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Home » Guides, Religion

Through the Eyes of Researcher: The Rationalization of Balinese Religion  

by on Sunday, 14 June 2009No Comment | 1,260 views

Here is an interesting excerpt on Rationalization of Balinese religion from Clifford Geertz’s article entitled “”Internal Conversion” in Contemporary Bali”.

Except for a few odd sports of limited consequence such as Bahai or Mormonism (and leaving aside, as equivocal cases, the so-called political religions such as Communism and Fascism), no new rationalized world religions have arisen since Mohammed. Consequently, almost all of the tribal and peasant peoples of the world who have shed, to whatever degree, the husk of their traditional faiths since that time, have done so through conversion to one or another of the great missionary religions–Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. For Bali, however, such a course seems precluded. Christian missionaries have never made much progress on the island and, connected as they are with the discredited colonial regime, their chances would now seem poorer than ever. Nor are the Balinese likely to become Muslims in large numbers, despite the general Islamism of Indonesia. They are, as a people, intensely conscious and painfully proud of being a Hindu island in a Muslim sea, and their attitude toward Islam is that of the duchess to the bug. To become either Christian or Muslim would be tantamount, in their eyes, to ceasing to be Balinese, and, indeed, an occasional individual who is converted is still considered, even by the most tolerant and sophisticated, to have abandoned not just Balinese religion but Bali, and perhaps reason, itself. Both Christianity and Islam may influence further religious developments on the island; but they have virtually no chance of controlling them.


Yet, that a comprehensive shaking of the foundations of the Balinese social order is, if not already begun, in the very immediate offing, is apparent on all sides. The emergence of the unitary Republic and the enclosure of Bali as a component within it has brought modern education, modern governmental forms, and modern political consciousness to the island. Radically improved communications have brought increased awareness of, and contact with, the outside world, and provided novel criteria against which to measure the worth both of their own culture and that of others. And inexorable internal changes–increased urbanization, growing population pressure, and so on–have made maintenance of traditional systems of social organization in unchanged form progressively more difficult. What happened in Greece or China after the fifth century B.C.–the disenchantment of the world–seems about to happen, in an altogether different historical context and with an altogether different historical meaning, in mid-twentieth century Bali.

Unless, as is of course a real possibility, events move too fast for them to maintain their cultural heritage at all, the Balinese seem likely to rationalize their religious system through a process of “internal conversion.” Following, generally and not uncritically, the guidelines of the Indian religions to which they have been so long nominally affiliated, but from whose doctrinal spirit they have been almost wholly cut off, they seem on the verge of producing a self-conscious “Bali-ism” which, in its philosophical dimensions, will approach the world religions both in the generality of the questions it asks and in the comprehensiveness of the answers it gives.

The questions, at least, are already being asked; particularly by the youth. Among the educated or semieducated young men of eighteen to thirty who formed the ideological vanguard of the Revolution, there have appeared scattered but distinct signs of a conscious interest in spiritual issues of a sort which still seem largely meaningless to their elders or their less engagés contemporaries.

For example, one night, at a funeral in the village where I was living, a full-scale philosophical discussion of such issues broke out among eight or ten young men squatted around the courtyard “guarding” the corpse. As the other aspects of traditional Balinese religion which I have described, funeral ceremonies consist largely of a host of detailed little busy-work routines, and whatever concern with first and last things death may stimulate is well submerged in a bustling ritualism. But these young men, who involved themselves but minimally in all this, the necessary observances being mostly performed by their elders, fell spontaneously into a searching discussion of the nature of religion as such.

At first they addressed themselves to a problem which has haunted the religious and the students of religion alike: how can you tell where secular custom leaves off and religion, the truly sacred, begins? Are all the items in the detailed funeral rite really necessary homage to the gods, genuinely sacred matters? Or are many simply human customs performed out of blind habit and tradition? And, if so, how can you differentiate the one from the other?

One man offered the notion that practices which were clearly connected with grouping people together, strengthening their bonds with one another–for example, the communal construction of the corpse litter by the village as a whole, or the kin-group’s preparation of the body –were custom, and so not sacred, while those connected directly with the gods–the family obeisance to the spirit of the deceased, the purification of the body with holy water, and so on–were properly religious. Another argued that those elements which appeared generally in ritual observances, which you find virtually everywhere, from birth to death, in the temples and at the Rangda plays (again, holy water is a good example), were religious, but those which occurred only here and there, or were limited to one or two rites, were not.

Then the discussion veered, as such discussions will, to the grounds of validity for religion as such. One man, somewhat Marxist-influenced, propounded social relativism: when in Rome do as the Romans do, a phrase he quoted in its Indonesian form. Religion is a human product. Man thought up God and then named him. Religion is useful and valuable, but it has no supernatural validity. One man’s faith is another man’s superstition. At bottom, everything comes down to mere custom.

This was greeted with universal disagreement, disapproval, and dismay. In response, the son of the village head offered a simple, nonrational belief position. Intellectual arguments are totally irrelevant. He knows in his heart that the gods exist. Faith is first, thought secondary. The truly religious person, such as himself, just knows that the gods truly come into the temples–he can feel their presence. Another man, more intellectually inclined, erected, more or less on the spot, a complex allegorical symbology to solve the problem. Tooth-filing symbolizes man becoming more like the gods and less like the animals, who have fangs. This rite means this, that that; this color stands for justice, that for courage, etc. What seems meaningless is full of hidden meaning, if only you have the key. A Balinese cabalist. Yet another man, more agnostic, though not a disbeliever, produced the golden mean for us. You can’t really think about these things because they don’t lie within human comprehension. We just don’t know. The best policy is a conservative one–believe just about half of everything you hear. That way you won’t go overboard.

And so it went through a good part of the night. Clearly these young men, all of whom (save the village chiefs son who was a government clerk in a nearby town) were peasants and smiths, were better Weberians than they knew. They were concerned on the one hand with segregating religion from social life in general, and on the other with trying to close the gap between this world and the other, between secular and sacred, which was thus opened up, by means of some sort of deliberately systematic attitude, some general commitment. Here is the crisis of faith, the breaking of the myths, the shaking of the foundations in a pretty unvarnished form.

The same sort of new seriousness is beginning to appear, here and there, in liturgical contexts as well. In a number of the temple ceremonies–particularly those at which, as is increasingly the case, a Brahmana priest officiates directly rather than, as has been customary, merely providing holy water for the use of the low-caste temple priest –there is appearing an almost pietistic fervor on the part of some of the young male (and a few of the young female) members of the congregation. Rather than permitting but one member of their family to participate for all in the genuflexion to the gods, they all join in, crowding toward the priest so as to have more holy water sprinkled on them. Rather than the context of screaming children and idly chatting adults within which this sacrament usually takes place, they demand, and get, a hushed and reverent atmosphere. They talk, afterward, about the holy water not in magical but emotionalist terms, saying that their inward unease and uncertainty is “cooled” by the water as it falls upon them, and they too speak of feeling the gods’ presence directly and immediately. Of all this, the older and the more traditional can make little; they look on it, as they themselves say, like a cow looking at a gamelan orchestra–with an uncomprehending, bemused (but in no way hostile) astonishment.

Such rationalizing developments on the more personal level demand, however, a comparable sort of rationalization at the level of dogma and creed if they are to be sustained. And this is in fact occurring, to a limited extent, through the agency of several recently established publishing firms which are attempting to put scholarly order into the classical palm-leaf literature upon which the Brahmana priesthoods’ claim to learning rests, to translate it into modern Balinese or Indonesian, to interpret it in moral-symbolic terms, and to issue it in cheap editions for the increasingly literate masses. These firms are also publishing translations of Indian works, both Hindu and Buddhist, are importing theosophical books from Java, and have even issued several original works by Balinese writers on the history and significance of their religion.

It is, again, the young educated men who for the most part buy these books, but they often read them aloud at home to their families. The interest in them, especially in the old Balinese manuscripts, is very great, even on the part of quite traditional people. When I bought some books of this sort and left them around our house in the village, our front porch became a literary center where groups of villagers would come and sit for hours on end and read them to one another, commenting now and then on their meaning, and almost invariably remarking that it was only since the Revolution that they had been permitted to see such writings, that in the colonial period the upper castes prevented their dissemination altogether. This whole process represents, thus, a spreading of religious literacy beyond the traditional priestly castes–for whom the writings were in any case more magical esoterica than canonical scriptures–to the masses, a vulgarization, in the root sense, of religious knowledge and theory. For the first time, at least a few ordinary Balinese are coming to feel that they can get some understanding of what their religion is all about; and more important, that they have a need for and a right to such understanding.

Against such a background, it might seem paradoxical that the main force behind this religious literacy and philosophical-moral interpretation movement is the nobility, or part of it, that it is certain, again generally younger, members of the aristocracy who are collating and translating the manuscripts and founding the firms to publish and distribute them.

But the paradox is only an apparent one. As I have noted, much of the nobility’s traditional status rested on ceremonial grounds; a great part of the traditional ceremonial activity was designed so as to produce an almost reflexive acceptance of their eminence and right to rule. But today this simple assumption of eminence is becoming increasingly difficult. It is being undermined by the economic and political changes of Republican Indonesia and by the radically populist ideology which has accompanied these changes. Though a good deal of large-scale ceremonialism still persists on Bali, and though the ruling class continues to express its claim to superiority, in terms of ritual extravagance, the day of the colossal cremation and the titanic tooth-filing seems to be drawing to a close.

To the more perceptive of the aristocracy the handwriting on the wall is thus quite clear: if they persist in basing their right to rule on wholly traditional grounds they will soon lose it. Authority now demands more than court ceremonialism to justify it; it demands “reasons”–that is, doctrine. And it is doctrine that they are attempting to provide through reinterpreting classical Balinese literature and re-establishing intellectual contact with India. What used to rest on ritual habit is now to rest on rationalized dogmatic belief. The main concerns upon which the content of the “new” literature focuses–the reconciliation of polytheism and monotheism, the weighing of the relative importance of “Hindu” and “Balinese” elements in “Hindu-Balinese” religion, the relation of outward form to inward content in worship, the tracing of the historico-mythological origins of caste rankings, and so on–all serve to set the traditional hierarchical social system in an explicitly intellectual context. The aristocracy (or part of it) have cast themselves in the role of the leaders of the new Bali-ism so as to maintain their more general position of social dominance.

To see in all this a mere Machiavellianism, however, would be to give the young nobles both too much credit and too little. Not only are they at best partially conscious of what they are doing, but, like my village theologians, they too are at least in part religiously rather than politically motivated. The transformations which the “new Indonesia” has brought have hit the old élite as hard as any other group in Balinese society by questioning the foundations of their belief in their own vocation and thus their view of the very nature of reality in which they conceive that vocation to be rooted. Their threatened displacement from power appears to them as not just a social but a spiritual issue. Their sudden concern with dogma is, therefore, in part a concern to justify themselves morally and metaphysically, not only in the eyes of the mass of the population but in their own, and to maintain at least the essentials of the established Balinese world view and value system in a radically changed social setting. Like so many other religious innovators, they are simultaneously reformists and restorationists.

Aside from the intensification of religious concern and the systematization of doctrine, there is a third side to this process of rationalization –the social-organizational. If a new “Bali-ism” is to flourish, it needs not only a popular change of heart and an explicit codification, but a more formally organized institutional structure in which it can be socially embodied. This need, essentially an ecclesiastical one, is coming to revolve around the problem of the relation of Balinese religion to the national state, in particular around its place–or lack thereof–in the Republican Ministry of Religion.

The Ministry, which is headed by a full cabinet member, is centered in Djakarta, but has offices scattered over much of the country. It is entirely dominated by Muslims, and its main activities are building mosques, publishing Indonesian translations of the Koran and commentaries, appointing Muslim marriage-closers, supporting Koranic schools, disseminating information about Islam, and so on. It has an elaborate bureaucracy, in which there are special sections for Protestants and Catholics (who largely boycott it anyway on separatist grounds) as distinct religions. But Balinese religion is thrown into the general residual category perhaps best translated as “wild”–that is, pagan, heathen, primitive, etc.–the members of which have no genuine rights in, or aid from, the Ministry. These “wild” religions are considered, in the classical Muslim distinction between “peoples of the Book” and “religions of ignorance,” as threats to true piety and fair game for conversion.

The Balinese naturally take a dim view of this and have constantly petitioned Djakarta for equal recognition with Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam as a fourth major religion. President Sukarno, himself half-Balinese, and many other national leaders sympathize, but they cannot, as yet, afford to alienate the politically powerful orthodox Muslims and so have vacillated, giving little effective support. The Muslims say that the adherents of Balinese Hinduism are all in one place, unlike the Christians who are scattered all over Indonesia; the Balinese point out that there are Balinese communities in Djakarta and elsewhere in Java, as well as in south Sumatra (transmigrants), and instance the recent erection of Balinese temples in east Java. The Muslims say, you have no Book, how can you be a world religion? The Balinese reply, we have manuscripts and inscriptions dating from before Mohammed. The Muslims say, you believe in many gods and worship stones; the Balinese say, God is One but has many names and the “stone” is the vehicle of God, not God himself. A few of the more sophisticated Balinese even claim that the real reason why the Muslims are unwilling to admit them to the Ministry is the fear that if “Bali-ism” were to become an officially recognized religion, many Javanese, who are Islamic in name only and still very Hindu-Buddhist in spirit, would convert, and “Baliism” would grow rapidly at the expense of Islam.

In any case, there is an impasse. And, as a result, the Balinese have set up their own independent, locally financed “Ministry of Religion,” and are attempting through it to reorg

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