Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The interplay of spirituality and traditional medicine in Indonesia

Shabrina Jarrell
Charleston, West Virginia, United States


Jamu gendong in Yogyakarta. Photo by aa on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

In the cultural fabric of Indonesia, spiritual healing has thrived for centuries. The practice of spiritual and traditional healing remains relevant alongside modern medical advances. The contrast and interplay of traditional wisdom and contemporary influences is particularly apparent in a nation characterized by rich cultural diversity.

While interest in spiritual healing has emerged as a recent phenomenon in Western societies, its roots run deep across global cultures. In an era marked by rapid medical and therapeutic advances, Indonesia offers a unique perspective. Here, spirituality remains a vital facet of health and well-being, acting as a bridge between the tangible and the intangible dimensions of human existence.

Central to the popularity of spiritual healing in Indonesia is its accessibility. While the bustling metropolis of Jakarta stands as the urban emblem of the nation, remote corners of the archipelago face barriers to medical resources and facilities. In such regions, traditional healers, often referred to as dukun, are not only practitioners, but revered repositories of knowledge who carry a legacy of healing wisdom through generations.

The term dukun embodies a multidimensional essence. Originating in Bowrey’s 1701 English and Malayo dictionary as a label encompassing roles from physician to surgeon to apothecary, it has changed over time.1,2 Though still associated with healing, dukun now identifies a shaman or traditional healer whose role contrasts starkly with that of modern physicians. These traditional practitioners exhibit expertise across diverse domains such as massage therapy, midwifery, bone-setting, and they even delve into the ethereal realms of the supernatural.

The evolutionary trajectory of the dukun aligns with shifts in evolving perspectives on healthcare. The ascendancy of modern medicine in urban centers has not diminished the influence of dukun. Instead, they remain remarkably relevant in rural communities where access to conventional medical remains a challenge. The unique ability to seamlessly interweave cultural, spiritual, and healing dimensions resonates deeply with those who seek a holistic sense of well-being and who believe that nature and faith accelerate the healing process.

Kejawen, or Kebatinan, is a syncretic belief system firmly grounded in Javanese traditions.3,4 A fusion of indigenous beliefs, animism, mysticism, and elements of Islam, Kejawen reflects the intricate fusion of diverse influences within Indonesian spirituality. At its core, it emphasizes the intrinsic interconnectedness between humans, nature, and the spiritual realm.

The practices within Kejawen encompass a rich array of rituals, ranging from meditation and offerings to chanting and seeking counsel from revered spiritual figures known as kyai, who are knowledgeable and proficient in both pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions, beliefs, and practices.5 Notably, Kejawen is not confined within rigid boundaries; rather, it harmoniously coexists alongside other religious practices, underpinning the multifaceted nature of Indonesia’s cultural and religious landscape.

In Indonesian society, the practice of spiritual healing and belief systems like Kejawen reflect a broader story of unity amidst diversity. They embody the very essence of Indonesia’s cultural tapestry, weaving together strands from the past and present, the material and the spiritual, the traditional and the modern. As Indonesia forges ahead on its journey of progress, they remain deeply integral contributions to the intricate mosaic that shapes the nation’s unique identity.

In Indonesian culture, spirituality is not confined to the realm of beliefs, but is intertwined with healthcare practices. This interplay between spiritual and physical healing resonates deeply with many Indonesians, especially those residing in rural areas or with limited access to modern medical facilities. In these contexts, dukun and kyai hold significant roles as conduits of holistic well-being.

For many Indonesians, the pursuit of health transcends the mere alleviation of physical symptoms. Instead, it encompasses a broader sense of harmony between the physical, spiritual, and emotional realms. This is where traditional healers and spiritual leaders come into play. They offer more than physical healing; they provide a comprehensive approach that addresses the multifaceted dimensions of well-being.

A Dukun preparing traditional medicine during Dutch colonization in Indonesia. Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures. Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The dukun draw upon a deep well of generational knowledge. They use various methods such as herbalism, incantations (jampi), chants (mantra), animal parts, inanimate objects, spiritual communication or guidance, prayers, offerings, and even the revered keris (a traditional Javanese weapon) either individually or in combination to effect their cures. In rural areas and remote communities the dukun often serves as the primary source of healthcare and guidance. Their ability to diagnose and treat physical ailments but also provide solace and guidance aligns with the holistic perspective that many Indonesians hold towards health.

The kyai, on the other hand, often assume the role of spiritual leaders within the Islamic context. Their influence extends beyond religious matters, encompassing guidance on ethical and moral issues, as well as providing spiritual solace. In rural areas, kyai hold a revered status and are sought out for their wisdom and ability to navigate both the spiritual and practical aspects of life. They offer a bridge between religious beliefs and daily existence, offering a holistic approach to well-being that integrates faith, spirituality, and practical living.

For Indonesians, the decision to seek care from a dukun or consult a kyai is not in opposition to modern medical treatment. Rather, it reflects a nuanced approach that blends the traditional with the contemporary. Many individuals, especially in rural areas, see these practices as complementary rather than contradictory. Their spiritual guidance and healing practices address aspects of health that modern medicine may not fully encapsulate.

This intricate interplay between spirituality and traditional healing practices on one hand and modern medical treatments on the other highlights the complex and diverse nature of healthcare in Indonesia. It underscores the coexistence of multiple belief systems and the willingness of Indonesians to embrace a holistic approach that harmonizes the physical, spiritual, and cultural dimensions of health and well-being. It also illustrates how the past deeply affects the perspective of its inhabitants. As Indonesia continues to evolve and modernize, these age-old practices remain a testament to the enduring importance of spiritual and traditional wisdom in shaping the nation’s health landscape. Nevertheless, this old-age practice is not immune to erosion and has declined because of modernization.



  1. Bowrey T. A Dictionary, English and Malayo, Malayo and English: To which is Added Some Short Grammar Rules & Directions for the Better Observation of the Propriety and Elegancy of this Language: and Also Several Miscellanies, Dialogues, and Letters, in English and Malayo for the Learners Better Understanding the Expressions of the Malayo Tongue… 1. Sam. Bridge; 1701.
  2. Nourse JW. The meaning of dukun and allure of Sufi healers: How Persian cosmopolitans transformed Malay–Indonesian history. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. 2013;44(3):400-422. doi:10.1017/S0022463413000325.
  3. Mulder N. Mysticism in Java: Ideology in Indonesia. 2nd ed. Deresan, Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Kanisius Pub. House; 2005.
  4. Ooi KG, editor. Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, From Angkor Wat to East Timor. 3. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO; 2004.
  5. Van der Kroef JM. New Religious Sects in Java. Far Eastern Survey. February 1, 1961;30(2):18-25. doi:10.2307/3024260.



SHABRINA A.L. JARRELL is a fourth-year medical student at West Virginia University School of Medicine – Charleston Division. Hailing from Indonesia, she finds solace in writing as a means to enhance her English skills and unlock a world of imagination. She has a deep fascination in cultural and traditional practices in medicine from around the world. In her free time, she finds pleasure in nature photography and practicing archery.


Summer 2023  |  Sections  |  Anthropology

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