Dewi Sri, Nang Khosop and the Bountiful Body of a Goddess

For centuries, rice has been a staple diet and plays an important role in Asian culture. Although rice farmers have found their lives to become more difficult due to climate change, Bloomberg states in 2016 that 16 million people still farm rice in Thailand alone. Commemorating the beginning of the rice growing season with an annual Royal Plowing Ceremony in the month of May is an ancient tradition for countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Langka among others. Some of the duties of the Emperor of Japan as chief Shinto priest is the ritual planting of the first rice seeds on the grounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace as well as performing the first harvest ritual. Rice fields in Asia are generally protected by goddesses.

Although these goddesses, as well as their many variations of legends, may be overshadowed by the famous Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, they exhibit many of the elements of Demeter’s characteristics. They all journeyed to the underworld in one way or another. They also resembles Demeter in their association with snakes, fertility and motherhood. In 1849, German Classicist Eduard Gerhard speculated that the various goddesses found in ancient Greek paganism (including Demeter herself) had been representations of a singular goddess who had been worshipped far further back into prehistory – associating this deity particularly with the concept of Mother Earth. Evidently, the influence of the Mother Goddess reached further than ancient Greece.

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Dewi Sri 36 cm tall bronze statue, Central Java art. Her left hand is holding a rice plant.

The story of Dewi Sri also takes her to the three realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. Dewi Sri is ancient goddess of rice and fertility even before the Hindu and Islamic era of Indonesia. Despite her mythology being native to the island of Java, after the adoption of Hinduism in Java as early as the first century CE, Dewi Sri became associated with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity.

Dewi Sri and the origin of rice as written in Wawacan Sulanjana (“The Tale of Sulanjana”), which contains Sundanese local wisdom through reverence of rice cultivation in its tradition. Once upon a time in heaven, Batara Guru, the king of the gods, commanded all the gods and goddesses to help build a new palace. Upon hearing this, the naga god Antaboga became anxious as, although he was fiercely loyal to his master, he was a great serpent and did not have arms or legs to help with the building. His anxiety became too much that three teardrops fell from his eyes to the ground where they became three beautiful jewel-like eggs.

With the three eggs in his mouth Anta flew to the heavenly palace to offer them to Batara Guru. On his way there, he was approached by an eagle whom asked him a question. As Antaboga was holding his eggs in his mouth, he had no choice but to keep silent. The eagle, feeling insulted, furiously attacked him – leaving him with only one egg to offer Batara Guru. Batara Guru accepted the egg and asked Antaboga to nest the egg until it hatched. The egg hatched into a beautiful baby girl who he then gave to Batara Guru.

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Statue of Dewi Sri — Ubud, Bali

The girl grew up into a beautiful princess in the heavenly palace, so beautiful that her foster father, Batara Guru, started to feel attracted to her himself. To protect the girl’s chastity, the gods poisoned the girl and buried her body below the earth. However, from her remains grew plants that would forever benefit human kind. Coconut grew from her head, various spices and vegetables grew from her nose, lips, and ears. Grass and flowers grew from her hair, trees grew from her arms and hands and rice grew from her eyes. The girl was then known as Dewi Sri (“Great Goddess”) venerated and revered as the benevolent goddess of rice and fertility.

Dewi Sri was not the only goddess who had to die so that mankind could live. According to the Laotian origin myth in a manuscript in Wat Si Saket (built between 1819-1824 CE), one day after a thousand-year famine, a young hermit caught a golden fish. The king of the fish heard his subject’s cry of agony and asked the hermit to free the golden fish in exchange for a treasure. The treasure was Nang Khosop, a maiden who served as the soul of the rice. The hermit let Nang Khosop live in a rice field where she then nourished humans for many generations. However, one day an unrighteous king brought about a famine on the land by storing the rice that was due to the people to acquire luxury goods for himself. During this famine, an old couple of slaves met the now old hermit in the forest. Seeing that they were famished, the hermit appealed to Nang Khosop to feed them. However, she refused as, unaware that the king had been keeping her rice, she felt that she had given the people sufficient food to survive. The hermit then slaughtered Nang Khosop and cut her into many little pieces. The pieces of Nang Khosop became different varieties of rice. The old couple then went on to teach humans how to cultivate this new rice in small grains.

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Buddha statue located in front of Wat Si Saket in Vientiane.

The Fallen God and the Power of Humility

Semar is probably one of the oldest characters in Indonesian mythology who was not derived from Hindu mythology. He was made famous by performances of Wayang (Shadow Puppets) in the islands of Java and Bali as a rather unattractive, short man with breasts, a great sized behind, and uncontrollable urge for farting. However, underneath his peculiar appearance, Semar plays a major part in the Indonesian creation myth as the elder brother of the supreme god Batara Guru (the Hindu god Shiva).

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM De Candi Semar één van de tempels op het tempelcomplex Candi Arjuna op het Dijeng-plateau TMnr 60037368.jpg
The Candi Semar, one of the temples of the Candi Arjuna temple complex at the Dieng Plateau (photo taken in 1864)

The book Purwacarita says that Semar is actually Sang Hyang Ismaya, elder brother of Batara Guru, and father of Batara Surya (the Hindu sun god Surya). He was one of the three powerful warrior gods born from a single divine egg. His brothers are Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Manikmaya (who later took on the name Batara Guru). When it was time to decide which one of them was to be the ruler of heaven, Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Ismaya quarreled for the position in a battle that went on for forty days. Their father, the ruler of heaven, finally decided to hold a contest. The brother who was able to swallow the heavenly mountain would be crowned as the next ruler of heaven.

As their father looked on sadly, Sang Hyang Antaga tore his lips in his attempt to swallow the mountain. He lost a lot of blood and collapsed on to the earth. Sang Hyang Ismaya choked as the mountain entered his throat and fell unconscious. When the two brothers regained their consciousness, they could no longer recognize each other. The mighty warrior figure of Sang Hyang Antaga had changed; His body now short and bloated, his mouth huge, ripped by his effort to swallow the mountain and forever marked his face. Sang Hyang Ismaya, whose face was fair like the sun, had turned into a little old man with small limbs and sad eyes. His mouth gave a perpetual clownish smile which makes him look rather frightening.

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Shadow puppet representing Semar

Their father banished them both to earth. Sang Hyang Antaga was renamed Togog Wijomantri and was assigned to care for the giants, whose natures were filled with rage. Sang Hyang Ismaya was renamed Semar Bagranaya. He was charged to care for the kings, Brahmins (priests and wisemen) and knights of the world, whose natures were filled with pride. Thus the two brothers bowed their heads and accepted their fates. Semar came down to earth to serve as servants to the kings and warriors. 

According to Babad Tanah Jawi, Semar was a spirit who looked after a small field near Mount Merbabu ten thousand years before there were any other people in the island of Java. His descendants, the spirits of the island, came into conflict with the first people as they cleared fields and populated the island. To end this feud, a powerful Hindu priest provided Semar with a role that allowed him and his descendants to stay. The role is that of a spiritual advisor and divine supporter of the royalty. As this is a hereditary role, his descendants who are willing to protect the humans of Java also remain there.

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Wooden wayang golèk doll, depicting the Semar.

Although he was banished to the human realm, Semar was blessed with eight divine virtues: He would never feel hungry, never feel sleepy, never fall in love, never feel sad, never feel tired, never be sick, never feel heat and never feel cold. Those eight virtues are represented by the eight hairs on his crest. Those eight chest hairs are not the only unusual quality of Semar. In fact, Semar’s very being is full of contradictions. He has a man’s face, but he has a woman’s breasts. He has wrinkles on his face like an old man, but his hair is cut like a child. His lips always smile but his eyes are sad. He is a deity, but he wears kawung motive sarong, as other retainers wear. His outward appearance is considered grotesque, but he has a kind heart.

Semar is the symbol of the duality of life, like yin and yang, where opposites exist side by side in harmony. Any attempt to change his appearance, if it was even possible, would prove disastrous. For example, a forelock is often something that children have, whereas on Semar, an old man, it shows child-like qualities such as honesty and lack of prejudice. If his forelock were cut off, he would lose these qualities and became suspicious and prejudiced like other adults. This symbolizes the importance of balance and acceptance of the good and bad qualities, as one cannot exist without the other.

In every Wayang performance, Semar is the only character who dares to protest to the gods, including Batara Guru and Batari Durga, even compelling them to act or desist. He often represents the realistic view of the world in contrast to the idealistic view held by the heroes. His role is somewhat similar to Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Henry IV as critic of the play’s worldview and antidote to pride.

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 On the play Hanuman Obong, and the army of monkeys helped Anoman semar

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.

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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?