Javanese Lives (through the Lens of a Javanese Young Man)

It is rare to find some research and books on Javanese culture and society these. Simply because Javanese people themselves are too busy with the glamorous modern rituals. I’m speaking of ordinary Javanese out there. If one lives in a Javanese palace like in Yogyakarta or Surakarta (Solo), chances are his or her life will be led in a very different way. But that’s another story to be told. I’m not in the position to comment on that.
And today I watched a footage on YouTube showing a Fullbright scholar Walter J. Williams introducing his book titled “Javanese Lives”. He said he interviewed some elderly to write the book.
I frowned in protest. “Why only the elderly Javanese? Why not us the youths?” Didn’t he think younger generation deserve some room to have our say in the book so as to make it comprehensive? Well, that leads me to writing this blog post.
Being a Javanese young man living in Jakarta, I can no longer say I’m a pure Javanese. It’s true that I’m genetically a Javanese (though some say I look like an Arabic, or Indian). Typical Javanese young men usually have light or dark brown skin, not as yellow as our Chinese or Japanese fellows but we’re light enough compared to our Papuan friends in the east. We stand between 5 to 6 feet. Some Javanese young men these days are really really tall, you know, thanks to the floods of nutrition we are having now. Modern Javanese have no substantial problem in getting calorie and nutritional intake, unlike the grandfather and grandmothers who might be suffering so badly from the Dutch and Japanese colonialization. Standing 5′ 3″ and weighing around only 100 lbs, I feel like a hobbit for contemporary Javanese body size.
Williams says in his short video, “Javanese is the largest island of Indonesia”. Well, I beg to differ, sir! In terms of size, Java island is not the biggest of all islands scattered throughout the
archipelago. Sumatra, Kalimantan (Borneo) and Sulawesi are even bigger and have more natural resources. Find the evidence around the web to convince yourselves. However, when it comes to economy and political influence, the author says it right. Javanese is so powerful an economy powerhouse for the country it accounts for 70% of the total Indonesian economy and investment activities. And it is the most densely populated of all islands.
As for political influence, Java is the place where all Indonesian presidents were born, with BJ Habibie as a single exception (he was born in Parepare, Sulawesi). Up to this second, the republic has had 6 presidents. Ir. Soekarno was born in Surabaya, East Java; Soeharto in Bantul, Yogyakarta; Abdurrahman Wahid in Jombang, East Java; Megawati in Yogyakarta; and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Pacitan, East Java. And Megawati is a female politician who happens to be the daughter of Soekarno. I can say she is the Park Geun-hye of Indonesia. So we can take pride of ourselves when the Americans think Indonesians are not democratic enough as a nation. They don’t even have a female president yet. It is quite a proof though, telling the world that loyalty to the blood line is higher than patriarchal norms, even some hardline moslems claim female cannot be a leader of the nation. Sadly, this opinion is abandoned by the majority.
I love Java and the nature but with more than 100 million lives on it, you cannot expect pristine untouched landscape thoughout the island. Everything is wrecked here in Java. The nature gets raped every single day without no preventive measures to be taken. And we have some hundred million mouths to be fed. Everytime I see news on papers on how fast the farm land is shrinking, I know humans themselves are to blame.
As a Javanese moslem, I have to be dealing with the clashing between my faith teachings (Islam) and some beliefs in Javanese culture which rooted in Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism. So I can tell you it’s very much confusing for me to adapt. It is not to mention that my family belongs to Muhammadiyah, an Islamic mass organization which is against impure practice of Islamic teachings. We are strongly expected to leave the Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism teachings and values behind. For example, in Kudus (my hometown), some people don’t slaughter and eat calf and cows because based on Hinduism, they’re holy animals. They’re worshipped just like gods and goddesses. But as Sunan Kudus and Sunan Muria (two moslem missionaries in the then Hinduism dominated Java) started their Islamization campaign, the belief about holy cows was still tolerated and respected, perhaps to win the heart of the Hindu believers.
If you’re into yoga or Indian cultures and values, you might find some similarities between Indian ancient cultures (the myths and folklores especially, we also have Mahabharata and Ramayana here) and Javanese. Some Javanese vocabularies were actually derived from Sanskrit, which is why I can understand quite easily some Sanskrit terms in my yoga classes and workshops. For instance, the word “eka” means “one’, “dwi’ means “two”, and so on. It therefore is really clear that we both have the same root. So when one of my yoga friends told jokingly me how I resemble an Indian (who is assumed to be fond of doing the ancient practice of yoga too), I frowned and mumbled,”She could be right.” Like Javanese, Indian also have dark and light brown skin, but their nose bones are more prominent and pointed, plus their eyes are a lot wider.

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