Balinese Cosmology: A Visual Representation

Culture | Written By, NOW! BALI |

Balinese religion (Hindu Dharma) is a mix of ancestors’ cult and Indian philosophy. The Balinese believe in reincarnation — a Hindu import — but most of their rites and worshipping activities are related to the ancestors’ cult – an indigenous practice also found throughout much of the eastern part of Asia. When someone dies, what matters is to perform the rites that will enable the soul of the dead…

TEXT by jean couteau illustration by dewa putu kantor

Balinese religion (Hindu Dharma) is a mix of ancestors’ cult and Indian philosophy. The Balinese believe in reincarnation — a Hindu import — but most of their rites and worshipping activities are related to the ancestors’ cult – an indigenous practice also found throughout much of the eastern part of Asia. When someone dies, what matters is to perform the rites that will enable the soul of the dead to free itself from earthly bonds and rejoin the “Old Country,” where it will wait for an opportunity to reincarnate among its descendants – to ask for rice (nunas baas), say the local people. Only very wise and saintly people are reputed with some certainty to achieve moksa (final enlightenment).

Yet, in spite of this ancestors’ cult side, it is Indian cosmological philosophy that provides the general interpretative framework of the religion of the Balinese. It affirms that, instead of being separated by birthright from the Universe around him, as understood in Greek and Judeo-Christian anthropocentric tradition, Man views himself as an integral part of this Universe. Called “little world” (Bhwana Alit-microcosm), each individual is subjected to the same energy-laden forces as the “larger Universe” (Bhwana Agung-Macrocosm), from which he/she is only separated by a state of “desire,” which conditions his/her incarnation status: one is born as an animal or a human, and within a particular caste, according to what one has done in previous human and non-human incarnations. This is the karma principle. And it behooves oneself to improve one’s condition in one’s future incarnation. The only way to do so is by living in accordance with the patterns and rules of the cosmos itself. The end-purpose is none other than to interrupt the chain of incarnations (samsara) by achieving moksa — i.e. by melting into what is variously called the Ana (Being), Tan Ana (Void), Embang (Void in vernacular Balinese), or Brahman (in recently re-Indianized Balinese). This is a very difficult endeavor, one which delineates the behavioral, ethical and ritual rules and obligations of every person’s life.

Yet, apart from educated elites, few people in Bali have a full understanding of this cosmological philosophy on such abstract terms. This philosophy is carried by mythology, with gods who symbolize this or that aspect of the cosmology. The best known gods are those who represent and are inherent to the cosmic forces, both generative and degenerative, that underlie the energetic dynamism of the universe. Those gods are three, known as the Hindu Trinity (Trimurti): Brahma who represents the generative process, Siwa the degenerative process, and Wisnu the balance between the two. Religious history has its quirks, though. The three gods are formally inseparable, but followers of Hinduism may differently emphasize a god of their choice (ista dewata) as a symbol of God the Supreme. Hence some are followers of Wisnu, others of Siwa etc. In Bali the Shivaite tradition (that of Siwa’s followers) is the dominant one: being the “destructor,” and hence conditioning later re-creation, Siwa is deemed the Supreme God, and encompasses both the Spiritual – Purusa or male principle – and the Material – Pradana or female principle. To this dialectic of spiritual/material corresponds the opposition/complementarities between the Lord of the Sky, Batara Akasa, and the Earth Goddess, Pertiwi. Siwa himself is Oneness, of course, but this Oneness is deemed to extend from an “Earthly” Siwa at the bottom and a most Sublime and ethereal ParamaSiwa at the top, with SadaSiwa in between. The unity of Siwa-SadaSiwa-ParamaSiwa makes up the TriPurusa, symbolized by the lingam (cosmic male symbol). It is also featured as Atintya – he who cannot be imagined—a thin, naked hermaphrodite figure that decorates the top of the main Padmasana temple shrines in Bali.

The Shivaite concepts just depicted above are best expressed in Bali not in philosophical jargon, but in stories, and those stories in images, like shown in the illustration to the left page. What does it represent? No less than the affirmation of Siwa’s superiority over his two godly Trimurti partners, respectively Wisnu and Brahma. Siwa stands in a fantastic guise in the middle of the image. Taller and bigger than the two other gods, he holds an egg in his hands, the Brahmanda, the cosmic egg, which symbolizes the Universe itself. He seems on the verge of swallowing it. Brahma stands to his left, and Wisnu to his right. The first holds a hoe, the symbol of creation, and is headed for the sky (god Akasa), as shown by the bird issuing from him. The second holds the chakra, and, under the guise of a boar, a symbol of his energetic power, is headed for the earth (goddess Pertiwi in the lower part of the drawing).

This illustration, which proclaims Siwa as the Supreme God and thus affirms the supremacy of the Shivaite version of Hinduism, is actually referring to the Lingodbawa story, which begins with a quarrel between Wisnu and Brahma about which is the greatest of the gods. As each boasts about their own superiority, they come across a huge and tall “object,” of which they are at a loss to identify. They decide to explore it. Brahma, the god of fire (which naturally goes up), will go up to find its top end, whereas Wisnu, the god of water (which naturally goes down), will try to find its bottom end. Whoever succeeds first will be supreme. So they go, each on their own quest. Brahma turns himself into a bird (on the upper right), but cannot reach the extremity of the sky (the god Akasa) and hence of the upper end of the “object”. Wisnu, meanwhile, tries to go to the bottom of the earth. To do so, he transforms himself into a foraging wild boar. This boar penetrates and rapes the earth goddess Pertiwi –the female figure of the drawing. (Their union will beget Boma, the protector and symbol of the vegetal world –not represented here). But Wisnu too fails to reach the extremity of the huge “object”. Suddenly, this “object” springs to life, roaring in an awesome and gigantic form –usually that of a flaming lingam, but here of a giant character: this is none other than Siwa, who thus reveals Himself as the greatest of the three gods, and indeed of all gods.

The illustration is a good example of the wealth of philosophical symbols found in the Balinese visual arts. It shows the presence and combination of the five elementals (Panca Maha Bhuta): water (Wisnu, here as a boar), fire (Brahma), earth (Pertiwi), air (the bird/sky/ Akasa) and the “Void” (the egg/Siwa). It also shows the dialectics of the ethereal and the earthly and how the gods and related forces governing the universe –the Trimurti gods of Brahma, Wisnu and Siwa– combine in an Ultimate Oneness.!

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