Hinduism is the third-largest religion in Indonesia. Currently, around 1.7 percent of the Indonesian population adheres to Hinduism, which in absolute terms constitutes approximately four million individuals out a total of almost 240 million Indonesians. Today, the majority of the Indonesian Hindu community lives on the island of Bali, famous for its Hindu culture (and natural scenery). Contrary to other parts of Indonesia – and for reasons not really known – Islamic forces were not powerful enough to break through the high Balinese cultural barriers, causing this island to have a majority Hindu population up to the present day.
Locations in Indonesia where relatively large Hindu communities reside are:
2. Sulawesi (Central, South and Southeast)
3. Central Kalimantan
4. South Sumatra (Lampung)
Arrival of Hinduism in the Archipelago
Prior to the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism, the indigenous population of the archipelago practiced forms of animism. But when Hinduism arrived in the western part of the archipelago through a trade network stretching from China to India in the first century of the Common Era, local rulers regarded this new religion as an asset to their power as they could start to represent themselves as Hindu deities, thereby increasing their status. The pre-existing animistic beliefs are thought to have become blended with Hinduism, resulting in the forming of new hybrid-types of Hinduism which contained specific features of its own, thus making it rather different from Indian Hinduism. The caste system, for example, was never rigidly applied throughout the history of the archipelago.
A number of important Hindu empires were established in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Java between the 5th and the 13th century; some of which had also absorbed Buddhist influences. The archipelago’s last major empire, Majapahit (± 1293-1500), showed an interesting blend between Hinduism, Buddhism and animist beliefs. But after Islam had established itself in the archipelago as a socio-political force starting from the 13th century, Hinduism gradually lost ground to this quickly expanding religion. The only exception being Bali, where the ruler of Majapahit (originating from East Java) sought refuge from the conquest of Islamic forces.
Varieties of Indonesian Hinduism
As indicated in the map above, relatively large Indonesian Hindu communities are located on the islands of Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Sumatra (and smaller pockets of Hindu villages can be found in East Java). Hinduism was placed as a layer on top of pre-existing variational animist traditions and therefore the resulting outcome of Hinduism differs in the various regions. In fact, on the small island of Bali one can discern an interesting level of variety across the different regions on the island. And in some cases, particularly in East and Central Java, Hinduism became blended with Islamic traditions.
However, not every Indonesian citizen that is categorized as a Hindu today actually ís a Hindu. According togovernment law only six major world religions are recognized as being official religions in the country. These are Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Moreover, all Indonesian citizensare obliged to choose one of these six religions as their sole religion (mandatory data that is documented inidentification papers). For the group of Indonesians that still practice animist beliefs this constitutes a serious problem because animism is not an option provided by the Indonesian government. These communities thus tend to select Hinduism as their religion because Hinduism is more flexible compared to other religions to include animist elements. Several animist communities such as the Tana Toraja of Sulawesi, the Dayak of Kalimantan and the Karo-Batak of Sumatra are such examples.
Javanese art and culture is highly influenced by its historic Hindu-Buddhist chapter. Today, these influences are still visible and preserved through the famous wayang performances, the survival of many beautiful temples (of which the Borobudur and Prambanan are best known), the large amount of Sanskrit loanwords in regional languages (as well as in standard Indonesian), and folk traditions that uphold both Hindu and pre-Hindu beliefs among part of the Javanese communities, in particular in Central and East Java. These Javanese traditions are known as Kejawen.
Bali, one of Indonesia’s major tourist attractions, is not only famous for its beautiful beaches, landscape and rice fields but also for its unique cultural tradition: a Balinese Hindu tradition that mainly consists of art and ritual. This religion is rather different from Hinduism as practiced in India because – before Hinduism arrived in Bali – it underwent some radical changes on the island of Java. One important feature of this change being the union between Hinduism (or more specific Shivaism) and Buddhism. This feature is still visible today as, for example, some Buddhist religious writings still play an important role in Balinese Hinduism and the island has a priesthood which contains both Hindus and Buddhists.
The theological basis for Balinese Hinduism stems from Indian philosophy while indigenous beliefs form the backbone of the rituals. An important belief of the Balinese Hindus is that elements of nature are influenced by spirit. Therefore, offerings (sesajen) made from agriculture products are offered to this spirit. It is believed that Mount Agung (the highest mountain on Bali) is the house of the gods and ancestors. As such, this mountain is referred to as the ‘mother mountain’ and is highly sacred to the Balinese. The main symbol of Balinese Hinduism is the Swastika or ‘wheel of the sun’, an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles. This Swastika symbol is also widely used in Indian religions and is believed to evoke ‘shakti‘ or the sacred force of empowerment.