On pluralism, India could take a leaf out of Indonesia's book
The recent argument by Kejriwal to have lord Ganesh and goddess Lakshmi’s images on Indian currency notes has sparked the need to revisit ideas of multiculturism that Indonesia has embraced.
Multinational symbols, busts of national icons, and flags fluttering on Washington DC’s Massachusetts Avenue, or Embassy Row, give the boulevard a visibly cosmopolitan character. Mahatma Gandhi's statue in his trademark loincloth and sandals is placed outside the Indian mission and that of Winston Churchill on the British Embassy's lawns. Busts of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey's founding father, are installed outside the Turkish embassy and envoy’s residence.
An unusual centre-piece
Over a kilometre from the Indian embassy, goddess Saraswati’s 16-feet high white and gold sculpture atop a lotus with four arms held up and three children reading at her feet stand out as an unusual centre-piece of Indonesia’s embassy. The sculpture was installed on the mission’s premises in 2013 as a symbol of religious freedom in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7% of Muslims globally.
The children depicted at the feet of the goddess of wisdom, education, creativity, and music, include Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child. The Saraswati statue was installed four years after Obama was elected as the 44th United States (US) president in 2009, underlining how real democracy is about pluralism and a level playing field that allowed a man of humble African origins to become the sole global superpower’s commander-in-chief.
Pluralism is a value Indonesia promotes and shares with the US. India and Indonesia, too, have had close cultural and commercial links over two millennia. But Indonesia rarely occupies attention in India. The far-off archipelago between the Indian and Pacific Oceans attracted much attention and trended on social media when Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal cited its example to argue for having lord Ganesh and goddess Lakshmi’s images on Indian currency notes.
Ganesh's image featured in the Indonesian currency notes until they were withdrawn in 2008. Indonesia's national airline is named after the Hindu god Vishnu’s vehicle and companion–the mythical bird Garuda. The world’s tallest Hindu statue of Vishnu sitting astride Garuda is also located in Indonesia.
Indonesia encourages such symbolism to promote multiculturalism and co-existence. This is quite unlike what Arvind Kejriwal is widely perceived to be attempting to do by making the demand to beat the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at its own game in poll-bound Gujarat, a deeply conservative where it has been in power for 27 years.
Leaders such as Kejriwal have avoided, like the plague, any reaffirmation of India’s historic commitment to pluralism. It no longer counts as good politics, in stark contrast to Indonesia, whose then ambassador to the US, Dino Patti Djalal, mooted the idea of having Saraswati's sculpture in Washington DC as a beacon of religious tolerance for all nations. A face of calm, Djalal wanted the Indonesian embassy to stand out and jazz Massachusetts Avenue up with the statue.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the then-Indonesian President, flew to Washington to preside over the inauguration of the statue and participated in a purification ceremony. He underlined the need for religious tolerance at the ceremony that coincided with the Jewish New Year. The holy water for the ceremony was transported on Yudhoyono's plane to avoid curbs on liquids being flown on regular flights. Yudhoyono, who made blessings of Saraswati in the name of Allah called for more love, tolerance, and knowledge while emphasizing Islam as a religion of peace.
In September 2018, Yudhoyono’s successor, Joko Widodo, inaugurated the 75m high Vishnu sculpture showcasing the deity in a meditative state riding on Garuda’s back with his eyes half closed. At the inauguration function in Indonesia's Hindu enclave of Bali, Widodo called the Vishnu statue a source of his country’s pride. Indonesia’s top leadership and former president Megawati Soekarnoputri were among those who gathered for the function, where fireworks lit up the night sky in a celebration of diversity.
Hindus, who account for 2% of Indonesia’s population, have deeply influenced the country, where the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are integral to folk art. Around 90% of the Hindus in Indonesia (around 3.4 million) are concentrated in Bali, the country’s westernmost Island. Bali is among Indonesia’s most developed parts, where virtually every street has a temple. Bali has just fewer than 5% of the people below the poverty line compared to 12% elsewhere in Indonesia.
Bali, which was considered a backwater until four decades back, has emerged as one of the most popular tourist destinations globally. Around 20 million tourists visit the island annually. It is no longer just a beach destination but has emerged as a lifestyle destination. A gourmet getaway, Bali is known for a variety of gastronomic delights including babi guling traditionally served on special occasions.
Babi guling is among the most popular dishes at restaurants in Bali and literally means turning pig. A roasted suckling pig dish made with turmeric, garlic, and ginger, it is juicy and tender and cooked over the fire on a hand-turned skewer.
Foodies relishing the dish are a rare sight in Indonesia as pork is forbidden in Islam. Muslims consider pigs unclean but Muslim dietary restrictions are not applicable in the Hindu-majority Bali, where Basant Panchami or Hari Raya Saraswati (the great day of Saraswati) is among the major festivals.
Celebrated at the onset of spring when yellow mustard flowers bloom, Basant Panchami marks the beginning of the Balinese Pawukon calendar. Yellow is associated with Saraswati, who is worshipped on Basant Panchami as the embodiment of learning. The festival is marked by organising prayers at homes, educational institutions, and public places and wearing brightly coloured clothes and offerings at temples.
On the neighbouring Java Island, many adopted Hinduism in the 1960s and 1970s. Other Hindus in Indonesia include over 100,000-strong Indian diaspora in Jakarta and Sumatra. In Lombok, Hindus and Muslims adhering to the Waktu Telu tradition pray side by side at the Pura Lingsar Temple complex. The multi-denominational complex nestled in rice fields was built in 1714. It includes a lily-covered pond devoted to Lord Vishnu, who is believed to be the protector and preserver of the universal equilibrium. India and Indonesia have much in common and a lot to learn from each other; majoritarianism is certainly not among them.