Balinese Spirituality

During my years of soul-searching travel, some of my most heartfelt experiences occurred in Bali.  I took two trips there and spent a total of 7 weeks on that magical island.  The book Eat Pray Love describes many experiences that are common to all of us have spent time there, especially in the town of Ubud.

My first visit was on my way home after living two and a half years in Australia.  My plan was to meet an Aussie friend for a week.  When I arrived, I decided I wanted to go on a spiritual pilgrimage.  I wasn’t sure how to find that kind of guide.  The following day a young man showed up at my hotel and struck up a conversation.  He mentioned in passing that he was a guide and that he took people who were interested in the Balinese culture to the Balinese Hindu temples, ceremonies, healers, etc.  These kinds of synchronicities became the norm during both of my visits.  I suspect telepathy is not uncommon in this culture.

My planned week turned into a month spent on the back of Wayan Tantra’s motor scooter doing just that.  He took me to temples, ceremonies, and healers all over the island.  If it was to a ceremony, he would take me to his home first where his sisters would dress me in one of their special sarongs used only for ceremonies.  The family always offered me something to eat.  During that month I learned that the acceptance, kindness, and generosity of Wayan and his family was typical of the Balinese people.

I don’t know what contributes to their graciousness.  Prayer is a large part of their culture. That may have something to do with it. It seems like they are always giving thanks.  Not only are there temples all over the island where the ceremonies are held, but each home also has its own mini-temple where individuals stop three times a day with offerings of rice, incense, and flowers for the ancestors,  gods, and goddesses.

Balinese Hinduism includes Buddhist and animist elements. The prayers are said in Sanskrit. They are said with flowers, water, incense, and hand positions. Men sit cross-legged and women kneel.  Holy water is taken internally and used externally three times to cleanse the body. The incense smoke carries the prayers from the visible (Skala) to the invisible  (Niskala).

From the best I was able to understand, the first prayer is to the “Monades” ie.  ( All That Is )  Clasped hands are held high over the head.  Then, holding red, white, and yellow flowers, they are lowered to the forehead to pray to the major aspects of God:  the male aspect: Brahma ( the Creator ), Vishnu ( the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer )  and the female aspects: Saraswati ( the goddess of knowledge, wisdom, art, and music),   Devi Shri ( the goddess of wealth, beauty, and fertility),  Devi Durga ( the war goddess against demonic forces ). These aspects of God create, maintain, and regenerate the Universe.  The hands holding multicolored flowers are then lowered toward the heart where they pray for their ancestors and counselors.  The hands are lowered once again toward the abdomen to pray for their loved ones and others who especially need them. The last hand position is without flowers and is used to ask for forgiveness as well as to forgive others.

Bali may have the largest number of temples per capita of any place in the world.  Each village has at least three main temples plus others, such as temples in the rice paddies.  There are nine major temples all over the island which is 100 miles long and 50 miles wide.

I think a ceremony could be found somewhere on the island every day.  On special holy days like the Balinese New Year, people make pilgrimages to larger temples in special locations.  If one visits a temple as a tourist, it appears bare.  But when there is a ceremony it comes alive with decorations of colorful cloths, umbrellas, and offerings of fruit, flower, and rice.  Statues and sacred trees,  such as the Banyan, are “dressed” in colorful clothes and flowers.

Processions of people of all ages from 3 to the ’80s dressed in ornate costumes of gold and bright colors descend on the temple.  The men and boys are dressed like warriors and princes, and the women and girls are dressed like princesses.  The women carry baskets of colorful fruit on their heads that are placed around the area where they receive the blessings of the ceremony then taken home to eat.

The ceremonies begin with cleansing of the temple and grounds.  I watched one ceremony where a mat of woven straw was placed in the middle of the yard.  Onions, garlic, and other offerings thought to be popular with the “demons” were placed on the mat.  People were beating the ground with sticks and chanting.  Then suddenly everyone began running at the same time outside the gate of the temple, taking the straw mat with the offerings to a crossroads where they left it and returned to the temple.  Crossroads are considered to be spots where the demons can return to where they live down in the earth.

A priest began to wash everyone’s head with water and flowers.  When the cleansing was completed, everyone sat on the ground and offered their prayers using the hand positions.  Someone went into an altered state and began to speak to the group and to individuals.  I was told that each time a different person is chosen by the deities to be their spokesperson for that ceremony.  They channel information until all the information is given then come out of the altered state.

Each ceremony appears to have the following elements:  make the space sacred, placate the demons, cleansing, invite the gods to enter the sacred space, say prayers to the gods, and listen to the answers that come through the individual who is doing the channeling that day.

Why is Bali so unique and so impactful to so many people who visit?  One theory is their unique form of the ancient religion of Hinduism.  They focus on the good, the “light”, but they also have respect for the “demons” who carry the “shadow.”  They see the “demons” as being like naughty children who pull on our sleeves or even kick our shins for attention.  If they are given that acknowledgment, they are quiet and leave people alone.  If they are not, like children, they will keep annoying people.  This acceptance of the shadow in everything, including each person, makes the Balinese very non-judgmental.

Another is that Bali is located on one of earth’s “power spots,” or energy vortexes that are like vortexes of energy found in the human body called chakras.  This is actually a concept in both the Hindu and Taoist traditions that recognize that everything in the world is created by a dance between energy and matter.  There are certain areas where the energy can affect matter more easily.  These are the “power spots” and ley lines where the ancient people built places of worship.  They are like the energy meridians found in Chinese Medicine. Many ancient places of worship are built on them.

On Balinese New Year large numbers of people from all over the island make pilgrimages to the Mother Temple of  Besakih on Mount Agung, which is considered the most powerful spot on the island. The ceremony begins with a parade of stuffed demons on platforms.  They begin with small ones carried by boys to increasingly large ones carried by men. As they pass by the crowd, people throw pieces of paper of things they want to let go of from the previous year.  The platforms are taken to a bonfire where they are burned.   Firecrackers are lit to scare the demons off the island. The following day is one of silence and solitude.  Prayers are said from this temple for the whole world and sent out along the ley lines of the earth that connect all of earth’s chakras and thus all people in all parts of the world.  Who knew?!


Bonnie McLean
Bonnie McLean
Dr. Bonnie McLean O.M.D, A.P. has been in practice for 36 years. A graduate of Duke University School of Nursing, she practiced nursing as an RN for 20 years before embarking on her studies in natural medicine, which included an MA in Counseling from Pepperdine University, a Doctorate in Oriental Medicine from California Acupuncture College, and training in energy medicine and shamanic healing. In addition to her holistic acupuncture practice, she is a writer and speaker. She is author of Integrative Medicine: The Return of the Soul to Healthcare, which can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Bonnie is a contributing author to the inspiring book Crappy to Happy: Sacred Stories of Transformational Joy

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