BALI CULTURE INFORMATION

 

 
 
The Island Of Bali, Indonesia

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DEATH AND CREMATION

STRANGE AS IT SEEMS, it is in their cremation ceremonies that the Balinese have their greatest fun. A cremation is an occasion for gaiety and not for mourning, since it represents the accomplishment of their most sacred duty: the ceremonial burning of the corpses of the dead to liberate their souls so that they can thus attain the higher worlds and be free for reincarnation into better beings.

At cremation ceremonies hundreds of people in a wild stampede carry the beautiful towers, sixty feet high, solidly built of wood and bamboo and decorated with tinsel and expensive silks, in which the bodies are transported to the cremation grounds. There the corpses are placed in great cows (hewn out of tree-trunks to serve as coffins and covered with precious materials) , and cows, towers, offerings, and ornaments are set on fire, hundreds and even thousands of dollars burned in one afternoon in a mad splurge of extravagance by a people who value the necessities of life in fractions of pennies.

To the Balinese, the material body is only the shell, the container of the soul. This soul lives in every part of the body, even in the hair and nails, but it is concentrated in the head which is near-holy to them. A Balinese observes the rank of his head in relation to the rest of his body, and for this reason no one would stand on his head or take any position that would place his feet on a higher level. It is an offence even to pat a small child on the head and there is no worse insult than " I'll beat your head! " One's soul wanders away during sleep (dreams are its travels and adventures) , without becoming, however, entirely detached from the body, and it is considered dangerous to awaken a person too suddenly. Children are never beaten, so as not to shock their tender, still undeveloped souls.

Madness, epilepsy, and idiocy are the results of a bewitched soul, but ordinary sickness is due to a weakened, polluted soul rather than to mere physical causes. Life vanishes when the soul escapes from the body through the mouth, and death occurs when it refuses to return. The relatives of a dying man who has lost consciousness go to the temple of the dead and, through a medium, beg the deities for the release and return of his soul.

By force of habit, the soul lingers near the body when death comes, and remains floating in space or lives in a tree near by until liberated by the obliteration of the corpse by the elements: by earth, by fire, and by water, to destroy the last unclean tie that binds the souls of the dead to this earth. By cremation the soul is released to fly to the heavens for judgment and return to be reborn into the dead man's grandchildren. Failure to liberate the soul by neglecting to perform the cremation or by incomplete or improper rites would force the soul to turn into a ghost that would haunt the careless descendants.

Cremation rites were probably not introduced into Bali until the time of Madjapahit, about the thirteenth century, but the ancient Balinese animists already believed that their life-fluid was immortal and that after death it returned to animate other beings. They practised the obliteration of the corpse by burial or, as is still done in the primitive village of Sembiran, simply by abandoning the bodies in the forest at the edge of a ravine to be eaten by wild animals.

A man in Bali is born into a superior state - a higher caste - if his behaviour on this earth has been good; otherwise he will reincarnate into a lower stage of life to begin over again the progressive march towards ultimate perfection. A man who is guilty of serious crimes is punished by being reborn, often for periods of thousands of years, into a tiger, a dog, a snake, a worm.

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