How Islam learned to adapt in 'Nusantara'
April-June 2015
By: Yahya Cholil Staquf

The phrase Bhinneka Tunggal Ika first appeared in an ancient Javanese kakawin (book of poetry), known as “Kakawin Sutasoma.” Composed in the 14th century by Mpu Tantular, this renowned book promotes mutual understanding and tolerance between Buddhists and Hindu followers of Shiva. The phrase appears in chapter 139, verse 5:

Rwāneka dhātu winuwus Buddha Wiswa,
Bhinnêki rakwa ring apan kena parwanosen,
Mangka ng Jinatwa kalawan Åšiwatatwa tunggal,
Bhinnêka tunggal ika tan hana dharma mangrwa.

It is said that Buddha and Shiva are two distinct substances (or entities). They are indeed different, yet it is impossible to regard them as fundamentally different (when one apprehends the underlying Unity of existence).

For the essence (truth) of Buddha and the essence (truth) of Shiva is One (tunggal). (The diverse forms of the universe) are indeed different, yet simultaneously One,

For Truth is indivisible.

It is important to note that the civilizational greatness attained in the East Indies archipelago (Nusantara) did not begin with the Majapahit dynasty. Archaeological remains and other historical records indicate that complex sociocultural systems had developed within Nusantara from at least the third century. And long before that, intense economic and cultural interchange had occurred, both among local populations within Nusantara and with the outside world, especially India and China. An economic boom stimulated by maritime trade is evident from at least the first century (Paul Michael Munoz, 2006), with an abundance of ancient Roman gold coins found in Nusantara attesting to the remarkable scope, and extent, of such trade.

Given the remarkable ethnic, linguistic and cultural heterogeneity of the region, and the dynamic interactions between members of different groups, Nusantara societies naturally developed a highly pluralistic outlook on life. Cultural and religious influences from abroad were quickly assimilated by Nusantara’s highly adaptive, and flourishing, civilization. Thus, Mpu Tantular’s observation regarding Bhinneka Tunggal Ika did not emerge from a void. Rather, it expressed the collective wisdom of Nusantara, which had developed over the centuries and was already deeply rooted within the culture of a wide geographic region that lay at the crossroads of many ancient civilizations.

The value of this single quatrain of poetry from “Kakawin Sutasoma” is that it encapsulates – and helps us to comprehend – the worldview embraced by the Nusantara civilization as a whole, which underlies its remarkable religious pluralism and tolerance. Namely, that the universe arises from a single source, which constitutes the “spiritual essence” of all things. From this perspective, cultures and religions that appear to be widely divergent are in fact like colors emerging from a prism, derived from a single source of light.

This profoundly spiritual worldview emerged spontaneously among the people of Nusantara. Given the enormous cultural and linguistic diversity present within the East Indies archipelago, it was impossible to create, much less enforce, the relatively high degree of cultural, linguistic and/or religious uniformity characteristic of some regions of the world. The people of Nusantara concluded that they must accept the reality of this diversity, which confronted them on a daily basis, and hone their ability to coexist peacefully with others. As a result, they came to view cultural and religious differences as inevitable, and developed a civilization that emphasized attaining a state of harmony as the most effective way to maintain order within a complex social and cultural environment.

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