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Andrew Beatty, Varieties of Javanese Religion. An Anthropological Account

Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, xix + 272 p., réf., index, gloss., ph., carte (“Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology” 111)
Stephen C. Headley
p. 295-297

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1The title of this innovative volume on the “religion(s)” practised by east Javanese peasants recalls the lectures given at the beginning of the twentieth century by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902?). James pioneered an empirical approach to comparative religion. One is also led here to measure the progress accomplished since that date by anthropological studies of religion. Andrew Beatty, although dealing with a single set of hamlets in a dictatorial political system, reveals a remarkable variety of religious practices, kept well out of sight.

2Through the elegant prose of this book, one enters into the diversity of Javanese religion. Beatty’s sociological analyses of the self-conscious strategies of the Javanese at defining their religions vis-à-vis their neighbours’ and fellow villagers’ enlighten these descriptions, as does the anthropologist’s occasional amusement at his peasant companions’ explanations of their faiths and practices. Beatty’s work rethinks the ground covered by Clifford Geertz’s Religion of Java (1960) which has stimulated much research over the last forty years in the field of the sociology of religion in South-East Asia. Beatty brings us, at the end of the twentieth century, to an understanding of the effect of diversity upon Javanese religion.

3This volume elaborates an overview of village “Islam” in its manifold forms. Chapter V is appropriately entitled “Practical Islam”. The preceding four chapters set out the background sociology. Chapter I provides an introduction and chapter II a penetrating analysis of the varying morphologies of the communal meal called slametan. That meal provides “semblance of totality” recalling Mauss’s fait social total, and paradoxically embodying a shared perspective on the world by representing nobody’s views in particular. As Beatty’s explains, this strange epitome of local traditions is a communal affair precisely because it defines no distinct community. This gives us a idea of the magnitude of the social tensions created by divergent religious practices. Chapter III presents a non-sectarian sanctuary, belonging to the entire village population, each group frequenting it in their own way. Village politics influences the aesthetics of the barong performance (possession of the peasants by their village guardian spirit) more than the fragmentary story which the dancers act out. In chapter IV, at another site, a Javanese cult is the object of a detailed comparison to the slametan described in chapter II.

4Beginning with the fifth chapter on Islam, Beatty presents the more exclusive religious affiliations: Islam; Javanism with its “wet book”, the human body, rich in symbolic correspondences inaccessible to the “dry book” or the Koran (chap. VI); a Javanese mystical sect concerning fully a fifth of the village population (chap. VII) and the newly revived Javanese Hindu religion that presents an alternative non-Islamic practice in the eastern “salient” of Java adjoining Bali (chap. VIII). The purpose of having arranged the chapters in this pattern is convincing. One has to work from the general shared frameworks to the specific, exclusive ones. In the conclusion (chap. IX) Beatty reiterates that “each variant embodies –sometimes only suggests– a different conception of the world and one’s place within it […]. What brings them together is a common social context in which no single element can be fully comprehended without reference to the others […] borrowing, ambiguity, avoidance, suppression and irony [are] closely tied to the exigencies of Javanese village life” (p. 239).

5The first half of the book is the more sociological; the second half is devoted to explorations of those peasant modus vivendi, seeking to personalise religious practice and avoiding any objectification of belief. Beatty deserves our thanks for taking these village philosophers seriously. By bypassing the classical Javanese texts and going directly to the village exegesis of religious practice, the anthropologist has in fact thrown light on many passages in Javanese erotic/religious literature which otherwise are incomprehensible (e.g. p. 209). Beatty’s anthropological account of the mystical sects’ discreet, but elegant deflating of Islamic pretension leads the reader to wonder. Why on this village stage we don’t hear from one equally entertaining Muslim, gently ridiculing the Javanists forests of symbols? Did the Muslims’ comments reflect intolerance? Many of the Javanese tropes of experience are cast exteriorly in the language of Islam, while others reflect independent or pre-Muslim morphologies. As the author says in the Introduction, “style and manner register important factors such as authority, censorship, indeterminacy and compromise” (p. 5). It is only through these “texture(s) of cultural debate” and not through the translocal properties of certain religious practices that one can gain a view of Javanese religion as a whole. For Beatty, as opposed to Geertz, variant religious forms are not to be identified with distinct groups, but reflect their relationships with the other spiritual practices. Thus the values circulated inside these villages bear the mark of each peasant’s observations of the village religious arena. When Javanese Hindus drink holy water from their cupped hands, they then pour it over their heads in a gesture derived from the conclusion of Muslim salat prayers. It was not the program of forced Islamisation that provoked such imitation, but the desire to preserve older Muslim traditions inside of newly adopted ways.

6The author argues that, if we may admit that power creates religion (p. 240), then to explain how this happens we must take religious ideas seriously and not reduce them blindly to the play of material forces. If communal strife (primordialisme, in Indonesian) is to be avoided and civilitas cultivated, then the deep anxieties caused by the advance of Islam will require that Javanese syncretism be rethought, says Beatty (p. 247). Under the regime that follows the collapse of General Soeharto’s New Order (May 1998), the cultural resilience of Javanese tradition will be at the centre of whatever newly negotiated compromise is settled on. In this political perspective, we have here a forward-looking anthropology. Beatty is to be congratulated.

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Stephen C. Headley, « Andrew Beatty, Varieties of Javanese Religion. An Anthropological Account », L’Homme, 156 | 2000, 295-297.

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Stephen C. Headley, « Andrew Beatty, Varieties of Javanese Religion. An Anthropological Account », L’Homme [En ligne], 156 | octobre-décembre 2000, mis en ligne le 29 novembre 2006, consulté le 30 mars 2017. URL :

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Stephen C. Headley

CNRS, Équipe de recherche d’anthropologie sociale: morphologie, échanges (ERASME), Paris.

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