Balinese Hinduism 101: The Island of the Gods

As soon as you arrive in Bali, one of the first things you’ll notice are the offerings called canang sari placed around nearly every doorway, intersection, temple, and upon all things that need protection. These small palm leaf baskets are artfully filled with flower petals, foliage, and incense. You’ll often see them accented with a cigarette, piece of candy, money, or small coconut as well. The offerings are placed on three levels to honor the human, natural, and spiritual worlds. Each color and placement of the items inside the canang sari have a specific meaning and each element honors a different Hindu deity.

Many Balinese will joke that Balinese people live and work solely for Hindu ceremonies. Each day is marked with canang sari and all major milestones in life are signified with a large ceremony. Each day, at 6am, 12pm, and 6pm, Balinese Hindus chant the Gayatri mantra to protect them and their loved ones from harm or evil. Rice is grown with water that once flowed through a temple. Each home is adorned with small temples and usually, a large temple within the property that’s used daily.

The omnipresence of Balinese Hinduism in everyday life and in Balinese architecture is why the island earned the nickname of Island of the Gods.

How is Bali Hindu in a Muslim-Majority Country?

One of the most magical aspects of Balinese Hinduism is that it’s remained so present despite being the only major Hindu island in a Muslim-majority country. According to the 2010 census, nearly 2% of Indonesia is Hindu while Bali’s population is nearly 84% Hindu. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s population is over 87% Muslim (~225 million people), making it the most Muslim country in the world by population.

Contrary to popular belief, Indonesia geographically is made up of many religions and is not completely blanketed by Islam. From the ~1300s-1500s, much of Indonesia was under Hindu influence. Trade routes and encroaching Islamic beliefs from outside of Indonesia caused many parts of Indonesia to convert to Islam. Today, the densest parts of the country do practice Islam, which is how Indonesia became a Muslim-majority country. Many of these Muslim communities have strong ties to animism and belief in multiple types of spirits. So, it is not necessarily as black-and-white as one may think. Many believe in Islam, but also believe in other regions simultaneously as well. The commoners tended to follow the beliefs of their leaders and would switch whenever the leader switched. Bali’s greatest rulers never converted to Islam. Hinduism remained present in Bali because it was a place of refuge for those who did not want to abandon their Hindu beliefs.

One Nation, Under God

The Indonesian government officially recognizes six religions and all Indonesians must believe in one creator. Of course, this proved problematic for Hinduism, as it recognizes many deities. To account for this belief in a single god, Balinese Hindus pray to Sang Jyang Widhi, one god that encompasses all Hindu gods. Sang Jyang Widhi is a single entity that is able to manifest itself as many gods. Whenever a temple or shrine has an empty seat (and most do), this is a symbol for Sang Jyang Widhi.

Typically, Sang Jyang Widhi is honored through the three main Hindu Gods (the Trimurti), Brahma, Wisnu, and Shiva. Brahma is the creator, Wisnu is the preserver, and Shiva is the destroyer. Simple acts such as creating a canang sari, preserving it for the day, and sweeping it away once the petals dry and rot are symbolic of the Trimurti.

While it’s not possible to cover all of the nuances of Balinese Hindus in a single post, it is easy to discover these stories and legends yourself. One thing that Balinese Hindus are famous for is their willingness to share and explain different aspects of their religion to outsiders, inviting you to see for yourself how Bali earned its nickname.

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