The Spiritual Journey of Mei Kartawinata: A Beacon of Kebatinan in Priangan

The aristocratic class, known as menak or nobility in Priangan since the 17th century, played a crucial role as the Islamic vanguard in West Java. Apart from holding strategic elite positions, they were revered as pious figures closely tied to the concept of power in the Islamic Kingdom of Mataram. This shared understanding of power between Java and Sunda during the late VOC regime until the decline of the Dutch East Indies allowed for the emergence of spiritual practices among the priyayi, as highlighted by Clifford Geertz in “Agama Jawa: Abangan, Santri, Priyayi dalam kebudayaan Jawa” (2013).

The peak of spiritual movements among the aristocracy in Java and Sunda appears to have occurred in the mid-20th century. Figures such as Ki Ageng Suryomentaram of Java and Mei Kartawinata of Sunda exemplified this trend. Ki Ageng Suryomentaram, an iconic figure of his time, chose to leave the royal court and became a symbol of the era’s spirit. Concerned about the vast disparity between the common people and his noble kin, he embarked on a journey of enlightenment, later known as kawruh bejo, or the knowledge of happiness.

Similarly, in the Sundanese nobility, Mei Kartawinata emerged as a monument to the spiritual movement in Priangan. Mei’s teachings, known as Perjalanan, gained popularity in urban communities, particularly in Bandung. He became a trailblazer in reviving ancient Sundanese philosophy during the early days of Indonesia’s independence, sparking enthusiasm among intellectuals and socialites in Bandung to explore the wisdom of the past.

According to M. Syaiful Hanafi’s research on “Aliran Kebatinan dan Tanggapan Masyarakat di Desa Keboansikep Gedangan Sidoarjo” (2019), Mei Kartawinata was born on May 1, 1897, in Kebonjati, Bandung, although some sources cite 1898. Raised in Keraton Kanoman, Cirebon, during his adolescence, Mei received education at the Hollandsch Inlandsch School, where he was introduced to Christian theology. His proximity to theology began years before attending HIS, during his time in a pesantren, where he learned to read Islamic scriptures.

During his stay in Cirebon, Mei delved into the realm of spiritual teachings, particularly the kebatinan ngelmu sajati or ngelmu garing, which was prevalent among the Cirebonese nobility. This spiritual stream emphasized the essence over religious laws, bearing a resemblance to Sufi teachings.

Mei’s unique journey to enlightenment took a dramatic turn on September 17, 1927, during a conflict with his two close friends, M. Rasid and Sumitra. To resolve the dispute, they agreed to a fight in the forbidden forest named Cimerta, on the border of Purwakarta and Subang. While waiting for his friends, overwhelmed with sadness and despair, Mei contemplated suicide by jumping into the Ci Leuleuy River. However, before he could act, Mei heard a faint voice known as Wangsit Ci Leuleuy, advising him not to be arbitrary with his own life and recognizing the importance of relationships with others.

Wangsit Ci Leuleuy became the cornerstone of Mei’s teachings, known as Perjalanan, emphasizing values such as compassion, work ethic, collective interests, ancestral existence, and the presence of the Almighty. The core teachings of Perjalanan, as outlined in the ten wangsit Mei received by the Ci Leuleuy River, prohibited activities such as gambling, prostitution, theft, intoxication, substance abuse, adultery, and killing.

The Perjalanan movement, spearheaded by Mei Kartawinata, became a prominent spiritual current in West Java. Its influence extended beyond Bandung to major cities like Jakarta and Bekasi. Mei’s universal teachings and his tireless efforts in spreading his message to various places played a pivotal role in the widespread adoption of the Perjalanan spiritual movement. Moreover, during the revolutionary period, Mei actively linked his teachings with the prevailing spirit of patriotism, further solidifying the impact of kebatinan in Priangan and beyond.