012: A Muslim-Hindu Buddy Story

By Farish A. Noor ~ October 12th, 2006. Filed under: TOM_Main.

A Muslim-Hindu Buddy Story: Raja Shah Mardan and Berahman in the Hikayat Indera Jaya

Living as we do at a time when Malaysia’s Malay-Muslim population seems to be engaged in a deliberate erasure of their pre-Islamic past, it pays to go to the bookshops and pick up the odd Hikayat (epic) or two. Malaysia’s cohorts of Islamists and religio-conservatives may balk at the prospect of having to acknowledge their past, or admitting that much of what passes today as Malay-Indonesian culture is really a result of the first wave of the Indianisation of the Malay archipelago. This tendency to turn a blind eye to history is evident everywhere we look: from the construction of new mosques modeled on the decidedly ugly archetype of the ‘Petrodollar’ Middle-eastern/Central Asian mosques to the calculated neglect of historical sites that date back to the Hindu-Buddhist era.

Yet history has a tendency to reappear when and where we least expect it to. For students and scholars of classical Malay-Indonesian literature and the arts, the historical legacy of the pre-Islamic past is something they cannot possibly overlook. In classical Malay texts such as the Hikayat Pandawa Lima, Hikayat Panji Semarang, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa we come across numerous accounts of the interplay between cultures and religions. In these works, the local genius of our ancestors makes itself evident in the way that the scribes of old could bring together diverse cultural traditions and juxtapose them next to each other, opening the way for a dialogue between civilizations that remains unparalleled in terms of its sophistication and sensitivity to the Other. One such text that comes to mind is the Hikayat Indera Jaya (otherwise known as the Hikayat Shah Mardan) (1)

The story itself is too long and complex to be recounted in full here. Suffice to say that it can be described as a ‘buddy road movie’ of sorts, a rambling tale of Raja Shah Mardan, ruler of Dar-al Hastan (who, for some peculiar reason changes his name to Raja Indera Jaya early on in the text) and his faithful mentor-sidekick Berahman (Brahmin) as they travel across the world in search of knowledge and adventure. In the course of their travels, a myriad of strange and wonderful things happen to both of them: Raja Indera Jaya is transformed into a bird and later a monkey, he meets the ulama Tuan Sheikh al-Din and Tuan Sheikh Lukman al-Hakim who instruct him in the formal precepts of Islam as well as the esoteric aspects of Islamic mysticism (Tarikat, Haqiqat, Marifat), he encounters the mysterious legion of phantom-like martyrs (shahidin) who descend to earth, he is greeted by the angel Muqarabbin (who assigns four djinns to Indera Jaya to serve as his loyal servants) and so on.

Apart from these somewhat extraordinary happenings, a number of complex theological and philosophical questions are addressed in the text, such as the place of Man in relation to Nature and the Afterlife; predetermination and free will; and the question of the transmigration of souls (Both Indera Jaya and Berahman demonstrate the propensity to transfer their souls and hop from one corporeal body to the next in an unnerving way.)

It is clear from the start that the Hikayat Shah Mardan/Indera Jaya is a highly complex text that brings together a variety of elements and can be interpreted on a number of different registers. At its most basic, it reads as a pedagogic text that introduces the reader to the fundamentals of the Islamic faith, albeit seen through the somewhat hippy lenses of a highly eclectic form of Sufism. Theologically speaking, the view of Islam that is presented here is deeply influenced by the (then popular) notion of the Oneness of God with Creation as elaborated in al-Arabi’s doctrine of Wahdat’ul Wujud, which was actively propagated by Nusantara mystics like Hamzah Fansuri and Shamsuddin Pasai, and later deemed as bordering on the heretical (2). Al-Arabi’s influence is rendered explicit in the text when Indera Jaya makes a reference to the concept of the insan’ul kamil (the perfect man), that was also elaborated by the 13th-century Spanish Muslim mystic and philosopher.(pg. 53) The narrative is also replete with generous references to Hinduism, with characters like Garuda (the winged steed of Vishnu) and Raksaksa thrown into the bargain.

Berahman, the Hindu teacher to the Muslim king: The Hikayat’s positive view of Hinduism.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Hikayat Shah Mardan/Indera Jaya is its positive depiction of Hinduism, personified in the character of Berahman (Brahmin), even though the friendship between Indera Jaya and Berahman was not destined to last and the two ultimately fell out with each other over the question of a woman whose attention they both pined for.

We beg to differ with Zabedah Abdullah’s description of Berahman as the ‘antagonist’ to Shah Mardan/Indera Jaya.(pp. xxix-xxx) Zabedah bases this view on the fact that Berahman was the one who ultimately duped his protégé Indera Jaya in order to win the affections of the princess Puteri Jalul Ashikin. This was done by Berahman transmigrating his soul into the body of Indera Jaya while the latter’s soul was trapped in the body of a monkey. To add insult to injury Berahman not only managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the smitten princess, but also her father Raja Bikrama Datia Wijaya. As it turns out the princess was not as easily fooled as her father and Berahman ultimately comes to a somewhat messy ending when he is impaled on a stake.

Notwithstanding this clash of egos between two alpha males, it remains a fact that Berahman and Indera Jaya are the two primary characters of the Hikayat and it was Berahman who initiated Indera Jaya’s quest for knowledge. Though the reader is informed that Indera Jaya was born and raised as a Muslim (and was taught the Qur’an at the age of seven), the Hikayat introduces Berahman as someone who likewise possesses knowledge of considerable value:

“Syahadan, maka masyurlah wartanya (Indera Jaya) itu kepada segenap negeri asing-asing. Dan beberapa lamanya, maka tersebutlah perkataan ada seorang Berahman datang dari negeri Dar-al Qiyam. Adapun Berahman itu tahu ia akan ilmu hikmat nazar. Maka ia pun pergilah ke negeri Dar-al Hastan dan tidaklah beberapa lama berjalan itu, maka Berahman pun sampailah ke negeri itu, lalu ia masuk kedalam kota. Maka duduklah ia disuatu tempat. Maka orang dalam negeri itu pun banyaklah ia datang belajar kepadanya. Barang dikehendakinya diajarkan oleh Berahman itu.“ (pg. 4)

Among the curious folk of Dar-al Hastan was Raja Indera Jaya himself. It was Indera Jaya who invited Berahman to his court, for he had heard of Berahman’s great knowledge in all matters. (“Adapun Hamba ini menyuruh silakan tuan hamba (Berahman) ke mari ini kerana hamba mendengar khabar tuan hamba akan pandai ilmu hikmat dan nazar” (pg. 5))

After studying under the tutelage of Berahman for nine months, the Brahmin announces his departure from the court of Inderaya Jaya but is met with protests from Indera Jaya himself, which suggests not only the bond of affection between the two, but more importantly the notion that the Hindu teacher had imparted knowledge that was deemed useful by Indera Jaya himself. The teacher-student dialectic between the two is further underscored by the fact that almost as soon as Berahman returns to his country, the guideless Indera Jaya gets himself lost in the forest while he goes out hunting with his retinue.

Here again we note the commonality of themes that can be found in Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim texts of the classical era. Indera Jaya is forced to redeem himself during his exile in the wilderness, in very much the same way that the Pandawa brothers are forced to redeem themselves in the Hikayat Pandawa Lima (the Malay rendition of the Mahabharata epic). A similar leitmotif is employed in the Jataka Wetsandon (Jataka Vesantara) of mainland Southeast Asia (popular in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) that employs the similar device of loss and redemption in the wilderness as well. (3)

Lost in Translation: The Hikayat Indera Jaya as an eclectic text

The fact that the Hikayat Indera Jaya is a richly eclectic text is evident to anyone who reads it. Even though the text adopts an overtly didactic and pedagogic approach in the way that it instructs the reader in the fundamentals of Islam, the manner in which this education is imparted is distinctly flexible, eclectic and inclusive. Even the characters of the Muslim instructors themselves (the ulama whom Indera Jaya encounters in his travels) are decidedly hippy dudes: Sheikh Lukman al-Hakim, we are told, is someone who “tiada makan dan tiada minum dan tiada tidur” (pg. 20), coming across more like a Hindu fakir than an alim knowledgeable in Islamic jurisprudence. In the course of the dialogue between Indera Jaya and Sheikh Lukman, the latter initiates the former into the mysteries of ilmu makrifat and tasawwuf (mysticism). (pp. 20-26)

The eclecticism of the text becomes even more apparent as the narrative continues, and in the following chapter Indera Jaya encounters the character of Garuda, who has laid waste to an unfortunate kingdom whose sole survivors are its king and his rather comely daughter. In the epic rumble in the jungle that ensues, Indera Jaya defeats Garuda, though the odds are somewhat stacked beforehand against the herald of the pre-Islamic past. (Indera Jaya gets his four djinns to tear Garuda to pieces, and it has to be admitted that a four-against-one fight is hardly a gentlemanly bout. But then again, Indera Jaya does manage to trounce the dastardly winged one and wins the affection of the Princess.) (pp. 34-36)

The fact that the Hindu deity Garuda makes an appearance in the narrative is already significant. What happens next is even more astounding, for the author of the Hikayat pushes the dialogue between Islam and Hinduism one step further. Following the death of Garuda, the son of Garuda comes down to earth in search of revenge. Garuda Junior spies Indera Jaya sleeping alone and pounces upon him. But just before he lunches on the sleeping Muslim hero, Indera Jaya wakes up and confronts his hungry foe:

“Maka Indera Jaya pun berkata kepada anak Garuda itu, ‘Engkau ini hendak memakan aku?’ Maka kata anak Garuda itu ‘Hai manusia yang mengikut amarullah! Walau bagaimana sekalipun aku hendak memakan kamu, jikalau belum dengan titah Allah Ta’ala, dimanakan dapat sampai kehendak makhluk itu memati samanya makhluk? Jikalau belum lagi sampainya bilangannya itu, dimanakan dapat?” (pg. 39)

Touched by the words of the younger Garuda, Indera Jaya orders his winged nemesis to carry him to the mountain of Dar-al Qiyam instead, where he may pray and meditate. In the same way that Berahman (Brahmin) was the catalyst that sparked off Indera Jaya’s search for knowledge, Garuda becomes the instrument for his further spiritual advancement. Here again it is clear that the Hindu characters of the Hikayat enjoy a positive status as companions and helpers in Indera Jaya’s mission to redeem himself.

Garuda’s answer to Indera Jaya (that it is not he, but Allah Ta’ala, who decides if and when a mortal’s end has come) also confirms the fact that the goings-on within the story are all securely contained within a narrative economy that is Islamic. It is God that hermetically seals the discourse of the Hikayat Indera Jaya (and indeed the entire narrative is essentially a guide for spiritual advancement so that the reader may come to God), but it is crucial to note that even here, in what is fundamentally an didactic Islamic text, Hinduism is not juxtaposed as the negative Other to Islam. It is the productive ambiguity of Berahman and Garuda (as well as the grey zones represented by the other-worldly characters of djinns and spirits) that brings out the richness and creativity of the text. But it is also this richness that is currently being held in question today, by the neo-fundamentalists in our midst who would not hesitate to denounce the Hikayat Indera Jaya and others like is as bordering on the heretical and blasphemous.

Sufism and Islam’s ambiguous yet productive Frontiers.

As mentioned above, the Hikayat Indera Jaya is obviously a didactic text that is meant to educate the reader. There are two important episodes in the text where this pedagogic function is being played out: The first takes place during Indera Jaya’s formal education by his mystic-teacher Sheikh Lukman al-Hakim. (pp. 19-29) The second takes place while Indera Jaya himself (now an accomplished Muslim hero in his own right) goes on the charm offensive and shows off his intellectual prowess to win the affection of Puteri Jalul Ashikin. (pp. 46-59)

In both instances we find an elaboration of the theory of spiritual evolution and moral elevation as expounded by al-Arabi, whose notion of the insan’ul kamil (the perfect man) was a synthesis of both classical Islamic theology and Hellenic (Platonic and Aristotelian) epistemology. Indera Jaya’s account of the origins of the universe is one that presents all of creation as a unified though stratified hierarchy of cognitive-spiritual stages (makam/maqam), and concludes with the call for the individual to transcend the phenomenal world of appearances so that he/she may come to know the Truth of God itself. (Apart from that it does come across as a rather nifty way to impress young princesses and to get a date – which goes to show that Philosophy is a useful subject after all.)

Perhaps the most important observation to be made here is the fact that the Sufistic approach of the Hikayat Indera Jaya allows for a great deal of maneuverability and accommodation, particularly when it comes to dealing with the question of the pre/non-Islamic Other. Once again works such as the Hikayat Indera Jaya remind us that the coming of Islam to the Malay archipelago was a complex and long drawn-out process that involved a great deal of negotiation and compromise. The author of the Hikayat was clearly set out on a missionary mission to convert, yet at no point in the text do we encounter a blanket condemnation of all things past: Even the man-devouring Garuda is given a chance to redeem himself through the self-effacing deeds of his offspring.

Read as a Sufi tale, the Hikayat Indera Jaya deserves a place among the other Sufi classics of its era. And like the works of the Sufi mystics of the past and present, the narrative economy of the Hikayat Indera Jaya is one that includes rather than excludes, accommodates rather than differentiates, between Islam and its constitutive Other. The process of translocal transfer of knowledge and values (which deserves to be studied in detail today) was one that took into account the sensitivities and prevalent norms of Hindu-Buddhist Malay society and adapted itself to the local context in stages. Reading the Hikayat Indera Jaya today, and in the light of the growing currents of religio-political authoritarianism we see all around us, ought to serve as a reminder of gentler times in the distant past.

Written at a time when Islam was neither politicised nor instrumentalised as it is now, it points to the possibility of inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that is based on common understanding and mutual respect; rather than coercion, thought control and the policing of public morality.


  1. See: Hikayat Indera Jaya (Hikayat Shah Mardan), edited by Zabedah Abdullah, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Siri Warisan Sastera Klasik, Kuala Lumpur, 2000. Not much is known about the author of the Hikayat Indera Jaya, or the circumstances of its writing. The philologist Braginsky (1988) contends that it was probably written around the 17th century, though the narrative of the Hikayat would suggest an earlier date as it is clear that the text was composed during the period of transition when Islam was just beginning to take root in the Malay archipelago. It was one of the more popular epics of its time, as versions of the story can be found in Malay as well as the Javanese, Bugis, Makasarese and Sasak languages as well.

  2. The doctrine of wahdat’ul wujud (unity of Being) is most closely associated with the Spanish Sufi mystic Sheikh Muhyi al-Din ibn al-Arabi (1164-1240). Al-Arabi was greatly influenced by the Muslim philosopher ibn Rushd, and at an early age he was exposed to the theories of the Muslim rationalist philosophers (falasifa) of both the Mutazilite and Asha’arite schools, who were themselves inheritors of the ideas of the Hellenic philosophers. For al-Arabi the reality (al-Haqq) and essence (al-Dhat) of God remains beyond the reach of human beings, though the names (asma’) and attributes (sifat) of God are knowable as they have to be expressed through real phenomena. The fact that only God’s attributes are seen in the world means that the quest for knowledge has to go beyond the appearance of Reality and penetrate into the inner essence of things. The goal of spiritual development is the denial of the rational Self and the overcoming of the dependency on reason so that the seeker of truth could attain ultimate knowledge of the Real. This abolition of the ego (fana) is meant to lead to the state of subsistence (baqa’) where the individual loses all sense of Self and is thus able to have a glimpse of the eternal presence of God. This theory was encapsulated in al-Arabi’s doctrine of wahdat’ul wujud (unity of Being) where he posited the universal presence of God while at the same time tried to maintain the singularity and specificity of God’s own being (for he did not want to suggest that the multiple presences in the universe could be equated with God, as that would imply a plurality of the Divine). Al-Arabi’s theory of wahdat’ul wujud later drew enormous opposition on the grounds that it was dangerously close to pantheism.

  3. Two of the most popular tales in the Southeast Asian region are of course the Malay rendition of the Mahabharata epic, the Hikayat Pandawa Lima and the Burmese-Thai rendition of the Buddhist Jataka tale, the Jataka Wetsandon. In the Hikayat Pandawa Lima, the Pandawa brothers are forced to go into exile in the forest after losing their kingdom to their cousins, the dastardly Korawas, in a dicing match. In the forest, the Pandawas are forced to brave a number of perils in order to prevail over themselves as well as the forces of Nature. Ultimately, the family of bad gamblers regain their ancestral rights and privileges after enduring numerous trials and tribulations in the jungle. In the Jataka Watsandon, Prince Wetsandon (Vesantara), is sent into exile in the forest along with his family after his decision to give away the kingdom’s prized sacred White elephant to a wandering Brahmin. This move, though motivated by Prince Wetsandon’s desire to renounce worldly power, incurs the wrath of the people as well as the King, who promptly sends his wayward son into the unforgiving wilderness. While living in exile, Prince Wetsandon encounters numerous trials and tribulations. One of these is his second encounter with the greedy Brahmin who forces the prince to surrender his children to him as slaves. Prince Wetsandon is finally re-united with his father and ultimately assumes the throne and crown. It is clear that in both these stories, the forest serves as a purgatory space for the central characters before they can assume their rightful place in society once again.

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