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Human (Relational) Dignity: Perspectives of Followers of Indigenous Religions of Indonesia

Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta 55281, Indonesia
Religions 2023, 14(7), 848;
Submission received: 7 March 2023 / Revised: 2 June 2023 / Accepted: 25 June 2023 / Published: 28 June 2023


Religion and dignity are a two-sided coin for followers of Indigenous Religions in Indonesia. Dignity is the relationally inherent worth in both human and non-human beings. To give and receive dignity, one ought to be religious, which is to engage in interpersonal relationships with all beings, human and non-human. This article draws on data from two decades of engagement with followers of Indigenous Religions through extensive fieldwork, activism, and community service. It explores the distinctive worldviews and practices of Indonesian Indigenous Peoples, which many have maintained in the face of external incursions by governments, corporations, and missionaries, and internal encroachments from within their communities. Their worldviews spring from interrelational cosmology, which posits that relational dignity is a religious norm. This cosmology is institutionalized with adat (customary) systems that enact and reproduce relational dignity. The article concludes with a call to better understand and recognize Indigenous Religions by expanding the definition of religion to include the notion of relational dignity when considering how scholars and policymakers conceptualize and implement policies on freedom of religion or belief.

1. Introduction

Religion and dignity for Indigenous Peoples in Indonesia are a two-sided coin. The two concepts are different but related. Dignity is understood to be the worth inherent in all beings, human and non-human. Human dignity is one kind, and the dignities of other beings are other kinds. Those kinds of dignities are different, but they are relational in the sense that human dignity exists only in relation to the existence of the dignity of other beings. Relational (dignity) itself is a manifestation of religion. It is an ideological and practical engagement in relationships with dignity. The relational is religious if its manifestations are respectful to the existence of all beings. It may be irreligious if the self acts selfishly in this relationship, perceiving their own as the only valid dignity, and treating other beings with disdain. Being religious is to engage in relationships among human and non-human beings with relational dignity.
I refer to the Indigenous Religions of Indonesia as including two categories: kepercayaan and adat. Kepercayaan (Indonesian: belief), which refer to the religions of specific groups and individuals registered with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology (MECRT), groups who have struggled for recognition of their kepercayaan as agama (Indonesian: religion) from the Indonesian state since the early Indonesian independence, and only succeeding in 2017 when the Constitutional Court (The Indonesian Constitutional Court Decision No. 97/PUU-VII/2016 2016) approved their petition for religious recognition. Adat (Indonesian: customary) refers to religions of groups or communities “officially” defined by the government and civil society alliance to have at least three criteria: a genealogical kinship-based community, residing in an inherited territory, and living with an adat law system (Maarif et al. 2020). After the Constitutional Court approved the petition by groups of kepercayaaan in 2017, some of the adat people have replaced their citizenship identities from one of the “official” religions to kepercayaan.
Indigenous Peoples of Indonesia, who share common experiences with those in other countries (Barclay and Steele 2020; McNally 2019, 2020; Shrubsole 2019; Wenger 2009), continue struggling for recognition of their dignity and their freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) from the Indonesian state (Aragon 2022; Butt 2020; Hamudy and Rifki 2020; Humaidi 2020; Mubarok 2019; Sumarto 2017; Viri and Febriany 2020). The Indonesian Constitution guarantees inclusive FoRB, but the government has administered an exclusive FoRB (Bagir 2014; Bagir and Arianingtyas 2020) from the beginning of its religious governance through the Ministry of Religious Affairs established in January 1946. The government currently recognizes six religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, guarantees them FoRB, and protects them from blasphemy. Followers of other religions are not protected, and their followers must affiliate with a recognized religion to access citizenship rights. In response, the Indonesian Constitutional Court through its decision has delegitimized the government’s exclusive application of FoRB. Constitutional Court judges argued that FoRB is the natural right of every citizen, conforming to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and so the State has no authority to officially recognize only certain religions (The Indonesian Constitutional Court Decision No. 140/PUU-VII/2009 2009, [3.54], p. 290). In another decision, the Court approved a judicial review brought by petitioners representing followers of Indigenous Religions, ruling that agama (Indonesian: religion) has no legal consequences unless it includes kepercayaan (Indigenous Religions) (The Indonesian Constitutional Court Decision No. 97/PUU-VII/2016 2016). These two decisions clarified and strengthened constitutional norms of (more) inclusive FoRB, as stated in Articles 28 and 29 of the Indonesian Constitution.
Rather than following the legally binding decisions of the Constitutional Court with appropriate regulations and policies, the government continued reinforcing exclusive FoRB. For example, Presidential Regulation No. 12/2023 reinforces the authority of the Ministry of Religious Affairs for applying exclusive FoRB. Article 4 states that any religious affairs are under the authority of the Ministry, and Article 5 specifies the six religions recognized by the Ministry. This presidential regulation ignored the decisions of the Constitutional Court and excluded other religions practiced in Indonesia such as the Baháʼí Faith, Judaism, and Sikhism, as well as almost two hundred Indigenous Religions already registered with MECRT.
Additionally, the government has continued to misrecognize and marginalize Indigenous Religions (kepercayaan and adat) as cultural, not religious (Bagir 2020; Bagir and Arianingtyas 2020; Deta 2022; Hefner 2021; Sukirno and Adhim 2020). Due to this misrecognition, the government has disobeyed the constitutional norm of FoRB and disrespected the dignity of Indigenous Peoples. As a result, groups of kepercayaan and adat have faced multiple types of social exclusion due to negative stereotypes of their beliefs and practices (Ruswanda 2020) as primitive, irrational, and deviant (Anugrah 2018; Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace 2022) without being afforded adequate legal protection by the government. Categorized as cultural, their practices are subjected to imposed processes of transformational development, such as cultural tourism. As a result, their practices and belief are only preserved when they are deemed to comply with the dominant religious values of official religions. Adat people have complained that their rituals, which are meant to contextualize their religious relationship with their lands and other living beings, are accused of being heretically animistic, promoting the worship of beings or objects other than God. Sanctioned to be lacking or against religion, those rituals are not protected by FoRB but are subject to changes. Adat lands, the places where these rituals are embodied, are legally misrecognized and grabbed by companies through concessions granted by the government for mining or plantations (Warassih and Sulaiman 2017). Adat people, who understand their dignity as relational to the dignity of land, are ignored and disrespected by the state.
Despite their mistreatment by the government and the wider society, the Indigenous Peoples of Indonesia have survived with their religious norm of relational dignity intact. This paper examines the relationship between religion and dignity from the perspectives of followers of Indigenous Religions in Indonesia. I have learned from these perspectives from two decades of interactions with these communities through extensive research, community service, and activism. Their perspectives are commonly shared with Indigenous Peoples of other countries (Bird-David 1999; de Castro 1998; Morrison 2000, 2002, 2014; Rushmere 2020; Makanda 2011; Reid and Rout 2016). Their perspectives on religion offer an alternative to the World Religions Paradigm (WRP) (Alfian 2022; Bell 2006; Cotter and Robertson 2016; Owen 2011), which essentializes religion as theological and characterizes a cosmological system that orders a hierarchical dissimilarity among categories of beings: the supernatural/divinity, culture/humanity, and nature. The supernatural is essentially the most powerful, and nature is essentially lower than culture/humanity (Morrison 2000, p. 25). Based on this hierarchical cosmology, the supernatural/divine is theologically sanctioned to be considered essential to conceptions of religion. This hierarchy makes religions without theology problematic. In contrast to the WRP, the perspectives of many Indigenous Peoples, which may be labeled as the Indigenous Religions Paradigm (IRP), emphasize interpersonal cosmology. The cosmos is occupied by relational persons of different types. Personhood in the IRP is not limited to human beings but extends to non-human beings. Both human and non-human persons are recognized through their intentionality and purposive actions that constitute (interpersonal) relationships. “If I plant a seed, the seed will offer me fruit”. The followers of Sundanese Indigenous Religions used the quote to illustrate an interpersonal relationship. To be a person is to engage in relationship(s). An interpersonal relationship itself may involve either harmony or disharmony. The harmonious relationship is religious, and the other is irreligious. The religious interpersonal relationship is governed by three basic principles: responsibility (what I do will impact me), ethics (what I do will impact others), and reciprocity (what I have is what I give) (Maarif 2019, p. 115). Actions against those principles are irreligious. Selfishness, such as the exploitation of nature for human benefits only, is irreligious.
In the IRP, dignity is perceived as the intrinsic worth and capacity of personhood. It is a force of being, inherent to both human and non-human persons. People ought to perceive their dignity as relational to the dignity of other persons (human and non-human). They ought to recognize and respect the dignity of other persons the way they do for themselves. They ought to be religious. Human dignity is relational to non-human dignity. It is essentially so, and by disrespecting the dignity of other persons, one would, therefore, undermine human dignity. Disrespecting the dignity of other persons, or being irreligious, means essentially treating one’s own dignity with disdain. As a capacity, dignity is the ability to enact religious principles. It enables one to be religious. This dignity should be exercised and observed through active engagements in religious interpersonal relationships.
This paper highlights the perspectives of Indigenous Peoples in Indonesia, where relational dignity is a religious norm. I begin by examining cosmological questions revolving around the cosmic components of humans, nature, and God. For followers of Indigenous Religions in Indonesia, those basic interrelated questions are the foundations for religious ideas and practices. I then discuss adat as a system for institutionalizing Indigenous Religious norms and governing practices of being, knowing, and doing for relational dignity.

2. Cosmological Questions of Indigenous Religions

I am thankful to scholars Robert Redfield (1952), A. Irving Hallowell (1960), and Kenneth Morrison (1992, 2000), whose insights on worldview are empirically relevant and highly useful to investigate ideas of the religious, especially the relational dignity of Indigenous Peoples. A worldview, as a cosmological perspective, is the way one sees oneself in relation to the cosmos and all others dwelling in it. It is a set of ideas of the universe, the properties of existence that are different from, but related to, the self (Hallowell 1960). For the worldview, the first question is “who am I?”, making the self the very locus for a research investigation on religious ideas and practices. These cosmological questions start from the practitioners themselves: who they are, in their own perspectives, and who engage with religious ideas and practices. The first question is followed up with the way practitioners see the cosmos in relation to themselves: “who else exists, lives, and grows, in addition to me, in the cosmos?”, followed by the way they see their relationship with the cosmos and all in it: “how do I relate, or what are my relations to them?”. As I will explain, it is on the question of relationships that the idea of religion emerges.
Investigating religion with those basic questions is empirically valid among followers of Kejawen, a term referring to Javanese Indigenous Religions. Kejawen is expressed in various ways by diverse Javanese groups, including those whose citizenship identities are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist. Its basic and most popular worldview is articulated through the trilogy of knowledge: sangkan paraning dumadi (Javanese: the origin of the self/human), memayu hayuning bawono (Javanese: harmony with nature), manunggaling kawula gusti (Javanese: the unity of the self with the divine). For Kejawen people, any questions about anything, including God, should begin with the first of the trilogy, which basically asks the question of who I am (who is knowing what to know). Everything to know is in and through the self/human, but then “I know myself, I know all else” (the second of the trilogy) through relations. One’s relationships are the properties of one’s existence, so one must ensure that those relations are harmonious, so that one’s existence can be sustained. Only through harmonious relations of the self/human to all else does the third element of the trilogy manifest itself through the self’s unity with divinity.
The Javanese trilogy of knowledge is elaborated in the following sub-sections through which the idea of (human) dignity is investigated. Data for those sub-sections were, however, collected from followers of Sunda Indigenous Religions. Javanese and Sundanese are two different ethnic groups. The former is the largest ethnic group, mostly residing in the central and eastern regions of the island of Java, while the latter is the second largest group that occupies Western Java. They both have their own ethnic language, but many of them have shared characteristics, including worldviews, and more specifically, the trilogy of knowledge described above. The main argument being made is that the trilogy of knowledge is shared by and popular among those two indigenous peoples. It is even shared by other Indigenous Groups in Indonesia (FKD 2020).

3. What/Who Is Human?

In an informal but focused dialogue with three followers of the indigenous Sunda religion of West Java, Abah Agun, Bopo Iswana, and Akang Uki (all pseudonyms), during a three-day live-in program (17–19 November 2022) hosted by the Unity of Indonesian Christians on 18 November 2022, in Kuningan, West Java, we happened to discuss the nature of beings, touching on humans, plants, mountains, oceans, and God. In addition, there were some other participants of the live-in program who joined and listened to the dialogue. Abah Agun quoted a Muslim Sufi saying popular among Muslims, “man ‘arafa nafsah, faqad ‘arafa rabbah” (Arabic: who knows oneself indeed knows one’s God). We did not confirm whether he was Muslim or not, but he was recognized as a respected elder native to Sunda. The quote was significant to attract the attention of those Muslims, male and female, who joined and listened to the dialogue. After quoting the saying (but without translating it), Abah Agun stated, “you want to know God? Know yourself!”, and then said, “anything you seek for is in yourself, so seek for anything in yourself!”.
Bopo Iswana jumped into the discussion and responded to the statement by saying that before seeking anything, we need to first know the self. He then explained, “the self is tri tangtu (Sundanese: the trilogy of valid components): lahir is the outward, the physical; batin is the inward, the animating force; and ingsun, the leading essence”. His explanation is also common among Javanese (Woodward 1985, p. 1008). Bopo Iswana went on to explore the three components in detail. Lahir breathes through inhaling and exhaling, and the work of breathing is through (by) the air. Lahir also drinks, and the act of drinking is through or by water that distributes blood streaming throughout our body. The body itself grows from being small to big through eating, and the act of eating is through soil manifesting in food. In addition, the body grows with temperature, it feels cold and/or heat, and the source of the temperature is fire. Knowing the work of the body, one would recognize and realize the four elements: air, water, soil, and fire/heat. All four elements form and build up the body and the physical (comparable to Javanese theory, see Woodward 1985, p. 1008).
Lahir acts through body organs. It may not act, however, without the work of batin. Eyes are able to see but only by batin. The ability to see belongs to batin. Without batin, eyes may not be able to see. Seeing, hearing, smelling, chewing, pointing, censoring, comprehending, and so forth are the works of batin. Without batin, the animating force, lahir is just an inanimate material, and with the force, lahir is formed to become raga, an animating entity. Reciprocally, batin will not work without body organs. They are the means for batin to manifest. Both lahir and batin form raga. Raga is the assembly of the two components that are becoming the self but are not yet completed.
The third component that forms the self, as explained by Bopo Iswana, is ingsun. Ingsun is the essence that leads batin to animate lahir to the point where raga is supposed to be in accordance with its purpose of existence. Ingsun tells nothing about love, beauty, virtues, and justice. Bopo Iswana illustrated, “Even when you are about to do something, like stealing, for very rational reasons, you would know it as bad. Or, even if everyone around you prevents you from doing good things, like helping someone, you would know it as good”. Ingsun gives not only rational reasons but also virtues and love. It leads to righteousness. At this point, Akang Ika joined the conversation by saying that ingsun constructs and manifests through or in roso. Roso is a noun to mean “feeling, sense”, but is also a verb meaning “to feel, to sense”. Roso may be translated as rasa (Indonesian: feeling, taste, emotion), but means beyond it. Studies of Javanese observed the dual nature of rasa. The term is about emotional release as well as emotional restraints, and it is associated with both order and chaos (Weiss 2006, p. 15). Roso is the ability to know, sense, and do beyond what raga may know, sense, and do. Akang illustrated this relationship by saying that if eyes see through sight (of batin), they are limited to seeing a certain limited distance. Their sight is limited by other blocking materials. Roso is able to know, sense, and do beyond those limits, and as a leader, ingsun manifesting through roso tells and suggests what to comprehend in order to act and behave in accordance with righteousness and virtues. The account of roso is also commonly comprehended by Javanese. With roso, in Javanese, one knows the right virtues and behaviors according to one’s rights and duties in a certain socio-cultural setting (Sugiharto 2008). Right virtues informed and suggested by ingsun and manifested through or in roso include nonattachment (rila), self-sufficiency (nrima), mindfulness (éling-waspada), patience (sabar), solicitude (prihatin), and humility (andap-asor). In socio-cultural relations, roso-based right virtues are to respect what others feel (tepa-slira) and avoid what might hurt others (Sugiharto 2008, p. 374).
Ingsun, Bopo Iswana explained further, is to be empowered and developed. It is powerful in nature but potentially dominated by and controlled by raga. Raga in nature has various interests, aspirations, and needs, and so may go against ingsun or roso. Raga may be hungry, and so needs to eat, but the food available may belong to others. Even though ingsun or roso suggests avoiding eating the food of others, raga may ignore the suggestion to free itself from hunger. Rather than listening to ingsun leading batin to animate lahir to be creative, raga may just take the short-cut action, eating the food. In reality, raga may be more powerful than ingsun. The more raga acts according to its own needs, interests, and aspirations, the more it will dominate ingsun. For that reason, ingsun needs enduring empowerment. Empowering ingsun is not to weaken raga, even though it is sometimes necessary to distance raga from its interests and aspirations. One common practice of empowering ingsun is fasting, which is also found in the Javanese tradition (Woodward 1985, pp. 1009–10). Physically, fasting may weaken raga through hunger, but would eventually empower it if performed properly through a healthy diet. Empowering ingsun is thus ideal to also empower raga that has its own power. Powerful ingsun leads raga to be powerful, creative, and constructive in acting out for righteousness, virtues, and happiness.
Ingsun or roso is the essence of the self. In Javanese theory, ingsun is the all-encompassing force within the self. It is the manifestation of God in individuals in their finest state (Errington 1984, p. 279). Abah Agun emphasized what he said before, “It is you who tells who you are and should be!” In response, Akang Ika shared his insights, stating that ingsun or roso is an emptiness but not a nothingness. It is an emptiness in the sense that all existing recognizable parts by the self are inseparably related and united into nothing but wholeness. It is a state of being totally conscious about the many as the relational, the whole as the one. Therefore, any identified and recognized entity may be defined only through the relational. The identified identity is, therefore, empty in essence and speaks only of emptiness because what exists is nothing but relational.
To be in such a state, one would embark on a “journey” of stepping up level by level from knowing raga and all its relatives, batin and all its relatives, and then ingsun. Such a journey was narrated through folktales, myths, legends, creative artistic works, and so on, which depict ideas about good and bad and show that the journey of knowing ingsun is a fully committed struggle. In addition to some Sundanese mythologies, Both Bopo Iswana and Akang Ika used the Javanese version of the Mahabarata to illustrate the journey of knowing ingsun as a symbolic battle between the worlds of “order” and “chaos” (Anderson 1990; Pemberton 1994; Sears 1996). In the myth of the Mahabharata, two main symbolic characters are in a battle: Kurawa and Pandawa. Kurawa—characterized as arrogant, egotistical, and full of lust and desire—represents the world of chaos, whereas Pandawa (the five brothers)—characterized as pious, selfless, and virtuous—represents the world of order. The Pandawa did their best and succeeded in overcoming Kurawa, and when they prevailed, the cosmos and life on earth became harmonious, prosperous, and just (Sugiharto 2008, p. 371).
Akang Ika emphasized that it is not easy to engage in this journey, and we may even go astray, but to live life harmoniously and happily, each one of us must participate in the journey of knowing ingsun. Otherwise, we will just cause varieties of disorder, chaos, and disasters, to ourselves, others, and the cosmos. For the followers of Sunda, many kinds of social conflicts and natural disasters reported by the media were due to the fulfillment of raga’s selfish interests and aspirations. Ingsun was dominated by raga. People who only focus on raga are human but behave as threatening, monstrous people. They ignore the nature of their existence, which is inseparable from the existence of others.

4. What/Who Is Nature?

When asked about nature, the followers of Sunda referred to the observable—what the eyes are able to see, the ears are able to hear, and the bodies are able to sense. We see, hear, and sense varieties or diversities of existence, which include human and non-human beings, but the followers referred to their earlier point that those diversities are all originating from the four elements—air, water, soil, and fire. The four are the origins or essences of nature. The four elements of nature form all bodies, raga of human and non-human beings. When seeing, hearing, or sensing these diversities, we basically observe the four elements, the manifestations of nature (Hobgood and Bauman 2018). The human body itself is part of nature, the formation of the four elements. As already explained, knowing the body is basically about knowing about the four elements: air, water, soil, and fire of nature. In other words, to know nature is to know the self.
The work of knowing the self, Akang Ika explained, may be achieved by two different levels of exercise. The first level is olah raga (body exercises) through various practices. Olah raga may include all kinds of physical body exercises, from any kind of sports to dance, fasting, and so forth. The second level is olah roso (batin exercises) through practices, such as meditation and contemplation, by pondering and reflecting on roso, the animating force. Some may do olah raga, the first level, to build up a physically healthy body. This action is important yet not sufficient because it is only used to know the physical body, not the entire self. One should also do olah roso, the second level, to know the self. These exercises help people to recognize the nature of existence and being, its origins, dignity, rights, interests, duties, and responsibilities.
Through self exercises, one would comprehend how the self originates from the four elements of nature. When someone exercises to know the origin of the self, one would encounter and recognize other selves, or other beings existing, also originating from nature (the four elements). Bopo Iswana gave a simple illustration, “What makes you grow is what you eat, food. When you investigate food, you would recognize the origin of food, which is the soil, water, air, and fire”. Those four elements form the food, tree, and all living beings. Bopo Iswana said that, in summary, “all other living beings are from nature just like us, the humans. We are all formed by the four elements”. From the body’s perspective, “we share the same origins, and so we are one in essence”, Abah Agun emphasized.
Reflecting on origins, one would comprehend the dignity, rights, duties, and responsibilities of raga and all living beings. Roso exercises would offer details of knowledge about raga. Animated by batin, raga is to live and grow, and its life and growth, as batin recognizes, senses, and learns, are related and dependent on other beings. When knowing about other beings, the inevitable consequences of knowing about the raga, one would come to comprehend that other beings are also dependent on us. Humans and other beings are originally, naturally, and practically interdependent. The more we learn about raga through roso exercises, the more we know other beings, our dependence, and our interdependence. All beings, including humans, animated by batin, are all interdependent on each other. Roso exercises would, therefore, emphasize that the self and other selves have dignity and rights to live and grow. Due to their interdependence of human and non-human dignity, a set of rights, duties, and responsibilities are relationally attached to each other.
Roso exercises would lead to a deep level of understanding, Akang Ika explained that all things or forms are nothing but one, the relational. We may see a phenomenon of diversities; each one is different, and we are distinguished from others, but we are all, in fact, one, the relational. Our origins are the same and our functions are different, but the purposes of living and growing revolve around the same existence, the relational. We are all to live and grow in relatedness. Human and non-human beings, who are both from nature, are to relate for survival and sustainability. Roso exercises are necessary to develop raga for such a level of understanding. Akang Ika elaborated that raga exercises may help to know the origins (the four elements), but they may not necessarily lead to understanding the relationality of dignity, rights, and responsibilities of all beings. The physical body may be perfectly healthy, but when it works only to fulfill its selfish needs and aspirations, it will endanger the dignity, life, and growth of other beings, and in turn its own dignity. To avoid this outcome, the self ought to adopt ideas and practices of relational dignity by establishing harmonious interrelations of nature, the second Javanese trilogy of knowledge, mamayu hayuning bawono.

5. Who Is God?

The idea of God is relational to humans and nature. In explaining the idea of God, the followers of Sunda referred to the saying of their ancestors that says “Gusti Maha Suci ngajadi alam semesta dan pengisinya” (The Lord the Most Holy becomes the universe and all those in it). They elaborated on the word “ngajadi” (Sundanese: becoming) as the key to comprehending God. The word also means “creating” as a never-ending process (of creating, becoming), which has neither a beginning nor an ending. Ngajadi is the divine work that creates and/or becomes nature: humans and non-humans become, exist, live, and grow. Ngajadi forms the universe and all in it. In other words, the becoming, existence, life, and growth of all living beings, (which include) human and non-human beings, by their very nature, are divine manifestations.
Ngajadi is relational in the sense that for a being to become, it is necessary to interrelate accordingly to other beings that are also to become. To become a raga is to resemble the four elements, not one element but the four, in ways that the four resemble each other to form diverse entities to exist. A human raga would not stop depending on the soil, water, air, and fire/heat, for example, in order to exist, live and grow. Raga would continually depend on the four elements of nature through breathing, eating, and drinking from plants, fruits, water, and others that come from the four elements, in order to stay alive and grow. All ragas, the human and the non-human, are divine manifestations, diverse but relational; they are the “one”.
For the followers of Sunda, ngajadi as “the one”, the relational aspect of divine manifestations, is well-reflected in the first sila (principle) of the Indonesian ideology Pancasila (Five Principles). The sila, “Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa”, is commonly translated as Belief in One God (Chia 2022), though for Madinier (2022), the literal translation is “(belief) in the great one Lordship”. For the followers of Sunda, the words God and Lordship have different meanings and emphases. The former refers to and emphasizes the personal Creator, whereas the latter refers to and emphasizes divine manifestations. The latter reflects meaningfully the notion of ngajadi. Lordship implies the never-ending co-creative divine manifestations that continually form and reform the universe, which take the form of observable nature as human and non-human beings. Lordship also implies “the relational”. Divine manifestations are so greatly diverse that they are uncountable. They are distinguishable but inseparable. They all relationally form the whole, the great one. The first sila was elaborated more in relation to its main aim of being religious, manunggaling kawula Gusti (the unity of the self with the Devini), which is also the main aim of Javanese Indigenous Religions (Ricklefs 2012, p. 389). For them, manunggaling kawula gusti, practically speaking, is a state of the self that manifests nothing but ingsun, knows nothing but the relational, does nothing but the harmonious, co-creates life for all, and forms nothing but the whole, the great one.
Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa is, therefore, better understood as the “divinely relational wholeness”. The divine is “One” but manifests in various forms of life. God manifests through ngajadi in all living beings that form the wholeness, the universe. Bopo Iswana illustrated ngajadi in an empirically simple way through the work of electricity. Electricity manifests through lighting lamps, fans, heaters, air conditioners, and so on. Bopo Iswana explained that people see those various forms, but they understand they are all formed or manifested by uncountable electricity. We may quantify electric voltages, but they are just manifested forms. Electricity is one but is uncountable because it is relational. Following this illustration, the electric generator in monotheistic religions may be perceived as the analogy of God’s existence and work. It is the One that creates all forms (of electricity) from nothing. However, for the followers of Sunda, the electric generator itself would be just another creative work, another type of related form that makes up the electric generator. This empirical illustration of electricity explicates ngajadi, the process of becoming, and co-creating in relational interdependence: manunggaling kawula Gusti.

6. Interrelational Cosmology: The Basis for the Religious

Ideas of being religious are based on an (indigenous) epistemology that to know is to relate, to engage in interpersonal relationships. “I know as I relate”, as coined by Bird-David (1999, p. S78). When one seeks something to know through or in oneself, as suggested by the followers of the Sundanese Religion, one would know and recognize others in relation to oneself. Knowledge is relational. Any knowledge I have is about others’ knowledge, and when using it, I should, therefore, consider the well-being of myself and others. If knowledge is about power, I should use it to empower both myself and others.
Relational knowledge verifies the cosmological questions of the Javanese trilogy of knowledge. As already discussed, the trilogy leads to an argument that existence is relational, or that there is no existence without relationality. The first element of the trilogy posits that all beings, human and non-human, that exist in the cosmos share the same origins with each other. They all share the same environment or planet, practically speaking. Consequently, the second tenet of the trilogy asserts that they all need to interrelate with each other. Interrelation is inevitable, but as the second trilogy instructs, it ought to be harmonious, benefiting all involved in the environment and the universe, which, in turn, would facilitate the practice of the third tenet of the trilogy (unity of the self with the divine).
Based on the cosmological perspective of the followers of Sundanese and Javanese Indigenous Religions, the universe and the cosmos are formed, developed, and sustained by divine work in forms of continual co-creative work of existing beings, both human and non-human. Human and non-human beings are all divine manifestations and are perceived as persons. They all contribute to co-creative work for life. Such a cosmological perspective on personhood is not unique to Sundanese and Javanese religions but is common among followers of other Indigenous Religions of Indonesia (Bagir et al. 2021) and beyond (Bird-David 1999; de Castro 1998, 2012; Ingold 2000; Morrison 2014; Studley 2019; Williams et al. 2012; Winter 2019). In their perspectives, personhood is not identical or limited to human beings but extends to non-human beings. Any being, human or non-human, who demonstrates intentionality and a commitment to engage in relationality is a person. Based on such perspectives, followers of Indigenous Religions would argue that lands, forests, mountains, and all beings living life in their environment are persons, and they all, therefore, deserve equal treatment as persons. For equal treatment, the kind of relationship to engage with them ought to be “interpersonal”.
Indigenous interpersonal cosmology anticipates that the interpersonal relationship is dynamic. Any person, human or non-human, is expected to contribute to the well-being of other persons, but they may unexpectedly ruin the relationship. Persons are potentially selfish. Some are, in fact, monsters. To anticipate destructive work by monstrous persons, ideas of being religious are established and forged. Therefore, interpersonal relationships may be categorized into two types: the religious and the irreligious. The religious, as the second tenet of the trilogy of knowledge instructs, is a set of ideas and practices for cosmological balance, governed by three main principles: responsibility, which means “what I do would impact me”; ethics, which means “what I do would impact others”; and reciprocity, which means “what I give is what I receive and have” (Maarif 2019).
The religious implies that existence is relational, but the relational may be dangerous, and so existence ought to be directed to contribute to cosmic balance through establishing a relationship of sharing with others in existence, and only through sharing would existence enjoy well-being. My well-being, religiously speaking, is relational to others’ well-being. My aspirations and interests, which are many times different from yours, are to signify my worth, dignity, and rights, but at the same time should also signify yours. To be religious, one should orient oneself to sharing. The religious purpose of existence, being interrelational, is nothing but sharing and acts of becoming and co-creating the wholeness, the cosmos. Ideas of being religious are embodied in practices of the (Indigenous) ontological concept that all beings are (re)formed, shared, and (re)united in the same origin (of the interrelated four elements of nature). Religious ideas and practices imply the dictum, “I relate therefore I am” (Bird-David 1999, pp. S77–S78; Rushmere 2020; Morrison 2014; Makanda 2011; Reid and Rout 2016). There is no existence without relationality, and for cosmic balance in life, growth, and development, religious principles must be applied.
In contrast to religion, some kinds of interpersonal relations are irreligious. Those destroying relationality, such as selfishly driven actions, disrespecting others’ worth and dignity, and invalidating others’ aspirations and interests, are axiologically irreligious. Those actions are by monstrous persons. Being religious is to uphold the principles of responsibility, ethics, and reciprocity, and violations against them are irreligious. Being religious is not stationary, but a dynamically enduring exercise. I might be religious at a certain time, but then irreligious the next time. Being religious is constantly challenged by daily potential irreligiosities that may ruin or destroy interpersonal relationships. In practice, to be religious is to co-create, co-preserve, co-develop, and co-advance interpersonal and relational interdependence and relational dignity.

7. Adat: The Religious System of the Relational

For preserving religious interpersonal relationships, the Indigenous Peoples of Indonesia established and institutionalized adat. Adat is a system of life whose forms include social institutions, political structures, economic transactions, and cultural creativities, ranging from rituals to everyday life. As a system, adat governs socio-cultural, political, and economic practices together to systematically reproduce ideas and practices of interpersonal relationality. It is holistic and valorizes the whole, but encompasses the particular, especially human and non-human individuals (Howell 2016).
The relational interdependence of humans, nature, and God, as highlighted in the previous section, is illustrated by how the word adat is commonly used and observed by masyarakat adat (the Indigenous Peoples of Indonesia). Indigenous Peoples attribute adat to themselves as well as non-human beings such as lands/forests, houses, clothing, and their socio-cultural, religious, and political systems. In fact, no Indigenous group in Indonesia calls themselves masyarakat adat without attributing the term to other non-human beings. Those attributed to adat are all perceived to participate in the adat system. However, it should be noted that the word adat has been used and interpreted by policymakers and national legal systems (Arizona 2023). The policy-based dominant understandings of adat refers to laws, traditions, or customs as part of the culture (Davidson and Henley 2007). In contrast, the way Indigenous Peoples use, mean, and live by adat signifies the religious as interpersonal, encompassing social, cultural, economic, and political (Maarif 2012) realms.
“Official” definitions of masyarakat adat by both the Indonesian government and civil society organizations, especially the Nusantara Alliance of Indigenous Peoples (AMAN), necessitate at least three elements: the genealogy of kinship forming the community of adat, inherited territory that they have communally lived in from immemorial times, and an adat system (Maarif 2021). The official definitions exclude those who have no communal territory to claim. Many Indonesian farmers, crossing ethnic groups, who have explained their farming system as adat but use lands for farming belonging to individuals, are not classified as masyarakat adat by official definitions (Mubarok 2020).
By associating themselves with the term adat, the Indigenous Peoples of Indonesia built a communal commitment to relational interdependence, attributed adat to all beings with whom they are relationally interdependent, and then institutionalized this relationality through an adat system. Adat systems guide and govern Indigenous Peoples to perceive and relate to land, water, the paddy, and other beings with whom they experience and share life in the same environment interdependently. Adat is a set of relational ties. It is a “religious consensus” of relational interdependence. The people (of adat), the land (of adat), the forest (of adat), the house (of adat), the rituals (of adat), and so forth, are all combined into relational interdependence. The institutionalized adat systems guide the people in their relationships with other beings (human and non-human) to exist, grow, and thrive together.
An adat system implants the three religious principles described above (responsibility, ethics, and reciprocity) in social institutions for social relations, political structures for power distribution, economic systems for wealth sharing, and cultural structures for creativities and activities. Needless to say, an established adat system does not necessarily secure religious principles. Adat people strive to enforce their adat system in response to daily irreligiosities, which are sometimes too complex to deal with. As a system, adat is a way of governing, which can be potentially corrupted. Those involved in adat systems, even adat holders, are not free from being perceived to potentially corrupt their principles. To anticipate potential corruption, sanctions, in addition to incentives, are implanted into adat systems.
Indigenous religious principles, the main outcomes for sanctions and rules in adat systems, revolve around ideas and practices of sharing, such as balancing relations between different beings or persons. As explained above, the cosmos is perceived to be occupied by different beings (human and non-human) who have their own dignities, aspirations, and interests. They all strive for their own worth and dignities and struggle to fulfill their aspirations and interests, and if not governed (through adat systems), they are potentially destined to clash in ways that would dismantle interpersonal relationships, and eventually the cosmos. Sharing is thereby a practical means of balancing interpersonal relations, the interpersonal cosmos.
Sharing is (re)exercised through adat rituals to reproduce ideas and practices in everyday life. Some rituals are categorized as part of the life cycle, others are classified as seasonal following a calendar, and some others are occasional, such as thanksgiving by families or individuals. In addition to the communal, some rituals are privately personal. The main purposes of those diverse rituals are to (re)exercise the practice of sharing and to re-contextualize interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, sharing from an Indigenous perspective involves three interrelated components: person, power, and gift (Morrison 1992, 2000, 2002). A person who shares (or engages in a relationship) has power(s). The powerful one is valued and exercised through gifting (how much one shares). When gifting, one is demonstrating one’s personhood. In adat systems, one is expected to perform personal rituals to seek knowledge and power about oneself in relation to others. Any knowledge and power obtained are to be shared through gifts as part of life cycles, calendrics, and family rituals. Examples of gifting include offerings to forests, lands, mountains, and others. For adat people, forests and others are powerful people who they have encountered, known, and interacted with through generations. Those powerful people have demonstrated and offered their gifts such as oxygen, water, fresh air, and so on, to others, especially humans. Rituals of offering, for adat people, are used to recontextualize sharing as the religious practice of interdependence.
The practice of sharing is (re)exercised and observed in ways to condition kinds of relations or forms of treatment, so that all beings’ worth, dignity, aspirations, and interests are considered valid. For one’s dignity to be respected, aspirations validated, and interests fulfilled, one must respect others’ worth and dignity, validate others’ aspirations, and fulfill others’ interests. In any kind of relations in adat systems, no worth, aspirations, or interests of any recognizable being/person may be invalidated. Otherwise, the value of sharing is rendered invalid. The more people validate others’ dignity through gifting, the more they are respected. They may be even awarded positions or status as being sacred, for they are powerful in sharing power with others.
If someone mistreats others’ worth and dignity, aspirations, and interests, sanction or punishment would befall them. They may even be expelled from the adat community. For example, sanctions are commonly imposed on individuals who fell tree(s) in adat forests. Such punishment is not to disrespect individuals’ worth and dignity or to invalidate their aspirations and interests, but rather to re-establish relational interdependence, the cosmic balance. Tolak bala rituals (expelling (potential) diseases or disasters), one of the most popular among adat people, reproduce ideas of re-establishment or rehabilitation (Widaty 2021; Hasbullah and Jailani 2020). Rehabilitation of interpersonal relationships is the main characteristic of punishment of the adat system. Disrespectful people are given a chance to rehabilitate themselves due to their inherent worth or dignity. In certain circumstances, one may or even must sacrifice others and even oneself for religious interpersonal relationships, such as rituals of animal sacrifices. They do so only if they are convinced that the dignity and the rights of animals, not individually but collectively, are being fulfilled, and such sacrifices serve to strengthen the whole religious interpersonal relationship.
In adat systems, any beings or persons, human or non-human, are recognized (through experiences) and perceived to have capacities, however different, to respond accordingly to any forms of treatment, such as validating or invalidating their worth, dignities, aspirations, and interests. If their worth, dignities, aspirations, and interests are invalidated, they would be endangered, and in turn, they would find ways of responding accordingly to the same form of treatment. As a result, these responses would endanger the first invalidators of dignities and rights, and eventually endanger the entire cosmos. Such logic is even common among followers of Indigenous Religions in examining disasters, both natural and social. For instance, those who shared their insights in the Forum Kamisan Daring (the Thursday Online Forum) of the Intersectoral Collaboration on Indigenous Religions (ICIR) “Rumah Bersama”, viewed COVID-19 as a cosmic disease and disaster in the sense that the pandemic and its causes were significantly contributed to by human persons, the people who disengaged from religious interpersonal relationships (FKD 2020).

8. Expanding the Notion of Relational Dignity

The notion of dignity has been commonly argued to be the basis of all rights, including religious freedom. Religious freedom as a natural (human) right aims to protect the dignity of the followers of every religion. In reality, the concept of religious freedom, in the way it is conceptualized and implemented in many countries, is exclusive in the sense that it privileges the so-called “World Religions” and excludes others, such as Indigenous Religions (Joshi 2021; Hurd 2015; Shrubsole 2019; Thomas 2019; Wenger 2017). The notion of dignity as the core of human rights and religious freedom discourses calls for expansion and inclusion.
Relational interdependence among beings, human and non-human, which is common among followers of Indigenous Religions in Indonesia, necessitates the notion of dignity as relational. Relational dignity is a normative and practical concept emphasizing that one’s dignity is relational to or interdependent on the dignity of those beings (human and non-human) sharing life in the same environment. Relational dignity values dignity as an intrinsic worth inherent in human beings (Beyleveld and Brownsword 1998; Arieli 2002; Cancik 2002; Starck 2002; Shultziner 2003). It is inalienable and unconditional (Dicke 2002), but also interdependently relational to the dignity of those whom human beings relate to and share life for co-existence, co-creating, and mutual advancement. The ontological argument for it, as explained above, is that there is no existence, and thereby no dignity, without relations.
“Relational dignity” is a term suggested by numerous scholars (Zylberman 2018; Miller 2017; Tranvåg et al. 2015; Galvin and Todres 2015; Pols et al. 2018; Reihling 2013). McCrudden (2008, p. 679) used the term “relational” to argue that dignity as intrinsic worth should be recognized and respected by other human individuals. One’s dignity may be enjoyed if others recognize and respect it. Miller (2017, p. 118) insisted on the notion of relationality for (human) dignity since all human beings stand with some other human beings. They are all mutually formed and sustained in and through modes of human connections or through relationality. Dignity is fundamentally relational in the context that it ethically requires care for one’s moral life (Miller 2017, p. 117). Similarly, Zylberman (2018) elaborated on the notion of relational dignity in connection to a directed duty of respect. He argues that the relational account would secure the co-entitlement of dignity and the duty of respect. Along those lines, Hollenbach (2022) referred to Western thought, as well as Jewish and Christian traditions, which viewed the human person as social to argue for a relational understanding of human dignity and rights. He argued that a relational view of human dignity and rights is an essential norm for social solidarity, especially in response to today’s global divides.
However, the above scholarship on the notion of relational dignity emphasizes that the true and the only bearers of dignity are human beings. The emphasis is due to their underlying perspective of human specialism, where human beings are exceptionally the ones who think, consider, and morally behave, a process from which other non-human beings are excluded (Miller 2017, p. 111). Mattson and Clark (2011) correctly assessed how conventional sources overwhelmingly endorse human beings as special. Foundational Western thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant upheld human specialness due to their unique capacities for reason, morality, and autonomy. Human specialism, Mattson also noted, is asserted by Judeo-Christian traditions based on their theological argument that human beings are created in the image of God (Mattson and Clark 2011).
Other scholars have challenged rationalist justifications for human exceptionalism, arguing that not all human beings are treated as rational agents. Stucki (2023, p. 25) referred to the condition of infants, and people with severe dementia and other severe mental disorders as examples of when human rights exceptionalism collides with the empirical reality that many people do not conform to the philosophical and theological justification for human beings as “rational, self-directing, autonomous individuals, and moral agents”. For Stucki, any defense for specialism would fail or undermine equal human rights for all human beings because capacities for reason, morality, and autonomy do not belong to all humans (Stucki 2023, pp. 31–32).
As an alternative, Stucki (2023) proposed a One Rights approach to assert fundamental human rights and (human) dignity. She proposed it as a normative complement to One Health and One Welfare approaches developed by other scholars (Amuasi et al. 2020; Bonilla-Aldana et al. 2020; Broom and Johnson 2019; Pinillos et al. 2016; Colonius and Earley 2013). The One Rights approach, according to Stucki, has two dimensions: (1) conceptually, the idea that rights and dignity have a core meaning applied to both human and non-human beings, such as animals, which was her main concern, and (2) practically, the idea that the rights and dignity of humans and non-humans are interdependent (Stucki 2023, p. 94). Advocating for animal rights, Stucki argued that by dwelling in the same planetary community, sharing the same environment, and (often) living in the same socio-political communities, humans and animals are naturally and socially interdependent. They both are equally interdependent and, therefore, deserve normative protections of natural and social preconditions to enjoy equal rights (Stucki 2023, p. 95).
Anticipating challenges of the One Rights approach as potentially controversial, Stucki correctly examined the legally justified concepts of human rights that already include protections for corporations, the non-human, as right holders (Stucki 2023, p. 98). The notion of respecting the dignity of non-human rights holders has been also extended to nature. In some countries such as Ecuador, New Zealand, India, Switzerland, and others, nature as a rights holder has been even legalized (Toomey 2020; Kauffman and Martin 2018; Tanasescu 2013; Akchurin 2015).
The notion of relational dignity suggested by adat people and other followers of Indigenous Religions enriches and strengthens the scholarship. It strengthens the very term of the relational. It maintains the human persons, whose dignity is intrinsic, as social, and so human persons are advocated to enjoy their rights, but at the same time are bound to carry responsibilities of caring for others and duties of respect through sharing. Relational dignity, which I described above as a religious norm for masyarakat adat, extends to notions of both personhood and society. Personhood includes both human and non-human persons that are socio-culturally interdependent. Human persons may enjoy their lives with dignity if they care for, respect, and protect the dignity of nature. Relational dignity is to assert that the dignity of human and non-human persons is intrinsic and distinctive to each individual, but at the same time social and thereby relational. The extension of the notion of personhood and society beyond human beings should be viewed as strengthening, rather than weakening, human dignity because human persons are both philosophically and empirically (inter)dependent on other non-human persons in the environment they both inhabit. Therefore, the protection of non-human persons’ dignity encourages the co-existence and co-creative advancement of humans and nature, and so would strengthen the possible enjoyment of human and non-human rights together with dignity.

9. Conclusions

The notion of relational dignity has been articulated by scholars, especially Indigenous scholars. Those voices offer different perspectives and decolonize dominant Western narratives (Winter 2019). In addition to strengthening this decolonial scholarship, I have proposed in this article that relational dignity is a religious norm. It is even the core religious norm underlying the worldviews and socio-cultural systems of Indigenous Peoples in Indonesia. In holding fast to that tenet, Indigenous Peoples have struggled in the face of incursions by government policies and conversion attempts by missionary religions. They have even struggled to preserve the core of their religious norm of relational dignity from internal encroachments.
From the beginning of its post-colonial regimes in the 1940s, the Indonesian government has adopted twin policies to govern indigenous peoples: the politics of official religions and the politics of culture (Maarif 2017; Ropi 2017). The former, through policies on the governance of religions, authorized certain religions as official—in 1945–1962, only Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism were official; in 1962, Hinduism and Buddhism were added; and in 2001, Confucianism was added—and declared all other religious beliefs and practices, including Indigenous Religions, illegitimate. The politics of official religions then obliged every citizen to affiliate with one of the official religions, making affiliation with an official religion a condition of citizenship. This policy authorized the misrecognition of Indigenous Religions as culture, forcing followers of Indigenous Religions to affiliate with one of the official religions.
Leaders of the official religions took advantage of these twin policies. They competed to convert followers of Indigenous Religions to their religions. Mass religious conversions, politically sanctioned, were common in the history of religious governance in Indonesia. Most indigenous peoples of Indonesia have been forcibly converted to an official religion. They had no choice but conversion if they wanted to access their citizenship rights. Notably, several indigenous groups chose not to convert, accepting the price of sacrificing their legal status as citizens. Most of these groups lived in remote areas of the nation. Despite the politically driven process of religious conversions, many Indigenous Peoples over time internalized the beliefs and practices of official religions. They reformulated their identities as followers of those official religions. Some were even the main actors who declared their ancestors’ Indigenous Religions not only as a culture but as primitive and heretical (Al Qurtuby and Kholiludin 2020; Arifin et al. 2019; Deta 2021; Nalle 2021; Sukirno 2018).
Followers of Indigenous Religions in Indonesia continue to experience external incursions and internal encroachments until today, even after the State’s recognition of Indigenous Religions through the Decision of the Indonesian Constitutional Court No. 97/2016 in 2017. Examples were repeatedly reported in the media or presented by researchers in the series of the Annual Conference on Indigenous Religions (ICIR 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022) and representatives of Indigenous religious followers in the weekly online forum called Forum Kamisan Daring (FKD) (FKD 2020, 2022). These incursions and encroachments are everyday challenges for followers of Indigenous Religions as they struggle to practice their religious norm of relational dignity, access their rights of religious freedom, and transmit their religions to future generations.
Many followers of Indigenous Religions continue to call for more inclusive religious freedom that guarantees relational dignity for them to share and co-create inclusive ideas and practices for a sustainable society and planet. They expect to be treated equally to Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and other religious followers who are granted freedom to build places of worship, practice their religions, and propagate their religions. Followers of Indigenous Religions demand to enjoy the right to practice rituals of reverence, respect, and recontextualization of relational interdependence with, lands, forests, mountains, and other natural places (Bagir 2019; Hakim 2022; Tuhri 2020). From the perspective of relational dignity, the claim that adat lands and forests belong to Indigenous Peoples is not to mean that they alone may benefit from their conservation and preservation, but rather to call for joint protection of the dignity of all living organisms in ecosystems and care and respect for their aspirations and proportional functions. They extend an invitation to live life for all with dignity by holding responsible, ethical, and reciprocal principles, and observing practices of relational sharing.


This research received no external funding.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to ICIR Rumah Bersama that have engaged in promoting inclusive citizenship for followers of indigenous religions, Oslo Coalition for Freedom of Religion or Belief and ICLRS-Brigham Young University, the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), and The Asia Foundation that have provided partial financial support for activities of ICIR Rumah Bersama. I am especially grateful to informants from followers of indigenous religions whose insights shaped the focus of this article.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Maarif, S. Human (Relational) Dignity: Perspectives of Followers of Indigenous Religions of Indonesia. Religions 2023, 14, 848.

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