Interreligious Marriage: A Case of Balinese Tolerance

Culture | Written By, Jean Couteau |

The Balinese know tolerance not only as a proclamation of intention, but also as a daily social practice. For one thing, there is no Balinese who claims that his or her religion is the only keeper of truth. Truth, they use to say, is beyond the apprehension of human kind.

Joged Ngibing

The “ethical” endeavour in the direction of truth matters more than the ‘truth’ itself, which is relative anyway, and changes according to the place (desa), the time (kala) and the circumstances (patra). What matters – I once heard a puppet master say at the end of his show – is not God, nor the gods, but one’s deeds. Why? Because it is the quality of one’s deeds, good or bad, which will determines one’s karma, i.e, what will happen to the soul in hell and in its future incarnations.

Owing to this indifference to truth, all religions are sometimes said to be basically the same: they are, as a commonly used metaphor has it, like different rivers: they all originate from the mountain, and all end up in the sea. Only their beds are really different.  Only the “ways” of the various religions separate the faithful, not the essence, which is not the Truth proper, as emphasized above, but the endeavor toward the truth.

This tolerance is so total that Balinese Hinduism is possibly the only religion in the world that ignores the principle of apostasy. If people want to change religion, so be it. Why make a fuss, since it is all the same? The only thing that the Balinese demand in the matter is politeness: the person who wants to adopt another faith should officially “take leave” from his/her gods and ancestors by a short ceremony at the family and the village temples. Failing to do so, as it sometimes happens to men who change religion while outside Bali will incur –people are convinced—unwanted consequences (mental illness, sickness, accidents). Why so? Because of the “neglected” ancestors, enraged at not getting their usual offerings.

Not everything is rosy, though. Most of the Balinese who change religion are women, who don’t have inheritance rights. Men who change religion may lose their rights of inheritance, because property over the land is normally bound to the to the temple system. So, instead of changing religion, many Balinese men who marry non-Balinese women adopt a new religion –Christianity or Islam—without formally taking leave from their own Balinese Hinduism.  So they have two religions. But to them it is of little import, even though it sometimes creates interesting mix-ups when it comes to their ID card –it is more and more difficult to have two ID cards with a different religion written on each one.

If the Balinese show tolerance of those of their kinfolks who become Moslems of Christians, they also accept new followers originating from these groups. In practice though, most of the new Hindus are women of non-Balinese origin. The opposite occurences are rarer, although not impossible. This is a consequence of the patrilineal and patriarchal systems still prevalent among Indonesians, according to which the woman ought to follow her husband’s faith. Many Javanese women of “moderate” Moslem origin do not hesitate to shift religion upon marriage in order to follow their husband. Men who take up Hinduism are usually foreigners who marry Balinese women. The brand of agnosticism advocated by many Westerners has them embrace with enthusiasm a religious tradition with such few demands. The demands will come later on, and will be mainly of an economic nature, pertaining to the financing of rites and more.

Like everything else, the conferring of “Balinesehood” by marriage does not take place without its share of offerings. The girls – we assume this is a girl – has to undergo all the rituals pertaining to the cycles of life she missed as being non-Balinese, from the birth on. It is only upon completion of these rituals that she will be considered a “Balinese”.

The rituals of “becoming a Balinese” are a shortened version on of those undergone by born Balinese. They all take place in a row, just before the actual wedding ceremony. It starts with the birth rituals and the so-called “welcome” (nyambutin) ceremony, that normally takes place one month and seven days after birth. The offerings, called the “banten sayut pangambian”, consist of fruits, Balinese cakes and roast animals such as chicken, ducks and pigs. The nyambutin ceremony is immediately followed by the “three-months” ceremony (nelubulanin) by which the person is introduced into the human race, being given a name and allowed to “touch the ground” for the first time. Another set of offerings, the “banten suci,” is presented. Next comes the first Balinese anniversary (otonan), which celebrates the recurrence of the same day of the 210-day Balinese calender. The offerings are very similar to that of the three months ceremony. Following this anniversary comes symbolic version of the tooth-filling ceremony (matatah), by which the individual, having ““come of age”” shows symbolic control over the “six enemies” (sadripu) that plague the humans. These enemies being ritually kept under check, normal sexual desire can now be expressed. Only then the actual wedding ceremony takes place, which is not different from that of a couple of ordinary Balinese, with the highlight being the “mebiakala” offering to the demonic forces. Marriage is indeed a controlled exercise of sex: the demons, who symbolise the energy of matter, have to be placated before being properly used for their reproductive power.

When all the rituals are completed, the newcomer will then enjoy the status and right of a full Balinese. Later, she will be taught how to prepare offerings and take her share of collective village and family ritual work. She will enter the wonderful “banality” of Balinese daily life –if she accepts its constraints.

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Jean Couteau

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