Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, the national motto of Indonesia, literally means “different, yet the same.” Since this sounds paradoxical, it is usually rendered as “unity in diversity.” The phrase is from the Kakawin Sutosoma, a fourteenth century poem in Old Javanese, by Mpu Tantular.

The context for this phrase is the centuries-old competition in Java between the traditions of the Veda (as in the worship of Shiva, who symbolizes universal consciousness) and the Buddha, whose followers believe that beyond the mind is emptiness. Two royal families ruled different kingdoms in this area: the Sanjaya was devoted to Shiva while the Shailendra worshiped the Buddha. The two dynasties built great temples of which the most famous are the Candi Prambanan and the Candi Borobudur, both in the vicinity of Yogyakarta. To explain the terminology, an old temple in Indonesia is called candi, suggesting that the earliest temples in Java were dedicated to Durga’s fierce form and then the name became generic, whereas newer functioning temples are called pura.

Yogyakarta (Skt. yogya meaning “fit” and karta meaning “established,” or “prosperous city”), in Central Java, is the city of Indonesian high culture which is also a center for arts and crafts and wayang (shadow puppet theatre). To understand the difference and the sameness between Shaivism and Buddhism, a visit to the city is in order.
We arrived for a day trip to Yogya from Bali very early in the morning and immediately set off for the ninth century Prambanan temple complex 17 kilometers in the northeast direction and due south of Mount Merapi. The temple is primarily to Shiva, with subsidiary temples to Vishnu and Brahma. It is famous for the image of Durga, known locally as Loro Jonggrang (Slender Virgin), and the temple is also known as Candi Loro Jonggrang. Rakai Pikatan, the Sanjaya King, who is credited with the building of Prambanan, also built the beautiful Buddhist Plaosan temple for his wife, Pramodhawardhani, the daughter of the Shailendra king Samaratunga. Thus the kings recognized that behind the difference between the two traditions was the same truth.

Next we went to the Borobudur complex. Also from the ninth century, it is the world’s largest Buddhist temple that covers an entire hill as a pyramid. Approximately 40 kilometers northwest of Yogyakarta, it is located in an elevated area that stretches to volcanoes on two sides. Two other temples, Pawon and Mendut, lie on the line with Mount Merapi, highlighting its special place in a sacred landscape. Ascending from the base of the monument one passes through three levels of Buddhist cosmology: Kāmadhātu (the realm of desire), Rūpadhātu (the realm of forms) and Arūpyadhātu (the world of formlessness). Kāmadhātu is represented by the base, Rūpadhātu by the five square platforms (the body), and Arūpyadhātu by the three circular platforms and the large topmost stupa.

We also visited the Sultan’s palace, the Kraton, which was built in 1755. Even though built by a Muslim Sultan, it has its own sacred landscape which parallels that of Borbudur. Stretching from Mount Merapi is a straight line that passes through the unity monument of Tugu Yogyakarta, the Kraton, and Panggung Krapyak where the Sultans hunted, which forms a sacred north-south axis to the Southern Ocean. The continuity across the traditions is further seen in craft of the puppets and the wayang performance.

Now we turn to the Kakawin Sutosoma for our phrase. The stanza is as follows:

Rwāneka dhātu winuwus Buddha Wiswa,
Bhinnêki rakwa ring apan kena parwanosen,
Mangka ng Jinatwa kalawan Śiwatatwa tunggal,
Bhinnêka tunggal ika tan hana dharma mangrwa.

The Buddha and the Universal (Shiva) are known as different realms
They are different, but how to know this difference
For the truth of Jina (Buddha) and Shiva is one
They are different, yet same, for truth knows no duality.

The stanza speaks of the realms of the Buddha and the Vishva (the universal consciousness as Shiva) and says that they are different, yet the same. What are the realms that appear different? The Buddha realm is the realm of intelligence and thought, whereas the realm of Shiva is that of pure awareness. They are the same if you believe (with the Buddhists) that beyond the mind lies śūnyatā (emptiness) and they appear to be different if you think that beyond the mind is the transcendent reality of ātman or Īśvara. But since you cannot approach pure awareness with thought, the difference has little influence on practice.

By saying Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, Mpu Tantular made a subtle point about belief. The words, buddhi and consciousness, that are used by the Buddhists and the Hindus to indicate the ultimate nature of reality may be different in abstract terms, but from a practical point of view, the two paths are nearly identical.


Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak is Regents Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Born in Srinagar and educated in Kashmir and Delhi, he has lived in the United States since 1979. He has has written six volumes of poetry in English and Hindi and another fourteen books on a wide variety of subjects that include history of science and art. He was the anchor in Raga Unveiled, which is a four-hour long documentary on Hindustani classical music.