THE BLOG
09/26/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

A Little Help From Saraswati

On the day of the Jewish New Year, the president of Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population, visited Washington, DC and spoke out for religious tolerance. No, he didn't blow a shofar, but rather he presided over a ceremony to bless a very large statue from his country's 3 percent Hindu population.

The statute is of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge. In Bali, Saraswati motivates priests, singers, dancers, painters, politicians, puppeteers, and clowns to work together to enable people of all faiths to "see themselves reflected in the pages of the island's collective wisdom."1 Creating a statue of Saraswati in front of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, DC was the brainchild of Dr. Dino Djalal, former Indonesian ambassador to the US and now the Indonesian Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, as a beacon of religious tolerance for all nations.

Completed one year ago, the statue was carved on site over a period of several weeks by a team of 7 sculptors from Bali. Just a year later, when the world seems like a much less tolerant place than it did when Saraswati was erected, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono joined Vice Minister Djalal and H.E. Budi Bowoleksono, the current Indonesian Ambassador to the US, to inaugurate the statue and oversee the Balinese Mlaspas and Prayascita ceremony which purifies the statute and ensures that it does not inadvertently harm its neighbors. Three former US Ambassadors to Indonesia were present along with many other diplomats and neighbors of the Indonesian Embassy.

Balinese Mayor of Badung, Anak Agung Gde Agung was flown in to perform the purification ritual along with all the sculptors responsible for its creation. Incense permeated the air. Palm leaf offerings made in Bali and augmented with Washington DC-purchased fruits were stacked at Saraswati's feet. A duck wasn't sacrificed -- the hallmark of many Balinese rituals -- and none of Bali's traditional pork dishes were served out of respect for the Muslim participants, but the Mayor did sprinkle the statue with holy water from Bali -- transported on the presidential airplane to avoid the restrictions of liquids on commercial airlines.

There were some moments during the celebration where the faiths abutted but did not clash, seemingly to underscore the president's plea for more "love, tolerance and knowledge" including the president's own blessing of the Hindu Saraswati which he made "in the name of Allah the most benevolent."

Observant Muslim women huddled next to the gamelan orchestra and seemed intrigued by the graceful Balinese dancers from a local club of Balinese expatriates, Bali Banjar. The long sleeve blouses and headscarves of the Muslim women stood in stark contrast to the brightly colored strapless and tightly wound sarongs of the Balinese dancers.

Significant religious intolerance persists in Indonesia, the US and many other parts of the world. Indonesia faces the same ongoing challenge as many countries in trying to separate religious extremism from mainstream religion. Indeed, President Yudhoyono commented that "Islam is a religion of peace" echoing the recent 18 page open letter by over 120 Muslim scholars from around the world, including Indonesia, denouncing the "fighters and followers of the self declared 'Islamic State'" as an inappropriate interpretation of Islam.

A ceremony to sanctify a symbol of religious tolerance and a statute that promotes learning and peace literally represents a concrete affirmation that many nations and their peoples want to live in greater harmony.

1. Saraswati in Bali: A Temple, a Museum and a Mask by Ron Jenkins, Wesleyan University (2014, ARMA Museum Publishers). Page 137.