A deadly beach ritual in East Java reveals the dark side of spiritual groups in Indonesia
WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE IN THEM?
Sectarian-leaning spiritual groups have existed across Indonesia for hundreds of years, said anthropologist Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad of Ar-Raniry University in Banda Aceh.
“This question has existed for a long time in the archipelago, even before the arrival of the Dutch (in the 16th century).
“People today want to define what it is, and the problem is that it’s common even though it’s contrary to our rationality,” Bustamam-Ahmad told CNA.
The situation is particularly complex given that Indonesia has hundreds of ethnicities, and most of them have their own indigenous beliefs, Bustamam-Ahmad said.
In addition, Indonesia also recognizes major religions originating overseas, such as Islam and Christianity. These religions have gone through various processes of adaptation and assimilation to indigenous customs, beliefs and practices.
Over time, some of them might have become spiritual groups comprising a small number of people who often carry out their activities away from the public eye.
Bustamam-Ahmad said some religious groups may have existed in Indonesia for centuries and their modus operandi for attracting followers has also evolved over time.
For example, years ago, female followers were often asked to be mere servants to their group leaders. But nowadays, there may have been some adjustments given the digital age we live in, he explained.
“Today, if you have a certain skill, it becomes a force on social media, and something that seems like magic becomes interesting (for social media users),” said Mr. Bustamam-Ahmad, who specializes in the study of the anthropology and sociology of religions in Southeast Asia.
Loyalty to the chief as well as usefulness in generating collective income have become essential elements for the viability of these groups.
Forming a strong and indisputable emotional bond between leaders and supporters is also essential to the functioning of these groups, Bustamam-Ahmad said.
While religion has always been a major draw for spiritual groups to attract followers, he also believes it has become a commodity.
He believes that in many cases religion has been exploited for financial reasons. These include attracting donations and subscriptions or simply scamming their members.
“The more expensive a group, the more complicated the situation you find yourself in. If a group becomes more difficult to join, the more it shows that there is something (unusual) about it,” said M Bustamam-Ahmad.
Speaking at a press conference a few days after the Payangan beach incident, Jember police chief said Padepokan Tunggal Jati Nusantara supporters had to pay a monthly fee of 20,000 rupees (1 .40 USD) to join the group.
They also had to pay an additional 20,000 rupees to participate in the beach ritual.
He revealed that the leader started the group in 2015 when he returned from Malaysia and initially introduced himself as an alternative medicine practitioner.
He said the leader of the group performs his rituals by combining various religious practices, including chanting mantras in Javanese languages.
The police chief added that the group has attracted new members by word of mouth claiming success in curing certain illnesses.
“There was no coercion, there was no registration form, it was all done through the members who spread the news to others like their families or friends. Usually the members all have a problem,” he said.
A survivor of the Payangan beach incident, referred to by his first name Feri, 20, told local media that he joined the group two years ago. They usually went to the beach to get rid of bad luck, he said.
Another survivor named Bayu, 21, told local media they were only at the beach to meditate.
According to Professor Sunyoto Usman, a sociologist from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, people tend to look for spiritual or magical solutions if they think the rational or scientific way of doing things cannot solve their problems.
“It is not correlated to their level of education. It involves their understanding and it can be rational or irrational because the usual method of problem solving hasn’t worked,” Prof Usman said.
Members of the group led by Taat Pribadi in Probolinggo, for example, included army generals and police officers, while there were celebrities among Gatot Brajamusti’s supporters.
Professor Usman further explained that such groups usually exist in societies that tend to be liberal.
“When the authorities are very authoritarian, they usually don’t exist because then sanctions can be imposed on supporters.
“But when the ruling authority is more liberal, they are allowed to exist,” he said.
Meanwhile, the head of the Ulema Council of Indonesia (MUI), Yusnar Yusuf, told CNA that there are many people in Indonesia who believe in spiritual leaders because they do not adhere to religion properly.
“This kind of phenomenon is not uncommon in Indonesia. When there is spiritual emptiness in people who have not properly adhered to religion, they search for something that they lack.
“These are people trapped in their desire, but the desire cannot be achieved rationally…These are people who don’t follow what their religion says.”