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Home » Religion

Through The Eyes of Researcher: Rituals as Religion, Rituals as Custom  

by on Monday, 15 October 2007No Comment | 2,242 views

Here is another interesting insight on Balinese religion from Scott Johnsen, the writing is taken from his thesis which is entitled “From Royal House to Nation”.


Using photographs I had taken, a village official explained the details of a recent marriage ritual. He went through some of the various purifications of the couple, who had been impure (sebel) since they ran off together: a tebasan mabiakala offering is made for the demons (buta kala) within the bodies of the couple; the couple are given betel leaves and old coconut leaves as purificatory substances; they are cleansed with smoke; two kinds of holy water sprayers (lis) are used on them; the couple cut a thread extended between branches of a particular kind of tree celebrated for its fast-growing property (dapdap); the couple feed each other; and a coconut is placed under the couple’s bed.

He clarified that everything before the thread-cutting is yadnya (religious ritual), whereas the thread-cutting is not: “It is custom, not yadnya.” He also noted that the practice of placing a coconut under the couple’s bed is custom, and clarified the significance of the coconut in terms of two ingredients placed within it, turmeric and taro, which can be related through a verbal pun to a phrase implying that one will quickly have children. He left the status of the mutual feeding ambiguous. Pressed as to why certain practices should be deemed custom, he continued:


“The thread-cutting is not in the Wedas (Hindu’s holy scriptures). It varies in different places in Bali (based on place, time and circumstance). If something is religious ritual it can’t be eliminated, but if it is custom it can be done away with.”

I showed the same photos to a local priest and shadow puppeteer, and asked if parts of this ritual were custom (adat). He said that the part of the ritual where the couple feed each other (dagang-dagangan) – which happens after the breaking of the thread – is custom, not religious ritual. The practices before this are religious ritual. Thus, he agreed with the village official that most of the practices are religion, but he differed in his categorization of the breaking of the thread (and possibly of the mutual feeding).

Even if one could come up with an argument as to why the mutual feeding is not “religious” by some academic definition – it does not explicitly involve demons or purification, for example – one would have a harder time explaining why the use of dapdap branches in the thread-cutting is not religious. Dapdap branches are used in a wide variety of rituals, sought out because of their quality of growing very quickly; they “symbolize,” or more accurately bring, life; the cutting of the thread was explained to me by the village official as eliminating obstacles to obtaining a good salary and having children.


Balinese do not usually make any great distinction between this-worldly and other-worldly benefit from religious practices – a shrine in virtually every houseyard temple in Bangli is devoted to the goddess of rice and the god of money (sri/sedana) – so it would also not be accurate to isolate salary and fertility as non-religious. The premise that the world can be clearly divided into religious and non-religious practices was shared by both of these sources, yet the use of these classifications was sometimes ambiguous or contested.

The argument that the thread-cutting is not in the Wedas relates closely to another argument that the village official put forth: the idea that custom varies while yadnya, or religious ritual, is the same everywhere. Those practices done everywhere are, according to this model, those that derive from the Wedas. This brings up the pervasive idea of time, place, and circumstance (desa, kala, patra), commonly invoked by just about everyone to explain why particular practices, religious or otherwise, vary from place to place in Bali and beyond. This model differs from, and yet coexists with, the model which equates universality, the Wedas, and religion.


It is highly doubtful that all the purification rituals done by this priest in Bangli exactly match those done elsewhere in Bali; variations in offerings alone make this virtually impossible. Even were this the case, there are many other rituals accepted by all as “religious” which are either not done in Bangli or not done elsewhere; for example, several early life-cycle rituals done in some parts of Bali are not done in Bangli, and this was explained to me as desa kala patra, with no implication that these rituals done elsewhere are therefore not religious.

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