The German eagle stands in the long line of European tradition extending back to Greco-Roman mythology, but the strongest links have developed via the eagle-emblem of Roman Legions and by Germany inheriting the status of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Eagle in the emblem of the United States of America is nestled, so to speak, in the tradition of the Native American nations, as well as symbolically implying independence.

Indonesian Emblem: E74743
Indonesian Emblem: E74743 Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

But the Indonesian eagle has a completely different origin. It was adopted at the dawn of Indonesian Independence to provide symbolic and ideological ‘glue’ to weld together a nation of staggering cultural diversity.

The Set of ideological principles Pancasila embedded in the emblem was promoted by President Sukarno (1901–1970), and adopted by the Indonesian Constitution of 1945. These principles are depicted in the shield held by the eagle. The shield itself signifies the defensive strength of the nation.

Pancasila – literally meaning ‘five principles’ pictorially represented on the shield, include:

  1. Belief in the divinity of God – the five-pointed star represents major faiths, including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
  2. Civilised and just humanity – is implied by a chain showing links between human generations.
  3. The unity of Indonesia – the Banyan tree represents unity, the whole brought together from various cultural roots.
  4. Democracy – the Javanese wild bull, - Banteng – an inherently social animal, signifies democratic principles.
  5. Social justice for all people – rice and cotton, implying sustenance and wellbeing, stands for universal fairness.

And the eagle is none other than Garuda himself – the vehicle of Vishnu. Garuda is deeply rooted in ancient civilisations, especially in Java and Bali, symbolizing the virtues of knowledge, strength, loyalty, bravery and discipline. Moreover, while holding some attributes of Vishnu, he represents preservation of cosmic order. With symbolism it would be hard to get any better than this.

Garuda Pancasila is not free from criticism, especially for emphasis on monotheistic religions, as well as the apparent exclusion of people without religious convictions. Yet, in essence, it is an immensely ambitious national idea.

Some of us regret that Garuda’s design conforms more to the Western iconography, rather than to the old pictorial home-grown tradition of Hinduism in Java and Bali. In fact, such design by Sultan Hamid II, showing Garuda in anthropomorphic form, was presented to the national leadership as the first option. It was eventually modified to depart from its mythological representation and adopted in its current form (a crest added later) in 1950.

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Recently (July 2014) Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, President Elect asked people for their preferences in appointing cabinet ministers. It is only a small step in the democratic process, but how daring and, sadly, alien to political manoeuvring in the Western democracies.