I recently visited a place where the entire society was mindful of the sacred, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This, to someone like myself who has always lived in the west, was a stunning eye opener. I saw a land where daily life, religious life and family life were united inextricably with each other in a sacred dance of being.
Half way around the world the tiny island of Bali keeps a joyous Pagan tradition alive. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean lap against Bali's shore as early morning fisherman make their offerings, and ask the blessings of the Gods and Goddesses. The tropical sea around Bali is alive with fish, coral and all kinds of sea life, each one a part of the sacred whole that is the Balinese consciousness. This is a very ancient and complex culture rooted in reverence, respect and a strong belief in karma.
Everywhere you look in Bali there is a common theme, it is fabric or paint in black and white checks or stripes, as a reminder of the constant karmic struggle between good and evil, a battle which the Balinese know will never be fully resolved. In Bali life is the dance of maintaining balance.
Bali is 94% Hindu, and is one of the more than 1,700 islands that make up the country of Indonesia. Most of the rest of Indonesia is Muslim, so the Hindus of Bali are a minority in their country and a majority on their island. Balinese Hinduism is its own unique religion, and while it shares much with Indian Hinduism, it also has many differences in custom and belief. This unique situation has caused the Balinese to practice their faith with a vigor and reverence that is part religious, part political, and all cultural.
In Bali, a family home is often a series of small buildings, and courtyard space, one area for cooking, another for sleeping areas, and another for gathering together. These small spaces face the center and are connected by small walkways, plants and flowers; these are not large areas, but small intimate ones. Each morning as the sun rises; thousands of Balinese begin their day with the small ritual of creating offerings to the God/desses, Gods and spirits.
Small square baskets about four to six inches across are deftly woven from a few palm fronds and filled with vibrant flower petals, blossoms, a bit of rice or fruit, incense, and often other personal offerings are added. Before the offerings are given, the paths and walkways in the home complex are swept clean and made ready for the new day. Once this is done the offering baskets are placed on the walkways, at entrances, on bridges, on family altars, and on car dashboards. The first act of a Balinese's day is to be mindful of the divine and seek blessings and protection by making these simple offerings.
A Rice Paddy in Ubud, Bali
The Balinese are an essentially friendly, happy and kind people who have no real concept of the western style life and stress. They know who they are and where they are going. Broad, genuine smiles are common. Despite the lack of money and prosperity in western terms, the quality of life for most Balinese is good. Unlike us, they do not have much "stuff" and for the most part are happier without it than most of us are with it. Their secret is that they have what is essential, ties to family and community, reverence and love of Nature, and a positive belief in karma.
Bali is also a land of incredible artists. In Bali everyone makes art or crafts in some way. There are vibrant paintings that reflect the tropical jungles, there are incredible wood carvers, and batik artists, jewelers, potters, sculptors, seamstresses, and fiber artists. As an American craftsman I was humbled by the enormous skill of the craftsmen I met and spent time with. To the Balinese all acts are part of the whole and attention to detail is a sacred thing to be considered even when they are working to maximize their production output.
An awareness of the magic and bounty of Nature is all around you and impossible to ignore in Bali. It is in the tiny geckos that magically scurry across walls and ceiling almost everywhere you go. It is echoed in the many, many processions and celebrations that are central to Balinese life. It is in the hands of the artists and craftsmen/women who carve traditional masks and statues of the God/desses with incredible patience and care. It is in each and every offering laid on the Temple steps by someone who truly believes in the power of such offerings.
Dewi Sri ~ the Rice Goddess
Dewi Sri is the Rice Goddess of Bali, She is deeply loved by all. Dewi Sri is the one who feeds the people and sustains their lives. This may just sound like any other sentence written about a Goddess, but it is not. Read the sentence again and imagine people reverently, passionately and lovingly thanking Dewi Sri. Imagine you are in a place where rice is eaten as the main food three times a day, and imagine that the Deity who insures the rice crop is waiting for you to make daily offerings of thanks. Then imagine that similar offering have been made daily by your parents, cousins, grandparents, great, great grandparents and ancestors for thousands of years. If you can do this, you will begin to glimpse into the collective heart of the Balinese people.
Bali is a land of many celebrations and family rituals. Amazingly enough these are considered as important as any other aspect of life, in fact, they are the essential glue that holds the culture and religion together and enables both to flourish. While in Bali, I attended a traditional Balinese wedding of a nice young couple. They both worked in a nearby city and danced easily in what we would think of as two very different worlds. To them there was no division of worlds, no rift between ancient traditions and contemporary life. The wedding took place in a small village where they lived. The table was piled high with beautiful tower offerings of fruit. Both the bride and groom were in gorgeous traditional dress, resplendent in gold, bright colors, and strikingly colorful make-up. It was a great honor to have been invited to share a part of their wedding celebrations.
As I sat and spoke with them, drinking a coke, I came to realize that these very modern, very aware young people, very tech saavy, were also deeply rooted in their culture and their faith. They were themselves, but they were also the living legacy of their ancestors. On the occasion of their wedding they were the living embodiment of a God and Goddess. In many ways it was much like a wedding anywhere, complete with family, friends, children, good food, and smiles.
Both the bride and the groom spent time talking with me and they seemed very relaxed and happy as they spoke of their lives. The groom and I were talking about his job in the city and his love of computers when I heard a slightly muffled, familiar sound. From inside his sarong the groom pulled out a hot pink Nokia cell phone and greeted the caller. I sat there and marveled at the incredible sight of this handsome, young, golden, jeweled "Balinese God" gone wireless.
Balinese Bride and Groom in traditional sarongs and regalia
The western Pagan community today is striving to embrace a similar kind of balance and integration with Nature. We can learn many things from cultures like the Balinese, who have an unbroken line of natural paganism. We would benefit as a community if we endeavor to learn the lessons of essential simplicity, daily demonstrations of our beliefs, gratitude, and acting always in accordance with good karma. In Bali, I found my spiritual and emotional home and am forever changed by the experience. Gratitude is the emotion that fills my heart whenever I think of Bali.
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