by Clifford Geertz
Hinduism and Hierarchy in Bali
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
online source: http://lhomme.revues.org/docannexe/260/12asie-hom-1-2004.pdf
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