Spread of Islam and Introduction to the Javanese Philosophy

The history of the arrival and spread of Islam in Indonesia is a little unclear despite it being one of the most significant developments in Indonesian history as there are many competing theories and only fragmentary historical evidence. One theory states it arrived directly from Arabia before the 9th century, while another credits Sufi merchants and preachers for bringing Islam to Indonesian islands in the 12th or 13th century either from Gujarat, India or directly from the Middle East. 

Masjid Ageng Surakarta, photo taken between 1910 – 1930

Nevertheless, a clear turning point occurred when the Hindu empire Majapahit in Java fell to the Islamised Demak Sultanate. In 1527, the Muslim ruler renamed newly conquered Sunda Kelapa as Jayakarta (meaning “precious victory”) which was eventually contracted to Jakarta, the current capital city of Indonesia. 

 Islam is thought to have been present in Southeast Asia from early in the Islamic era. From the time of the third caliph of Islam, Uthman (644-656), Muslim emissaries and merchants were arriving in China who would have passed through Indonesia sea routes from the Islamic world. It would have been through this contact that Arabic emissaries between 904 and the mid-12th century are thought to have become involved in the Sumatran trading state of Srivijaya.


Believers on their way to the mosque, between 1925 and 1948

The most reliable evidence of the early spread of Islam in Indonesia comes from inscriptions on tombstones and a limited number of travellers’ accounts. The earliest legibly inscribed tombstone is dated AH 475 (1082 CE), although as it belongs to a non-Indonesian Muslim, there is doubt as to whether it was transported to Java at a later time.

An early Muslim gravestone dated AH 822 (1419 CE) has been found at Gresik an East Javanese port and marks the burial of Malik Ibrahim. As it appears that he was non-Javanese foreigner, the gravestone does not provide evidence of coastal Javanese conversion. Malik Ibrahim was, however, according to Javanese tradition one of the first nine apostles of Islam in Java (the Wali Songo) although no documentary evidence exists for this tradition.

It was largely due to the Walisongo that in the period of 40–50 years, Islam was widespread in Java, whereas before it was very difficult to develop.

Javanese Mosque between 1890 and 1920

Equality

Until the early Demak era, society was divided into two major groups: Gusti, people who live in the palace and Kawula, people who live outside the palace. Gusti means “master”, Kawula means “servants”. Kawula only have the right to lease, not the right of ownership, because the right of ownership only belonged to the people with the social status of Gusti. In the era of Majapahit, all property is owned by the palace (state, or nation, or the kingdom).

Walisongo, especially Sheikh Siti Jenar and Sunan Kalijaga, created a new perspective in the cultural and society structure. They introduce the new community structure which is so-called “Masyarakat”, derived from the Arabic term of Musharaka, which means a community of equal and mutual cooperation. We know this because the term “masyarakat” and “rakyat” are missing in the Javanese Kawi vocabulary, indicating that the term was brought in later by Walisongo.

Following this was a change of mindset. Gusti referred to themselves as: intahulun, kulun or ingsun, while Kawula referred to themselves as kula or kawula. Walisongo changes all those designation which indicates the meaning of servants, and replaced it with the term of ingsun, aku, kulun, or awak, and other designations that do not represent the identity of slaves or persons with lower social status. In present days, the term of kula, ambo, abdi, hamba, sahaya or saya, are still being used for the purpose of showing respect toward others, such as while speaking toward someone older, parents, strangers and so on.

Masjid in Kampung Arab (Arab Village) in Semarang, c. 1930

Humility

The Javanese in the era of Majapahit were notoriously arrogant. Their principle of life is Adigang Adigung Adiguna (“superior in power, authority, and knowledge”). According to the testimony of scholar Antonio Pigafetta, there’s no one is as arrogant exceed the Javanese. If they were walking, and there’s also people from another nation who walk at a higher place, they will be ordered to get down. and if they refuse, they will be killed. That was the character of the Javanese at the time. So in old Javanese Kawi, there’s no word for kalah (“lose”). If someone at odds with others, then there is only “win” or “dead”. As Ma Huan noted, in Chao-wa (Java) if a man touches their head with his hand, or if there is a misunderstanding about money at a sale, or a battle of words when they are crazy with drunkenness, they at once pull out their knives and stab [each other]. He who is stronger prevails.

Another evidence of the arrogance of the Javanese is represented during the time when envoys from China (Meng Xi) came in order to deliver a message from their king (Kubilai Khan) to the king of Singasari (Kertanegara). The message ordered Kertanegara to submit toward their kingdom. And in return, Meng Xi (the Chinese envoy) had his ears cut off, humiliated, and sent back to China by Kertanegara.

Walisongo then developed term ngalah (which comes from “NgAllah”). It comes from the Javanese prefix “Ng” which means toward (a purpose, and or destination), for example: ng-alas (toward the forest), ng-awang (toward the clouds), and Ng-Allah means toward Allah (tawakkul – from the Arabic language, it is the word for the Islamic concept of reliance on God or “trusting in God’s plan”), the word “ngalah” itself was then used by the Javanese as an expression in avoiding conflict.

Mosque, Indonesia between 1900 and 1940

Rituals

The Walisongo saw that Hinduism and Buddhism actually were only embraced by the Gusti society inside the palaces. The common religion that generally embraced by the general population outside the palace is Kapitayan, a religion whose devotee toward Sang Hyang Taya. Taya means suwung (“empty”). the god of Kapitayan is abstract and indescribably. Sang Hyang Taya is defined simply as tan keno kinaya ngapa, it cannot be seen, thought, nor imagined. And the might of Sang Hyang Taya can be seen in various places, such as in stone, monument, trees and in many other places in this world. Therefore, the ancient Javanese make their offerings over those places as their devotion toward Sang Hyang Taya. A similar concept of Brahman is found in Hinduism.

These Kapitayan’s religious values was then adopted by the Walisongo in spreading Islam toward the regions as the concept of tawhid in Kapitayan is very similar to the concept of tawhid in Islam. the term of Tan keno kinaya ngapa in Kapitayan (“can’t be seen, can’t be thought, can’t be imagined, He is beyond everything”), have a similar meaning as laisa kamitslihi syai’un in Islam (“There is nothing like unto Him” – Qur’an Surah Ash-Syura chapter 42 verse 11).

Walisongo also use the term Sembahyang (sembah (worship)+ Hyang (god), thus worshipping Sang Hyang Taya in Kapitayan) in introducing the term of Shalat in Islam. There’s also a ritual in form of not eating from morning up until night in Kapitayan, which is called as Upawasa (Puasa, “fasting”). Incidentally, the ritual of fasting in Hinduism is also called “Upawasa” or “Upavasa”. Instead of using the term of fasting in Islam, Walisongo used the term of Puasa or Upawasa from the Kapitayan in describing the ritual. The term of Poso Dino Pitu in Kapitayan whose means fasting on the day of the second and the fifth day in which is equal to seven days of fasting, is very similar with the form of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays in Islam. The Tradition of Tumpengan of Kapitayan was also being kept by the Walisongo under the Islamic perspective as known as Sedekah (from Sadaqah which, in the modern context, has come to signify “voluntary charity”. According to the Quran, the word means voluntary offering, whose amount is at the will of the “benefactor”.)

Nasi Tumpeng.jpg
Tumpeng. The big plate generally set in the middle of a celebration.

At the time of Majapahit, there is a ceremony which is called as Sraddha, a ceremony that being held 12 years after a person’s death. There is a time in the Majapahit history, a poet namely Mpu Tanakung, composed the Kidung of Banawa Sekar Sekar (The Ballad of Flowers Boat), to describe how the ceremony was carried out with full opulence and grandeur. This tradition was then called by society around the lakes and beach with the term Sadran or Nyadran (derived from the word Sraddha). Walisongo who derived from Champa also brought religious traditions, such as ceremonies for 3 days, 7 days, 40 days, 10 days, and 1000 days after someone’s death. This is not a native Javanese tradition, nor the Hindu tradition. In the books of Tradition of Champa, such tradition has already exists since a very long time ago.

Another example of the teaching of Walisongo is Slametan which is developed by Sunan Bonang. In the Tantric religion embraced by kings of Nusantara archipelago, there’s a sect in that Tantric religion which is called the Bhairawa Tantra sect that worships the Goddess of Earth, Durga and Kali. They have a rituals where they were creating a circle called Ksetra.

Kasuyatan Mosque, between 1915 and 1926

At Indonesian National Museum in Jakarta, there is a statue of a character named Adityawarman height of three meters and stands on a pile of skulls. He is the priest of the Bhairawa Tantra, the one who performed the teaching of malima. He was inaugurated and then became the Bhairawa priest carrying the title of Wisesa Dharani, the ruler of the earth. The statue described that he sat on a pile of hundreds of corpses, drinking blood, and laughing uproariously.

Witnessing such situation, Sunan Bonang created a similar event. He entered the center of Bhairawa Tantra in Kediri. During his travels in Kediri, he stayed in the west of the river, in the village of Singkal Nganjuk. There he held a similar ceremony, made the similar circle, but much more subdued. Food were put in the center of the circle and then they pray together. This is called Slametan, a ceremonial meal prepared to maintain a balanced relationship between the natural and supernatural forces.. Therefore, Sunan Bonang was also known as Sunan Wadat Cakrawati, as the leader or imam of Chakra Iswara (Cakreswara).

Mosque in Surabaya between 1900 – 1940

The Importance of Laughter

Take bread away from me, if you wish,
take air away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973)

Psychologist Robert Provine’s theory is that, “Laughter is a mechanism everyone has. It is a part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way.” Babies have the ability to laugh before they ever speak. Children who are born blind and deaf still retain the ability to laugh. In other words, when you have very little else, you will still have the ability to laugh.

One Australian aboriginal creation myth believed that, in the beginning, we were all sleeping and dreaming, and the world was silent and empty. The first thing to awake was a rainbow serpent, and she emerged from the ground. She started waking creatures up, one by one, starting with the frogs. Still, she realized that this new world needed water, all of which was contained in the bellies of the frogs. Therefore, the serpent quickly came up with a solution.

The rainbow serpent tickled the frogs until they all began to laugh. Because they laughed so hard, the frogs began to cough up water. The water flowed, creating plants and awakening many other animals. Any animal who kept the laws the rainbow serpent laid out would become a human, whereas anyone who broke the laws became stones, which we see all over Australia today.

God has a smile on His face.

Psalm 42:5

Another Aboriginal myth says that a long time ago, only the moon and stars lighted the Earth. No one had ever felt the warmth or seen the light of the sun. The spirits who lived in the sky looked down on all the birds and beasts, concerned that the creatures were not happy. One day they decided that the world needed more light. So they collected wood and began to stack higher and higher and higher. When the wood was stacked so high they could no longer see the top, the spirits light a fire.

“The creatures of the Earth will delight in our light,” the spirits said, “but we must announce its arrival.” The spirits sent a star out into the sky — the first morning star — and instructed it to announce the arrival of the light that would soon warm the world. The star shimmered and sparkled, but few noticed it there in the dimly lighted sky, and when the birds and beasts first saw the light of the great fire, they were so shocked that many of them died of fright.

The spirits then decided they must need a noise to announce the dawn. Something loud. Something unusual, something startling. They began to consider the creatures one by one. Should the crane be granted the power to wake the world? What sounds could other creatures make that might wake everyone? Perhaps the bandicoot could loudly squeak, or the lorikeet could screech. Maybe the kangaroo could make a sound, or even the platypus. It was very confusing. All the creatures of this Earth were special, but how would they decide who would be granted this honor?

Then one day, just after the morning star began to shine, the spirits heard a most amazing sound. Kookaburra peered down at the ground and spied a mouse. He launched himself from his perch in the treetops and pounced upon that mouse, and when he had conquered his prey, he began to laugh. It was a sound like no other. When the spirits heard that sound, they knew that Kookaburra must become the world’s morning trumpeter. That very night the spirits visited Kookaburra in his home inside the gum tree. “Kookaburra,” they said, “every day, just as the morning star begins to fade, you will laugh as loudly as you can. It is your laughter that will wake all the sleepers before our fire lights the sky.”

Kookaburra realized that he could become a hero. He would be important and respected. So the very next day, just as the morning star began to fade, Kookaburra looked up at the sky and began to laugh. When the spirits heard that sound, they lighted their fire and slowly the Earth below began to glow from the light above. The warmth seeped down slowly, building as the fire blazed higher and higher. The flames leapt higher and burned for many hours. And then the fire began to die until, at long last, only embers remained, and the day grew dim at first, and then darkness came again.

The spirits gathered the last of the embers in the clouds, and used these to start their fire the next day, just after they heard Kookaburra’s laugh. Many years later, Kookaburra laughed loudly every morning, and every morning the spirits lighted the fire to warm the Earth below. When the Creator brought people into the world, the spirits instructed them to never tease Kookaburra. The elders instructed their children, “If Kookaburra hears you making fun of him, he will never laugh again. Then we will no longer have light or warmth.” So all the people learned, just as the beasts and birds had learned, that Kookaburra must be respected because he saved the light for all.

When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.

Buddha

Aboriginal Australians comprise many distinct peoples who have developed across Australia for over 50,000 years. The stories enshrined in Aboriginal mythology variously tell significant truths within each Aboriginal group’s local landscape, effectively layer the whole of the Australian continent’s topography with cultural nuance and deeper meaning and empower its listeners with the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of Australian Aboriginal ancestors back to time immemorial.

The True Value of Beauty

O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,

By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!

The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem

For that sweet odour which doth in it live.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 54

In this poem, Shakespeare was arguing his belief that there is a strong link between truth and beauty. This may not be the most famous sonnet he ever wrote, but it’s one of the best poetic meditations on the meaning of beauty.

Prince Nanda, also known as Sundarananda (handsome Nanda), was the younger half-brother of the Buddha. It was seven years after his Enlightenment that the Buddha, at the request of his father who missed him, returned to his home city. On the third day of his return, after his meal, the Buddha silently handed his bowl to Nanda. After that he stood and left. Thinking that the Buddha would take his bowl back, Nanda followed him until he reached the Park where the Buddha was staying.

When they arrived at the Park, the Buddha asked Nanda if he might become a monk. Although Nanda had just wedded the beautiful Janapada Kalyani, that same day Nanda took ordination and joined the community of Monks.

However, Nanda enjoyed no spiritual happiness. His thoughts were constantly directed towards his beautiful wife and his heart pined for her. Learning of this, the Buddha took Nanda on a journey to Tavatimsa Heaven. On the way Nanda saw a she-monkey that had lost her ears, nose and tail in a fire, clinging to a charred stump as if she couldn’t bear to let go no matter how ugly it was.

When they reached the heaven abode, Nanda saw beautiful celestial nymphs. They have long ago obtained their enlightenments and were blanketed by the glow of their happiness and compassion. The Buddha asked Nanda, “Which do you consider more beautiful? Those nymphs or Janapada Kalyani?” Nanda replied, “Venerable Sir, Janapada Kalyani looks like the scalded she-monkey, compared to those nymphs.” The Buddha then said, “Nanda, can you now see that what you thought to be exceedingly beautiful now pales in comparison to greater beauty?”

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.

Kahlil Gibran

You might wonder what then happened to Nanda’s beautiful wife. Some time after her husband left to become a monk, the princess Janapada Kalyani, also known as Rupananda, pondered, “My elder brother who could have become a Universal Monarch has renounced the world to become a bhikkhu. Rahula, the son of my elder brother, and my own husband Prince Nanda have also become bhikkhus. My mother Gotami has also become a bhikkhuni, and I am all alone here!”

So she went to the monastery and became a bhikkhuni herself. But there was a problem, she had become a bhikkhuni not out of faith but only in imitation of others and because she felt lonely. It soon became obvious that Nanda was not fully focused on her life as a nun. Nanda’s thoughts were mainly directed centred on her own beauty and her popularity with the people.

She had heard from others that the Buddha often taught about impermanence and earthly dissatisfactions. So she thought that, if he should see her, he would talk deprecatingly about her good looks. Therefore,  with this thinking, she kept away from the Buddha. But other bhikkhunis coming back from the monastery kept talking in praise of the Buddha. So one day, Rupananda decided to accompany other bhikkhunis to the monastery.

The Buddha saw her and reflected, “A thorn can only be taken out with a thorn; Rupananda being very attached to her body and being very proud of her beauty.” The  Buddha called her explicitly, and when she presented herself in an ashamed and anxious demeanour, he appealed to all of her positive qualities to make her feel a bit more joyful and calmer to receive his teaching. Since Nanda was so preoccupied with her physical beauty, he caused an image of a very beautiful lady to be seated near him, fanning him. This young girl was visible only to Rupananda and the Buddha. When Rupananda saw the girl, she liked her very much but she realized that compared to that girl, she herself was like an ugly old crow compared to a beautiful white swan.

Then, she looked again and was surprised to find that the girl had grown older. Again and again, she looked at the figure beside the Buddha and every time she noticed that the girl had grown older and older. Thus, the girl turned into a grown-up lady, then into a middle-aged lady, an old lady, a decrepit and a very old lady successively. Rupananda came to realize that there was a continuous process of change and decay in the body. With the coming of this realization, her attachment to the body diminished. Finally, the figure near the Buddha died – her body became  bloated, pus and maggots came out of every openings on her body until crows and vultures tried to snatch her.

Having seen all these, Rupananda pondered, “This young girl has grown old and decrepit and died in this very place under my own eyes. In the same way, my body will also grow old and wear out; it will be subject to disease and I will also die.” Thus, Rupananda gained a deeper understanding of the nature of her beauty.  Then the Buddha spoke to her:

This body is built with bones which are covered with flesh and blood; within this dwell decay and death, pride and detraction

Dhammapada Verse 150
Janapadakalyani Rupanandatheri Vatthu

Later, when he saw her again, the Buddha recognised Rupananda as being the foremost amongst bhikkunis. Rupananda had spent time meditating on the impermanence of her body and soon found her inner peace.

The Dhammapada is a Buddhist text that is believed to record the actual words of the Buddha who lived between 563 and 483 BCE. His words were passed along orally until they were written down in about the first century BCE. 

NEW RELEASE – Time Maps: Gods, Kings and Prophets

The whole story of Egypt has taken about 7000 years. This roughly translates to about three hundred generations, or a hundred average human lifetimes. The Ancient Egyptian culture meets its natural end around the time of Alexander the Macedonian. However, it is such a magnificent flowering of the human spirit that we turn to it for reference to this day to lead us into understanding many other cultures around the world.

The rise and fall of empires, dynasties and cultures are patterns that we find in the recollection of events, but the patterns in ancient Egypt are repeated throughout human history, and in the mythology of many nations – the king murdered by his brother, the old king with a young wife, the assassination of a saintly king, the attempt by courtiers to take control of the kingdom, the king brought down by his ambition or pride, and many others, all very Shakespearean. On a larger scale there are social upheavals, cultural revivals, wars that lasted for generations, superb technical achievements, works of art that stimulated the ancient Greeks and hence influenced the world, as well as religious inspirations that helped shape the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

Written with a Mathematician’s precision and a Historian’s curiosity, Time Maps covers over millennia worth of developments & impacts of civilizations, migrations, leaders and continents. Illuminating concepts of societies, dynasties, heroes, kings and eras through incisive and thorough research, looking at ideas, theories & world views with a sense of wonder and delight.

I am reading a small section of our new book, Time Maps: Gods, Kings and Prophets. It is now available through Amazon.

Time Maps: Gods, Kings and Prophets is now available on Amazon.

Achieving Simple Happiness

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Happy Thought’, A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)

Once upon a time, there was a rich man. As he became older, this rich man realized that the suffering of old age was about the same for rich and poor – in other words, in the end his money didn’t mean as much as he thought. So he gave up his wealth and class position, and he went into the forest to study under an old master and live as a poor monk. He practiced meditation and developed his mind. He freed himself from unwholesome thoughts and, slowly but surely, he became contented and happy.

At that time, most monks usually looked pretty serious. But there was one monk who, even though he was quite dignified, always wore at least a little smile – this monk was the person who used to be rich man. No matter what happened, he never lost this glimmer of inner happiness. And on happy occasions, he had the broadest smile, and the loudest, warmest laughter of all. Sometimes others would ask him why he was so happy all the time. He usually laughed and said, “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me! And if you think I lied to you, then it would be a disrespect to my master.” His master, the chief monk, was so impressed by him that he made the happy monk his assistant.

Much later, after the rainy season, the chief monk and his many followers went to the city. The king permitted them to live in his royal garden for the springtime. This king was a good man, who took his responsibilities as ruler seriously. He tried to protect the people from danger, and to increase their prosperity and welfare. But, of course that doesn’t mean that he had no troubles in his life. He always had to worry about neighbouring kings, some of whom were unfriendly and threatening. He often had to make peace between his own ministers because they wouldn’t stop bickering among themselves, not to mention his personal life – Sometimes his wives fought for his attention, and for the advancement of their sons. Occasionally, a dissatisfied subject even threatened the life of the king himself! And, of course, he had to worry constantly about the finances of the kingdom. In fact, he had so much to worry about that he never had time to be happy.

“The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large” — Confucius (500 BC)

As summer approached, the king learned that the monks were preparing to return to the forest. As the monks were living in his garden for a season, the king had gotten to know them quite well and he was very impressed with the peacefulness and welfare of the old leader. So the king went to him and said, “Your reverence, you are now very old and weak. What good does it do to go back to the forest? You can send your followers back while you remain here.”

The chief monk then called his number one assistant, the happy monk, to him and said, “You are now to be the leader of the other monks, while you all live in the forest. As I am too old and weak, I will remain here as offered by the king.” So his many followers returned to the forest and the old one remained.

The happy monk continued practicing meditation in the forest. He gained so much wisdom and peace that he became even happier than before. After a while, he missed his master and wanted to share his happiness with him. So he returned to the city for a visit.

When he arrived, he sat on a rug at the feet of the old monk. They didn’t speak very much, but every so often the number one assistant would say, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!”

Then the king came to visit. He paid his respects to the chief monk. However, the one from the forest just kept saying, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!” He did not even stop to greet the king and show proper respect. This disturbed the king and he thought, “With all my worries, as busy as I am looking after the kingdom, I take time out for a visit and this monk does not respect me enough to even recognize me. How insulting!” He said to the senior of the two monks, “Venerable sir, this monk must be stupid from overeating. That must be why he is so full of happiness. Does he lie around here so lazy all the time?”

The head monk replied, “Oh king, have patience and I will tell you the source of his happiness. Not many know it but this happy monk was once a king, just as rich and mighty as you. Then he was ordained a monk and gave up his kingly life. Now he thinks his old happiness was nothing compared to his present joy. He used to be surrounded by armed men who guarded and protected him. Now, sitting alone in the forest with nothing to fear, he has no need for armed guards. He has given up the burden of worrying about wealth that has to be protected. Instead, free of the worry of wealth and the fear of power, his wisdom protects himself and others. He advances in meditation to such inner peace, that he cannot keep from saying, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!”

Hearing the story of the happy monk made the king feel at peace. He stayed for a while and received advice from both of them. Then he honoured them, and returned to the palace. Later the happy monk, who once had been a king, paid his respects to his master and returned to the lovely forest. The old chief monk lived out the remainder of his life in the king’s garden, lending him peace and advice, until his peaceful death.

Pangur Bán

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

English translation by W. H Auden (1907 – 1973)

This is an Old Irish poem written by a monk in the ninth century – about his cat. I would really like to show you this because it’s such a gloriously happy poem about the life of the old monk in his study with his cat as his happy companion, Just as the scholar goes in search of knowledge, so his faithful companion goes in search of mice.

 “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less” — Socrates (450 BC).

The Happy Monk is one of the many stories in the Jataka Tales. The Jataka are a voluminous body of literature concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha  in both human and animal form. The tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD.

Message from Martini: “I have a YouTube Channel – I would Love for You to Join Me”

Hi everyone,

I have recently started my own YouTube channel. The reason behind this decision is that I want to share my views, insights and knowledge on this blog as well as in video format. There are many topics that I am very excited to discuss on video as well as in written form in this blog.

The goal of my YouTube channel is to be a place where we can discover more of ancient culture without the boring bits. If you have been following my blog or buying my books, you would know that I am very passionate about world mythology and how we can take lessons from them in the modern world. This channel will be focused world myths and legends which are simple and relatable. You can also access some of my favorite videos on my video page on this website.

I will be very happy if you would like to follow me along on this journey. If you are interested, do come to my channel, watch my videos and comment on it on YouTube or below this blog post if you like. I rely on feedback to improve the quality of the content, and I also would like to choose topics for future videos according to your feedback when possible.

Last, and most importantly, thank you for all your support and friendship through the years. I hope you know that appreciate you very much, and I look forward to taking you on this new adventure.

With love,

Martini

Patience – Good Things Take Time

Qui se ultro morti offerant facilius reperiuntur quam qui dolorem patienter ferant

“It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.”

Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico, book VII

Some people are naturally patient. But the rest of us need to practice for it to become a habit. Becoming more patient will not happen overnight, but persistence can pay off.

Wat Arun (“Temple of Dawn”) is a temple in Yai district of Bangkok, Thailand. It was named after The Hindu sun god Surya’s legless charioteer, Aruna. There are many versions of legend of the birth of Aruna – all of them teach us the value of patience – especially how it very much helps the people around us.

 The sage Kashyapa Prajapati had two wives. Their names are Vinata and Kadru.  Vinata and Kadru wanted to have children. Kashyapa granted them a boon. Kadru asked for one thousand sons, while Vinata only wanted two sons. Kashyapa blessed them, and then went away to a forest.

Later, Kadru gave birth to one thousand eggs, while Vinata gave birth to two eggs. After incubating her eggs for five hundred years, Kadru broke the eggs open and out came her 1,000 sons. Seeing this and eager for her sons to be born already, Vinata broke one of the eggs and out came Aruna. Aruna was beautiful. He looked radiant and reddish as the morning sun, but not as bright as the midday sun as he was supposed to be and he was born without legs. Aruna chided his mother Vinata, because it was due to her impatience that he was born before he was ready.

Arun warned his mother, for the sake of his younger brother yet to be born, to wait for the second egg to hatch instead of breaking it. Aruna then left to become the charioteer of Surya, the sun god.



Vinata waited, and years later the fully developed brother of Aruna was born. His name was Garuda, and he became the divine eagle-sun king of the Birds.

And that companion is helpful,
because patience expands your capacity
to love and feel peace.
The patience of a rose close to a thorn
keeps it fragrant. It’s patience that gives milk
to the male camel still nursing in its third year,
and patience is what the prophets show to us.

Rumi (1369-1420)

Aruna literally means “red, ruddy, tawny”. He is the personification of the reddish glow of the rising sun. Wat Arun  (“Temple of Dawn”) is a  temple in the Yai district of Bangkok, Thailand. The temple is among the best known of Thailand’s landmarks. The first light of the morning reflects off the surface of the temple.

Driving Away Your Anger with Kindness


“Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, …”

Homer, The Iliad, Book 1 (800 BCE)

One of the very first word in the history of Western literature is “anger”. That is how Homer’s “Iliad” begins. Composed sometime in the eighth century BC, it starts with a call to the Muse to help tell the story of the “anger” of Achilles — and of the incalculable sorrows and the terrible deaths of so many brave warriors that this wrath caused. Homer’s epic, set during the war between Greeks and Trojans, is as much about anger, private vendetta and its fatal consequences as it is about heroic combat and the clash of two ancient superpowers.

The 10-year Trojan War was fought to protect the honor of one Greek king, whose wife, Helen, had had run off with a Trojan prince. In a public contest of bravado, clout and honor, Achilles had been forced to give up a captive girl, who was his favorite spoil of war, to the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. It was for that reason — the dishonor more than the girl herself — that he sulked off from the fight and by his absence caused the deaths of many dear to him.

No less radical are the different perspectives on the story that Homer encourages his listeners and readers to adopt. By setting some of his scenes behind enemy lines, among the Trojan fighters and their families. We are invited to see the Trojan enemy not as barbarians at all but as people very much like us (that is, like Greeks): laughing and joking, loving their children, kindly, fearful and in awe of their gods. Dehumanizing the enemy is still one of the most counterproductive aspects of political rhetoric even today. It may suit some narrowly short-term ends to pretend that, for example, the politicians and people of  so-called “enemy country” do not laugh and joke and love their children; but of course they do. In short, the first work of Western literature already reminds us that even a sworn enemy is “human like us.” Therefore, the idea behind this is that when we feel angry with anyone, we should try to find out some good in them, either in their way of thinking, speaking or acting. If we find some redeeming quality in them, we should ponder its value and ignore their bad qualities as natural weaknesses that are to be found in everyone. Whilst we think thus, our mind will soften and we may even feel kindly towards that person. If we develop this way of thinking we will be able to curb or eliminate our anger towards them.

Another way to reflect on anger is given to us by this ancient Buddhist story from the Samyutta-Nikâya:

Once there lived a demon who fed on the anger of others. As his feeding ground was the human world, there was no lack of food for him. So the anger-eating demon found it quite easy to provoke a family quarrel, or national and racial hatred, or even to stir up wars. And whenever he succeeded in causing a war, he could properly gorge himself without further effort; because once a war starts, hate multiplies by its own momentum and affects even the normally kind-hearted people. So the demon’s food supply became so rich that he sometimes had to restrain himself from over-eating, being content with nibbling just a small piece of resentment found close-by.

But as it often happens with successful people, he became rather overbearing and one day when he was feeling bored he thought: “Shouldn’t I try it with the gods?” Then he chose the Heaven of the Thirty-three Deities, ruled by Sakka, Lord of Gods. He knew that, although these gods were far above petty and selfish quarrels (they are gods after all), only a few of them had entirely eliminated the fetters of ill-will and aversion. So he transferred himself to that heavenly realm and was lucky enough to come at a time when Sakka the Divine King was absent. There was none in the large audience hall and without much ado the demon seated himself on Sakka’s empty throne, waiting quietly.

Soon some of the gods came to the hall and first they could hardly believe their own divine eyes when they saw that ugly demon sitting on the throne. Having recovered from their shock, they started to shout and lament: “Oh you ugly demon, how can you dare to sit on the throne of our Lord? What utter cheekiness! What a crime! you should be thrown headlong into the hell and straight into a boiling cauldron! You should be quartered alive! Begone! Begone!”

But while the gods were growing more and more angry, the demon was quite pleased because from moment to moment he grew in size, in strength and in power. The anger he absorbed into his system started to ooze from his body as a very smelly red-glowing mist. This evil aura kept the gods at a distance and their radiance was dimmed.

Suddenly a bright glow appeared at the other end of the hall and it grew into a dazzling light from which Sakka emerged, the King of Gods. But he was unshaken by what he saw. The smoke-screen created by the gods’ anger parted when he slowly and politely approached the usurper of his throne. “Welcome, friend! Please remain seated. I can take another chair. May I offer you the drink of hospitality? Our Amrita is not bad this year. Or do you prefer a stronger brew, the vedic Soma?”

While Sakka spoke these friendly words, the demon rapidly shrank to a diminutive size and finally disappeared, trailing behind a whiff of smoke which likewise soon dissolved.

The Tipitaka is a massive collection of texts that were first compiled by the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE. It was divided into 5 volumes (nikayas). The Samyutta Nikaya (“Connected Discourses” or “Kindred Sayings”) is the third of the five volumes.

Death, Impermanence and Knowing that You are not Alone

Though one should live a hundred years
not seeing the Deathless State,
yet better is life for a single day
seeing Deathlessness.

Dhammapada, Verse 114 – Kisagotami Vatthu

Long time ago, there was a lady. She had had a happy life. She grew up as daughter of a rich man and eventually married to a rich young man. She lived happily with her husband and bore him a son.

Then the other side of life caught up with her.  Her only son died. He was only a toddler. The lady was overcome with grief.  Carrying the little dead body of her son, she went everywhere, asking everyone she met for medicine that would restore her son to life. Of course, no one could help her and people began to think that the poor woman had gone mad. But one wise man thought that he should be of some help to her. So, he said to her, “The Buddha is the person you should approach, he has the medicine you want; go to him.” Thus, she went to the Buddha, told him her story and asked him to give her the medicine that would restore her dead son to life. The Buddha listened compassionately to her story. He then said to her, “lady, go and ask for five mustard seed from a house which has never experienced death.”

Feeling hope for the first time, still carrying her dead child,  she went from house to house, asking if perhaps the house is free from death and they could spare five mustard seeds for her. Although everyone was willing to help her and readily provided her with five mustard seeds from their house, she could not find a single family that has not experienced death.

Then, as she went from house to house with her dead son refusing to give up her quest, she started to realise that hers was not the only family that had faced death. As she continued her search, she felt the grip of pain in her heart and her attachment to her son’s body loosened.

At last, she was ready to let go. She understood what the Buddha had wanted her to find out for herself — that suffering is a part of life, and death comes to us all. Once she accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she could stop her grieving. She left her son’s body in the jungle and returned to the Buddha to pay her respect. She reported that she could find no house where death had not occurred. Then the Buddha said, “death comes to all beings; before their desires are satiated death takes them away.” On hearing this, she fully realised the impermanence of life.

Later, she became a bhikkhuni. One day, early in the morning, she put on her robes and, taking her bowl & outer robe, went into the city for alms. When she returned from her alms round she went to the Grove of the Blind and sat down at the foot of a tree for the day’s meditation.

Then Mara the Evil One, a demon, wanting to arouse fear and terror in Kisagotami to ruin her concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:

          Why,

with your sons killed,

do you sit all alone,

          your face in tears?

          All alone,

immersed in the midst of the forest,

          are you looking

          for a man?

Kindly, she replied to him in verses:

I’ve gotten past

          the killing of sons,

have made that the end

to [my search for] men.

I don’t grieve,

I don’t weep —

          and I’m not afraid of you,

          my friend.

It’s everywhere destroyed — delight.

The mass of darkness is shattered.

Having defeated the army of death,

                    free

          of fermentations

                    I dwell.

Sad and dejected, Mara the Evil One vanished, and she was free to continue her quest for enlightenment.

The Therigatha (or “Verses of the Elder Nuns”) in the Pali Canon recounts a version of the story. The Therigatha is  a collection of short poems of early women who were elder nuns. The poems date from a three hundred year period, with some dated as early as the late 6th century BCE.

Death, Courage and Sacrifices upon the Stars: Legends Behind the Zodiacs

Star signs are one of those things which we take for granted. Although we ‘consult’ star signs, we do not usually bother with how they come about. Many of the signs got their names from various Greek legends, but some predate even those.

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Capricorn

The myth of Capricorn is one of those that predates the Greeks. Capricorn, or the seagoat, was a Babylonian deity named Ea. He has the lower half of a fish and the head and torso of a goat. Ea lived in the ocean and came out every day to watch over the land and went back to the sea every night. However, for the ancient Greeks, Capricorn represents Pan, who had the upper half of a man and the legs of a goat. When Pan’s nymph mother saw her strange baby, she shrieked in fear and ran away. The god Hermes, however, loved his son. He took him to Olympus, where the other gods and goddesses also took a liking to Pan. Pan became the god of shepherds and flocks, taking over the responsibility from his father. He lived among the shady trees in the mountain and amused himself by playing his reed pipes (‘Panpipes’), or by chasing nymphs through the woods.

Aquarius

As water is the bringer and sustainer of life, the force that made water rain down from the heavens was among the most revered by ancient civilizations such as Babylonia, Egypt and Greece. There was always a god known as the “Water Bearer”. In the Greek legend, the Water Bearer was Zeus as one of his most important roles was as the god of storms. However, Zeus was not Aquarius. During the Iron Age, humanity had become more savage than animals. Brother fought against brother, sons killed fathers – no one was safe, and everyone was generally quite nasty to each other. No one would listen to the gods and they never would repent for their sins.

Zeus had noticed a pair of poor husband and wife, Deucalion and Pyrrha, during his last visit to Earth. They lived alone in a simple hut, with almost no food, and definitely no material goods. Despite this, they fed Zeus, gave him shelter for the night and spoke to him kindly, even though they had no idea that he was a god. Zeus then went back to the sky with a bit of faith in humanity. But, the savagery of humanity continued and, one day, Zeus has had enough. He sent a great flood upon the Earth, destroying  all the people in the world. However, he still remembered Deucalion and Pyrrha – the two last godly people on Earth. Zeus allowed them to survive the flood. After it ended, he helped them create a new race of stronger and better people. When Deucalion died, Zeus placed him in the sky as the ‘Water Bearer’ because he lived through the great flood and helped to bring life to a new generation.

Pisces

Pisces is associated with Aphrodite and Eros, her son. They were walking along a river one day when a monster named Typhon suddenly rose up out of the water to destroy them. Typhon was as strong as a Titan, and therefore as strong as the gods. He was as tall as the heavens and his eyes shot flames. Instead of fingers, he had 100 dragon heads sprouting from his hands.

None of the Olympians had the power to destroy Typhon alone. All they could do was run from him. Seeing him, Aphrodite and Eros dove into the river and were rescued by two friendly fish who carried them to safety. The two grateful gods then place the two fish in the sky with their tails intertwined, to commemorate the day when love and beauty were saved.

Aries

Athamas, king of Croneus, had a son Phrixus and a daughter Helle, by his first wife, Nephele. Eventually he got bored of his first wife, sent her away and married Ino, daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes. Although Ino gave him two sons, she soon grew jealous of Nephele’s children and decided to take over the kingdom for her own sons.

Ino ordered the women of the kingdom to roast the seeds of corn before the men planted them in the field, swearing them to secrecy. Of course, the corn didn’t grow, which was a bit of a bummer for the kingdom, as corn was their number one resource of food, and a good corn harvest could feed the whole kingdom for months. The king decided to consult an oracle to see what he could do to appease the gods and bring back the crops. Being king, he didn’t go to the oracle himself and sent messengers instead. Ino paid off the messengers, bribing them into lying about its advice.

The bribed messenger told the king that Phrixus and Helle were the cause of the famine and they would have to be sacrificed to the gods before the kingdom would have corn again. Although the king was in despair, he did not want to disobey the gods and cause his kingdom to starve, so he decided to follow what he thought was the oracle’s advice.

Luckily, Nephele sent a protector into the castle walls to watch over her children. This protector was a ram with fleece made out of gold. The ram had been given to Nephele as a present from Zeus, and was faithful to the former queen and her children. As the day of the sacrifice dawned, the ram approached the children. It spoke to them, telling them that they must flee the kingdom immediately. It told them to climb on its back, which they did. The ram then sprang into the air and flew away, across the ocean. Helle fell off the Ram’s back and died in the sea. The place where she fell is called Hellesponte.

Phrixus survived, and later married into the royal family of Colchis, thus maintaining his noble status. In thanks to Zeus, he sacrificed the golden ram that had carried out the god’s wishes on Earth. Zeus hung the ram’s likeness in the sky to commemorate its bravery.

Taurus

Zeus loved women – both mortal and immortal. Of course, being a god, having affairs would have been a bit tricky. His wife, Hera, was watching him like a hawk. Therefore, Zeus sometimes needed to be somewhat roundabout in his courting because he was pursuing women that he should have stayed away from anyway, like young virgins or other men’s wives. Zeus’ favored method was to change himself into an animal and get close to the woman of his choice. One day, Zeus’ eye fell on the beautiful Europa, as she was out playing with a group of girls by the seashore. He changed himself into a white bull and  wandered up to Europa. Amazed by the beauty and gentleness of the bull, Europa played with her new pet and forgot about her friends. They gradually moved further away, leaving her alone with the bull who was Zeus. He lay down and she eagerly climbed on the bull’s back.

Zeus then plunged into the sea and swam away with Europa clinging to his back. Europa called to her friends for help, but it was too late. Zeus took her to the island of Crete where he changed back to his true form. He took Europa as his lover and she bore him three sons. To celebrate his success, Zeus placed the image of the bull in the sky to represent love, strength and beauty.

Gemini

Castor and Pollux were twins. Their mother, Leda, was one of Zeus’ many lovers, after which she had four children: Castor, Pollux, Clytemnestra, and Helen of Sparta, who would later be the woman responsible for the fall of Troy. Castor and Pollux were members of the Argonauts, who set off with Jason in pursuit of the Golden Fleece.

When Castor was killed in a struggle with the Leucippidae, Zeus sadly saw his death from Olympus. As the twins were among his favorite mortals, and he did not want to see them both go to Hades, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at the Leucippidae and killed them. Zeus then placed Pollux in the sky. But Pollux didn’t want to be immortal while his brother was still in Hades. So Zeus brought Castor up and reunite the brothers as Gemini, where they would be together forever.

Cancer

The Crab was originally called Carcinus (“crayfish”). It was big and lived underwater. Meanwhile, Heracles was in the middle of the Twelve Labors, his punishment for his crimes when he was driven insane by Hera. The gods decreed that even though he was not entirely responsible for the crimes he committed in his insanity, Heracles would still need to spend many years atoning for his sins – hence the twelve labors. Heracles was working for his broher, Eurystheus, who was quite happy to give him one impossible job after another. Heracles completed the tasks and in the course of his labors he gained glory and the favor of most of the Olympians, except Hera who decided to send Carcinus to attack him.

When Hera sent Carcinus to him, Heracles was fighting the Lernean Hydra, a giant fire-breathing snake with many heads. Each time Heracles cut off one head, two more would grow back in its place. Hera figured that Heracles would be too busy fighting the Hydra to pay attention to Carcinus, or at least if Carcinus distracted him, the Hydra would have an opportunity to finish him off.

In a bit of an anti-climax, Heracles killed Carcinus as soon as he saw him and, without missing a beat, turned his attention back to the Hydra. Hera, who watched the incident, took Carcinus and placed him in the heavens to show that she was grateful for his efforts.

Leo

Leo is a representative of a mythical monster. He represents the Nemean Lion which terrorized villages, scared young children and was impossible to kill. For one of his twelve labors, Heracles was sent to find the lion in its mountain lair and destroy it before it could completely wipe out the Nemean countryside.  Eurystheus wanted him to bring the lion’s hide back to the city as proof that he had actually killed it.

Heracles tried to kill it with his arrows. The arrows bounced harmlessly off the lion’s behind. Heracles then tried the sword. The sword broke. Then he wrestled the lion, strangling it with his bare hands and skinned it using its own claws. He made a cloak out of the lion’s skin and a helmet out of the head. Pictures of  Heracles almost  always show him clothed in the skin of the Nemean Lion. The spirit of the lion was placed in the sky as Leo.

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Virgo


During the Golden Age the gods and goddesses lived on Earth among men. Things began to change when Zeus became the king of the gods. Zeus may be indiscriminate in his choice of lady friends and would take female human lovers,  but he saw humans as lowly creatures, far beneath immortals, and should be treated as animals.

Prometheus, a Titan, became the protector of men and sided against Zeus. He even went so far as to steal fire from the Olympians and give it to humans. Zeus was outraged and chained Prometheus to the top of Mount Caucasus. Although Prometheus was later set free, Zeus was not finished with him, or the human race, yet. He sent down Pandora.Pandora’s box was filled with demons that torture humanity. After Pandora unleashed these demons, the remaining immortals on Earth quickly left for Olympus. The last one to leave was Astraea who loved earth the most. Although she went to the heavens, she still hopes to return to Earth, and she watches from the sky every night as Virgo waiting for the day when earth will be ready for her to return.

Libra

The legend of Libra originated in Egypt. Anubis, the Egyptian lord of the dead used a scale to weigh the souls of those who had died.

Anubis and his brother Apu-at watched over the two roads that led to the Underworld. Anubis would weigh the souls of the dead to determine their value based on what they had done on Earth and send worthy souls to the kingdom of Osiris, which was the equivalent to heaven. His attribute, the scales, was a symbol of final judgment. The Greeks retained this symbol as Libra.

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Scorpio

The Scorpion was a monster summoned by Artemis. She called the scorpion to destroy a giant named Orion. Orion was strong and handsome, but conceited, and always forget to show proper respect towards the deities. There are a couple of versions of how Orion managed to get Artemis cross. One  version says that he tried to force himself on one of her handmaidens. Another version says that he tried to force himself on Artemis herself who, being the virgin goddess, would have none of it. Another version says that he boasted that he was a better archer than Artemis.

Artemis ordered a giant scorpion to attack Orion. The scorpion stung Orion and killed him. Artemis placed the scorpion in the sky as a reward for doing her bidding. However, she was not finished with Orion. She also placed Orion in the heavens where he continues to run from the scorpion across the night sky for all eternity.

Sagittarius

The popular version of the legend of Sagittarius is that the Archer is Chiron, a centaur. Chiron was known for his wisdom, his caring nature and his ability to teach. The immortal centaur tutored young heroes Achilles and Jason, among others. Although he lived by himself in a cave in the countryside Chiron was renowned among the Greeks for his skills and wisdom.

When he was trying to wipe out some vicious centaurs who were plaguing the countryside, Heracles accidentally shot Chiron with an arrow. Chiron’s wound was incurable as Heracles’ arrows were tipped with the venom of the Lernean Hydra, which killed any victim it touched. However, Chiron was immortal. Although he was in terrible agony, Chiron could not die. Prometheus the Titan saw his plight and made him mortal thus enabling him to die. As he was so beloved by everyone, Chiron was immortalized as a constellation after his death.

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