Temples of Invisible gods

Indian Mythology, World Mythology 11 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, August 21, 2011


As you walk through the streets of Bali, an island in Indonesia, you cannot miss the temples in every street, in every house, in every shop, and the thousands of tiny baskets of palm leaf containing flower and food (including sometimes a biscuit and menthol) and incense placed on the roads as offerings to invisible gods.

I say invisible because this is one of the most striking differences between Balinese Hinduism and Indian Hinduism. In Bali, the temples are full of tiny shrines, each with a seat located high above a pillar or tower, but the seat has no deity. The temple has arches, courtyards, doorways, images of fierce guardian gods, and doorkeepers, but no god or goddess, just empty thrones. These gods are invisible, residing in the sky or the mountain or the ocean, and they come when invoked to receive offerings made by the people of Bali. In exchange they give good luck, harmony and blessings.

Hinduism came to Bali over a thousand years ago via seafaring traders, followers of Buddhism and various Tantrik and Vedic Hindu traditions, who travelled the sea from the East coast of India. Memories of this are still retained in the form of the festival of Bali Jatra in Orissa during which tiny paper boats with lamps are set afloat on the River Mahanadi in the month of Kartik, post Diwali.

The similarities in rituals and script and dance and stories of Bali with those in Tibet, Nepal, Manipur, Orissa, Bengal and Tamil Nadu are striking. On walls you see words like ‘Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om’ and ‘Om Su-asti-asto’. Priests speak of rituals such as Agnihotra and chant the Gayatri mantra. There are Brahmins here and Kshatriyas and Vaisyas and Sudras, without the dark side of caste system so prevalent in India. And men – even cool looking bartenders in swanky hotels – very casually wear Champa and Hibiscus flowers tucked against their ears, which is rather cute.

The story goes that exactly a thousand years ago, in 1011, a great conference took place not far from the city of Ubud, where under the supervision of the king Udayan, wise men sat together to unite and synchronize the various branches of local and imported beliefs and customs. It was agreed that every household, and every village and every province would have temples dedicated to cosmic, hilly, oceanic, forest and local gods. The first to be invoked would be the Trimurti: the creator Brahma, the preserver Vishnu and the destroyer, Shiva.

The Trimurti concept is quite different from the one in India. Brahma is associated with creation hence fire and the kitchen. Vishnu is associated with water and the fields and with the heroic epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are extremely popular locally. Shiva is associated with breath, wind, death and destruction.

While Hinduism of India is marked by bhakti or passionate devotion, which swept across India in the 14th century AD, Balinese Hinduism is more ritualistic and is about aligning, through rituals, space and time and people (desa, kala and patra, as they say, reminding once again of ancient links with India). This is what the priests do as they sprinkle water with grass and move from shrine to shrine, channelizing the energy of the earth and the sky for the benefit of the people.

It makes you wonder – what exactly is Hinduism? Is it the rituals, is it the stories, is it the devotion, or is it the gods of the Puranas or adherence to ideas found in Vedas and Tantras? One cannot answer the question. Perhaps it is this absence of doctrine and dogma which makes Bali famous for its tolerance and hospitality and gentleness.

  • Sandeep

    “what exactly is Hinduism? Is it the rituals, is it the stories, is it the devotion, or is it the gods of the Puranas or adherence to ideas found in Vedas and Tantras?”

    To me, Hinduism is like that entrepreunial venture which has grown to become transnational corporation.

    The very fact that it is so abstract and conceptual that it still holds the engima and draws people towards it.

    Living across Atlantic,(or Pacific…whichever way you look at it), Indians are often asked to define Indianness(and hinduism). I have a simple answer – “Dharma Matith Udgraha”. Whatever your sane mind/ Conscience tells you… is your responsibility/duty/code of conduct. Hinduism is cannot be defined as a religion, but rather is way of living. Probably this is one the reason, you don’t convert to Hinduism, you embrace and accept the way of living. And how you do that, if left to you.

    You may choose to follow the rituals, stories, believe in God or follow the scripture, whichever combination you choose, you are hindu, if you believe u r one.

    • gujjartputtar

      The “Way of Worship” is created to make the “Way of living” simplified and modest and done through the “Way of thinking ” and that is Hinduism: The Way of Worship, The Way of Thinking and The way of Living.

    • raj menon

      Very aptly said Sandeep. Hinduism is “A way of Life”.

    • Sudip

      I agree with Sandeep completely. I have had the same experience whenever I was abroad, to explain the diversity found in Indians (largely Hindus) and I too explained that it is a ‘way of life’. It does not prescribe anything but provides necessary inputs for one to take one’s own decision. There is nothing which is universally right or wrong as circumstances change so does the instance.
      This is probably the only ‘religion’ which does not endeavour to propogate and include. Even if you say you don’t agree with anything that Hinduism states, that also is acceptable. No body is going to admonish you for taking such a stand.
      The rest is all propaganda promoted by a select group of people.

  • Please correct the spellings of Invisible in the headline

  • Vijay Rajagopal


    I was dumb stuck too when I went to Bali.

    I ( Most probably we) did(do) not realise the impact of Hinduism / Indian culture in South East Asia. To me, Bali represents Hinduism as practiced in India few centuries earlier and at the same time gives a feel of how future will look in India on religious front.

    As a start, you may want to watch this You tube link

    This is called Trisandhya ( Sandhya vandhanam done thrice a day – 0600 ,1200 & 1800). The version of Sandhyavnadhanam in Bali is reciting this at these times. Key points to watch are the similarity of Balinese script to South Indian scripts. The chanting of the mantras have deformed over years. The starting session is Gayatri Mantra , followed by prayers to Narayana and later about Achinthya ( Similar to Nirguna Brahman – Formless, Omnipresent, Omniscience etc) manifested as Siva , Vishnu ( WIshnu in Balinese) and Brahma , followed by prayaschitham ( Seeking pardon for wrong thoughts, action etc – Similar to Suryascha Maamanyuscha / Agnischa Maamanyuscha in our Sandhyavandhanam procedure) and finally ends with Shanthi Mantram.

    I witnessed varnasramam practiced ( without the ugly side of un-touchability) . They have the four varnas like we do ( used to have). Each sect has its place in their society and dignity of labour is maintained. ( I believe this was the situation in India too. Got corrupted later).

    Another aspect is Craft work running through generations (Kula Thozhil in Tamil). We can see that a whole family from 3 to 90 years is engaged in the same trade of work. The one I saw was related to wooden carvings ( sculptures) where a whole family was involved in the production line. The job is done with so much of dedication and passion that the art pieces they make is absolutely brilliant.

    In simple terms, I believe that great sculptures ( Deiva kalai) like the one we see in our temples can only be produced when the creator has that divinity within him/her. The divinity within flourishes when the external environment is without conflict. I can see that if you bring people to work as slaves ( as we were taught in our history), the output will not have that divinity.

    The other side of this is that they have the words and operating procedures ( Rituals) without much understanding on why they are doing them. Those who gave this knowledge to Bali must have been a great Rishi with a lot of Gnanam. Examples-

    Greeting – Om Swasthi Asthu – Advaitic meaning “what is in you is only IS” loosely linked to That Twam Asi.

    Thank You – Mathura Sukshma – The Sukshma Sareera is pleased.

    I was amazed with these usage by everyone in daily life. However, they do not seem to understand the deeper meaning and treat it as Vanakkam & Nanri in Tamil) .

    Days to come like this in India if the current trend continues?.

  • Arun

    Bali was a subset of the greater part of the Chola empire. I don’t think any country or community just gets influenced by someone going there for Trading. Even if they were traders , How did they reach there ? The only sea communication that existed at that time was thru Chola Navy. The Mahapijit empire and much of Indonesia was a vassal of the Cholas

  • We, as a community of vishwakarmas from kerala (to be precise “carpenters” by profession),do believe in a God, who is supposedly one of the forefather of our community.

    Its been a belief casaded multiple generations below and no one in my father’s or grandfather’s generation have ever seen him by face. We call him “muttappan”,our great great grandfather.

    A temple had been built roughly about 300yrs ago, if not more, in karaparamba-calicut , with no idol and only His handrest on a wooden seat (Palakha)to remember. The favorite offering to this God is desi Spirits (Toddy) and Non-Veg.

    Would request DP’s team to help dwell more and enlighten the readers on various believes within our own country, which are still unexplored.

  • shekhar

    dear devdutt,
    I came across this recently released book by amish ‘the secret of nagas’. And i have clued from one of your lines in latest article on your website that you have read it. Though, his work is fiction inspired by facts, i believe he has made a great job, giving science its place when describing epics, like you exploring the deep significance of day to day rituals and symbols.
    I feel, hinduism is in present a hugely corrupted version of what it seems to be, when examined carefully and unprejudicedly.

  • Uddipayan

    Saints of Hindu Dharma are alive and present in this world and some of them in this forum.

    It is only that the knowledge of the saints is locked up for the benefit of english speaking and net savy humans.

    What about the millions of poor people who are struggling every day with no clue on how to live. They are left to the mercy of the Pastuer.

    I only hope the inner beauty and relevance of Hindu thought is circulated to all. We need a Buddha to go house to house and street to street preaching to rid this world of Ashanti and bring peace.

  • Partha

    Hi Mr. Devdutt,

    I am an avid reader of your articles. I love your perspectives on mythology and the interpretations are very logical.

    However I have one question… You mentioned in this particular article that ‘hinduism in India’ is centered around ‘bhaktism’ whereas in Bali it is more oriented towards rituals. I think that is not correct. In India,we see a lot of rituals in almost everything.

    I am from Assam and right through my childhood, i have seen my family and village following rituals around those concepts only.

    It would be great if you could clarify on that statement. :)