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Through The Eyes of Researcher: Status Title in Bali  

by on Friday, 3 April 2009One Comment | 2,525 views


Here is an interesting excerpt on Balinese Status 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 socio-cultural life.

In theory, everyone (or nearly everyone) in Bali bears one or another title–Ida Bagus, Gusti, Pasek, Dauh, and so forth–which places him on a particular rung in an all-Bali status ladder; each title represents a specific degree of cultural superiority or inferiority with respect to each and every other one, so that the whole population is sorted out into a set of uniformly graded castes. In fact, as those who have tried to analyze the system in such terms have discovered, the situation is much more complex.

It is not simply that a few low-ranking villagers claim that they (or their parents) have somehow “forgotten” what their titles are; nor that there are marked inconsistencies in the ranking of titles from place to place, at times even from informant to informant; nor that, in spite of their hereditary basis, there are nevertheless ways to change titles. These are but (not uninteresting) details concerning the day-to-day working of the system. What is critical is that status titles are not attached to groups at all, but only to individuals.

Status in Bali, or at least that sort determined by titles, is a personal characteristic; it is independent of any social structural factors whatsoever. It has, of course, important practical consequences, and those consequences are shaped by and expressed through a wide variety of social arrangements, from kinship groups to governmental institutions. But to be a Dewa, a Pulosari, a Pring, or a Maspadan is at base only to have inherited the right to bear that title and to demand the public tokens of deference associated with it. It is not to play any particular role, to belong to any particular group, or to occupy any particular economic, political, or sacerdotal position.

The status title system is a pure prestige system. From a man’s title you know, given your own title, exactly what demeanor you ought to display toward him and he toward you in practically every context of public life, irrespective of whatever other social ties obtain between you and whatever you may happen to think of him as a man. Balinese politesse is very highly developed and it rigorously controls the outer surface of social behavior over virtually the entire range of daily life. Speech style, posture, dress, eating, marriage, even house-construction, place of burial, and mode of cremation are patterned in terms of a precise code of manners which grows less out of a passion for social grace as such as out of some rather far-reaching metaphysical considerations.

The sort of human inequality embodied in the status title system and the system of etiquette which expresses it is neither moral, nor economic, nor political–it is religious. It is the reflection in everyday interaction of the divine order upon which such interaction, from this point of view a form of ritual, is supposed to be modeled. A man’s title does not signal his wealth, his power, or even his moral reputation, it signals his spiritual composition; and the incongruity between this and his secular position may be enormous. Some of the greatest movers and shakers in Bali are the most rudely approached, some of the most delicately handled the least respected. It would be difficult to conceive of anything further from the Balinese spirit than Machiavelli’s comment that titles do not reflect honor upon men, but rather men upon their titles.

In theory, Balinese theory, all titles come from the gods. Each has been passed along, not always without alteration, from father to child, like some sacred heirloom, the difference in prestige value of the different titles being an outcome of the varying degree to which the men who have had care of them have observed the spiritual stipulations embodied in them. To bear a title is to agree, implicitly at least, to meet divine standards of action, or at least approach them, and not all men have been able to do this to the same extent. The result is the existing discrepancy in the rank of titles and of those who bear them. Cultural status, as opposed to social position, is here once again a reflection of distance from divinity.

Associated with virtually every title there are one or a series of legendary events, very concrete in nature, involving some spiritually significant misstep by one or another holder of the title. These offenses-one can hardly call them sins–are regarded as specifying the degree to which the title has declined in value, the distance which it has fallen from a fully transcendent status, and thus as fixing, in a general way at least, its position in the overall scale of prestige. Particular (if mythic) geographical migrations, cross–title marriages, military failures, breaches of mourning etiquette, ritual lapses, and the like are regarded as having debased the title to a greater or lesser extent: greater for the lower titles, lesser for the higher.

Yet, despite appearances, this uneven deterioration is, in its essence, neither a moral nor an historical phenomenon. It is not moral because the incidents conceived to have occasioned it are not, for the most part, those against which negative ethical judgments would, in Bali any more than elsewhere, ordinarily be brought, while genuine moral faults (cruelty, treachery, dishonesty, profligacy) damage only reputations, which pass from the scene with their owners, not titles which remain. It is not historical because these incidents, disjunct occurrences in a once-upona-time, are not invoked as the causes of present realities but as statements of their nature. The important fact about title-debasing events is not that they happened in the past, or even that they happened at all, but that they are debasing. They are formulations not of the processes which have brought the existing state of affairs into being, nor yet of moral judgments upon it (in neither of which intellectual exercises the Balinese show much interest): they are images of the underlying relationship between the form of human society and the divine pattern of which it is, in the nature of things, an imperfect expression–more imperfect at some points than at others.

But if, after all that has been said about the autonomy of the title system, such a relationship between cosmic patterns and social forms is conceived to exist, exactly how is it understood? How is the title system, based solely on religious conceptions, on theories of inherent differences in spiritual worth among individual men, connected up with what, looking at the society from the outside, we would call the “realities” of power, influence, wealth, reputation, and so on, implicit in the social division of labor? How, in short, is the actual order of social command fitted into a system of prestige ranking wholly independent of it so as to account for and, indeed, sustain the loose and general correlation between them which in fact obtains? The answer is: through performing, quite ingeniously, a kind of hat trick, a certain sleight of hand, with a famous cultural institution imported from India and adapted to local tastes–the Varna System. By means of the Varna System the Balinese inform a very disorderly collection of status pigeonholes with a simple shape which is represented as growing naturally out of it but which in fact is arbitrarily imposed upon it.

As in India, the Varna System consists of four gross categories–Brahmana, Satria, Wesia, and Sudra–ranked in descending order of prestige, and with the first three (called in Bali, Triwangsa–“the three peoples”) defining a spiritual patriciate over against the plebeian fourth. But in Bali the Varna System is not in itself a cultural device for making status discriminations but for correlating those already made by the title system. It summarizes the literally countless fine comparisons implicit in that system in a neat (from some points of view all-too-neat) separation of sheep from goats, and first-quality sheep from second, second from third. Men do not perceive one another as Satrias or Sudras but as, say, Dewas or Kebun Tubuhs, merely using the Satria-Sudra distinction to express generally, and for social organizational purposes, the order of contrast which is involved by identifying Dewa as a Satria title and Kebun Tubuh as a Sudra one. Varna categories are labels applied not to men, but to the titles they bear–they formulate the structure of the prestige system; titles, on the other hand, are labels applied to individual men–they place persons within that structure. To the degree that the Varna classification of titles is congruent with the actual distribution of power, wealth, and esteem in the society–that is, with the system of social stratification–the society is considered to be well ordered. The right sort of men are in the right sort of places: spiritual worth and social standing coincide.

This difference in function between title and Varna is clear from the way in which the symbolic forms associated with them are actually used. Among the Triwangsa gentry, where, some exceptions aside, teknonymy is not employed, an individual’s title is used as his or her main term of address and reference. One calls a man Ida Bagus, Njakan, or Gusi (not Brahmana, Satria, or Wesia) and refers to him by the same terms, sometimes adding a birth order name for more exact specification ( Ida Bagus Made, Njakan Njoman, and so forth). Among the Sudras, titles are used only referentially, never in address, and then mainly with respect to members of other hamlets than one’s own, where the person’s teknonym may not be known, or, if known, considered to be too familiar in tone to be used for someone not a hamletmate. Within the hamlet, the referential use of Sudra titles occurs only when prestige status information is considered relevant (“Father-of-Joe is a Kedisan, and thus ‘lower’ than we Pande,” and so on), while address is, of course, in terms of teknonyms. Across hamlet lines, where, except between close friends, teknonyms fall aside, the most common term of address is Djero. Literally, this means “inside” or “insider,” thus a member of the Triwangsa, who are considered to be “inside,” as against the Sudras, who are “outside” (Djaba); but in this context it has the effect of saying, “In order to be polite, I am addressing you as though you were a Triwangsa, which you are not (if you were, I would call you by your proper title), and I expect the same pretense from you in return.” As for Varna terms, they are used, by Triwangsa and Sudra alike, only in conceptualizing the overall prestige hierarchy in general terms, a need which usually appears in connection with transhamlet political, sacerdotal, or stratificatory matters: “The kings of Klungkung are Satrias, but those of Tabanan only Wesias,” or “There are lots of rich Brahmanas in Sanur, which is why the Sudras there have so little to say about hamlet affairs,” and so on.

The Varna System thus does two things. It connects up a series of what appear to be ad hoc and arbitrary prestige distinctions, the titles, with Hinduism, or the Balinese version of Hinduism, thus rooting them in a general world view. And it interprets the implications of that world view, and therefore the titles, for social organization: the prestige gradients implicit in the title system ought to be reflected in the actual distribution of wealth, power, and esteem in society, and, in fact, be completely coincident with it. The degree to which this coincidence actually obtains is, of course, moderate at best. But, however many exceptions there may be to the rule–Sudras with enormous power, Satrias working as tenant farmers, Brahmanas neither esteemed nor estimable–it is the rule and not the exceptions that the Balinese regard as truly illuminating the human condition. The Varna System orders the title system in such a way as to make it possible to view social life under the aspect of a general set of cosmological notions: notions in which the diversity of human talent and the workings of historical process are regarded as superficial phenomena when compared with the location of persons in a system of standardized status categories, as blind to individual character as they are immortal.

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