Science - September 1, 2005

Fieldwork / Rational in the jungle

Sixth-year International Development student Bas Bolman lived with the Kasepuhan mountain people in West Java during his internship (stage) period. His assignment was to assess to what extent agriculture had been modernised since the departure of President Suharto in 1998. After a few months in the jungle, however, his main discovery was how ‘hyper-rational’ he is.

‘During my fieldwork I started to realise how much of what I have learned just cannot be applied to the Kasepuhan. They are a group of people for whom tradition plays an enormously important role. The literal translation of Kasepuhan is ‘they who continue the traditions of the ancestors’. Their values are very different from those of the west. It is not about earning money, but making sure that everything is in balance. Rice growing, for example, is bound by all sorts of rules. They are only allowed to harvest once a year, while they could easily have up to five harvests.

‘At a certain point I came up against just how western I am. To take an example, I looked at how the Kasepuhan go about sowing rice. Being a rationalist, I would time the sowing period to coincide with the moment that you would expect to obtain the highest yield. The Kasepuhan on the other hand look at when the gods, the ancestors and the stars are in balance. If they feel that the conjuncture is good on a particular day, then they start to sow. They are much more concerned with the spiritual side of life. That is their logic, and we find this difficult to comprehend.

‘According to tradition, the Kasepuhan are descended from the Pajajaran, a culture that disappeared about five hundred years ago from West Java. The Pajajaran possessed knowledge from the tiger, the ‘ilmu macan’. Because these people spent their whole life studying the tiger, the Pajajaran were half human and half tiger, not in terms of their appearance, but rather their mind and spirit.

‘In order to understand more about the spiritual aspects of these people, I decided to go to an ‘Islam Guru’, a teacher of Islam who was also a sort of shaman. He said that he was capable of implanting a tiger spirit in my head that he would be able to control during the session. Beforehand I thought to myself, what a load of rubbish, but decided to see what would happen.

‘After a series of rituals I reached a point where I felt as though I was no longer in my body. Friends who were there said that I was lying on the ground looking like an epileptic, and making fierce clawing movements with my arms. The only thing I can remember is that it was an intense experience and I certainly had no control over what I was doing. Afterwards the Islam Guru asked me: does the rational Westerner believe now that ‘ilmu macan’ really exists?

‘I also described the incident in my fieldwork report. Other people in the chair group are a bit sarcastic about it, but I couldn’t care less. I wanted to understand the Kasepuhan, and I could only do that by doing it their way.’

Teun Hofmeijer