Hinduism in Bali: Things You Need to Know

From its mountain-topped temples to its colorful and vibrant rituals, Bali is home to a truly unique form of Hinduism.

Jul 1, 2024By Cameron Mason, MA Social Anthropology, MSc Comparative Public Policy

hinduism bali things to know

 

Bali is a province of Indonesia located off the western edge of Java. It is the only Hindu-majority province in Indonesia and home to one of the most unique forms of the religion in the world. While Balinese Hinduism shares many similarities with its subcontinental kin, its vibrant ceremonies and remarkable temples mark out a visit to Bali as a truly special experience.

 

What is Hinduism?

A statue of Brahma, The Creator, 9th century, Java, Source: The MET Museum of Art

 

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions. Practiced by over a billion people today, Hinduism developed on the Indian subcontinent between 1302 and 1300 BCE. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit word “Sindhu,” the ancient Indo-Aryan name for the Indus River which flows from the Himalayas into northern India. Over time the river’s name was given to those who settled the surrounding land and it linguistically evolved to become “Hindu.” It is believed that religious leaders, or “sages” of the native Dravidian Indians as well as the Aryan immigrants who settled the Sindhu region received the “truth” through a series of revelations and ancient sacred texts.

 

Through the ages these texts were passed from generation to generation to become the oldest and most sacred scriptures of the Hindu religion: The Vedas. The word Vedas comes from the Sanskrit word vid which means “knowledge.” The Vedas provide Hindus with lessons, knowledge, and spiritual guidance to achieve a life of perfection.

 

Page from the Vedas, Codex Cashmiriensis folio 187a from Atharva-Veda Saṁhitā second half, compiled by William Dwight Whitney and Charles Rockwell Lanman, 1905, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

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Hindus believe in one all-encompassing and transcendent concept called the “Brahman” which is the existential source for all living and non-living beings on earth. According to the Vedas, all things have a soul or “atman,” and for all living beings life is a journey to realize the connection between one’s own atman and the Brahman.

 

By finally identifying with the Brahman, one will achieve salvation (moksha) and liberation from the material constraints of life on earth. This is known as the release from Samsara (reincarnation). According to the influential Hindu text, The Bhagavad-Gita, the identity of the Brahman is realized by pursuing three “paths:” The karma-marga (path of duties), the jnana-marga (path of knowledge), and the bhakti-marga (path of devotion). The idea is that these three paths will balance one’s karma and provide better social and economic prospects when reincarnating into the next life. Over time this will also move one closer to moksha—spiritual enlightenment—and a final emancipation from the banal everyday existence one experiences on earth.

 

How Hinduism Found its Way to Bali

Prambanan, a fine example of surviving Hindu temples on Java, photo by Suman Sinha, 9th century, Source: Flickr

 

Hinduism is believed to have arrived on the Indonesian Archipelago during the first millennium CE with Shaivist Hindu priests who traveled with merchants from the Indian subcontinent. During the summer months, many Indian traders would reach Indonesia by sailing eastward with the Southwest Monsoon trade winds. For the ruling Raka (local kings), the arrival of these holy men was seen as a gift from God and an opportunity to connect with the divine.

 

The Raka believed that the Hindu priests would allow them to channel god’s power on the battlefield, defeat their rivals, and prosper. Over the next 1500 years Indonesia saw the establishment of several significant and powerful Hindu-Buddhist Kingdoms, most notably the Kingdoms of the Kutai-Martadipura, the Srivijaya and the Majapahit. However, this golden age for Hinduism on the archipelago would not last. The rise of Islam to the west around the 15th century saw the arrival of a new religion that brought powerful armies that would substantially change the archipelago’s religious complexion.

 

A Balinese Family celebrates Kintamani Festival, by Sue, Source: Flickr

 

The arrival of Islam was significant because as with other monotheistic religions like Christianity, the polytheist beliefs of the Hindus were suppressed. This resulted in many Hindus fleeing eastward to the safety of the islands off the coast of what is today known as Java. Significantly, at that time the island of Bali was part of the Buddist-Hindu Majapahit Kingdom, one of the last major Hindu kingdoms in Indonesia.

 

As the kingdom fell and Islam took hold, a combination of Bali’s deeply institutionalized beliefs and physical isolation kept Hinduism alive and away from Islamic ideas. Balinese Hinduism continued to flourish, yet it was not until 1958 that Balinese Hinduism was officially recognized by the Indonesian government.

 

While Dutch colonizers were effective at curbing religious violence between Muslims and Hindus, Hinduism’s polytheistic traits were still counter to the Islamic Indonesian Government’s belief that only monotheistic faiths could be recognized as official religions. However, in 1958 modernizers argued that their faith did indeed emphasize a belief in an undivided and unified God, and finally convinced the Indonesian Government to recognize Balinese Hinduism. This meant the rights of Balinese Hindus were finally secured in the country’s constitution with the passing of the Joint Ministerial Decree No. 1 in 1958.

 

Hinduism in Bali Today

A man organizes an offering at a Hindu Temple in Ubud, Bali, by Dr. Matthias Ripp, Source: Flickr

 

Today, according to the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs it is estimated that there are 6,500,000 Indonesian Hindus, with the majority of those living in Bali. Like its relative in India, Balinese Hinduism teaches that the ultimate discovery of Brahman is achieved through life experience rather than formal religious institutions, and it shares the belief that all living beings have a soul and are part of the cycle of samara. As a result, Balinese Hindus share a similar caste system with their Indian kin (the belief that the higher the caste one reincarnates into, the closer one is to realizing the truth of Brahman and finding final salvation).

 

Much like their Indian kin, the Balinese also believe that enlightenment is achieved through Pura, the daily act of worship. Pura is performed in both homes and temples and involves various ceremonies featuring offerings, prayers, music, and dance.

 

What Makes Balinese Hinduism so Unique? 

 

Temples

Looking down over the Mother Temple of Besakih, by Juan Antonia Segal, Source: Flickr

 

While Balinese Hindus retain many beliefs similar to their subcontinental neighbors, they maintain several unique differences that stem from the way Hinduism on Bali has mixed with traditional Balinese animist beliefs over the centuries. This has resulted in the development of a colorful and deeply spiritual conception of Hinduism premised on the need to maintain balance and harmony in the relationship between humans, the gods, and nature.

 

This idea can be seen in the architectural design and geographic location of the island’s 20,000 plus temples. For example, many temples have been constructed in specific locations to correspond with the sacred kara-kelod axis that reflect traditional Balinese beliefs that Kara, the mountains are hallowed places and that Kelod, the sea, is the realm of the underworld. With the island’s highest volcano, Ganung Agung, considered a deeply sacred site, one, therefore, finds one of the most important Hindu temples in Indonesia there: The Mother Temple of Besakih.

 

Ulun Danu Bratan Temple, Bali, Source: Flickr

 

The Mother Temple of Besakih is one of nine other Kahyangan Jagat temples (directional temples) that have been strategically placed around the island to maintain its spiritual balance. With each temple dedicated to a specific deity, they face outward in all eight wind directions for protection with The Mother Temple of Besakih at its center. They have been configured to foresee and repel any attack by evil spirits.

 

For example, the picturesque Pura Ulun Danu Bratan Temple, located on the shores of Lake Bratan, was built in homage to the Balinese river goddess Dewi Danu. Through pura to Dewi Danu, it is believed the sacred waters of Lake Bratan, which support much of central Bali’s agriculture, will be protected from malevolent forces.

 

Ceremonies 

Cremation Ceremony, Bali, by William Cho, Source: Flickr

 

Because temples are key spiritual centers where the visible and invisible world meet, they have huge cultural and ceremonial importance. Ceremonies are an essential part of Balinese Hindu life because they are considered part of the bhakti-marga path to salvation.

 

A key part of these ceremonies is the practice of Pura and the process of identifying the multiple places, strata, and periods of human life that link oneself with Brahman. However, what is unique about Balinese Pura are the colorful and vibrant practices of music, dance, and religious offerings that differentiate it from its Indian counterpart. In much the same way as the temples are designed to maintain balance and harmony in and between the material and spiritual realms, Balinese Pura seeks to do the same but in five notably different ways. These are known as the Panca Yadnya, or “holy offerings,” made up of five unique Balinese practices:

 

1. In Balinese Hinduism, instead of Brahman the supreme spiritual source is known as Acintya, and during the sacred ritual of Dewa Yadnya shrines and temples are colorfully decorated, and fruit, flowers, and meat are offered to Acintya’s various manifestations. Through prayer, dance, and worship the ritual of Dewa Yadnya is seen as a way of connecting to Acintya by demonstrating one’s devotion and gratitude. It takes place on major holidays and is often timed to coincide with the Balinese sacred year of Pawukon.

 

2. Manusa Yadnya is known as the life cycle ritual and is closely associated with the idea of Samsara. As Hinduism teaches that every action performed leaves an impression on one’s mind, to achieve perfection in life one must be given spiritual “food” to ensure the mind remains strong and healthy. Importantly, this ritual is about mental and spiritual cleansing and maintaining one’s purity.

 

Statue of Ganesh, Bali, by Artem Baliaikin, Source: Unsplash

 

3. Similar to Indian Hindus, Balinese Hindus believe in the performance of post-mortem rituals like cremation. Cremation rituals are vital because Hindus believe in helping the deceased let go of the physical world so they can achieve spiritual liberation. In Bali, this ritual has its own unique traits and is known as Pitra Yadnya. These colorful and grand processions can regularly be seen being performed all over the island.

 

4. Bhuta Yadnya is arguably one of the most important daily rituals for Balinese Hindus as it maintains balance and harmony in the material world by appeasing and placating evil spirits. Balinese Hindus believe that spirits are divine and demonic based on how they are treated and by placating malevolent spirits they can be transformed into divine and protective beings.

 

5. Finally, there is Rsi Yadnya. Rsi Yadnya is important to the Balinese as it honors their priests and religious leaders and gives thanks for the spiritual guidance they provide. The Balinese make sure they are supported through the provision of food and monetary donations.

 

Hinduism in Bali: Conclusion

Pura Bratan Water Temple in Bali, by Norbert Braun, Source: Unsplash

 

While Balinese Hinduism shares many similarities with its subcontinental relative, as shown it differs in several ways. This can be attributed to Hindu ideas from the subcontinent arriving on Bali and fusing over the centuries with local traditions, customs and beliefs. In time this has created a form of Hinduism that makes Bali a truly original and extraordinary place to visit.

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By Cameron MasonMA Social Anthropology, MSc Comparative Public PolicyCameron is a freelance writer currently based in Vietnam. He has an MA in Social Anthropology and an MSc in Comparative Public Policy, both from the University of Edinburgh.