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Through The Eyes of Researcher: Monotheism in Balinese Point of View  

by on Monday, 17 September 2007No Comment | 2,229 views

Yesterday I found an interesting writing on Balinese culture, religion and people which is entitled “From Royal House to Nation” by Scott Johnsen. Here is a piece of his insight on Balinese religion:


Bali, with its thousands of temples, has long been known in tourist literature as “The Island of the Gods.” Now one can find a new slogan alongside the old: “Bali: The Island of God.” It would be incorrect to say that Bali has only recently acquired ideas of an ultimate divine form: the god Siwa has long had something like a “highest of the high” conception, and there were a variety of other concepts of ultimate divinity known primarily to Brahmana priests, including that of Sang Hyang Widhi. Nonetheless, when Christian missionaries chose this latter divinity as the Balinese “one god” (Covarrubias 1994 [1937]:263, Bakker 1993) – the most notable missionary achievement in an otherwise rather bleak record of failure (Hanna 2004 [1976]) – this began a popularization of this deity that grew after the second world war (Swellengrebel 1960:71-3) and became the centerpiece of Balinese efforts to gain formal state recognition for their religion.

While it had some early Christian influence, this new conception of ultimate divinity owed the most to the influence of Islam, and particularly the reformist Islam imported from the Near East in the early part of the twentieth century that has variously been described as modernist, scripturalist, and non-syncretic (Geertz 1960, Anderson 1972). This new monotheistic concept has led to new understandings of the “local” nature of divinities. Balinese have a very strong conception of local divinities and ancestors, in which one cannot use just any Death Temple, any village temple, or any kinship temple (Forge 1980); this has sometimes also been described as a relation to local temple or village space or land (Boon 1997:100, Sullivan 1998). Geertz long ago predicted that a common type of temple, such as the village Origin Temple, might one day be chosen as a new equivalent of a mosque or church, in which anyone could worship (Geertz 1973b:188-9). This has not happened, but instead a new kind of temple (Jagatnatha Temple), and a related kind of shrine (Padmasana) found in many kinds of temples, has assumed a similar importance.

Probably the single most common item of religious knowledge offered to me – by dozens of people, men, women, low caste, high caste, poor, wealthy – was that there is only one God, and each different religion has the same purpose (Tuhan adalah satu; agama berbeda, tapi tujuannya sama). Often people phrased this as a half-question, expecting me to confirm this statement. On one occasion early in my research, I assisted several men in cutting slivers of bamboo for use in constructing offerings. One of them posed this half-question to me, and I said yes, that is possibly the case. This drew a round of derisive laughter – Possibly? What, you think there are many One Gods (Tuhan)? The use of this word Tuhan reveals the close connection between the new Balinese One God, Sang Hyang Widhi, and the Indonesian One God, most commonly called Tuhan. This concept of One God relates very closely to the idea that all religions are equal: if they all worship the same God, how could one be superior to another?

Often people followed up this half-question with the comment that though Bali has thousands of temples, this does not mean that it has thousands of gods; rather, temples are for manifestations (manifestasi) of God. The frequency of these comments reveals the deep sensitivity of many Balinese to accusations that they do not have a monotheistic religion.
One way to reconcile thousands of temples and local deities with One God has been an emphasis on manifestations. As with the idea of an ultimate divinity, this is not simply a foreign concept; Balinese have long had ideas of certain named deities being forms of other named deities. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Balinese temple deities are referred to as “the god of temple x” (as in Batara Puseh, the god of the village Origin Temple). This is not the god of all Origin Temples, or the One God, this is the god of this Origin Temple for this village.

One often hears that the three common types of village temples represent the gods Brahma, Wisnu, and Siwa. This also is probably not a new concept, though there has been some debate on this issue (Wiener 1995:52,381; MacRae 1997:197). The interpretation of these temples as for Brahma, Wisnu, and Siwa comes close to the “manifestation of the One God” interpretation, yet in Bangli it remains clearly subordinate to the idea of a specific, local deity and its divine retinue. One thinks of rajas claiming descent from Siwa (Geertz 1980), and Brahmana high priests who “embody” Siwa yet command distinct followings: if these be forms of One God, for all practical purposes they are indistinguishable from local divinities. One’s relationship with such local divinities, rulers and priests is non-transferable; if one moves and begins to worship at a new village Origin Temple, one cannot presume that this manifestation of Wisnu knows about all the ritual services one has performed for the previous manifestation of Wisnu. Different temples for deities that are manifestations of Wisnu will likely have different dates for the temple anniversary and employ different ritual levels, and offending one of these manifestations has consequences only for the local congregation, not for every person who worships a manifestation of Wisnu. The same applies for interpretations in which every deity in Bali is a manifestation of the One God Sang Hyang Widhi.

The idea of manifestations was sometimes explained to me in terms of roles: at the office I am a civil servant, at the soccer field I am a soccer player; it is the same with God. At the Origin Temple, God is the god of the Origin Temple; at the Death Temple, God is the god of the Death Temple. While Geertz’s “theater state” model might find its ultimate exemplar in a role-playing deity, this seems to involve more reinterpretation than exegesis of dominant Balinese practices. Deities of specific temples may have relationships with deities of other specific temples: can one “role” have a relationship with another “role,” or one divine entity have a relationship with itself? There may be a “unification of opposites” logic in which the latter is in some sense possible, but the simple conflation of local deities with “One God” contradicts the logic of Balinese temple relationships. This point assumes greater importance than it may seem to have here, when I consider below the consequences of a new form of temple for temple relationships.

Sometimes these ideas of the ultimate One-ness of God take forms closer to their probable use in the pre-colonial system. At the state temple of Kehen in Bangli, a temple with dozens of shrines, a Hindu Council official told me, “All these shrines are actually to Siwa, but most people don’t know that.” In other words, an esoteric interpretation of the ultimate One-ness of divinity, following from Balinese/Javanese concepts of greater unification at higher hierarchical levels: the higher up a human/divine hierarchy, the greater the unification of that which assumes separate forms at lower levels, such as genders (Anderson 1972, Boon 1977). Holy waters from different temples or points of the compass are sometimes unified to concentrate their power (Lansing 1991), or placed together “to become one” (manunggal tirta) before being separated again. Even those who claim to understand such principles of higher unity are usually of high status, such as Brahmana priests or, in the case above, an important local Hindu Council official.

Some inessential omissions have been made to the original writing for the convenience of the reader.

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