Magic & Mysticism in Java

Soeharto (1921 – 2008)
From New Dawn Special Issue 5 (May 2008)

The death of ex-President Soeharto of Indonesia at the age of 86 [in 2008]  reminded me that I was present in Jakarta in 1967 during the bloodbath in which the Communist Party was decimated and General Soeharto rose to political power, along with the minority modernist Muslim party that supported him.

At that time Indonesia was only nominally Muslim: under the charismatic President Soekarno it was animistic, feudal, steeped in an other-worldly mysticism, and was infested with starving beggars, superstition and black magic practices. General Soeharto, of humble village origin, had risen high in the military apparatus and married into a family of the minor nobility in Solo. His marriage gave his political aspirations legitimacy in the eyes of Indonesians, who believed in the ancient tradition that links royal status to the right to rule.

The General was well known to have a close affiliation with a Javanese magico-mystical school believed to give him great occult powers, yet from the time of his ascension to the presidency he appeared, unlike ex-President Soekarno, to deny the affiliation, at least publicly. The new pro-Western president donned the Islamist black pitje and publicly espoused and supported the political arm of orthodox Islam, which in the main was vehemently opposed to any and all occult practices. It proved to be the best thing that could have happened to the country.

Whatever President Soeharto’s questionable legacy in other areas, in this respect he dragged Indonesia from the dreaming Middle Ages into the modern world. Today, Indonesia is officially a member of the great Muslim international fraternity, and Islam’s austere religious mores have increasingly infiltrated the national culture, modifying its more primitive animistic traits and greatly strengthening its influence in Asia-Pacific politics.

Nevertheless, Pak Soeharto retained to the end of his life his private allegiance to Javanese mysticism. Doctors who attended him in the last weeks of his illness, during which he rallied more than once from heart, lungs and kidney failure, said they were amazed and baffled by his recuperative powers. It was commonly believed, however, that the power of spirits and the implantation of many lucky charms inside his body was the factor keeping him alive. Indeed, those who were close to Soeharto in his home town of Solo, the heartland of the Javanese culture, have attributed his resistance to death to his devotion to the powerful occult forces that resided in him throughout his life.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, all six presidents of Indonesia “paid respects to the spirit world, visiting sites said to hold mystical powers, consulting with seers and collecting tokens of magic like the Indonesian dagger called a kris.”1 Among these leaders, Soeharto was outstanding as a devotee of the occult. He studied as a boy with a spiritual teacher and performed ritual acts throughout his presidency, continuing to do so even after a popular uprising deposed him in May 1998.

According to his aides, over the years he made frequent visits to sacred places, including mountains, caves, tombs and ruins, and took ritual baths in oceans and rivers sacred to Nyai Loro Kidul, the mighty Queen of the South Seas. He also collected hundreds of sacred objects in order to absorb their magical power.

The Javanese Science

Despite the ascendancy of modernist Islam throughout the nation, Soeharto’s private loyalty to Java’s spiritual past is mirrored in Javanese society in general, though its allegiance now tends to run underground in the face of Islamic disapproval, especially that of the strict Wahhabi sect, which over the years has become extremely influential. To the outsider today all Indonesians are strict Muslims, but under the pitje or the headscarf there is likely to be concealed a mystic of quite a different stripe. The people of the island of Java in particular are very proud of their indigenous pre-Islamic spiritual tradition, which they refer to as the Javanese Science, and while few may actually practice it now in its pure occult form, most have a proprietorial understanding of at least some of its sacred principles. They are evasive about discussing this hidden dimension of their society, especially with Western foreigners, but one would be mistaken in not taking the Science very seriously indeed as the essence of the Javanese culture even to the present day.

The Javanese Science is a syncretic blend of Hindu-Buddhist, Sufi, Taoist and ancient animist strands, and evolved in the royal courts of Solo and nearby Jogjakarta in Central Java as a system of self-transformation confined solely to the aristocracy. But since the Revolution that ejected the Dutch rulers from the country after the Second World War, the Science emerged into the popular culture in the form of hundreds of kebatinan (or inner-being) sects, each one of which celebrates some aspect of the royal mother tradition. These esoteric sects have drawn a very large minority of the Indonesian population into their sphere, forming an immensely creative and diverse subculture at the leading edge of national life, very much as happened in Japan after the Second World War.

The Kebatinan movement has in many respects evolved into an inherently new form of mysticism. Syncretism raised to a religious principle is its dominant keynote, a drive towards pluralistic unity that echoes a prominent feature of the New Age spirituality appearing elsewhere in the world. But the Javanese approach to the universe and the human situation generally, though at its best of a high metaphysical order, is in many respects quite different from that of the West. It doesn’t involve religious theories and dogmas so much as a science of inner energies perceived directly with a highly sensitised intuition – one might say, clairvoyantly – and manipulated directly by the will.

This shamanistic approach can lend a disconcerting ambiguity to those moral categories that the Western mind likes to regard as eternally fixed: Justice, Compassion, Truth, Altruism, Duty and so on. To the Javanese, mystic things in the moral sphere are not good or bad according to what we in the West would regard as an ethical judgment, but according to whether the personal energies concerned balance out in a manner beneficial to the whole. Do they bring harmony to the individual, do they stabilise him or her? For the Science all is dynamic, all is in ever-transformative and purposive flux: good is what works in the present moment to the spiritual benefit of the whole; bad is what fails to do so. This stance contributes a relativistic and unpredictable note to the Javanese outlook that Western diplomats and others have famously found difficult to deal with, yet its creative power is undeniable.

Javanese adepts with access to this underlying realm of subtle forces are reputed to have diagnostic powers and techniques of psychic healing of extraordinary efficacy, and are believed to understand the dynamics of spiritual physiology better than any other race on earth. The Javanese Science has much in common with other shamanistic Eastern paths such as have been found in Tibet and Japan, where syncretism has similarly been raised almost to a spiritual principle. These too have dealt in patterns of shifting subtle energies rather than fixed doctrinal systems. But there is something different and mysterious about the Javanese Science, a depth, a quality of purity that most researchers are agreed sets it apart from any other form of mysticism. What makes it unique?

The Invisible People

In a visit to Indonesia some years later, I was able to put this question to Pak Joyo, at one time the Director of a Christian Theological College in Central Java and the pastor of one of the largest charismatic Lutheran churches in the Reformed Dutch Church of Indonesia. Pak Joyo was a fourth-generation Christian whose great-grandfather was converted to Christianity at the point of his Sultan’s kris (the Sultan himself having been similarly converted by Dutch missionaries), and Pak Joyo followed in his family’s footsteps in deciding to train for the ministry. But halfway through his theological training, he decided to quit the church and give all his allegiance to a contemporary mystical sect called Hardopusoro which interested him a great deal more.

However, he told me that in a vision Christ asked him to remain in the church, where he could be more useful than anywhere else; and after an internal struggle he obeyed. Pak Joyo went on to become a multilingual international emissary for Christian ecumenicalism – but, with the blessing of his bishop, privately continued in Hardopusoro, in which he became a high initiate. Such dual religious allegiances are entirely natural to the Indonesian temperament.

Pak Joyo’s answer to my question surprised me. The source of his country’s spirituality, he said, was not familiar to other races. It was unique because it stemmed from the Invisible People, the Badui, who grew no bigger than a ten-year-old child and who lived in an inaccessible part of the mountainous jungle in South Bantam, about a hundred miles west of Jakarta. The Badui were “closer to the soul” than other people, said Pak Joyo, and were the X factor in the background of the Javanese Science. Invisibly they had instructed the Javanese people for nearly three thousand years, helping to guide them from their original primitive state to their present civilisation.

The Badui were not Indonesian and had no part in the country’s laws or economy, but lived apart in forest territory forbidden to outsiders and had great spiritual knowledge and strange magical powers. Although rarely seen by outsiders, they were held in awe in the marketplaces throughout Indonesia. When Indonesian spiritual and political leaders needed advice, said Pak Joyo, even the most illustrious of them went into the jungle alone to consult the Badui seers, for the understanding of the Invisible People on spiritual matters was a universal one that embodied a primordial tradition beyond factions or institutions.

President Soeharto would undoubtedly have been one of those top leaders who was not too proud to seek enlightenment, possibly of a political as well as a spiritual kind, from these strange priestly people of the jungle. Leaving behind his aides, bodyguard and driver, he would have had to ascend alone the jungle forest track that led to the Badui colony, there to consult with its leading prophets.

Inexplicably, although remote from the teeming civilisation surrounding them, the Badui knew everything that happened in it long before the news was heard on television. They had prophesied the Second World War and that the Dutch would leave the country soon after peace was declared. They knew the destiny of peoples worldwide. The Badui, it was said, planted sacred trees – living trees, as they called them – representing their tribal leaders in a hallowed grove called the Artjas Domas, which was visited once a year by the highest-ranking Badui priests. By studying the growth on the trees clairvoyantly, they were able to read the fortunes and destiny not only of people, but of nations and the world. From this yearly examination everything of value to their leading families was recorded in a script known only to them. The Badui were said to have telepathic powers and a magical way of keeping others away from their settlements, especially from the Artjas Domas.

I have recently learned that the Badui people have now inexplicably disbanded and their old territory has been settled by Indonesian farmers. But when I revisited Java in 1980, their colony was still a great focus of mystery and unanswered questions. Why were these strange forest-dwellers so influential? What kind of special wisdom did they possess? Where had they come from? And why did they live apart, alien, feared, invisible – and yet, according to Pak Joyo, all-seeing? Sir Stamford Raffles referred to them in his eighteenth-century History of Java, yet since then no traveller from the West had succeeded any better than the Indonesians themselves in setting foot on the Badui’s inner territory or penetrating their secrets.

Eventually I learned more about this remarkable people from Dr. Paul Stange, an American lecturer in Asian Studies who grew up in Indonesia and who obtained a doctorate from the Michigan University in the US for his study of Sumarah, an akebatinan sect that has become influential in Indonesia since the Revolution.2 In his thesis, Dr. Stange was able to relate the Badui indirectly to the growth of kebatinan sects such as Subud and Sumarah as constituting a cutting edge phenomenon in the evolution of mystical consciousness.

Custodians of the Soul World

It seems that the Badui are of the dark-skinned Tamil race that is believed to have spread from Africa long ago into southern India, and from thence into Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, where they lived unmolested for thousands of years. But about eight thousand years ago the Malays, at that time a mainly Caucasian race from the north, crossed the Sunda Strait and displaced the Badui culture in the Sunda Islands, with the consequence that most of the indigenous race withdrew into the mountainous interior of Java, far from the spreading communities of the newcomers, while a remainder migrated further east.

Some time in the first millennium BCE the remnant of the aboriginal Tamil people in Java was joined by a large group of Indian initiates – probably, some authorities think, refugees from the defunct Indus valley culture in which holy trees also played an important part – and the two groups, each with its heritage of ancient racial wisdom, together formed the Badui priesthood.

Forty Indian Hindu-Buddhist families, constituting a sacred nucleus, inhabited a central group of three villages served by an outer ring of vassal Badui communities: together the two clans built a spiritual power-centre in Java which, isolated though it was for nearly three thousand years and finally greatly diminished in numbers, preserved unchanged its sacerdotal structure and identity and its pivotal place in Javanese religious life. Those in the inner esoteric circle wore white sarongs and turbans, were called the White Ones, had strict rules of conduct and were forbidden by their laws to have any communication whatever with the outside world, while those in the outer villages wore blue sarongs and turbans and were called the Blue Ones. There was no intermarriage between the two clans.

Although the use of money or of weapons was forbidden to all in the colony, the ascetic laws of the Blue Ones were less severe than those of the others, and enabled them occasionally to visit an Indonesian village to obtain by barter the very few items the farming colony needed (mainly smoked fish and salt), and to serve where necessary as liaison officers and spokespersons for the White Ones.

Despite their harshly primitive way of life, it would be a mistake to suppose these jungle people were not, in their own way, highly civilised. Nina Epton, a British journalist who is the only known Westerner to have met the Blue Ones and a few of their holy White Ones (although many Dutch researchers tried before her), speaks in her book The Palace and the Jungle of their aloof dignity, their air of having “a destiny apart from other mortals,” and above all, of what she calls “the Tibetan look.” This was a wide-eyed all-seeing look common to many of the Badui, which she describes as staring beyond this world into the spiritual realm. It was a look she associates especially with pictures of seers like Guru Padma Sambhava, the great Indian initiate who brought Buddhism to Tibet.3

Ms. Epton has described the Badui physiognomy as varied and clearly of an older ethnicity than that of the Indonesians. But the elderly leader of the White Ones, reputed to have been a saint and a sage and obviously of a superior caste to the others, was plainly more ethnically advanced. She noted in particular that he had a worn, patient and ascetic face which reminded her of that of a well-mannered European intellectual. In other clothes he would have passed unnoticed in an English crowd, for he had a very light complexion, a narrow face and the gentle bearing of a civilised person. Altogether, Epton says, the Badui were not what one expects from the jungle.

This assertion is borne out by the personal history of a young runaway, the son of a pu’un or chief of the White Ones, who in the seventeenth century escaped the colony to become a stable boy in the then Sultan’s palace. Soon he became the Sultan’s counsellor and then his son-in-law, and today his descendants are the Jajadiningrat family, one of the most aristocratic and politically influential families surrounding the Indonesian presidency. Throughout the intervening three hundred years, the Badui continued to “read” the sacred tree of the stable boy’s line, to visit his Jajadiningrat descendants once a year with predictions and advice for the coming year, and where necessary protect the members of the family from danger.

In fact, the sole reason for Nina Epton’s unprecedented interview with the leader of the White Ones was that, through the Sultan, she obtained an introduction to the Jajadiningrat family, who asked the White Ones as a special favour to grant her an interview. In no other way would the meeting have been possible.

The Badui priests continued to follow the destiny of the Jajadiningrats, says Epton, because for the Invisible People once a holy lineage is laid down it is laid down forever, it belongs to the timeless realm of the soul world. The Badui in fact denied the reality of time. Their sages believed that the rules of life were laid down once and for all at the Beginning of things by an ancestral divinity called Batarratunggal, who will one day return to govern the Badui and the world. In the meantime, it was their sacred obligation to maintain everything exactly as it was at the beginning, without change, without innovation. Nothing concerning their customs or belief system must be disturbed from their state of primordial perfection: hence the necessity of isolation.

To the modern Javanese mystic this Badui belief is merely the folk expression of a deeper spiritual reality. He sees the concept of a Beginning-time or Dreamtime to which so many early races look back with longing, believing it to be a cosmic paradise that must be ritually preserved for the future, as simply a metaphor for the inner soul plane, which is both cosmic and interior at one and the same time. That inner place, eternally omnipresent within each human being, is really the cornucopia from which all spiritual paths and religions flow forth in their season. As a race we have long ago lost contact with such a high level of soul-consciousness, and so it is called by other names: the Garden of Eden, the Dreamtime, Paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven. But according to the Javanese view, it is in truth a soul-world present in each one of us, a celestial headwaters from which the river of the spirit flows continually into our bodily spacetime. This higher/inner world must be kept purified, as it once was and will be again in the future, and it was the task of the Badui to help do this, since we as a race cannot.

No one knows for certain why the Badui people have now dispersed. But it is evident that deep changes reflected in its politics have overtaken Indonesia within the last few decades. The erratic occult climate that pervaded the early years of independence has yielded not only to a stricter Islamist discipline but also to the growing apparatus of democratic government, a maturing judicial system and economic reform, all of which has brought stability and prosperity to the people. The nation has come of age. According to Dr. Stange, who received a wealth of Javanese lore from the Sumarah cognoscenti, there is a school of thought that believes the Badui have now fulfilled their mission in the South Pacific, and that is why they have at last dispersed into the Indonesian population.

The reign of animism in this region under the sovereignty of Nyai Loro Kidul had long been prophesied to end during the twentieth century, giving way to a new and higher religious and cultural dispensation for the Pacific races – one perhaps best represented by the modern Kebatinan movement in Java. It is thought that the Badui understood well that this prophesy has now been fulfilled. They understood that their reign is no longer needed – or indeed tolerable under the new conditions. Having played a custodial role by preserving in secret the pure and unsullied soul-conditions necessary for such a surge of higher consciousness, they have now been able to die out as a separate society.

Whether or not there is any truth in this theory, it is undoubtedly the case that around the Pacific Rim a new religious spirit is rising. Akin to kebatinan and to the Javanese Science in general, it is based on principles of high shamanism known to the Badui many thousands of years ago, but forgotten by modern humanity. Recognising that enormous healing powers are locked in the ancient soul-ways, seekers visiting Indonesia today find common ground with the synthesising mysticism of the new kebatinan sects and are forming part of a spiritual network that stretches from Findhorn in Scotland to the esoteric centres of California. This development in the Pacific zone has in it the potential for creating a new religious paradigm of global significance. But how much of it is indebted to the heroic patience of the Invisible People of the Javanese jungle, as mystics like Pak Joyo believe, we shall probably never know.

This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue 5.
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1. ‘As Suharto Clings to Life, Mystics See Spirits’ Power’, Seth Mydans, The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2008.
2. Paul D. Stange, The Sumarah Movement in Javanese Mysticism, UMI Dissertation Information Service, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1980.
3. Nina Epton, The Palace and the Jungle, Oldbourne Press, London, n.d., 55.

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About the Author

VICTORIA LEPAGE (1919-2018) published numerous articles on the new spiritual paradigm emerging in cultures worldwide. She wrote Shambhala: The Fascinating Truth Behind the Myth of Shangri-la (published in ten foreign languages) and Mysteries of the Bridechamber: The Initiation of Jesus and the Temple of Solomon.

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