How to be a Leader, an Ancient Javanese Philosophy

Serat Rama is a composition of the old Javanese song composed at around 870 AD. In the poem, Rama explained the concept of leadership to Wibisana, the new king of Alengka. After watching his extended family die on the battlefield, Wibisana was unwittingly put in the unexpected and unwanted position of being the next king of Alengka. Seeing this, Rama gave him a crash-course on leadership called Astabrata, a teaching about obligation of a great king.

Serat Rama is a composition of the old Javanese song Ramayana Kakawin, composed at around 870 AD. In the poem Rama, the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, explained the concept of leadership to Wibisana, the new king of Alengka. After watching his extended family die on the battlefield, Wibisana was unwittingly put in the unexpected and unwanted position of being the next king of Alengka. Seeing this Rama, who battled and killed Wibisana’s elder brother Rahwana, gave him a crash-course on leadership called Astabrata,  a teaching about obligation of a great king.

Ramayana Ballet, Indonesia – Rama, 1961

Astabrata (“Eight Behaviours”) is a philosophic guide to ideal leadership. It refers to eight natural elements: earth, sea, sky, stars, sun, moon, wind and fire. Each of these element reflects the characteristics of an ideal leader. It also covers four categories relating to the relationship of the leader with his work, the relationship of the leader with others in his work, the relationship of the leader with others in all aspects of his daily life, and the relationship of the leader with himself. Rama’s advice refers to the eight gods who represents the elements.

Ramayana Ballet – Rama battling against Rahwana, 1961

The eight behaviours of a leader, according to ancient Javanese philosophy are:

  1. Mahambeg Mring Warih (emulating the nature of water). An ideal leader has the nature of running water. They have the ability to adjust well to others and the surrounding environment. They also pay attention to the potential, needs and interests of his followers. They also have the ability to accept opinions from subordinates and think carefully about all opinions that exist. In other words, an ideal leader should be a master communicator to make sure that all opinions, communications and implementations continuously flow.
  2. Mahambeg Mring Kismo (emulating the nature of the earth). The role of the Earth is that of a mother who cares, nurtures and protects.  An ideal leader is able protect his subordinates. He would also nurture the weak to make them stronger. They direct their power and resources to the greater good of the company and lead the company to abundance.
Ramayana Ballet – Rama and Maricha, 1961
  1. Mahambeg Mring Suryo (emulating the nature of the sun). A leader who masters the nature of the sun provides positive energy, inspiration and enthusiasm to his people. An ideal leader encourages problem solving. This includes the ability to provide instructions and solutions to problems faced by their subordinates. 
  2. Mahambeg Mring Condro (emulating the nature of the moon). Leaders cares for the dignity of his people. In Javanese terms, this behavior is called nguwongke, which basically means treating people like human beings. In their daily behavior the leader also serves as a guide and provide both concrete and ideological directives to his subordinates. This concept is also closely related to the ability of leaders to understand and practice and uphold the values ​​of morality.
Ramayana Ballet – Rahwana Defeated, 1961
  1. Mahambeg Mring Samirono (emulating the nature of the wind). The leader who masters the nature of the wind is he who is always measured in his speech. They act and speak prudently equipped with data and facts.
  2. Mahambeg Mring Wukir (emulating the nature of mountains). A leader should be firm and steady. Apart from being physically and mentally strong, the leader does not give up easily in defending justice or supporting their subordinates.
  3. Mahambeg Mring Samodra (emulating the nature of the ocean). A leader should have a great heart. They accommodate the aspirations of others with patience, compassion and understanding.
  4. Mahambeg Mring Dahono (emulating the nature of fire). A leader should master the nature of fire. He must be nimble and thorough in solving problems, showing consistency in their tasks and principles. They are also objective, firm and impartial enforcing rules.
Ramayana Ballet – Subali Arguing with Rama, 1961

Contextually, cultural aspects play an important role in determining the expectations of the community toward their ideal figure. The person or group who will lead the generation of the nation is expected to take on the role of king with all the ideal competencies as depicted in the Astabrata. Therefore, people in positions of power and responsibility at any level are expected to provide exemplary behaviour for all students or the people who work under them.

The most prominent of this leadership philosophy is that leaders are not equal to the people they lead. In the ancient Javanese philosophy, the leader takes the position of being the center of decision making and the center of problem solving. Leaders also take on the role of encouraging, sustaining and motivating subordinates and personally becoming role models in everyday life. The ideal behavior of the leader is likened to the manifestation of divinity that exists in humans. Learning from the wisdom of the universe, a true leader must be able to not only align himself, but also align himself with his subjects and even align himself with the cosmic universe.

Ramayana Ballet – Rama and Sinta Reunited 1961

We Used to Look After Each Other: The Ancient Relationship between Nature and Mankind

The Australian bushfire season in 2019–2020 includes a series of bushfires burning across Australia, mainly in the southeast. It has burned an estimated 10.7 million hectares, destroyed over 5,900 buildings and killed 28 people as of January 8, 2020, significantly more intense compared to previous seasons. After record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought exacerbated bushfires, the New South Wales finally government declared a state of emergency in December 2019. Nearly half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds were estimated to have been affected by the ongoing fires in New South Wales. Other estimates, including animals such as bats, amphibians and invertebrates, put the number of deaths at more than one billion.

To help battle the fires and relieve tired local personnel to New South Wales, reinforcements from all over Australia were called in. Firefighters from New Zealand, Canada and the USA also helped fight the fires.

This tragedy again reminds us that our bond with the world of nature is broken. This is a dangerous thing as nature not only gives us benefits, but for our survival we are obviously dependent on it. And it provides services to the global economy worth an estimated $125 trillion per year by providing clean air, water, food and other resources. We are still depleting and degrading the natural capital of the planet at rhythm. We are losing biodiversity, meaning we are losing nature and wildlife. We have lost two thirds of the world’s wildlife population in our lifetime, and carbon emissions have risen by 90%.

It is strange to watch this unfolding as we as human beings seem to lose our connection to the natural world. We actively harm nature instead of working in harmony with it. And, when nature screams in agony we ignore it and pretend nothing happens. However, it was not always like this.

Nature and a Man’s Heart: The Tale of Two Brothers

Numerous worldwide myths represent a deep-rooted belief in an intimate relationship between a human being and nature. The theme of how a person’s life is so connected to a tree that the person would suffer if the tree washed away or injured, or even the idea of a tree as an external soul of the body of a person is found in the ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers around 1185 BC.

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Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D’Orbiney. From Egypt.End of the 19th Dynasty
circa 1185 BC

Two brothers center the story: Anpu and Bata. The brothers are working together to farm land and to raise cattle. One day, the wife of Anpu is trying to seduce Bata. When Bata strongly rejects her advances, the wife tells her husband that when she refused, his brother tried to seduce her and beat her. Hearing this, Anpu then tried to kill Bata, who flees and prays to Ra-Harakhti to save him. The god creates a lake infested with crocodile between the two brothers, through which Bata will eventually talk to his brother and share his side of the events. Bata severs his genitalia to prove his honesty and throws them into the water where they are eaten by a catfish.

Bata says he’s going to the Cedar Valley, where he’s going to put his heart on top of a cedar tree’s blossom, so if the tree is cut down Anpu can find it and let Bata live again. Bata informs Anpu that he should know to search out his brother if he ever gets a jar of beer that froths. Anpu returns home. Meanwhile, Bata is setting up a life in the Cedar Valley, building for himself a new home. Bata comes upon the Ennead, or the nine deities of Egypt, who have compassion on him. Khnum, the god often depicted as having fashioned humans on a potter’s wheel in Egyptian mythology, creates a wife for Bata. Because of her divine creation, the pharaoh is looking for the wife of Bata. When the pharaoh manages to bring her to stay with him, she asks him to cut down the tree in which Bata’s heart has been put. He does that, and Bata is dead.

Anpu then gets a sparkling bottle of beer and leaves for the Cedar Valley. For more than three years he has been searching for the heart of his brother, finding it at the beginning of the fourth year. He follows the instructions given by Bata and places the heart in a cold water bowl. Bata is resurrected.

Mother Nature Sacrificed: Standing on the Body of Nature

The Indonesian goddess Dewi Sri (literally means “Great Goddess”) is the Mother Goddess as well as the goddess of rice and fertility of the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese pre-Hinduand pre-Islam era. Once, Batara Guru, the supreme god, commanded all gods and goddesses to contribute their power to build a new palace. One of the gods, Antaboga, a Naga god, was very anxious when he heard the command of Batara Guru. He had no arms or legs, and he wasn’t sure how he might be able to do the job. Anta was shaped like a snake and was unable to work. He was seeking advice from Batara Narada, Batara Guru’s younger brother. But sadly, Anta’s bad luck also confused Narada. Anta was very upset and he started crying.

Three of his teardrops fell down on the ground. Miraculously, these teardrops became three beautiful shiny eggs that looked like jewels after touching the ground. Batara Narada advised him to offer the Batara Guru these “jewels” in the hope that the gift would appease him. Anta went to the palace of Batara Guru with the three eggs in his mouth. He was approached on the way there by an eagle who asked him a question. Anta can’t answer the question because he holds the eggs in his mouth. The bird  became furious, so it started attacking Anta. One egg fell to the earth and was shattered as a result. Anta hid in the bushes quickly, but the bird was waiting for him. The second attack left Anta to offer the Batara Guru with only one egg. The two split eggs fell to the ground and became Kalabuat and Budug Basu twin boar.

Anta finally arrived at the palace and offered to the Batara Guru his teardrop in the form of a shiny egg. The offer was kindly accepted and he was asked by the Batara Guru to nest the egg until it hatched. The egg hatched miraculously into a beautiful baby girl. He gave the Batara Guru and his wife to the baby girl.

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an Indonesian stone figure of the rice goddess Dewi Sri with Vitarka Mudra

Her name was Nyai Pohaci Sanghyang Asri, and she grew up as a beautiful princess. Every god who saw her began to feel attracted to her, even her own foster father. Seeing the desire of Batara Guru for his foster daughter, all the gods were so worried. Fearing that this scandal might destroy the heavenly harmony, finally they conspired to separate Nyi Pohaci and Batara Guru.

All the gods arranged for her death to keep the peace in the heavens and secure Nyi Pohaci’s chastity. She was poisoned to death and her body was buried in a remote and unknown location somewhere on earth. Nevertheless, because of the purity and divinity of Sri Pohaci, her grave gave a miraculous sign; for some useful plants grew up at the time of her death, which would support human species forever. From her head there grew coconut; from her nose, lips, and ears there grew various spices and vegetables; from her hair there grew grass and various flowering plants; from her breasts there grew various plants of fruit; from her arms and hands there grew teak; from her thighs there grew various types of bamboo, Different tuber plants grew from her legs, and finally rice grew from her belly button. All the useful plants, essential to human needs and well-being, are considered to come from the residue of the body of Dewi Sri. From that time, she was venerated and revered by the people of Java Island as the benevolent “Rice Goddess” and fertility. She is regarded as the highest goddess and the most important deity for agricultural society in the ancient Sunda Kingdom.

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Beeld van Dewi Sri de rijstgodin TMnr 60016918.jpg
Figure representing the rice goddess Dewi Sri

Protecting Nature is an Ancient Way of Life

The ancients had a clear understanding on nature’s protection and they found ways to return the favour. Throughout Norse mythology, the three Norns spend most of their time spinning the threads of life at the base of Yggdrasil, an enormous ash tree that is the core of the universe, deciding the fate of all living beings. The Norse Norns are Yggrasil’s caretakers, the tree that houses Norse mythology’s nine realms, only one of which is the human world, Midgard. They take water from the Well of Fates and dump it on Yggdrasil’s branches to prevent it from disappearing. In addition to their loom and tapestry, the Norns carve also runs into Yggdrasil’s trunk. They start every morning by placing a rooster at the top of Yggdrasil. The rooster’s warning acts as a wake-up call to all Asgard’s gods and goddesses.

Date palms have been revered in Mesopotamia as it was an important food source. The ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi even referred to very specific punishments for individuals who did not pollinate their date palms, even designating special guardians to manually pollinate these trees. Special priests who slept on the ground tended the oak of Dodona in Epirus in northwestern Greece, the oldest Hellenic oracle.

All of the clans in ancient Ireland had their own sacred tree in their territories. Under the sacred tree, chieftains could have been inaugurated, binding them with both the forces heavens and underworld. The trees were thus seen as the representative of the king’s and his tribe’s success. The trees were their province’s guardians, sheltering their people. Therefore, capturing and destroying an enemy’s sacred tree is very likely to have been viewed as a very serious act. The Irish Annals record that Máel Sechnaill, the High King of Ireland, torn down and destroyed the sacred tree of Magh Adhair in Tulla, Co Clare, under which the chieftains of O’Brien were inaugurated, in 981 CE. In 1111 CE, they had to pay a huge ransom of 3000 cattle after the Ulidian army cut down the holy tree of the O’Neils.

So, somewhere along the way, we have lost that love of nature that we have inherited from our ancestors. Now what can we do to get it back?