Pencak Silat as Humanistic Discipline
Rapid Journal Vol 5, No. 2 (Book 16, 2000: 35 – 37)
© O'ong Maryono
Changes in the function of pencak silat came about in line with the gradual transformation of it surrounding society, and was initiated in the two key loci (locations) of silat study: the keraton (royal palace) and the mandala. As explained in the previous article, initially in the keraton the art of pen-cak silat self-defence was exclusively for members of the royal family to prepare themselves as defenders of the empire. However, with the changes in the role of the kera-ton due to the decline of the Maja-pahit Empire, pencak silat was enriched by a new concept which explicitly linked technical expertise in self-defence with humanistic growth in one comprehensive cosmology.
Pencak silat could no longer be characterised as a vocation, or a mere skill, but focused instead on moulding individual, human qualities. During this transition, the spiritual aspect that had always been implicit in pencak silat, came to the forefront and ultimately dominated the self-defence aspect. In the Javanese keraton for instance, the connection between pen-cak si-lat and the cosmological concept of manunggaling kawula Gusti (the unity of humanity and God) developed systematically. Spiritual study to acquire supernatural powers from objects, mantras, and even individual inner power was undertaken and developed, although the goal of this underwent a significant transformation. Although it was still utilised for practical purposes to enhance physical skills in battle, the spiritual aspect began to be emphasised as a means for humans to unite themselves with God. As a result, the appreciation Javanese felt towards the pesilat (pencak silat practitioner) also changed, as the consensus arose that not only should they have expertise in facing the enemy, but also a level-headedness and ability to actualise the principals of harmony and etiquette according to ancestral values. A pesilat -moreover a master- must safeguard, preserve and defend the basic cultural values of perseverance, patience, honesty, heroism, obedience and devotion, and provide a model to the population for what may and may not be done. Besides mastering its techniques and physical skills, a pesilat is also expected to develop one's "inner self", a process which involves learning about strengthening one's soul, the faithfulness of one's heart and controlling one's emotions.
Since this time, pencak silat started to be seen as a form of humanistic endeavor. It requires that any practitioner of pencak silat has a strong sense of humanity, honesty and goodness, and will not be led astray by feelings of self importance, but will, instead, be sensitive to the suffering of others, striving to alleviate it. This element of emotions' control is also symbolized in many of the movements. Thus, for instance, blocking with the hand in front of the face symbolizes the resisting of negative influences as seen by the eyes, heard by the ears or spoken by mouth. Certain hand movements in front of the chest signify that one is patient, calm and able to maintain one's sense of balance (or, in Javanese: tepa selira). Only when one has mastered all these elements, is able to apply them and put them into practice can a practitioner of pencak silat be called a true 'master'.
Lets me expand a little bit on this. According to our elders, training pencak silat is like opening a coconut. First, you must learn to open the skin, then proceed to open the coconut fiber, then again the coconut shell and finally open the coconut to be able to drink the coconut milk. This is a metaphor for pencak silat: If you can attain the first level (open the skin) you will be able to practice pencak silat self-defense and sport (beladiri dan olahraga). If you can attain the second level (open the coconut fiber), you will be able to master pencak silat art (seni) and reach inner calm/tranquillity. If you can attain the third level (open the coconut shell) you will start to understand the spiritual aspect (bathin) of pencak silat through meditation and introspection. Finally, if you attain the fourth and last level (open the coconut) you will become one with God (manunggaling kawula Gusti).
Back to our historical account, in its new form as a humanistic teaching, pencak silat no longer needed to be concealed from other keraton workers. Although it had yet to extend to the general public, pen-cak silat skills of self-defence along with their spiritual aspects began to be taught at the keraton to abdi dalem (domestic servants) and kawula (those who follow orders) according to their respective position within the hierarchy. (Can-dra Gautama 1995:70).
The resoluteness of the spiritual aspect of pencak silat, along with its extension outside the circle of nobility, was also influenced by the spread of Islam within the islands of the archipelago by Muslim traders from Gujarat, Arabia and, perhaps, from China. These people inhabited coastal regions and lived alongside Hindus, Buddhists and animists. Initially, areas affected were in the north of Sumatra, which during the XIII century consisted of kingdoms Islamic in nature, such as Samudra and Pasai. From there, the Arab culture and the religion of Islam spread far and wide on the island of Sumatra and helped to mould the local society's way of thinking thanks to the devotees who broadcast Islam in a number of ways at that time. Among others, they fostered public interest by providing lessons in self-defence and kanuragan. The people of Minangkabau still remember that Paninjau Jantan and Betina silat were brought to Padang Pa-riaman by an ulama from Aceh, Syech Burhanuddin, who brought Islam to the area in the middle of the XV century. He used the art of silat of Syech Abdul Rauf, as an instrument to promote Islam by pointing out its many advantages. Due to his spirit of devotion, Syech Burhanuddin was sanctified by the people, and was even buried in Ulakan Pa-riaman, which is still visited by many pilgrims today. (Sartuni Nutir 1976:18-19).
Thus, pencak silat played a role within the process of the Is-lamization on the island of Java. This development occurred only with the fall of the Majapahit Empire, and the rise of the Demak empire on the north coast of Java in the XV century, which was followed by the rise of the Muslim Mataram empire in the inland region of south Central Java in the XVI century. Religious leaders or great holy men were the first carriers and disseminators of Islamic religion. The Chronicle of Java and the Chronicle of Pasundan, as well as oral accounts among common people, tell of nine religious leaders who purportedly possessed great martial skills and supernatural powers. These were Sunan Ampel, Maulana Malik Ibrahim, Sunan Bonang, Sunan Giri, Sunan Drajat, Sunan Ka-lijaga, Sunan Kudus, Sunan Muria and Sunan Gunung Jati or Faletehan. They pioneered Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in Java by perpetuating the mandala tradition of preceding religions. (Kafanjani 199?:14-16).
These Islamic educational centres were usually erected on vacant, no-man's land far from the bustle of the world, to ensure scholars and students peace and quiet in their pursuit of spiritual knowledge. According to French historian, De-nys Lombard (1996(2):131), the founders of these past Islamic schools were 'pioneers'. They 'accessed the jungles in the outer edges of an inhabited world, Islamisized the local non-believers, managed newly cleared settlements [and] created... a peaceful safe-haven that was self-supporting and formed a micro-cosmos'. The success of these pioneers was due to their bravery and faith supported by great skill in the art of self-defence. Through their proficiency in pencak silat, they were able to reside in remote areas that were less than safe, and were able to withstand both natural menaces and human interference.
As well as being thought as a defence tool, at these Islamic schools, pencak si-lat was an integral part of religious teachings. Within an educational process that demands its pupils' subservience to Almighty God, the art of pencak silat was combined with a spiritual strength which came from and was sought from professions of faith in the Koran, a tradition still in existence to this day. In particular, pencak silat is used for 'amar ma'ruf nahi mungkar' which means 'inviting someone on the path of the righteous and preventing them from straying'. According to this concept, Muslims who are strong both physically and spiritually are loved more by Allah than Muslims who are weak, as quoted in Hadis: Al mu'minul qawiyyu ahabba ilallahi minal mu'mi-nidh dhaifi (Hadis Ri-wayat).
In the beginning, pencak silat was taught in the Islamic schools by a group of noblemen, who adhered to Islamic teachings. But gradually they too lost their hold over pen-cak silat, because their students came from a number of socio-economic classes. This process of popularisation started after trainee preachers completed their education and began preaching throughout the archipelago. Along with Islam, pen-cak silat spread throughout society.
In addition to preachers, traders also played a role in the spread of Islam and in the geographical expansion of pen-cak silat. This is also emphasised in a legend on the origins of pencak silat in Dombu and Bima. It is said that pencak silat was brought by two Arab traders named Huma and Banta who brought Islam to these two areas. Prior to this, they lived in a several different regions of the archipelago, including Makassar. From that city, Huma and Ban-ta brought the Bugis pencak silat style, akmencak, a name which the local people changed to mpaa Sila (Department of Education and Culture 1982:223).
The influence of Islam on the expansion of pencak silat was not limited to scope, but is also evident in its artistic aspects. With the emergence of Islamic- flavoured traditions and ceremonies, alongside ancestral ones, pen-cak silat as an art was augmented in a variety of ways. In particular, pencak silat as an art acquired an important role in circumcision ceremonies in a number of regions across Indonesia, including West Java.
At circumcision parties in the past, frequently there was beat of the penca drum, accompanying the siram kembang (flower bath). The male child to be circumcised was escorted by the beat of the penca drum to the river to be bathed before the circumcision. Only after the circumcision came the first vows. The dancing pencak silat movements were in rhythm with the one-two of the drum.... The pencak silat performance could be in the morning, or at night; after Isa' prayers until around midnight. At the party old, young, men, women, grandfathers, grandmothers, all wanted to join in the silat festivities. All would dance the movements of pencak silat for hours. To the point where many were queuing up... (Saleh 1989:3)
In short, it can be said that the spread of Islam in the islands of the archipelago helped boost the expansion of pen-cak silat. Nevertheless, the growth of pencak silat was still limited and only began to be systematically perpetuated with the emergence of formal pencak silat training schools (perguruan), in addition to the keraton and Islamic schools, during the period of Dutch colonisation in our archipelago, as we will see in the next article.
1. Chandra Gautama, Mencari "Keindahan" Tenaga Dalam. Matra, Jakarta: 1995.
2. Dennis Lombard, Nusa Jawa: Silang Budaya; Batas-batas Pembaratan. Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama. Part I, 1996.
3. Depdikbud, Permainan Rakyat Daerah Nusa Tenggara Barat, Proyek Inventarisasi dan Dukumentasi Kebudayaan Daerah, Jakarta, 1982.
4. Kafanjani, Menyingkap kisah Keteladanan Perjuangan Wali Songo, Surabaya: Anugerah, 199?
5. Saleh, Riwayat Himpunan Pencak Silat Panglipur. Unpublished paper, 1989.
6. Sartuni Nutir, Hasil penelitian Olahraga Tradisional (Pencak Silat) Sumatera Barat . Research report Sekolah Tinggi Olahraga, Padang: 1976