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Ancestor-worshipping village shaman divines a path around Indonesia’s bureaucracy

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A Kaharingan practitioner

In Tumbang Saan, a village of huts built on stilts in Borneo’s vast rainforest, village elder Udatn had a problem.

He’s a spiritual leader in Kaharingan, one of a number of names for the ancestor-worshipping, spirit-divining religion of Borneo’s indigenous forest people, the Dayak.

In Indonesia, bureaucrats cite a law that citizens must choose between the government’s six officially recogized religions: Islam, Roman Catholicism, Christian Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, reports Aubrey Belford for the International Herald Tribune.

So Udatn couldn’t get government funding for local needs unless the bureaucrats had the right entries in their paperwork. 

His solution: He has announced that his sect is a branch of Hinduism, reports Belford:

Of all the people in this tiny settlement, he speaks better than any other the esoteric language of the Sangiyang, the spirits and ancestors of the upper world, known simply as “Above.” His is a key role in the rituals of Kaharingan, “In the beginning, when God separated the darkness and the light, there was Kaharingan,” said Mr. Udatn, as he sat smoking a wooden pipe on the floor of his stilt home. (Like many Indonesians Mr. Udatn uses only one name.)

The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country is no Islamic state, but it is a religious one. Every citizen must subscribe to one of six official creeds: Kaharingan, like dozens of other native faiths, does not officially exist. Even in this village, a frontier where land clearing and mining is fast erasing ancient forest, people have long seen their faith under threat from officialdom.

Villagers have seized on a strategy being used by many Dayak: They are re-branding. On paper at least, most of the people of Tumbang Saan are now followers of Hinduism, the dominant religion on the distant island of Bali.

Here is a video of Dayaks using their age-old tapping technique to give a visitor one of their famed tattoos:

YouTube Preview Image

Are Indonesian bureaucrats pleased with the solution? After all, notes Belford:

Few here could name a Hindu god or even recognize concepts, like karma, that have taken on popular meanings even in the West. But that is not the point. In a corner of the world once famed for headhunters and impenetrable remoteness, a new religion is being developed to face up to an encroaching modern world and an intrusive Indonesian state. The point, in short, is cultural survival.

“The Hindus have helped us,” said Mr. Udatn. “They’re like our umbrella.”

“What exists in Tumbang Saan is a strange compromise, born of the Indonesian religious system, where government functionaries play a key role in allocating funding and guiding religious doctrine,” writes Belford. “Some see it as a fake faith, invented for appearances; others hail it as a rediscovery of long-lost beliefs.”

So, welcome to Kaharingan Hinduism … or perhaps Hindu Kaharinganism, a “new” religion birthed by bureaucrats faithful to official rules.



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