The Batak societies, located around Lake Toba in North Sumatra, are among the more than three hundred ethnic minorities of Indonesia. Batak religion, like Batak culture as a whole, is ethnically diverse, syncretic, changing, and bound at once to both village social organizational patterns and the monotheistic national culture of Indonesia. Like many religious traditions of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Batak myths and rituals focus on the yearly cycle of rice cultivation activities and the local kinship system. Batak religions tie these two realms to a larger cosmological order, which is then represented in various religious art forms (traditional house architecture, village spatial layout, and wood sculpture) and ritual activities (dances, oratory, and gift-giving ceremonies). Batak kinship revolves around marriage alliances that link together lineages of patrilineal clans, called marga. This marriage system, which involves ritually superior and "holy" wife-providing lineages and their ritually subordinate, "mundane" wife-receiving lineages, is much celebrated in the indigenous Batak religions. Many village rites of passage, for instance, are largely occasions for eulogizing this asymmetrical marriage alliance system through hours of ritual oratory. Beyond these very localized ethnic patterns, however, Batak religious life extends outward into the world religions: the large majority of homeland Batak and virtually all migrants to cities in Sumatra and Java are Muslim or Christian. In fact, the Batak are stereotyped in Indonesia as uncommonly pious monotheists; both the southern Batak Muslim pilgrim to Mecca and the Toba Batak Protestant minister are stock characters in the national dramatis personae when members of other ethnic groups think of these Sumatran peoples. In this monotheistic environment, Batak village religion has undeniably lost some of its social and symbolic scope. However, through an inventive reinterpretation of symbols, other sectors of village belief and ritual continue to thrive in new forms.
There are six major Batak societies in the homeland region around Lake Toba. These societies are similar in village social structure and subsistence base (paddy rice farming with some dry field agriculture) but speak different dialects of Batak and have distinct ritual systems. These societies are commonly called the Toba Batak, Karo Batak, Pakpak and Dairi Batak, Simelungun Batak, Angkola and Sipirok Batak, and the Mandailing Batak (although some "Batak" rarely call themselves Batak). Their pre-monotheistic religions are impossible to reconstruct in detail from current evidence because Islam and Christianity have reshaped village ritual and folk memories of the past so thoroughly. It is common, for instance, for committed Muslim and Christian Batak to speak disparagingly of their "pagan" ancestors, who believed in populous spirit worlds before they "discovered that there was only one God." In other words, "traditional Batak religion" is in large part a figment of the contemporary Batak imagination. It is safe to say, however, that the Batak religions practiced before the 1820s (when Islam entered the southern Angkola and Mandailing homelands) and the 1850s and 1860s (when Protestant Christianity was introduced to Angkola and the Toba region by Dutch missionaries and the German Rheinische Mission Gesellschaft) shared many symbolic complexes with the related indigenous religions of Kalimantan's Dayaks, Sulawesi's highland societies, and the people of eastern Indonesia.
In all these regions, certain assumptions about the nature of the universe permeated village religion. Binary oppositions between life and death, humans and animals, the village and the forest, metal and cloth, masculinity and femininity, and warfare and farming were recurrent themes in ritual and myth. Both human and agricultural creativity and fertility were thought to come from the temporary, intensely powerful union of such complementary opposites as life and death, masculinity and femininity, and so on. Also important was the notion that the two opposing categories were aboriginally one. Ritual often endeavored to unite for a moment the binary opposites and then control the resulting release of power from the center. (For instance, at Batak weddings the bride-giving faction bestows ritual textiles on their bride-receivers while the latter bestow counter-gifts of metal and livestock. Such exchanges foster fertility in the marriage.) The Batak societies took these familiar pan-Indonesian concepts and fit them to their particular social structure. Toba origin myths, for instance, tell of a first human, Si Raja Batak, who fathered two sons (Guru Tateabulan and Raja Isumbaon), who in turn fathered the ancestors of the major Toba patrilineal clans. Related myths tell of the origin of farming and weaving and link clan clusters to certain valleys and upland regions. Other Toba myths warn of the consequences of clan incest and marriages that violate the asymmetrical alliance rules (men should not marry women from lineages that serve as their traditional wife-receivers).
All Batak religions had extensive soul concepts and generally posited a personal soul that could fragment when startled and escape from a person's head to wander haplessly in the countryside until recalled to his body in special soul-capture ceremonies. Datu or gurū were diviner-sorcerers who performed such religious cures and also served the village chiefs as "village protection experts" in times of warfare, epidemic, or crop failure. Sacrificial rituals were central to the datu's protective tasks; in a few areas there may have been occasional ritual cannibalism (a point that is hotly debated among Batak today). Common myth images include magic numbers, constellations of stars, the magic colors red, white, and black, the baringin tree (the banyan tree seen as the cosmic tree uniting the layers of the Batak cosmos), the singa (a powerful monster that is part human, part water buffalo, and part crocodile or lizard), the cosmic serpent Naga Padoha, the hornbill, and aboriginal boy-girl twins. In Toba and Karo such images animated an extensive range of art forms, including carved wooden sorcerers' staffs, textiles, funerary masks, and megalithic monuments. These art forms, and the larger religions surrounding them, also drew on Indian beliefs; like many Indonesian cultures the Batak came into contact with Hinduism and Buddhism via possible trading colonies near Barus, a temple community near Portibi, and through influence from the indianized ancient kingdoms of south Sumatra.
Contact with the monotheistic religions varies considerably from Batak society to society. Karo is an area of fairly recent conversions, with many animists. In this mixed Muslim and Protestant region, Christian proselytizing gained some converts in the 1930s, but the major switch to monotheism has come since 1965 as a result of the national government's identification of Indonesian patriotism with belief in a monotheistic religion. Toba is overwhelmingly Protestant; the original, German-sponsored missionary church, the HKBP (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan), has its headquarters in Tarutung. During the Padri Wars in the 1820s Minangkabau Muslims brought their religion to the southern Angkola and Mandailing homelands; today, Mandailing is entirely Muslim while Angkola is about 10 percent Protestant and 90 percent Muslim.
During the Suharto regime, the HKBP church has splintered into the parent church and a number of bickering class- and ethnicity-based new denominations. In religiously mixed areas, members of the churches tend to align themselves with Muslim families along class lines. In Angkola, for instance, where pre-national society was divided into an aristocracy, commoners, and slave descendants, Muslims from noble families often find political allies among highborn Christians. Early conversions in the 1850s and 1860s brought large numbers of slave descendants into the church, while later Dutch colonial policy led to favoritism for village chiefly lineages that became Christian. This policy has left southern Batak Christianity argumentative and faction-ridden.
In Angkola, members of the same social class often emphasize their common heritage "in the adat" (village custom) over their differences in monotheistic religion. Because adat encompasses much village ritual, this leads to much syncretism. In Muslim Mandailing and Christian Toba, by contrast, adat is often seen as conflicting with monotheistic religion. In all Batak societies, the area where adat meets monotheism promises to remain an important growing edge of culture in the coming decades.
There is a large literature in Dutch, English, and Indonesian on the Batak societies. Toenggoel P. Siagian's "Bibliography on the Batak Peoples," Indonesia 2 (October 1966): 161–184, is a valuable guide to the main research before the mid-sixties, and the bibliographies in Beyond Samosir: Recent Studies of the Batak Peoples of Sumatra, edited by Rita Smith Kipp and Richard D. Kipp (Athens, Ohio, 1983), provide references to the mid-1980s, a period of much American anthropological fieldwork in the area. Jacob Cornelis Vergouwen's The Social Organization and Customary Law of the Toba-Batak of Northern Sumatra (1933), translated by Jeune Scott-Kemball (The Hague, 1964), remains the premier descriptive ethnography of a Batak culture, with much information on non-monotheistic rituals and beliefs. Some articles and monographs by anthropologists reflect a shift in research toward Batak symbol systems: Rita Smith Kipp's "The Thread of Three Colors: The Ideology of Kinship in Karo Batak Funerals," in Art, Ritual, and Society in Indonesia, edited by Judith Becker and Edward M. Bruner (Athens, Ohio, 1979), discusses Karo religion in its marriage alliance context; I discuss religious syncretism and change in Adat, Islam, and Christianity in a Batak Homeland (Athens, Ohio, 1981). Two major collections of anthropological essays on similar religious and social systems from other regions of Indonesia provide invaluable comparative material: The Flow of Life: Essays on Eastern Indonesia, edited by James Fox (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), and The Imagination of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems, edited by A. L. Becker and Aram A. Yengoyan (Norwood, N.J., 1979).
Becker, Dieter, ed. Mit Worten kocht man keinen Reis: Beiträge aus den Batak-Kirchen auf Nordsumatra. Wuppertal, 1987.
Goes, Beatriz van der. "Beru Dayang: The Concept of Female Spirits and the Movement of Fertility in Karo Batak." Culture Asian Folklore Studies 56, no. 2 (1997): 379–405.
Kipp, Rita Smith. Dissociated Identities: Ethnicity, Religion, and Class in an Indonesian Society. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993.
Kipp, Rita Smith, and Susan Rodgers, eds. Indonesian Religions in Transition. Tucson, 1987.
Steedly, Mary Margaret. Hanging without a Rope: Narrative Experience in Colonial and Postcolonial Karoland. Princeton, 1993.