BALINESE COSMOLOGY : GOD AS COSMOS

Culture | Written By, NOW! BALI |

The concept of God in Bali is the opposite of the “Mediterranean” concept of an Absolute Oneness contracting in itself all the manifestations of Being. God consists on the contrary of the endless, at once creative and destructive, expansion of an initial energy – in today’s Bali called the Brahman – that takes in its own process an infinity of forms, names, and manifestations…

TEXT by jean couteau illustration by dewa putu kantor

The concept of God in Bali is the opposite of the “Mediterranean” concept of an Absolute Oneness contracting in itself all the manifestations of Being. God consists on the contrary of the endless, at once creative and destructive, expansion of an initial energy – in today’s Bali called the Brahman – that takes in its own process an infinity of forms, names, and manifestations – which are the individual gods, and whose totality is the Universe (Bhwana Agung) itself.

There are many names for this original energy: Atintya (the Unknowable), Siwa Raditya, (Sun, of which the individual gods are but the rays) – or literally dewas. He may also be Sang Hyang ParamaKawi (the Ultimate Creator), Sang Hyang ParamaSiwa (the Ultimate Siwa), Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa (the Controlling Destiny) Sang Hyang Embang (the Void) and Sang Hyang Tuduh (Fate) etc. Thus God is One because He is also multiple. He “pervades the pervading” (wyapi-wyapaka) as described in the classical poem Arjuna Wiwaha. 

The world (Bhwana agung) is indeed a living totality uniting spiritual (dewa) and material (buta) elements in an unending process of transformation. The dynamics of the system are activated by the combination of the three forces of: creation (utpeti); balance (stitti); and destruction (pralina), respectively embodied in the three primal gods of Brahma, Wisnu and Siwa.

These three trimurti gods then turn into the four gods of the cardinal points (caturdewa), which become five (pancadewata) by inclusion of the centre, then 8 (astadewata) by inclusion of the intermediate directions, nine (dewata nawa sanga) with the centre again, etc. until the Oneness merges into the infinite. All the directions mentioned, and more, do have their corresponding gods. This cosmic totality is symbolized by the pangider-ider (cosmic wheel), which contains all the elements of creation: directions, gods, demons, weapons, days, animals, plants etc. As the wheel turns, gods transform themselves into one-another and their opposites, hence into the Supreme. Man is understood as a microcosm (bhwana alit) of this system, and thus structural duplicate of the Universe (bhwana agung), with cosmic gods and “demons” inhabiting the self. He is as such subjected to a similar process of dynamic transformation as the larger world: the samsara transmigration of the soul, from one incarnation to the other.

This incarnation, which binds the soul to a body, is considered a hellish condition, resulting in one’s enslavement by “desires”. Thus everyone should strive to overcome one’s “desires” and ultimately achieve moksa (enlightenment) and melt into one’s cosmic equivalent, meaning that the soul rejoins the cosmic soul (Paramatma) and the body rejoins the cosmic elementals (Panca Maha Bhuta).

The painting and drawing presented here (to the left and above) are a visualisastion of this cosmic concept of the divine. The painting by Dewa Nyoman Batuan, to the left is a mandala, a representation of the world. At its centre stands Atintya, the Supreme God. In front of the latter a man sitting in the lotus position is meditating in an effort to “unite” with the cosmic whole. The circle features the world and its natural content. Here the gods, directions and other elements are not featured. They are replaced by “living” plants from the real world. But one finds them in the second and more traditional representation of the cosmic wheel (above), where the weapons symbolize the gods of the pangider-ider, and occupy the directions of the compass.
Going back to the first painting, the “eyes” to the upper right and left of the work express the pervading wiyapi-wiyapaka (presence of the Supreme God). The monstrous head and feet at the bottom of the work represent the cosmic tortoise, the foundation of the earth, whereas the snake to the right represents the pervasiveness of earthly bonds and desires.!

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

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