Translation – Ki Hadjar Dewantara: What is the jiwa?

by indonotes

Continuing my series of translations of works by Ki Hadjar Dewantara is ‘What is the jiwa?’ Jiwa is sometimes translated as soul, spirit or psyche, but these terms have their own baggage. The article sets out to define what the jiwa is, and in doing so lays out a framework for the interface between man’s internal life and the world in which he lives, depicting a subtle interaction between cognition, emotion and action. As in other works by Ki Hadjar Dewantara, an imaginative synthesis of intellectual traditions is evident. The piece has further significance though. Ki Hadjar Dewantara thought deeply about how the individual interacted with society on many levels. Some of my previous posts have drawn attention to alternating tendencies towards ‘democracy’ and ‘leadership’ in his thinking. These cannot be fully understood separately from his thinking about the nature of the individual, the mind, the spirit – the jiwa.

What is the jiwa?

It is not easy to define words. According to the history of psychology, since ancient times people have talked about this problem. The changing of eras also brings changing understandings or beliefs about the human jiwa. Initially people believed that the jiwa was merely the life of feelings and desires (kemauan). Then came the belief that thoughts were the contents of the human batin[1] that bring about the will to act (kehendak). According to the current view, the jiwa has three fundamental parts, that is thoughts, feelings and desires. These three parts are divided to become several further parts.

Psychology (ilmu jiwa) based on knowledge was for the first time set out systematically originating from a teacher of philosophy, Aritoteles, in the Greek era, 350 BC. Before this period there were also figures that studied these problems of psychology, for example Socrates and Plato. However, this knowledge was not yet in the form of systematised knowledge, being mere beliefs. Aristotoles was the person who for the first time put forward the that the human jiwa has two fundamental forces, that is the force to enter the material world (dunia lahir) into the human batin (the centripetal force) and to bring the jiwa’s energy out to become various behaviour and energies (tenaga). This is what is named power theory (vermogenstheori) from Aristoteles. Gradually the results of the investigations of experts mounted up, including those of other experts. In these researches, they were not yet able to create experiments such as there are now. Almost all the theories that were put forward at that time occured from investigations within their own batin (introspection), or investigations into the batin of other people (extrospection). Between the aforementioned conditions, that is from the first coming to the second level or the reverse, is what is known as retrospection.

In religion, issues of the internal world (kebatinan) are extremely valued but what is most emphasised is the issue of the essential truth (hakekat) of the jiwa, particularly the existence of God, that is an unseen ruler, including the relationship between the human jiwa and the beyond (alam akhirat). Psychology based on religion is different from psychology based on knowledge. Over time this scientific (wetenschappelijk) psychology only researched the parts or work of the human jiwa that brings about various movements of the kebatinan or various features of humans’ internal life, both specially and generally (general and specialist psychology). The condition of the human jiwa after death is not included by the group of psychologists based on positive knowledge, but is grouped with psychology that is metaphysical (supernatural (gaib)) or speculative (philosophy) or religious (religion).

Perhaps the reader has already heard words that all mean jiwa, but still contain particular meanings. For example nyawa, jiwa, sukma, atma, budi, rohani, roh robbani, roh tamyis, roh hayat etc. (or geest, ziel, bewustzijn, intuitie etc.). This proves that in the word ‘jiwa’ are various dimensions of the human internal world. If we intend to search for a fundamental or general meaning, then the word ‘jiwa’ can be given the meaning of the force that becomes the mover of human life. So, if there is no jiwa, certainly the person is not alive. Meaning the human body is a mere corpse. Thus, the Javanese word ‘nyawa’ has similarities with the arab word ‘roh hayat’, which both mean the cause of life.

Apart from that, the word ‘jiwa’ or ‘roh’ also means semangat (spirited) or the jiwa of feeling, for example spirited (berjiwa), tough-minded (berjiwa keras), the jiwa of an organisation, the jiwa of a slave etc.

Then, the word ‘jiwa’ is also used to mean the assembling of various energies or capabilities in the internal life of people, for example thoughts, feelings, desires and their parts (the capability of the jiwa to be conscious that we have thoughts, feelings, and desires etc.).

The analysis above does not need, however, to make harder issues that are already hard enough to understand. Because of that, we can take the things that are important to know, that is those included in positive psychology. The word jiwa has the meaning as follows

a. the force (kekuatan) that causes the life of humans

b. also causing that people can think, feel, and have the will to act (the mind)

c. including also causing people to understand or be conscious of all movements of the jiwa.

Keluarga, May 1937


[1] Apart from jiwa, I have also tended to leave the word batin untranslated. Batin can be translated as ‘man’s inner or spiritual world or essence’ but the precise meaning and the balance between these elements depends on the context.

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