Outside of India, Bali is the largest Hindu outpost in the world. Put
in another way, it's the furthest reaches of the Hindu empire. On Bali,
Hinduism has developed along lines all its own. In fact, the way in which
the Balinese practice their frontier Hinduism is still their greatest art.
Hinduism is at least 3,000 years old and dates from the creation of the
Vedas, compilations of prayers, hymns, and other religious writings. Hinduism
doesn't have a single founder or prophet. There is only one god, though
its many different manifestations are named and classified in great detail.
The Balinese call their religion Agama Tirta ("Science of the Holy Water"), an interpretation of religious ideas from China, India, and Java. Agama Tirta is much closer to the earth and more animist than Hinduism proper; the two sects are as different from each other as Ethiopian Christianity is from Episcopalian Christianity. If a strict Hindu Brahman from Varanasi ever visited Bali, he'd think them savages. Although the Hindu epics are well known and form the basis of favorite Balinese dances, the deities worshipped in India are here considered too aloof and aristocratic. Often the Balinese don't even know their names. The Balinese have their own trinity of supreme gods, the Shrine of the Three Forces.
Because of the caste system, 200 million people are shunned in India. On Bali only the older people still believe in the caste system; the young ignore it. Though a bull served as the sacred mount of Shiva, Bali Hindus do not eschew beef; bakwan carts sell meatball noodle soup in the smallest villages, and there's a beef sausage plant in Denpasar. In India a Hindu must be cremated at once in order to enter into heaven; because of the expense, on Bali sometimes a whole village will temporarily bury its dead and later stage a mass cremation. In India widows must not remarry but on Bali they can-here, even high priests marry. In India, worship at home is all-important but on Bali group worship is preferred.
Bali Hindus are not obliged to study sacred texts, follow any set doctrine or scripture, practice celibacy or adhere to a puritan lifestyle. There are no prescribed prayers, no fixed moments of devotion. There are many paths to take that please God-singer, dancer, priest, dalang,carpenter, carver, actor. The worshipper need only perform daily offerings and participate actively in village and temple events. Since the high Brahmanic teachings are a mystery to most of the Balinese population, the emphasis has always been on frequent and visibly dramatic ceremonies and rituals rather than theology, on behavior and service rather than the fine points of belief.
On Bali there are two ways to pray: mbaktiand muspa.The first is worship through devotion, the second shows respect with flowers. A Balinese with hands together at the hips is praying to Sanghyang Kala, Shiva, the Destroyer; with hands at chest level the prayer is to a dead family member; hands held in front of the forehead indicate prayer to Sanghyang Widhi, the Supreme God.
The Gods of Bali-Hinduism
All the many gods of Bali-Hinduism are merely realizations or manifestations of the holy rays from the one God, Sanghyang Widhi, the omnipotent supreme being. In this universal, all-embracing god, all deities and ancestral spirits achieve a higher unity. Sanghyang Widhi manifests himself to the Balinese in three main forms: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. This three-in-one embodiment is called the Trisakti, the Holy Trinity. The average Balinese does not utter prayers or make offerings directly to Sanghyang Widhi. Not one of the island's temples, altars, or shrines is dedicated to him. Instead, three-seated temple pedestals enshrine the Trisakti. Before a ceremony temple guardians will decorate the pedestal with bright wraps of colored cloth: red for Brahma, white for Shiva, black for Vishnu. These three powerfully symbolic colors predominate in all religious processions.
In the hierarchy of the divine, below Sanghyang Widhi and the Trisakti, are a multitude of manifestations named and classified in great detail. These protective spirits are closely related to nature. God in his power to create the wind is Dewa Bayu, to create rice he is Dewi Sri, to create the ocean Dewa Baruna. God's gender is indicated by Dewa (male) and Dewi (female).
Most Balinese concentrate their worship on Shiva, God's manifestation as destroyer, since it is he who is most often seen and felt by the people through suffering and sickness. The Balinese believe in taking care of the god first who can destroy you, not the god that creates or preserves you. Appeasing Shiva, as well as the local dewa,will bring prosperity, happiness, and liberation. Though Shiva is often manifested as Surya, the sun, the Balinese are not pagan sun-worshippers. Balinese religious scholars were livid when a full-page ad appeared in Timefeaturing a group of kecakdancers on the beach, with a cutline reading "Bali is still full of half-naked sun-worshippers."
Vishnu, connected with the creation of life, is particularly associated with the irrigation systems that nourish the rice fields and is the most important figure in the kampung.Saraswati is the goddess of learning and knowledge. Shiva's consort is Durga, goddess of death, and ruler of demons, ghosts, and witches. Each god or goddess also has a mount or vehicle for transport. Shiva rides the bull Nandi, while Vishnu flies upon Garuda, a mythical bird.
The Official Religion
With Rabindranath Tagore's visit to the island in 1927, Balinese theologians restored contacts with India and began to align their brand of Hinduism more with Hinduism proper. Monotheism has been particularly emphasized since independence, and following the 1966-67 anti-communist bloodbath Bali-Hinduism was recognized by the government as one of Indonesia's state religions. A modern Hindu organization, the Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia (PHDI), or Hindu Council of Religious Affairs, is Bali's highest religious body, officially sanctioned by the government to decide all spiritual matters. Similar to its Islamic counterpart Majelis Uleme Indonesia, the PHDI is more or less a rubber stamp for government policy, reflected by the large number of military figures and civil servants holding leadership posits in the organization.
Through the PHDI, however, Bali-Hinduism has achieved legal, international status. Since Bali is virtually surrounded by Muslims, some of whom are determined to turn Indonesia into an Iran-style theocratic state, the Balinese regard the government's official sanction of their religion as a means of preserving their identity and way of life. The Balinese have further legitimized their religion by aligning it with the discoveries of modern science and by formulating their own independent canon, panca cradha.
Foreign religions have not had an easy time of it on Bali-Bali-Hindus have strongly resisted new faiths. Muslim communities established a toehold during the Majapahit era; Gelgel Mosque, just south of Klungkung, is the most ancient on Bali, built by Muslim immigrants who served the Dewa Agung during Bali's Golden Age. Other prominent Muslim communities include Kusamba and Sarenjawa in Karangasem, Lovina in Buleleng.
Approximately 1,000 Buddhists live in the north, in the mountains to the east, and among the Chinese populations of the urban centers. Their most important temple is the Brahma Vihara Asrama in Banjar, Buleleng. Western visitors have popularized the practice of metaphysics, mostly New Agers from California. Since the 1930s Ubud has been a center for paranormal practices.
There are about 7,000 Christians on the island; the Dutch finally allowed Christian missionaries on Bali in the 1930s at the behest of the Chinese. Early Christian communities emulated Dutch Reform-style architecture and customs, but under the leadership of I.W. Mastra, the Church of Bali is now incorporating the island's rich traditions of dance, drama, and music. The new Christian churches of Bali look more like Balinese temples than Dutch churches, except that they're guarded by angels, not demons. Bibical stories are dramatized through Balinese-style dance and music, and gamelanorchestras celebrate church festivals. "The Mango Tree Church" relates the dramatic story of the development of the Protestant church on Bali.
While offerings for the gods-money, flowers, rice, fruits, parts of pigs-are like presents given to human beings, gifts given to buta are smelly, moldy, or decayed plants and food thrown contemptuously on the ground. Entrances to temples and kampung are constructed in such a way-with mazes, narrow lanes, dead ends, high mud walls, sliding gates, barricades, etc.-so as to confuse and bewilder evil spirts. Besides the delighiful fellow at left, the "reverse" buta stands on its head, loiters around trees, forests, and swimming holes, and is a favorite guardian at temple gates. Other buta come in the form of a dirty little dwart (togtogsil) with a large pointed tooth. Yet another consists of an arm or a leg with a hideous face. One popular ploy is to summon demons and spirits to a feast, then expel them with magic formulas.
Bali Hinduism is only a veneer over complex, deeper-lying, indigenous superstitions. Before a Balinese picks a leaf or flower or chops down a tree, s/he first asks permission of the spirit (tonya)within. The Balinese even respect such inanimate objects as books, stones, large trees, and motorcycles. Just as the Balinese treat themselves to a bath in the streams late in the afternoons, revered objects too are accorded frequent bathings and renewals.
The Balinese are scared witless of ghosts, goblins, and the like, which disguise themselves as black cats, naked women, and crows. A Balinese can tell when a domestic animal is possessed-a cow that darts away, startled; a chicken that pecks in a peculiar manner. Many Balinese can point to several people in the village who practice black magic, but would never name them for fear of incurring their wrath.
The Balinese believe souls sometimes wander from people's bodies while they sleep. This is why a Balinese will never wake up someone sharply or suddenly, fearing the soul would not be given time to return to the body. One must always wake someone gently, even in a crisis. It's also believed the soul may enter the body of an animal during the night; this is why a chicken is never slaughtered after sundown.
One hears of lingering, mysterious illnesses from unidentified poisons, of a husband who meets an untimely death at the hands of a jealous mistress. These incidents are often attributed to malicious spirits called kalaand buta,who have no other purpose than to cause misery and havoc amongst humans. They enter people's bodies, making them ill, insane, or imbecilic. Like vampires, these spirits relish sucking the blood from sleeping victims, and have been known to abduct children for a tasty snack.
Even more dangerous and unpredictable are leyak,the witches. The Balinese believe a witch must endure 1,000 years as an earthworm and 200,000 years as a poisonous mushroom before rebirth as a human. At least the true demons, like Rangda and barong,are predictable and belong to the natural order of the cosmos. Not so the dreaded leyak.These evil beings, who manifest themselves in the form of a monkey with golden teeth, a great rat, a baldheaded giant, a bird as large as a horse, a ball of fire, a riderless motorcycle, haunt such desolate places as dark back roads, deep forests, ravines, seashores, crossroads, and cemeteries. When the dogs begin to whine on moonless nights, the Balinese know the leyakare about. When these bloodthirsty creatures are not appeased with offerings, they can run rampant through the village, causing epidemics and famine. With their fire-dripping tongues, they suck the blood of unborn babies. Only the most elaborate purification ceremonies (mecaru)and blood sacrifices can expunge them. On these occasions a visit to Pura Dalem Penataran Ped on Nusa Penida's northeast coast is in order. This temple was built to honor Ratu Gede Mecaling, the patron saint of all leyak.
Spirits dominate everything the Balinese do, and they are constantly offering fruit and flowers to appease angry deities. If put in our society, a Balinese would show all the classic symptoms of paranoia and neurotic disorders, but on Bali these traits are ritualized and institutionalized. There are sun gods, totemic gods, deer gods, secretaries to the gods, mythical turtles, market deities. Clay figures of the fire god are put over kitchen hearths, bank clerks place pandanus-leaf offering trays on their desks. Before a journey offerings are made to guarantee a safe passage. Once a year coconut trees are honored by dressing them in bright skirts and scarves. Old banyan trees are venerated by the placement of offerings in altars among their aerial roots. Ngedjotare placed in the courtyards of every house; these offerings consist of little squares of banana leaves holding a few grains of rice, a flower, salt, and a pinch of chili pepper. No one eats until ngedjotare placed at the cardinal points in the family courtyard and in front of each house. Though mangy dogs eat the offerings as soon as they touch the ground, their essence has already been consumed by the spirits. Every morning this quiet drama is carried out all over Bali, from inexpensive losmencourtyards to the lobbies of Nusa Dua's grandest and most lavish hotels. Even the most Westernized youth, wearing a World Beat T-shirt, head engulfed in a Sony Walkman, will still take time out every morning and evening to place offerings of flowers and rice before the shrines of his ancestors.
Types of Offerings
Fire, water, and flowers are the basic components of all offerings; additional items are given according to one's profession and wealth, and the season in which they're made. No matter what the offering, it must be of the finest ingredients and ritually cleansed before being placed. The variety is mind-boggling, in countless designs and styles. Some offerings may even be as simple as a few grains of rice placed on a banana leaf. Once you know what to look for, you begin to see offerings everywhere-in rice fields, yards, trees, temples. Three-meter-long palm-leaf panels and scrolls, a captivating cilifigure with fan-shaped headdress and long, graceful arms. Spectacular, colorful geboganor banten tegeh are enormous towers of up to three meters, embellished with glass, paintings, roast ducks or chickens, suckling pigs, pig entrails, garlands of white cempaka, and fragrant yellow jepun blossoms. They're carried on the heads of women to the temple, blessed by the pemangku and sprinkled with holy water.
Gods and goddesses, who protect or threaten every act performed by a person during his or her lifetime, inhabit stone thrones and statues or simply hover in the air. Gods are often invited down to visit earth and are gorged with offerings and entertained with music and dance, but eventually they must go back home because they're too expensive to maintain. The Balinese always try to stay on the good side of all the forces. If the spirits are kept happy, the people can relax and even grow lighthearted. Children carry flowers to shrines and learn to dance at an early age to please the gods and the raja.
Feasts mark special periods in an infant's first year: three days after birth, 42 days after the first bath, 105 days after birth, and 210 days after birth-the first birthday celebration. At each stage of the agricultural cycle ceremonies are held, offerings made, and holy texts chanted. Even cockfighting was originally a temple ritual-blood spilled for the gods. During the 1965 political butchering in which 50,000 Balinese were killed, victims dressed in spotless white ceremonial attire before being led away to execution. Devils were believed to live in the communists or their sympathizers, and their deaths were necessary to cleanse the island of evil. Heaven? The Balinese believe heaven will be exactly like Bali.