The Battle that Extends Us Beyond the Grave



Sabda Bathara – Dwi Kristiyanto


It was a privilege to participate in the creation of a dance drama called Luhingrat. The work was created by Mas Kris [Dwi Kristiyanto] and myself, and is based on the mythological story of Ranjapan (the Death of Abimanyu) from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It reflects the rich cross-polinisation that characterizes the Javanese cultural tradition. However, the work is fundamentally Javanese in character and reflects the essence of Kejawen, Javanese Spiritual Teachings. The use the traditional form of the drama tari [dance drama] brings Javanese additions and refinements to this classic Hindu epic. The work is at once ancient and modern, mythological yet deeply relevant to our daily lives.

Crying Earth is the literal meaning of Luhingrat. It was derived from two words, LUH meaning tears; and RAT which means earth. Luhingrat is a work depicting a heroic yet, ultimately, tragic fight between the Pandawas and the Kurawas. But the battle is really a metaphor for the struggle between our earthy duties and roles and the larger destiny of our souls across time. It is Javanese in form and inspiration, and has four distinct episodes:



The character Utari fears for the destiny of her husband, Abimanyu, and for their child.

The Mahabharatayuda or the great war of the Bharata is a war epic in which the five brothers of the Pandawa fight against the ninety-nine brothers and one sister of the Kurawa. Pandawa literally means ‘sons of Pandu’. They are Arjuna, Yudistira, Bima, Nakula, and Sadewa. The Pandawa can also include their children and allies. Kurawa literally means ‘descendant of Kuru’ [first cousins of the Pandawas]. The Bharata are the ancestors of both the Pandawas and the Kurawas.

Abimanyu, the central figure in this story, is the son of Pandawa’s Prince, Arjuna. As a satriya [warrior], Abimanyu has noble character and a strong sense of responsibility in matters pertaining to the state. Abimanyu swears that he is willing to fight against the Kurawas until his dying breath. His gracious and faithful wife, Utari, is unhappy with his decision. She advises him not to be involved in the battle between two families descended from the Bharata. Utari’s concern over her husband centers around the possibility that he may be stuck down in the battle. She is also concerns for the future of their child.

In this violent time, Abimanyu remembers that the duty of a satriya is to fulfill one’s dharma [sacred duty]. For a satriya, that means to go into battle without personal regard for one’s feelings. This is the battle that weighs in each of us everyday. It is the conflict between doing that which is safe and comfortable, and that which fullfils a larger sacred purpose. For most Javanese of today, this can be easily be understood in the Islamic concepts of righteousness and jihad. Abimanyu is asking the same question that is asked of each of us, “What am I willing to give up in order to do what is right?” In Abimanyu case, the answer is everything.



A heated debate takes place between Abimanyu and Utari. The debate is presented through antawecana and a six-line Javanese verse called tembang. Antawecana is a Javanese style of theatrical language used in classical Wayang Wong [play danced by human dancers].

One need to understand that none of the fight between the Pandawas and the Kurawas has to do with gain or loss, right or wrong, being or non-being. Abimanyu is trying to convince Utari that it is about accomplishing dharma. And accomplishing dharma should not be viewed as a goal–something that at some point in time we complete, attain, then finish. Luhingrat underlines the importance of avoiding the tendency to see all things and evaluate them in terms of a beginning and an end. To accomplish dharma is to practice the dharma itself. It is an on-going process. Accomplishing dharma always resides in the doing. A satriya needs to continually practice dharma for it to be functional.



The characters employ self-constraint and silent meditation to seek guidance from God.

After a long debate, they settle back and meditate in silence on the force of absolute trust and unwavering obedience and love. Self-constraint and silent meditation creates a purifying state of enlightenment in the characters. A silent prayer takes over dependent on the ability to surrender and yield to the spiritual life force. It brings them in a state of mind in which they can see clearly the right decisions to be made and the proper course to follow.

One thing that can be done is to take account of one’s own death, to meditate on the fact that human life is finite. Rarely do we recognize that reflection is as much a catalist for change as battle. In fact, reflection is battle in that it resolves the conflicts of the soul. I regard the third and forth episodes of Luhingrat are curriously the same. In the third episode, the characters resolve the inner battle, and in the fouth episode, that inner struggle is played out in the metaphor of war.

Only God is eternal. And only that within us that is of God will persist. Through meditation we are imbued with the divine attributes in such a way that the temporal and transitory attributes of our nafs [passion or desire] pass away. I believe that this, in part at least, is what is meant by the Javanese saying mati sajroning urip (dying while living). In Luhingrat, the characters die so that they might live.

In traditional Javanese practise, the study of the nafs involves semedi [meditation] and tapabrata [various abstinences]. This study is said to involve an increase in self-awareness and self-criticism. In Luhingrat, the characters focus their mind by surpressing Babahan Nawa Sanga, which literally means to close the nine holes of the body. This is another way of saying that one must supress all his desires and the senses. The nine holes are: two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, one mouth, one anus, and one sex organ.

The process of closing the Babahan Nawa Sanga brings an inward view of one’s own nature. This helps one understand one’s humans better. It brings one into a state of mind in which one can see clearly the right decisions to be made and the proper course to follow. Thus it will help to understand the meaning of our lives. Tensions in body and mind will disappear, resulting in an inner harmony. In this state of wholeness, a deep inner communication takes place. Hans Margolius preached us “Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted. Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world.”


FORTH [and most poignant] EPISODE:

The fight between Abimanyu and the Kurawas takes place which leads the characters to a larger understanding of their roles and purposes in this life.

For 12 years, the five Pandawas retire to forests as homeless exiles. The intense rivalry between the Pandawas and the Kurawas finally reached its peak in Mahabharatayuda [The Great War of the Bharata] after their claim for the return of their kingdom was rejected by the Kurawas. An eighteen day bloody fight ensues at Kurusetra. The Mahabharatayuda is filled with tragic incidents in which many young heroes including Abimanyu meet their death. Abimanyu died as senopati [commander-in-chief].

Central to this mythology is the concept that death is the only thing that tempers the human spirit. Only the idea of death makes a satriya sufficiently detached form earthly concerns so that one is capable of abandoning oneself to one’s destiny. Our mortality is the indispensable ingredient. Without the awareness of mortality, everything is ordinary, trivial. It is only because death is a constant stalker that a satriya comes to believe that the world, and our life in it, is an unfathomable mystery.



Abimanyu knows his own death is stalking him and won’t give him time to cling to anything. Without remorse, sadness or worrying, a satriya must focus his attention on the link between himself and his death. It is in the singleness of each action, the fulfilling of the destiny of each moment, that each point in life becomes a battle. Abimanyu must let each of his acts be his last battle on earth. Only under those conditions will his acts have their rightful power. Otherwise they will be, for as long as he lives, the acts of a fool. To understand this, we must examine the concept of manunggal mring Gusti [unity with God] as a means of grasping the relationship of life and death. In doing so, we will begin to comprehand the mindset that would give equal weight and value to all decisions.

Death is the only wise adviser that a satriya has. Whenever he feels that everything is going wrong and he is about to be annihilated, he can turn to his death and ask if that is so. There is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions. It doesn’t matter what the decisions are. Nothing could be more or less serious than anything else. In a world where death is the hunter, there are no small or big decisions. There are only decisions that a warrior makes in the face of his inevitable death. The only way to understand this is by dealing with the larger concept that nothing exists independent of the divine. In this concept, life and death of rendered equal.

We cannot avoid speaking of the spiritual dimension of life when discussing life and death. If God can be said to be alive in a transcendent sense [pancering rasa] and if everything is in some sense in unity with God, then there is no distinction between that which is living and that which is dead. The Javanese say, “Sadaya punika saged dipun wastani urip namung manawi teksih kadunungan Gusti, punika ugi anggadhahi teges bilih sadaya inggih saged kawastanan mati amargi boten wonten tumitah ingkang saged mardhika mbedhal saking Gusti.” Everything is alive, but only in the context of the divine. This also means that everything is dead in the sense that there is no existence independent of God.

For many, a limited understanding of existence depends entirely on context and division rather that unity. By contrast, Abimanyu’s decision to pursue his destiny, even if it leads to his death, requires the breaking down of the artificial barriers that separates life and death, one object from another. His choice is the decision to abandon the protection of himself in the context of our illusion of earthly safety.

Abimanyu arrives at his decision based on the understanding that life and death are all part of the same reality. For example, we humans are made of mud, we walk upon the soil and then we ‘die’ and become soil again. But when we are ‘alive’, are our cells and atoms not part of that soil? Abimanyu sees a holistic universe in which he cannot be separated from his wife and child, or from anything else for that matter. It is a universe devoid of fragmentation, which is the essence of contexts and divisions. Everything fits into the whole of the universe and there is no reason for mourning the loss of something, or rejoicing in the acquisition of something. All exists, all of the time in the context of the divine. And, conversely, nothing exists outside of the context of the divine.

The Javanese say that this life is like a brief stop to drink before moving on [urip mung saderma mampir ngombe] . According to Javanese, the origin, the journey, and the destination of creations [Sangkan Paraning Dumadi] are Kiblat Papat-Kalima Pancer. Kiblat Papat means the four cardinal points or the four universal elements; they are bumi (earth), banyu (water), geni (fire), and angin (air). Kalima Pancer means five with the inclusion of one’s Self. Within the cosmology of the Javanese, the universe is seen as a balanced whole and traditional customs are seen as a way to live without upsetting this balance.

The Javanese believe in a parallelism between Jagad Gedhe [macrocosmos] and Jagad Alit [microcosmos], between the universe and the world of men. Humans are thought to be microcosmos because all the universal elements can also be found in human’s body. At the center of the universe is Hyang Suksma, the Supreme Being who acts as the regulator of all elemets and their powers. These powers can be generally divided into good and evil. In this conception, humanity is constantly under the influence of forces emanating from a direction of compass provided by Neptu [the lore of lucky and unlucky days as well as many other minor rules], these natural forces may create prosperity or disaster depending on whether or not individuals or social groups succeed in bringing their lives and activities in harmony. These notions of balance and harmony are prevalent in the religion and philosophy of the Javanese and to Luhingrat. In Luhingrat, Abimanyu’s decision to involve in the battle can be seen as an attempt to maintain harmony in his inner self [Jagad Alit] and the universe [Jagad Gedhe].

In this world there are two opposite characters only in human life. Dualities, such as life and death, love and hate, good and bad, sacred and secular, are the cause of much of our anguish and anxiety. The fact that these two opposite characters such as the Pandawas and the Kurawas always fight against each other is a natural things in human life. Of course the ideal goal of man is to conquer the bad ones which will result in the ideal life. Thus man as Jagad Alit [microcosmos] has always two opposite characters which should be in harmony. What makes us act like the moth flying into the flame eventhough we know that it’s the source of all our pain and suffering?

There are all kinds of sicknesses, not just physical sickness. There’s the sickness of anger, and fear, and mistrust, of love and hate, and of war and peace. In fact, many of those sicknesses, such as anger and fear, ultimately result in sicknesses of the body. It’s hard to be angry or fearful all your life and not have it show. This is the symbolic meaning behinds the intense rivalry between the Pandawas and the Kurawas, which finally reached its peak in Mahabharatayuda after their claim for the return of their kingdom was rejected by the Kurawas. It is believed by the Javanese that the driving force in almost all human behaviour is nafs. Luhingrat notes the importance placed on the metaphysical concept of the struggle of the soul against the nafs and that of a pilgrimage to the self.

The ultimate issue in the Mahabaratayuda was not the war but the development and maturation of the consciousness of the participants. True growth requires freedom, therefore real choices, hence we must rely on faith and the unknown. Inner development requires a battle. It is the interior battle that is developed in the themes of this story. The battle for our own devolopment in relationship with God. This is the symbolic meaning behinds the Luhingrat. The civil war between the Abimanyu of the Pandawas against the Kurawas is a methaphor for our struggle to achieve balance in the cosmos which is our destiny. In the struggle, the two factions polish their characters on each other. To view the conflict in terms of right and wrong, or good and evil is to miss its point. There are admirable and despicable characters on both sides. We are both sides. We should not think that we are separated from the rest. We simply have to put aside being comfortable. As a satriya, Abimanyu knew this when he made his decision to risk his life in the great war between the Pandawas and the Kurawas.

This next bit is hard to follow. But it is prevasive throughout the performance, both in the literal sound of Gamelan as well as in the symbolism of the piece as a whole. So, I ask that, if you’ve come this far, please do the work necessary to understand the following explanation. The Javanese say, “Menenga, terus golekna wulu ing sukuning cecak“. This means, “Be quite, then find gecko’s feather on its legs”. At first this seems like nonsense. How can we possibly find feathers on a gecko? Geckos have no feathers. But in this little phrase, there is another meaning. To understand this we must take apart the language.

Menenga means be quite or silence. Terus is then. Golekna has the root, golek, which means to find, and the suffix na. Notice that the addition of the suffix na here is not only to indicate a command or request, but it is the most important syllable to reveal the meaning behinds this wisdom. The next word is wulu which literally means feather. However, in Carakan [Javanese Alphabet], the vowel i [pronounced as in ‘image’], is also called wulu, while the vowel u [as in ‘mutual’] is called suku, which literally means leg.

To make the nasal sound ng [as in ‘sing, sang, sung’], we need to put a symbol called cecak, which also has another meaning of a lizard or gecko. A cecak lizard obviously has no wulu (feathers or vowel u), therefore na in ‘golekna‘ doesn’t change. When writing in Javanese, if we add a wulu to na, na will be pronounced ni; if we add a suku, na becomes nu. And if we put the cecak symbol on all of them, na becomes nang; ni becomes ning and nu becomes nung. NANG, NING, NUNG resembles the sound of the Gamelan.

There is actually a deep philosophical meaning in “Menenga, terus golekna wulu ing sukuning cecak“. To understand NANG, NING, NUNG, we need to be quiet [meNENG], to meditate in silence so that we can bring an inward view to our own natures [heNING]. It brings us a state of mind in which we can see clearly [weNING] the right decisions to be made and the proper course to follow. We need to do this in order to understand the purpose [duNUNG] of our lives. People must be conscious of the lives they are living. Unless we have a clear sense of life purpose, we are all too easily led astray. Consciousness is what it’s all about. After we do NENG, see things NING-ly so that we can understand what our NUNG is, then we will know NANG, that is our duty while living in the world to memayu hayuning bawana–to preserve the harmony of the universe. Now, I know that this tricky little word play might seem more like a game then a philosophy. But one must understand that such devices of sound and double meanings are quite commonly used in many cultures to bring about a state of mind. Remember, one cannot think of oneself into understand. It is experiential. And these devices are experiential as well.



For us to reach a so-called, objective reality, our brains, our thinking are of little use. It is like trying to push coarse stones through a fine mesh. Words cannot describe everything. The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words. Even though words can’t reach it, intuition can. We recognize it when we see it. Words are only descriptions of a reality that needs to be experienced. By now you might be asking, ‘This is all well and good, but where does this lead us?’ In other words, what good is this me, the reader?

The answer to that question is the heart and soul of Luhingrat. We need to be aware. We need to learn with the whole body and mind, not just through the words and ideas that describe things. It’s very easy to dwell in the words. In grasping the concepts that everything is part of the whole, part of the unity of the divine, one begins to understand that life and death manifests itself in countless ways. Life and death is not simply found in what we think of as the spiritual realms. In everyday, mundane affairs is the essence of all things. Life and death is in the washing of dishes and the drinking of a cup of coffee. The whole is in what we perceive as the parts. In this way, planting a garden is a battle. And a battle is a lunch with a friend. Each part contains the whole. Like Abimanyu, we are asked not to consider the relative importance of one’s decision versus another, but rather, to see each moment in the context of the whole of divine unity. And this process is experiential rather than intellectual. It is the process of giving ourselves over to the destiny, or Allah, if you prefer. It is an abandoning of ourselves to the larger purpose.

The themes of this work are of epic proportions. And it’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual implications go far beyond the basic story line and its characters. This is story that reaches out to its audience with eternal questions about the value of our earthly existence. How mindful are we to be of our earthly duty when our time here is just so much shadow. And finally it asks, what is the larger story of our existence across time. Can we comprehend a role for ourselves in the next life, or are we bound to this shallow, temporal reality of earthly responsibilities? These are great questions of destiny that require that we think beyond the horizon.