“Religious Commuters”: Modern Balinese Hindus of Sai Baba

I Made Arsana Dwiputra | CRCS | Thesis defense

In Bali, the notion of “religion” is embedded with that of “tradition”(adat) (Picard, 2002; 111-114). It is especially the case among the young generation of Balinese. One would, therefore, be confused if he or she strictly understands both notions as essentially separate entities. The young Balinese Hindus perceive and practice both “religion” and “adat” as one thing, although both entities are often discursively claimed to be different. Ideas and practice of so called “religion” and “adat” for the young Balinese Hindus are here then understood as their religiosity.

Sai Baba Bali

Sai Baba followers in  their meeting hall for Thursday prayer 

at the suburbs of Singaraja

The contemporary religiosity of the young Balinese Hindus has been challenged by their everyday life, especially in economic life. The young Balinese Hindus under

discussion are those who live in cities for work but go back to their villages for their religious (adat) observance. In one hand, the people have to remain “religious” which also means to observe adat practices, by regularly going back to their villages, and on the other hands, they are tightly conditioned with their job schedule and time in cities. These people have to deal with two different life situations. In (traditional) villages, community life is characterized (or idealized) with collectivity and conformity. Whereas in cities, the modern urban life tends to impose individuality and competition. These two situations are apparently in conflicts, and in occasions the young generation of Balinese Hindus disobey their adat (religious) obligation.

 In the midst of such a conflictual situation, a religious movement of Sai Baba emerges. It comes to offer a solution for the young generation of Balinese Hindus. The solution is a kind of “middle way” that conforms both the busy modern urban life of cities and the traditional one of villages.

 “Traditional” Hinduism of Bali, which is believed to be originating from India, is again under challenges by the young generation. It is too burdening for some and difficult to deal with the modern urban life. Sai Baba movement emerging to respond such a situation attracts many modern Balinese Hindus. Sai Baba is a kind of a new born Hinduism. It accommodates Middle Class Balinese Hindus who think that traditional Hinduism (as religion or as adat) is too complicated. Sai Baba offers an effective and practical religious doctrine and ritual applicable to daily life of modern Balinese Hindus. Since adat obligation such as attending birth and death ceremonies is a must — it can cause social sanction for Balinese (especially those who are married) if they disobey adat, a new way of being religious has been invented: ‘religious commuter’. In their villages, they observe their adat and so become ‘normal’ Balinese Hindus just like their fellow Balinese Hindus, but when they come back to cities they embrace Sai Baba, through which they conviniently observe their religion and at the same time do their businesses.

“Religious commuters” of the modern Balinese Hindus in Buleleng, North Bali is the main topic of the thesis of Gde Dwitya Arief Metera, CRCS student batch 2009. He defended his thesis before four critical and enlighting examiners: Dr. Mark Woodward, the professor of religious studies at Arizona state University, USA whose research interests include the dynamic relationship between Islam and Javanese culture, Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir, the Chair of Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies (CRCS)-Graduate school of Gajah Mada University whose academic concerns include religious blasphemy in Indonesia, Agus Indiyanto, a lecturer of Anthropology Department at Gajah Mada University who is now doing a research on the social economic life of Urang Awak (Minang West Sumatra), and Anak Agung Ari Dwipayana, a leading political commentator and also a lecturer of Social and Political Department, Gajah Mada University. Analyzing the emergence of a new religious movement in Bali, Gde proposed that in Bali today, there are three competing religious systems operating and attracting the modern Balinese Hindus. First is the traditional Hinduism (agama), second is the Balinese tradition (adat) and the third is Devotional (Sai Baba). Rather than polarizing the three, Gde concluded that they are practiced simultaneously by Balinese Hindus. All three systems overlap in practice.

 In his thesis, Gde Dwitya offers two opposing conceptual domains: “home” and  “work place” that followers of Sai Baba movement are simultanously dealing with. He explains that “home” refers to villages and represents the habitus of Modern Balinese in which those people have to deal and comply with adat obligation. “Work place,” argues Gde, is where the people have to be engaged in the busy life of urban areas. The followers of Sai Baba regularly (when they are off from work) go back to their villages to observe their adat. They do so because (the complicated) adat may not be performed in cities. In cities, in addition to doing their job for income, they come to Sai Baba center for religious activities. Those people are what Gde came to define as “religious communters.” They are engaged in two somewhat opposing conceptual domains. They commute between traditional sphere of ‘tradition’ (adat) in villages and new religious movement (Sai Baba) in workplace, in the city. Gde emphasized that engagement in these two different domains has taken place in Bali since the last thirty years as the result of economic transformation.

 Another issue in relation to the life of religious commuters addressed by Gde regarded to different disposition of time. At “home” (village), time is disposed in accordance with Balinese calendar that disposes adat performances. At workplace (city), those people deploy Gregorian calendar that disposes work schedule. Occasionally, those people have to face situation when adat observance take place during the working days. They have to have to choose either working at workplace or going back to their villages for their adat performance. Skipping both adat or work once or twice may be understandable, but it would be a serious problem if they miss either work or adat often times. At workplace, they will be fired, and at home they will be sanctioned.

 In his defense, Gde received critical comments on his clear-cut distinction of the conceptual domains (village/home-city/workplace) from examiners.  Gde seemed to simplify the two categories as mutually exclusive: nothing maybe shared. Gde’s finding that modern Balinese Hindus have mostly joined Sai Baba Movement is also problematic. Many of them are still able manage their time for adat observance and for work, and so they do not have to join Sai Baba movement. Gde admitted examiners’ comment and critics and he diplomatically responded that his research’s might not be easily applied to other geographical localities outside Singaraja, his fieldwork site and further research to examine the complexity of Balinese adat/religious/work life outside Singaraja is very much needed.

 Gde’s study on Sai Baba’s movement in Bali, as also admitted by examiners, contributes to the scholarship of Balinese religion. Gde’s contribution is especially on his account of the current global economic developments that trigger the emergence of a new kind of spiritual movement like Sai Baba (Ed-Anc)

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