25 June 2004

Naipaul on Javanese Hindu-Buddhist Christians

Naipaul's chapter profiling a Javanese Christian poet from Yogyakarta is entitled "Below the Lava":
It was because of the Christian preaching against polygamy, and the suffering it had brought in their own lives, that Linus's father and mother--as recently as 1938--had converted to Christianity. They had not been Muslims before, but Javanists, with a mixed local religion made up of survivals of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism. They had both attended Christian schools; they had learned about Christianity there. The Christianity they had adopted had not meant a break with the past.

"Here even when we became Christians we continued with our old customs. Taking flowers to the cemetery, praying to the spirits of our ancestors. When someone dies even today in our Christian community we have mixed rituals. The ceremonies three days after the death, seven days, forty days, a hundred days, one year, two years, a thousand days." Because of his father these death ceremonies would have been on Linus's mind.

Linus said, "Christianity is important because it teaches you to love somebody as you love yourself. It means teaching us to become tender persons, not wild or aggressive persons. In Javanism also we have the concept of restraint. It is easy therefore for Javanese people to embrace Christ's teaching."

High up on the inner concrete wall, above the central doorway, out of which Linus's mother and sister had come from the room at the back, there was a big brown cross. It was above a grotesque leather puppet. It was the standardized puppet figure of the clown, Semar, from the shadow play, a character, Linus said, from one or the other of the two Javanized Hindu epics, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata: "a god turned into a man, always supporting the good people."

In 1979 there had been a leather puppet there, but I didn't remember Semar. I remembered another figure. I couldn't say what it was, and I didn't ask Linus about it. It was only while working on this chapter that I checked, and found that in 1979 the mascot figure on that wall, the associate divinity of the house, above the horizontal ventilation slits and below the cross, was the Black Krishna. Not the playful Krishna of India, stealing the housewife's freshly churned butter and hiding the clothes of the milkmaids while they swam in the river; but the Black Krishna of Java, a figure of wisdom. That Krishna would have been a sufficient protector of a man starting out as a poet. Now, in a time of deeper grief and need, Semar--the man-god who helped the good--was a more appropriate divinity....

[Linus] said, "Six or seven feet below us here are many Hindu temples or Buddha temples or Hindu-Buddha temples, buried by eruptions of Merapi a thousand years ago and also two thousand and fifty years ago." Merapi, the active volcano of the region, creator of the lava that enriched the soil, and showed as black boulders in the beds of streams. "This creates a job for people who want to study about Java culture and religion, because behind these phenomena we can catch the spirit of Javanese people today."
SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 81, 85

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