The Role and Influence of Religious Figures in Ancient Javanese Culture


Ancient Javanese culture holds a fascinating history marked by the significant role of religious figures. These spiritual and intellectual leaders were not only pivotal in religious activities but also played a crucial role in the development of knowledge and literature. Through a closer examination of the Majapahit era, as detailed by Andriyati Rahayu in her dissertation “The Life of Religious Figures in Late Majapahit: An Epigraphic Review” (2016), we gain a deeper understanding of the autonomy and influence these figures wielded in ancient Java.

The religious institutions of ancient Java were characterized by their autonomy. The state recognized this independence, allowing religious figures to operate without interference from the king. These religious communities lived in designated areas called mandalas, which were exempt from tax levies. These mandalas were often located in remote areas such as mountains and forbidden forests, providing a secluded environment conducive to both spiritual practices and intellectual pursuits.

Mandalas were not only places of worship but also hubs of knowledge. Religious figures engaged in various scholarly activities, contributing to the intellectual landscape of ancient Java. Some mandalas even functioned as scriptoria, where ancient manuscripts were produced. Dani Sunjana, in his study “Mountains as Scriptoria Locations in Ancient Sunda” (2019), highlights several notable mandalas that served as centers for manuscript production. In Javanese regions, places like Mount Merbabu, Kelud, Semeru, Ungaran, Penanggungan, Lawu, Wiliu, and Kawi were prominent, while in Sunda, significant scriptoria were located at Mount Galunggung, Cikuray, and Raksa.

The religious figures of ancient Java were not merely scholars and spiritual leaders but also poets and writers with a romantic sensibility. Their literary works often blended philosophical teachings with romantic themes, reflecting their complex understanding of human emotions and relationships. Empu Tanakung, a renowned poet of the time, is a prime example of this blend. His works, filled with romantic and philosophical narratives, continue to resonate in contemporary literature. Seno Gumira Ajidarma’s “The Book of Nonsense” (2021) includes a quote from Tanakung’s Śiwarātrikalpa, illustrating the enduring relevance of his poetic expressions.

Tanakung’s literary works often explore the paradoxical relationship between poetry and love. One of his stories tells of a girl lamenting the loss of her lover by a lake. Sympathetic ducks decide to help her find him, and after a global search, they find the lover, who explains that his departure was driven by the urge to write poetry, not a lack of love. This narrative underscores the triumph of creative expression over romantic fulfillment, a recurring theme in Tanakung’s works.

Another compelling figure from ancient Javanese literature is Bujangga Manik, whose life story intertwines the pursuit of knowledge with romantic endeavors. As detailed in “Three Charms of Ancient Sunda” (2009) by J. Noorduyn and A. Teeuw, Bujangga Manik’s journeys were marked by his encounters with love and his dedication to intellectual and spiritual quests. His rejection of romantic advances, such as those from Princess Ajung Larang and a nun in Balungbungan, highlights his commitment to his scholarly and spiritual missions. His famous quote from the Siksaguru manuscript, likening men and women to fire and coconut husks that will inevitably burn when close together, reflects his belief in the potential conflicts between love and spiritual duties.

The religious figures of ancient Java were multifaceted individuals who significantly contributed to both the spiritual and intellectual fabric of their society. Their autonomous institutions, scholarly pursuits, and rich literary contributions underscore their lasting influence on Javanese culture. The romantic and philosophical themes in their works continue to inspire and resonate, bridging the past with the present. Through their stories, we glimpse the intricate balance between love, knowledge, and spiritual devotion that defined their lives and legacies.