Balinese Religion

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BALINESE RELIGION . Eight degrees south of the equator, toward the middle of the belt of islands that form the southern arc of the Indonesian archipelago, lies the island of Bali, home of the last surviving Hindu-Buddhist civilization of Indonesia. A few kilometers to the west of Bali is the island of Java, where major Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms flourished from the time of Borobudur (eighth century) until the end of the sixteenth century, when the last Javanese Hindu kingdom fell to Islam. Just to the east of Bali is the Wallace Line, a deep ocean channel marking the biogeographical frontier between Asia and the Pacific. The Wallace Line is also a cultural frontier: journeying eastward from Bali, one leaves the zone of historical Asian civilizations and enters a region of tribal peoples. Bali is the last stepping-stone from Asia to the Pacific.

The preservation of Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms on Bali centuries after their disappearance elsewhere in the region is largely the result of geography. The island is not only remote but quite small172 kilometers east-west by 102 kilometers north-south. The fertile valleys that form the heartland of Balinese civilization face southward, toward a largely untraveled sea. Behind them lies an arc of steep jungle-covered mountains, a natural barrier to Java and the busy seas to the north. Balinese kingdoms nestled along the south coast, each of them so tiny that a man could easily ride across an entire "kingdom" in half a day on horseback. The Balinese attitude toward the world beyond their shores is nicely illustrated by the complaints of the first European ambassadors to Bali, who frequently could not even obtain an audience with a Balinese princethe Balinese were simply too preoccupied with their own affairs!

Sources of Balinese Religion

Evidence for the nature of prehistoric Balinese religion comes from three sources: archaeology, historical linguistics, and comparative ethnography. Linguistically, Balinese belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian language family, itself derived from Proto-Austronesian, which is thought to have been spoken by Southeast Asian peoples around six thousand years ago. Proto-Austronesian-speakers on Bali had words for many religious concepts: nature gods, such as a sky god; ancestral spirits (who were probably thought to inhabit mountaintops); a human soul, or perhaps multiple souls; and shamanistic trance. Such beliefs and practices remain widespread in Indonesia, reflecting the influence of Malayo-Polynesian culture. The vocabulary of Proto-Austronesian reflects a Neolithic culture; the advent of the Metal Age in Bali is marked by a magnificent bronze kettledrum, the "Moon of Pejeng." Stylistically related to similar "Dong-son" drums found over much of eastern Indonesia and Vietnam, the Balinese drum is distinguished by its large size (186 × 150 cm) and splendid ornamentation. The discovery of a casting mold used to make the drum in a nearby village proved that the drum was created by indigenous Balinese metalsmiths, some time between the second century bce and the second century ce.

Fifty-three stone sarcophagi, tentatively dated to the same era as the "Moon of Pejeng," provide additional evidence for a sophisticated Metal Age culture in Bali with well-developed social ranking and elaborate funerary rituals. Hewn from stone with bronze tools and ornamented with protruding knobs decorated with stylized human heads, they contain human skeletons of both sexes along with bronze arm and foot rings, carnelian beads, and miniature socketed bronze shovels. Even more impressive are the stepped stone pyramids of this era, reminiscent of Polynesian marae, which apparently served as temples to the ancestors and nature gods, and perhaps also as monuments for important chiefs. Thus, by the first millennium ce Balinese society was organized into sedentary villages ruled by chiefs. The major economic occupation was wet-rice agriculture, supported by small-scale irrigation. The economy supported craft specialists, such as metalworkers and builders of megaliths.

Sometime in the early first millennium of the common era, Bali came into contact with Indian civilization and thus with the Hindu and Buddhist religions. The nature of this contact and the ensuing process of "indianization" has long been a subject of scholarly debate. At one extreme, J. C. van Leur maintained that "hinduization" was wholly initiated by Southeast Asian rulers who summoned Indian brahmans to their courts, creating merely a "thin and flaking glaze" of Indic culture among the elite (van Leur, 1955). At the other extreme, R. C. Majumdar postulated wholesale colonization of Southeast Asia by Indian exiles. Between these two poles, nearly every conceivable intermediate position has been staked out, and there is as yet no consensus as to which is most likely, although there is no persuasive evidence for large-scale colonization by Indian exiles (Majumdar, 1963).

In Bali, the first clear indication of "indianization" is entirely of a religious nature, consisting of several sorts of physical evidence: stone sculptures, clay seals and ritual apparatus, and a series of stone and copperplate inscriptions. The sculptures closely resemble Central Javanese sculptures of the same era (both Hindu and Buddhist), while the clay seals contain Mahāyāna formulas duplicated in the eighth-century Javanese temple Candi Kalasan. However, it is important to note that these objects show no evidence of Javanese influence (whether conceptual or stylistic); they are obviously Indian and seem to have appeared in both Java and Bali at about the same time.

The first inscriptions appear in the ninth century ce and are the earliest written texts discovered in Bali. They were written by court scribes in two languages, Sanskrit and Old Balinese, using an Indian alphabet. Inscriptions in Sanskrit proclaim the military triumphs of Balinese rulers, and were addressed to the (Indic) world at large. They are not unique to Bali, for similar inscriptions are found throughout the western archipelagomonuments intended to validate the authority of rulers in the idiom of Indian theories of kingship. Such validation was essential because of the cosmological significance of kings, according to the Hindu and Buddhist medieval traditions. Inscriptions in Old Balinese, by contrast, were addressed very specifically to particular villages or monasteries, and they document the interest of the rulers in supporting a variety of Hindu and Buddhist sects. To explain the process of indianization in Bali, it is tempting to postulate the conversion of a powerful Balinese chief to some Hindu or Buddhist sect, who then zealously promoted the new faith among his subjectsexcept that the inscriptions clearly reveal patronage for a multitude of sects. No single group was given precedence; all were encouraged, suggesting that a ruler's enthusiasm for Indian ideas went deeper than the doctrinal differences that divide sect from sect. The texts specifically mention Tantric and Mahāyāna Buddhism, the major schools of Śaiva Siddhānta and Vaiava Hinduism, and the cults of Sūrya and Gaeśa. Early sculptures include dhyāni Buddhas, Padmapāi (Avalokiteśvara) and Amoghapāśa, Viu on Garua, Viu as Narasiha, and Śiva in many forms including Ardhanāri, quadruplicated as the catukāya s, and accompanied by Durgā, Gaeśa, and Guru.

Most of the 250 known inscriptions, which date from the ninth through the fourteenth century, direct the inhabitants of particular villages to provide various kinds of assistance to the monks and monasteries, including taxes, hospitality, labor, and military defense against sea raiders. Through the inscriptions we can trace the development of an intricate web of ties linking indianized courts and Hindu and Buddhist monasteries to the villages. As early as 1073 ce, a royal inscription describes the population as divided into the four castes of the Indian vara system (brāhmaa, katriya, vaiśya, and śūdra ). The inscription is significant not as proof that the Balinese had managed to magically recreate the Hindu caste system, but as evidence of the ruler's desire to impose the Indian ideal of caste on his kingdom.

In time, the Balinese came to identify their own sacred mountain, Gunung Agung, with the mythical Mount Meru, center of the "Middle World" of Indic cosmology. The old Balinese nature gods were perhaps not so much nudged aside as reincorporated intothe new Indic pantheon. The great earth serpent Anantaboga was symbolically buried in the Balinese earth, his head beneath the crater lake of Batur near the island's center, his tail just touching the sea at Keramas. But the old gods were not entirely eclipsed. The most popular character of contemporary Balinese epics, and star of the shadow play (wayang ), is the ancient buffoon Twalen, who usually plays the servant of the Hindu gods. Like the Balinese themselves, he is pleased to serve the splendid Hindu gods. But in reality, as everyone knows, Twalen is older and more powerful than all the Hindu gods. From time to time in the stories, when the gods have gone too far astray, he ceases to play the aging buffoon and reveals his true powers as "elder brother" to Siwa (Skt., Śiva), the supreme Hindu god.

Living Traditions

At some time between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, the monastic tradition of Bali came to an end, and the various competing sects of Hinduism and Buddhism fused into what is now perceived as a single religion, called Bali Hindu or, more accurately, Āgama Tīrtha, the Religion of Holy Water. The vast majority of the Balinese adhere to this religion. Bali Hindu is officially sanctioned by the Indonesian government, which insists that all of its citizens belong to some recognized religion. Consequently, in recent years there has been some attempt to include tribal religions from other islands such as Sulawesi (Celebes) under the Bali-Hindu umbrella.

The ultimate source of religious knowledge for the Balinese remains ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts, some still written in Sanskrit, the majority in Kawi (Old Javanese) and Balinese. As in India, high priests are invariably brahmans who have studied this literature extensively. Various types of lesser priests are also recognized, belonging to the other castes, most of whom have made at least some study of the written sources for their religion. Some priests and healers do not go through a course of study but are instead "chosen by the gods" directly in trance rituals. Even these priests revere the palm leaf lontar manuscripts. All books, and the written word itself, are consecrated to the goddess of wisdom, Sarasvatī. She alone among the gods has no special shrines. Instead, on her festival day all books and libraries are given offerings for her, because they are her temples.

No one knows, as yet, how many manuscripts exist in Balinese libraries, but the number is certainly in the thousands. The entire literature of Classical Javanese, which eventually boasted over two hundred distinct metrical patterns and which flourished for a millennium, would have been lost to the world but for the painstaking efforts of generations of Balinese literati, who had to recopy the entire corpus onto fragile palm-leaf manuscripts about once each century. Western scholars have only begun to examine this vast and rich literary tradition.

In considering the significance of these texts for Balinese religion, it is important to pay attention to the ways in which they are read and used. The Balinese approach to the activity of reading, and the "life of texts in the world," is quite different from that of the modern West. Balinese "reading groups" (sekehe bebaosan ), for example, gather to read the ancient texts, either informally or to "embellish" a worthy gathering of people preparing for a ritual or temple festival. A reader intones a line from the text in its original language; if he strays from the correct metrical pattern, the line may have to be repeated. Then another reader will propose a spontaneous translation into modern colloquial Balinese. He pauses, in case anyone cares to suggest a better translation or a different interpretation. Once the meaning has been agreed upon, the first reader will recite the next line. The Balinese words for these "readings" are perhaps best rendered into English as "sounding" the texts, in both senses of turning letters into sounds, and searching for their meaning. "Sounding the texts" brings written order into the world, displaying the Logos that lies behind mundane reality. Words themselves may have intrinsic power, as is hinted in the poem that begins "Homage to the god who is the essence of written letters concealed in the dust of the poet's pencil."

Ritual Life

It is possible to participate fully in Balinese religion all one's life without reading a single line from a lontar manuscript. Moreover, one is never called upon to make a public declaration of faith, either in a particular god or the efficacy of a particular ritual. Religion, for the Balinese, consists in the performance of five related ritual cycles, called yajña. Broadly speaking, the five yajña are sacrifices, and thus founded on ancient brahmanic theology. However, the details of the yajña are unique to Bali. The five yajña are

  1. déwa yajña (sacrifices to the gods)
  2. būta yajña (sacrifices to the chthonic powers or "elements")
  3. manuia yajña (rites of passage)
  4. pit yajña (offerings to the dead)
  5. i yajña (consecration of priests)

Déwa yajña

Offerings to the gods (déwa yajña ) are made in temples. The importance of these temples goes far beyond what we usually think of as religion, for temples provide the basic framework of Balinese economic and social organization. Classical Bali was a civilization without cities, in which important institutions such as irrigation networks, kinship groups, or periodic markets were organized by specialized temple networks. Most of these temple networks continue to function today. For example, consider the "irrigation" or "water temples." Each link in an irrigation system, from the small canal feeding one farmer's fields to the head-waters of a river, has a shrine or temple. The festivals held in these temples determine the schedule of "water openings" (flooding of the fields) for fields downstream. Later festivals mark the major events of the farmer's calendar: planting, transplanting, appearance of the milky grain (panicle), pest control, and so forth. The rituals of water temples synchronize farming activities for farmers using the same irrigation canals, and perhaps more important, allow higher-level temples to stagger cropping cycles to maximize production and minimize pest damage.

In similar ways, the Balinese version of a Hindu caste system was organized through temple networksto belong to a caste translated into participating in the festivals of "caste temples," from the family shrine for the ancestors, through regional caste "branch temples," to the "origin temples" for whole castes or subcastes. Each Balinese temple has a specific purposeit is part of an institutional systemand draws its membership exclusively from members of that institution. A Balinese worships only in the temples of the institutions he belongs to, which usually amount to half a dozen or more, including village temples, kinship or caste temples, water temples, and perhaps others as well.

Physically, Balinese temples consist of open rectangular walled courtyards with a row of shrines at one end. This architectural plan owes more to ancient Malayo-Polynesian megalithic shrines than to Indian temple design, and within the temple, space is ordered along a continuum, also Malayo-Polynesian in origin.

The gods are not believed to be continuously present in the temples but to arrive for only a few days each year as invited guests to temple festivities.

Members of the congregation prepare the temple and bring offerings for the gods, "not merely a fruit and a flower," as Margaret Mead observed, "but hundreds of finely wrought and elaborately conceived offerings made of palm leaf and flowers, twisted, folded, stitched, embroidered, brocaded into myriad traditional forms and fancies" (Belo, 1970, p. 335). Priests invite the gods to descend into their shrines with incense, bells, and prayers in Sanskrit. Worshipers kneel and pray for a few seconds, flicking flower petals toward the shrines of the gods, and are rewarded with a blessing of holy water from a temple priest. The remainder of the festival, which may last for days, is occupied with artistic performances for the amusement both of the gods and the human congregation. It was these performances that led Noël Coward to complain that "It seems that each Balinese native / From the womb to the tomb is creative." Temple festivals adhere to rigid schedules, based on the extremely complex Balinese permutational calendar. The gods must appear on a particular day, and at a given moment they must depart. Since the gods partake only of the essence of their offerings, the end of a temple festival is the beginning of a feast, for each family retrieves its offerings and shares the edible portions with friends and clients.

Būta yajña

Būta, usually translated into English as "demon," actually is the Balinese version of the Sanskrit word for "element of nature" (bhūta ). It is therefore an oversimplification to describe the rituals of būta yajña as "demon offerings." Every important ritual, such as a temple festival, begins with būta yajña offerings as a purification or cleansing. Usually, these offerings require some form of blood sacrifice to satisfy the raw appetites of the elemental powers. All Balinese "demons" may take form either in the outer worlds (buana agung ) or the inner world of the self (buana alit ). A strong Tantric element in Balinese religion suggests that demons are essentially psychological projections but differs from Western psychology in insisting that "demonic" forces are part of the intrinsic constitution of both inner and outer reality.

Demons (būta ) are the raw elements from which the higher realities of consciousness and the world are created. If their energy is not contained, they quickly become destructive. The purpose of būta yajña may be made clearer by considering the supreme būta yajña ceremony, called Eka Dasa Rudra, last held in 1979. The year 1979 marked the beginning of a new century acccording to the Balinese Icaka calendar. In order for the new century to begin auspiciously, it was felt necessary to complete all unfinished būta rituals, such as cremations, and then hold a gigantic ceremony at Bali's supreme temple, Besakih, to transform all of the accumulated demonic energies of the prior century into divine energies, to begin a new cycle of civilization in a phase of growth rather than decline. Nearly all Balinese participated in the yearlong preparations for Eka Dasa Rudra, which climaxed at the moment the old century ended, in a ceremony at Besakih temple involving over 100,000 people.

Manuia yajña

Manuia yajña are rites of passage, fitted to the Balinese belief in reincarnation. Twelve days after birth, an infant is given a name, and offerings are made to the four birth spirits (kanda empat ) who have accompanied him. After three 35-day months, the child and his spirits are given new names, and the child's feet are allowed to touch the earth for the first time, since before this time he is considered still too close to the world of the gods. More offerings are made for the child's 210-day "birthday," at puberty, and finally in the climactic ceremony of tooth filing, which prepares the child for adulthood. The six upper canine teeth and incisors are filed slightly to make them more even, symbolically reducing the six human vices of lust (kāma ), anger (krodha ), greed (lobha ), error (moha ), intoxication (mada ), and jealousy (matsarya ). The manuia yajña cycle ends with the performance of the marriage ceremony.

Pit yajña

These rituals are the inverse of manuia yajña: they are the rituals of death and return to the world of the gods, performed by children for their parents. The Balinese believe that people are usually reincarnated into their own familiesin effect, as their own descendantsafter five or more generations. The rituals of preparing the corpse, preliminary burial, cremation, and purification of the soul ensure that the spirits of one's parents are freed from earthly attachments, are able to enter heaven, and eventually are able to seek rebirth. Cremation is regarded as a major responsibility, costly and emotionally charged since the cremation bier proclaims both the wealth and the caste status of the family of the deceased. After these rituals are completed, the souls of the departed are believed to begin to visit their family shrines, where they must receive regular offerings, so the pit yajña ritual cycle is never really finished.

i yajña

While the other four yajña involve everyone, the ceremonies of the consecration of priests (i yajña ) are the exclusive and esoteric provenance of the various priesthoods. In general, each "caste" has its own priests, although "high priests" (pedanda ) are invariably brahmans. Buddhist traditions are kept alive by a special sect of high priests called pedanda bodha. The greatest of the i yajña is the ceremony of consecration for a new pedanda, during which he must symbolically undergo his own funeral as a human being, to reemerge as a very special kind of being, a Balinese high priest.

See Also

Megalithic Religion, article on Historical Cultures; Music, article on Music and Religion in Southeast Asia; Southeast Asian Religions, article on Insular Cultures.


The most influential modern scholar of Balinese religion is Clifford Geertz. Several of his important essays are collected in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), and his analysis of cosmology and kingship is presented in Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton, 1980). Translations of Balinese texts on religions are provided in the many publications of Christiaan Hooykaas, including Cosmogony and Creation in Balinese Tradition (The Hague, 1974) and Surya-Sevana: The Way to God of a Balinese Siva Priest (Amsterdam, 1966). Many important essays from the 1930s by scholars such as Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson are collected in Traditional Balinese Culture, edited by Jane Belo (New York, 1970). Belo also provides excellent descriptive accounts in Bali: Temple Festival (Locust Valley, N.Y., 1953) and Trance in Bali (New York, 1960). Opposing theories on the "indianization" of Bali are presented in J. C. van Leur's Indonesian Trade and Society: Essays in Asian Social and Economic History (The Hague, 1955) and in R. C. Majumdar's Ancient Indian Colonization in South-East Asia (Calcutta, 1963). Rites of passage are nicely evoked in Katherine Edson Mershon's Seven Plus Seven: Mysterious Life-Rituals in Bali (New York, 1971). Many important articles by Dutch scholars of the colonial era have been translated into English in Bali: Studies in Life, Thought, and Ritual (The Hague, 1960) and a second volume entitled Bali: Further Studies in Life, Thought, and Ritual (The Hague, 1969), both edited by J. L. Swellengrebel.

One of the most delightful books describing the relationship of the performing arts to religion is Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies's Dance and Drama in Bali (1938; reprint, Oxford, 1973). A worthy successor is I. M. Bandem and Frederick De Boer's Kaja and Kelod: Balinese Dance in Transition (Oxford, 1981). Urs Ramseyer's survey of The Art and Culture of Bali (Oxford, 1977) is a beautifully illustrated encyclopedia of Balinese religious art by a Swiss anthropologist. My Three Worlds of Bali (New York, 1983) provides an introduction to the role of religion and art in shaping the evolution of Balinese society.

New Sources

Barth, Fredrik. Balinese Worlds. Chicago, 1993.

Hauser-Schäublin, Brigitta. Traces of Gods and Men: Temples and Rituals as Landmarks of Social Events and Processes in a South Bali Village. Berlin, 1997.

Howe, Leo. Hinduism & Hierarchy in Bali. Oxford, 2001.

Lansing, J. Stephen. Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali. Princeton, 1991.

Ottino, Arlette. The Universe Within: A Balinese Village through Its Ritual Practices. Paris, 2000

Rubinstein, Raechelle. Beyond the Realm of the Senses: The Balinese Ritual of Kakawin Composition. Leiden, 2000.

Stuart-Fox, David. Pura Besakih: Temple, Religion and Society in Bali. Leiden, 2002.

Suryani, Luh Ketut and Gordon D. Jensen. Trance and Possession in Bali: A Window on Western Multiple Personality, Possession Disorder, and Suicide. New York, 1993.

J. Stephen Lansing (1987)

Revised Bibliography