Religion and the Culture of Bali

typical meru-roofed temple on mountain lake
The foundations of Bali's rich cultural tradition are firmly rooted in its unique religious heritage. The early immigrants, who arrived by sea and settled along the north coast some two-and-a-half millennia ago, brought with them beliefs that still echo through the ages to the present day. Essentially animist, they worshipped the forces of nature and the spirits resident in rocks, trees and dark, mysterious river gorges. They also brought elaborate funerary practices and a reverence for departed, deified ancestors. 

statues in Krebin Langit cave temple Archaeological excavations at Sembiran and Jula reveal that traders from India, carried to-and-fro on seasonal monsoon winds, began to make regular visits to Bali about two thousand years ago, bringing with them fresh ideas and beliefs. Through this casual contact, elements of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy were introduced, along with new notions of kingship and government. Gradually these alien concepts were assimilated and integrated into Balinese society, where they continued to evolve independently, although supplemented periodically by ritual practices imported from neighbouring Java. 

The remarkable strength of Balinese religious and political institutions enabled the island to withstand successfully the rising tide of Islam as it engulfed most other islands of the Indonesian archipelago. To survive, the rich and stately Hindu courts of Majapahit East Java were forced to seek refuge in nearby Bali, bringing with them refined concepts of government and religious observance. It is from this golden age of enforced blending, which reached its climax in the early sixteenth century, that the unique features of Balinese culture and religion have been directly inherited. 

demonic mask Recognising that good cannot exist without evil, the Balinese seek to maintain a balance between the two. The visible human world is matched by an invisible parallel pantheon of spirits, both good and evil. For equilibrium to be maintained, both benign and malignant influences must be placated and honoured with offerings. Consequently, life in Bali is regulated by an unending calendar of complex ceremonial, both private and public. 

The island itself belongs to the gods, and the Balinese see themselves simply as temporary caretakers, just as the body is regarded as a temporary home for the soul as it progresses step by step through successive reincarnations towards ultimate perfection or moksa. In death the soul must be released in preparation for its impending return in a newborn member of the family. Its ultimate fate will depend on the karma accumulated during life. 

It is the outward manifestations of these beliefs — temple processions, elaborate offerings and mass cremations — that captivate, enthral and puzzle visitors. For the Balinese, proper observance of involved and demanding rituals is a matter, literally, of life and death. All misfortune, great or small, can usually be traced (with priestly help) to either demonic interference or some breach of proper ritual. In either case, further offerings and cleansing ceremonies will be needed. 

When visitors to Bali see the great outpouring of artistic creativity — carving, painting, music, dance, theatre and more — they are surprised to discover that the language possesses no word for art. For the Balinese, this creativity has no meaning in itself, for it is intended solely for pleasure of the gods, and its merit lies in the act of creation, rather than in the finished product. Nowhere is this more apparent than in cremation ceremonies. Families – even highborn families – often wait years to cremate a relative while sufficient funds are gathered. The more spectacular the send-off, the more sumptuous the decorations and offerings, the better the soul of the departed will fare, and the more kudos accrue to the living. Preparations for a cremation can last for months, as friends, family and retainers create a mountain of offerings. Within a few minutes, all is reduced to ashes, but in the very act of their creation, the offerings have served their purpose. 

women in procession carying offerings to the temple It has only been since the advent of western tourism that a commercial market for art has developed — leading to the mass production of shoddy carved and painted souvenirs. Today many shadow puppet and dance performances in tourist centres have been abbreviated and adapted to appeal to western visitors. However debased they may appear to the purist, they have not lost their primary function, for the money raised by such performances goes not to the individual dancers and musicians, but to the purchase of ever richer costumes and instruments to embellish temple ceremonies. The innumerable temples of Bali serve primarily as a stage to which the gods are periodically invited down to be regaled with music, dance and offerings. But they also serve another function. Through dance and drama children absorb the traditional moral precepts imparted by the epic stories of the Mahabharata and Ramayana 

Balinese society, based on family, community and cooperation within an all-encompassing religious framework, has to a large extent successfully withstood the powerful impact of negative western values fostered by mass tourism. Ubiquitous television, however, posses a growing threat. 

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Last Update: 20/09/05
Web Author: Arachne Enterprises
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