As Suharto Clings to Life, Mystics See Spirits’ Power

Solo, Indonesia — As former President Suharto hovers on the edge of death, some people here say it is not doctors and machines that have kept him alive, but an unseen cosmos of mystical forces.

Mr. Suharto, 86, a committed mystic himself, has rallied more than once over the past two weeks after reaching what seemed to be the end as his lungs, heart and kidneys failed him. His doctors have said they were amazed and baffled by his recoveries.

The diagnosis among believers here in Solo, the heart of Javanese culture, is that powerful occult forces in his body will not let him go, that certain rituals that would cleanse his spirit have not yet been performed or that nature has not yet signaled that it is ready to receive him.

“The power of spirits inside his body is keeping him alive,” said Darsono, 34, a spiritualist here who is said to be able to perform magic, expressing one common view. “Suharto’s life is supported by a mystical power,” added Mr. Darsono, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.

Indonesia is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, the most populous in the world, with 240 million people. But the version of Islam practiced by most people here is mixed with the Hinduism, Buddhism and especially animism that were present before Muslim traders brought their religion to the country in the 12th century.

Animist beliefs and superstitions color everyday life for many people, and occult explanations, including the power of curses and black magic, are sometimes given for everyday events.

“Indonesian Islam is what I call accommodative,” said Azyumardi Azra, director of the graduate school at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta. “Most Indonesian Muslims accept local tradition even though the local tradition could not be accepted by, say, Wahhabi-minded people,” he said, referring to followers of a strict Islamic sect.

When a religious war gripped the Moluccas, a group of islands in the eastern Indonesian archipelago, at the beginning of the decade, both Christians and Muslims turned to mysticism, performing animist rituals before fighting each other.

All six presidents of Indonesia — each a Muslim — paid respects to the spirit world, visiting sites said to hold mystical power, consulting with seers or collecting tokens of magic like the Indonesian dagger called a kris.

Mr. Suharto stands out among them for his devotion. He studied with a spiritual teacher as a boy and performed ritual acts throughout his presidency, continuing after he was deposed by a popular uprising in May 1998.

Over the years, according to his aides, he has made frequent visits to sacred places, including mountains, caves, tombs and ruins, and he has taken ritual baths in the ocean and in rivers at places that were believed to hold special powers. He is said to have collected hundreds of sacred artifacts to absorb their magical power.

Among them, according to local press reports, is a red stone called a mirah delima, which psychics say can protect its owner from swords and bullets and guard against illness.

Mr. Suharto’s mentor, Daryatmo, was an Islamic teacher who also practiced mysticism, and the former president pays tribute to him in his autobiography, “My Thoughts, Words and Deeds.” Mr. Daryatmo’s death in January 1998 was taken by some people as a warning of Mr. Suharto’s fall from power four months later.

Omens of his downfall are said to have included the breaking of a gavel in Parliament and Mr. Suharto’s loss of the chignon, or hairpiece, of his wife, Siti Hartinah, who died in 1996.

Many Indonesians maintain that her death was the beginning of the end for Mr. Suharto. She was a minor member of the royal family here, the Sultanate of Solo, and is said to have been the source of Mr. Suharto’s legitimacy as a ruler. In Javanese tradition, power has an essence of its own, known as wahyu, and is conferred like a mantle on certain chosen people in a way similar to the “mandate of heaven” that empowered Chinese emperors.

After the death of Mr. Suharto’s wife, spiritualists as well as political scientists saw Mr. Suharto becoming less deft as a ruler. In his desperation near the end, according to accounts at the time, he called in a West African spiritualist to help him.

“There is a tradition of Javanese kings becoming kings because of their wives,” Onghokham, a prominent social historian, said in an interview. He died last year. “When Suharto rose to power, people believed that the wife had the wahyu, the flaming womb, and whoever united with her would get the wahyu. After her death, people began to sense the wahyu was gone.”

In the past several weeks, as Mr. Suharto’s prolonged and highly publicized illness has riveted the nation, a variety of new portents are being observed by those who believe in such things, some pointing toward death, some toward survival.

Nature, for example, seems to be giving mixed signals.

Ominously, landslides have occurred near here recently, both on the slopes of Mount Lawu, where Mr. Suharto often meditated, and on the road leading up a small mountain to a mausoleum where he is to be buried beside the tomb of his wife.

And two weeks ago, when doctors said Mr. Suharto was dying, a huge tree fell near Parangtritis, the town that is home to the mystical Queen of the South Sea, where Mr. Suharto sometimes bathed in the ocean. The queen’s specter is said to visit the sultans of Poso and of nearby Yogyakarta for periodic conjugal reunions.

A contrary view holds that the weather has simply been too nice for Mr. Suharto to die. Java has been sunny most of the past two weeks. According to this belief, the earth must weep and quake when the ruler dies.

That has sometimes happened when Javanese kings died in the past, according to a recent article in the newspaper Suara Merdeka.

The newspaper added, however, that the mystical power of omens and portents like this “cannot be verified.”

The concern among many mystics is that certain lucky charms that have been spiritually implanted in Mr. Suharto’s body have become malevolent and are prolonging his suffering. Spiritually, he is ready to die and should be relieved of his pain, they say, but those charms will not release him until they have been ritually removed.

A Muslim cleric named Nasruddin Ansory suggested that the removal could be done by having 40 pure-hearted people pray by his bedside.

Another solution was proposed by a prominent spiritualist named Permadi, who is also a member of Parliament. Mr. Permadi said he had received a “spiritual whisper” telling him that the spirits would release Mr. Suharto if he apologized to Sukarno, the man he supplanted as president in 1967.

Sukarno, the founding president of Indonesia who died in 1970, is also said to have surrounded himself with magic charms and with dwarfs, albinos and others he believed to have spiritual qualities, but they seem to have been no match for Mr. Suharto.

M. T. Arifin, 50, is a widely quoted military analyst here, but he is also known locally as a mystic who can see behind the curtain of the physical world.

“Maybe he’ll last another year, maybe a little less,” Mr. Arifin declared in an interview last week. “He needs one year to cleanse himself. It’s a long process.”

Asked for his source, he pointed toward the sky and said: “From up there. The spiritual world. The one who told me was the Queen of the South Sea.”

When a visitor raised his eyebrows, Mr. Arifin said, “It’s just because you don’t understand, just the way I can’t understand you when you speak English.”

He said it was not true, as some people here say, that he could make a kris fly. But he can make it rise up and stand on end, he said.

“It’s not mysticism,” he insisted, as if trying to break through a language barrier. “It’s reality.”