Wednesday, December 28


Acintya -- "that beyond thought", "inconceivable", or "unimaginable" in Sanskrit -- is the Supreme God of Balinese Hinduism, equivalent to the concept of Brahman. He is the Supreme God in the traditional wayang theater of shadow puppets. Acintya is also called Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa in modern Balinese usage (the term means All-In-One Destiny Controller; it was invented in the 1930s by Christian missionaries to describe the Christian God to the Balinese, but quickly co-opted into popular usage to invoke, instead, the Acintya.)

In many temples on Bali or Lombok, Acintya is symbolized by an empty throne on top of the highest pillar or remotest outcrop (the Padmasana, or "Lotus Throne".)

The empty lotus throne can be seen repeatedly in early Buddhist art, there is a 2nd-century Mathura statue that symbolizes the Buddha as the absent but immanent teacher represented by an empty throne. However, the important distinction seems to be that Acintya, while also represented by an empty-throne, is, unlike the immanent Buddha, transcendent -- He teaches nothing, He corrects nothing, He just Is, outside our sense experience.

Prayers and offerings are not made directly to Acintya, but only to the other manifestations of the deity, i.e. the regular Hindu Trinity and the various dewa.

The Balinese mind, as we shall see, has recoiled from nothingness; so there is a figure like the Sun God with flames or rays erupting from his body, infinity-symbol arrows into the void, in the mandala behind the empty throne.

Acintya and his abode, the padmasana throne, were innovations credited to the immigrant Majapahit monk Nirartha, who led a major Hindu renaissance in Bali in the 16th century.

Nirartha ("Un-Meaning") was a Hindu monk, also called Dwijendra ("Lord of the Twice-Born") or Pedanda Shakti Wawu Rauh ("Newly Arrived Powerful High Priest"), who lived in eastern Java in the district of Blambangan, i.e. just across the Bali Strait. He came to Bali in the 1540s, just as Emperor Akbar was ascending the Mughal throne in India.

In Java, Majapahit authority was in decline; the northern coast, seat of many Muslim communities (made of both foreign merchants and Javanese), was in the process of declaring its independence from the Majapahit yoke, and the times were turbulent. Demak was established as the first Islamic Sultanate on Java. Yogyakarta and Surakarta were fragmenting as the ancien regime unravelled, to be replaced by local warlords declaring themselves as Sultan, turning their attention towards bringing the coasts back under the control of the interior.

As Islam came into Java from the North and the West, Majapahit priests must have watched the 1.5 mile strip of water separating Blambangan from Bali longingly; across the water, Gelgel and other principalities flexing their muscles promised to remain Hindu strongholds even as a new agama religion gained sway in Java.

So, legend says, across the water went Nirartha.

Formal historical facts about Nirartha are hard to find. Merle Ricklefs, formerly affiliated to the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, writes in his History of Modern Indonesia:

The inward-looking tendency of [Mataram Sultan] Agung's empire was in any case clear. He did not move his court to the to the north coast, where trade could be encouraged and supervised, but stayed in Mataram, which has neither access by river to the north coast, nor any ports of its own, and where the sea offers access only to the Goddess of the Southern Ocean's Domain . His wars had devastated the coastal areas to such an extent that the export of Javanese rice was affected, at least in some years. For trade and traders he had only contempt, as he explained to the first VOC ambassador in 1614. The dynasty of Mataram had conquered the coast at enormous cost; the crucial question for the future of the fragile empire was whether the coastal districts could be governed from the interior in such a way as to encourage the prosperity of all. If this could be done, Java would become a unified economic and military force of enormous potential. But events were to show that this was not to be.

Outside Java and Sumatra there were no conquerors to be compared with the kings of Aceh and Mataram ... There were important things happening in many areas, of course, but much of the history of this period in other areas has not been studied of is inadequately documented. The internal history of the Balinese kingdom of Gelgel during its golden age of sixteenth century cannot be reconstructed with confidence. Legends tell of the greatness of King Dalem Baturenggong and his priest Nirartha. Gelgel apparently dominated all of Bali and districts elsewhere from the Eastern Salient of Java to Lombok and Sumbawa, but with the present state of knowledge little more can be said with confidence

Where SOAS could not help, I turned to Ida Bagus.

We were sipping luwak coffee. (Kopi Luwak is made from the beans of coffee berries which have been eaten by the Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, and then passed out through its digestive tract. In the cat's stomach, enzymes seep into the beans. After the beans have been defecated, they are gathered and roasted, yielding an aromatic coffee with little bitterness -- a Bali special.)

"Dwijendra Danghyang Nirartha Markandeya came from Mahameru in Java, sailing across the ocean on a pumpkin," he says. "One of his master's wives had fallen in love with him. He had to escape the embarrassing attention and keep his life simple." Bagus sighs and looks at the ocean in the middle distance, puffing on his kretek in silence for a while.

"He did not cross the Bali Strait, the Sultan's men always watched it closely, he went around and landed at Singaraja. The pumpkin kept him safe on a long journey. So it a taboo amongst the Brahmans of Bali, who are descended from Danghyang Nirartha, to ever cut or eat a pumpkin."

"The king Dalem Baturenggong heard of him, and invited him to desa Gelgel, to the south."

Danghyang Nirartha brought with him a belief in one Supreme God known as Acintya, and one supreme goal -- moksha -- in life. Moksha is an ancient Hindu concept meaning release from samsara and the suffering involved in being subject to the cycle of repeated death and reincarnation or rebirth; it was developed into the concept of nirvana by Buddhism. Acintya could be worshipped in his many manifestations through offerings of three elements : fire, water and fragrant flowers.

Perversely, in time the prayer and the offerings became inseparable from daily life, necessary in order to ensure the blessing of every venture. Rather than the mystic concepts grafted from Java, it was this preoccupation with offerings -- Bebali -- so dominated the everyday life that the island became known as Bali.

The word bebali is derived from we-walen, which roughly means "that which can be performed." Performed offerings are woven flowers; pagodas of fruit; spun cloth; wayang puppet shows; or dance-dramas.

Following the ouster of Sukarno in the mid-1960s, Pancasila was reinterpreted in the official Indonesian policy on religion to only recognise monotheism. The first of the silas asks for "Belief in the one and only God, (Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa.)" The concept of Acintya helped the Balinese reconcile their religion with the framework of official monotheism. Interestingly, the title of Maha Esa (Mahesha) has traditionally in Hinduism been Shiva's. The Indonesian Buddhists Organization at this time also proposed that there was a single supreme Buddhist deity, Sang Hyang Adi Buddha.

Clifford Geertz, the emeritus anthropologist of cultural symbols, writes:

Bali, where I worked both in another small provincial town, though one rather less drifting and dispirited, and, later, in an upland village of highly skilled musical instruments makers, is of course in many ways similar to Java, with which it shared a common culture to the fifteenth century. But at a deeper level, having continued Hindu while Java was, nominally at least, Islamized, it is quite different. The intricate, obsessive ritual life--Hindu, Buddhist, and Polynesian in about equal proportions--whose development was more or less cut off in Java, leaving its Indic spirit to turn reflective and phenomenological, even quietistic, in the way I have just described, flourished in Bali to reach levels of scale and flamboyance that have startled the world and made the Balinese a much more dramaturgical people with a self to match. What is philosophy in Java is theater in Bali.

As a result, there is in Bali a persistent and systematic attempt to stylize all aspects of personal expression to the point where anything idiosyncratic, anything characteristic of the individual merely because he is who he is physically, psychologically, or biographically, is muted in favor of his assigned place in the continuing and, so it is thought, never-changing pageant that is Balinese life. It is dramatis personae, not actors, that endure; indeed, it is dramatis personae, not actors, that in the proper sense really exist. Physically men come and go, mere incidents in a happenstance history, of no genuine importance even to themselves. But the masks they wear, the stage they occupy, the parts they play, and, most important, the spectacle they mount remain, and comprise not the facade but the substance of things, not least the self. Shakespeare's old-trouper view of the vanity of action in the face of mortality--all the world's a stage and we but poor players, content to strut our hour, and so on--makes no sense here. There is no make-believe; of course players perish, but the play does not, and it is the latter, the performed rather than the performer, that really matters.

... The Balinese have at least a half-dozen major sorts of labels, ascriptive, fixed, and absolute, which one person can apply to another (or, of course, to himself) to place him among his fellows. There are birth-order markers, kinship terms, caste titles, sex indicators, teknonyms, and so on and so forth, each of which consists not of a mere collection of useful tags but a distinct and bounded, internally very complex, terminological system. When one applies one of these designations or titles (or, as is more common, several at once) to someone, one therefore defines him as a determinate point in a fixed pattern, as the temporary occupant of a particular, quite untemporary, cultural locus. To identify someone, yourself or somebody else, in Bali is thus to locate him within the familiar cast of characters--"king," "grandmother," "third-born," "Brahman"--of which the social drama is, like some stock company roadshow piece-- Charley's Aunt or Springtime for Henry --inevitably composed.

Under the auspices of Nirartha's spiritual leadership the six directional Sad Kahyangan temples were built or expanded: Pura Besakih, Pura Batur, Pura Sukawana, Pura Batukaru, Pura Andakasa and Pura Lempuyang, centres of worship for all Hindu Balinese. All have high empty thrones dedicated to Acintya, standing silent as women bear pagodas of fruit and girls sway with bebali below.

At Batukaru, the Western of the the directional temples (dedicated to Mahadewa) the padmasana shrine is at the back, in the far right corner. Acintya is depicted in gold at the top, His back towards the most sacred mountain. The lowest level of the padmasana throne is supported on the back of the cosmic turtle, the Bedawang, which carries the Universe on his back. The two eternal serpents, Nagas Basukih and Anantaboga, lie coiled over the turtle to dampen the earthquakes which arise when it stirs. While the padmasana is now one of many shrines, and probably not the primary one in anything but name, the concept of Nirartha's Acintya of the ultimate liberation, transported from the Indus, to Mathura, to Java, to this remote mountain on Bali, watches forlornly over the present.

From Arun Das Gupta's essay on Rabindranath's voyage to Indonesia:

Rabindranath was looked upon in Bali as a Mahaguru, not in the sense of a university professor but of something reminiscent of the ancient Indian Hindu sage Bharata Guru Agastya. The raja of Karang Asem, who had a philosophic cast of mind, wanted the poet to interpret some passages from the sastra (Balinese religious texts) for him. [Suniti Kumar] Chatterji, with his knowledge of Sanskrit, helped out as much as possible. The raja then surprised his Indian visitors by asking a philosophical question. He asked what, if the worship of gods, the building of temples, the performance of funeral ceremonies and the observance of social codes cannot be the final aim in life, man's ultimate quest should be. Chatterji replied by asking the raja to answer the question himself. Then came the startling reply: 'Dewa Dewa tida apa, Nirvana satu' (Gods and their worship are immaterial, Nirvana is the supreme goal). Tagore was greatly touched and in his poem on Bali referred to this encounter as follows: 'We said the same mantras together, pondered over the same question of Nirvana'.

Before leaving Bali, Tagore was to write in a letter home:

The island is beautiful, the people are very nice, but my mind does not want to make a home here ... In the air of India, in her rivers and fields, in all her nature, I have seen a generosity of the spirit ... I see there a lot of pain, her human habitations are images of misfortune, but overcoming all these, in her skies a voice comes to us crossing the ages, bearing a message of the greatest of liberations. In the lower parts of India there are the shackles of pettiness, the constant hubbub of the inconsequent, and the despair of those that are less; but her upper aspect is a seat of the immense, her invitation an eternal one towards the infinite.

Nirartha lived out his life in Bali teaching and codifying. The Balinese kakawin poem Mayantaka is attributed to him. It is said that Nirartha achieved moksha in Pura Luhur Uluwatu, the last padmasana shrine built by him. The message of moksha -- that awful eternity without labels -- taken in like bitter Java, passed through the Polynesian body of Bali, to yield the fragrant and aromatic bebali.

Below, Pura Luhur Batukaru (also spelt Batukau.)


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