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.
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.