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Survival of the Harmonious: Balinese Youth On Their Hinduism

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At about 10 a.m. Wayan walks out of her family’s house with sarong neatly wrapped around her thin adolescent waist balancing a woven basket abundantly full of offerings to the gods, perfumed and smoking gracefully. She looks natural, and her movements are as deliberate as anyone who is relaxed with their tasks. On her face is initially an expression of slight displeasure, the look of gravity and responsibility, but it soon transforms into an overall appearance of holistic exercise as she walks, stretches, crouches, and meditates from one station to the next within the garden.

It is wondered: What is Wayan thinking and experiencing now as she travels through the garden stopping at the shrines and special points in the yard to perform homage to the gods? As she waves the essence, the sari, of the offering towards the gods, and as the smoke from the incense wafts towards the heavens, what drives her to it? How does she feel about her religious heritage?

Regardless of the outcome, the gods will surely be pleased with Wayan’s family today. With manifest devoutness, abundant thanks is being given to them for the rent money that has been recently paid. Wayan’s basket is reloaded with offerings more than once.

Regarding how much devoutness Wayan and other Balinese Hindu youths have for their Hindu faith, no one is unerringly endowed with the capacity to measure. But one still questions how long they will carry these practices with them into the future. As can be observed everyday here in Wayan’s garden, the spiritual cycle of Balinese Hindu devotion actively presses on. Yet, foreign questions already arise. How long will the cycle of Balinese offerings last? And, more on the philosophical side, is such a question premature or even parasitic to ask?

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Hinduism arrived in Bali in the beginning of the pre-classical era, around 1500 BCE, but those of us who fall in love with the cultural charms of Bali often ask how long the incense will burn for the gods. Since many of us come from the Western sphere where culture and commercialization sometimes bitterly intermingle together in a dichotomous pot of assorted virtue, plastics, survivalism, restlessness, and holiday fever, we are seductively enamored by the homogeneous karmic piety of religious practices here in Bali, what is ubiquitously attributable to, practiced, and known as Balinese Hinduism.

Despite the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ of pleasured foreigners, the eternal status ascribed to the Hindu gods will only continue to be observed and recognized through the daily prayers and offerings of the religious community that pay mystical homage. And with tourism still rising in Bali, approaching three million tourists a year and terrifically changing the very landscape, and expressly affecting the demeanors, appearances, and lifestyles of the sons and daughters of Bali, it is difficult not to wonder about the continuation of Balinese traditional values and rituals.

The strong values and complex rituals which are spiritually and aesthetically manifested into a lush ensemble of spiritual deference, colorful parquetry and crafts, social concordance, and just unfussy carefree smiles, are, in fact, the primary reasons why most culture junkies and spiritualists come to Bali, for those who come without their surfboards, at least. For those who cannot be bothered with thoughts and cares of cultural conservation, however, it is, they might impetuously say, as it has always has been in the state of nature: fun, sun, sex, and survival of the fittest. And although it surely is necessary to, often enough, be relieved of social and environmental responsibilities and just kick it on the beach for a while after a year’s hard work, we ought to give thanks and due respect to the environment and the domestic population who are at continual liberty to protect the gifts, the reasons why we come to Bali, again and again.

In a world that has been so thoroughly mapped out that even the skies are commercially divided and rented by airlines, humanity simultaneously becomes increasingly more deeply aware that what goes around comes around. Thus, Hinduism, the most ancient detailed and distinctly identifiable religion, and Balinese Hinduism in particular, the faith of harmony, have much to offer the new integrated digital world in terms of the karmic discipline of selfless action that is practiced and tested therein, amidst the setting of public environmental woes, like Fukushima and global warming, and the incredible promises of fresh channels of communication, like Facebook (Renren in China) and smart phone technology.

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The most direct way to this knowledge of Balinese Hindu conservation is by observing the Hindu practices of the youth and asking them what they think of and feel from their religion. Such inquiries, however, require some type of paradoxical shift on the part of the youths’ consciousness in that they must remove themselves somewhat from their customary familiarity in order to have a view of themselves as practicing Balinese Hindus—kind of like talking about the greatness of the ocean while swimming in it or explaining the pleasure of a cool long breeze while enjoying it.

Despite any potential consequences, numerous randomly chosen Balinese youths from the Denpasar area were invited into these considerations in order to help us understand the present and future states of Balinese Hinduism. The results were promising.

Does the youth feel dragged down by their religious heritage, experiencing a sense of active alienation to the global picture of cultural and technical assimilation, or are they positively concerned with the liberation that can be exercised from their spiritual practices? Basically, is it a battle of smart phone versus Dewi Sri?

Most of the youths considered in this small study were exceptionally confident about their relationship with their God, and, according to them, nearly all will not only preserve their faith but will enhance it over time. Over 90% think that they will become closer to their God in the future. Agung from Sanur says that since “God already give us life, joy, and happiness, and, to repay the gods we must come closer to them and always do the right thing.” Indeed, many of the youths interviewed expressed a personal, direct connection to their God and gods without reservation or the need for objective justifications. Shantidewi from Denpasar said: “My God is my hero and my strength. Without my God, I am nothing. I always apologize to my God when I’ve done wrong, and I always thank to God when I am happy.”

Perhaps it is useful and appropriate to briefly exam the three loosely-defined Balinese Hindu varieties here: adat, agama Hindu, and devotional Hinduism.

Adat represents the pre and post-colonial ritual-based Hinduism and focuses on the mystical connection between the Balinese and their divinized ancestors. It is the most brilliantly exhibited of the three types as it is exercised in the various rituals that one can witness in Bali, including cremations and temple ceremonies. Contrasting adat is the official state-promoted version of Hinduism in Indonesia, agama Hindu. It is based on text and doctrine. Like Catholicism within Christianity, agama Hindu’s dogma can be traced back to historical, textual, etymological, and locational roots starting in India. Therefore, to some, and specifically the state, it holds more authority and validity as a traveling form of Hinduism. Devotional Hinduism, the last type, was recognized in Bali in 1980. It is defined by two prominent features: devotion to Shri Sai Baba, an Indian ‘god-man,’ and the Krishna consciousness movement born out of New York City and emphasizing Krishna as the supreme manifestation of God.

For those Balinese youths who come to question the different forms of Hinduism as best contemporary suitors, they usually decide between the first two types. They ask themselves whether they want to exercise a more exclusive village-based and distinct Balinese form of Hinduism or a more inclusive, less ethnocentric model of the Indian form. The former has a local social structure, while the latter’s is more endemic. Which is more pliable or manipulable, within the context of “nation-building” and solidarity, depends on the how much they are affected from their tops, how self-possessed and independently efficient they are, both as a unit and as spiritual individuals. But, overall, it seems that Balinese youths will eventually choose the form or forms they practice based on the question of which social identity they want to exercise through their individuality.

This raises another question, however, regarding the cross-pollination of faiths and new age practices characteristically being introduced, and developed or phased-out, here in Bali.
One of the most interesting and integrative findings of the investigation is that half of the youths surveyed from different religions—those of Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian faiths—also pay homage to the Balinese gods by providing daily offerings (banten); some of them offering banten a few times daily. Most of them were Buddhists. They expressed agreeable feelings of meditative peace and tranquility from this practice. Jovan, from Tabanan, said that in making offerings he “feel calm, quiet, and comfortable.” A few religiously identify themselves as “Balinese Catholic” and expressed an active endearing admiration towards Balinese Hinduism. Christina, a Christian from West Denpasar, for example, thinks that Balinese Hinduism is socially beneficial for Bali, saying that the faith is unique and that its adherents are kind-hearted and “really good at praying.”

In his book, Hinduism & Hierarchy in Bali, Leo Howe says: “The Dutch colonial regime, the Indonesian state, and the tourism industry have all, in different ways, appropriated, commoditized, and promoted Balinese culture and, in so doing, changed it and changed the way Balinese think about it.” He explains that Balinese became self-conscious about their religious culture as a result and thus developed a relation to it and re-appropriated it as a defining domestic feature, called ‘Balineseness.’ However, most of those in the younger bracket unsurprisingly seemed unbothered with such disassociation, as is characteristic of childhood in general, though Jovan and a few others at least recognize some differences, for instance, some distinctions between Indian and Balinese Hinduism. The older interviewees expressed more concern and need of resolute action to protect their religious and cultural heritage, a greater need to preserve and enhance their Balineseness.

For Wayan, back in her colorful little garden, her faith is a matter of immediate practice and discovery. The ants will synergistically work together, the birds will chirp, the frogs will call, and her cat Seepoo will pounce from the tree, but when it comes time to pay the gods their respect, the incense will keep on burning.

Yes, the incense will keep burning somewhere, they say. Yet, can Balinese pay homage to their gods when their greatest gift is covered with villas and resorts brimming with foreigners, when the gods’ most vital gift and practice is nothing but a vestige of fertile times? Scores of tourists seeking soothing vacations will surely seek out open lands. If and when the rice has been enveloped with concrete, the seminal question for the rising youth will be: For what will the gods be paid?

Filed under: Articles, Changing Cultures, Indonesia, Religion

About the Author:

Brannon Gerling is a world traveler, writer, and philosopher specializing in existential phenomenology and Taoism. He publishes work in holistic health, politics, shamanism, eco-travel, psychology, and philosophy. Check out his book: On Top of Beacon Hill: Eastern Approach to Enlightenment, Western Recipe for Madness, wherein he fuses Eastern and Western thought in a roadmap unto spiritual transformation and self-possession. has written 2 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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