generation gap in village religion

Kid's Fun | Written By, NOW! BALI | January 2nd, 2013

Historian and art critic Jean Couteau brings us stories depicting the life on Bali, sometimes real, sometimes myth, always meaningful.


Historian and art critic Jean Couteau brings us stories depicting the life on Bali, sometimes real, sometimes myth, always meaningful.

It was already dark in the village of Abian Gombal, and the twelve odd men, all dressed in ceremonial temple attire; a white shirt, yellow overskirt saput and white udeng head-dress, were gathered in the small public hall of the temple, to discuss one or the other of the aspects of the temple festival underway. The air was heavy, with the scent of trampled offerings hovering about a reminder of the late afternoon prayers, when all the faithful had come to pay their respects for the visiting god and ask for his holy water, “the water from the feet of the gods,” as the Balinese put it.

Now, even the sound of the gamelan was gone, and there remained only the low-pitched talk of the small group of men, consisting of the kelians (head-men) of the neighborhoods of Abian Gombal and bendesa (customary) village heads. Pan Gobler, the bendesa, is as famous for his fighting cocks as for his frank talk. The meeting had reached the topic of money: “We need to raise funds for completing the payment of the restoration of the temple we have had for this festival, Gobler was arguing. “With the ten percent we get from the cockfighting, we should be able to raise the needed amount.” Dr Wayan Kencrut, the new kelian of Banjar Kaja knew this was coming, and he had prepared his line: We all know that holding a cockfighting is the easiest way to raise the money, and I indeed agree,” he said while looking around to judge the effect of his speech,” but we have been doing it for ten years now in the “jeroan “ (inner core of the temple) to avoid the police, and to this, I object.  Aren’t we supposed to know already, from the many lectures we have had in this very village, that the “jeroan “ (inner core of the temple) is exclusively attributed to the gods, and thus, only rituals should be allowed there, with the offering of no more than three cocks, without any gambling. That is why I suggest we move our cockfighting to the “jaban pura “ (lower, impure yard of the temple).

“But you know that is impossible”, Gobler replied, the police are always on the look out for transgressors. It is impossible to pretend that cockfighting that takes place in the “jaban pura “ (lower yard) are of a religious nature. And we need the money.” He stopped, having made his argument: the Balinese religion of today needs money, and it is the village community which makes the decision of how to raise it, and there is no surer way to do this than through gambling.

Kencrut knew the logic of the argument and he had prepared his move: he had an ally.  He pinched Drs Dewa Putu, who was sitting beside him, and it was the latter who carried on: “You are right to insist on our need to raise money, Pan Gobler, but did our ancestors build it with the proceeds of cockfighting. No,” he looked around with a smile, “they built it with the earnings from their work. So, don’t tell us we cannot pay 3000 rupiahs perfamily for the needs of the temple!” A murmur of approval passed along the small group of men.

Such scenes — the above-mentioned one is derived from a genuine event  — are common in modern Bali: young university graduates, or newly retired high-officials, educated outside the village are little by little “taking power” inside the ancient customary structures of the desa adat (traditional village community). Unlike the old traditional elites, they are less concerned by what has been — i.e. the old local village tradition, often unwritten, and anyway, constantly adapting in accordance with the “desa, kala, patra “ principle of relativity (place, time and circumstances) — than by what ought to be, according to “rationalized”, modern Hinduism. Often supported by itinerant preachers of the Council of Hindu Affairs  (Parisadha Hindu Dharma), they are bringing down to the village level all the teachings of modern Hinduism, both in terms of rituals, and in terms of theology. They insist, for example, on the “right” understanding of the “cosmological” aspects of religious gestures and offerings, or they support the abolition of caste-based privileges and prohibitions. At the level of theology, they emphasize the monotheist aspect of God  (Sanghyang Widhi Wasa), which pushes to the background the various Sesuhunan deities and ancestral gods of the tradition, more pantheistic or even animist in nature. Accordingly, prayers are changing. More and more of today’s priests, often city educated, discard the old Balinese sesontengan prayers for Sanskrit ones. Some even go father: they bring to the villages not only the Indian revivalist thought of the nineteenth century, but also sects of modern India such as Sai Baba, which is spreading like bush fire over the island.

The Balinese villages are a laboratory of religious revival, in which a “purer” Hinduism is being invented. We are now seeing only the beginning of it. Is it the harbinger of a Balinese identity more focused on Pan-Hinduism than on the village tradition of yore. It may well be. If so, what are going to be the political consequences for a country in which religious identity is everywhere coming to the fore? Only time will tell.

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