Indonesian Hinduism, an amalgam of related traditions and cults that explains the nature of the universe in terms of interactions among numerous gods, is strongly associated with Bali. In 1953, in response to the central government’s exclusion of Balinese Hinduism from its list of officially recognized religions, religious leaders on that island sought official recognition of Agama Hindu Bali (Hindu Balinese Religion) as a creed equivalent to Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Led by Pandit Shastri, various Hindu reform organizations on Bali agreed in 1958 on the Hindu Dharma (Principles of Hinduism), which emphasized the Catur Veda (religious poems), the Upanishads (treatises of Brahmanic knowledge), and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as two Old Javanese texts (Sarasamuccaya and Sanghyang Kamahayanikan). Together, these works came to form the holy canon of Balinese Hinduism. Other Hindu sacred texts, such as the Puranas (Sanskrit cosmogonic histories), were relegated to a minor position. In addition, a daily prayer called the trisandhya was devised by Pandit Shastri to correspond to the five daily prayers of Muslims. These reforms were accepted by Sukarno in 1959, and Balinese Hinduism gained full recognition in 1963. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Arriving in the archipelago before the second century AD with traders and missionaries from India, Hindu beliefs were greatly modified when adapted to Indonesian society. The central concept of ritual purity, maintained through a division of society into occupational groups, or castes (varna, literally color), was never rigidly applied in Indonesia. The categories of Brahman (priests; brahmana in Indonesian), Kshatriya (ruler-warrior; satria in Indonesian), Vaishya (merchant-farmer; waisya in Indonesian), and Shudra (commoner-servant; sudra in Indonesian) do exist in Bali; besides the category of Brahman, however, they appear to have little influence over occupational choices, or even over social status and marital opportunities. Two Hindu epics, the Mahabharata (Great Battle of the Descendants of Bharata) and the Ramayana (The Travels of Rama), have become classics among Indonesians, both Hindu believers and others, especially in Java, and are rendered in wayang and dance performances. *

Indonesian Hindu believers are relatively few outside Bali, where they make up more than 93 percent of the population. Others are scattered throughout the other 32 provinces and special regions, where diverse, and largely indigenous, religious practices have sought and gained recognition as Hindu by the Department of Religious Affairs. On a nationwide basis, only about 1.8 percent of the population was Hindu according to the 2000 census, although the U.S. Department of State reported 10 million adherents in 2009. Because lacking an official agama was associated with communism during the New Order, and being communist was a crime punishable by death or exile, some of Indonesia’s heterogeneous animist, ancestor worship, and syncretic cults sought refuge under the tolerant Hindu aegis. Among these non-Balinese communities, one finds, for example, the adherents of the Kaharingan religion in Kalimantan Tengah, where government statistics generally have counted them among Hindus as 7.8 percent of the local population. In addition, there are significant communities labeled Hindu among the Toraja in Sulawesi Tengah and Sulawesi Selatan provinces, among the Karo Batak in northern Sumatra, and in Jawa Tengah and Jawa Timur provinces, most notably among the Tenggerese. Anthropologist Robert Hefner has noted that significant changes in state policy occurred with respect to Javanese Hinduism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the early phases of the New Order, syncretically and mystically inclined Javanese previously affiliated loosely with Islam had converted to Hinduism. While there was government support initially for such groups, including the kebatinan, pressure from conservative Muslim groups on the one hand and government leadership on the other resulted in an increasingly poor fit between the syncretic practice of Javanese Hinduism and the official Hindu dharma. *

Garuda—the mythical man-bird and mount of the Hindu god Vishnu—is still revered by Indonesians and is the name of Indonesia’s national airlines. Wayang (traditional Javanese shadow puppet theater) is regarded as one of most uniquely Indonesian cultural art forms. It’s basic story line is from the Hindu epic the Ramayana.

Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism in Indonesia

Introduced before the second century AD by the same waves of traders and scholars who brought Hinduism, Indonesian Buddhism is now overwhelmingly associated with the ethnic Chinese and is an unstable product of complex accommodations among religious ideology, Chinese ethnic identification, and a gradually more tolerant policy by the central government. Traditionally, Chinese Daoism, Confucianism (agama Konghucu), and Buddhism, as well as the mass Buddhist organization Perhimpunan Buddhis Indonesia (Perbuddhi), founded in 1958, all had adherents in the ethnic Chinese community. Following the events of 1965, with any deviation from the monotheistic tenets of the Pancasila regarded as treason, the founder of Perbuddhi, Bhikku Ashin Jinarakkhita, proposed that there was a single supreme deity, Sang Hyang Adi Buddha. He successfully sought confirmation for this striking innovation to Buddhist beliefs in ancient Javanese texts, and even in the shape of the Borobudur temple in Jawa Tengah Province. [Source: Library of Congress *]

After 1965 the number of Buddhists swelled; some 90 new monasteries were built, mostly supported by Indonesia’s Chinese population, but also drawing significant numbers from syncretistically oriented Javanese disaffected by the increasingly strict emphasis on doctrinaire forms of Islam. By 1987 there were seven schools of Buddhism affiliated with the Perwakilan Umat Buddha Indonesia (Walubi): Theravada, Buddhayana, Mahayana, Tridharma, Kasogatan, Maitreya, and Nichiren. In 2009 Buddhism had an estimated 2 million followers in Indonesia (less than 1 percent of the population), with a growing presence in Kalimantan Barat Province, home to large numbers of ethnic Chinese. *

Many Chinese Buddhist infuse Taosim and Confucianism into their belief scheme. The New Order administration officially tolerated Confucianism. However, because it was regarded as a system of ethical relations rather than a religion per se, it was not represented in the Department of Religion. Daoism, which is practiced both as a philosophy and a religion, is recognized by the department as an official religion. *

Traditional Religions in Indonesian

An estimated 20 million people, primarily in Java, Kalimantan, and Papua, practice various traditional belief systems, often referred to collectively as “Aliran Kepercayaan.” There are approximately 400 different Aliran Kepercayaan communities throughout the archipelago. Many combine their beliefs with one of the government-recognized religions and register under that recognized religion. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, Indonesia, U.S. Department of State <>]

The government permits the practice of traditional belief systems, or Aliran Kepercayaan, as cultural manifestations rather than as religions. Aliran Kepercayaan groups must register with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism at the district or provincial level, and local authorities generally respect their right to practice their beliefs.

Javanese animists try and maintain a balance between the Merapu gods of the sky above, and Nyale, the Sea Goddess of the world below. The sea goddess of Njai Loro Kidul is so revered that one of Java's best hotels always has a room with a bath reserved for her. During ceremonies where people make offerings to her, most people in Java are so poor all they can only afford a coconut.

Small Religious Minorities in Indonesian and Discrimination Against Them

The country has a small Sikh population, estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000, residing primarily in Medan and Jakarta. There are small Jewish communities in Jakarta, Manado, and Surabaya. The Bahai community reports thousands of members, but no reliable figures are available. Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong), which considers itself a spiritual organization rather than a religion, claims several thousand followers, but specific numbers are unavailable. The number of atheists is also unknown, but the group Indonesian Atheists claims to have more than 500 members. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, Indonesia, U.S. Department of State <>]

The Ministry of Religious Affairs extends official status to six religious groups: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Unrecognized groups may register with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism as social organizations. Although these groups have the right to establish a place of worship, obtain identity cards, and register marriages and births, they sometimes face administrative difficulties in doing so. In some cases, these challenges make it more difficult for individuals to find jobs or enroll children in school. Identity card applications are now legally acceptable when the “religion” section is left blank. However, some individuals report that they sometimes face obstacles in doing this. <>

In May 2013, the United States expressed concern over attacks on religious minorities in Indonesia, noting there were 264 violent attacks on religious minorities in 2012, up from 216 in 2010. Targets of the attacks have included Christians, Shiite Muslims and the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect.

The civil registration system has continued to discriminate against persons not belonging to one of the six recognized religious groups. Animists, Bahais, and members of other small minority religious groups sometimes found it difficult to register births or marriages, notwithstanding the 2007 regulation pertaining to marriage and civil administration that allowed Aliran Kepercayaan marriages to be officially recognized. According to representatives of the Aliran Kepercayaan communities, adherents sometimes found it difficult to find employment or educational opportunities due to the blank religion field on their identity cards (KTPs).

Human rights groups continued to receive occasional reports of local civil registry officials who rejected applications for KTPs submitted by members of unrecognized or minority religious groups. While civil registry regulations allowed the religion field to be left blank or select the choice “other,” the decentralized nature of the issuance of identity cards meant that some regions did not comply with these regulations. Some members of unrecognized religious groups found it easier to register with a religion other than their own and were issued KTPs that inaccurately reflected their religions. For example, some animists received KTPs that listed their religion as Islam. Many Sikhs registered as Hindu on their KTPs and marriage certificates. Similarly, some Jews registered as Christians or Muslims. Some citizens without a KTP had difficulty finding work. Several NGOs and religious advocacy groups continued to urge the government to delete the religion field from the KTPs, but made no progress. <>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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