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Power relations in Indonesia (a Javanese perspective)

26 May 2012

A couple days ago, someone introduced me to the concept of kaula-Gusti. He used this concept to explain to me a kind of cultural sensibility that continues among the Indonesian people today.

Rather than try to repeat his explanation, I’ll use this:

The local term ibadat or ibadah, is a direct borrowing from Arabic ‘ibada. It means, according to Pak Sholeh, “to enslave oneself to God (ngaula ning Gusti Allah).” Semantically (munggu logat), the notion of ngaula (to enslave) entails at least two implications. The first is affirmation of the existing bond between man and God in a slave-Master (kaula-Gusti) relationship where man is the slave or servant (kaula) and God is the Master (Gusti); the second is an affirmation that man, the servant (kaula), has the task of obeying the Master (Gusti), both by doing continuously what the Master orders and by avoiding what the Master forbids. However, acknowledging that the God is the Master who, despite His absolute power and omnipotence, is exceedingly beneficent and merciful, giving the servants life and invaluable nourishment, has a third implication; that is, that the servant has a moral obligation to express thankfulness, to do his utmost in his service, and to be generous in his obedience. (Muhaimin, 1995, p. 84)

The text is from The Islamic Traditions of Cirebon: Ibadat and Adat Among Javanese Muslims, by Abdul Ghoffur Muhaimin (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2006).

As my friend explained, however, this is much more than the master-slave relationship with which most Western people are familiar. Notice the references to God in this explanation — but my friend said this relationship exists between the rakyat (the public) and the ruler, whether that ruler be a sultan or a president. It also exists between various higher and lower people in Indonesia.

So I asked the woman who comes three days a week to clean my apartment to explain her understanding of kaula-Gusti to me. She grew up in Central Java, the child of farming people. The idea is very familiar to her; she knows exactly what it is, but she had a hard time figuring out how to put it into English. So I said: “Is it about the relationship of God to the people?”

She looked shocked. “Oh, no, it’s not about God,” she said. “It’s more like … the sultan.”

“The sultan and the people?” I asked.

“Yes, but not only the sultan. It’s also, well, like you and me. You are the Gusti, I am kaula.”

So this is what my friend was explaining. He focused on the “moral obligation to express thankfulness,” which sounds quite perverse to an educated Western person — he said the kaula wants to serve the Gusti. This goes against everything an American has ever learned about slavery, coming from our history with Africa and the brutal slave trade between that continent and ours. No one wants to be a slave.

But the long ingrained cultural condition here in Indonesia is like a different kind of soil from which grows a different kind of plant life, well adapted to that earth and its nutrients. I’m not saying it’s right or good — it’s just different.

And if you want to know what sparked our conversation about kaula-Gusti, my friend and I were talking about the bribe that Indonesians say is not a bribe. An example came from another American, when he had finished getting all his immigration documents from the local Imigrasi office. The American man and his sponsor, an Indonesian college professor, were preparing to leave the Imigrasi office when the Indonesian handed a folded bunch of money to the immigration officer. As they left the building, the American asked if his sponsor had just given the officer a bribe.

The Indonesian professor said it was not a bribe, because the paperwork was all finished. It you give money before an action is complete, then it is a bribe, and that is wrong, he explained. But if you give money after, that’s not a bribe. It’s more like a tip, because the Imigrasi officer did a good job, and the American had all his forms and permits now.

So the other day, I asked my Indonesian friend to explain why that money is not a bribe. He had a good laugh and then asked me if I understood the concept of kaula-Gusti.

The Indonesian professor was expressing thankfulness to the Imigrasi officer when he gave the money. But, my friend added, that Indonesian professor would be lying if he said he did not expect the Imigrasi officer to remember that payment in any future encounters they might have.

I’m not really clear who is the kaula and who is the Gusti in that transaction. But I do see now how the subservience one sees everywhere in Indonesia has roots that go back hundreds of years — and in a way that is very, very strange for a Western person, it contains a voluntary aspect, an acquiescence, an acceptance of one’s kaula-hood.

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