"Internal Conversion" in Contemporary Bali


by Clifford Geertz


Every race has its lumber-room of magical beliefs and practices, and many such survivals are gracious and beautiful and maintain the continuity of a civilization. It is to be hoped that modern materialist ideas will not obliterate them entirely and leave Malay culture jejune.

RICHARD WINSTEDT, The Malay Magician


We hear much these days about political and economic modernization in the new states of Asia and Africa, but little about religious modernization. When not ignored entirely, religion tends to be viewed either as a rigidly archaic obstacle to needed progress or a beleaguered conservator of precious cultural values threatened by the corrosive powers of rapid change. Little attention is paid to religious development in and of itself, to regularities of transformation which occur in the ritual and belief systems of societies undergoing comprehensive social revolutions. At best, we get studies of the role that established religious commitments and identifications play in political or economic processes. But our view of Asian and African religions as such is oddly static. We expect them to prosper or decline; we do not expect them to change.


With respect to Bali, perhaps the most richly stocked lumber-room of gracious and beautiful magical beliefs and practices in Southeast Asia, such an approach is virtually universal, and the dilemma of choosing between a quixotic cultural antiquarianism and a barren cultural materialism seems, therefore, to be an especially cruel one. In this essay, I want to suggest that this dilemma is, in all likelihood, a false one, that the continuity of Balinese civilization can be maintained though the fundamental nature of its religious life be totally transformed. And further, I want to point to a few faint, uncertain signs that such a transformation is in fact already under way.



The Concept of Religious Rationalization


In his great work on comparative religion, the German sociologist Max Weber set forth a distinction between two idealized polar types of religions in world history, the "traditional" and the "rationalized," which, if it is overgeneralized and incompletely formulated, is yet a useful starting point for a discussion of the process of genuinely religious change.1


The axis of this contrast turns upon a difference in the relationship between religious concepts and social forms. Traditional religious concepts ( Weber also calls them magical) rigidly stereotype established social practices. Inextricably bound up with secular custom in an almost point-for-point manner, they draw "all branches of human activity . . . into the circle of symbolic magic" and so insure that the stream of everyday existence continues to flow steadily within a fixed and firmly outlined course.2 Rationalized concepts, however, are not so thoroughly intertwined with the concrete details of ordinary life. They are "apart," "above," or "outside" of them, and the relations of the systems of ritual and belief in which they are embodied to secular society are not intimate and unexamined but distant and problematic. A rationalized religion is, to the degree that it is rationalized, self-conscious and worldlywise. Its attitude to secular life may be various, from the resigned acceptance of genteel Confucianism to the active mastery of ascetic Protestantism; but it is never naive.3


With this difference in relationship between the religious realm and the secular goes a difference also in the structure of the religious realm itself. Traditional religions consist of a multitude of very concretely defined and only loosely ordered sacred entities, an untidy collection of fussy ritual acts and vivid animistic images which are able to involve themselves in an independent, segmental, and immediate manner with almost any sort of actual event. Such systems (for, despite their lack of formal regularity, they are systems) meet the perennial concerns of religion, what Weber called the "problems of meaning"--evil, suffering, frustration, bafflement, and so on--piecemeal. They attack them opportunistically as they arise in each particular instance--each death, each crop failure, each untoward natural or social occurrence--employing one or another weapon chosen, on grounds of symbolic appropriateness, from their cluttered arsenal of myth and magic. (With respect to the less defensive activities of religion--the celebration of human continuity, prosperity, and solidarity--the same strategy is employed.) As the approach to fundamental spiritual issues which traditional religions take is discrete and irregular, so also is their characteristic form.


Rationalized religions, on the other hand, are more abstract, more logically coherent, and more generally phrased. The problems of meaning, which in traditional systems are expressed only implicitly and fragmentarily, here get inclusive formulations and evoke comprehensive attitudes. They become conceptualized as universal and inherent qualities of human existence as such, rather than being seen as inseparable aspects of this or that specific event. The question is no longer put merely in such terms as, to use a classic example from the British anthropologist Evans-Pritchard, "Why has the granary fallen on my brother and not on someone else's brother?" but rather, "Why do the good die young and the evil flourish as the green bay tree?"4 Or, to escape from the conventions of Christian theodicy, not, "By what means can I discover who practiced witchcraft against my brother, thereby causing the granary to fall on him?" but, "How can one know the truth?" Not, "What specific actions must I perform in order to wreak vengeance upon the witch?" but, "What are the bases upon which punishment of evildoers can be justified?" The narrower, concrete questions, of course, remain; but they are subsumed under the broader ones, whose more radically disquieting suggestions they therefore bring forward. And with this raising of the broader ones in a stark and general form arises also the need to answer them in an equally sweeping, universal, and conclusive manner.


The so-called world religions developed, Weber argued, as responses to the appearance in an acute form of just this sort of need. Judaism, Confucianism, Philosophical Brahmanism, and, though on the surface it might not seem to be a religion at all, Greek Rationalism, each emerged out of a myriad of parochial cults, folk mythologies, and ad hoc by-beliefs whose power had begun to fail for certain crucial groups in the societies concerned. 5 This sense, on the part, largely, of religious intellectuals, that the traditional conglomerate of rituals and beliefs was no longer adequate, and the rise to consciousness of the problems of meaning in an explicit form, seems to have been part, in each case, of a much wider dislocation in the pattern of traditional life. The details of such dislocations (or of those amidst which later world religions, descended from these first four, appeared) need not detain us. What is important is that the process of religious rationalization seems everywhere to have been provoked by a thorough shaking of the foundations of social order.


Provoked, but not determined. For, aside from the fact that profound social crisis has not always produced profound religious creativity (or any creativity at all), the lines along which such creativity has moved when it has appeared have been most varied. Weber's whole grand comparison of the religions of China, India, Israel, and the West rested on the notion that they represented variant directions of rationalization, contrastive choices among a finite set of possible developments away from magical realism. What these diverse systems had in common was not the specific content of their message, which deepened in its particularity as it expanded in its scope, but the formal pattern, the generic mode, in which it was cast. In all of them, the sense of sacredness was gathered up, like so many scattered rays of light brought to focus in a lens, from the countless tree spirits and garden spells through which it was vaguely diffused, and was concentrated in a nucleate (though not necessarily monotheistic) concept of the divine. The world was, in Weber's famous phrase, disenchanted: the locus of sacredness was removed from the rooftrees, graveyards, and road-crossings of everyday life and put, in some sense, into another realm where dwelt Jahweh, Logos, Tao, or Brahman.6


With this tremendous increase in "distance," so to speak, between man and the sacred goes the necessity of sustaining the ties between them in a much more deliberate and critical manner. As the divine can no longer be apprehended en passant through numberless concrete, almost reflexive ritual gestures strategically interspersed throughout the general round of life, the establishment of a more general and comprehensive relationship to it becomes, unless one is to abandon concern with it altogether, imperative. Weber saw two main ways in which this can be brought about. One is through the construction of a consciously systematized, formal, legal-moral code consisting of ethical commands conceived to have been given to man by the divine, through prophets, holy writings, miraculous indications, and so on. The other is through direct, individual experiential contact with the divine via mysticism, insight, aesthetic intuition, etc., often with the assistance of various sorts of highly organized spiritual and intellectual disciplines, such as yoga. The first approach is, of course, typically, though not exclusively, midEastern; the second typically, though also not exclusively, East Asian. But whether, as seems unlikely, these are the only two possibilities, or not, they both do bridge the enormously widened gap, or attempt to bridge it, between the profane and the sacred in a self-conscious, methodical, explicitly coherent manner. They maintain, for those who are committed to them, a sense of a meaningful tie between man and the removed divine.


As with all Weber's polar contrasts, however, that between traditional and rational (the opposite of which is not irrational, but unrationalized) is as thoroughly blurred in fact as it is sharply drawn in theory. In particular, it must not be assumed that the religions of nonliterate peoples are wholly lacking in rationalized elements and those of literate ones rationalized through and through. Not only do many so-called primitive religions show the results of significant amounts of self-conscious criticism, but a popular religiosity of a traditional sort persists with great strength in societies where religious thought has attained its highest reaches of philosophical sophistication.7 Yet, in relative terms, it is hardly to be doubted that the world religions show greater conceptual generalization, tighter formal integration, and a more explicit sense of doctrine than do the "little" ones of clan, tribe, village, or folk. Religious rationalization is not an all-or-none, an irreversible, or an inevitable process. But, empirically, it is a real one.



Traditional Balinese Religion


As the Balinese are, in a broad sense, Hindus, one might expect that a significant part, at least, of their religious life would be relatively well rationalized, that over and above the usual torrent of popular religiosity there would exist a developed system of either ethical or mystical theology. Yet this is not the case. A number of overintellectualized descriptions of it to the contrary notwithstanding, Balinese religion, even among the priests, is concrete, action-centered, thoroughly interwoven with the details of everyday life, and touched with little, if any, of the philosophical sophistication or generalized concern of classical Brahmanism or its Buddhist offshoot.8 Its approach to the problems of meaning remains implicit, circumscribed and segmental. The world is still enchanted and (some recent stirrings aside for the moment) the tangled net of magical realism is almost completely intact, broken only here and there by individual qualms and reflections.


How far this absence of a developed body of doctrine is a result of the persistence of the indigenous (that is, pre-Hindu) element, of the relative isolation of Bali from the outside world after the fifteenth century or so and the consequent parochialization of its culture, or of the rather unusual degree to which Balinese social structure has been able to maintain a solidly traditional form, is a moot question. In Java, where the pressure of external influences has been relentless, and where traditional social structure has lost much of its resilience, not just one but several relatively well-rationalized systems of belief and worship have developed, giving a conscious sense of religious diversity, conflict, and perplexity still quite foreign to Bali.9 Thus, if one comes, as I did, to Bali after having worked in Java, it is the near total absence of either doubt or dogmatism, the metaphysical nonchalance, that almost immediately strikes one. That, and the astounding proliferation of ceremonial activity. The Balinese, perpetually weaving intricate palm-leaf offerings, preparing elaborate ritual meals, decorating all sorts of temples, marching in massive processions, and falling into sudden trances, seem much too busy practicing their religion to think (or worry) very much about it.


Yet, again, to say that Balinese religion is not methodically ordered is not to say that it is not ordered at all. Not only is it pervaded with a consistent, highly distinctive tone (a kind of sedulous theatricalism which only extended description could evoke), but the elements which comprise it cluster into a number of relatively well-defined ritual complexes which exhibit, in turn, a definite approach to properly religious issues no less reasonable for being implicit. Of these, three are of perhaps greatest importance: (1) the temple system; (2) the sanctification of social inequality; and (3) the cult of death and witches. As the relevant ethnographic details are readily available in the literature, my description of these complexes can be cursory.10

  1. The temple system is a type example of the wholesale fashion in which the diverse strands of a traditional religion twine themselves through the social structure within which they are set. Though all the temples, of which there are literally thousands, are built on a generally similar open-court plan, each is entirely focused on one or another of a number of quite specifically defined concerns: death, neighborhood patriotism, kin-group solidarity, agricultural fertility, caste pride, political loyalty, and so on. Every Balinese belongs to from two or three to a dozen such temples; and, as the congregation of each is composed of those families who happen to use the same graveyard, live in the same neighborhood, farm the same fields, or have other links, such memberships and the heavy ritual obligations they involve buttress rather directly the sort of social relationships out of which Balinese daily life is built.
    The religious forms associated with the various temples, like the architecture broadly similar from temple to temple, are almost wholly ceremonial in nature. Beyond a minimal level, there is almost no interest in doctrine, or generalized interpretation of what is going on, at all. The stress is on orthopraxy, not orthodoxy--what is crucial is that each ritual detail should be correct and in place. If one is not, a member of the congregation will fall, involuntarily, into a trance, becoming thereby the chosen messenger of the gods, and will refuse to revive until the error, announced in his ravings, has been corrected. But the conceptual side is of much less moment: the worshippers usually don't even know who the gods in the temples are, are uninterested in the meaning of the rich symbolism, and are indifferent to what others may or may not believe. You can believe virtually anything you want to actually, including that the whole thing is rather a bore, and even say so. But if you do not perform the ritual duties for which you are responsible you will be totally ostracized, not just from the temple congregation, but from the community as a whole.
    Even the execution of ceremonies has an oddly externalized air about it. The main such ceremony occurs on each temple's "birthday," every 210 days, at which time the gods descend from their homes atop the great volcano in the center of the island, enter iconic figurines placed on an altar in the temple, remain three days, and then return. On the day of their arrival the congregation forms a gay parade, advancing to meet them at the edge of the village, welcoming them with music and dance, and escorting them to the temple where they are further entertained; on the day of their departure they are sent off with a similar, though sadder, more restrained procession. But most of the ritual between the first and the last day is performed by the temple priest alone, the congregation's main obligation being to construct tremendously complex offerings and bring them to the temple. There is, on the first day, an important collective ritual at which holy water is sprinkled on members of the congregation as, palms to forehead, they make the classic Hindu obeisance gesture to the gods. But even in this seemingly sacramental ceremony only one member of the household need participate, and it is usually a woman or an adolescent who is so delegated, the men being generally unconcerned so long as a few drops of the charmed water falls protectively upon some representative of their family.

  2.  The sanctification of social inequality centers on the one hand around the Brahmana priesthood and on the other around the enormous ceremonies which the dozens of kings, princes, and lordlings of Bali give to express and reinforce their ascendency. In Bali, the symbolization of social inequality, of rank, has always been the linchpin of supravillage political organization. From the very earliest stages, the primary moving forces in the process of state formation have been more stratificatory than political, have been concerned more with status than with statecraft. It was not a drive toward higher levels of administrative, fiscal, or even military efficiency that acted as the fundamental dynamic element in the shaping of the Balinese polity, but rather an intense emphasis on the ceremonial expression of delicately graduated distinctions in social standing. Governmental authority was made to rest, secondarily and quite precariously, on more highly valued prestige differences between social strata; and the actual mechanisms of political control through which an authoritarian oligarchy exercises its power were much less elaborately developed than were those through which a traditional cultural elite demonstrates its spiritual superiority--that is, state ritual, court art, and patrician etiquette.
    Thus, where the temples are primarily associated with egalitarian village groups--perhaps the fundamental structural principle around which they are organized is that within the temple context all differences in social rank between members of the congregation are irrelevant --the priesthood and the spectacular ceremonies of the upper caste tie gentry and peasantry together into relationships that are frankly asymmetrical.
    While any male member of the Brahmana caste is eligible to become a priest, only a minority undertake the extended period of training and purification that is prerequisite to actual practice in the role.11 Though it has no organization as such, each priest operating independently, the priesthood as a whole is very closely identified with the nobility. The ruler and the priest are said to stand side by side as "full brothers." Each without the other would fall, the first for lack of charismatic potency, the second for lack of armed protection. Even today, each noble house has a symbiotic tie with a particular priestly house which is considered to be its spiritual counterpart, and in the precolonial period not only were the royal courts largely manned by priests, but no priest could be consecrated without permission of the local ruler and no ruler legitimately installed except by a priest.
    On the commoner or lower-caste side each priest "owns" a number of followers, allotted to his house at one point or another by this or that noble house and subsequently inherited from generation to generation. These followers are scattered, if not altogether randomly, at least very widely--say three in one village, four in the next, several more in a third, and so on--the reason for this practice evidently being a wish on the part of the nobility to keep the priesthood politically weak. Thus, in any one village a man and his neighbor will ordinarily be dependent upon different priests for their religious needs, the most important of which is the obtaining of holy water, an element essential not just for temple ceremonies but for virtually all important rituals. Only a Brahmana priest can address the gods directly in order to sanctify water, as only he has, as the result of his ascetic regimen and his caste purity, the spiritual strength to traffic safely with the tremendous magical power involved. The priests are thus more professional magicians than true priests: they do not serve the divine nor elucidate it, but, through the agency of ill-understood sanskritic chants and beautifully stylized sacred gestures, they utilize it.
    A priest's followers refer to him as their siwa, after the god by whom he is possessed during the entranced portions of his rite, and he refers to them as his sisija, roughly "clients"; and in such a way the hierarchical social differentiation into upper and lower castes is symbolically assimilated to the spiritual contrast between priests and ordinary men. The other means through which rank is given religious expression and support, the prodigious ceremonies of the nobility, employs an institution of political rather than ritual clientage--corv»e--to underscore the legitimacy of radical social inequality. Here, it is not the content of the ceremonial activity which is important, but the fact that one is in a position to mobilize the human resources to produce such an extravaganza at all.
    Usually focused around life-cycle events (tooth-filing, cremation), these ceremonies involve the collective efforts of great masses of subjects, dependents, etc., over a considerable stretch of time, and form, therefore, not just the symbol but the very substance of political loyalty and integration. In precolonial times the preparation and performance of such grand spectacles seem to have consumed more time and energy than all other state activities, including warfare, put together, and so, in a sense, the political system can be said to have existed to support the ritual system, rather than the other way round. And, despite colonialism, occupation, war, and independence, the pattern in great part persists--the gentry is still, in Cora Du Bois's fine phrase, "the symbolic expression of the peasantry's greatness," and the peasantry, still the lifeblood of the gentry's pretensions.12

  3. The cult of death and witches is the "dark" side of Balinese religion, and, though it penetrates into virtually every corner of daily life, adding an anxious note to the otherwise equable tenor of existence, it finds its most direct and vivid expression in the ecstatic ritual combat of those two strange mythological figures: Rangda and Barong. In Rangda, monstrous queen of the witches, ancient widow, used-up prostitute, child-murdering incarnation of the goddess of death, and, if Margaret Mead is correct, symbolic projection of the rejecting mother, the Balinese have fashioned a powerful image of unqualified evil.13 In Barong, a vaguely benign and slightly ludicrous deity, who looks and acts like a cross between a clumsy bear, a foolish puppy, and a strutting Chinese dragon, they have constructed an almost parodic representation of human strength and weakness. That in their headlong encounters these two demons, each saturated with that mana-like power the Balinese call sakti, arrive inevitably at an exact stand-off is therefore not without a certain ultimate significance for all its magical concreteness.
    The actual enactments of the battle between Rangda and Barong usually, though not inevitably, take place during a death temple's "birthday" ceremony. One villager (a man) dances Rangda, donning the fierce mask and repulsive costume; two others, arranged fore and aft as in a vaudeville horse, dance the elegant Barong. Both entranced, the hag and dragon advance warily from opposite sides of the temple yard amid curses, threats, and growing tension. At first Barong fights alone, but soon members of the audience begin falling involuntarily into trance, seizing krisses, and rushing to his aid. Rangda advances toward Barong and his helpers, waving her magical cloth. She is hideous and terrifying, and, although they hate her with a terrible rage and want to destroy her, they fall back. When she, held at bay by Barong's sakti, then turns away, she suddenly becomes irresistibly attractive (at least so my informants reported) and they advance on her eagerly from the rear, sometimes even trying to mount her from behind; but, with a turn of her head and a touch of her cloth, they fall helpless into a coma. Finally she withdraws from the scene, undefeated, but at least checked, and Barong's desperately frustrated assistants burst into wild self-destructive rages, turning their krisses (ineffectively, because they are in trance) against their chests, desperately hurling themselves about, devouring live chicks, and so on. From the long moment of tremulous expectancy which precedes the initial appearance of Rangda to this final dissolution into an orgy of futile violence and degradation, the whole performance has a most uncomfortable air of being about to descend at any moment into sheer panic and wild destruction. Evidently it never does, but the alarming sense of touch-and-go, with the diminishing band of the entranced desperately attempting to keep the situation minimally in hand, is altogether overwhelming, even for a mere observer. The razor-thin dimensions of the line dividing reason from unreason, eros from thanatos, or the divine from the demonic, could hardly be more effectively dramatized.


The Rationalization of Balinese Religion


Except for a few odd sports of limited consequence such as Bahai or Mormonism (and leaving aside, as equivocal cases, the so-called political religions such as Communism and Fascism), no new rationalized world religions have arisen since Mohammed. Consequently, almost all of the tribal and peasant peoples of the world who have shed, to whatever degree, the husk of their traditional faiths since that time, have done so through conversion to one or another of the great missionary religions--Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. For Bali, however, such a course seems precluded. Christian missionaries have never made much progress on the island and, connected as they are with the discredited colonial regime, their chances would now seem poorer than ever. Nor are the Balinese likely to become Muslims in large numbers, despite the general Islamism of Indonesia. They are, as a people, intensely conscious and painfully proud of being a Hindu island in a Muslim sea, and their attitude toward Islam is that of the duchess to the bug. To become either Christian or Muslim would be tantamount, in their eyes, to ceasing to be Balinese, and, indeed, an occasional individual who is converted is still considered, even by the most tolerant and sophisticated, to have abandoned not just Balinese religion but Bali, and perhaps reason, itself. Both Christianity and Islam may influence further religious developments on the island; but they have virtually no chance of controlling them.14


Yet, that a comprehensive shaking of the foundations of the Balinese social order is, if not already begun, in the very immediate offing, is apparent on all sides. The emergence of the unitary Republic and the enclosure of Bali as a component within it has brought modern education, modern governmental forms, and modern political consciousness to the island. Radically improved communications have brought increased awareness of, and contact with, the outside world, and provided novel criteria against which to measure the worth both of their own culture and that of others. And inexorable internal changes--increased urbanization, growing population pressure, and so on--have made maintenance of traditional systems of social organization in unchanged form progressively more difficult. What happened in Greece or China after the fifth century B.C.--the disenchantment of the world--seems about to happen, in an altogether different historical context and with an altogether different historical meaning, in mid-twentieth century Bali.


Unless, as is of course a real possibility, events move too fast for them to maintain their cultural heritage at all, the Balinese seem likely to rationalize their religious system through a process of "internal conversion." Following, generally and not uncritically, the guidelines of the Indian religions to which they have been so long nominally affiliated, but from whose doctrinal spirit they have been almost wholly cut off, they seem on the verge of producing a self-conscious "Bali-ism" which, in its philosophical dimensions, will approach the world religions both in the generality of the questions it asks and in the comprehensiveness of the answers it gives.


The questions, at least, are already being asked; particularly by the youth. Among the educated or semieducated young men of eighteen to thirty who formed the ideological vanguard of the Revolution, there have appeared scattered but distinct signs of a conscious interest in spiritual issues of a sort which still seem largely meaningless to their elders or their less engag»s contemporaries.


For example, one night, at a funeral in the village where I was living, a full-scale philosophical discussion of such issues broke out among eight or ten young men squatted around the courtyard "guarding" the corpse. As the other aspects of traditional Balinese religion which I have described, funeral ceremonies consist largely of a host of detailed little busy-work routines, and whatever concern with first and last things death may stimulate is well submerged in a bustling ritualism. But these young men, who involved themselves but minimally in all this, the necessary observances being mostly performed by their elders, fell spontaneously into a searching discussion of the nature of religion as such.


At first they addressed themselves to a problem which has haunted the religious and the students of religion alike: how can you tell where secular custom leaves off and religion, the truly sacred, begins? Are all the items in the detailed funeral rite really necessary homage to the gods, genuinely sacred matters? Or are many simply human customs performed out of blind habit and tradition? And, if so, how can you differentiate the one from the other?


One man offered the notion that practices which were clearly connected with grouping people together, strengthening their bonds with one another--for example, the communal construction of the corpse litter by the village as a whole, or the kin-group's preparation of the body --were custom, and so not sacred, while those connected directly with the gods--the family obeisance to the spirit of the deceased, the purification of the body with holy water, and so on--were properly religious. Another argued that those elements which appeared generally in ritual observances, which you find virtually everywhere, from birth to death, in the temples and at the Rangda plays (again, holy water is a good example), were religious, but those which occurred only here and there, or were limited to one or two rites, were not.


Then the discussion veered, as such discussions will, to the grounds of validity for religion as such. One man, somewhat Marxist-influenced, propounded social relativism: when in Rome do as the Romans do, a phrase he quoted in its Indonesian form. Religion is a human product. Man thought up God and then named him. Religion is useful and valuable, but it has no supernatural validity. One man's faith is another man's superstition. At bottom, everything comes down to mere custom.


This was greeted with universal disagreement, disapproval, and dismay. In response, the son of the village head offered a simple, nonrational belief position. Intellectual arguments are totally irrelevant. He knows in his heart that the gods exist. Faith is first, thought secondary. The truly religious person, such as himself, just knows that the gods truly come into the temples--he can feel their presence. Another man, more intellectually inclined, erected, more or less on the spot, a complex allegorical symbology to solve the problem. Tooth-filing symbolizes man becoming more like the gods and less like the animals, who have fangs. This rite means this, that that; this color stands for justice, that for courage, etc. What seems meaningless is full of hidden meaning, if only you have the key. A Balinese cabalist. Yet another man, more agnostic, though not a disbeliever, produced the golden mean for us. You can't really think about these things because they don't lie within human comprehension. We just don't know. The best policy is a conservative one--believe just about half of everything you hear. That way you won't go overboard.


And so it went through a good part of the night. Clearly these young men, all of whom (save the village chiefs son who was a government clerk in a nearby town) were peasants and smiths, were better Weberians than they knew. They were concerned on the one hand with segregating religion from social life in general, and on the other with trying to close the gap between this world and the other, between secular and sacred, which was thus opened up, by means of some sort of deliberately systematic attitude, some general commitment. Here is the crisis of faith, the breaking of the myths, the shaking of the foundations in a pretty unvarnished form.


The same sort of new seriousness is beginning to appear, here and there, in liturgical contexts as well. In a number of the temple ceremonies--particularly those at which, as is increasingly the case, a Brahmana priest officiates directly rather than, as has been customary, merely providing holy water for the use of the low-caste temple priest --there is appearing an almost pietistic fervor on the part of some of the young male (and a few of the young female) members of the congregation. Rather than permitting but one member of their family to participate for all in the genuflexion to the gods, they all join in, crowding toward the priest so as to have more holy water sprinkled on them. Rather than the context of screaming children and idly chatting adults within which this sacrament usually takes place, they demand, and get, a hushed and reverent atmosphere. They talk, afterward, about the holy water not in magical but emotionalist terms, saying that their inward unease and uncertainty is "cooled" by the water as it falls upon them, and they too speak of feeling the gods' presence directly and immediately. Of all this, the older and the more traditional can make little; they look on it, as they themselves say, like a cow looking at a gamelan orchestra--with an uncomprehending, bemused (but in no way hostile) astonishment.


Such rationalizing developments on the more personal level demand, however, a comparable sort of rationalization at the level of dogma and creed if they are to be sustained. And this is in fact occurring, to a limited extent, through the agency of several recently established publishing firms which are attempting to put scholarly order into the classical palm-leaf literature upon which the Brahmana priesthoods' claim to learning rests, to translate it into modern Balinese or Indonesian, to interpret it in moral-symbolic terms, and to issue it in cheap editions for the increasingly literate masses. These firms are also publishing translations of Indian works, both Hindu and Buddhist, are importing theosophical books from Java, and have even issued several original works by Balinese writers on the history and significance of their religion.15


It is, again, the young educated men who for the most part buy these books, but they often read them aloud at home to their families. The interest in them, especially in the old Balinese manuscripts, is very great, even on the part of quite traditional people. When I bought some books of this sort and left them around our house in the village, our front porch became a literary center where groups of villagers would come and sit for hours on end and read them to one another, commenting now and then on their meaning, and almost invariably remarking that it was only since the Revolution that they had been permitted to see such writings, that in the colonial period the upper castes prevented their dissemination altogether. This whole process represents, thus, a spreading of religious literacy beyond the traditional priestly castes--for whom the writings were in any case more magical esoterica than canonical scriptures--to the masses, a vulgarization, in the root sense, of religious knowledge and theory. For the first time, at least a few ordinary Balinese are coming to feel that they can get some understanding of what their religion is all about; and more important, that they have a need for and a right to such understanding.


Against such a background, it might seem paradoxical that the main force behind this religious literacy and philosophical-moral interpretation movement is the nobility, or part of it, that it is certain, again generally younger, members of the aristocracy who are collating and translating the manuscripts and founding the firms to publish and distribute them.


But the paradox is only an apparent one. As I have noted, much of the nobility's traditional status rested on ceremonial grounds; a great part of the traditional ceremonial activity was designed so as to produce an almost reflexive acceptance of their eminence and right to rule. But today this simple assumption of eminence is becoming increasingly difficult. It is being undermined by the economic and political changes of Republican Indonesia and by the radically populist ideology which has accompanied these changes. Though a good deal of large-scale ceremonialism still persists on Bali, and though the ruling class continues to express its claim to superiority, in terms of ritual extravagance, the day of the colossal cremation and the titanic tooth-filing seems to be drawing to a close.


To the more perceptive of the aristocracy the handwriting on the wall is thus quite clear: if they persist in basing their right to rule on wholly traditional grounds they will soon lose it. Authority now demands more than court ceremonialism to justify it; it demands "reasons"--that is, doctrine. And it is doctrine that they are attempting to provide through reinterpreting classical Balinese literature and re-establishing intellectual contact with India. What used to rest on ritual habit is now to rest on rationalized dogmatic belief. The main concerns upon which the content of the "new" literature focuses--the reconciliation of polytheism and monotheism, the weighing of the relative importance of "Hindu" and "Balinese" elements in "Hindu-Balinese" religion, the relation of outward form to inward content in worship, the tracing of the historico-mythological origins of caste rankings, and so on--all serve to set the traditional hierarchical social system in an explicitly intellectual context. The aristocracy (or part of it) have cast themselves in the role of the leaders of the new Bali-ism so as to maintain their more general position of social dominance.


To see in all this a mere Machiavellianism, however, would be to give the young nobles both too much credit and too little. Not only are they at best partially conscious of what they are doing, but, like my village theologians, they too are at least in part religiously rather than politically motivated. The transformations which the "new Indonesia" has brought have hit the old »lite as hard as any other group in Balinese society by questioning the foundations of their belief in their own vocation and thus their view of the very nature of reality in which they conceive that vocation to be rooted. Their threatened displacement from power appears to them as not just a social but a spiritual issue. Their sudden concern with dogma is, therefore, in part a concern to justify themselves morally and metaphysically, not only in the eyes of the mass of the population but in their own, and to maintain at least the essentials of the established Balinese world view and value system in a radically changed social setting. Like so many other religious innovators, they are simultaneously reformists and restorationists.


Aside from the intensification of religious concern and the systematization of doctrine, there is a third side to this process of rationalization --the social-organizational. If a new "Bali-ism" is to flourish, it needs not only a popular change of heart and an explicit codification, but a more formally organized institutional structure in which it can be socially embodied. This need, essentially an ecclesiastical one, is coming to revolve around the problem of the relation of Balinese religion to the national state, in particular around its place--or lack thereof--in the Republican Ministry of Religion.


The Ministry, which is headed by a full cabinet member, is centered in Djakarta, but has offices scattered over much of the country. It is entirely dominated by Muslims, and its main activities are building mosques, publishing Indonesian translations of the Koran and commentaries, appointing Muslim marriage-closers, supporting Koranic schools, disseminating information about Islam, and so on. It has an elaborate bureaucracy, in which there are special sections for Protestants and Catholics (who largely boycott it anyway on separatist grounds) as distinct religions. But Balinese religion is thrown into the general residual category perhaps best translated as "wild"--that is, pagan, heathen, primitive, etc.--the members of which have no genuine rights in, or aid from, the Ministry. These "wild" religions are considered, in the classical Muslim distinction between "peoples of the Book" and "religions of ignorance," as threats to true piety and fair game for conversion.16


The Balinese naturally take a dim view of this and have constantly petitioned Djakarta for equal recognition with Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam as a fourth major religion. President Sukarno, himself half-Balinese, and many other national leaders sympathize, but they cannot, as yet, afford to alienate the politically powerful orthodox Muslims and so have vacillated, giving little effective support. The Muslims say that the adherents of Balinese Hinduism are all in one place, unlike the Christians who are scattered all over Indonesia; the Balinese point out that there are Balinese communities in Djakarta and elsewhere in Java, as well as in south Sumatra (transmigrants), and instance the recent erection of Balinese temples in east Java. The Muslims say, you have no Book, how can you be a world religion? The Balinese reply, we have manuscripts and inscriptions dating from before Mohammed. The Muslims say, you believe in many gods and worship stones; the Balinese say, God is One but has many names and the "stone" is the vehicle of God, not God himself. A few of the more sophisticated Balinese even claim that the real reason why the Muslims are unwilling to admit them to the Ministry is the fear that if "Bali-ism" were to become an officially recognized religion, many Javanese, who are Islamic in name only and still very Hindu-Buddhist in spirit, would convert, and "Baliism" would grow rapidly at the expense of Islam.


In any case, there is an impasse. And, as a result, the Balinese have set up their own independent, locally financed "Ministry of Religion," and are attempting through it to reorganize some of their most central religious institutions. The main effort, so far, has been concentrated (with largely indifferent results) upon regularizing the qualifications for Brahmana priests. Instead of resting the priestly role mainly on its hereditary aspect, which in itself they, of course, do not question, or on the ritual virtuosity involved, the "Ministry" wishes to rest it on religious knowledge and wisdom. It wants to insure that the priests know what the scriptures mean and can relate them to contemporary life, are of good moral character, have attained at least some degree of genuine scholarship, and so on. Our young men will no longer follow a man just because he is a Brahmana, the officials say; we must make him a figure of moral and intellectual respect, a true spiritual guide. And to this end they are attempting to exercise some control over ordination, even to the point of setting qualifying examinations, and to make the priesthood a more corporate body by holding meetings of all the priests in an area. The representatives of the "Ministry" also tour the villages giving educational speeches on the moral significance of Balinese religion, on the virtues of monotheism and the dangers of idol worship, and so on. They are even attempting to put some order into the temple system, to establish a systematic classification of temples, and perhaps eventually to elevate one kind, most likely the village origin-temple, to pre-eminence in a universalistic pattern comparable to that of a mosque or a church.


All this is, however, still largely in the paper-planning stage, and it cannot be claimed that very much actual reorganization of the institutional structure of Balinese religion has in fact taken place. But there is an office of the "Ministry" in each Balinese regency now, headed by a salaried Brahmana priest (a regularly paid "official" priesthood being in itself something of a revolution), assisted by three or four clerks, most of them also members of the Brahmana caste. A religious school, independent of the "Ministry" but encouraged by it, has been established, and even a small religious political party centered around a ranking noble and dedicated to forwarding these changes has been founded, so that at least the faint beginnings of religious bureaucratization are manifest.


What will come of all this--the intensified religious questioning, the spread of religious literacy, and the attempt to reorganize religious institutions--remains simply to be seen. In many ways, the whole drift of the modern world would seem to be against the sort of movement toward religious rationalization which these developments portend, and perhaps Balinese culture will, in the end, be swamped and left jejune by just the sort of "modern materialist ideas" which Sir Richard Winstedt fears. But not only do such overall drifts--when they do not turn out to be mirages altogether--often pass over deeply rooted cultural configurations with rather less effect upon them than we would have thought possible, but, for all its present weakness, the regenerative potential of a triangular alliance of troubled youth, threatened aristocrats, and aroused priests should not be underestimated. Today in Bali some of the same social and intellectual processes which gave rise to the fundamental religious transformations of world history seem to be at least well begun, and whatever their vicissitudes or eventual outcome, their career can hardly help but be an instructive one. By looking closely at what happens on this peculiar little island over the next several decades we may gain insights into the dynamics of religious change of a specificity and an immediacy that history, having already happened, can never give us.17




1     Weber's main theoretical discussion of religion is contained in a still untranslated section of his Wirtschaft and Gesellschaft (Tłbingen, 1925), pp. 225-356, but application of his approach can be found in the translations of his Religionssoziologie issued as The Religion of China ( Glencoe, Ill., 1958), Ancient Judaism (Glencoe, Ill., 1952), The Religion of India (Glencoe, Ill., 1958). and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York, 1958). The best discussions of Weber's work in English are T. Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (Glencoe, Ill., 1949), and R. Bendix , Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (New York, 1960).

2     Quoted in Parsons, Social Action, p. 566.

3     Weber, Religion of China, pp. 226-249.

4     E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (Oxford, 1932).

5     For a discussion of Weber's analysis of the role of status groups in religious change, see Bendix, Max Weber, 103-111. My formulation here and elsewhere in this discussion owes much to an unpublished paper by Robert Bellah, "Religion in the Process of Cultural Differentiation"; see also his Tokugawa Religion ( Glencoe, Ill., 1957).

6     Bellah, "Differentiation."

7     On rationalized elements in "Primitive" religions see P. Radin, Primitive Man as a Philosopher ( New York, 1957). On popular religion in developed civilizations, Bendix, Weber, 112-116.

8     The very partial nature of the one slight exception to this can be seen from the brief description of a priest's intellectual training in V. E. Korn, "The Consecration of a Priest," in J. L. Sweliengrebel et al., Bali: Studies in Life, Thought and Ritual ( The Hague and Bandung, 1960), pp. 133-153.

9     On Java, see C. Geertz, The Religion of Java ( Glencoe. Ill., 1960).

10   For a general survey, see M. Covarrubias, Island of Bali ( New York, 1956).

11   A priest usually must have a Brahmana wife in order to be consecrated, and his wife may fill his role after his death as a full-fledged priest.

12   C. Du Bois, Social Forces in Southeast Asia ( Cambridge, Mass., 1959), p. 31.

13   G. Bateson and M. Mead, Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis ( New York, 1942).

14   For a similar judgment by a missionary linguist, see J. L. Swellengrebel, Introduction, in Swellengrebel et al., Bali, pp. 68-76. As the present paper was drafted in the field before Swellengrebel's appeared, the convergence of some of the material he presents with mine serves as something of an independent support for the reality of the process outlined here.

15   See Swellengrebel, Bali, Introduction, pp. 70-71, for descriptions of some of this literature.

16   See Swellengrebel, Bali, Introduction, pp. 72-73, for some parliamentary exchanges on this issue.

17   In 1962, "Balinese Religion" was finally admitted as an official "Great Religion" in Indonesia. Since that time, and particularly since the 1965 massacres, conversions from Islam to "Bali-ism" have indeed markedly increased in Java. And on Bali itself, the Hindu reform movement has grown into a major force. On all this, see C. Geertz, "Religious Change and Social Order in Soeharto's Indonesia," Asia 27 (Autumn 1972):62-84.


ŽInternal conversionŪ in contemporary Bali, in: Bastin, John Sturgus/ Roolvink, Roelof (eds.): Malayan and Indonesian studies: essays presented to Sir Richard Winstedt on his eighty-fifth birthday. Oxford/UK 1964: Clarendon Press, pp. 282-302. 

cf. The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New-York/N.Y./USA etc. 1973: Basic Books, pp. 170-192


online source: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=52995835


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