Batak Notion of the Spiritual Self : Tondi

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The Toba Bataks I worked with are staunch Christians (mostly Lutheran, but some are Catholics or Evangelical); accordingly, religion was an ever-present topic in my conversations with them. In day-to-day behaviors and social interactions, though, one might also notice a vibrant indigenous (that is, pre-Christian) belief system working alongside the professed religion. One aspect of this older system is the belief that all persons have within themselves a “life-force” called tondi. Many students of the Batak culture, both insiders and outsiders, have tried to define tondi, using terms such as spirit, soul material, or soul-stuff.4 However, none of these terms seems to accurately delineate the Bataks’ lived experience. The terms spirit or soul as we tend to use them in the West do not do service to a concept often seen as a driving force that is separable and sometimes at odds with the physical human being (Pedersen 1970:26).As conveyed in Ito’s story of her son’s fall from a tree, the material self is sometimes at the whim of this immaterial being and its desires. That the two are inextricably connected is clear to Bataks, for the boy’s spirit tondi was eager to have its sensual urges satisfied with little regard to the costs that such a desire might have to the physical body. Anicetus Sinaga, a Toba Batak scholar and Catholic bishop, says that because it comes from the realm of God, the tondi has a quality of sacredness and can seem like a deity (that is, it is prayed to or beseeched for help) (1981:102–106). However, Sinaga adds that the tondi is different from God in that it only represents godliness in man.In essence, Sinaga regards the tondi as the “numen” or living essence of the human. Paul Pederson, who lived with the Bataks for many years, reports that they believe that when a tondi is ready to enter the material world, it picks a leaf from the heavenly world tree on which is written the fate (I: nasib) of a single human (1970:26). Sometime before actual birth, the tondijoins a chosen fetus, bringing the child’s future with it.7 Throughout childhood, the tondi and the human have a tenuous relation�ship. The tondi might create havoc if it does not get what it wants, and may even decide to leave the body permanently if favorable conditions do not exist (a situation that, I was told, would result in death). Parents must treat young children with deference and kindness until the bond between tondi and human is dependable and firm. With this in mind, parents I knew refrained from ever hitting their children, fed them indulgently if they could, and gave in to their desires whenever possible. As people grow older, they must be sensitive to signs that might indicate their tondis are not happy, secure, strong (hard), or “cool” (Parkin 1978:145): one’s conscious self must always be aware and attentive to the tondi’s desires and needs. Since I had been told that these desires were difficult to understand directly, I asked how people knew for sure what their tondis wanted. Partoho was the only one willing or able to talk about the topic in any detail. But rather than provide me with his own personal examples, he reminded me of a recent event in my own life. I had made plans to travel many hours to the south, but when the day and time came to leave, I began to feel slightly nervous about the rain-slicked roads and the possibilities of rock slides. He reminded me, “Your tondi didn’t want to go, and yet you Toba Batak Selvesstill made plans to leave. You felt conflict inside, right?” What I might have called trepidation or cold feet, my teacher framed as a conflict between my material self and my tondi. Had I been Batak and sensitive to such feelings, I would not have left then (since the departure date was flexible) and would have engaged in activities that would have strengthened my tondi. How does one “harden” the tondi? According to Bataks who were willing to discuss this matter, the process involves constant experimentation, including, but not limited to, actively engaging in adat (that is, traditional values or behaviors such as participating in ritual dances or wearing the identifying fabric called ulos), pleasing the material-sensual body in order to entice the tondi to stay in the human body, eating foods full of potency and nutrition, and engaging in the acts of studying or learning. Toba Bataks who are particularly strong in their Christian beliefs told me that the tondi can be strengthened by doing good works or praying. In general, I was told that Batak adults’ tondis are satisfyingly embedded in them, leaving temporarily only when the person dreams or becomes ill.This strong connection of spirit and material selves is not just a concern of the individual; the family and community is concerned as well, because hearty tondis create a strong society. Visiting Westerners often note that the Toba Bataks commonly shout out the traditional greeting, “horas!” to whomever they pass along the roads. I was told that this word roughly translates as “hard” or “firm,” and is an encouragement (perhaps even a demand) that one’s tondi stay strong. When people spoke to me of the tondi (which was not a common occurrence), it was with the knowledge that it was them: that it was a part of their “self.” Nevertheless, all spoke of the tondi’s needs and urges as being somehow removed. The tondi, as I understood it, was both part of the human—a person felt the hunger or the desire in their sensual body—but also not a part of it. Once, when Partoho’s carving business was not doing well, he told me that his tondi was craving chicken. Ito bought one (an unusual expense for the family), prepared it using an elaborate traditional recipe, and served it just to him at dinner that night. The rest of the family ate rice, vegetables, and fish as he worked methodically through the entire dish, sharing none (in a culture where sharing is essential and common), apparently aware that their well-�being depended on his focused act to satisfy his tondi. In essence, the Bataks’ acknowledgment of the tondi is their acceptance of a kind of segmented self: a self that is part material body (the character or personality), and part spiritual entity (the tondi).

 

 

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