Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Indonesian Theosophical Society (1900–40) and the Idea of Religious Pluralism

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Indonesian Theosophical Society (1900–40) and the Idea of Religious Pluralism

Article excerpt


This research focuses on how the Indonesian Theosophical Society (ITS) during the pre-independence period (1900-40) spread its ideas on religious pluralism in appreciation of Indonesia's multireligious and multicultural society. This research is important for the following reasons. First, ITS is possibly the first "society" to have introduced a model of religious studies in Indonesia with an inclusive-pluralist character. This was achieved by emphasizing an esoteric approach and by recognizing and exploring the exoteric and esoteric aspects of religions. As ". . . no statement about a religion is valid unless it can be acknowledged by that religion's believers" (Smith 1959), ITS tried to learn these aspects directly from scholars or religious leaders of the religions being researched. This model of study was followed by Professor Mukti Ali when establishing the department of Comparative Religion at PTAIN (Perguruan Tinggi Agama Islam, Islamic Higher Education), Yogyakarta, in 1961 (see Bahri 2014).

Second, if one looks at the role of Dirk van Hinloopen Labberton as a figure of the politics of Association and a key figure of ITS or the president of Nederlandsch Indische Theosofische Vereniging (NITY),11 who always called upon Theosophical Society members to "cooperate" with the Dutch colonial authorities, one may assume that ITS was used as a means of "ethical politics" of the Dutch colonial authorities to stifle the resistance of Indonesians (believers). However, one cannot ignore the significant role of ITS at that time in managing "multireligious and cultural education." ITS members periodically gathered to discuss religious doctrines at lodges (loji). There were lodges in Buitenzorg (Bogor), Batavia, Cirebon, Bandung, Pasuruan, Semarang, Purwokerto, Pekalongan, Wonogiri, Surabaya, and probably in most of the small and big towns on Java. Periodically, they published Theosophical magazines that contained about 85 percent of living religions and beliefs in the archipelago. Apparently, instead of one of the objectives of Theosophy itself, namely, "to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of mankind," Theosophy members also realize that diversity and differences among the Nusantara people lead to conflicts; that is why they lean toward the ideas of pluralism, harmony, and the "common word" of religions.

Third, in dealing with the awakening of nationalism in conventional Indonesian historiography, historians refer to movements such as Boedi Oetomo (BO), Indische Partij, Jong Islamische Bond, Jong Java, Jong Soematra, Jong Ambon, and similar organizations, but religious organizations are rarely ever mentioned as part of the awakening. However, it may be noted that while Islamic organizations such as Muhammadiyah (1912) and NU (Nahdlatul Ulama, 1926) were involved at the lower level, ITS was involved on an elite level in the propagation of nationalism in the era of revolution. Thus, BO and their fellows are to be seen as participants in this process at the middle level.

Research on the Indonesian Theosophical movement includes First, Mengikis Batas Timur & Barat: Gerakan Theosofi & Nasionalisme Indonesia by Iskandar Nugraha (2001). This work was reprinted in 2011 with the title Teosofi, Nasionalisme & Elite Modern Indonesia. It highlights two important aspects: the history, existence, and development of ITS from 1901 to 1933; and the influence of the Theosophical movement on modern Indonesian nationalism. Nugraha shows how many Indonesian students found their identity, experienced a shared destiny, and felt the urge to find their self-awareness as one nation through TS. The most significant contribution of this work is that the TS movement contributed greatly to the awakening of Indonesian nationalism (Nugraha 2011, 76, 88).

The Politics of Divine Wisdom: Theosophy and Labour, National, and Women's Movements in Indonesia and South Asia 1857-1947by Herman Arij Oscar de Tollenaere (1996) is another significant work. …

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