God and Cosmic Dualism in Bali

Culture | Written By, NOW! BALI | June 2nd, 2014

If one asked an educated Balinese what the philosophical foundation of their religion is, most will probably answer the Rwabhinneda, a sort of dialectics of complementary opposites. The Rwabhinneda is multi-pronged. It looks at first simple, applied to basic realities. People will thus talk about day and night (lemah-peteng), masculine-feminine (purusa-pradana), tangible-intangible (sekala-niskala), good and bad (becik-corah) etc. Gods will be told to have their demons and demons…

Text by Jean Couteau Illutration by Dewa Putu Kantor

If one asked an educated Balinese what the philosophical foundation of their religion is, most will probably answer the Rwabhinneda, a sort of dialectics of complementary opposites. The Rwabhinneda is multi-pronged. It looks at first simple, applied to basic realities. People will thus talk about day and night (lemah-peteng), masculine-feminine (purusa-pradana), tangible-intangible (sekala-niskala), good and bad (becik-corah) etc. Gods will be told to have their demons and demons their gods (dewa, ya—buta, ya).  The Rwabhinneda is even present in the folk stories of the asibak hero –the one who has only half of his own body. And last but not least, if you are facing a big problem, you may have someone telling you in a fatalistic tone that “good and bad are always side by side” (jele kelawan melah setata mesanding).

Yet, the Rwabhinneda is much more than just popular wisdom. Or, rather, this popular wisdom is the surface expression of a complex philosophical system, that of cosmic dynamism turned religion, which one finds, in one form or another, throughout most of the non-Moslem East. And which is strangely in accordance with the newest theory of the origin of the world, that of the Big Bang – which explains how all the known and unknown manifestations of reality are endlessly expanding after the initial Big Bang.

At the origin of the world, the old wise men say, there was the awang-awung, the state of non-reality, which first becomes a god, the god of the void –Sang Hyang Embang–, which in his turn becomes the unthinkable –Sang Hyang Atintya—also called the Supreme Siwa—ParamaSiwa. During those transformations, God becomes creative light, Sang Hyang Surya, the sun god, or/and then Sang Hyang Kawi, the Creator himself. God at that stage is still One.

The notion of God as the Sun God accounts for the multiplicity of the Divine. What does one see when one tries to look at the sun? A blinding light and an unknowable thing, just like Origin itself. But how does one best perceive the sun? Through it rays (prabha). And do we not see new rays for every new movement of the body and of the eye? Thus the gods are as numerous and as uncountable as the rays of the sun. Hence the origin of the term dewa, which comes from dev or ray in Sanskrit. God is therefore as unique and unknowable (atintya above) as the gods are multiple and potentially knowable through their particular function and symbol. He is One because he is Multiple. Wyapi-Wyapaka, “he pervades the pervading”, as written in the classical poem Arjuna Wiwaha. This interpretation of the divine is thus pantheistic. It is the opposite, even though ultimately the same, as the concept of the divine found in Mediterranean traditions. In those traditions God is the contraction of everything into an absolute Oneness, whereas in Bali –and much of the East—it is an expanding Oneness that turns itself into an infinite number of manifestations. During rites, this expanding notion of God is well expressed in a mantra addressed to the master of fire, Brahman the Creator. The components of the fire made by the burning incense turns into the gods of the directions of the compass: The flame of Brahma becomes Mahadewa; the charcoal becomes Wisnu; the first spark Iswara; the second spark Rudra; the smoke is Sangkara; the “flower” made by the ashes is Sambhu; and the whirling of the smoke is the divine holy syllable, the Ongkara (OM). Thus to every god corresponds god. 

In its creative aspects, the Sublime Creator, Sang Hyang Kawi (or Sang Hyang Widdhi) engineers reality. His creative energy creates its positive and negative energetic principles: it becomes Brahma, creator of the world, and Siwa, destructor; whereas a third acting god intervenes, the lord of Balance, Wisnu. The divine One thus becomes a part of the Rwabhinneda dualism, which further expands into the cosmic Trinity (Trimurti) of Brahma, Wisnu and Siwa.

So much for the creative forces. But those forces take a material form. One finds again here the Rwabhinneda. The male aspect of the Rwabhinneda, the Purusa, is associated with the spiritual, and represented by the god of the sky, Akasa, whereas the female aspect, the Pradana, is associated with the material and represented by the earth goddess, Pertiwi. Similarly, to the Supreme, most ethereal ParamaSiwa correspond its material opposite aspects created through the prakrti action, called simply “Siwa”, with SadaSiwa between the two. Here again, the dualism turns into a trinity called Tri Purusa (ParamaSiwa, SadaSiwa and Siwa). And this goes on. To the four gods of the compass and their Siwa center correspond the five material elements (earth, fire, wind, water and ether), the PancaMahaButa. Eventually, the human microcosm (Bhwana Alit) corresponds to the universe (Bhwana Agung), the goal of life being by Man to negate this dualism and merge into the cosmic Oneness of the ParamaAtma, the Sublime Soul of the Universe, which is no else than God himself.

One has thus an endless dialectic of positive and negative, godly and demonic, material and spiritual, one and multiple. The mystery of the godly expands into endless symbolism.

The illustrations of Dewa Putu Kantor on the opposite page shows various manifestations of the Rwabhinneda principle. The human being, in the middle, is both spirit and matter, good and evil, black and white. Hence he is represented as “sibak”, in two half parts. Furthermore the man sitting on the lotus symbolizes the human microcosm sitting on the lotus flower, which symbolizes the macrocosm –its petals representing the directions of the compass. The visible man on the right corresponds to the invisible and negative forces to the left. On top is Atintya the Sublime One, both male and female, lord of the direction of the compass, god himself.!

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

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