Like other cultures and traditions across the world, Balinese culture is by no means immune to change. In the West, we only have to look at a tradition / belief as massive as Christmas, which is not only quite possibly on the wrong date for someone who may not have even historically existed, but also has become morphed with pine trees, a guy in a red suit from the North Pole, BBQs, hedonism, mass consumerism and big sales.
Many outsiders like to (read: “would like to”) see Bali as remaining in a kind of time-warp that they consider an ideal point in time and development (normally sometime around the 1970s when there was no plastic, traffic or pollution and an abundance of magic mushrooms and nude sunbathing!) that is within living memory and is distorted by memory lapse. The reality is that everything changes – I’m not just talking about infrastructure and the environment, but also for culture and cultural beliefs.
One has to remember that Bali has not always even had the same religious beliefs. In fact, little is known about Gilimanuk Man (according to the cultural department dating to circa 600 B.C.) and his cultural traditions; however, if other prehistoric hunting and gathering/agricultural communities are anything to go by, it’s highly likely that his society was animistic. This is even true of much later arrivals such as Bali Aga, where even today community beliefs merge animism with fertility rites and their own brand of Hindu beliefs.
Interestingly enough, based on archaeological evidence, it in fact seems that Buddhism reached Bali earlier than the other major religions, and notably the earliest Balinese kingdoms were Buddhist not Hindu. It wasn’t until much later that Bali adopted more Hindu beliefs, and not until 1945 that the religion that most Balinese adhered to was labeled “Hinduism” in order to be accepted as a recognized organized religion in Indonesia.
Today Balinese religion and culture is also constantly “on the move”. I constantly hear of different sects gathering new followers, including the more common ones such as Sai Baba and Hare Krishna, and their ideas and beliefs are in some sense becoming more prevalent, bordering on mainstream. My point is that Bali doesn’t remain in a kind of time-warp, and it will never, even if many of us would like it to. In my next article, I’ll discuss what specific aspects of tradition have changed and why.
By Vaughan Hatch
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