The best way too see characteristics of the Bali religion is to drive around the island and before you know it you’ll find Balinese people making offerings in front of their shops, on crossroads, on cars, inside the many temples and even on the beach.
The funny thing is that we love to hang out at the beaches and take a dip in the turquoise sea ending with a stunning sunset but for the Balinese this is out of the question...
The sea is the place where demons and bad spirits live and can’t be trusted. You won’t find many Balinese living right on the beach, if they do they are the descendants from other islanders who have settled in Bali.
The mountains and volcanoes in the interior of Bali and especially Gunung Agung is the place where the gods, nature spirits and ancestral spirits are housed.
In between the mountains and the sea there is the human world where good and bad spirits fight until eternity.
Every village is built on the line between the mountains and sea, sunrise and sunset and even the main street goes from the mountain-side towards the sea-side.
You find the Temple of Origin (pura puseh) located at the mountain side of the village and is dedicated to Bhrama, the creator.
In the centre of the village there’s the Temple of the People (pura desa), where the villagers come together to organize their affairs and at the edge of the village you find the Temple of Death (pura dalem) where the Goddess of Death is worshipped.
The temple of death, Kalibukbuk, Lovina Beach
You won’t have to stop at every temple though, there are thousands of them and one is even bigger and plays a more important part than the other in the Bali religion.
The distance between the mountains and sea also counts for people. Their heads are the most important part of the body because it is the part that’s closest to the gods. It is therefore inappropriate to touch the heads of little children.
The feet are closest to the underworld and that’s the reason why babies are not allowed to touch the earth for their first 210 days (1 year in the Balinese wuku-calendar) after they are born.
A Balinese courtyard or compound is typically accessible by steps and a small wooden door followed by a wall. The wall is called aling-aling and its goal is to stop the demons from entering.
The demons can only move in straight lines and will then bump into the wall and head back not to return for a very long time.
I actually have to say low spirits since they are also able to perform good deeds and provide protection. The low spirits have to be appeased because they are thought to be trouble makers.
Appeasing the demons by placing
offerings on the ground
The Balinese believe that everything has a soul, even a river or a tree and that the forces of nature are something you hardly have any control over.
That’s why in the Bali religion the people worship their ancestors too because the ancestors have the power to direct the forces of nature.
Every Balinese courtyard has several pavilions and a family temple. In which direction?
You guessed it...
from the mountains towards sea-side. You’ll find it in a corner nearest to the mountains where the gods and ancestors are worshipped.
The Balinese mix the Hindu religion with animistic spirits, gods, ancestral spirits and Buddhist characteristics and make Bali what it is today.
Their religion is a world apart from the Hindu religion in India where it originated.
Centuries ago Indian traders brought with them their Hindu religion to Indonesia and for centuries Indonesians believed in the Hindu Gods together with their animistic spirits.
Especially when the Majapahit Kingdom on Java spread to the rest of Indonesia and more people came into contact with this religion.
Then Middle-Eastern traders brought with them their Islam religion to Indonesia and the Majapahit Kingdom collapsed with priests, artists, noblemen fleeing to Bali.
This was the only place where they could worship their gods and develop the Bali religion the way you can still see it today.
The Balinese people believe in an organized universe where the power of dharma keeps it all together. There is a constant fight between the dharma and the adharma.
This struggle causes birth, to be human and to die. The god who creates order in the fight is called Sanghyang Widhi Wasa and possesses all powers.
The Sanghyang Widhi Wasa in the Bali religion is portrayed in the Hindu gods Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the protector) and Shiva (the destroyer).
Statue of the Hindu god Shiva
The destroyer isn’t seen by the Balinese as something negative but more like a condition for reincarnation.
For the Balinese Shiva appears as the God of the Sun, Surya, or the mighty god of the Gunung Agung, Mahadewa.
This is something normal in the Hindu religion, every of the three gods is able to appear in several reincarnations of different gods.
The Ramayana and Mahabharata Hindu stories are very popular on Bali and the Balinese believe that the hero in the Ramayana story is Rama, the reincarnation of Vishnu (the protector).
The Balinese also believe that every human being has an immortal soul called ‘atman’, which reincarnates constantly back into the same family with death and re-birth until it is released with the highest god.
Before it is released with the highest god and the process of reincarnation ends the Balinese have three choices they can make to release the soul which is through...
1. concentration and meditation, the most difficult way
2. to learn the old religious books and live by the books and
3. to bring offerings to the gods and perform various rituals. The last way is what most of the Balinese people try to accomplish in the Bali religion.
So you can say that the Balinese are Hindu but have lots of other gods and spirits as well.
That’s why you can see the offerings in front of shops, cars, the beach that worship the good ones and gently dismiss the demons from entering the area.
Even though you may not notice any of it during your travels on Bali but a sort of cast system still exists. It’s not like the cast system in India where you are born into a cast such as the untouchables or pariah’s though.
In the Balinese cities and around the tourism areas the cast system of the Bali religion is slowly disappearing. It can only be found in ceremonies and the way the Balinese of the different casts talk to each other.
As said before, the cast system is not that obvious for a traveller. Only if you know of its existence will you be able to see signs of the cast system in the Balinese daily life.
The most common examples of are women carrying heavy construction loads on their head, such as buckets of sand or bricks.
Around 90% of the Balinese belong to the lowest caste, called the sudra or jaba and the rest can be divided into three casts called the triwangsa. The other three casts in the Bali religion are called the brahmana, ksatria (or satriya) and wesya cast.
The brahmana cast is the spiritual highest cast of priests and those who have specific knowledge on rituals and the oldest Hindu books belong to this group. They have the titles of Ida Bagus in front of their names and the women have the title of Ida Ayu or Dayu in front of theirs.
The ksatria (or satriya) is the political highest cast of the royal families of Gianyar, Tabanan, Badung, Klungkung and Bangli. You can recognize them by their titles of Dewa, Dewa Agung, Anak Agung, Cokorda and Cokorda Gede.
For the female it’s Dewa Ayu, Anak Agung Istri or Cokorda Istri, which literally means ‘the wife of Cokorda’.
The wesya cast is the group of warrior descendants and rich noblemen. They often have the name of I Gusti for men and I Gusti Ayu for women.
There are four types of priests on Bali, the Pedandu, the Pemangku, the Balian and the Dalang.
1. The Pedanda Priests meditate throughout the day in their house temples and are looking for a connection with the God of the Sun ‘Surya’ who is the reincarnation of Shiva.
They have a thorough understanding of the old religious books and speak the difficult ancient Kawi language, based on Sanskrit and has its origin from the island of Java.
They provide the Balinese people with holy water because they are the ones who only know the methods and what should be said.
They make a living by selling holy water and you’ll always find them at important ceremonies and rituals where they are responsible for spiritual affairs.
2. The Pemangku Priests are the ones you can find at the temple sites, who take care of the daily temple affairs such as the organisation of processions, temple festivities and the reception of offerings.
He often prepares the next phase in a ritual and takes the holy water from the Pedanda priest to sprinkle on those involved in the ritual.
3. The Balian Priests are the medium for the gods and for the ancestors. They are called into a trance and then the gods speak through them for a variety of reasons such as to discover the cause of illness, who is reincarnated and to find out where the soul is located now.
Priest dispenses holy water on the offerings
4. The Dalang is the priest who can make me laugh ...:-). He is the shadow puppet (wayang kulit) master and works between the gods and the normal people.
He is considered a priest in the Bali religion because he speaks the old Kawi language during his performances and knows the old religious books by heart. The shadow puppet stories always tell religious stories such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and are part of Balinese religious ceremonies.
In Ubud I went to one of the Wayang Kulit shadow plays. There’s lot of action going on and I didn’t understand any of it, but it was still entertaining.
Besides using the old Kawi language he used English to translate the play with some self-mockery. When there are only Balinese people watching the play he also translates the religious stories in a funny way.
There are thousands of temples you can find on Bali and as many shrines. The mother of all temples in the Bali religion is the Pura Besakih on the slopes of Gunung Agung and is so important that it’s owned by every Hindu on Bali.
Pura Besakih with its multi-roofed pagodas
The many temple complexes have an open character and there are no rooms to be found.
The temple complexes are built in a straight line from the sea towards the mountains where the gods live.
A temple is divided into two or three rectangular walled courtyards and situated on the same level unless they are built in the mountains where they are built like the rice terraces just above each other.
You enter the outer side of a temple through a high gate (candi bentar), which is split into two and symbolises the mountain where the gods live. The first courtyard where you arrive is called jaba sisi and is situated towards the sea.
Here you find several pavilions where people prepare offerings and hold meetings. The holiest courtyard (jeroan) is the inner courtyard is located towards the mountains and can be entered through another temple gate.
On both sides of this gateway to the holiest part of the temple you’ll often find statues of demon figures (raksasa) with middle-aged looking baseball bats.
After the gateway you’ll run into an aling-aling wall that stops the demons from entering .
In the middle of the holiest courtyard you’ll find the seat for the priest, which is slightly higher than the other structures around.
In very important temples there are multi-roofed thatched pagodas, which are called meru. The holiest courtyard also often has shrines and thrones for the gods to use.
When you visit a temple it’s important to follow the temple rules which means you have to wear long pants, a long dress or a sarong with a temple scarf to fasten it around the waist.
At the entrance of the more famous temples you can often get a sarong and temple scarf. This is also the place where you are asked to pay a small entrance fee or you can make a small donation.
It’s considered inappropriate to walk around those who are worshipping the gods or bringing offerings at the shrines.
It’s always better to sit than to stand during a ritual or ceremony in the temple grounds since the gods and temple priests in the Bali religion are always considered higher in rank than anybody.
Women are asked not to enter the temple during their menstruation so are people who have open cuts on their hands or legs. When human blood stains a small part of the temple the Balinese have to perform a costly cleaning ritual.