Compte Rendu

by Clifford Geertz

Hinduism and Hierarchy in Bali
Leo Howe
Oxford/UK 2001: James Currey, + Santa Fe/N.M./USA 2001: School of American Research Press, 227 p. (« World Anthropology »).

Pura Besakih: Temple, Religion and Society in Bali
David J. Stuart-Fox

Leiden/NED 2002: KITLV Press, 470 p.


"Is Bali still Bali ?" This anxious, indeterminate question, whether asked by tourists (upwards of four million in 2000, against a local population of about three million), by other Indonesians (two hundred  and twelve million of those, for most  of whom the island is at once a priceless  national treasure and a curious and exotic implant in their Islamico-Austronesian  culture), by hotel builders, art exporters,  and other hopeful investors, or, as here, by  concerned and puzzled anthropologists trying to connect the present to the past  and divine the future, drives just about all  attempts to get beyond the surfaces of this  all-too-glittering, all-too-famous place. The island », the grave and sedulous  Dutch ethnographer, V. E. Korn, once  remarked, «has its beauty against it.» Worse, the beauty keeps changing.


These two careful and well-written  works, one by a British social anthropologist with a long record of village-based  fieldwork in Bali, the other by an  Australian ethnologist and philologist, who  has spent decades there researching a single subject, the changing role of its largest and most important religious site, both seem haunted by this issue : how can one determine  when something has stopped being  what it was and become, instead, something  else ? For the social anthropologist,  Leo Howe, the question presents itself  terms of the persistence of traditional notions of religious and political hierarchy  amid the growth of India-inspired devotional  movements counter-active to both. For the ethnologist-philologist, David Stuart-Fox, it takes the form of a struggle  bring about a certain minimum uniformity  of belief and practice» at Pura  Besakih, the centuries old «pinnacle  hierarchy» temple-complex on the slopes  of the sacred volcano, Mount Agung, while  trying to maintain, somehow, «a healthy  respect for tradition» (p. 316).  


Howe deals, succinctly and assuredly, not always as conclusively as his tone suggests,  with a wide range of concerns and debates in the ethnographic literature on Bali : precolonial state organization, the impact of Dutch rule on elite formation,  the recent «inflation » in traditionallybased status claims, the « politics of caste the uncertain and uneasy relation between kings and priests in the classical state, the  impact of Indonesian nationalism on Balinese self-perception. But his main  focus, and the most original part of his  book, is on religious change, which he sees as threatening (or promising) a top-tobottom  re-configuration of Balinese social, political, and cultural life.  


The ultimate origins of this change lie in the rise of anti-ritualistic, anti-hierarchical, ethico-salvationalist reform movements in India during the first half of the  last century – Tagore, Gandhi, and Vivekenanda, Krishna Bhakti and Sai Baba. When, after Indonesian independence  in 1950, Balinese intellectuals began to concern themselves, virtually for the  first time, with the place of their culture, their religion, and themselves, all three  unreflectively «Hindu », within the generally Muslim-toned context of the archipelago, a number of the more restive of them looked to the teachings of such movements for a more explicit and more  systematic conception of their inherited practice. Versions of the Indian currents began to appear in Bali, vernacular translations of Indian devotional and theological  texts were made, and a form of religious  universalism, «detached from existing local institutions and instead linked to religious movements well beyond both Bali  and Indonesia» (p. 141) arose and flourished. «Hinduism», previously a complex of unsystematized local traditions, «mere custom», became, if still only for a small but influential minority, a «proper religion» with a «book» and a «doctrine», worthy of recognition by the world and  the state.  


Or rather, several of such currents. The heart of Howe’s study consists of summary  and admittedly uncircumstantial descriptions of three of these new, still inchoate spiritualities: a priest-led scripturalist movement, Parisada Hindu Dharma  Indonesia, which he seems to regard as a timid and elitist pawn of the state ; a local  version of the radically antinomian streetworship  streetworship  cult, Hari Krishna, which in Bali,  as elsewhere, is a furtive fringe affair of social isolates; and Sai Baba, the best organized  and, so far, the most consequential  of the devotionalist cults, which has  become, Howe thinks, the leading edge of religious change on the island. «As Baba  [the Indian founder of the cult] becomes  the centre of their lives […] the [members]  become conscious that they belong to a worldwide "imagined community" […].  Seeing oneself as "Balinese" assumes less significance […]. The devotee is turned  inside out» (p. 181).  


Stuart-Fox’s study, an unrevised and  rather shapeless doctoral thesis, is more historical, more circumstantial, and less adventurous than Howe’s, focused as it is  on a single, well-worked subject: «The  story of […] Bali’s paramount temple from its beginnings [perhaps as early as the ninth century, though no one really knows] up until the mid 1980s » (p. VII). The pura (that is, «temple») at Besakih is not a single structure, but a complex of no  less than eighty-six of them – twenty-two  state shrines, fifty-three descent group  shrines, eleven locality shrines. Strung down along the mid-to-lower ridges of Agung, a ten thousand foot all-too-active  volcano in eastern Bali (it has seen at least  ten major, widely destructive eruptions between 1543 and 1963), this complex of  towers, bulwarks, pavilions, stairways,  merus, and terraces, all laid out in geosymbolic  form, is the focus of the largest and most comprehensive rituals on the  island, involving thousands of people,  offerings, observances and more recently, as government financing has become involved, rupiah.  


Stuart-Fox describes the various temples,  their positioning, their layout, and their functioning in great detail, and sets the whole, somewhat loosely, in its social context. There are useful discussions of the physical setting, of traditional village organization, of «the hierarchy of ritual elaboration», and of the relations between «the  temple and the state», all based on careful examination of classical inscriptions, palmleaf (lontar) manuscripts, Dutch-collected legal compendia, and on-the-spot field  inquiry. But the real interest for nonspecialist reader of his precisionistic book, cluttered as it is with terms, diagrams, notes, and listings designed to appeal to  Bali-ologists, is likely to be in his recounting of the recent vicissitudes of the shrine and of the ceremonies staged there.  


Between 1960 and 1996 – that is, in the  years preceding and following the bloody regime change in Indonesia, which took a particularly severe form in Bali – no less than five massive, grand and grandiose rituals, designed to cleanse the island of evil  influences and restore its moral equilibrium, were staged at Besakih. The largest and most important of these, the twomonth long « Ekadasa Rudra » of 1963, a rite long described in traditional texts but rarely, if ever, actually enacted, was dramatically  interrupted by a massive eruption of Mount Agung that killed a couple thousand people, destroyed vast areas of  farm land, and (in the earthquakes that followed the eruption) severely damaged the temple. Naturally enough, the general interpretation of the Balinese of this calamity was that they had somehow angered the gods, a view the popular massacres  – tens of thousands dead – that followed  the failed coup in Jakarta a couple of years later only reinforced. A number of  other large-scale purification ceremonies,  including a corrective re-doing of the  Ekadasa Rudra in 1979, were held in rapid  succession, paradoxically increasing the  general importance of the temple even further: «Ekadasa Rudra 1979 had considerably  greater impact than that of 1963. The Indonesian mass media brought the ceremony to a far wider audience […]. [The]  expansion of Hindu organization throughout  Indonesia […] brought Hindus from  other parts of the nation […]. [The] central government provided a sizeable financial  contribution... President [Suharto]  attended... accompanied by ministers  and other high dignitaries... [marking] Hinduism as an official religion [and]  Besakih as [its] national […] sanctuary»  (pp. 333-334).  


Howe’s and Stuart Fox’s books were written just before the terrorist bombing at Kuta Beach in 2002, followed by the SARS panic the following year, changed all the  parameters, clouding Bali’s economic  future (tourism declined by more than a third, though it has now slowly begun to  revive) and its sense of remoteness from  the springs and centers of world disorder.  But, as both, perceptive, exact, and wellresearched, clearly demonstrate, Bali not only remains Bali, but it has within it an  enormous resilience – a refined ability not only to change, but to change in ways that maintain, through all sorts of intrusions, fashions, assaults, and upheavals, its deep,  insuppressible originality.



Compte rendu (Book review), in: L'homme. Revue française d'anthropologie, no. 169 (2004; no. spécial "Le sorcier, le nom, la filiation"), pp. 285-287


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