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Indonesians Still Spellbound by the Allure of Shamans

Doctors and Muslim clerics face uphill battle to move populace away from the mysticism and magic that lace the culture.

May 11, 2003|Chris Brummitt | Associated Press Writer

BOGOR, Indonesia — The shaman took hold of my little finger, mumbled in Arabic, then pronounced his diagnosis for the mysterious malaise that had plagued me for months.

"You have walked over a grave in a jungle," he said as an afternoon rainstorm rattled the tin roof of his gloomy sitting room. "You must have picked something up."

No diagnosis is too strange for Indonesia's shamans -- known here as dukun -- who attract millions of patients despite increased awareness of modern medical treatment.

Their work sits uneasily with religious authorities in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. Since the 1960s, Muslim clerics have been struggling to popularize a form of Islam that is free of the mysticism and magic that lace much of Indonesian culture.

Conventional doctors also criticize the shamans, saying many are charlatans who take advantage of the poor and uneducated among Indonesia's 210 million people.

"Dukun are very dangerous," said Prof. Farid Moeloek, former minister of health and now president-elect of the Indonesian Doctors Assn. "Their misdiagnoses lead to complications and even death."

Despite the religious and medical objections, my Indonesian friends persuaded me to try a dukun after more than a year of flu-like chills and persistent tiredness.

The shaman in Bogor, an hour's drive from the capital, Jakarta, prescribed a course of painful massage. He also told me to wear a green amulet on my arm at all times, and to dip a piece of paper with Islamic prayers into a cup of water and drink it.

He was the first of several shamans I visited over a four-month period.

Another suggested the source of my troubles was the jealousy of a curly-haired colleague, and gave me a green charm to put in my wallet and an armband to wear at all times. A third said my illness was caused by a gang of evil sprits living in my well and advised me to burn special incense around-the-clock in my house.

None of the prescribed cures did any good. But neither did Western medicine.

Most shamans are uncomfortable talking about their skills and have trouble explaining exactly what it is they do. They usually attribute their powers to God.

"Everything comes from the one above. We just harness his power," said a 28-year-old computer engineer who calls himself "Reno" and treats friends and their acquaintances from his home.

Diagnostic methods and treatments vary, but most shamans draw on Hindu and Muslim beliefs and a large dollop of theatrics.

They rarely advertise their services, relying mostly on word of mouth. Payment is often a carton of cigarettes or a sack of rice, depending on the wealth of the client.

Most Indonesians -- including wealthy, educated ones -- believe that their magic works.

"Dukun are very effective," said Permadi, an Indonesian legislator and well-known paranormal. "Western nations don't have a monopoly on medical knowledge."

Businessmen and politicians also visit shamans to ensure their success or predict their futures. Prostitutes and singers seek them out for a susuk, a small piece of gold or other precious metal that is inserted beneath the skin and is believed to make the wearer more attractive.

Since dukun often attribute patients' illness to a curse or a spell, some are also willing to help a client retaliate with black magic. An enemy's lock of hair or piece of clothing is often all that is asked for to call down illness on the foe.

The Islamic establishment, which forbids flirtation with superstition or practices from older religions, is alarmed at the continuing popularity of shamans.

"Dukun have already deviated from the truth as set down in the Koran. Most of them practice witchcraft," said Risman Muchtar, head of religious propagation for Muhammadiyah, a group that claims 20 million followers and runs mosques and schools across the Indonesian archipelago.

Muchtar's task of encouraging people to stay away from shamans has become even more difficult in an economic slump that has made conventional medicine too expensive for many Indonesians.

For millions, particularly those living far from towns and cities on the country's main island of Java, Islam has not made much of an impression.

Many people are still influenced by animism as well as Hindu and Buddhist rituals and practices.

"Not all the villagers fully understand Islam," Muchtar said. "For some, it's just a thin layer on top of what their grandfathers taught them."

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