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Home » Religion

Through the Eyes of Researcher: Traditional Balinese Religion  

by on Thursday, 4 June 2009One Comment | 2,573 views


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

As the Balinese are, in a broad sense, Hindus, one might expect that a significant part, at least, of their religious life would be relatively well rationalized, that over and above the usual torrent of popular religiosity there would exist a developed system of either ethical or mystical theology. Yet this is not the case. A number of overintellectualized descriptions of it to the contrary notwithstanding, Balinese religion, even among the priests, is concrete, action-centered, thoroughly interwoven with the details of everyday life, and touched with little, if any, of the philosophical sophistication or generalized concern of classical Brahmanism or its Buddhist offshoot. Its approach to the problems of meaning remains implicit, circumscribed and segmental. The world is still enchanted and (some recent stirrings aside for the moment) the tangled net of magical realism is almost completely intact, broken only here and there by individual qualms and reflections.

How far this absence of a developed body of doctrine is a result of the persistence of the indigenous (that is, pre-Hindu) element, of the relative isolation of Bali from the outside world after the fifteenth century or so and the consequent parochialization of its culture, or of the rather unusual degree to which Balinese social structure has been able to maintain a solidly traditional form, is a moot question. In Java, where the pressure of external influences has been relentless, and where traditional social structure has lost much of its resilience, not just one but several relatively well-rationalized systems of belief and worship have developed, giving a conscious sense of religious diversity, conflict, and perplexity still quite foreign to Bali. Thus, if one comes, as I did, to Bali after having worked in Java, it is the near total absence of either doubt or dogmatism, the metaphysical nonchalance, that almost immediately strikes one. That, and the astounding proliferation of ceremonial activity. The Balinese, perpetually weaving intricate palm-leaf offerings, preparing elaborate ritual meals, decorating all sorts of temples, marching in massive processions, and falling into sudden trances, seem much too busy practicing their religion to think (or worry) very much about it.

Yet, again, to say that Balinese religion is not methodically ordered is not to say that it is not ordered at all. Not only is it pervaded with a consistent, highly distinctive tone (a kind of sedulous theatricalism which only extended description could evoke), but the elements which comprise it cluster into a number of relatively well-defined ritual complexes which exhibit, in turn, a definite approach to properly religious issues no less reasonable for being implicit. Of these, three are of perhaps greatest importance: (1) the temple system; (2) the sanctification of social inequality; and (3) the cult of death and witches. As the relevant ethnographic details are readily available in the literature, my description of these complexes can be cursory.

The temple system is a type example of the wholesale fashion in which the diverse strands of a traditional religion twine themselves through the social structure within which they are set. Though all the temples, of which there are literally thousands, are built on a generally similar open-court plan, each is entirely focused on one or another of a number of quite specifically defined concerns: death, neighborhood patriotism, kin-group solidarity, agricultural fertility, caste pride, political loyalty, and so on. Every Balinese belongs to from two or three to a dozen such temples; and, as the congregation of each is composed of those families who happen to use the same graveyard, live in the same neighborhood, farm the same fields, or have other links, such memberships and the heavy ritual obligations they involve buttress rather directly the sort of social relationships out of which Balinese daily life is built.
The religious forms associated with the various temples, like the architecture broadly similar from temple to temple, are almost wholly ceremonial in nature. Beyond a minimal level, there is almost no interest in doctrine, or generalized interpretation of what is going on, at all. The stress is on orthopraxy, not orthodoxy–what is crucial is that each ritual detail should be correct and in place. If one is not, a member of the congregation will fall, involuntarily, into a trance, becoming thereby the chosen messenger of the gods, and will refuse to revive until the error, announced in his ravings, has been corrected. But the conceptual side is of much less moment: the worshippers usually don’t even know who the gods in the temples are, are uninterested in the meaning of the rich symbolism, and are indifferent to what others may or may not believe. You can believe virtually anything you want to actually, including that the whole thing is rather a bore, and even say so. But if you do not perform the ritual duties for which you are responsible you will be totally ostracized, not just from the temple congregation, but from the community as a whole.
Even the execution of ceremonies has an oddly externalized air about it. The main such ceremony occurs on each temple’s “birthday,” every 210 days, at which time the gods descend from their homes atop the great volcano in the center of the island, enter iconic figurines placed on an altar in the temple, remain three days, and then return. On the day of their arrival the congregation forms a gay parade, advancing to meet them at the edge of the village, welcoming them with music and dance, and escorting them to the temple where they are further entertained; on the day of their departure they are sent off with a similar, though sadder, more restrained procession. But most of the ritual between the first and the last day is performed by the temple priest alone, the congregation’s main obligation being to construct tremendously complex offerings and bring them to the temple. There is, on the first day, an important collective ritual at which holy water is sprinkled on members of the congregation as, palms to forehead, they make the classic Hindu obeisance gesture to the gods. But even in this seemingly sacramental ceremony only one member of the household need participate, and it is usually a woman or an adolescent who is so delegated, the men being generally unconcerned so long as a few drops of the charmed water falls protectively upon some representative of their family.

The sanctification of social inequality centers on the one hand around the Brahmana priesthood and on the other around the enormous ceremonies which the dozens of kings, princes, and lordlings of Bali give to express and reinforce their ascendency. In Bali, the symbolization of social inequality, of rank, has always been the linchpin of supravillage political organization. From the very earliest stages, the primary moving forces in the process of state formation have been more stratificatory than political, have been concerned more with status than with statecraft. It was not a drive toward higher levels of administrative, fiscal, or even military efficiency that acted as the fundamental dynamic element in the shaping of the Balinese polity, but rather an intense emphasis on the ceremonial expression of delicately graduated distinctions in social standing. Governmental authority was made to rest, secondarily and quite precariously, on more highly valued prestige differences between social strata; and the actual mechanisms of political control through which an authoritarian oligarchy exercises its power were much less elaborately developed than were those through which a traditional cultural elite demonstrates its spiritual superiority–that is, state ritual, court art, and patrician etiquette.
Thus, where the temples are primarily associated with egalitarian village groups–perhaps the fundamental structural principle around which they are organized is that within the temple context all differences in social rank between members of the congregation are irrelevant –the priesthood and the spectacular ceremonies of the upper caste tie gentry and peasantry together into relationships that are frankly asymmetrical.
While any male member of the Brahmana caste is eligible to become a priest, only a minority undertake the extended period of training and purification that is prerequisite to actual practice in the role. Though it has no organization as such, each priest operating independently, the priesthood as a whole is very closely identified with the nobility. The ruler and the priest are said to stand side by side as “full brothers.” Each without the other would fall, the first for lack of charismatic potency, the second for lack of armed protection. Even today, each noble house has a symbiotic tie with a particular priestly house which is considered to be its spiritual counterpart, and in the precolonial period not only were the royal courts largely manned by priests, but no priest could be consecrated without permission of the local ruler and no ruler legitimately installed except by a priest.
On the commoner or lower-caste side each priest “owns” a number of followers, allotted to his house at one point or another by this or that noble house and subsequently inherited from generation to generation. These followers are scattered, if not altogether randomly, at least very widely–say three in one village, four in the next, several more in a third, and so on–the reason for this practice evidently being a wish on the part of the nobility to keep the priesthood politically weak. Thus, in any one village a man and his neighbor will ordinarily be dependent upon different priests for their religious needs, the most important of which is the obtaining of holy water, an element essential not just for temple ceremonies but for virtually all important rituals. Only a Brahmana priest can address the gods directly in order to sanctify water, as only he has, as the result of his ascetic regimen and his caste purity, the spiritual strength to traffic safely with the tremendous magical power involved. The priests are thus more professional magicians than true priests: they do not serve the divine nor elucidate it, but, through the agency of ill-understood sanskritic chants and beautifully stylized sacred gestures, they utilize it.
A priest’s followers refer to him as their siwa, after the god by whom he is possessed during the entranced portions of his rite, and he refers to them as his sisija, roughly “clients”; and in such a way the hierarchical social differentiation into upper and lower castes is symbolically assimilated to the spiritual contrast between priests and ordinary men. The other means through which rank is given religious expression and support, the prodigious ceremonies of the nobility, employs an institution of political rather than ritual clientage–corvée–to underscore the legitimacy of radical social inequality. Here, it is not the content of the ceremonial activity which is important, but the fact that one is in a position to mobilize the human resources to produce such an extravaganza at all.
Usually focused around life-cycle events (tooth-filing, cremation), these ceremonies involve the collective efforts of great masses of subjects, dependents, etc., over a considerable stretch of time, and form, therefore, not just the symbol but the very substance of political loyalty and integration. In precolonial times the preparation and performance of such grand spectacles seem to have consumed more time and energy than all other state activities, including warfare, put together, and so, in a sense, the political system can be said to have existed to support the ritual system, rather than the other way round. And, despite colonialism, occupation, war, and independence, the pattern in great part persists–the gentry is still, in Cora Du Bois’s fine phrase, “the symbolic expression of the peasantry’s greatness,” and the peasantry, still the lifeblood of the gentry’s pretensions.

The cult of death and witches is the “dark” side of Balinese religion, and, though it penetrates into virtually every corner of daily life, adding an anxious note to the otherwise equable tenor of existence, it finds its most direct and vivid expression in the ecstatic ritual combat of those two strange mythological figures: Rangda and Barong. In Rangda, monstrous queen of the witches, ancient widow, used-up prostitute, child-murdering incarnation of the goddess of death, and, if Margaret Mead is correct, symbolic projection of the rejecting mother, the Balinese have fashioned a powerful image of unqualified evil. In Barong, a vaguely benign and slightly ludicrous deity, who looks and acts like a cross between a clumsy bear, a foolish puppy, and a strutting Chinese dragon, they have constructed an almost parodic representation of human strength and weakness. That in their headlong encounters these two demons, each saturated with that mana-like power the Balinese call sakti, arrive inevitably at an exact stand-off is therefore not without a certain ultimate significance for all its magical concreteness.

The actual enactments of the battle between Rangda and Barong usually, though not inevitably, take place during a death temple’s “birthday” ceremony. One villager (a man) dances Rangda, donning the fierce mask and repulsive costume; two others, arranged fore and aft as in a vaudeville horse, dance the elegant Barong. Both entranced, the hag and dragon advance warily from opposite sides of the temple yard amid curses, threats, and growing tension. At first Barong fights alone, but soon members of the audience begin falling involuntarily into trance, seizing krisses, and rushing to his aid. Rangda advances toward Barong and his helpers, waving her magical cloth. She is hideous and terrifying, and, although they hate her with a terrible rage and want to destroy her, they fall back. When she, held at bay by Barong’s sakti, then turns away, she suddenly becomes irresistibly attractive (at least so my informants reported) and they advance on her eagerly from the rear, sometimes even trying to mount her from behind; but, with a turn of her head and a touch of her cloth, they fall helpless into a coma. Finally she withdraws from the scene, undefeated, but at least checked, and Barong’s desperately frustrated assistants burst into wild self-destructive rages, turning their krisses (ineffectively, because they are in trance) against their chests, desperately hurling themselves about, devouring live chicks, and so on. From the long moment of tremulous expectancy which precedes the initial appearance of Rangda to this final dissolution into an orgy of futile violence and degradation, the whole performance has a most uncomfortable air of being about to descend at any moment into sheer panic and wild destruction. Evidently it never does, but the alarming sense of touch-and-go, with the diminishing band of the entranced desperately attempting to keep the situation minimally in hand, is altogether overwhelming, even for a mere observer. The razor-thin dimensions of the line dividing reason from unreason, eros from thanatos, or the divine from the demonic, could hardly be more effectively dramatized.

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