Batak religion is found among the Batak societies around Lake Toba in north Sumatra. It is ethnically diverse, syncretic, liable to change, and linked with village organisations and the monotheistic Indonesian culture.
Myths and rituals focus on rice cultivation and the local kinship system. These two spheres are integrated into a cosmological order represented in religious art forms, dance, oratory, and gift-giving ceremonies.
The kinship system is based on marriage alliances linking lineages of patrilineal clans called marga. There are holy ritually superior wife-providing lineages and mundane ritually inferior wife-receiving lineages. This marriage system is an important part of Batak religion and involves hours of ritual oratory.
There is an upper world inhabited by gods, a middle world lived in by men, and a lower world that is the home of a dragon. The creator is Mula Jati, who links the three worlds and is Lord of the Universe. Mula Jati is both good and evil, male and female.
Belief in complementary opposites such as life and death, humans and animals, masculinity and femininity, village and forest, warfare and farming, metal and cloth, permeate the religion and commonly occur in myths and rituals. These opposites are thought to have once been one and ritual attempts to unite the opposites for a moment to release power from the centre. For example, ritual gift exchanges at weddings between the bride-giving and bride-receiving factions increases fertility in the marriage.
There are extensive soul concepts. If a soul is startled it can escape from the head and wander in the countryside. Soul-capture ceremonies performed by datu or guru, diviner-sorcerers, bring the soul back to the body. These datu also protect the village during war, epidemic, and crop failure by means of sacrificial rituals, occult knowlege, and divination with the use of the Hindu zodiac and magic tables.
It is debated whether there was occasional ritual cannibalism. Marco Polo wrote in 1292 that the Batak ate their parents when they became too old for work, and Raffles in the nineteenth century stated that for certain crimes a criminal would be eaten alive.
Indian influence can be detected in the religion and its art. The Batak came into contact with both Hinduism and Buddhism.
Batak religion is bound up with Islam and Christianity and the majority of Batak are Muslim or Christian. Contact with the monotheistic religions differs greatly from one Batak society to another.
Origin myths of the Toba Batak are of Si Raja Batak, the first human, who was born on a holy mountain near Lake Toba. He had two sons, Guru Tateabulan and Raja Isumbaon, who were the fathers of the ancestors of the major Toba patrilineal clans. Other related myths are of the origin of farming and weaving, and clans are associated with certain valleys and uplands.
The Batak encountered Indian religions at an early period through trading colonies near Barus and a temple community near Portibi. There was also influence coming from the indianised ancient kingdoms of south Sumatra.
Batak religion practised before the early nineteenth century was related to the indigenous religions of the Dayaks in Kalimantan, highland societies in Sulawesi, and the people of eastern Indonesia.
Contact with Islam and Christianity varied considerably in the Batak societies. In the 1820’s Islam came to the southern Angkola and Mandailing homelands, and in the 1850’s and 1860’s Christianity arrived in the Angkola and Toba region with Dutch missionaries and the German Rheinische Mission Gesellschaft. The first German missionary, Nommensen, arrived in 1861 with only a Bible and a violin. Nommensen caused the Dutch to stop Batak communal sacrificial rituals and music, which was a major blow to the traditional religion. These early conversions included large numbers of slave descendents. Karo has many animists, with conversions only in the 1930’s. Dutch colonial policy favoured Christian villages. Such a background of conversion has left southern Batak Christianity filled with disputes by different factions. In 1965 the national government identified Indonesian patriotism with belief in a monotheistic religion. This has accelerated the number of converts to Islam and Christianity.
Pre-monotheistic Batak religion cannot be reconstructed in detail from available evidence since Islam and Christianity have thoroughly reshaped village ritual and folk memories.
At the time of the Suharto regime a number of class and ethnic based new denominations split from the parent church of the German-sponsored missionary church, the HKBP (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan). In areas with both Muslims and Christians, church members align with Muslims along class lines.
An important area of present and future dynamism is the meeting ground of adat, village custom, and monotheism. In Muslim Mandailing and Christian Toba, adat is seen as conflicting with monotheism, while in Angkola the common heritage of the adat is emphasised over monotheistic differences and the village ritual in adat leads to much syncretism.
The cosmological order is represented in religious art forms. The gable ends of traditional houses are richly decorated with the cosmic serpent Naga Padoha carved in wood or in mosaic, lizards, double spirals, female breasts, and the head of the singa, a monster with protruding eyes that is part human, part water buffalo, and part crocodile or lizard. Other wooden sculptures, dances, ritual speeches, and gift-giving ceremonies reflect this cosmological order. Even the layout of the village symbolises the Batak cosmos. Many of these symbols found in wooden sculptures are magic signs or fertility symbols, such as female breasts.
Other symbols of Batak mythology include the baringin or banyan tree as the cosmic tree uniting the levels of the Batak cosmos, the hornbill, aboriginal boy-girl twins, star constellations, magic numbers, and the magic colours red, white, and black.
Besides the traditional houses, these symbols are found on textiles, funerary masks, boats with hornbill figureheads, the wooden staffs of datu, and megalithic monuments.