Hinduism is generally associated with India, but around the world there are several ancient Hindu communities which do not have their origins in the Indian subcontinent. Foremost amongst these are the Hindus of Bali.
Bali is a famous island of Indonesia. It is renowned for its beauty and is regularly referred to as “paradise on Earth”. It is one of the most sought after holiday destinations in the world, a reputation which stems from both its immense natural beauty and rich culture.
Unknown to most Hindus in the rest of the world, Bali is the place with the highest proportion of Hindus, even more so then Nepal. Over 93% of the Island’s 3.1 million people are Hindus. Therefore they make up a very significant community of non-Indian origin Hindus. Bali can be said to be the most Hindu place in the world, being the only place in which the government offices close daily to observe Hindu prayers. In the past, a far greater proportion of Indonesians were Hindu, a fact which is still reflected in the mainstream culture of the country. So how exactly did Hinduism reach these distant lands?
Throughout history, whenever a new people have adopted Hinduism, it didn’t mark a break with their past. Hindu sages analyzed the cultures and practices of other lands, and tried to see them in the same light as their own. For example, if a new country was discovered, and the people there worshipped in a new way never seen before in Hinduism, and worshipped unknown deities, the Hindu spirit would not be to try and make them worship in traditional Hindu ways and break away from their own way of life. The Hindu spirit is one of religious sharing and actively looking for common ground between the philosophy and customs of different people.
When this is done sincerely, it is often found that the same spiritual outlook underlies both the religion of another people and one’s own religion, albeit with different names and forms. For example, if a deity is worshipped who has functions and attributes similar to Lord Shiva, Hindus will say “Your deity is another form of Shiva, and we have no problem worshipping your deity and sharing in your festivals. You are also welcome to our festivals and to worship with us if you like.”
Gradually many new regions became Hindu through this assimilative process. Each new region developed a style of Hinduism which was unique to that region’s own culture and history. This is the reason why Hinduism contains so much diversity. This diversity is part of the richness of the traditions, and stems from the fact that Hinduism has a spirit which does not wish to impose a uniform monoculture upon its adherents.
It should be noted that although Hinduism fostered a great diversity, it also fostered a great unity. There was and is a deep underlying unity which developed in the consciousness of all the regions and peoples who came under the organic influence of Hindu civilization. In particular, there is a universal respect for the Vedas, the Mahabharata and Ramayana and the major Hindu deities.
After Hinduism spread fully through the Indian subcontinent, it also spread to several other lands. These included Thailand, Malaysia, parts of China, Cambodia, West Asia and of course Indonesia.
Indonesia is now a Muslim majority country, but retains many aspects of its Hindu past. For example, one of the country’s official symbols, the Indonesian coat of arms, is called the “Garuda Pancasila”, after the eagle Garuda who in Hinduism is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. The Ramayana is a national epic in the country. Hinduism was the major religion of Indonesia until the 15th Century.
It is not known exactly at what period in history Indonesia became Hindu. But what is known is that the last great Hindu kingdom in the country was the Majapahit Empire (1293–1520 AD). At its peak, under a king named Hayam Wuruk, the empire covered most of the modern day geographical boundaries of Indonesia, and therefore modern day Indonesian nationalists speak highly of the empire as laying the foundations of the modern Indonesian nation state.
The Majapahit Empire founded a Balinese colony in 1343. Later on, with the rise of Islam, Hinduism was forced into retreat, and there was an exodus of Hindu intellectuals, artists, priests and musicians from Java to Bali in the 15th century.
There are still Hindus in the rest of Indonesia, but not so much as in Bali. There are reports of a large number of people in the rest of Indonesia declaring themselves to be Hindu in recent years. These are individuals and families who have been nominal Muslims, but in actual religious beliefs have been closer to Hinduism.
Hindus in Bali officially call their religion “Agama Hindu Dharma”. An examination of the beliefs of Agama Hindu Dharma show it to be in accordance with mainstream Hinduism except for slight differences in names:
– Brahma, the creator
– Wisnu (Vishnu), the preserver
– Ciwa (Shiva), the destroyer
• A belief in all of the other Hindu gods and goddesses
The sacred texts found in Agama Hindu Dharma are the Vedas. Only two of the Vedas reached Bali in the past, and they are the basis of Balinese Hinduism. Other sources of religious information include the Puranas and the Itihasas (Ramayana and Mahabharata). One thing that Hindus in other parts of the world may find very surprising about Hindus in Bali relates to their diet. The majority eat beef.
The Balinese are fierce and territorial in their love of their land. They have a custom known as Puputan, referring to a fight to the death which the Balinese Hindus undertake when they feel collectively threatened or violated. It was last practiced when Bali was a Dutch colony, when Balinese royalty—men, women and children—marched into battle with only ceremonial daggers against heavily armed Dutch forces. Several thousand Hindus died in these futile attacks, but they served their purpose. Demoralized and shaken, the Dutch withdrew from Bali and allowed Balinese self-governance for the remaining years of their reign in the Dutch East Indies, thus securing religious and cultural autonomy.
In recent years Hindus in Bali have increasingly tried to build links with Hindus in the rest of the world. They have become increasingly conscious of their position as a tiny Hindu minority in the most populous Muslim country in the world. With a large number of Muslims moving to Bali to live and work, Balinese Hindus have become afraid that this last stronghold of Hinduism in Indonesia may gradually lose its status as a Hindu majority land. These fears were made worse by the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002 and 2005 which killed over 250 people.
This article gives just a glimpse into the rich history and culture of a great branch of the Hindu people. It is hoped that such articles pave the way for a greater understanding and unity between the diverse Hindu peoples in the coming global age, in which it is imperative that all Hindus achieve a greater level of unity and coordination for the continued well being of our great heritage.