'Mahabarata', 'Ramayana' cement Indo-Indonesian cultural ties
A. Junaidi The Jakarta Post/Jakarta
Yogyakarta-born businessman Gunawan nodded his head in appreciation while watching a puppet show at the Taman Mini Indonesia in Miniature Park in East Jakarta on Saturday night.
During the show, Manteb Sudarsono, one of Indonesia's foremost puppet masters, put on the Wahyu Makutoromo -- which contains teachings on good and clean governance and is a sequel to the Mahabrata epic.
Forty-year-old Gunawan, who runs a human resources firm, is probably one of the few Indonesians who knows the details of the Mahabrata, including its Indian and Javanese versions.
The Mahabrata, which was arranged by Vyasa about 2,000 years ago, tells of a conflict between the Pandawa and Kurawa families, which both claim to be the descendants of the mighty Bharata.
Composed between 500 BC and 400 AD and extending to 107,000 octameter couplets, the Mahabrata also contains the famous Bhagawat Gita, which consists of philosophical teachings.
Another famous Indian epic is the Ramayana -- which literally means the journey of King Rama.
This epic, which was composed between 300 BC and 200 AD and was arranged by Walmiki, tells of the kidnaping of Rama's wife, Sita, by Rahwana. With the help of Hanuman, the monkey king, Rama defeats Rahwana and recovers Sita.
Both epics contain Hindu teachings: life is painful if we become attached to material things and life is governed by the principle of reciprocity.
The epics were brought to Nusantara (the old name for Indonesia), along with Hinduism, hundreds of years ago.
Islam then entered the archipelago. Interestingly, its missionaries on Java island, who were known as Wali Songo (Nine Leaders), used the epics to spread the teachings of Islam.
That is probably when the Mahabarata and Ramayana started to develop differently on Java island.
The epics were then spawned many sequels, including the Wahyu Makutoromo, which is not part of the original Indian version.
The characters of the Mahabrata and Ramayana were extremely popular in the past. Besides puppet shows, comics -- such as the one written in Bahasa Indonesia by R.A. Kosasih -- and children's playing cards depicting the characters of the Mahabarata and Ramayana contributed to the popularity of the historical epics.
As such, Arjuna, Srikandi, Khrisna, Gatut Kaca, Baladewa, Bima, Nakula and Sadewa from the Mahabrata, and Rama, Sita, Hanuman, Wibisana, and Rahwana from the Ramayana were popular characters among children in the past.
Not many children are familiar nowadays with these characters or the lessons contained in the epics. In the current age of multimedia, super heroes and heroines, such as Superman, Batman, Catwoman and Lara Croft, the Tomb Rider, are probably more popular.
"It's the duty of the government to develop our culture and preserve the epics," puppetry expert Budya Pradipta of the University of Indonesia said in an interview with The Jakarta Post recently.
Budya, who received his PhD from the University of Delhi's Sanskrit Department in India, said that puppetry, along with the epics, had important functions such as education, entertainment and communication.
He said a puppet master could send educative and social messages, such as on HIV/AIDS, women's rights, child protection and drug abuse.
Budya admitted that most of the admirers of puppetry and the epics were Javanese or Sundanese people.
"We need to continuously develop the puppetry and the epics and present them in the Indonesian language, instead of Javanese," he said.
Separately, Arup Kumar Dutta from the Jawaharlal Nehru Indian Cultural Center agreed that the Ramayana and Mahabrata epics were two of the many connections that could be used to deepen relations between Indonesia and India.
"These two epics are very popular both in India and Indonesia. They could be used as a bridge to make our relations, especially in the cultural field, closer," Dutta said.
He said the epics as they had developed in Indonesia carried universal values, such as humanity and spirituality, instead of just the Hindu messages contained in the Indian versions.
He said the epics were only a small part of India's rich and diverse culture, including the arts, dance and music.
"Many Indonesians probably think that India has a single culture. Actually, we are the same as Indonesia, with a great cultural diversity," he said.
"Through culture and art, including the epics, dance and music, Indonesia and India can develop a better understanding of each other," he concluded.