Balinese Beliefs & Mythology

Bali is an island, which throughout the ages has been influenced by many other cultures. While Bali’s religious root stems from animism and ancestral worship, Hindu mythology and Buddhism have been major influences. However, regardless of what they were practicing, one factor has always remained constant: “Life in Bali is governed by religion” .

Theater in Bali, Indonesia is more than a distinguished discipline; it is a performance entwined with every day life. Theater, like all art, is a part of the religion and culture in Bali; thus all Balinese participate in art in some way. Furthermore, music, dance, costumes, and drama are not separate entities, but rather pieces of Balinese Theatre that rely on each other to achieve their ultimate purpose: Creating unity and harmony between the three worlds.

The Bali Hindu religion, the foundation of the ordered Balinese society, pervades every aspect of life. Bali Hinduism, which has root in Indian Hinduism and in Buddhism, adopted the animistic traditions of the indigenes, who inhibited the island around the first millennium BC. This influence strengthened the belief that the gods and goddesses are present in all things. Every element of nature, therefore, possesses its own power, which reflects the power of the gods. A rock, tree, dagger, or woven cloth is a potential home for spirits whose energy can be directed for good or evil. However, even art shop masks, those wood masks made in an unconsecrated assembly-line manner to be sold to tourist, have been known to become possessed. A former director of Bali’s Art Center has a concise explanation: “If you make an attractive home, someone will want to live in it.” A desirable proposition

According to Bali Hinduism, for every positive principle or constructive force there is an equally powerful destructive forces. These are sometimes referred to as forces of the right (high) and forces of the left (low). The two elements ideally coexist in balance so that neither assumes too much power. Maintaining this precarious equilibrium is a constant preoccupation for the Balinese, who prepare daily offerings to satiate the spirits and keep them under control as well as plead for blessings.

Offerings, or banten, vary according to the nature of the ceremony and whether they are intended for a high or low spirit. They may consist of combination of incense, flowers, old Chinese coins, fabric, betel nuts, arak (liquor), holy water, palm-leaf decoration, and food. The food is not actually meant to be eaten by the gods but functions as means by which the people give back what rightfully belongs to the spirits. The most significant moment in the life of offering is its dedication. After that, what happens to it is important. Consequently, offerings to low spirit, which are left on the ground, are usually scavenged by chickens or dogs. The larger offerings to high spirits are taken back to the family home after residing for a while at the temple, and the edible parts are then consumed by family members.

Balinese temples, embellished with a decorative display of stones carvings, consist of breezy, open air courtyards, surrounded by a wall and entered through a large split gate. Once inside the entrance is a free standing wall (aling-aling). Beyond the wall is a large, open area with many small shrines of various sizes, each dedicated to a different god or goddess. At temple festivals, the normally somber shrines are highly decorated, and worshippers come to pray and dedicate their offerings, then retire to talk with friends. A festival is a highly social occasion, culminating in a live performance of mask dance or puppets presented for all to enjoy-local villagers and guests as well as the spirits of visiting deities and ancestors, and even an occasional tourists.

The dance and masks dramas that are performed at the temples as part of the odalan are considered important offerings to the god and goddess. The deities would be hesitant to attend any birthday celebration where there is no entertainment. A mask dancer makes an offering of his skills each time he performs, in some cases serving in a capacity similar o a priest. Wali dances, those permitted to occur in the inner sanctum of the temple complex, are directed toward the deified ancestors, who are honored guests, and tend to be involved with spirits rather than plot, character, or story.

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