The Majapahit Dynasty of the Nusantara archipelago was a predominately Hindu empire which arose in approximately 1293 CE and lasted until around 1500 CE (Hunter 28). This empire was a continuation of a previous empire called the Singhasari (Keat Gin 1208). Much of the information surrounding the establishment of this empire is found in the Pararaton, which describes the origins of the first Singhasari ruler Ken Angrok (Johns 92). Ken’s ascension to the throne is depicted as somewhat divine. Ken, in a prior life, is said to have “offered himself as a human sacrifice to Yamadipati, the Javanese door god, in order to save another being from death. . . [and promised] to return to Visnu’s heaven and thereafter be born as a superior being” (Johns 92). The fact that a dynasty is built upon this myth clearly indicates the centrality of Hinduism in Majapahit culture. Furthermore, Visnu’s role in the story prefigures the importance of Visnu worship in Majapahit Hinduism.
The role of Siva in Majapahit religious practice should also be noted. In his next life, Ken was a semi-divine figure— Visnu incarnate. Additionally, he was declared the son of Siva “in order to bring stability and power to Java” (Johns 93). This stability is fundamental to Hinduism and is known as rta. Rta is upheld by dharma (Hindu law) (Koller 133) and yajna (the rituals and rites which maintain and uphold the universe) (Koller 134) [for a detailed explanation on this, see Koller’s article]. Through Siva, Ken Angrok is able to bring balance to his empire. As Visnu incarnate, Ken’s very existence was seen as upholding rta and dharma, even though his behaviour was often undharmic [for an explanation on this behaviour see Hunter 27]. Ultimately Ken Angrok’s monarchy results in the prosperity of the Singhasari and Majapahit Dynasties. In return, the people of these empires worshipped the gods Visnu and Siva so that the dynasty’s prosperity would continue.
Initially, the dynasty was named the Singhasari and was in power until approximately 1292 CE. The Singhasari dynasty ended with the death of Krtanagara after internal political conflict (Hunter 27). Krtangara, the last king of the Singhasari, was a very important figure in regards to Singhasari-Majapahit religion. Krtangara was said to have been both Siva and Buddha incarnate (Hunter 28). This demonstrates the conflation of both orthodox and Buddhist streams of the Hindu religion in the Majapahit kingdom. This reconciliation of Buddhism and Hinduism is clearly seen in the funerary rites of Krtanagara who was deified “in the form of a ‘Siva-Buddha’” (Dowling 120). Furthermore, in practice, the Majapahit recognized the oneness of Siva and Buddha. Dowling’s article includes a poem which aptly demonstrates this by saying “there is no difference between god Buddha and god Si[v]a, the king of gods” (Dowling 120). This veneration of Siva-Buddha would heavily influence later Majapahit religion in the same way that Vaisnavism would.
The fact that Buddha and Siva were conflated in Majapahit Hinduism, reflects the notion that in Hindu thought, though there are many gods, these many gods together form one god—Prajapati creator of the universe. This combining of gods was also done with Visnu and Siva. For instance, in some cases, statues that were half Siva and half Visnu (known as Hari-Hara) would be worshipped as the supreme god (Dowling 121). This is supported by the idea that the first emperor of the Singhasari was Visnu incarnate and the last emperor of the Singhasari was Siva incarnate. Likewise, this amalgamation of gods could also be symbolic of the unity of the Singhasari-Majapahit Empire.
Two years had passed until the dynasty formally became the Majapahit Dynasty. In 1294 CE, Majapahit became the capital city of the former Singhasari Dynasty. The empire itself was restored by Raden Wijaya who assumed the role of king. Wijaya became king of the Majapahit Empire by tricking the Kublai Khan into attacking the city of Jayakatwang. Once the city was conquered and the Kublai Khan was celebrating its victory, Wijaya caught them off guard and “destroyed them” (Hunter 28).
One of the more important literary genres from the time of Raden Wijaya was the Kakawin. The Kakawin genre can be described as containing epic tales with religious themes written in a particular metre (Creese 45). These tales often “draw on the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the rules to prosody and ideals of literary form” (Creese 46). This period, also known as the Kadiri or pre-Islamic period, is noted for its three major sects as referred to in Kakawin literature. These sects were composed of Saivite, Buddhist, and Resi sects, also known as the “Tripaksa” (Hunter 33). Furthermore, each of these religions was supported by each other as if they were one. In his article, Hunter quotes the Kunjarakarma-Dharmakathana which says “the Buddhist monk will surely fail, if he does not know . . . the path to Si[v]a-ness” and that the “master sage who follows the yoga of Si[v]a-ness, will fail if he does not know the highest reality of Jina-ness” (Hunter 33). It almost appears that these three religious sects form a ‘trinity’ of religious practice within the Majapahit Dynasty. Although each one is distinct, they rely and co-depend on each other indicating that the divide between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in the Nusantara archipelago was not as great as that of India.
Political unity appears to have been very important to the early Majapahit (although political unity was not always a reality) as proven by the Tripaksa. Religious compromise, in theory, should prevent disunity and it is conceivable that the early rulers of the Majapahit kept political unity through their efforts to maintain religious unity. By saying that Buddha and Siva were one, the early Majapahit were able to maintain ambiguity about the identity of the state’s religion. Because of the Tripaksa, people could ideally live in harmony because of religion’s unity in the empire.
It was in the 14th century that the Majapahit Dynasty reached the height of its power. This golden age occurred under the monarch Hayam Wuruk, who was monarch from 1350-1389 CE (Noorduyn 207). This golden age was characterized by an influx of art, literature, and Indonesian culture. Furthermore, the king— Hayam Wuruk, was seen by his people as somewhat divine and was worshipped in the same way that the general population worshipped the gods. In one part of the Nagarakrtagama [see Weatherbee 415 for more information on this Majapahit text], Wuruk is compared to the many gods of the Hindu pantheon (Weatherbee 415). As Krom describes Wuruk, he was “vergoddelijkten toestand, eerst bij zijn leven” (that he was in a deified state throughout his life) (Krom 25). Furthermore, it appears that the king’s authority or claim to rule was directly given to him by the Hindu pantheon. In return, the king was to emulate the qualities of these gods. These qualities were known in Java as the astabrata or the eight royal virtues (Weatherbee 414). This notion of astabrata is also emulated in the Ramayana where Rama reminds “Vibhisana that the eight gods are incorporated into that body of the king” and that he should “follow astabrata, pointing out . . . appropriate behaviour of the king” (Weatherbee 414). What this demonstrates is that although there were significant changes and differences between Indian Hinduism and Majapahit Hinduism, there were also many similarities.
Although the intent of political unity by means of religious solidarity was desired by early Majapahit kings, it was not an easily attained goal. The empire declined in the early part of the 15th century because of many different factors. One of the primary factors was a civil war which occurred between the western and eastern parts of the empire (Noorduyn 208). Interestingly enough, it was at this time that Islam began to have a heavy influence on the western coast. From a Hindu perspective, this disunity in the political sphere perhaps led to disunity in the religious world, or vice-versa. Moreover, the undharmic actions of Majapahit kings may have also contributed to the imbalance in rta and thus causing the empire to fall. With this being said, it is important to note that Hindu religious rites and ceremonies continued to endure beyond the decline and fall of the Majapahit. For example, “great Sraddha festivals were still held in 1465 and 1486” (Noorduyn 255), thus demonstrating that though Indonesian Hinduism was central to the Majapahit, it did not die with the empire.
The Majapahit were successful in bringing Hinduism to Indonesia and ensuring its survival for over two hundred years. Although the region is now predominantly Islamic, pockets of Hinduism still exist, particularly in Bali. Much of what is known about the Majapahit reflects its strong Hindu identity. This identity is reflected in both Majapahit literature and art. Furthermore, the deification and veneration of kings as gods or demi-gods reflects the Majapahit practice of conflating political office and the religious sphere. Moreover, the existence of the Majapahit and their strong Hindu identity reflect the reality that Hinduism is not a religion which is confined to the Indian subcontinent. In conclusion, the Majapahit are a sometimes forgotten component to Hinduism; learning from their example helps one understand the totality and scope of the Hindu tradition.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Creese, Helen (1999) “The Balinese Kakawin Tradition, a Preliminary Description and Inventory.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Volume 155 No 1, 45-96.
Dowling, Nancy (1992) “The Javanization of Indian Art.” Indonesia, No.54 (October), 117-138.
Hunter, Thomas M (2007) “The Body of the King: Reappraising Singhasari Period Syncretism.” Journal of South East Asian Studies, Volume 38 No. 1(February), 27-53.
Johns, Anthony H. (1964) “The Role of Structural Organisation and Myth in Javanese Historiography.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1 (November), 91-99.
Keat Gin, Ooi (2004) Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Koller, John M (1972) “Dharma: An Expression of Universal Order.” Philosophy East and West,
Volume 22, No.2 (April), 131-144.
Krom, N.J, and Krom, N.G (1919) “De Begraafplaats van Hayam Wuruk” Bijdragen tot de Taal Land- en Volkenkunde, Deel 75 1ste/2e Aflevering, 25-27.
Noorduyn, J (1978) “Majapahit in the Fifteenth Century.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Deel 134 2e en 3e Aflevering, 207-274.
Weatherbee, D.E (1994) “The Aṣṭabrata, Saptadewawṛtti, and Nāgarakṛtāgama VII:1-2.”
Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Deel 150 2de Aflevering, 414-416.*
Related Topics for Further Investigation
The Singhasari Dynasty
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Article written by: Jordan Born (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.