part, the inter-local aspects of this trade are in Chinese hands, the more local aspects in Javanese hands, although there is a good deal of overlap. The association of the Javanese trading element with a more puristic version of Islam than is common in Java stretches back to the introduction of the Mid-Eastern religion into the island, for it came as part of a great trade expansion, stimulated ultimately by the rise of the Age of Exploration in Europe, along the Java Sea. The coming of the Dutch crushed the lively Javanese trade which had sprang up in the north coast ports ˇ Surabaja, Gresik, Tuban, and others ˇ as part of its expansion, but the trading culture did not wholly die; it persisted, although much changed and weakened, down to the present. The rise of reformist movements in Indonesian Islam in the early part of this century as part of the general nationalist movement which in 1945 finally brought Indonesia her freedom from Dutch rule revivified and further sharpened the sense for a purer Islam, less contaminated with either animism or mysticism, among the small-trader element in Javanese society.

 

The purer Islam is the subtradition I have called santri. Although in a broad and general way the santri subvariant is associated with the Javanese trading element, it is not confined to it, nor are all traders, by far, adherents of it. There is a very strong santri element in the villages, often finding its leadership in the richer peasants who have been able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and set up religious schools upon their return. The market is, on the other hand, especially since the war and the disappearance of the Dutch demand for servants and manual workers, clogged with swarms of small abangan traders attempting to make a marginal living, although the greatest number of the larger and more vigorous traders are still santris. The santri religious tradition, consisting not only of a careful and regular execution of the basic rituals of Islam ˇ the prayers, the Fast, the Pilgrimage ˇ but also of a whole complex of social, charitable, and political Islamic organizations, is the second subvariant of the general Javanese religious system which I shall present below.

 

The third is the prijaji. Prijaji originally referred only to the hereditary aristocracy which the Dutch pried loose from the kings of the vanquished native states and turned into an appointive, salaried civil service. This white collar elite, its ultimate roots in the Hindu-Javanese courts of pre-colonial times, conserved and cultivated a highly refined court etiquette, a very complex art of dance, drama, music, and poetry, and a Hindu-Buddhist mysticism. They stressed neither the animistic element in the over-all Javanese syncretism as did the abangans, nor the Islamic as did the santris, but the Hinduistic. In this century, the ascendant social and political position of this group so far as the native Javanese society is concerned (the Dutch of course occupied the genuinely dominant position until the revolution) have been weakened, access to the bureaucracy has become easier for the low-born but well educated, and an increasing number of nongovernmental "white collar" jobs has appeared. Further, it was upon this "bureaucratic" group that the Dutch had their most direct acculturnting influence, leading ultimately to the production of the highly secularized, Westernized, and, commonly, somewhat anti-traditional political elite of the Indonesian Republic.

 

As a result, the traditional court culture has weakened. Nevertheless, the prijaji variant not only remains quite strong among certain of the conservative elements in the society but also plays a basic role in shaping the world view, the ethics, and the social behavior of even the most Westernized element in the still dominant white-collar group. The refined politesse, the high art, and the intuitive mysticism all remain highly characteristic of Java's social elite; and, although somewhat attenuated and adjusted to changed conditions, the prijaji style of life remains the model not only for the elite but in many ways for the entire society.

 

Abangan, representing a stress on the animistic aspects of the over-all Javanese syncretism and broadly related to the peasant element in the population; santri, representing a stress on the Islamic aspects of the syncretism and generally related to the trading element (and to certain elements in the peasantry as well); and prijaji, stressing the Hinduist aspects and related to the bureaucratic element ˇ these, then, are the three main subtractions I shall describe. They are not constructed types, but terms and divisions the Javanese themselves apply.

 

 

*

This description of the town was published earlyer in essentially the samc form as part of my article: "Religious Belief and Economic Behavior in a Central Javanese Town: Some Preliminary Considerations," Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol. 4, No. 2 (January 1956), pp. 138-158.

**

The spelling of Indonesian words conforms to the current official orthography. Javanese words are spelled in accordance with the system currently employed by Balai Pustaka (a publishing agency of the Ministry of Education) in its publications, in that language. This is identical with the orthography of Th. Pigeaud's Javaans-Nederlands Handvoordenboek (Groningen, n.d.), except that oe is replaced by u. Arabic words are also spelled in accordance with the Javanese system.

 


 

Introduction, chapt. 1 (in part) in: Geertz, Clifford: The Religion of Java. Glencoe/Ill./USA 1960: The Free Press, pp. 1-6.

 


 

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