Photo : Noviana Kusumawardhani


Mysticism may be said to permeate Javanese life and consequently its vocabulary. Certain Javanese words are hard to understand for me to translate in all their shades of meaning. One is “culture”. Another is “jiwa,” which may mean life, but also enthusiasm, spirit, inner self, thought, feeling, mentality, essence, and implication. Eling (pronounced “ailing”) is another one of these frequently used terms that defy translation. The word can only be understood by looking at its context. Javanese will understand it intuitively. It may mean “one of the jiwa’s powers”, “an ethical value”, or “a level of depth in religious awareness”.

Eling as one of the jiwa’s powers

Basically eling means “remember.” With reference to the powers of the jiwa the word covers everything ever experienced physically or spiritually. Next to the faculties of the jiwa of sight, hearing, speaking, and thinking, eling connects earlier experiences to what is being experienced now, making one aware that personal experience is an ongoing process. The I, who was in bad shape financially last year, is now making money. Memory underlies all personal identity. Not only that, it means being conscious of the consequences of our actions and our individual responsibility. Therefore, eling in its basic meaning is of great importance to the concept of self-awareness, considered of great importance in Javanese philosophy.

Another meaning of “eling” is a return to consciousness after fainting.

Eling as an ethical value

When a person loses self control, as in sorrow, anger, or disorientation, the Javanese will usually advise that it is necessary to eling. In other words not be overwhelmed by feelings, mixed-up thoughts, or anger. In this case, eling means to regain self control.

Self control to the Javanese is of high value, if not the highest. In this context, eling has more the meaning of consciousness than remembering. It refers to a high level of self-awareness that enables the individual to observe and control all movements of the self, both inner and outer – its actions, words, and thoughts. By being on guard we enable ourselves to remain in the state of eling

In his life the Javanese must be willing and able to see into the depths of everything he encounters and to remain always in a state of eling. It requires the highest level of awareness to observe and maintain control over all the movements of the outer and inner selves. This involves two-way traffic. Being in a state of eling his words and thoughts will attract attention as being important and thus will be heeded.He will be prevented from falling for the five forbidden things: getting drunk, smoking, opium, stealing, gambling, and whoring. Not only that, he will be saved from an overly materialistic outlook of desiring only for his own benefit.

Being attracted to inward and outward pleasures is in conflict with eling and prevent the Javanese from staying in that state. That is why he is advised to eat and sleep less in order to reduce the conflict in himself caused by the nafsu (passions). This will help him to become more aware and capable of self control.

Other dangers are lying, boasting, and hypocrisy – all ways of showing off the ego and overstepping the boundaries of self control. A Javanese saying states it well: “We have to learn to feel pain when we are glad and gladness when we are in pain.” Then we can be said to have become eling. The method for achieving this is based on inner quietness.

Eling as a level of depth in religious awareness

In this context eling refers to a high level of religious awareness or experience. This is based on meneng (being silent) and wening meaning clarity, purity, transparency. This requires that the role of the ego be reduced so that the person is no longer vulnerable to arrogance, pride, outward pleasures, or material gain.

If the aspiring Javanese trains himself by means of silence, he will see more clearly with his inner eyes, making it possible to see the essence of things, to remove the veil of mere appearances and temporary values. Once he reaches this stage of eling he will draw closer to God. There will no longer be a separation between subject and object, microcosm and macrocosm, or creature and Creator. The sweetness will no longer be separate from the honey.

At a still higher level of eling all names and forms will vanish. There will be only emptiness. This is called the experience of ilang (lost), suwung (vacant), sirna (gone), komplang (empty), also called “dead in life”. It requires a strong faith to overcome all obstacles and fear.

To conclude, Eling is a much used word in Javanese because of its close connection to the deepest attitude of the Javanese to his inner life. It is operative not only in religion, but also in everyday life and in their ethical norms. So religious and mystical life, which is usually considered exclusive and individual, permeates the way Javanese people live from day to day. The inner levels neng, ning, and eling are not reserved for religion and mystical observances alone, but are embedded in the Javanese way of life. They are in the background of their dealing with ordinary problems involving ethics, education, economics, philosophy, security, and politics. The Javanese try to solve problems with a clear eye and an inner calm that arises from their deepest inner attitude

How a good Javanese should deport himself properly against the background of mysticism has been laid down in two books in the nineteenth century: Wulangreh (Lessons in behaviour), by Paku Buwana IV) and Wedhatama (Excellent teaching), by R.Ng. Ranggawarsita. Both are very similar short works in tembang (fairly modern Javanese song lyrics). They are still being read and reprinted.