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Ratan Sharda
Reconciling the ancient with new - Fascinating Balinese Hindus 26 March, 2014
A recent visit to Bali, an island among group of islands within Indonesia has been a fascinating experience for me as a practicing Hindu and a student of Hindu culture. We are aware that Bali island is a Hindu majority area within a highly populous infact largest Muslim country in the world.

I had heard a lot about the pristine way Balinese people have preserved the traditional Hindu culture that was adopted by them centuries back through visiting Hindu rishis and saints, though modern history writers take the period of introduction of Hinduism in Indonesia to be around first century CE by traders. I had met many Balinese friends in Mumbai a couple of years back and talked to a few friends who had visited the islands recently. But, no information had prepared me for this kind of interaction with Bali and her people.

I was totally taken aback in a positive sense after interacting with native Hindus there. The people there are so warm, welcoming, positive, energetic, patient and honest that one wonders if it is possible to live such a life in today?s world. I wondered whether I was in another 'loka' (or world) as we Hindus would say. I cannot say if this persona of Balinese people is due to their upbringing in Hindu culture that they have preserved over centuries, but I am sure, it has played some part in evolution of their collective personality as a society. A sense of contentment oozes out of their persona.

Like any other modern society in the world (except India perhaps), they are disciplined in social life. They follow traffic discipline; they don?t cut lanes to get ahead. They are not noisy, don?t honk for pleasure. It is not that they have advantage of low population. Population of Bali is around 7 million. Seeing such discipline is not surprising for people who have travelled around the world.

The difference here is that they don't behave well out of fear of law. It is their innate nature. While waiting at a deserted signal at night at around 11 pm, I asked my host whether they follow signals all the time, answer was positive. My wife asked him whether there were CCTVs at signals. He was surprised he said, 'No! It is just that we follow rule of law, without fear of law!' We hardly saw a policeman on roads during my one week stay there. They were visible only in a couple of cases when there was some disruption due to bad weather, and once checking papers of some bikers.

The entire region is absolutely clean, again because of self-discipline. I was witness to their honesty twice on a single day when the hotel returned my brother-in-law's passport and later at the end of day his iPad at its own cost in another hotel about 20 km away. In spite of low income levels, we didn?t see a single beggar anywhere in our entire stay there.

Bali Hindus are highly ritualistic. One of the fascinating rituals is offerings to their forefathers at the gate of their houses, shops or malls. Specially erected pedestals of ornate stones (in new houses, made of concrete) at entrance are used to place the offerings. Each Balinese house has a very lovingly made beautiful temple within its precinct, apart from minimum 3 temples dedicated to three main gods (Trimurti) of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. And, there are around 12000 villages in this island! There are beautiful breathtaking sculptures of Mahabharata and Ramayana on prominent crossings. You see beautiful sculptures lined up on road side or along dividers.

The religions sculptures of Hindu history were a happy surprise in a secular Muslim country. Imagine such sculptures in our own secular country. There would be huge outrage! Surprisingly, I didn't see any sculpture of any politician or Indonesian leader. Thus, you sense divine presence all around you when you are in Bali. Naturally, this sense seeps into you.

As noted above population of Bali Island is around 7 Million. Of these, Hindus are less than 82% now down from 99% a few decades back. The capital city of Bali is Denpasar worst hit, with Hindus reduced to 48%, first time minority; due to influx of native Muslims from other parts of Indonesia and some conversions into Christianity. Overall, Hindus constitute around only 2.3% of Indonesian population.

Indonesia has 6 officially recognized religions now viz, Islam, Catholicism, Protestant, Hindu, Buddha and Confucianism. Buddhism is believed to have arrived in Indonesia around 2nd and 4th centuries, a little later than Hinduism. The peak of Hindu-Javanese civilization was the Majapahit Empire in the fourteenth century, described as a golden age in Indonesian history. Islam became a dominant religion by 15th Century after its introduction in 11th Century through Indian traders.

Behind this cheerful fa?ade of Balinese people, there are also some serious challenges ? external as well as internal.

After independence of Indonesia from colonialism in 1945, only monotheist religions were recognized. Since, old tribal religions and Hinduism were not monotheist (with their multiplicity of gods), they were not recognized as religions by Indonesian government.

This led to conversions into Islam for better protection from the State and to avoid being labeled as atheists, hence probably Communists, which could lead to their persecution during those times. Hindus were in serious trouble for many years. Finally, they formed 'Parisada Hindu Dharma' which came up with a solution after long deliberations.

They informed the Indonesian government (Indonesia is officially, an Islamic country) that they have one supreme God, Lord Shiva or 'Sang Hyang Acintya?. They wrote down 5 ?tattvas? of Hindu religion that define Hinduism for them. The 5 principles or ?pancha shraddha? or tattvas are -  

1. Belief in Almighty, Brahman

2. Belief in Atman and Ancestors' Spirit

3. Belief Law of Karma

4. Belief in Reincarnation (Samsara Punarbhawa)

5. Belief in Moksha (Liberation)

There are now common general Hindu rituals in Bali for all aspects of life. The most auspicious and solemn of this is 'Nyepi' ? their New Year day (on same Hindu calendar day as in India, viz. Gudi Padwa or Varsh Pratipada. It is a holy day for respecting living beings and universe as part of Brahman. There is no activity, no light, no sound, and total silence. One is to meditate or fast for 24 hours. It is a national holiday. Apart from other religious days are -

Galungan Day - the victory of Dharma against Adharma; Kuningan Day, the visit of ancestors? holy spirit to us (like Diwali in India); Sarasvaty (Saraswati) Day, the respect of Goddess Sarasvaty as God Of Knowledge, as a day of first dawn of knowledge in the world. Other days are - Pagervesi, holy day of strengthen our holy knowledge, worshipping Bethara Guru (Lord Siva); Tumpek Landep - holy day for worshipping Sanghyang Pasupati (Brahma); Tumpek Uduh - holy day for plants; Tumpek Kandang - holy day for animals; Sivaratri, holy day for meditation upon Lord Siva; all the Full Moon (Purnima) and Dead Moon (Tilem / Amavasya).

A few of these days may have been adopted from other tribes in Indonesia who were not part of Hindu dharma earlier but slowly chose to be part of Hindu dharma to preserve their religion in tune with Indonesian constitution as they find Hinduism more close to their philosophy than other religions. We find that Balinese Hindus could find a way out of this problematic situation and find an innovative solution, within broad parameters of Hinduism. This is typical spirit of innovation that has helped Hinduism thrive over centuries inspite of being under attack from evangelism of various hues.

Having overcome a serious issue, Hindus face other problems now. Most serious threat is from influx of other religionists who are aggressive in spreading their religions. The other threat is westernization in the guise of modernism. Creeping Wahhabi influence through Saudi Arabian sponsorship, through clerics from India and Bangladesh is slowly snapping at the traditional accommodative spirit of Indonesians who still own up their Hindu ancestry, even as they have changed their way of worship to Islam. Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu is one of their national emblem and name of their national airline.

As we all know, 'Ram Leela' or plays based on Ramayana are played by cast which is predominantly Muslim. So far, this Wahhabi extremism is not so apparent, but a careful observer can see this creeping threat.

A different kind of internal challenge comes from ?well intentioned? Hindu 'missionaries', new age Gurus, evolved or well-studied Hindu scholars and aggressive missionaries of Iskcon. Someone comes and tells them that since they are not studying Vedas and not practicing 'real' Hinduism, they are not truly Hindus. So, they need to 'return to Vedas'.

Moralist Iskcon followers tell them that since they are eating meat and not following 'only' Krishna (the supreme God head, according to them), they are not truly Hindus. Thus, they are out to 'reform' these 'deviants' and make them pure vegetarians and give up their ancient rituals to only follow 'Krishna'. This is leading to disharmony within this peaceful happy society. If a husband becomes an Iskcon devotee, he wants a separate set of utensils (as a pure vegetarian), he starts forcing his views on his family members. There are cases of bitterness leading to divisions in the families, and divorces due to this extreme position of Iskcon followers.

Such 'well-wishers' fail to see the wide spectrum and shade of practices that Hindus follow even in the land of their origin, viz Bharat; basically following 5 tenets (tattvas) of Hinduism as enunciated by Bali Hindus. This sense of knowing 'better' than the native Hindus doesn't fit well with respectful outlook of Hindu philosophy for different faiths and life styles. I hope these 'well-wishers' recognize their false sense superior knowledge and folly of trying to 'reform' Bali Hindus. I am sure they can find their own solutions in modern world just as they did in 1960s to organize themselves as per laws of their country, Indonesia.

Though, Bali is a prime tourist destination, unfortunately people there are not rich. Bali Hindus look to India as their spiritual fountainhead. I was fortunate to meet a few religious heads and activists during this stay. They seek support from their better off Indian brethren to protect their tradition and culture. They long to visit India and seek darshan of Mother Ganga and other pilgrim centres but their financial means don't allow them this privilege. By providing them resources to protect their dharma against more aggressive religions we from India can help sustain a wonderful tradition.

Generally, when we visit different countries and places, we remember the land, the natural beauty of those lands. Rarely do we recall a place for its people. But, I must confess that after my return what keeps haunting me is the memory of wonderful people of Bali and its calm; natural beauty of this land comes only next. We need to imbibe this sense of oneness with nature, their sense of peace, satisfaction, cheerfulness and happiness if we wish to make mother earth really a happy and peaceful planet.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
About The Author
Ratan Sharda is a citizen journalist. He has authored books like 'Secrets of RSS'. A marketing consultant by profession, Mr. Sharda is a keen observer of the country's political scenario.
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