Custom and Religion
Outside of India, Bali is the largest Hindu outpost in the world. Put in another way, it's the furthest reaches of the Hindu empire. On Bali, Hinduism has developed along lines all its own. In fact, the way in which the Balinese practice their frontier Hinduism is still their greatest art.
Hinduism is at least 3,000 years old and dates from the creation of the Vedas, compilations of prayers, hymns, and other religious writings. Hinduism doesn't have a single founder or prophet. There is only one god, though its many different manifestations are named and classified in great detail.
The Balinese call their religion Agama Tirta ('Science of the Holy Water'), an interpretation of religious ideas from China, India, and Java. Agama Tirta is much closer to the earth and more animists than Hinduism proper; the two sects are as different from each other as Ethiopian Christianity is from Episcopalian Christianity.
If a strict Hindu Brahman from Varanasi ever visited Bali, he'd think them savages. Although the Hindu epics are well known and form the basis of favorite Balinese dances, the deities worshipped in India are here considered too aloof and aristocratic. Often the Balinese don't even know their names.
The Balinese have their own trinity of supreme gods, the Shrine of the Three Forces. Because of the caste system, 200 million people are shunned in India. On Bali only the older people still believe in the caste system; the young ignore it.
Though a bull served as the sacred mount of Shiva, Bali Hindus do not eschew beef; 'bakwan' carts sell meatball noodle soup in the smallest villages, and there's a beef sausage plant in Denpasar.
In India a Hindu must be cremated at once in order to enter into heaven; because of the expense, on Bali sometimes a whole village will temporarily bury its dead and later stage a mass cremation. In India widows must not remarry but on Bali they can-here, even high priests marry.
In India, worship at home is all-important but on Bali group worship is preferred. Bali Hindus are not obliged to study sacred texts, follow any set doctrine or scripture, practice celibacy or adhere to a puritan lifestyle. There are no prescribed prayers, no fixed moments of devotion.
There are many paths to take that please God-singer, dancer, priest, 'dalang', carpenter, carver, actor. The worshipper need only perform daily offerings and participate actively in village and temple events.
Since the high Brahmanic teachings are a mystery to most of the Balinese population, the emphasis has always been on frequent and visibly dramatic ceremonies and rituals rather than theology, on behavior and service rather than the fine points of belief.
On Bali there are two ways to pray: 'mebakti' and 'muspa'. The first is worship through devotion, the second shows respect with flowers. A Balinese with hands together at the hips is praying to Sanghyang Kala, Shiva, the Destroyer; with hands at chest level the prayer is to a dead family member; hands held in front of the forehead indicate prayer to Sanghyang Widhi, the Supreme God.
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