The Kakawin Sutasoma: A Look at Bhinneka Tunggal Ika and Perceptions of the Text's Religious Implications

By A. H. Aghababian
2015, Vol. 7 No. 09 | pg. 2/3 |

The Sutasoma, despite being a story from nearly seven centuries ago, is still appreciated by modern Indonesians. Although it does not enjoy the same level of popularity as other great epics such as the Ramayana or Mahabharata, Indonesians are introduced to the story in a number of different ways. The wayang kulit is the “main vehicle” through which most individuals become acquainted with Sutasoma’s teachings (Hobart, 1990, p. 76). Others study the text in social groups called sekaa bebasan, which comprise about ten male members who meet regularly to chant, translate, and comment on the text. Members tend to be drawn from all castes but they are usually more scholarly inclined, including puppeteers, poets, priests, artists, and skilled craftsmen (Hobart, 1990, 79-80).

According to Robson (1972), the works most often selected to be read and discussed are the Ramayana, because of its “beauty of language,” and the Sutasoma, because it is the “most significant from a religious point of view” (p. 316). Zoetmulder (1974) similarly writes that the Sutasoma has remained popular because of its “partially didactic character”; “the combination of profound metaphysical speculation, found especially in the instruction given by Sutasoma to his disciples, and richly varied narrative […] has never lost its attraction” (p. 349). The story is also preserved on lontar, or palm-leaf, manuscripts, which are collected and copied by persons belonging to a variety of social groups (Robson, 1972, 309). The fact that the Cantakaparwa, an encyclopedic collection of Old Javanese literature which contains an abridged version of the kakawin Sutasoma, was even written, as Aoyama (1986) also writes, is a reflection of the Indonesian interest in the culture and literature of the ‘classics’ (p. 6).

Thus the Sutasoma is still enjoyed by many in various formats and contexts. As stated by Hobart (1990), and in accordance with the theories of literary reception discussed above, however, “the story takes on different colorings and nuances depending on the intention of its creators or performers, the media used, and the beholders and interpreters” (p. 75), the subtleties of which will be discussed in detail below.

Before beginning analyses of the Sutasoma, it is necessary to familiarize oneself with the story and its main characters. The general plot summaries below were taken from Zuriati (2010)’s, Zoetmulder (1974)’s, and Aoyama (1986)’s accounts and translations.

The son of King Mahaketu and Queen Prajnadhari of Astina, Sutasoma is born after the prayers for a male heir of the royal couple were finally answered (1.5 - 3.8). The royal court and the citizens of Astina expect Sutasoma to inherit the throne and continue the great legacy of his father, but the prince prefers to meditate and search enlightenment. He thus steals away one night to begin his meditations on Mount Meru.

During his journeys, he encounters three creatures: a monster with the head of an elephant, a dragon, and a tigress. The elephant monster, named Gajahwaktra, tries to eat Sutasoma, but Sutasoma convinces him of his wrong ways, and eventually Gajahwaktra becomes Sutasoma’s follower (29.6 - 33.5). The two then encounter a dragon, who, like Gajahwaktra, learns of his wrongs and follows Sutasoma (33.6 - 34.2). The group then encounters a tigress about to eat her own cubs (34.3 - 43.6). Sutasoma implores the tiger not to eat the cubs and instead offers his own body. The tigress bites Sutasoma, killing him, but his blood affects the tigress, and moved to great shame, the tigress tries to kill herself. The god Indra then descends, stops the tigress, and brings Sutasoma back to life. The group continues on their journey.

While Sutasoma is meditating, Indra, transformed as a beautiful woman, tries to seduce the prince and convince him to return to Astina (51.1 - 54.6). In response, Sutasoma transforms into Wairocana (celestial Buddha) and declares his need to continue on his search for enlightenment. Sutasoma next meets the king Dasabahu, who offers his sister Candrawati to Sutasoma as his wife. Sutasoma complies, and a grand wedding takes place (57.1 - 85.2).

Meanwhile, Porusada, the king of the Ratnakanda Kingdom, had been kidnapping various kings around the land in order to fulfill his promise to feed Kala one hundred kings. Having gathered 99, Porusada turns to Sutasoma for his last victim. Sutasoma, however, defeats Porusada (138.1 - 140.11) and faces Kala, defeating him, as well (140.11 - 147.6). The poem concludes with Sutasoma’s and his wife’s apotheosis and ascent into the heavens (147.7 - 147.22).

The Sutasoma belongs to the literary genre of Old Javanese kakawin. Kakawin are poems in Indian or Indian-derived meters; each stanza consists of four lines, each line with a fixed number of syllables and a fixed metrical pattern based on the quantity of the syllable (Hall, 2005, p. 2). They are modeled on Sanskrit kavya, metrical court poetry that developed in the era of the Gupta kings (236 - 600 CE) (Hall, 2005, p. 2). The word kakawin consequently derives from Old Javanese kawi (poet) and the Sanskrit kavya. Besides the distinctive metrical patterns, kakawin are also uniquely distinguished by its use of Old Javanese language. The earliest use of Old Javanese is dated to March 25, 804 CE, when, according to the Sukabumi inscription, a Reverend Dhari officiated the boundaries of a piece of land which was to be exempted from duties and liabilities because of the construction of a dam in the Harinjing River (Zoetmulder, 1974, p. 3).

Old Javanese vocabulary contains heavy borrowings from Sanskrit, but despite this influence from an entirely different linguistic family, Old Javanese has retained its distinctly Indonesian structure (Zoetmulder, 1974, p. 7). As Zoetmulder (1974) speculates, “Sanskrit was so much part of that new culture which [the Javanese] wanted to make their own and to which they wanted to adapt themselves, that the inclination to adopt its modes of expression must have come naturally to them, even where their own language was already adequate and there was no real need for change.”1 Furthermore, poets may have utilized Sanskrit words in their works because of their need for a “wide range of synonyms or near synonyms, of unequal length and with syllables of varying quantity” (Zoetmulder, 1974, p. 13).

The Javanese languages have often become a point of confusion, an explanation for which a short digression becomes necessary. There are three main categories into which early philologists and scholars have divided the languages: Old Javanese, Middle Javanese, and Javanese-Balinese (Rubinstein, 2000, p. 9-10). Old Javanese refers to the oldest stage of the Javanese language for which there is extant evidence and is the language of the kakawins. Middle Javanese refers to the language of kidung (poems where meter is regulated by rhyme and number of syllables) (van der Tuuk, 1881, p. 322) and some prose literature. Javanese-Balinese is a term utilized by Theodore Pigeaud for texts found on Bali that are neither purely Old Javanese nor Modern Balinese. The term Kawi is used to describe all three of these linguistic idioms. It must be understood that the division of these three linguistic groups, in addition to Modern Javanese, by no means indicates a chronological development. The terms Old and Middle are misleading, implying that Middle Javanese is an intermediary link between Old and Modern Javanese. In reality, however, they all coexisted and flourished since the sixteenth century, “each with its own spheres of historical, social, and cultural reference” (Zoetmulder, 1974, p. 9).

To be succinct then, the Sutasoma is a kakawin written in Old Javanese, a Kawi language that has heavy borrowings from Sanskrit. The Sutasoma consists of 148 chapters and 1,210 verses. It was written by Mpu Tantular at the end of the 14th century (between 1365 and 1389), during the Majapahit Era of East Java (Aoyama, 1986, p. 4). Mpu Tantular, one of the court poets during King Rajasanagara (or Hayam Wuruk)’s reign (Zoetmulder, 1974, p. 342), is thought to have based his Sutasoma on the Pali jataka No. 537; the jatakas are folk tales ascribed to the Buddha, who is said to have told them as recollections of his previous births as bodhisattwa (Hobart, 1990, p. 77), but as Aoyama (1986) writes, Mpu Tantular only used the skeleton of jataka No. 537 and inserted motifs from Buddhist texts and Hindu epics (p. 4). The Sutasoma story is preserved in two Old Javanese texts, Mpu Tantular’s kakawin, and the Cantakaparwa (Hobart, 1990, p. 76). For the sake of consistency and given the fact that the Cantakaparwa has “major differences in general story-line and motif” (Aoyama, 1986, p. 4)2 this study will focus exclusively on Mpu Tantular’s original kakawin.

As Aoyama (1986) writes, the Sutasoma is a product of the “Hindu-Java culture which had received heavy influences from India with the Sanskrit language as a mediator” (p. 4).3 This “Hindu-Java” culture of the Majapahit Era is extremely complex, instigating a variety of scholarly debates, especially concerning its social and religious situations. Until the 9th century, the center of political and culture power was concentrated in Central Java. This center shifted to the east in 930 CE, however, where Sindok founded a new dynasty. King Erlangga (a descendant of the famous Dharmawangsa and Udayana marriage) took over after a period of conflict in 1016, and divided the kingdom into two for his sons Janggala and Kadiri. The Kadiri dynasty ended by 1222 and was taken over by Singhasari, but in 1292, Singhasari was also overthrown, marking the beginning of the Majapahit Era with the reign of King Krtanagara (Zoetmulder, 1974, p. 19-22).

The religious climate of this time still remains highly ambiguous; there are two main schools of thought concerning the relationship of Siwaism (or Hinduism) and Buddhism. On the one hand, some scholars declare that Siwaism was the dominant religion (Pigeaud, 1962, p. 480). According to the Nagarakrtagama, there were four sects of Hindu priests, each devoted to Siwa, Brahma, Wisnu, and Buddha; these represent the four religious currents in Hinduism during this time, but Siwaism was thought to have been maintained as the state religion (Zuriati, 2010, p. 424). Because of the dominance of Siwaism and “suppression in the realm” (Zuriati, 2010, p. 424). Buddhism was less popular and became a secondary religion in the Majapahit Era. Pigeaud (1962) also writes that remnants of pre-Muslim religious ideas surviving in modern Javanese culture point to Siwaism (p. 480). Furthermore, the “modern Javanese name for the pre-Muslim period, jaman buda (Buddha Era) seems to be a consequence of Buddhism […] being felt as foreign […] whereas Siwaism […] was familiar and always remained so” (p. 480). On the other hand, however, some scholars claim that Buddhism and Siwaism both enjoyed equal popularity and representation: “Since the time of the ancient kingdoms of Central Java (8th to 10th century CE), Siwa Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism already existed side by side” (Bramantyo, 2009, p. xxi).4 Zoetmulder (1974) similarly writes of the “special form of Mahayana Buddhism in vogue at the court of Majapahit” and the way in which Siwaism and Buddhism “existed side by side, influenced each other, and became identical in their basic ideas” (p. 347). Without a clear consensus, therefore, it is extremely difficult to arrive at any definitive conclusions concerning the religions of the Majapahit Empire.

This study is, first and foremost, a demonstration of the fact that a literary work, regardless of the format in which it is ‘read,’ inspires an incredible variety of interpretations and responses, which, to be blunt, no amount of scholarly scrutiny could fully anticipate or analyze. Although this study intended to explore the collective interpretations of two ‘interpretive communities’ based upon the way in which they were exposed to the story (artists and their audiences vs. scholars), the sheer variety of responses has rendered it impossible to categorize them in accordance with any sort of consensus. Of course, this is due largely to the fact that the study was conducted in less than a month with limited resources; the number of individuals questioned was not nearly sufficient. Nevertheless, it hardly makes sense to organize the succeeding paragraphs according to the two focus groups originally constructed. Instead, we shall focus on the individuals’ interpretations of the Sutasoma story, its characters, and “bhinneka tunggal ika” in turn, comparing them with the words of published scholarship and with, where applicable, to the original text.

Although a numerical chart seems out of place in a humanities-oriented work such as the present study, the following graphics serve to consolidate the information discussed in a neat format. As shown in Table 1, the distribution of individuals’ religious interpretations of the story seems to be fairly random; the majority points to Buddhist, but a majority by a difference of two is hardly profound. What is more interesting, however, is the stark contrast between the interviewed individuals and the published scholarship. The secondary sources consulted almost exclusively claim that the Sutasoma is a Buddhist story, whereas most of the primary sources consider it to be a combination of Buddhist and Hindu. A number of factors could explain this discrepancy.

Table 1: “Is the Sutasoma a Buddhist or Hindu story?”

  Interviewed Informants Published Scholarship Total
Hindu 3 0 3
Buddhist 3 5 8
Both 5 1 6

First of all, those who answered that the Sutasoma is Hindu, or a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist, were all Balinese Hindus. A certain degree of ethnocentrism, therefore, could have contributed to these views. Pak Nyoman Sambere, a seventy-three year old farmer from rural Tabanan, for example, said that the Sutasoma is Hindu because the story was passed down by each Hindu generation (N. Sambere, personal communication, March 26, 2015). Having only heard these stories in their Hindu communities, it naturally follows that individuals would consider the story to be Hindu. There are two outliers to this explanation: Pak Ida Bagus Anom and Pak I Gusti Made Sutjaja. Pak Anom (63), a topeng mask maker from Gianyar immediately began his summary of the story with, “this story follows a Buddhist concept” (I.B. Anom, personal communication, April 5, 2015), and a retired Udayana University professor and a renowned expert on lontar manuscripts, Pak Sutjaja (70) spoke of the Buddhist teachings within the story (I.G.M. Sutjaja, personal communication, April 23, 2015). Both Pak Anom and Pak Sutjaja, however, are Hindu. To clarify his response, Pak Anom pointed to the Buddhist teachings of the story – such as that of universal love, concord, and nonviolence – and Pak Sutjaja explained that the lontar manuscripts of the story are written in the aksara boda script, which is “associated with Buddhist texts.”

Another explanation for the apparent disagreement between the primary and secondary sources is the fact that some informants were partially familiar with the historical context of the story. The dalang from Sukawati, Pak Wayan Nartha (74), for example, said that the story is Hindu because it was written on Java during the Hindu Majapahit kingdom (W. Nartha, personal communication, April 2, 2015). Another farmer from Tabanan, Pak Inengah Purnah (70), explained that Siddharta Gautama (historical Buddha) wrote the original story, and that it was later translated into a Hindu version by Mpu Tantular (I. Purnah, personal communication, March 26, 2015). This shows his familiarity with the original jatakas, Buddha’s folk tales discussed above.5

If these informants drew upon their historical knowledge and their religious beliefs to claim that the story is Hindu, what did the secondary sources consult? The confident declarations of the story’s Buddhist orientations are numerous: “It is a Buddhist story, and as such is unique in the epic kakawin literature of the Javanese period” (Zoetmulder, 1974, p. 346); “As a Buddhist kakawin, this kakawin also displays Buddhist characteristics” (Bramantyo, 2009, p. xxi);6 “[it is] a Buddhist story about an incarnation of the Buddha” (Aoyama, 1986, p. 3); “the Sutasoma kakawin is a Buddhist story” (Hobart, 1990, p. 77). For Pak Hastho Bramantyo (38), who has published an Indonesian translation of the Sutasoma, and for many others, the answer lies in the text itself. On at least two occasions, Mpu Tantular explicitly states that his work is a “Buddhist story” and both are remarkably similar: “Pertama perlu disebutkan bahwa cerita yang saya tulis ini berasal dari kisah kehidupan Sang Buddha (1.4)”7 and “Inilah akhir dari cerita mulia, disusun berdasarkan kisah hidup Sang Buddha…(148.1).”8 These Indonesian translations, when translated further into English, imply that the Sutasoma is simply “a story about the life of the Buddha.” This is certainly evidence enough for scholars to claim that the Sutasoma is a Buddhist story, but a look at the original Old Javanese sheds even more light on the matter. At 1.4, Mpu Tantular uses the word ‘bodhakawya’ and at 148.1, ‘boddhacarita.’ These, according to Aoyama (1986, p. 11) and Pak Hastho Bramantyo (personal communication, April 16, 2015), are compound words for which the closest English translations would be ‘Buddhist poem’ and ‘Buddhist story’ (kawya is the noun form of kawi, or poetic; carita means tale [cf. Indonesian cerita]; the prefix boddha- incidentally refers to Buddha). Scholars who have access to this etymological information, therefore, naturally are able to conclude that the Sutasoma is Buddhist in nature.

Two questions arise from this discussion: (1) why is it that the dalangs, both of whom have stated that they have read the text, did not refer to the text, as the published scholars did, to label the Sutasoma as Buddhist, and (2) how have the scholars failed to make reference to the historical background of the time, as some of the informants did, to label the Sutasoma as Hindu?

Both dalangs, coincidentally, responded that the Sutasoma is both a Buddhist and a Hindu story. Pak Made Buana (55), an ex-dalang from a rural village in the Tabanan district, explained that the story must be both because Buddhism and Hinduism are in line and they compliment each other (M. Buana, personal communication, March 24, 2015). Pak Wayan Nartha wisely said that it depends on an individual’s religious tendencies; a Hindu would likely say that it is a Hindu story, whereas a Buddhist would likely say that it is a Buddhist story. Yet, it remains a mystery as to why neither dalangs referred to the text where it states that it is a Buddhist story.

With regards to the second question, a partial explanation can be attempted. The short answer is that the religious situation of the time does not necessarily imply the story’s religious orientation. But we must first refer back to the two contrasting schools of thought concerning the religion and history of the Majapahit era discussed above. While some claim Hindu dominance, others argue that the two coexisted and even began to merge into one. Aoyama (1986), despite writing of the “Hindu-Java” (p. 4) context in which the Sutasoma was composed, refers to the Old Javanese text and concludes that it is indeed a Buddhist story. Aoyama further expresses his surprise that such a Buddhist-oriented text could be composed in the Siwa-dominated East Java society (p. 16). Zoetmulder (1974) similarly writes that such a Buddhist text was an exceptional rarity at the time:

In the kakawin literature […], the impact of Buddhism is practically non-existent, either on the choice of subject, the way of treating it, the descriptions, or the manggalas. Buddhists are mentioned among the clergy in descriptions of the trains of royal persons or of the ceremonial welcome, but as a rule, these contain no more than the usual stereotyped enumeration: rsi saiwa sogata (boddha). Only the Sumanasantaka gives a somewhat more detailed description of the various groups. In the case of the work of Tantular, it is quite a different matter. The poet who wrote the Buddhist story of Sutasoma and its introductory manggala was unmistakably a Buddhist himself. (p. 343).

On the other hand, scholars such as Hobart (1990) write about the blending of the two religions: “The poem is clearly a distinct product of the East Javanese period which is marked by the growing syncretism of Buddhist and Siwaite cults” (p. 77-78). A recent graduate of Udayana University and an ancient scripts and texts enthusiast, Ida Bagus Komang Sudarma (24) looks to the archaeological evidence to answer the question. He explained that the Hindu and Buddhist temples built before the Majapahit era (e.g. Candi Borobudur and Prambanan, both built in the 9th century CE) were easily distinguishable, but by the 13th and 14th centuries, they had become similar in form and structure, signifying a “massive syncretic transformation of religion by that time” (I.B.K. Sudarma, personal communication, April 13, 2015). He further points to a statue of King Krtanagara from the Candi Jago, who is depicted as both Siwa and Buddha, as well as the fact that there were two head priests during the Majapahit era: the Dharmadhyaksa Kasaiwan and the Dharmadhyaksa Kasogatan, dedicated to Siwa and Buddha respectively. Thus, according to Darma, it hardly makes sense to label the Sutasoma as exclusively Hindu or Buddhist – the two religions were nearly the same.

In the end, there can be no clear-cut answer to the question, “Is the Sutasoma a Buddhist or Hindu story.” Of course, if we were focusing exclusively on the text itself, the immediate answer would be “Buddhist.” If someone were to only read the text, they would see the words ‘bodhakawya’ or ‘boddhacarita’ and naturally assume that the Sutasoma is a Buddhist text, but those who do not have access to the text have different means of understanding and answering the question. Thus, when considering the opinions of individuals and scholars who have contrasting ideas about the definition of a “Buddhist text,” it is evident that the matter is not so simple.

Regardless of their association of the story to Buddhism or Hinduism, all informants and nearly every secondary source declared that Sutasoma was either Buddha himself, or a reincarnation of the god (Table 2).

Table 2: “Is Sutasoma (a reincarnation of) Buddha?”

  Interviewed Informants Published Scholarship Total
Yes 6 4 10
No 0 1 1

Zuriati (2010) writes, “Sutasoma is the King of Hastina and the incarnation of the Buddha” (p. 422); according to Hall (2005), Sutasoma achieves potential of divinity as the “supreme Lord Buddha” (p. 23); Bramantyo and Mastuti (2009) write that Sutasoma is referred to as Buddha, Jina or Jinapati (alternative names for Buddha), and Boddhisatwa (a being destined to become a Buddha) in the text (p. xix). Hobart (1990), whose work compares the various art forms in which the Sutasoma is depicted, writes that to a dalang, Sutasoma is undeniably “an incarnation of Lord Buddha” (p. 89). She adds, however, to the “audience [of a wayang performance], who represent the ordinary populace […], Sutasoma is primarily a wise, benevolent, and just prince and teacher. They rarely link him to the historical Buddha (who in any case many villagers, especially from isolated hamlets, have not heard of) or an incarnation of him” (p. 88-89). The findings of the present study would beg to differ. Pak Inengah Purnah explicitly said that Sutasoma is Buddha, Pak Anom said that Kala is unable to swallow Sutasoma because “he is Buddha,” and Pak Sutjaja said that Sutasoma is a reincarnation of Buddha sent to save humanity. Pak Buana also spoke about Sutasoma’s white blood, which signified his status as a reincarnation of Buddha. Many spoke of Sutasoma’s characteristics and noble qualities, which, to them, are reminiscent of those of Buddha: patient, peaceful, enemy-less, indifferent to temptations, compassionate, wise, and courageous.

The primary and secondary sources agree, for the most part, therefore, that Sutasoma can be associated with Buddha. However, the two differ dramatically with regards to the other characters of the story (Table 3).

Table 3: “Do any of Sutasoma’s opponents represent Siwa?”

  Interviewed Individuals Published Scholarship Total
Yes 2 2 4
No 4 0 4


Some published scholars claim that Kala, Porusada, and even Gajahwaktra can all be associated with Siwa. Zoetmulder (1974) writes, for example, that when Porusada assumes Rudra’s form to fight Sutasoma, the text “no longer speaks of the King of Ranakanda or Porusada, but of bhatara Rudra or Siwa” (p. 340). Hall (2005) also refers to Gajahwaktra as an incarnation of Rudra, who is equivalent to “Siwa, or in this instance Ganesha, Siwa’s elephant-headed son” (p. 21). Pak Nartha and Pak Anom share similar views: Pak Nartha stated twice that Porusada is Siwa, and Pak Anom said that Gajahwaktra represents Ganesha and the tiger and dragon both represent Siwa.

The majority of the interviewed informants, however, did not associate any of the other characters to Siwa. Pak Inengah Purnah explains that when Siwa is angry, he transforms into Kala, but once in the Kala state, he is no longer Siwa, and we may not equate the two. Similarly, Pak Sambere described Kala and Siwa as opposites – Kala is black and Siwa is white; they are not the same. Pak Sutjaja also said that Kala is not wholly Siwa. Pak Bramantyo wrote that Kala does not represent Siwa; he represents the “impurities and passion within us.”

Those who consider Sutasoma to have defeated and converted his Siwaite opponents further interpret the conflicts as representations of Buddhist superiority over Siwaism (Table 4).

Table 4: “Does any aspect of the story represent Buddhist superiority over Siwaism?”

  Interviewed Informants Published Scholarship Total
Yes 1 5 6
No 4 0 4

As Zuriati (2010) writes, “for Mpu Tantular, Sutasoma and Buddhism are the winners. He closes his kakawin by making Jayantaka (Porusada) repented his mistakes and asked for Sutasoma to instruct him about Buddhism. Afterwards, he and Batara Kala resolve to become Buddhist priests” (p. 423). Zoetmulder (1974) also writes that the “love for all creatures, and the compassion and non-violence of the Buddha in his incarnation as Sutasoma conquer the violence and destructive power of Siwa, manifesting himself in Kala, with the result that the latter devotes himself to asceticism according to the rules of Mahayana Buddhism” (p. 348-349), and Santoso (1974) writes about the “battle between a Siwaitic and a Buddhist Bhairawa resulting in the former’s submission and subsequent conversion to Buddhism” (p. 53). Furthermore, Aoyama (1986) describes the final conflict as Buddha’s victory (勝利) over Siwa (p. 16). Pak Anom, however, was the only interviewed informant to similarly interpret the story as a representation of Buddhist superiority. He interpreted Kala’s inability to defeat Sutasoma as an illustration of how Siwaism is “lower than Buddhism,” and explained that the story is a manifestation of Buddhist popularity and superiority during the Majapahit Empire.

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