Magic in Bali

One of the most interesting and alluring aspects of Balinese culture is the very real place of magic in Balinese life. The roots of the phenomena are found in the island’s Hindu-Animist religion. Stone Age Balinese Animism, the worship of the spirits of nature and ancestors, has changed little even down to the present. In the 8th century, Mahayana Buddhism swept across Southeast Asia, and the Balinese blended the new religion’s most complimentary tenets with local animist practices. Hinduism followed in the early 16th century and like Buddhism before it, was blended with local practices. Today on Bali they still fervently worship the spirits of nature and the belief in evil and good spirits is universally held, which in turn leads to a preoccupation with magic - both black and white. The belief in magic and its manipulation permeates the actions, thinking, and rituals of the Balinese. It is an earnest matter to locals and not to be trivialized. Although its practice is not obvious to casual observers, visitors should be aware of its influence. Understanding this bona fide phenomenon helps visitors gain a deeper understanding of the highly ritualized nature of Balinese society. Examples are numerous. They include the ubiquitous preoccupation of ritual cleansing, offerings, amulets, ceremonies, and rituals as well as dance drama. The Balinese believe everyone has the capacity for good or evil (black or white magic). Everyone accumulates spiritual energy, called sakti. When a person’s heart is good the acquisition of sakti is applied to withstand evil influences. Some people have a greater capacity for sakti and become priests or shamans. Those with dark hearts use the sakti for harm. Adepts become Leyaks (roughly translated as witches). The Balinese preoccupation with ritual cleansing flows naturally from this universal belief in the influence of sakti. Additionally, understanding this belief system illuminates the islanders’ the obsession with offerings and ritual atonement. Many temple rituals include blood offerings and cockfights are part of atonement ceremonies. Preoccupation with sakti also explains the omnipresence of amulets and charms.

Probably the easiest opportunity for visitors to experience a magic ceremony in Bali is dance drama. Several of the most popular performances are originally based on some form of trance ritual. The inclination to trance is a permanent and widespread undercurrent of Balinese ritual and religious celebration. It is a relatively accessible way for gods to enter into human affairs. Everyone present participates as all feel the threshold between worlds to a greater or lesser degree. Trance ceremonies are always accompanied by music, a chanting choir, and incense to aid the process. Any dance that includes Rangda (the witch queen) will certainly include some elements of trance. As the embodiment of evil, Rangda must be controlled and defeated. The dancer playing Rangda enters a low level trance - for authenticity and for protection. The same is true of a performer characterizing the Barong (a creature of good). A very common tourist dance requiring true trance is the Kecak Fire Dance. The entranced performer is able to walk or dance barefoot through hot coals. Another, less commonly encountered trance dance is the Sanghyang Dedari (Angel Deity). In this dance pre-adolescent girls receive the spirits of sanghyangs (heavenly nymphs). For authentic temple ceremonies Dedari dancers are chosen for their proclivity to trance and engage in rigorous training. However, no dance training is allowed. While in trance they dance a relaxed version of the Legong, which normally requires months of training and practice. It should be noted that dance drama performed for tourists, while authentic, lacks much of the spiritual dynamism of those performed at religious ceremonies and Dedari performances for tourists are most certainly rehearsed.

A final example of the powerful place of magic can be observed in Bali’s history. One of the events most difficult for westerners to understand is the tradition of Puputan, or ritual suicide. Balinese history has several occasions where locals faced insurmountable odds and resorted to mass suicide. Outsiders are hard pressed to understand these events. But one possible insight is the consideration that the powerful belief in sakti explains the islanders’ actions. It has been suggested that Puputan was intended as an ultimate act of sacrifice, whereby a local ruler, powerless to avoid defeat, could in death summon the forces of the supernatural to aid his cause. It was an attempt to enlist a real and present spiritual power against their enemies.

Whatever our beliefs as western visitors to Bali, the fact remains that the Balinese themselves truly believe in magic and its active part in their everyday lives. Visitors would do well to respect that belief no matter their own perspectives. Moreover, understanding those beliefs illuminates one’s experience of so much of the ritualized elements of Balinese life. Attending a temple celebration, a cremation, or even a traditional dance drama has deeper meaning when one understands the spiritual underpinnings and fundamental belief systems.