Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sacred Space and Cosmology in Bali

Being in Jakarta (on the island of Java) right now, my oldest son is studying Bali in social studies.  The material he has been given is hopelessly confusing to folks who are not familiar with anthropology but fortunately I was able to help him make some sense of it.

I intend to publish two blog posts about my interpretations of what I have seen in his books.  These dovetail with a lot of my own anthropological studies and consequently it is important.  The first, this post, will be on sacred space and cosmology in Bali.  The second, to be written soon, will cover subsidiarity and family/town structure.

I write about these topics because I believe that they have a lot to teach modern mankind.  We have lost our sense of sacred space, and are isolated by servitude dressed up as freedom.  If we begin to understand our condition through the eyes of those who hold what we have lost, we can begin to rebuild.  It may not be along the lines of any specific group, but we can't start until we know what we are missing.

Unlike Islamic sacred cosmology which is global in scope and centered on Mecca everywhere, Balinese Hindu cosmology is local in scope and kept very close to the human experience.  In this way, it provides I think a very human and earthy sense of what has been lost.

One of the important foundational principles I have found over and over is the fact that in traditional cosmologies that horizontal space is isomorphic with vertical space.  This means that horizontal space models and vertical space models are often interchangeable.  As in the Vedic coronation ritual, this can be circular model, or as with the directional system of Bali it can be linear.

The Four Directions and the Center of the World

Balinese villages are laid out according to four directions which are not necessarily perpendicular.  These directions are defined rather by natural layout and sacred space.  The primary axis runs from the observer to the peak of Mount Agung, a stratovolcano and highest point on the island.  It also runs the other direction towards the sea.  This makes Mount Agung the directional pole, or center of the world to traditional Balinese society.

Mount Agung is also metaphorically and physically up, from the perspective of the village.  Not only is it a tall mountain peak but it is traditionally seen as the dwelling place of the gods, much like Mount Olympus in Greece.  Away from Mount Agung is the sea, which is seen as physically and metaphorically below the observer, and the dwelling place of the dead.  Thus the axis from Mount Agung to the sea is also the axis from the heavens to the realms under the waves and under the earth, and thus a vertical axis.    This is important in the Three Temples section below.

There are two other directions which are important in Balinese society:  East and West, which address the rising and setting of the sun.  These directions are not necessarily perpendicular (and in fact can be parallel to in rare cases) the main axis towards/away from Mount Agung.

The Three Temples

Every village has three temples attached to it, which make up a model of sacred space along three planes.  These correspond generally to a universal model generally, and an Indo-European spacial model specifically which is of course not surprising given the fact that it is fundamentally Hindu in outlook

The most important temple is the Pura Desa, or "Village Temple" which is located in the center of the town.  This is dedicated to Visnu, but spacially is positioned in the center of human activity, and therefore must be seen in two overlapping contexts.

The first such context is that this is the temple of the human domain, much like Midgard in Norse mythology.  This is on the horizontal plane, in the area of human activity, and it is worth noting that Visnu alone of the Hindu gods was assumed to have come to earth and lived life as a human twice, as King Rama of the Ramayana and Lord Krishna of the Mahabharata and the Krishnayana.  The connection that Vishnu has then with the human condition is different in quality and kind than the other main Hindu gods.  Therefore this has to be the first interpretation as to the place of the Pura Desa.

The second context however is that the center in Vedic ritual is associated with kingship and sovereignty.  This is true in both the Asvamedha and the Vedic coronation ritual.  It is worth noting that the Vedic Raj, or King was always from the warrior or Ksatrya caste, and also Vishnu, in both of his avatars, was a Ksatrya.  Thus the Pura Desa represents a point of social order, and the presence of the kingly influence, in Balinese village life.

The second type of temple is the Pura Dalem, or the temple to the dead, represented directly away from Mount Agung from the reference point of the village.  The temple of the dead is thus metaphorically below the village and thus corresponds to the underworld.  While Hinduism had, by historical times, moved away from the idea of an underworld of the dead and towards a system of reincarnation only broken by the self-deification that comes with identifying with the universal (the Upanishads say that the gods became gods through this process), this shows a trace of the older cosmology has not died away.  In Hinduism the underworld is also the world of the Asuras and hence a place of riches and gold, from which prosperity flows.  This leads to a central ambivalence towards the underworld found across the Indo-European world.  On one hand, it is a spooky place full of often hostile entities, but on the other it is the place from which all prosperity comes.  Certainly ritually this means that the dead in Balinese society dwell below the realm of human activity.

As a side note, outside of India and Hinduism, most Indo-European traditions had a great deal of variety regarding possible lives after death, and it is also possible that these were not seen as mutually exclusive, and that one might be reincarnated and at the same time spend an eternity in the realm of the dead.  This sort of ambiguity is most prevalent in Norse heathen religion, but is clearly present in Greek myth as well, and the Greeks had a very lively relationship with their dead.  Daniel Ogden has written a fair amount on that topic and I highly recommend his works on Greco-Roman necromancy in this context.

The final type of temple found in relation to every town is the Pura Puseh, which is located towards the center of the world and the dwelling place of the gods.  Thus it is metaphorically above the realm of human activity.  Here the divine ancestors and the gods are worshipped.

Overall these two aspects serve to orient village life in Bali around sacred space and cosmology.  In essence the sacred model of the world is forced into one's mind at every turn and it must be ever-present.

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