Understanding Hinduism in Bali – I

[These posts are based on my conversations over three days with my Balinese tour guide, W – when I quote him, I am not endorsing his views. Please excuse any factual inaccuracies and feel free to share your experiences or opinions in the comments section. I am happy to be corrected if I’ve understood something wrong.]

Ubud temple

For some reason, I have come to think of the Hindu way of life as something unique to India – or the subcontinent, considering Nepal is right next door. Of course, I’ve known for years that large swathes of Southeast Asia were once Hindu – and I’m not thanking history textbooks from school for this knowledge, because most of India’s own colonial and exploratory past was in those days relegated to footnotes or minuscule paragraphs tucked away among detailed chapters on, mostly, the Guptas, the Mughals and the independence struggle. My knowledge of the practice of Hinduism outside India is pretty much negligible, and visiting Bali was quite an eye-opener in that sense. I had to learn to share Brahma and Saraswati, Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva and Parvati with a brand new country: I almost had to get to know these deities afresh, recognise the new physical forms that the Cholas or Raja Ravi Varma did not have much to do with.

That religion is very important to the Balinese is extremely evident at every step. There were two things common to most Hindu establishments we came across: one, offerings in little leaf trays left out at the doorstep, and two, the almost maniacal adoration for the Mahabharata dubbed in Bahasa on TV. Our Hindu tour guide, W, was most helpful while explaining things to us, quite amused at our eagerness to understand a culture which was so close to our own and still so mysterious.

“We have a ceremony for everything,” he said, as we drove past a few temples all decked up, yellow flags fluttering in the wind. Indeed, so they did, for most of the temples we passed seemed to be preparing for a ceremony or cleaning up after one. Every family home has a temple within its walls, explained W, pointing at the tiered structures rising out of the compounds. The Balinese obviously take their prayer very seriously, rising at dawn and allotting enough time throughout the day to their rituals. However, what impressed us most was that their faith wasn’t restricted to spending time in their sacred shrines.

Ceremony

Everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and gentle curiosity; Bali wasn’t opulent in the material sense, but there was enough happiness to share. When we remarked on this, our guide attributed it to the strong belief in karma and rebirth. This faith is so rigid among the Balinese that when a baby is born, the family visits an astrologer (of the tantric kind, as I understand) to find out who it was in its previous birth. They are also known to bury the placenta to ensure that the baby is reborn in the same family. I have never known what to make of rebirth, explaining it to myself in simple terms as the transfer of energy from one body to another, and I’m not quite sure how the Balinese explain the idea – but as a means to keep people on the straight and narrow, it seems to be a very useful concept. The Balinese greeting, Om Swasti Astu, translates to “May God bless you always”, perhaps in this birth and the next?

Procession

W was rather conservative about religion and evidently held it very close to his heart. When I asked him what he thought of the influx of tourists in Bali, he pointed out that though it was useful for the economy and for creating jobs, it affected local culture. “Our youngsters are getting increasingly influenced by Western culture,” – a common refrain in India as well – “and the focus on tourism is also affecting local architecture. The new buildings are boring and don’t use traditional elements much.”

The Hindus of Bali have suffered much, says W. As the years continue to go by, these memories remain fresh in their minds, and perhaps make them cling to their faith more vigorously than ever before. What is quite astonishing is that the Indonesian form of Hinduism seems to have changed little since it first arrived on the islands, and maybe owes its continued purity as much to external factors as to the determination of its people to keep it intact.

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