The Idea of Morality in Balinese Culture

Culture | Written By, Jean Couteau |

Journalist Eric Buvelot and socio-ethnologist Jean Couteau have recorded 20 hours of discussion about changes that have happened in Bali since the 70’s. The conversation was structured and segmented according to many different aspects of Balinese life, mostly from a socio-historical perspective, to trace all the overturning in Balinese mores since 50 years, when modernity started to shape new behaviours.

Dr. Jean Couteau at the launching of his book, ‘Myth, Magic, and Mystery in Bali’

At the core of these changes, the birth of individuality in a communal society and the revolution it implies. The resulting changes have been more significant in 50 years than the ones happening during the previous millennium. At the end of this project, a 16-chapter book will be published with the purpose of measuring to what extent Bali has morphed in so little time, a work never done before, encompassing all Balinese social matters. This month, Eric and Jean discuss the idea of morality.

Eric Buvelot: What does it mean to be ‘moral’ in the Balinese perspective?

Jean Couteau : From a Balinese point of view, when faced with a decision to take, what primarily matters is not to be objectively ‘true’, but to be loyal to one’s group. If there is trouble, people will all quickly unite in facing down the ‘outside’ party. It is a fundamental principle in Balinese politics. One has seen it with regard to the issue of the Benoa Bay Reclamation project. All of a sudden, ‘everyone’ may front against the project. You better follow suit and align your position on that of your ‘own people’. If you dare take side against your community, you might end up being ostracised. Which under certain circumstances can mean that you and your family are banned from using the crematory grounds. With terrible consequences: the souls of your deceased parents won’t easily find release above the heavenly mountains – the goal of any life. So we must categorise morals in a different way.

E B: So, from your examples above, morality is not tied to individual responsibility?

J C: Yes, the norms above are defined by the group. But individual responsibility is also different. In Bali, people will tell you they are subjected to compelling intangible forces. For example, if your daughter loses her virginity to a local Don Juan, you can easily conclude that she is not responsible: she could not do anything against it. Not that she had been raped, but she was bewitched. The guy had such a magical ring that he could do anything he wanted with her… So here, the causation is not attributed to the individual, but to invisible niskala (unseen, intangible) forces. How to cope with it? Use similar means, go to a balian (shaman). A good one will be able to counter the harmful magic that befell your daughter. So actions are only marginally determined by individual responsibility.

E B: Are there standardised behavioural norms?

J C: Yes, of course. But without the moral rigidity attached one finds in the West. Those norms define the rules of togetherness at the level of the village, the banjar (neighbourhood association), the group of peers, the clan… I should nuance of course. The notion of karma is clearly individual, and Balinese society is quickly modernising, with individual responsibility in its wake. There are even psychologist and psychiatrist in Bali, and they don’t all turn into balian, like the most famous of them. So there are clearly tensions between the two aspects…

E B: To what extent do Balinese adopt modern behaviours today?

J C: It is hard to say. Today’s typical Balinese has a split personality. On the one side he/she will be modern, favour autonomy of the person and demand ‘honesty’. At other moments he/she will be traditional and accept the primacy of group norms. Where is the barrier and how to define it sociologically? Difficult to say. Perhaps 20 or 30% of the population, essentially among the urban youths, are primarily modern, i.e. autonomous individuals. Which does not mean that they don’t have left-overs from ancient beliefs in the depth of their mind. The older you are, the more your mind-set has been shaped by collective norms, by Bali such as it was before the introduction of cars, hand phones, TV and modern education. 

E B: Do you have any illustration?

J C: Let us say a young man drives a car. He has an accident. He just killed a motorcyclist. How might he rationalise it? He is not responsible for the accident. He will think, and be made to think, after a visit to a shaman, that the accident was caused by niskala intangible forces. The dead had to die before his time because he had left the ‘field of sorrows, i.e. the Balinese purgatory, too early, thus he had reincarnated before he had fully ‘paid his debt’ of hellish tortures. A similar lack of responsibility was recently argued in the case of a son who killed his father with a kris during a ritual trance.

E B: Are there other aspects to morality?

J C: Yes! We can note that the words that connote morality are all ‘foreign’ words. One uses the words adat, etos, moral, karma, tatwa, which are respectively of Arabic, European and Indian origin…

E B: Does it mean that those notions haven’t been thought about?

J C: In Bali, rather than talking about morals, thus about which side to take, the Balinese prefer to talk about balance between forces. During a condition of imbalance, the ‘lower’ forces take over our personality. One makes offering to re-establish balance. Hence the role of offerings.

E B: Does it mean that one accepts evil as well as good? Is there a balance between the two?

J C: Yes. But I don’t think we should conceptualise too much. It is one of the problems of the West. It creates boundaries where there were previously none. Yet, indeed there is a play of balance at work, which does not mean that people are not aware of what is evil and what is good. But the notion of good as opposed to evil, with a barrier between the two is a recent notion, which has been introduced by the Western and Arabic religious systems and by Civil Law.

E B: Yes, in the West and in the Arabic world evil must be annihilated!

J C: Otherwise, we have the idea of karma which penetrates ways of thinking here, even if it is also from foreign origins. It is the idea that stipulates there are consequences to one’s actions. More particularly, what Balinese called karma cicih, the consequences of someone’s actions during their life time. Different from karma with samsara which penetrates local mind-sets a lot more slowly. Indeed, to be reincarnated into a dog or a worm doesn’t seem to stress much the Balinese because here we reincarnate among the family circle, it is the ancestor cult which takes precedence.

E B: To close the discussion, is this changing today?

J C: Yes, the notion of karma pala is becoming increasingly operative with the Balinese. This implies that one does not necessarily reincarnate among one’s kin, if one’s sins are too important. Going back to the notion of individual responsibility discussed above, I must add that one does not only obey the demands of the group, but also those of a master. This accounts, as mentioned above, to the 1965-1966 slaughter of the communists. Those slaughters have been justified, among other things, by calling up ideology-laden notions such as the dharma. In the Bhagavad-Gita, one must side with the good of dharma, even if one must kill one’s cousins. It is what happened to Arjuna!

Note: Discussions between Eric and Jean will be published every 2 months, interspersed with Jean’s regular cultural column.

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Jean Couteau

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