Deadly beach ritual in East Java exposes dark side of spiritual groups in Indonesia
The public has been urged to be more cautious in joining these groups, especially those demanding financial remuneration.
JAKARTA: Imam Safii was still asleep at his home in Jember regency, East Java, when he received an urgent call in the wee hours of Feb 13.
The caller informed him that tidal waves had swept away a group of people at nearby Payangan beach. Therefore, his assistance as a volunteer with the local search and rescue organisation was quickly needed.
He rushed to the scene and found two people lying motionless on the beach while a man tried to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on one of them.
“But the man said they had been in the water for an hour, so I thought it was impossible they were still alive,” Mr Safii told CNA.
By the break of dawn, it became evident that not only two people had drowned but a total of 11 people had died when they were swept away by tidal waves.
Along with 13 others who managed to survive, they were part of a group meditating and performing a ritual in the darkness.
Their leader survived and police later revealed that they were members of a spiritual group known locally as Padepokan Tunggal Jati Nusantara.
Local media reported that the ritual was led by a man who claimed to be a psychic. The ritual involved both Islamic religious recitations as well as Javanese chants and mantras.
Jember police chief Hery Purnomo said that every follower they questioned had a different reason for joining the group and the ritual.
But they mainly did so hoping to become rich, be cured of an illness or they had problems in their families.
The tragic incident sheds light on the prevalence of groups that believe and practice various forms of spiritual activities. Some rituals were mixed with religious as well as syncretic beliefs in magic and psychic powers.
Besides the Feb 13 incident, a similar tragedy also claimed the lives of three people at a different beach in Jember in 2018.
Earlier in 2016, a man who had claimed to have the magical power to multiply money was arrested in Probolinggo, East Java, for murder and fraud.
Taat Pribadi, who gave himself the royal name Dimas Kanjeng, shocked the nation when it emerged that he had murdered two of his followers who attempted to expose him as a fraud. Those who were killed said that the man did not actually have the ability to multiply money.
In the same year, the public also learned of Gatot Brajamusti, a former actor turned spiritual leader who was sentenced to jail for the possession of illegal weapons, child rape and drug abuse.
Experts have urged the public to be more cautious in believing and joining these groups, especially those that demand financial remuneration.
WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE IN THEM?
Spiritual groups with cult-like tendencies have existed throughout Indonesia for hundreds of years, said anthropologist Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad from Banda Aceh’s Ar-Raniry University.
“This issue has been around for a long time in the archipelago, even before the arrival of the Dutch (in the 16th century).
“Nowadays, people want to define what it is, and the problem is that it is common although it is against our rationality,” Mr Bustamam-Ahmad told CNA.
The situation is especially complex given that Indonesia has hundreds of ethnicities, and most of them have their own indigenous beliefs, Mr Bustamam-Ahmad said.
In addition, Indonesia also recognises major religions that originally came from abroad, such as Islam and Christianity. These religions went through various processes of adaptation and assimilation to indigenous customs, beliefs and practices.
Over time, some of them could have developed into spiritual groups comprising a small number of people who frequently conduct their activities away from public attention.
Mr Bustamam-Ahmad said that some religion-based groups may have been around for centuries in Indonesia and their modus operandi in attracting followers have also evolved over time.
For example, years ago female followers were often asked to be mere servants to their group leaders. But nowadays there may have been some adjustments given the digital age we live in, he explained.
“Today, if you have a certain skill it becomes a strength on social media, and something which seems to be magical becomes interesting (to social media users),” said Mr Bustamam-Ahmad, who specialises in the study of anthropology and sociology of religions in Southeast Asia.
Loyalty to the leader as well as being useful in generating collective income have become essential elements for the viability of these groups.
Forming a strong emotional and unquestionable bond between leaders and followers is also key to how these groups operate, said Mr Bustamam-Ahmad.
While religion has always been a major pull for spiritual groups to attract followers, he also believes that it has become commodified.
He believes that in many instances, religion has been exploited for financial reasons. These include attracting donations and membership subscriptions or simply scamming their members.
“The more expensive a group is, the more complicated the situation you are in. If a group becomes more difficult to join, the more it shows there’s something (unusual) there,” said Mr Bustamam-Ahmad.
Speaking at a press conference a few days after the Payangan beach incident, the Jember police chief said followers of Padepokan Tunggal Jati Nusantara had to pay a monthly fee of 20,000 rupiah (US$1.40) for joining the group.
They also had to pay another 20,000 rupiah for taking part in the beach ritual.
He revealed that the leader established the group in 2015 upon returning from Malaysia and he initially promoted himself as an alternative medicine practitioner.
He said the group's leader carried out his rituals by combining various religious practices, including chanting mantras in Javanese languages.
The police chief added that the group attracted new members through word of mouth by claiming its successes in curing people of certain illnesses.
“There was no coercion, there was no registration form, all was done via the members who spread the news to others such as their families or friends. Generally, the members all have a problem,” he said.
A survivor of the incident at Payangan beach, who was quoted by his first name as Feri, 20, told local media that he had joined the group for two years. They usually went to the beach to get rid of bad luck, he said.
Another survivor named Bayu, 21, told local media that they were only at the beach to meditate.
According to Professor Sunyoto Usman, a sociologist from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, people tend to seek spiritual or magical solutions if they believe that the rational or scientific way of doing things could not solve their problems.
“It is not correlated with their level of education. This involves their comprehension and it could be rational or irrational because the usual method of problem-solving did not work,” said Prof Usman.
Members of the group led by Taat Pribadi in Probolinggo, for example, included army generals and police officers, while there were celebrities among the followers of Gatot Brajamusti.
Prof Usman further explained that such groups usually exist in societies that tend to be liberal.
“When the authorities are very authoritarian, they usually don’t exist because then sanctions can be imposed on the followers.
“But when the authority in power is more liberal, they are permitted to exist,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Head of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) Yusnar Yusuf told CNA that there are many people in Indonesia who believe in spiritual leaders as a result of them not adhering to religion properly.
“This kind of phenomenon is not uncommon in Indonesia. When there is a spiritual emptiness in people who have not adhered to religion properly, they will look for something that is lacking in themselves.
“These are people trapped in their desire, but the desire cannot be achieved in a rational way … These are people who don't follow what their religion says."
CHALLENGES IN TACKLING THE PROBLEM
For renowned psychic Permadi, who goes by one name, his days of believing and nurturing psychic and shaman practices were over a few years ago. He said that he did not agree with the fraud practices involved.
“They (psychics and shamans) ask for big money. But they don't actually have the capabilities that society expects them to have. That's why I decided to move away from them,” the 82-year-old former psychic turned politician told CNA.
These days, he no longer provides free psychic consultations.
Most spiritual groups continue to exist in Indonesia as many people find them useful in lightening their day-to-day problems and issues.
Those who are involved in questionable activities and unethical motives are also not easy to be detected until they run afoul of the law.
Mr Yusuf of MUI said that as long as these groups do not interfere or mislead the teachings of Islam, MUI cannot take action.
“The problem here is that such groups are established at home and we do not know what the basis is and what their purpose is. And because they are formed in their own houses, they cannot be monitored,” he said.
However, if authorities such as the police or interior ministry know about groups that promote teachings deviating from the norms, they can take action, he added.
If their teaching is found to be misguided, then MUI can step in to take action against them.
He said MUI can sack any of its members who are associated with fraudulent practices, something that had happened before a few years ago.
Meanwhile, Mr Bustamam-Ahmad, the anthropologist said that people should be vigilant.
“The public must be aware. If something is different from common sense or common practices, it can be questioned. They can go directly to MUI, local religious leaders or the police to inform them about it before it becomes a time bomb.”