There are two Balis: “Bali,” the seeker’s paradise of the Eat, Pray, Love set, and the other Bali, a less penetrable, more complex place. “Bali” was born out of the other Bali’s dialogues with European orientalists and the Indonesian state.
In its early days, “Bali” was a romantic illusion conjured by nineteenth century orientalists.1 Disappointed by the impoverished society they found in India, they searched elsewhere for a place where the grand Indic past of their imaginations survived in its purest form. It was these same orientalists who decided to call the Balinese “Hindu,” a term novel to the Balinese themselves.
This is not to say that Balinese rituals and beliefs did not share commonalities with those in India, but only that, much like in India itself, at no point in the past were these practices codified into a belief system called Hinduism.
In this orientalist narrative, Hinduism was brought to Bali in the fourteenth century by Javanese refugees fleeing Muslim invaders. This version of events privileged the aristocratic Balinese of the courts, who claimed descent from the Javanese refugees (the colonial orientalists were inveterate snobs). There was a big hole in the narrative, however, since it entirely ignored a large swathe of the Balinese population who preceded the Javanese.2 As this less-exalted segment claimed descent from an Indian sage who was also a son of the Gods, they could have equally been construed as “Hindu.”
Later, in the twentieth century, a nationalist consciousness emerged in what was then the Dutch East Indies. Balinese intellectuals were forced to renegotiate their religious identity within the newly coalescing Indonesian nation. Under persistent criticism from their monotheistic compatriots, the Balinese elite began to scrutinize their own rituals. This, combined with the growing threat of Islamic and Christian proselytizing, pressured Balinese reformers into attempting to emulate Judeo-Christian religion. They even tried to identify from their practices one supreme God and one holy book, but with little success.
The constitution of the newly independent Indonesian republic was based in part on the principle of belief in one God. From trying unsuccessfully to remake themselves in the Judeo-Christian mold, the Balinese now focused their efforts on making the case that theirs too was an ancient world religion—Hinduism—like Islam and Christianity. Balinese intellectuals went to India and invited Indian scholars to Bali. Religious councils were established, publishing books to familiarize Balinese with Indian religious doctrine, much of which was foreign to them. After all their efforts, in 1958 the Indonesia state finally granted official status for the Balinese religion, which it called agama Hindu.
The preceding history demonstrates the distance between Balinese Hinduism and Balinese customs and beliefs. Balinese Hinduism was created specifically for the consumption of outsiders, whether colonial orientalists or Islamic nationalists. Thus, the touristification of Balinese culture actually began quite a bit before the era of mass tourism.