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Through the eyes of researcher: Balinese Public Titles  

by on Friday, 24 April 2009No Comment | 1,814 views

Balinese People

Here is an interesting excerpt on Balinese Public Titles taken from Clifford Geertz’s writing entitled “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali : The Social Nature of Thought”, that will give you an interesting insight on Balinese social-cultural life.

This final symbolic order of person-definition is, on the surface, the most reminiscent of one of the more prominent of our own ways of identifying and characterizing individuals. We, too, often (all too often, perhaps) see people through a screen of occupational categories –as not just practicing this vocation or that, but as almost physically infused with the quality of being a postman, teamster, politician, or salesman. Social function serves as the symbolic vehicle through which personal identity is perceived; men are what they do.

The resemblance is only apparent, however. Set amid a different cluster of ideas about what selfhood consists in, placed against a different religio-philosophical conception of what the world consists in, and expressed in terms of a different set of cultural devices–public titles –for portraying it, the Balinese view of the relation between social role and personal identity gives a quite different slant to the ideographic significance of what we call occupation but the Balinese call linggih-“seat,” “place,” “berth.”

This notion of “seat” rests on the existence in Balinese thought and practice of an extremely sharp distinction between the civic and domestic sectors of society. The boundary between the public and private domains of life is very clearly drawn both conceptually and institutionally. At every level, from the hamlet to the royal palace, matters of general concern are sharply distinguished and carefully insulated from matters of individual or familial concern, rather than being allowed to interpenetrate as they do in so many other societies. The Balinese sense of the public as a corporate body, having interests and purposes of its own, is very highly developed. To be charged, at any level, with special responsibilities with respect to those interests and purposes is to be set aside from the run of one’s fellowmen who are not so charged, and it is this special status that public titles express.

At the same time, though the Balinese conceive the public sector of society as bounded and autonomous, they do not look upon it as forming a seamless whole, or even a whole at all. Rather they see it as consisting of a number of separate, discontinuous, and at times even competitive realms, each self-sufficient, self-contained, jealous of its rights, and based on its own principles of organization. The most salient of such realms include: the hamlet as a corporate political community; the local temple as a corporate religious body, a congregation; the irrigation society as a corporate agricultural body; and, above these, the structures of regional–that is, suprahamlet–government and worship, centering on the nobility and the high priesthood.

A description of these various public realms or sectors would involve an extensive analysis of Balinese social structure inappropriate in the present context. The point to be made here is that, associated with each of them, there are responsible officers–stewards is perhaps a better term–who as a result bear particular titles: Klian, Perbekel, Pekaseh, Pemangku, Anak Agung, Tjakorda, Dewa Agung, Pedanda, and so on up to perhaps a half a hundred or more. And these men (a very small proportion of the total population) are addressed and referred to by these official titles–sometimes in combination with birth order names, status titles, or, in the case of Sudras, teknonyms for purposes of secondary specification. The various “village chiefs” and “folk priests” on the Sudra level, and, on the Triwangsa, the host of “kings,” “princes,” “lords,” and “high priests” do not merely occupy a role. They become, in the eyes of themselves and those around them, absorbed into it. They are truly public men, men for whom other aspects of personhood–individual character, birth order, kinship relations, procreative status, and prestige rank take, symbolically at least, a secondary position. We, focusing upon psychological traits as the heart of personal identity, would say they have sacrificed their true selves to their role; they, focusing on social position, say that their role is of the essence of their true selves.

Access to these public-title-bearing roles is closely connected with the system of status titles and its organization into Varna categories, a connection effected by what may be called “the doctrine of spiritual eligibility.” This doctrine asserts that political and religious “seats” of translocal–regional or Bali-wide–significance are to be manned only by Triwangsas, while those of local significance ought properly to be in the hands of Sudras. At the upper levels the doctrine is strict: only Satrias–that is, men bearing titles deemed of Satria rank–may be kings or paramount princes, only Wesias or Satrias lords or lesser princes, only Brahmanas high priests, and so on. At the lower levels, it is less strict; but the sense that hamlet chiefs, irrigation society heads, and folk priests should be Sudras, that Triwangsas should keep their place, is quite strong. In either case, however, the overwhelming majority of persons bearing status titles of the Varna category or categories theoretically eligible for the stewardship roles to which the public titles are attached do not have such roles and are not likely to get them. On the Triwangsa level, access is largely hereditary, primogenitural even, and a sharp distinction is made between that handful of individuals who “own power” and the vast remainder of the gentry who do not. On the Sudra level, access to public office is more often elective, but the number of men who have the opportunity to serve is still fairly limited. Prestige status decides what sort of public role one can presume to occupy; whether or not one occupies such a role is another question altogether.

Yet, because of the general correlation between prestige status and public office the doctrine of spiritual eligibility brings about, the order of political and ecclesiastical authority in the society is hooked in with the general notion that social order reflects dimly, and ought to reflect clearly, metaphysical order; and, beyond that, that personal identity is to be defined not in terms of such superficial, because merely human, matters as age, sex, talent, temperament, or achievement–that is, biographically, but in terms of location in a general spiritual hierarchy-that is, typologically. Like all the other symbolic orders of person-definition, that stemming from public titles consists of a formulation, with respect to different social contexts, of an underlying assumption: it is not what a man is as a man (as we would phrase it) that matters, but where he fits in a set of cultural categories which not only do not change but, being transhuman, cannot.

And, here too, these categories ascend toward divinity (or with equal accuracy, descend from it), their power to submerge character and nullify time increasing as they go. Not only do the higher level public titles borne by human beings blend gradually into those borne by the gods, becoming at the apex identical with them, but at the level of the gods there is literally nothing left of identity but the title itself. All gods and goddesses are addressed and referred to either as Dewa (f. Dewi) or, for the higher ranking ones, Betara (f. Betari). In a few cases, these general appellations are followed by particularizing ones: Betara Guru, Dewi Sri, and so forth. But even such specifically named divinities are not conceived as possessing distinctive personalities: they are merely thought to be administratively responsible, so to speak, for regulating certain matters of cosmic significance: fertility, power, knowledge, death, and so on. In most cases, Balinese do not know, and do not want to know, which gods and goddesses are those worshipped in their various temples (there is always a pair, one male, one female), but merely call them ” Dewa (Dewi) Pura Such-and-Such”–god (goddess) of temple such-and-such. Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, the average Balinese shows little interest in the detailed doings of particular gods, nor in their motivations, their personalities, or their individual histories. The same circumspection and propriety is maintained with respect to such matters as is maintained with respect to similar matters concerning elders and superiors generally.

The world of the gods is, in short, but another public realm, transcending all the others and imbued with an ethos which those others seek, so far as they are able, to embody in themselves. The concerns of this realm lie on the cosmic level rather than the political, the economic, or the ceremonial (that is, the human) and its stewards are men without features, individuals with respect to whom the usual indices of perishing humanity have no significance. The nearly faceless, thoroughly conventionalized, never-changing icons by which nameless gods known only by their public titles are, year after year, represented in the thousands of temple festivals across the island comprise the purest expression of the Balinese concept of personhood. Genuflecting to them (or, more precisely, to the gods for the moment resident in them) the Balinese are not just acknowledging divine power. They are also confronting the image of what they consider themselves at bottom to be; an image which the biological, psychological, and sociological concomitants of being alive, the mere materialities of historical time, tend only to obscure from sight.

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