Kejawen, the Religion of Java

Indosphere Lifestyle
13 min readNov 27, 2019


From: Indosphere

Kejawen (literally: ‘Javanism’), also called Agama Jawa is the original Javanese religious tradition, which has been practiced for thousands of years and today is a syncretic faith that mixes parts of Hinduism and Islam with the ancient Javanese beliefs.

Kejawen is a metaphysical search for harmony within one’s inner self, a connection with the Universe, and ultimately with God. Kejawen, like other Asian religions, believe in a “super-consciousness” which can be contacted through meditation.

The Javanese mystical tradition is known for its syncretism, flexibility and pragmatism. In the course of its history it absorbed all the religious traditions that reached Java and gave it its own interpretation. The aim of the Javanese mystical tradition is that of experiencing unity with God, just like in Shaivism, Taoism and other Asian religions.

While Kejawen is distinct from the later Javanese Hinduism, it presents so many similarities in its worldview and concepts that the two merged harmoniously and seamlessly in Java for 2,000 years, due to a similar spiritual background. Central and East Java are the strongholds of the Javanese religion today.

Core beliefs

Kejawen is a metaphysical search for harmony within one’s inner self, connection with the Universe, and with God Almighty that is to be contacted via meditation. Javanese beliefs embody a “search for inner self” and “peace of mind”.

Javanism is in search of the most correct way of life, to find the spiritual way to true life (urip sejati, from urip = life, sejati = true) achieving the harmonious relation between servant and God. Hence the saying, Jumbuhing Kawulo Gusti (jumbuh = a good, harmonious relation, kawulo = servant, gusti = Lord, God).

Kejawen emphasizes upon acting right, not because of the fear and intimidation of “sin” or “hell”, but because of a cosmic awareness that every good deed to others is actually done towards oneself. Kejawen teachings encourage one to never calculate the reward in every action. Good deeds for others should be done for their own sake, not because of seeking the rewards of heaven.

In Kejawen, kindness to others is seen as a need. Goodness will bear goodness and every good we do for others will return to ourselves. Likewise, every evil action will bear evil too. If we complicate others’ lives, then in our affairs we will often find difficulties as well. If we love to help others, then our lives will tend to get easier.

In Kejawen, worship is nothing but a way of expressing gratitude to God, not a way to obtain something for oneself. In worshiping God, one should not depart from the awareness that humans always owe their pleasure and grace to God.

Kejawen teachings consider that gratitude to God through prayer is not enough — it must be implemented under the form of good actions for others. If God gives health to someone, then as a form of gratitude the person must help and help others who are sick or suffering. The basic view of Kejawen is that worshiping God and doing good to others, is not a command that comes from God, but comes from ourselves.

In Kejawen teachings, microcosm and Macrocosm are emphasized. Man is part of the Cosmic Whole. Kejawen practitioners emphasize spirituality as the guiding principle of their everyday life. Spirituality is seen as the priority of an entire culture, pervading every aspect of life. In the last decades, many things have changed and society moves rapidly toward materialism. In many villages, however, the traditional knowledge is still preserved.

True Kejawen practitioners use the sacred Kawi (Old Javanese) language as a medium for oral spiritual transmission. Kawi is very close to Sanskrit and share many of the same words: Susila = chaste, ethical. Budhi = intelligence. Dharma = norm, customary observance. To live according to one’s dharma and the rules of social order is to fulfill “the will of God” (kodrat).

Kejawen ideals include wisdom (wicaksana), psyche (waskita) and perfection (sempurna).

The Gunungan, symbol of Javanese culture

Mamayu Hayuning Bawono

One of the most fundamental Javanese values is Mamayu Hayuning Bawono — a triple principle of harmony:

• the harmonious relation among people in the society

• the harmonious relation between human beings and Nature

• the harmonious relation between man and God.

To preserve the beauty of the world in a broader sense means to preserve the universe for the welfare of its inhabitants. By nature, a Javanese is an environmentalist, a preserver of nature.

The basic lesson of Kejawen is totally surrender to God as the source of everything (Sangkan paraning dumadi) and living harmoniously with all living and non living things of this Universe.

As you may have noticed, Memayu hayuning bawono is the exact equivalent of the Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karana.

“To Javanese mystics life on earth is part of this all-pervading unity of existence. In this unity, all phenomena have their place and stand in complementary relationships to each other, they are part of one great design”. — Niels Mulder, Mysticism in Java

The keris is a central element of Javanese culture and Kejawen ritual practices

The most important Javanese work on the nature of God and man is the 17th century Dewaruci, which has a mystical pantheistic view. This view later became colored with Islamic concepts by those who wrote the Serat centhini and the magico-mystical Suluk books.

The deities (dewata) of Kejawen are very similar to the Hindu-Buddhist deities known all over South and East Asia, and are sometimes known under their ancient Javanese names and sometimes under their ‘official’ Sanskrit names. For example, Dewi Sri comes from Sri Devi, the consort of Vishnu, and in Java is the Mother Goddess — often wrongly though of as only “the goddess of fertility and rice”.

Only one character in Kejawen cosmology does not seem to have a clear Hindu equivalent. Semar is the Divine Trickster acting as an intermediary between the gods and man, and in the wayang, he is a clown who is servant and guardian to the heroes of the Baratayuddha (the Javanese version of the Mahabharata).

Spirits are central to the Javanese religion, as they are all over Southeast Asia. They include ancestral spirits, guardian spirits of holy places such as old wells, old banyan trees, and caves. There are also ghosts, spooks, giants, fairies, and dwarfs. The knowledge of the world of spirits in Java is unsurprisingly similar to that of the Philippines and of Thailand.

Spiritual practices

Practices used in Kejawen include tiraka and tapa or tapabrata. These practices are performed at home, in secluded caves or on mountain perches.

Meditation in Javanese culture is a search for inner self wisdom and to develop personal strength. Apart from traditional meditation, special practices meditation types include:

• Tapa Ngalong (meditation by hanging from a tree)

• Tapa Kungkum (meditation under a small waterfall or at the meeting point of 2–3 rivers.

Fasting is practiced by Javanese spiritualists in order to attain discipline of mind and body to get rid of material and emotional desires:

• Pasa Mutih (abstention from eating anything that is salted and sweetened, only eat/drink pure water & rice),

• Pasa Senen-Kemis (fasting on Monday-Thursday)

• Pasa Ngebleng (fasting for a longer period, usually 3–5–7 days)

Other practices include:

• Tapa Pati-Geni (avoiding fire or light for a day or days and isolating oneself in dark rooms),

• Tapa Ngadam (stand/walk on foot from sunset till sunset, 24 hours in Silence)

Kanuragan is a secret ritual initiation tied to local cosmological practices and cults used by the Javanese as a source of self-help on issues related to health, welfare, and protection. At basic levels, the practitioners of kanuragan use special entities called aji to gain strength and invulnerability.

The techniques used are diverse: some groups meditate through use of mantra, others by concentration on a particular chakra, or do Tirta Yoga (immersion in holy waters).

The Javanese fasting is a movement to sense the ascetic (Laku pasa) and solitary meditative act to sense the personal space with self (Laku tapa).

Kejawen practices are described in texts kept in the Sonobudoyo library in Yogyakarta, and the Kraton Libraries of Surakarta and Yogyakarta. The Kejawen scriptures are deliberately obscure so that those who do not practice under the guidance of a teacher are unable to understand the esoteric doctrines

External rituals and ceremonies

• Kemenyan — incense burning and flowers offerings. The Javanese burn incense and offer flowers to communicate with spirits of the dead to gain peace of mind, solve problems in life or cure diseases. Offerings are made every kliwon, or once every Javanese five-day week. Kejawen, just like Javanese Hinduism and Thai Buddhism integrates sacrifices and offerings made to spirits of the land and ancestral spirits.

The very important Slametan ritual is a communal feast which symbolizes the mystic and social unity of all taking part, and besides friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues, this includes spirits, ancestors, and gods.

• Bersih désa (“cleansing of the village”) ritual

Kejawen external rituals include ritual dances, large-scale mounds of fruits and vegetables hoisted on the shoulders of men in embroidered and ornate costumes, and animal sacrifices. But beyond that is the heart of a philosophy steeped in achieving harmony and balance. Beyond a religion, Javanism represents a lifestyle.

Conical offerings in the shape of Mount Meru

The Selamatan

The religion of Java is based on the knowledge of natural powers, spirits and souls of the deceased hidden in the unseen world. The selamatan is part of that worldview. This gathering is held at specific dates such as the third, seventh, fortieth, hundredth, and thousandth anniversary of the decease of a relative. The food eaten is meant to be a sacrifice for the soul of the dead person. After a thousand days the soul is supposed to have disintegrated or reincarnated.

The selamatan is the communal feast from Java, symbolizing the social unity of those participating in it. It the core ritual in Javanese culture. The feast is also common among the closely related Sundanese and Madurese people. A slametan can be given to celebrate almost any occurrence, including birth, marriage, death, moving to a new house, etc.

”The selamatan is a harmonizing ritual which is part of Javanese cosmology, where “man is surrounded by spirits and deities, apparitions and mysterious supernatural forces, which, unless he takes the proper precautions, may disturb him or even plunge him into disaster.” (J. M. van der Kroef)

Nasi Tumpeng, the famous conical dish of rice with turmeric in the shape of Mount Meru, placed in a lotus made of banana leaves

Cultural practices

• The puppet figures in Wayang are based on the Mahabharata, although Wayang predates Javanese Hinduism. The god Semar is a survival of early times. The original Wayang was much more beautiful, but Islam banned the human form, causing the puppets to become ugly and grotesque, unlike humans. They became so stylised that they are symbols rather than actual human figures.

• Batik came from Orissa in the 12th century. For seven centuries it was the preserve of women in royal families, who regarded it as a spiritual discipline and form of meditation. The symbols used in batik designs are endless and include ancient stylised symbols as well as traditional, Indian, Chinese, and European motifs, which vary from region to region.

Javanese mysticism also lays in daily activities. It is all about life in the world and human relation with himself, others, and the universe.

The ancient people of Java since 3000 years BC had known the wet-rice cultivation. This system of agriculture requires a smooth cooperation between villagers, is still being practiced to this day. The villagers must have a very high consciousness to organize such a complicated arrangement to be a smooth cooperation, benefited all parties involved.

Besides the wet-rice cultivation, they have known also among other fishery, astronomy, cloth weaving, batik, gamelan and wayang. Before the development of formalized Hinduism, the Javanese had already a culture and belief(s) of their own. Even during the 15 centuries of Hindu-Buddhist civilization, most Indonesians were Kejawen practitioners rather than purely Hindu.

Kejawen organizations

Umbrella organisations representing Kejawen practitioners are registered at the HKP (Himpunan Penghayat Kepercayaan).

Among the most important Kejawen organizations are Sumarah, Sapta Dharma and Majapahit Pancasila.

• Sumarah theology maintains that humankind’s soul is like the holy spirit, a spark from the Divine Essence, which means that we are in essence similar to God. In other words, “One can find God within oneself,” a belief similar to the “I=God” theory of Hindu-Javanese philosophy. Sumarah is a philosophy of life and a form of meditation based on developing sensitivity and acceptance through deep relaxation of body, feelings and mind. Its aim is to create inside our self the inner space and the silence necessary for the true self to manifest and to speak to us. Sumarah means “total surrender”, a confident and conscious surrender of the partial ego to the Universal Self.

• Sapta Dharma — In Sapta Dharma teachings, suji (meditation) is necessary to pierce through different layers of obstacles to reach Semar, the guardian spirit of Java. Theory and practice resemble Hindu Kundalini Yoga, aiming at awakening the Kundalini energy and guiding it through the chakras.

• Majapahit Pancasila — Based in Hindu-Javanese yogic practices such as Kundalini yoga.

• Other groups exist that practice the powerful Hindu Kejawen.

• In Singapore, Kejawen is widespread among the Javanese Silat and Kuda Kepang groups, and traditional shamans.

There are hundreds of streams of Kejawen in which the emphasis in the teachings is different. Some are clearly syncretic, while others try to conform to a particular religion’s teachings.

Some of the Kejawen spiritual movements lean more towards Arab Islam and have tense relations with the true Javanese schools, who are said to guard the secrets of Javanese black magical practices (guna-guna) or kanoman (occult practices including invulnerability for knives and guns).

Struggle for recognition

Kejawen teachings are not glued to the strict rules, and emphasizes the concept of “balance.” It is based on real experience, not rigid dogma. Kejawen practitioners can be Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists or Christians. Kejawen teachings do not replace but enrich the perspective of the imported religions.

Kejawen is a flexible, open-minded and highly adaptable religion. There are no mandatory scriptures nor prophets. It thus differs from the rigid, dogmatic attitudes of the Abrahamic religions.

However, after the 1960s, under government pressure, many Javanese were forced out of the ancestral Kejawen practice and other authentic Indonesian religions into fitting the mold of the “global religions” like Islam, Catholicism or Protestantism. A significant minority then chose to revert to Javanese Hinduism instead.

Kejawen is thousands of years old and is quintessential to Javanese culture. But that doesn’t necessary mean it’s accepted. Social pressure in islamized Java means that the practitioners are often told to convert to “the right path”. The followers of the original faith are seen by many as ‘backwards’. By refusing to change, Kejawen followers can suffer a lifetime of discrimination for following their own ancestral faith in their own land.

Java is officially 90% Moslem, although only 20% follow Arab Islam, 40% follow Islam Nusantara, 30% follow a more or less islamized version of the Agama Jawa, while many are only nominal Moslems for legal reasons and social pressure.

Since the fall of Suharto, a secular dictator that kept political islam under his boot, in 1998 and under the pressure of Saudi propaganda, the trend is towards islamization. This pressure to rid Indonesian Islam of Hindu-Javanese elements had started at the end of the 19th century, with the more frequents travels of prozelityzers to and from the Middle East.

The fanatic Moslems reject the ancient Asian beliefs in the unity of man and God and condemn Javanese rituals such as Wayang performances, keris rituals and selamatans.

Arab Islam is popular among the rootless city dwellers and the Javanese immigrants to other provinces (from the transmigration program) who are disconnected from their Javanese roots, and among the uneducated masses which have the most children, which therefore puts an increasing pressure upon true Javanese culture.

The total number of Kejawen follwers is therefore difficult to estimate, as their adherents have to identify themselves by law with one of the six ”official religions”. A Kejawen practitioner can therefore identify with one of the six officially recognized religions in Indonesia, while still following the Kejawen beliefs and way of life.

Followers of the original Indonesian religions often struggle to receive basic government documents, like marriage and birth certificates, because the state wouldn’t recognize their religion. This makes it difficult for them to access healthcare, education, and other social services.

Some official Kejawen groups such as Sumarah do exist, although they failed to attain official recognition as a religion. In 2017 it was finally recognized as Kepercayaan, a category which includes all the native religions of Indonesia.