Brahma Kumaris in Indonesia

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Brahma Kumaris in Indonesia

Post01 Jun 2008

Notes taken from a paper by Dr. Julia Day Howell documenting service in Indonesia using the same old, "we are not a religion ... we are a university" number.
Dr. Julia Day Howell wrote:Islam, the New Age and Marginal Religions in Indonesia: Changing Meanings of Religious Pluralism by Dr. Julia Day Howell, Griffith University, Australia (A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania.)

The Indonesian government’s religion policy stands as a significant example of the diversity that actually exists in the Muslim world in the handling of religion-state relationships, notwithstanding the ideal that for Muslims God’s truth as revealed in the Quran should shape every aspect of social life. From the time of Independence, approximately nine out of ten Indonesians have been Muslims, and Islam was important in mobilising resistance to the Dutch colonial power. This was recognised obliquely in the 1945 Constitution, which commits the state to supporting religion. It was also indirectly acknowledged in the Constitution’s famous Preamble, the ‘Panca Sila’ that features as the first principle belief in One God. Acknowledgement of a religion is thus a basic obligation of citizenship.

However, due to the country’s very considerable ethnic and religious diversity, Indonesia’s founding fathers held back from using the Arabic term ‘Allah’ to refer to ‘God’ in the Constitution (using the Indonesian word Tuhan, ‘Lord’), and, over several decades, legally and administratively concretised ‘religion’ (‘agama’) as five named religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism (PenPres 1, 1965; UU No.5, 1969).[i] Thus, since the beginning of Indonesia’s New Order (1966-1998), the country has had a policy of what might be called ‘delimited pluralism,’ imposing on citizens an obligation to acknowledge one of a limited number of world religions.

While the reasons for the ongoing, and, in some respects growing, acceptability of pluralism to many Indonesians are indeed numerous, they can be traced in part to the substantial growth of a new middle class that has become enthusiastic about Islam but is also highly cosmopolitan supporting religious pluralism through their teaching of liberal and modern mode of autonomous action in religious life.

Alongside the international New Age and growth movement brand names that operate, as it were, as health and psychology product providers and therefore outside the radar of the Ministry of Religion, are other organisations that attract the same sort of interest from well-educated Muslims, but have nested, somewhat awkwardly, within one of the named, legitimate religions. These include Salamullah, a locally conceived Muslim foundation, and the international Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (BKWSU or ‘BKs’), which in other countries rejects identification as a ‘religion’ but in Indonesia was initially registered with the Hindu section of the Ministry of Religion.

The paper focuses on the cases of Salamullah, the Brahma Kumaris and the Anand Ashram, with a view to understanding what their functioning within and outside the legal boundaries of the official Indonesian religions signifies about the meaning of religious pluralism in Indonesia today. It will be argued that the committed and well-educated Muslims who are patronising these organisations are effectively altering the meanings of religious pluralism in Indonesia.

The Case of the Brahma Kumaris: From ‘Religion,’ to ‘Faith,’ to ‘Spirituality’

Along with the Anand Ashram and various Reiki healing centres, the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (BKWSU, or ‘BKs’) is one of the most frequently featured groups in magazine and newspaper life-style articles on religion, health and ‘spirituality’ (spiritualitas) since the 1990s. The very salience of the concept of ‘spirituality’ in up-market Indonesian periodicals suggests the inadequacy of the terminology of mid-twentieth century religious reform and government administration to accommodate the liberal end of the new religious spectrum into which the Brahma Kumaris fit. The now frequent occurrence of ‘spiritualitas’ in Indonesian parlance also points to the immersion of Indonesian cosmopolitans in the global spiritual marketplace out of which the Brahma Kumaris manifested in Indonesia in 1982.

The Brahma Kumaris movement was founded in Karachi in 1937 by a Sindhi diamond merchant, Dada Lekhraj, who, then in his later years, experienced the living presence of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu, followed by horrifying visions of world destruction. Acting thereafter as a medium for Shiva, Lekhraj guided a growing company of aspirants in using a particular style of meditation they called ‘Raja Yoga’ and a regimen of spiritual purification through vegetarianism and celibacy. Through these means the BKs cultivated ‘inner peace’ and prepared to be the elect who will be reborn into a new Golden Age after the imminent millennium (cf Babb 1986; Chander 1983).

Through the channelled messages it became clear that Shiva was not to be understood as one of many Hindu gods, but in monotheistic terms as ‘The Supreme Soul.’ In this and other respects the movement distinguished itself from Hinduism, and indeed from all religions. Its knowledge, Gyan, the true knowledge, was thus identified as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious,’ and the movement as a whole was cast as a ‘university.’

The successful implantation of the Brahma Kumaris movement into Indonesia has required accommodation to domestic legal categories that ill fit it. As in London (the first overseas home of the BKs in the early 1970s), the movement in Indonesia was initially established among Hindi-speaking expatriates from the Indian subcontinent. Sister Helen Quirin, an Australian who had ‘taken The Knowledge’ in India, was sent to Indonesia to start the BK branch. Her employer in the Gandhi School in northern Jakarta cautioned her not to try to broadcast the teachings in the general society out of respect for Muslim sensibilities, but just to give the BK teachings at religious gatherings of the resident Indian ladies group.

Mindful of the legal environment of religions, her employer also encouraged her to call on the nearby office of the Ministry of Religion and advise the Balinese head of the Hindu section of her activities. That office encouraged Sister Helen to form a ‘foundation’ (yayasan) and provided it with suitable board members, largely from the Indian community. When processing the foundation documents, Sister Helen then consulted an official at the Department of Social Affairs, asking whether the foundation should be registered with the Ministry of Religion or the Ministry of Education and Culture. The advice was, “Your Yoga is from India, is it not? Well, then you’re virtually Hindu, are you not?” Thus began a warm association with the Ministry of Religion that lasted until 1989.

In the meantime, the ‘Raja Yoga Foundation’ began to offer classes in meditation to the general public, in association with its standard introductory ‘seven day course’ on the nature of the soul, how it connects with God in meditation, and the importance of ‘purity.’ These classes attracted the attention of Indonesians, both Christian and Muslim, of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Very soon the classes also attracted the interest of the press, who reported that the Foundation ‘teaches the theory and practice of Yoga ... [and] ... is not a religion.’ This clearly expressed the position of the international BK movement, as well as the local chapter’s felt need for care in offering its teachings to Indonesian Muslims and Christians. Thus then, as now, Sister Helen stressed in her comments to the reporter: ‘One thing we never touch is a student’s religion ...They are free and have no formal commitment [to the BKs].”

This accommodation of meditation students with limited or no interest in BK eschatology and purity rules and who might have other ongoing religious commitments was in evidence in other countries to which the BK movement had spread by the 1980s. One result was that the international movement began to generate a wealth of programming for the general public, responding to widely held interests in non-denominational ‘spirituality,’ ethics and wholistic health. These and local adaptations, like ‘Positive Thinking,’ ‘Understanding the Mind,’ ‘The Art of Communication,’ ‘Concept Total Health,’ and ‘How to Change,’ were offered in Indonesia. Thus Sister Wendy told a women’s magazine in 1984 that ‘Yoga is a form of psychological therapy (terapi psikologis).’

The highly successful initiative of Western BKs in the international movement to translate their concern for ‘inner peace’ into a force for ‘world peace’ through the formation of a UNESCO-affiliated NGO also helped promote the association of the BKs in Indonesia with a socially engaged spirituality clearly linked with modernisers across the world. This was marked in Indonesia in 1988 by the President’s wife, Madam Tien Suharto, agreeing to serve on the International Advisory Committee of the BK’s UNESCO program ‘Global Cooperation for a Better World’ (Indonesian Times 29 July 1988:3).

As the general meditation, spiritual well-being and peace programs of the BKs expanded and attracted increasing numbers of Indonesian Muslims and Christians, the inappropriateness of lodging the movement in the Ministry of Religion as ‘Hindu’ was impressed on Sister Helen by the director of Hindu affairs. ‘You’d better move,’ she was urged, ‘since you are now teaching non-Hindus.’ Thus in 1989 the original foundation (the legal face of the movement in Indonesia) was disestablished and a new foundation, the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual Study Foundation (Yayasan Studi Spiritual Brahma Kumaris), was registered with the ‘faiths’ (kepercayaan) office in the Ministry of Education and Culture.[xii] Sister Helen nonetheless still occasionally attends the national councils of the Parisada Hindu Dharma. In other ways as well the BK image was becoming more protean than designation as a ‘faith’ was originally meant to suggest in 1973.

Thus in 1992 an article in the up-market Muslim women’s magazine Amanah[xiii] referred to the BKWSU as ‘a university’ (sebuah universitas) and ‘a spiritual school of thought’ (suatu school of thought dalam hal spiritualitas). Another article in the same issue represented Raja Yoga as a spiritual practice (metode) that has parallels in all the ‘religions’ and, that, despite its provenance in another religious tradition, can be of value to Muslims.

It went on to liken the BK purity practices to the Sufi tadzkiyat al-nafs (purification of the passions through ethical reflection and restraint) and the BK Yoga to the Sufi practice of dzikir (meditative remembrance of God). The organisation was even likened to ‘a kind of Sufi order (tarekat)’.[xiv]

This perennialist message was again reported in 1997 in a Gatra article (25 October 1997:112) entitled, remarkably, ‘Breaking Through the Boundaries of Religion’ (Menumbus Batas Agama). It covered talks by visiting senior BK Sister Didi Sudesh Sethi. Speaking at the liberal Muslim Paramadina Foundation and a five-star Jakarta hotel, she is quoted as observing: ‘Religions are one and their foundation is spirituality. We don’t need religion that is organised and rigid’.[xv] Along with this was included a sympathetic audience comment from the prominent State Islamic University professor and former senior Ministry of Religion official Dr. Komaruddin Hidayat: ‘Modern people,’ he said, ‘want freedom from materialism and formalism.’ To this the Gatra reporters added a quotation from the international best seller Megatrends 2000 (Naisbitt and Aburdene 1990): ‘Spirituality yes, organised religion no!’

More recent media coverage presents the BKs as teachers of meditation for psychological and health benefits along with other providers whose connection to a ‘religion’ or status as a ‘faith’ appears to be of no interest. What is important, however, is scientific legitimation. Thus the November-December 1999 issue of Holistik, a glossy health and life-style magazine, carried a feature on ‘Overcoming Stress with Meditation,’ complete with references to current medical literature and a description of the BK practice. Similarly, BK Yoga was described as one of a dozen local meditation institutes in the January 2000 ‘New Millennium’ issue of Nirmala that made a cover feature on ‘Get off Antibiotics! This Century’s Vaccine, Meditation.’ In this environment, the precise legal status of the Brahma Kumaris is of little concern to patrons, who come seeking minimally distinguished health and spiritual benefits and not a regimented affiliation.

The Brahma Kumaris, along with Anand Ashram and a number of other groups, provide settings in which once highly valorised meditation practices can be explored outside the traditional Sufi orders by repackaging those practices as generic spiritual tools. In so doing, they have gone some way to liberating a non-denominational concept of ‘spirituality’ from the strictures imposed on both the ‘religions’ (agama) and the ‘faiths’ (kepercayaan).

The Brahma Kumaris’ origins in India, the strong imprint of Hinduism on their cosmology, practice and dress, and their use of South Asian expatriate contacts to become established in India, all propelled them into association with the Hindu office of the Ministry of Religion during their early years in Indonesia. This was despite the international movement’s own vehement rejection of identification with Hinduism since its founding. Later registration as a ‘faith’ (kepercayaan), however, did not prove a fully satisfactory legal status for the BKs when they expanded their teaching of deconfessionalised spiritual tools to Indonesian Muslims and Christians.

As originally defined in the 1970s, the faith groups (organisasi penghayat kepercayaan) were supposed to mimic the religions (agama) in having an explicit set of doctrines, books of teachings and congregational structure, all on record with the faiths section of the Ministry of Education and Culture. In other words, the ‘faiths,’ like the ‘religions,’ were ‘pillarised.’ If citizens wished to affirm a ‘faith,’ they were meant to choose one, and, realistically, combine it with a single ‘religious’ identity (agama). The BKs, however, run a variety of spiritual self-help programs on a drop-in basis for people who like to combine those programs with the offerings of other charitable and commercial spiritual course providers. In other words, the commonly patronised programs of the BKs have been assimilated to the New Age market offerings that resist bureaucratic regulation. The wide popularity of this kind of spiritual teaching and the operation of so many providers beyond the control of the faiths office of the Ministry of Education and Culture suggests that cosmopolitan Muslims, Christians and others are practicing forms of religious pluralism far looser than law and formal administrative policy suggest.

It should be noted, however, that while the Brahma Kumaris presently function in Indonesia primarily as a provider of non-denominational spirituality and facilitator of inter-faith dialogue, the international movement carries a highly distinctive millennial eschatology that, when revealed to keen participants and fully engaged, is not easily reconciled with membership in another religion (Howell and Nelson 2000). It appears, however, that this aspect of the BK movement is finding little expression in Indonesia.

Incidentally, the paper reports on the case of "Salamullah" when "in 1974 the pious Sumatran wife of a lecturer in the Faculty of Technology at the University of Indonesia, Lia Aminuddin, was sitting on the terrace of her Jakarta home when a round yellow light spiraled down from the sky, pointed towards her, came to rest above her head and then disappeared ... Then, just over twenty years after that first extraordinary event, the miraculous began to intervene in her life on a more regular basis and the mystery of that earlier visitation was finally revealed, drawing to her a devoted following and creating a sensation among her fellow Muslims." Similarities to Lekhraj Kirpalani who did not "manifest" Shiva until nearly 20 years later too, although the BKs would put this one down as being a Kali Yugi one birth acharya and the "spiraling light" as her prophet soul

Howell continues, "Lia received further visitations in which the entity revealed that actually he was the Angel Jibril (Gabriel). His message was alarming: Indonesia was going to be beset by terrible trials. Indeed the last days foretold in the Quran were approaching" ... rien ne change plus, then?
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Re: Brahma Kumaris in in Indonesia

Post02 Jun 2008

Dr. Julia Day Howell wrote:As the general meditation, spiritual well-being and peace programs of the BKs expanded and attracted increasing numbers of Indonesian Muslims and Christians, the inappropriateness of lodging the movement in the Ministry of Religion as ‘Hindu’ was impressed on Sister Helen by the director of Hindu affairs. ‘You’d better move,’ she was urged, ‘since you are not teaching non-Hindus.’ Thus in 1989 the original foundation (the legal face of the movement in Indonesia) was disestablished and a new foundation, the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual Study Foundation (Yayasan Studi Spiritual Brahma Kumaris), was registered with the ‘faiths’ (kepercayaan) office in the Ministry of Education and Culture.[xii] Sister Helen nonetheless still occasionally attends the national councils of the Parisada Hindu Dharma. In other ways as well the BK image was becoming more protean than designation as a ‘faith’ was originally meant to suggest in 1973.

Thanks for providing an insight into the spread of BK movement to a Muslim country like Indonesia.

After going through the above paragraph a couple of times, I doubt whether the word 'not' underlined above is 'not' or 'now'? I suppose it is 'now' and not 'not'.

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