The survival of Balinese Hinduism

Breathe in the sweet essence. Be dazzled by the bright visual impact, by the riotous colours. Enjoy the textures of soft petals and lace, of brass and stone. Find yourself moving to the rhythm of clanging gongs. It is impossible to stay in Bali and not experience but a little of the sensory feast of the Hindu faith here. As Jay Hemman has discovered, Balinese Hinduism is alive and well, and apparently determined to forge a path well into the future…

From the old lady patiently weaving strips of leaf into small baskets for offerings to the young child barely walking being wrapped in ceremonial cloth, every Balinese person is intimately involved in the faith and is, at the same time, an essential expression of Balinese Hinduism.

What you can experience as a visitor to Bali is just an introduction to the all-pervasive nature of the religion, one which has survived generations of potentially threatening influences. The Balinese do not act out their faith, they live it, and expressions of faith are perceived to be essential to survival.They are continually immersed in Hinduism, and their daily actions are an expression of it. It is arguably one of the most intense personal experiences, one of the most wholistic of all faiths in its expresssion.

Although the Hindu faith is, in fact, one of a few faiths represented in Bali, its overwhelming majority presence is clear and is made all the more obvious by the colourful and extravagant nature of the religion, particularly in its Balinese form.

The sheer number of ceremonial occassions as well as daily ritualistic requirements, the importance of colourful dress in each of these, the emphasis on size resulting in larger than life effigies and fruit towers as displays of loyalty to the faith – these demonstrate Hinduism’s central presence in the local community and reflect its importance.

The faith is now so much a part of the Balinese identity and daily lifestyle that it is impossible to consider it as anything separate to the island culture, and to be Balinese now implies much of what the Hindu faith encompasses. This intensely personal involvement is, perhaps, the key to the faith’s incredible survival.


A blend of faiths and traditions

The form of Hinduism that is unique to Bali is called Agama Hindu Dharma, which is really a blend of Shivaism and Buddhism. Having originated from Java, this form of Hinduism origianlly came down from India before becoming established in the East Javan Majapahit Empire, finally moving across to Bali when Islam swept through Java from the west, wiping out pre-established beliefs. Hinduism merged with indigenous beliefs to create the fascinating blend of theological interpretation with more tribal rituals.

The strong emphasis on the power of nature and the natural elements and of the ancestors reflect the persistent presence of indigenous beliefs in Balinese Hinduism.  Spirits control or guide each of the natural elements, and these spirits must be worshipped and appeased regularly in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium. Each of these spirits is housed in a specially made shrine and given offerings with material value and to provide physical sustenance.


The underlying principle which shapes the Hindu beliefs is the notion that the universe is specifically ordered and organised rather than haphazardly random, but that a balance must be kept between the negative and positive forces to maintain this order. The essence of Hinduism, then, is the desire to promote equilibrium between order (dharma) and disorder (adharma). Every living and non-living thing is an integral part of the ordered whole of the universe, and therefore actions must always be considered in relation to how they affect others. One’s actions, or karma, must therefore be in harmony with dharma in order to make a positive contribution to the world.

The pervasive and all-powerful God who is ultimately responsible for maintaining order in the universe has many functions and is known by many names. The principle forms are: Brahma, who is in charge of Creation; Wisnu, who is the god of Providence; and Siwa, the god of Dissolution.

The belief in reincarnation (samsara) provides Hindus with the incentive to act according to dharma and behave appropriately. Suffering either immeditaely or at some time in one’s future is the direct result of failing to consider the consequences of your actions. Ultimately the future form one takes after death will depend on how successful they have been in this quest, the cycle of death and new life continuing until eventually the soul is freed from desire and blends in with the universe in a state known as moksa. 

Balinese Hinduism in practice

Rituals are the vehicle for maintaining this order, and in Bali these rituals are particularly colourful and elaborate. There are numerous different rituals for a number of different purposes, but the main function of these rituals is to call down the gods and the ancestors and entertain and feed them.

The rituals which aim to protect the human body through each phase of life, or manusa yadnya, are the most prominent of these rituals. These are rites of passage which follow through each phase of development, including birth, first teeth, puberty, and marriage. There are 13 different rites of passage in all, so Balinese communities are constantly involved in preparations for or participation in ceremonial celebrations of one form or another.

The rituals which are responsible for cleansing and exorcising demonic forces are know as the buta yadnya  rituals. The small canang offerings placed on the ground at the doors to compounds and on busy intersections, for example, are designed to appease these demons and protect the inhabitants.

Those rituals which are directed to the gods are known as the dewa yadnya rituals. Temple festivals, or odalan,are the most prominant of these rituals. As there are a number of different types of temples – including household temples, the three temples standard to every village, regional temples, state temples, irrigation temples, and community organisation (banjar) temples – the number of temple festivals the Balinese participate in is significant.

Pitri yadnya rituals are ceremonies for the dead, preparing the body for cremation and the aftermath. These are particularly elaborate and colourful displays which invariably involve the whole village in the building of huge sarcophaguses and towers ready for the parade… and final burning of the body.

Because the aim of Balinese Hinduism is to maintain the equilibrium between order and disorder, or good and evil – rather than simply aiming to wipe out evil forces and promote the good – the Balinese accept both the positive and negative as part of the whole, and the aim is to occupy the centre position. The three positions are reflected in every part of Balinese life, and are represented in all physical arrangements.

The mountain in the centre of the island, Mount Agung, is considered to be the Holy Mother and is central to Balinese Hinduism. Reaching into the spiritual world above, Mount Agung represents the upper spiritual level, while the earth itself represents the neutral “central” position, and the sea the profane world below.

The human body itself is thought to be a representation of these three levels, with the head representing the spiritual heavenly world (swah), the body representing the human world (buwah), and the feet representing the evil underworld (bhur). Many aspects of Balinese life are similarly patterned on these three levels, including the whole village organisation as well as the construction of temples and houses, with the spiritual rooves, neutral main structure and profane flooring.

The spiritual orientation, known as kaja, is towards Mount Agung, while the direction towards the sea, which is considered to be profane, is known as kelod. All villages are placed in a position that orientates the buildings towards holy Mount Agung, as are the rooms in the buildings, and the furniture within those buildings.

The head temple in a village (which is devoted to Wisnu), for example, is positioned nearest Mount Agung, while the cemetry and the temple devoted to the dissolver of life (Siwa) is in the seaward position, and the main village temple (devoted to Brahma, the creator of life) is in the centre.

In a typical Balinese household compound, the family temple is in the kaja position, while the garbage and animals are placed in the kelod position. The family will sleep in a series of small rooms bordering a central courtyard. Within these rooms, one must sleep with the feet pointing towards the ocean and the head facing to the centre of the island where the holy mountain is.

These orientations affect daily habits and customs as well. Because the head is considered to be the sacred part of the body, the Balinese do not touch each other on the head, even to pat small children. It is impolite to step over the top of someone or to point with the feet, as the feet are considered to be profane, and the Balinese will not walk underneath a line of washing because they want to avoid subjecting the head to the impurity of lower parts of the body, which are in contact with the earth and earthly desires.

Passing on the Hindu Faith

The Hindu religion has maintained continuing relevance and been ensured of longevity through the determined formal teaching of the religion in schools and official religious organisations as well as through the committed support of family and neighbourhood organisations who live and breathe the faith and whose daily lives are saturated with its essence.

As well as learning about the five major religions recognised by the government, local states are also permitted to teach their particular religion in more detail. Classes offered for each religion can vary from school to school according to the particular religious makeup of each school. In Bali, as the school populations are predominantly Balinese, Hinduism is usually offered to all students. Children start elementary school at age seven, and from then on they will be offered a one-and-a-half-hour Hindu class once a week. These classes continue through all levels of school until the final years, when children are up to 20 years old.

Each child is provided with a small textbook for each year of schooling, which includes information, diagrams and exercises designed to instruct children in the fundamentals of the Hindu faith. Some of very first lessons are an introduction to the basic Hindu postures and behaviours. The Hindu greeting “Om Swastyastu” is the first of these, and there are illustrations showing the appropriate manner for different situations, including greeting another child the same age and greeting a priest. The appropriate hand gestures are also carefully illustrated, and the relevant Tri Sandya mantra is written out verse by verse for memorising.

The diagrams provided for the purposes of demonstrating positions for meditation are particularly interesting, as they show worshippers in acceptable positions along with the thought processes that are going on in their minds in a cloud above. Two men are shown sitting and standing in the correct positions, thinking holy thoughts about God, while a woman is shown sitting in the correct position but thinking about riding on the back of a motorbike with her boyfriend. The captions explain that while the men have the correct concentration, the woman is incorrect and is having problems with her concentration. Also included in the curriculum are examples of the correct ways of thinking, speaking and acting.

The initial lessons in Hinduism, therefore, focus on appropriate behaviours designed to get the child into the habit of religiously practicing the faith on a regular basis and as a part of their daily routine. This integration into the faith from an early age is no doubt part of the reason why children become absorbed into the religion quickly and easily and why, subsequently, religious devotion tends to remain strong throughout life.

The next lessons move on to the theological fundamentals of the faith, including descriptions of the three major forms of God, Dewa Brahma, Dewa Wisnu, and Dewa Siwa. Following this is an identification of figures of authority and teachers of the Hindu faith. By encouraging a respect for elders, there is a strong channel for religious and social morality. Parents, teachers, police, and priests are all identified as sources of authority and information.

Elsewhere, important religious events are highlighted and explained, such as Hari Raya Nyepi, Siwaratri, Saraswati, Galungan, and Kuningan. These are events that have their origin in Hindu religious practice but have become distinctly Balinese. As participation in these events is mandatory, an understanding of the value of these events is crucial for young Balinese, who will be active participants in these ceremonies from a very early age – helping to prepare decorations and offerings, performing dances, and so on.

Behaviours, beliefs, sources of information and authority, and important religious dates continue to form the basic structure of the curriculum from then on. By the later years of school, the teaching becomes much more technical with more detailed information in each of these areas, but with a particular focus on understanding theology. Lessons will also take a more theoretical direction, with discussions of the relationships between philosophy, religion and science. The historical development of the religion will be dealt with, and the important stories of the Balinese Hindu faith are examined closely.

Because prayers and ceremonies for special occasions are also practiced by schools, there are opportunities for the children to practice their faith in the community context and in the school setting. Each day five to ten mintues will be set aside for formal prayers, and then offerings are prepared for ceremonies of religious importance.

By ensuring that all areas of development are covered, the religion once again more easily becomes a naturally integrated part of daily life.

The pervasiveness of Balinese Hinduism

Bali is considered to be unique amongst many cultures around the world because of the way the Hindu religion has maintained a central position in all daily and local affairs for both individuals and communities. Very few cultures can boast the persistent presence of a rich cultural heritage which permeates the community so strongly, and which has remained relatively unaffected by a number of possible external influences, including mass tourism.

The distinctive bright colours associated with the Balinese culture which can be attributed to religious devotion  –  the bright pinks, yellows and greens of the fruit from the high  banten offerings carried on the head to temple festivals; the reds, purples and yellows of the flower petals used in the smaller canang offerings; the bright coloured sarungkamben and kebaya worn on religious occasions; the striking black and gold contrasts of the sarcophagus and the mourners at cremations  –  all of these are striking visual reminders of  the pervasiveness of the faith.

The average Balinese person would spend at least 25% of their waking hours preparing for or participating in religious ceremonies, including everything from buying the materials needed to make offerings, decorations and food for feasting on, to actually constructing the offerings and decorative items used and preparing the food.

With such a comprehensive approach to faith, the religion is bound to maintain its overwhelmingly central position well into the future. And, with such a sincere and colourful foundation underpinning all development, the future potentially looks bright. Very bright.

©1998 Gaia Grant

Gaia Grant (PhD) is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Sydney Business School in the Discipline of Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, focusing on research into innovation paradoxes and ambidextrous leadership. Gaia is also a Director of Tirian Innovative Solutions, & the co-author (with Andrew Grant) of a number of books including ‘The Innovation Race’, and “Who Killed Creativity?”.

Andrew Grant is the Director of Tirian Innovative Solutions, and co-author (with Dr Gaia Grant) of a number of books including ‘The Innovation Race’, and “Who Killed Creativity?”.