Indonesia Table of Contents

Hinduism is an amalgam of related traditions and cults that seeks to explain cosmology in primarily deistic terms. The religion has countless gods but no exclusive creed. One of Hinduism's primary ethical concerns is the concept of ritual purity. Another important distinguishing feature, which helps maintain the ritual purity, is the division of society into the traditional occupational groups, or varna (literally, color) of Hinduism: Brahmans (priests, brahmana in Indonesian), Kshatriya (ruler-warriors, satriya in Indonesian), Vaishya (merchants-farmers, waisya in Indonesian), and Shudra (commoners-servants, sudra in Indonesian).

Like Islam and Buddhism, Hinduism was greatly modified when adapted to Indonesian society. The caste system, although present in form, was never rigidly applied. The Hindu religious epics, the Mahabharata (Great Battle of the Descendants of Bharata) and the Ramayana (The Travels of Rama), became enduring traditions among Indonesian believers, expressed in shadow puppet (wayang) and dance performances.

Hinduism in Indonesia is primarily associated with Bali. Hindu believers in the early 1990s were relatively few outside of Bali, where they made up more than 93 percent of the population. Others were scattered throughout the other twenty-six provincial-level units. Among these non-Bali communities were groups labeled as Hindu by the government--for example, the adherents of the Kaharingan religion in Kalimantan Tengah, where government statistics counted Hindus as 15.8 percent of the population. Nationally, Hindus represented only around 2 percent of the populaiton in the early 1990s.

It is difficult to describe the Balinese version of Hinduism in the same doctrinal terms as Islam and Christianity, since this unique form of religious expression is deeply interwoven with art and ritual, and is less closely preoccupied with scripture, law, and belief. Balinese Hinduism lacks the traditional Hindu emphasis on cycles of rebirth and reincarnation, but instead is concerned with a myriad of local and ancestral spirits. As with kebatinan, these deities are thought to be capable of harm. Balinese place great emphasis on dramatic and aesthetically satisfying acts of ritual propitiation of these spirits at temple sites scattered throughout villages and in the countryside. Each of these temples has a more or less fixed membership; every Balinese belongs to a temple by virtue of descent, residence, or some mystical revelation of affiliation. Some temples are associated with the family house compound, others are associated with rice fields, and still others with key geographic sites. Ritualized states of self-control (or lack thereof) are a notable feature of religious expression among the people, famous for their graceful and decorous behavior. One key ceremony at a village temple, for instance, features a special performance of a dance-drama (a battle between the mythical characters Rangda the witch and Barong the dragon), in which performers fall into a trance and attempt to stab themselves with sharp knives.

Rituals of the life cycle are also important occasions for religious expression and artistic display. Ceremonies at puberty, marriage, and, most notably, cremation at death provide opportunities for Balinese to communicate their ideas about community, status, and the afterlife. (The tourist industry has not only supported spectacular cremation ceremonies among Balinese of modest means, but also has created a greater demand for them.)

Balinese religion is hierarchically organized, with one small segment of the aristocracy--the Brahman, or priestly, class--being the most prestigious. A Brahman priest is not affiliated with any temple but acts as a spiritual leader and adviser to individual families in various villages scattered over the island. These priests are consulted when ceremonies requiring holy water are conducted. On other occasions, folk healers or curers may be hired.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress