Follow the Incense Trail: I was intrigued on my trip to Ubud in Bali, Indonesia that every morning we would see little offerings. Little tokens of generosity such as flower petals, rice, herbs, leaves and incense are carefully collected and beautifully placed in little three-inch woven palm or coconut leaf boxes known as “chanang”. The entire package is a lovely “banten” that appear everywhere, at the entrances of homes, at the base of shrines, at the doors of guest bedrooms, and on the streets in front of restaurants. Essentially, these little gifts are representative of the Balinese Hindu belief that if the Balinese God (taking several forms) and demons are appeased or scared away (respectively) by this loving generosity, that all will be well for these families, these businesses, or the guests that come to visit these lovely locations.
I enjoyed reading another blogger’s take on it as well in her blog entry “A Little Ritual…Frangipani, Incense, and Balinese Beliefs”: http://alittleadrift.com/ritual-balinese-bliefs-offerings/ Like the writer, Shannon, so aptly captures, visitors’ greatly appreciate the effort that the Balinese people make to show their faith to their creator, and, as well, share a little tinge of genuine fear of the evil spirits that they they think might harm them. Everywhere we went, we knew of the recency of the offering by the waft of incense breezing towards us. We were entranced by the fact that mostly women (some men) would be dedicating prayers in the middle of busy streets, in the back corner of alley ways, or in other innocuous locations. Their concentration, while offering their gifts to their gods, seemed to be filled with peace and tranquility regardless of the time of day and who was around to watch them. The regularity and routine of it demonstrated a discipline to their faith, and Chris and I were moved by the experience.
Day of Silence: It was interesting to see this idea of offering to the gods and scaring away the evil ones known as the “ogoh ogoh monster spirits” come to life in the Balinese New Year of Nyepi which was celebrated this year on March 28th, 2017. During this day, it is a day of silence, fasting and meditation. The belief is that after scaring the monsters away the night before after a procession of monster floats which results in a ritualistic burning of them to symbolically kill them, that balance can then be restored. The day of silence following is intended to trick the demons. The Balinese believe that if they are quiet they will fool them into thinking that the Balinese people have vanished and that these monsters can also disappear and no longer harm anyone. During this day of silence, there is to be no fire or light; no working; no travelling and no eating. The idea is that all Hindus will forgive each other and start the year afresh. Essentially, the ritual is to restore the cultural energy by appeasing Batara Kala through an offering and then to rid the towns and cities of all other malevolent energy.
Daily Acts: If I was to strip away the religious context of these lovely rituals that travellers view from the sidelines without truly understanding the value of them ethnologically, I would say that there is tremendous satisfaction on the part of this society to honour their gods, the spirits that surround them, and to show gratitude for all that comes their way. I hazard a guess that there is also a bit of superstition that keeps them true to these patterns of behaviour hoping to bring about good luck by staving off bad luck, a little bit like when I throw salt over my shoulder when I spill it, and I wrap my mirrors especially well when I move because I cannot afford seven years of bad luck.
With all of this being said, the regularity and pure belief that these daily acts of faith bring good things, is what is most intriguing to me. The beautiful routine of gathering together and offering the sights of the earth like pretty colours of hibiscus or bougainvillea; the tastes of traditional food; and the smell of traditional incense perfumes, has a calming affect on those who participate, and those of us who watch the process. The incense is sacred in Bali and is traditionally used to show gratitude by clearing energy in the mind and the surroundings. It is designed to bring wellness and peace by lighting the fire within us. “Philosophically speaking, the making and giving of ‘banten’ is a selfless act; a kind of self-sacrifice. It is part-meditation, part-escape from the humdrum buzz of everyday life; it’s a gift of gratitude to the Maker, and a supplication to the lower spirits that they do not disturb the living” (Tinker, “Decoding the World of Balinese Hindu Offerings”, www.indoneo.com, 2017).
Our Part in the Offering: After observing these religious traditions, we thought we would participate in an offering that is available to visitors at the Tirta Empul Temple located in the village of Manukaya in Central Bali. The name of the temple comes from “holy water spring” which is the source of the water for the temple. It was founded in 926 AD and is dedicated to Vishnu who is the Hindu God of water.
After changing into special green sarongs held on by gold coloured scarves, we were told to give a banten to the Vishnu and to make a wish in the Jaba Tengah, the inner sanctuary of the templte that contains the two purification pools. Then we submerged ourselves in the cold, clear water pool with a stone filled bottom. Coy tickled at our legs as we waited for people to move forward in the line-up of people from all over the world. We moved along over two dozen spring water spouts that fed the pools. At each one, we were told to bring the water to our mouths, and then to our heads, and to submerge our heads under the fountain to purify ourselves. Each spout had a meaning behind what it was intended to do for each of us dipping our heads beneath it. At each spout, I was shocked by the cold water hitting my head with an intensity that helped push my thoughts and prayers to the foreground. My husband found it to be an extremely powerful experience and we were both a bit teary as we explained our feelings to each other afterwards. People took water from the spring back to their families, and we were reminded by the fact that people in Bali believe, as so many religions do, that holy water has the power to make us new again.
Our Offerings: I suppose when I reflect on it, I ask myself how this idea of offerings fits into this Balinese culture. As only a guest in this country without expertise in Bali’s official religion of Hinduism, I can only speak of my traveller’s experience within it and compare it to my other travelling experiences in other cultures. I would have to say that this idea of personal “gratitude” that comes across to me as the dominant expression within this idea of offering, has much bearing on how these people operate in everything that they do in their lives as well as with us as visitors. They seem extraordinarly thankful and grateful for us being here. We feel welcomed and at peace, and the people seem patient and kind. Whereas, in other cultures where the religious rituals are grounded in scripture and more outwardly exclusive (where we are not welcome in the temples where the rites and practices are hidden from outsiders), the idea of “offering” is expressed differently. At home, for example, when I go to church, I make a financial offering, albeit it is couched in the spirit of giving. I donate money and material things to goodwill and good causes. I do not, however, make spiritual daily offerings of goodwill and grace in other ways.
Therefore, the questions I raise are the following: Does this idea of daily regular offering have spiritual merit in our religiously diverse and seculary society in North America? If so, why? If not, why not? If so, how could we do it in our own meaningful ways that would help us feel connected to each other and at peace with ourselves? To answer these questions for myself, I think that these types of blessings everyday make a positive difference, and I have noted the absense of it my daily life after comparing it to my experience in Bali. Although I am not Hindu, I feel that I might borrow some of the principles of these religious activities at home in my daily life to encourage an even greater sense of abundance and happiness.
I have been able to come up with ideas that might inspire the concept of a daily offering. For example, I like this idea of having a central place in the home where it is more peaceful and quiet and where meditation and prayer can occur easily. Whether there is a shrine or some designated area, it helps to have a fixed point of reflection. Every home or family compound in Bali has a temple within it. As well, I love this idea of incense. There is something about this fragrant root smell that absorbs the mind a bit and takes me away into lovely spaces of thinking and breathing. I associate incense with some of my relaxing yoga background. As well, music is a powerful complement to an offering, blessing or prayer. The Balinese listen to hours of their pentatonic gamalan. It is a xylophone-type instrument that is restricted by its five tones, and is very repetitive and notebly quite soothing and ambient. We heard it in almost all of the shops, restaurants, massage spas and homes. The foregoing of lyrics, melody and any real structure allows the mind to wander and reflect when listening to it.
Therefore, the most important decision for me would be to figure out what my daily offering(s) might actually be. Would it be daily prayer or the counting of something like a rosary? Would I say or write daily devotions? Or, would I take the time to physically gather something, and then send it outwards into the universe in the spirit of giving as do the Balinese and many other cultures? I do not have the anwer to this question yet, but I will be giving it considerable thought as I move forward. I am thankful that the Balinese provided me with some insight from which to explore this idea of daily gratitude, blessings and prayer.