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Balinese – The Long and Holy Journey

The Balinese believe that after death, the body of the deceased must be dissolved to return to its original elements. In the cremation process, ngaben, the purification rite which frees the spirit from its temporary earthly ‘housing’, dissolution facilitates the spirit on its journey to its next ‘existence’. Then what?

It is a custom and tradition in Bali that when someone dies the whole village communes and lends a helping hand in the preparation for one of the near final stages of one’s rites of passage. The dead body is laid out in a special part of the house to be bathed and prepared. The night before the cremation, holy water is collected from the main temple and used in the preparation of the body and during the cremation.

Before the ngaben, the body is to be placed in a traditional coffin or wadah, and for those of royal Balinese families into an ‘exoskeleton’ coffin in the form of a lembu or sacred cow, which is believed to be the vehicle of the spirits, made of paper and light wood yet elaborately decorated. It will be carried to the village cemetery in a procession. Then after it is set on fire, until all that remains is soot and ashes.

The ashes are washed, collected and then transported to the nearest beach and cast out to sea for another releasing ritual, signifying the final separation of the soul from the body, with ashes dispersed to ‘where all things end’. The soul is then unified with the great ocean. ‘The end is just another beginning’ so they say… Especially in the sense of reincarnation, as this is one of the sradha or ‘tenets’ of the Hindu faith.

In most Indian philosophical traditions, including the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain systems, an ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is assumed as a fact of nature. These systems differ widely, however. Reincarnation was first recorded in the Upanishads, the Sanskrit philosophical and religious compositions. According to Hinduism the soul or atman is immortal, while the body is subject to birth and death. The Bhagavad Gita states that, “worn-out garments are shed by the body; worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within the body. New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments.”

The idea that the soul (of any living being – including animals and plants) reincarnates is intricately linked to karma, another concept first introduced in the Upanishads. Karma, literally ‘action’, is the sum of one’s actions, and the force that determines one’s next reincarnation. The cycle of death and rebirth governed by karma is referred to as samsara.

After many births, every person eventually becomes dissatisfied with the limited happiness that worldly pleasures can bring. At this point, a person begins to seek higher forms of happiness, which can be attained only through spiritual experience. When, after much spiritual practice (sadhana), a person finally realizes his or her own divine nature—such as realizing that the true ’self’ is the immortal soul rather than the body or the ego—all desires for the pleasures of the world will vanish, since they will seem bland compared to spiritual happiness or ananda. When all desire has vanished, the person will not be reborn. An ultimate dissolution.

When the cycle of rebirth thus comes to an end, a person is said to have attained moksha or salvation, a concept that is equivalent to attaining nirvana in Buddhism. While all schools of thought agree that moksha implies the cessation of worldly desires and freedom from the cycle of birth and death, the exact definition of salvation depends on individual beliefs.

Newborns, usually after 12 days, are taken to ask for who has numitis, or which among the ancestors has repeated to ‘walk the earth’ and ‘ask for some rice at the family kitchen’.

Balinese Hindus call the concept of reincarnation by the term punarbhawa. And the Balinese commoner pays close attention to this as numitis. As with any Balinese Hindu who witnesses his own or other family member’s rites of passages, observations about one’s character from an early age takes place. I recall that whenever my four-year-old nephew would get a bit creative, for example like wearing a traditional white head scarf and praying attire for play and in non-praying occasions, his grandparents and elders would often say, “i pidan nak pemangku ngidih nasi”, or simply put, “he was once a priest” in describing his simple and witty act. Exclamations like this might sound awkward, but to grandparents they mean it, as the scene only clarifies the past (life).

Newborns after 12 days are taken to ask for who has numitis, who their punarbhawa is, or which ancestor has repeated to walk the earth and ‘ask for some rice at the family kitchen’. The question at most times would also be “sapa sira sane rawuh?” or “who is it that has come home/arrived?”


In Bali, as a child grows older and later into adulthood, his or her parents would see how the child has such a character, attitude and behavior that resemble someone they have known the distant past. They would compare how their toddler’s witty acts such as laughter, cries or even (mind our manners) fart characteristics resemble for instance the antics of their great grandfather or great great grandmother.

This is also known as the ‘ngidih nasi’, a jargon that all Balinese understand, meaning the notion of ancestors who have ‘come home to ask for some rice’ or repeat life on earth. This is based upon the exact tenet embraced by all Balinese Hindus, that punarbhawa is a long journey for the soul to perfect its form through deeds in life on earth – a sort of penance in one way, and a sort of phase to accomplish, in another.

Punarbhawa consists of two words in Sanskrit, punar literally ‘again’ and bhawa ‘into form’. The repetition of births to the world brings both happiness and grief. This is believed to happen due to the remaining attachments of the soul with various worldly ‘debris’.

As many spiritual leaders convey, this life is like a plea for the next ‘journey’ of life. And being born into the world is an opportunity to use the endowed intelligence and consciousness of humans as being the highest beings, and to cherish the ‘vehicle’. Aware of the fact that humans are merely a grain of sand in the universal scheme of things, the Balinese belief states that our current re-embodiment is only a step in the process towards another, better one, depending on the better karma or deeds we do in this current life.

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