Toeti Heraty Roosseno, Indonesian philosopher and Renaissance woman contemplates an encyclopaedia of Nusantara philosophers…

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Ibu Toeti with the President Joko Widodo at a cultural event on the 7th of April 2018. (Photo courtesy of Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

IO – What does Indonesian philosophy mean? Some have said that it is the tradition of abstract speculation held by the people who inhabit the islands of Nusantara or the Indonesian Archipelago as expressed in the regional languages of Indonesia as well as the Indonesian national language itself. 

A question that seems to haunt some Indonesian scholars of philosophy is whether there exits an Indonesian philosophy and Indonesian philosophers? In investigating this it appears to be accepted that Indonesian scholars should unearth the philosophical treasures of the past consisting namely of four sources: Hindu Buddhist practices, local adat or traditional usages, Islamic traditions and the modern foundations of thinking by which the nation was created mainly based on Western philosophical thought. 

As written works in the Hindu Buddhist traditions of Indonesia are few, Al Makin from the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in his article, “Are There Any Indonesian Philosophers? Dealing with a Common Question and Possible Answers” advises studying also temple architecture in the search for Indonesian philosophy for they contain the knowledge of how our ancestors brought and put Indian traditions into the context of Nusantara. He believes that we should reinterpret the orally transmitted local traditions and wisdoms which have become living traditions and treat them as an Indonesian philosophy. He also holds that Indonesian Islamic literature is often ignored by current radical groups including the works of Sumatrans Hamzah Fansuri and Nuruddin al-Singkili as well as other Indonesian Sufi writers who mixed local culture with Persian, Indian and Arabic traditions. Sulawesi and Nusa Tenggara have also produced a mingling of Hindu, Islamic and local traditions. Java has of course, been long famous for its syncretic practices and ways of thought. The period of modern Indonesian thinkers starts with Raden Ajeng Kartini and includes nationalist figures who struggled to create a free Indonesian nation. 

So, local figures seen as religious or even political leaders who revealed wisdom of thought should be looked at as Indonesian philosophers and their teachings as Indonesian philosophical reflections. One of the texts that Al Makin looks at is the Sang Hyang Kamahayanika namely, the oldest philosophical writing surviving in Indonesia. It contains Buddhist Tantric philosophy on how to achieve enlightenment mixing Indian Buddhist philosophy with Indonesian traditional local wisdom. He says that in the Old Javanese tradition there are three phases of enlightenment (kamadhatu, rupadhatu and arupadhatu) much as there are in Hinduism (bhurloka, bhuwarloka and swargaloka) whose meaningful symbolism was retained in Islamic literature as shari’ah, haqiqah and ma’rifah. And these three steps or phases or worlds in achieving enlightenment are visible in the Buddhist Borobodur temple, in Hindu Prambanan temples and in the old mosques of Demak and Jogjakarta. 

It could perhaps be said that one recurring central theme of much of Indonesian philosophy appears to be the philosophy of tolerance which is not surprising if one remembers that Indonesia consists of hundreds of islands with hundreds of languages, traditions and beliefs and is located on one of the major trade routes of the world causing people from all over the world to turn up on its shores with their own philosophies, beliefs and traditions. In modern times this has developed into a philosophy of inclusiveness which has become a central aspect of the Indonesian identity that modern Indonesian philosophy has been concerned with. Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana’s Bumantara for example describes a philosophy for ASEAN nations which embraces this theme as does his last paper for the International Philosophical Association’s conference in Toronto in 1994 where he demands this philosophy of inclusiveness in creating a world culture. 

The Dictionnaire des Philosophes which inspired Toeti Heraty Roosseno to try to create an Ensiklopedi Filsafat Nusantara. (Photo courtesy of Toeti Heraty N. Roosseno)

Meanwhile however, the task of finding Indonesian philosophy and philosophers through the ages is that of unearthing systems of philosophy from works that do not explicitly declare themselves to be philosophy and Prof DR Toeti Heraty N. Roosseno, Indonesia’s most well-known lady philosopher appears to be intent on doing just that by making it the task of the Philosophy Department of the University of Indonesia as well as her own in creating an Encyclopedia of Nusantara Philosophers (and of course their philosophies). 

I hope the reader will forgive me if in this article as the daughter of a philosopher I keep make comparisons with my own father, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana who was not only a philosopher but also had a strong personality and often worked with and considered Toeti Heraty a good friend. 

Ibu Toeti who is now 87 years old says that the origin of her idea for an Ensiklopedi Filsafat Nusantara, came years ago when Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana told her that Presse Universitaire de France needed a list of Indonesian philosophers for its Dictionnaire des Philosophes in which they were planning to list philosophers from all around the world. He asked her to prepare a list for Indonesia. “I was only given a month in which to prepare the list with short descriptions. In the end I mentioned 14 Indonesian philosophers and Henri Chambrelois of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient translated this list into French. I forgot 3 important names namely, Tan Malaka who as a politician elaborated or added on earlier philosophies in the Indonesian context, Hamzah Fansuri the 16th century Sumatran Sufi mystic and Raden Ajeng Kartini who through her writing conveyed her perception and conviction of the role of women in society through a new perspective, namely that of gender equality. But it was too late. By the time I became aware of the shortcoming, the book’s manuscript was already at the printers.” 

Nevertheless, the idea remained with Ibu Toeti and through the years she realized that there were many more than just three missing. This year the 31st of March was the 30th anniversary of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Indonesia and Ibu Toeti wanted not only a commemoration of those 30 years of philosophical studies but also that the Department tackle the project of creating the Ensiklopedi Filsafat Nusantara. Ibu Toeti believes that it should be called Ensiklopedi Nusantara and not the Encyclopedia of Indonesian Philosophers because she wants to leave the idea of Indonesia as a state for the moment but and return further to the regional and ethnic groups of Nusantara in their Weltanschaung. She says, “On the side of caution I would not mention these yet as philosophies but by putting them into the Ensiklopedi Filsafat Nusantara they will become philosophies.” 

Ibu Toeti during her student days in Amsterdam in a play in 1957. (Photo courtesy of Toeti Heraty N. Roosseno)

So, who is Toeti Heraty N. Rooseno, this woman who is so determined that the Philosophy Department of the University of Indonesia take on this enormous task? Ibu Toeti was born in Bandung to a good family. Her father Rooseno Soerjohadikoesoemo who was the son of the Patih of Madiun became the foremost Indonesian structural engineer and later was Minister of Public Works, then Minister of Transport (He nationalized KLM in Indonesia turning it into Garuda Airlines) and finally Minister of the Economy under the cabinet of Ali Sastroamidjojo. Ibu Toeti remembers her father as being funny, democratic, hardworking and loving to sing. He was also a thinker, hard worker and determined man. Toeti was his favourite daughter because she was so much like him. Her mother was Oetari Sosrodikoesoemo, the daughter of an assistant wedana from East Java. Her parents met in Bandung when her father was studying engineering at what later became the Bandung Institute of Technology or ITB. Sukarno used to come to her mother’s house because he too was from East Java and whenever he came he would head straight to the kitchen to check what was cooking and to enjoy a good meal of East Javanese food. He was a good friend of the family and when Oetari and Roosseno were married in 1932 he gave a speech at the wedding unfortunately it was a political speech which upset Ibu Toeti’s grandmother but for which she soon forgave him. 

Ibu Toeti began her studies by studying medicine but after 4 years she was tired of matters only pertaining to the body and to her parents distress in 1955 she went to Amsterdan to study psychology. It was during this time that she met and married her future husband, biologist Eddy Noerhadi and it was also where her precious twins were born. The Irian Jaya crisis caused her to leave the Netherlands in 1958 and finish her studies in Jakarta. She then helped set up the Psychology Department at Universitas Pajajaran and taught there for 5 years. Later she moved to Jakarta and was first with the Psychology Department of the University of Indonesia and later moved to its Psychiatry Department and had a practice at the mental hospital in Grogol. 

At the same time Ibu Toeti was also writing poetry. Later she was singled out as the only woman amongst Indonesia’s acknowledged contemporary poets. Her feminist poetry is a reflection of her struggle for gender equality and human rights. She also became the head of the Lingkaran Seni Jakarta or Jakarta Arts Circle which when Taman Ismail Marzuki Cultural Centre was first set up helped organize performances and exhibitions and brought people in to watch them. In later years Ibu Toeti was a member of the Dewan Kesenian Jakarta or Jakarta Arts Council and finally the Jakarta Academy.

Ibu Toeti (left) with the artist Sudjojono (centre) and artist Salim (right). (Photo courtesy of Toeti Heraty N. Roosseno)

In 1971 Ibu Toeti helped organize an unforgettable fundraiser for the restoration of Taman Fatahilah and its museums. This was held at the Wayang Museum with the guests in costumes of historic figures of Batavia. She also became an art collector and eventually came to write nearly 20 books and countless articles (every month she produces a cultural and philosophical journal called Mitra) and she continued her passion for music. On the side she helped run the family law firm which specializes in trade mark. The list of all her activities and interests is endless and it is impossible to mention all here. Somehow, all these things made her long for a new study. She wanted a field which would provide an umbrella and comprehension for all her many interests and activities. So, in 1971 she left for Leiden to study philosophy. 

Ibu Toeti is clearly a Renaissance woman in her extremely wide range of interests and activities. Why did she feel the need for an umbrella that would encompass them all? “Perhaps, because there is one big question which is about human life namely, “What is the meaning of life?” Ibu Toeti smiled before adding, “That is why the title I gave my first autobiography which I wrote at the age of 70 was, “The Search has Not Yet Ended”. My second autobiography written at the age of 85 was, “The Search Has Almost Ended”. I think I still want to write a third autobiography about the strange and fortuitous coincidences or synchronicity in life. I have already written two pages of it.” 

So, what is her own philosophy of life? Ibu Toeti considered the matter carefully. “That it should be meaningful for me and for others,” she finally answered. “I think it should be important what I am doing daily. Time is so important. From moment to moment I shall give it meaning. Even when I am doing nothing, it should be meaningful namely: that I am very much alive. Meaning is in life itself.” 

Toeti Heraty Roosseno is a complicated woman. She has an extremely strong personality and is willing to debate and even fight for her ideas and the things she believes in but they are impersonal fights. She does not hate or even dislike the people she argues or struggles with and continues to remain friends and respect them in other matters. By way of example she quarrelled with Mochtar Lubis with regard to the running of the publishing company, Obor – and yet remained good friends with him till the end of his life. In this she reminds me very much of my own father, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana who was also a philosopher. It is a sign of her belief in democracy, egalite and the importance of discussion and debate to reach a higher good and even a synergy. 

Toeti Heraty N. Roosseno speaks at the book launch of Esti Susanti Hudiyono’s buku “Women Protest the Narrative of Indonesian Women’s Historical Role” at Ibu Toeti’s Museum Galeri on the 25th of August 2019. (Photo courtesy of Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

Carl Jung said that a psychologically healthy person is one who has not reached a state of individuation (for no human being ever fully achieves that) but one who is on the road to individuation and that is only possible when one enters into the crucible of life and joins the struggle for good. This perhaps explains her final assessment of what life is for, “Meaning is in life itself. Live life to its fullest.” Perhaps this is the philosophers way for my father used to say exactly the same thing and Elizabeth in his novel Defeat and Victory in essence also says this to the novel’s main character and hero, the Japanese officer Okura though in different words. Elizabeth speaks in relation to hara-kiri and suicide bombings, “Oh Tuan Okura, the glorification of death is the most terrible betrayal of the grandeur and beauty of life for which there will be no recompense either in this life or the life to come. Even when facing death we must look at it from the perspective of life. The petals of a beautiful flower will one day fade and die – but it is in order to produce seeds that may one day produce even more beautiful flowers.” 

Ibu Toeti Heraty is not an overly warm or emotional woman. She has the reserve and calmness of a well-bred Javanese and the slight distance of a psychologist or philosopher. There is however, a sincerity in her. She is a thinker who mentally embraces all kinds of people. She has a deep empathy for her fellow man and a joyful enthusiasm for that wonder and grandeur of life which she is determined never to betray by giving meaning to each moment. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)