Introduction to Indonesian Philosophy/The Inner Faculty of Budi

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The luckiest feature of Indonesian philosophical tradition is its integral understanding of philosophia (love of wisdom). Dichotomy of ‘reasoning’ and ‘feeling’ occurring in the Western philosophical tradition, as regretted by Frithjof Schuon in his The Transfiguration of Man (1995), doesn’t happen in Indonesia, for it has an original word which integrates ‘reasoning’ and ‘feeling’ in unison, called budi. Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia, an officially wide-spread dictionary of Indonesian language, defines the word budi as inner faculty which integrates reasoning and feeling to judge the good and the evil. All creation and products of material and intellectual kind created by means of budi is called by Kamus Besar as kebudayaan. Thus, to Indonesians, science, spirituality, religion, philosophy and technology are named in a generic word kebudayaan, which is the manifestation and the realization of budi.


According to an Indonesian philosopher Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, by whom this philosophical concept was firstly popularized, the word budi might be translated into German Geist, but not English mind. The difference particularly lies in the relation of mind to culture. The English word mind, to Sutan’s viewpoint, has no single thing to do with culture, but the German word Geist does have. That’s why the human sciences in Germany can be named either as die Geisteswissenschaften or die Kulturwissenschaften(ST. Alisjahbana 1977:6-7). Sutan explained further the impossibility of translation of budi into English language:

In contrast to Geist, the English concept of mind has more cognitive character. It is in this sense that in the English language there is no direct relationship between the concept of mind and the totality of culture, which includes the product of intuition, feeling and imagination as expressed in religious awe and the creation of the arts. It was this more comprehensive German concept of Geist which influenced me in the construction of my cultural philosophy. I have given to the concept of budi in the Indonesian language, which is related to the word `Buddha', the Enlightened One, the meaning of Geist, since in the Indonesian language the word `culture`(budidaya and kebudayaan) is directly related to the concept of `budi`, from which it is derived. Indeed, in the Indonesian language the concept of `budi` represents the most characteristic of the human psyche in constrast to the drives and instincts in the animal psyche
- (ST. Alisjahbana 1988:84).


Although Sutan expressed his latent dissatisfaction of the incapability of English language to translate the Indonesian word, he unfortunately didn’t explore further in his writings why English language could not translate well the word budi and its consequence in the field of philosophy. In my opinion, the consequence of incapability of English language to translate budi lies very clearly in their division of mind and culture. The English mind is ‘secularized’ out of the English culture. Between the mind and the culture there is a wide gap, as a wide gap as between philosophy and philosophical manifestations in culture. Philosophical tradition of England allows abstract speculation that doesn’t end with its realization in reality, but Indonesian tradition of philosophy does not. Budi is always realized undividedly in kebudayaan or budi daya. In English philosophical tradition, mind is only related to cognition or thinking activity; that’s why it cannot integrate mind to culture, which is total manifestation of human capacity of reasoning, feeling, thinking, imagining, and even dreaming in reality.


Due to the integrality of budi, Indonesian culture (kebudayaan) is consequently integrated. We Indonesians don’t make clear division or categorization of philosophy and religion, of religion and spirituality, of spirituality and science, as well as of science and art. In short, Indonesian culture has never known any strict materialism or hard-liner idealism. Our science and philosophy is as esthetic and artistic as our religion, spirituality and art. Our Borobudur Temple, suluk literature (Javanese mystical literature), traditional dances and sculptures, musical instruments, traditional houses and arms are as beautiful and tasteful as our philosophy, science and spirituality, for our budi combines ‘rationalizing’ and ‘feeling’ altogether. Serats (Javanese poetic literature inspired by Islam) combine poetical esthetics and philosophical logics and so do kakawins (Javanese poetic literature inspired by Hindu-Buddhism). Hamzah Al-Fansuri expressed his Sufistic speculation in his syairs (Malay poetry), whilst King Visnu of Sailendra Dynasty (775-782) built the esthetic Borobudur Temple to worship his holy ancestors. Poetry of traditional societies of Indonesia, which contains the first form of cosmology and cosmogony, is never less rational than modern essays. Our first cosmology contained in beautiful oral mythologies is no less reasonable and awesome than Old-Greek cosmology. Our pantuns (Malay traditional poems) mix rhymic esthetics and intellectual wisdom. In conclusion, the epistemology of budi held by Indonesians balances the use of mind and of senses and does justice to the ideal and the material. Consequently, there is no war between rationalism and empiricism or between idealism and materialism in Indonesian philosophical tradition.


Indonesian contemporary poets cannot escape from this embracing principle of budi too, as an Indonesian poet-philosopher Subagio Sastrowardoyo best explains it:

Since the early days of writing in Indonesia a close link has existed between philosophy and literature. In the classical literature of Indonesia a `pujangga` or writer was both poet and philosopher. He was expected to reveal in literary form views of and guidance for life and to provide his readers (or listeners) prophetic truth. `Wedatama`, a Javanese literary classic, and `Syair Perahu`, a well-known poem in Malay, are still revered as philosophy apart from the fact that they are recognized as excellent literature. But it is the philosophy, or `ngelmu` (in Javanese) which put the legitimizing stamp of “literature” on the works…
- (Subagio Sastrowardoyo 1992:135)

Contemporary literati like Sutardji Calzoum Bachri, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Linus Suryadi AG, Chairil Anwar and Sitor Situmorang convey their philosophical insights through their novels, poems, and short stories (Subagio Sastrowardoyo 1992:137).

It does not mean that budi epistemology has never been challenged in Indonesian history of philosophy. In the early 1900s, a philosophical movement called ‘Islamic Modernism` condemned “feeling” and its manifestation in culture as merely illusionary fantasy and false imagination (Arabic, takhayyul and khurafât) (Deliar Noer 1996:xiii) I do not understand how they judged the Indonesian culture as full of false fantasy and imagination; maybe because of Dutch capitalist-rationalist influence they encountered in their period. They began to admit the supremacy of “reasoning” over “feeling”. In 1920s, Tan Malaka (d.1949) also condemned “feeling” and advocated instead the supremacy of reason and logic. He wrote:

…Let us build a steel wall between the past and the future, and never look at behind and never try to use the old power to encourage society to get happiness. Let us use “rational” thinking, because that kind of knowledge and way of thinking are the peak of human civilization and the first top level for the future… Only the rational way of thinking and of doing which enable humans to get lifted from illusionary imagination (ketakhayulan), poverty…and slavery and enable humans to reach truth…
- (Tan Malaka 2000:171-172)

In 1940s in a preparatory council of Indonesian independence (BPUPKI), Mohammad Yamin succeeded in winning rationalism over “feeling”, which he called “irrationalism” and “pre-modern logics”. Due to his astuteness, rationalism (called by him as kebijaksanaan) was accepted as one of principles of state philosophy Pancasila, namely its fourth sila ‘Kerakyatan yang dipimpin oleh hikmat kebijaksanaan…` Kebijaksanaan is none other than Yamin’s Indonesian translation of rationalism (Sekretaris Negara 1995:19-20)

Since 1940s onwards, budi epistemology was replaced by Modern-Western rational epistemology. Philosophy, consequently, was only understood as reasoning and thinking, as clearly stated in a metaphysical work by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana:

To philosophize means to think and to examine freely, namely, it is not only free of any fixed science, but is also free of fixed belief, fixed dogma, and the like. To philosophy, there is nothing holy, nothing sacred, nothing forbidden, nothing tabooed, everything is brought into the examining field of thought…
- (Sutan Takdir 1981:2)

However, there had been no more revolutionary an idea before the decade of 1970s than Nurcholish Madjid`s blunt rational secularism. Nurcholish (d.2005) did not admit he advocated secularism; he only had not realized that what he proposed was a highway to secularism. He called his fellowmen to differentiate (therefore separate) the divine and the profane or the sacred and the secular. He dichotomized religion and culture—two elements that had been in the past unified in total unity. By doing this, he wanted to build a positivist-secular kebudayaan separated from its religious and spiritual content, which had been parts of his tradition (M.Kamal Hassan 1987:246-247) His proposal was very well welcomed by secularist technocrats as Ali Moertopo, Soedjono Hoemardani, TB. Simatupang, Rachman Tolleng, Midian Sirait, and “Berkeley Mafia” who gathered in a national development planning board BAPPENAS, who were also eminent advocates of Soeharto`s modernization politics called as “Orde Baru” (M. Kamal Hassan 1987:9-10)

Supremacy of ‘feeling’ over ‘reasoning’ advocated by some philosophers is also not good, since it can lead to radical sensism. Philosophers like Ki Ageng Selo (circa 16 century AD), Pakubuwono IV, and Ki Ageng Suryomentaram (1892-1962) all adhere to a philosophical position which admires ‘rasa’ (feeling) over ‘akal’ (reasoning). Ki Ageng Selo said in his Serat Pepali :

Poma-poma anak putu mami
Aja sira ngêgungakên akal
Wong akal ilang baguse.
I really hope, o my grandchildren
Never you boast of your reason
The man of reason loses his beauty) - (Ki Ageng Selo 1980:18)

Actually, ‘the man of reason’ cannot lose his beauty, if ‘reasoning’ is understood as complementary to ‘feeling’ and ‘feeling’ as complementary to ‘reasoning’, for a man normally cannot lose one of his capacities of ‘feeling’ or ‘reasoning’. There is no losing; there is no supremacy over others too. ‘Feeling’ and ‘reasoning’ are two different but complementary ways to knowledge; knowledge of the good and the evil. That’s why budi integrates them both, to reach the knowledge.

We Indonesians are very lucky that we inherit the Indian philosophy in our philosophical tradition. Our word budi must have been rooted from the Indian Buddha, ‘the Enlightened One’. If that is true, our budi must be able to guide us Indonesians to enlightenment, to knowledge which enlightens us with its light. That knowledge can of course be reached through ‘feeling’ and ‘reasoning’. We Indonesians have been (and are still) using our budi to reach some enlightening knowledge. We had collected and compiled the knowledge in what we call Adat. It is in our Adat that we collected all leluhur’s philosophies, ways of life, and wisdom. In our Adat too can we find out a kind of wisdom called by Schuon as sophia perennis—the eternal wisdom given by Tuhan (the God) amidst all particulars, accidents, and changeables. Our budi and Adat together found what we call kebudayaan—the divine, spiritual civilization and culture. In the following pages, I invite all readers to dive deep into that ocean of heritage.