Thursday, September 13, 2007


In an email, Edwin asked me a question I thought might be of interest to the silat players who drop by.

He had heard me use the term "Maha Guru" when referring to our silat teacher, Stevan Plinck. His understanding of the term, based, I assumed, on his travels to Indonesia, was that such an honorific was reserved for founders or lineage holders of a system.

My response:

I don't speak the language, but Bahasa Indonesian was a trade tongue developed from several languages, including Malay and old Javanese, and the meanings of words aren't always clear. Case in point is "Sera," which is spelled like that, or ended with an "h," or a "k," all pronounced pretty much the same, far as I can tell, and it can mean: sneaky, wise, hasty, a fee, surrender, hoarse, to confuse, or a bright shade of red. You have to get it from context in any conversation.

Whether there ever was a gimpy, one-armed man named Bapak Sera who came up with the basic art named after him is debatable. No proof anybody has ever put forth. Mas Djut, supposedly the guy who codified the system, never seems to be referred to by anything but that "Mas," no "Guru," "Maha Guru," or "Pendekar" honorific ever seems to prefix his name.

"Pendekar" is another loaded term that seems to mean many things to many people. For us, it means the lineage holder of our art, and at any given time, there is only one. So the idea of going to Bogor for a couple weeks and coming back with one's Pendekar certificate doesn't resonate with how I use the word.

What "guru" means to most Americans has nothing to do with what it means to silat students.

I'm not trying to capture the idiosyncratic meaning as the term "Maha Guru" might be used in Java, but the literal meaning as it would be used in the U.S. "Guru," means "teacher." "Maha" means "great." Thus, for me, "Maha Guru" means "great teacher," no more. It's just an honorific to indicate what I believe: Stevan doesn't use the term about himself.

From what I know, a lot of what Stevan has developed has upgraded considerably the art he learned from Paul. He doesn't say so, but looking at Paul's other students, Stevan is in a class by himself. Adding "Plinck" to the name -- Pukulan Pentjak Silat Sera Plinck makes perfect sense to me. What we do is related to what Paul and Victor's students do, but it's a distant cousin; enough so to be almost a different system. Using that criterion, then "Maha Guru" would be accurate as the designation for the creator/lineage holder ...

And, truth be known, there was a time when Victor de Thouars' students were bandying that term about in connection with his name, and since I believe Stevan is a better player and teacher than Vic, I wanted to make that point.

Something always gets lost in translation, and the intricate nature of Javanese/Bahasa Indonesian terminology is beyond most Americans, me included.


Of course, honorifics for martial arts teachers is a subject that has always drawn some debate. Some folks think they aren't necessary at all -- guy has a name, use that. But our culture has its share -- Mister, Missus, Madam, Doctor, Professor, Your Honor, to name the first half-dozen that popped into my head, and nobody seems unduly disturbed by these.

Many of the words in silat classes aren't usually translated -- djuru, beset, sapu, ahnkat, luar, dalam, and so forth, so using a couple more isn't a problem for me.


Bobbe Edmonds said...

The problem is modern usage of a trade language in a country that it isn't native to. Especially as Americans, I think, we want EXACT definitions. You can't do that with a language comprised of 4 or more languages that were half-contributed.

Titles are bad business, because again they are imperfect in definition. You have to use fuzzy values, not precise terms.

Let's look at the word "Pendekar", for example...Where else does this word exist? Well, in Hindu terminology (Which was one of the origins of Silat and Indonesian culture) the word "Pannickar" means something similar, perhaps higher than "Maha Guru". Yet another Hindu term. The word (Pendekar - Pannickar) in both cases does indeed mean leader of some sort, but it denotes spirituality, not martial arts. Here we go with MY simple understanding, and I'll definitely give you a nickel to buy a cup of coffee to go with it, but it points to someone who has undergone a spiritual journey AND COME OUT ON THE OTHER SIDE. Like one spiritually enlightened. Now martial arts can certainly play into that as well, but it's not the focus.

"Ankat" in Indonesia means simply "Lift Leg". Now, how do you take that? Most Serakkies say it's a throw where you grab the other person's leg and lift it. However, when we pick up our feet in Kembangan to prepare for a kick, Bambang calls out "Ankat!". Which is correct?

They BOTH are. In both cases, you are "Lifting the leg", whether it's yours or somebody else's. Again, go with the fuzzy values for this, or you will get sucked into a black hole that nothing escapes, not even intelligence.

Steve Perry said...

Well, as somebody who is perfectly happy making up his own neologisms on a regular basis, changing a definition of a word to fit my view is nothing ...

Words shift function all the time. I can remember when "gay" had nothing to do with sexual preferences; when spam was something Hormel put in a can; and when "hopefully" didn't mean "I hope."

Henceforth, in the U.S. of A, "Maha Guru means "great teacher." First book I get a chance, I'm gonna burn it in. Say it often enough, people will start to accept it as such.

Given that most people in this country (who aren't silat players) who know anything about the art got it from stuff I've written, I believe I can get 'em tending in my direction ...

Mushtaq Ali said...

Personally, I subscribe to the Humpty Dumpty school of linguistics, when I use a word it means what I want it to mean, Nether more nor less.

One of the things I like about Bahasa is that so many of the words have Sanskrit and Arabic origins. It's interesting to see how the words change from the original. For instance, Maha can mean "great , mighty , strong , abundant" and can also mean "light , lustre , brilliance" and even "a feast or festival"

Guru has an even more interesting set of meanings. The first group means "heavy , weighty, heavy in the stomach and difficult to digest", a second set of meanings is "vehement , violent , excessive , difficult , hard" and then we get to "any venerable or respectable person" and so on.

We didn't really get the modern usage for "guru" until the 19th century CE.

I like the designation "Mahaguru" for Steve Plinck because he is in fact a great teacher, and from the classical point of view, that's what it means.

Pendekar is interesting as well. I suspect that it may come from the word "paNDitarAja" which means "prince of learned men" from the root pan, "to be worthy of admiration".

I have to admit though, that I have come to suspect that, given the behavior of some people who use that title it may come from "paNDraka" a eunuch or impotent man.

Dan Gambiera said...

And there are so many who deserve the title Maha Lingam

Steve Perry said...

I wouldn't mind being thought of as Maha Lingam --

Maha Lingam Kepala, I'd rather not ...