An Antidote to Progression Based on the Indigenous Wisdom of the Baduy People

The Baduy People, also called the Kanekes, have inhabited the Kendeng Mountains of Banten Province in Western Java for centuries. With a nearly 12,000-person strong community at the foothills of these mountains, they reside only 120 km from the country’s capital, Jakarta. Still, despite close proximity to the modern world and frequent contact with outside visitors, they have managed to resist outside influences. Today the Baduy continue to maintain their culture, customs, and traditional way of life. Kiki Nasution takes us on an intimate journey with the Baduy, where we learn more about how this indigenous community has chosen to safeguard itself from modernization.

In Banten, the western province of Java, Indonesia, lies a sacred sanctuary of the indigenous Sundanese community. There, they maintain the Sunda Wiwitan belief system called Urang Kanekes (The people of Kanekes), known mainly as The Baduy People. The Baduy consists of two groups: the Outer Baduy and the Inner Baduy. The Outer Baduy live in the outer bands of Kanekes territory and have minorly adapted to modernism. The Inner Baduy live in the sacred and deepest part of the forest with various sets of strict rules against modernism. Each group has its own position: the Outer Baduy serves as the fortress, while the Inner Baduy serves as the keeper, protecting the purity of their sacred tradition. While there are some differences in their functions, the sacred duty is the same: to protect the land of Kanekes and carry out the Pikukuh Karuhun (Wisdom of The Ancestors).

The Kanekes territory isn’t far from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital city, which takes only around 160km or 4 hours of a car ride. As a result, it is an easy sight to see a crowd of tourists from the city, especially on the weekend. For the Baduy people, both outer and inner, the increase of tourism in their territory was an adaptation they had faced since the early 2000s. While the Outer Baduy territory has more flexibility in handling the visitors, it’s a different story for the Inner Baduy. The inner Baduy consists of three sacred villages: Cibeo, Cikatawarna, and Cikeusik. Each contributes a special role and function to the community, providing agriculture, traditional medicine, and spirituality. 

According to the people of Inner Baduy, the true purpose of being human is to live in harmony with mother earth and to know what it means to be enough. They have lived out their beliefs and values for centuries. Their sustainable farming practices are a telling example of this and serve as the primary duty in Sunda Wiwitan belief. They have three main forests: Hutan Garapan, the obtainable forest, is used for farming needs. Hutan Lindung, the protected forest, is used for communal purposes with the permission of local elders to enter. Hutan Larangan, or the forbidden forest, is the only territory no one can enter. These traditional forest management systems can be found in many indigenous cultures throughout Indonesia.

Even though the Baduy admit that this way of life brings serenity, there is a price they have to pay. Different sets of strict taboos must be obeyed as Inner Baduy. Some restrictions forbid them from wearing any footwear for the rest of their lives. Others prevent them from receiving formal education in school, riding in vehicles, and wearing modern clothes other than custom attire. They are expected to reject modernity. These strict rules are why the Inner Baduy people venture to Jakarta, walking without footwear, for around 2-3 days to visit their acquaintances or sell their harvest commodities.

Considering these strict rules are the foundation of Inner Baduy’s daily life, it is very easy to judge if we look through a modern lens or use progressive thinking. We must realize that the “enough parameter” prevails. An example of this parameter can be shown with the younger generation of Inner Baduy. They were taught only relevant knowledge and skills correlated to farming and forest preservation. And most importantly, they were taught to take and have only what they needed. Nothing less and nothing more.

At first glance, the wisdom that their ancestors bring seems irrelevant to us who live in the cities that preach progression. However, living in the era of the climate crisis, which is the byproduct of humanity’s amnesia to the “enough parameter” in every aspect, I found that indigenous wisdom is the true antidote for us all. Especially the core meaning behind the teachings of the Baduy ancestors.

It won’t be surprising to see the urban people seeing this wisdom as “backwardness” that only suppressed their “freedom of choices.” The contrast will also create endless questions and discussions. So how do we learn from indigenous cultures, like the Baduy, and practice what we learn on a daily basis? And more importantly, will radical changes be needed? Let’s go back to the stories of the elders. The Karuhun, meaning ancestors of Baduy, had already predicted that there would be a time with many catastrophes as the world accelerates into modern progression. The notion was believed as they saw the forthcoming impact of globalization, which is the degradation of humanity’s connection with nature. Even they have their own interpretation of the concept of a pandemic. In Sunda Wiwitan belief, there are supernatural beings that reside in the forest called Dangiang. Once humans destroy their forest, which was their home, the Dangiang will be furious and curse the nearby settlement with certain sicknesses. A pandemic concept predicted by the ancestors hundreds of years ago. For them, every plague is a punishment because we destroy the environment; however, these are opportunities and reminders for us to introspect.

But what does it mean for us? What is the relevancy for us who fully submit ourselves to science? Which one must we believe, virus or Dangiang? Science or mystic stories? In the end, pursuing the answer of which one holds the whole truth only leads to another endless and yet pointless debate that won’t find any light at the end of the tunnel. For this context, allow me to quote one of my favorite anthropologists, Wade Davis, with his insightful studies on indigenous cultures’ relevancy. In his book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in The Modern World, he stated: “The full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of a people and the quality of their aspirations, the nature of the metaphors that propel their lives. A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective deity will be a profoundly different human being from a youth brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined”.

 According to him, debating what is true and what is a myth will be an endless discussion in the context of indigenous and modern culture. But what we all honestly can examine are the actual impacts of that culture. One sees nature as a spiritual entity, and one sees nature as a dead object. The end products are factual. A truth that can only be seen through the disposal of modern glasses. I’d like to say that the message of the Baduy people is a metaphor, reminding us to learn and unlearn. To restore our interconnectedness like our ancestors before. And to be aware that our modern world’s way of thinking is just one reality model of many other realities.

If we have to find the red thread that connects all of these, it can be said that all indigenous cultures taught us one thing clearly: Something that is excessive is never good. And that’s how we end up here, the era of the climate crisis. We lost that “enough” parameter. Our modern culture only taught us to keep accelerating and progressing without knowing the outcomes and consequences. We forgot that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.

As the Karuhun remind us, change is still possible. Perhaps the question is not whether what is possible or what is impossible anymore. Rather, do we truly want change or not? The closure of this article can serve as a reflection of the uncertain future ahead.

Allow me to quote a few lines of Pikukuh Karuhun from Kanekes (Wisdom of The Ancestors):

“Gunung teu meunang dilebur. Lebak teu meunang dirusak.”

Mountains cannot be destroyed The valley cannot be tampered with.

“Lojor teu meunang dipotong. Pondok teu meunang disambung.”

The long ones cannot be cut. The short ones cannot be connected.

“Nu lain kudu dilainkeun. Nu ulah kudu diulahkeun.”

What should not, must be abolished. Which should not, must be denied.

“Nu enya kudu dienyakeun.”

What is right must be justified.

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In this third issue featuring the Archipelagos of Southeast Asia we travel to Malaysia, Indonesia, and The Philippines. We’ll learn about the traditional tattooing of the Kalinga with Vogue’s oldest cover star, Whang-od Oggay, the last traditional tattoo artist of the Philippines. Readers will discover one of the world’s oldest and most preserved hut dwellings at Wae-Rebo on Flores Island. This release will take readers to the western edges of Indonesia’s Archipelago and encounter the Korowai of Western Papua, where we learn more about one of the last tree-dwelling communities on the planet.