IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 23 | Theme Modern Hinduisme


Two Balinese Hindu Intellectuals
Ibu Gedong Bagoes Oka and Prof. I Gusti Ngurah Bagus

This article is based on interviews with Ibu Gedong Bagoes Oka and Prof. I Gusti Ngurah Bagus, which I conducted in October, 1999, and in July 2000, as well as on various writings which testify to the influence of modern Indian Hinduism in the life and thinking of these two prominent Balinese Hindu intellectuals.


Ibu Gedong and Prof. Bagus, as they are more intimately called, have as much in common as they differ in age, in lifestyle, and in viewpoint. They are both members of the traditional Balinese nobility, albeit not high nobility. They both received a thorough Western education. They both set out early on a quest for understanding their religious tradition in a broader context. They both have been stronlgy influenced by classical modern Indian Hindu thinkers since long before this became common among contemporary Indonesian Hindu intellectuals. They have repeatedly joined forces in co-founding a couple of religious organizations, i.e. the Forum Pemerhati Hindu Dharma Indonesia ('Forum for the Concern of the Hindu Religion') and the Forum Penyadaran Dharma ('Forum for the Awareness of Dharma'), that were formed to strengthen and to safeguard the Hindu religion vis-à-vis challenges from outside as well as from within the Hindu community. Last but not least, they both have been elected as members of the Indonesian Parliament (Majelis Perwakilan Rakyat), representing the Indonesian Hindu community in the post-Soeharto political process.

Ibu Gedong, however, belongs to the first generation of Balinese (Hindu) intellectuals who received their school education in the pre-war period. She has been very much influenced by Christianity through her former Dutch mentor, a Christian philosopher of religion, in whose family she stayed while attending a Hollandsch-Inlandsch School ('Dutch School for Natives') in Yogyakarta. After prolonged private studies of the Christian scriptures and the Christian spiritual tradition, she was able to reconcile her Hindu-Balinese tradition with the inspirations she has gained from her encounter with Christianity by discovering the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and, to a lesser extent, those of Swami Vivekananda as her life inspiration. She has ever since dedicated a considerable part of her life to social work, applying the teachings of Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda to circumstances in Bali and Java where she has founded altogether three Gandhi Ashram. Eleven years younger than Ibu Gedong, Prof. Bagus finished his school education in the formative years of the Indonesian nation state. Having been influenced by theosophy through his father, he turned to study Balinese literature, linguistics, Asian philosophy, as well as anthropology in Yogyakarta, Jakarta, and Leiden. Given his special field of interest, it might not be surprising that he felt especially drawn to the teachings of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. As professor of anthropology at Bali's state university (Universitas Udayana), he has continuously concerned himself with the actual as well as the philosophical problems of the cultural and religious change in Bali. Recently, he began to advocate a closer cultural co-operation with relevant Indian institutions. The following paragraphes will introduce both Ibu Gedong as well as Prof. Ngurah Bagus in a more detailed manner, focusing on their opinion on contemporary Indian-Indonesian relations. *

Gedong Bagoes Oka

Born seventy-nine years ago to a modern-minded father and a more conservative mother, Ibu Gedong Bagoes Oka was sent as one of four Balinese girls to a Hollandsch-Inlandsch School ('Dutch School for Natives') in Yogyakarta. During the eight years of her attendance, she stayed in the family of Prof. Johanes Herman Bavinck, professor of theology at the College of Christian Theology in Yogyakarta. Her new Christian surroundings confronted her with new spiritual, ethical, and democratic values that challenged her own feudal and orthopractic Balinese Hindu tradition. Like all Balinese reformers of both the colonial and post-colonial period, she came to the conclusion that the Hindu religion in Bali was very much influenced by Balinese local culture, called adat, overburdened by a complex ritual system, stifled by a strict caste hierarchy, and lacking in spiritual depth. She continued her education at a Christian college for higher education and subsequently taught at a Christian school in Bogor. In 1941, Ibu Gedong returned to Bali to teach at a higher secondary school (Sekolah Lanjutan Atas) in Singaraja and to become its headmistress later. During the struggle for Indonesian independence as well as in the formative year of the new Indonesian nation state, she fought for a strong role of religion within the new Indonesian society. In her husband, the late I Gusti Bagoes Oka, she had found an inspiring and supportive spiritual companion with whom she shared a growing enthusiasm for the teachings of Gandhi. From this fulfilling marriage, six sons were born. After she had obtained her bachelor degree (Sarjana Muda) at the Universitas Udayana in Bali's capital Denpasar in 1964, she taught English at the Faculty of Lettres (Fakultas Sastra) between 1965 and 1972. During that period, her activities started to get a much more spiritual focus, leading to the foundation of the Yayasan Bali Santi Sena ('The Balinese Peace Front') in 1970.

In 1974, Ibu Gedong translated the English biography of Mahatma Gandhi into Indonesian, which was published a year later, i.e. in 1975. A year later she founded the Ashram Gandhi Santi Dasa in the village of Candidasa, situated at Bali's eastcoast, and dedicated the greater part of her time to manage its affairs. Activities in the ashram were geared to practical purposes. School education was provided for orphans and children from poor families. Work projects in the spirit of svadeshi were designed to improve the local agriculture on the basis of the traditional knowledge for which Bali is famous. The ashram does not only educate Balinese children but is also open to foreigners of all walks of life and from various religious backgrounds who want to deepen their spiritual understanding in contemplative surroundings. The daily religious practice in the ashram consists of common prayer and chanting, yoga, meditation, and a simplified form of the Vedic fire ritual, the agnihotra. The students have the chance to listen to spiritual lectures and are encouraged to study the sacred literature in the library of the ashram individually.

Ibu Gedong advocates a highly reformed, democratic, and tolerant practice of Hinduism that she sees as a kind of eternal and universal religion (sananta dharma) based on the Indian Veda and Vedanta, yet compatible with other true spiritual revelations such as the Christian gospel or the Islamic Alquran. In Bali, she has relentlessly tried to acquaint people with a less ritualistic but more spiritual religious practice without, however, condemning the Balinese ritual tradition as such, as younger and more radical Hindu intellectuals have done. Not surprisingly, her modernist and decidedly Gandhian notion of Hindu Dharma has not only inspired praise but has raised also criticism, especially on the part of Balinese conservatives such as the traditional Brahmin priests (Ida Pedanda).

While pursuing her responsibilities at the Ashram Gandhi Santi Dasa, Ibu Gedong was still occasionally teaching English at the Universitas Udayana as well as lecturing on spiritual topics both within Indonesia as well as abroad. Her work has taken her frequently to India, where she regularly participates in seminars and other events organized by the Gandhi Peace Foundation. In 1994 she received the International Bajaj Award from the Bajaj Foundation in Bombay for continuously spreading the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1996, she established the Ashram Bali Gandhi Vidyapith in Denpasar, an ashram that was specially designed to educate students at the local universities in the thinking of Gandhi. Since she has been able to influence more and more educated members of the Balinese urban youth, representatives of other persuasions have tried to damage her spiritual authority by pointing to her insufficient education in the Sanskrit language. More recently, Ibu Gedong instigated the foundation of another ashram in Yogyakarta, where she has followers not only among the local Hindu community but also among Muslim and Christian Javanese. Always pro-actively fighting for inter-religious harmony and understanding, she has been able to develop constructive relations with open-minded Christians such as Dr Thomas Sumartana, Head of the Institut DIAN/ Interfidei, dedicated to the promotion of inter-religious discourse in Indonesia, or the pastor and Christian intellectual Dr Eka Darmaputera.

Being one of the first Balinese women who received a higher school education, Ibu Gedong has also contributed to the emancipation of women in Bali through her foundations Yayasan Kosala Wanita ('Foundation for the Development of Women') and Yayasan Kesejahteraan Perempuan (Foundation for the Welfare of Women'), pleading for a general secondary school education for women and for the use of natural medicine and yoga as a kind of cheap, yet effective preventive medicine available to everybody. She herself lives as a strict vegetarian, basing her lifestyle on the Gandhian principles of 'non-violence' and to 'live simple so that others can simply live'. These principles she has also vigourously defended in her Yayasan Perkumpulan Pemberantasan Tuberkulose Indonesia ('Foundation for Fighting Tuberculosis') and on various other occasions, for example when taking part in the World Conference on Religion and Peace. In October 1999 her achievements were crowned with her election as a member of the Indonesian Parliament under the leadership of President Abdulrahman Wahid and Vice-President Megawati Soekarnoputri. Besides her parliamentary duties, she continues to translate English collections of the sayings of Gandhi into Indonesian. *

Prof. I Gusti Ngurah Bagus

In 1932, Prof. Dr I Gusti Ngurah Bagus was born into the family of the former feudal overlord of a small village near Denpasar. Since his grandfather had wasted the family wealth on gambling and women, his father had to make a living as a teacher at the local volksschool ('elementary school'). When his father stopped working in order to concentrate on the study of religion and theosophy, Prof. Bagus' mother was forced to trade in local commodities to provide for the education of their children. From 1938 to 1944, Prof. Bagus attended elementary school, first in his village and later in Denpasar. During the turbulent years of 1945 and 1946, schools were closed, and Prof. Bagus had to stay at home. He became very close to his father who had by now focused his sole attention on the study of religion and theosophy, immersing himself in the classical Balinese religious texts preserved in the palmleaf (lontar) manuscripts of the family as well as in the collection of theosophical books he had been able to acquire. Prof. Bagus recalls growing up with a foto of Krishnamurti hanging on the wall of his fathers pavilion. In those days, his father liked to discuss the life and teachings of Jesus and Jesajah with two Christian friends. Often, his father would read him passages from the palmleaf manuscripts, while Prof. Bagus himself also enjoyed reading about Chinese religion.

In 1946, Prof. Bagus continued his education at a Dutch secondary school in Denpasar. Beside his formal schooling, he studied classical Balinese texts with the Brahmin priest (nabe) of his family. In 1950, he was sent to Yogyakarta in order to attend a Catholic school. In Yogyakarta, he also visited some theosophical lodges, which had a strong leaning towards Buddhism, and started to study theosophy more systematically. In the library of the Sonobudoyo Museum, he spent hours reading books on Indian philosophy. After one year, he changed from the Catholic school to a state school due to growing religious conflicts with his Catholic teacher. In 1953, he entered the Gadhah Mada University in Yogyakarta and enrolled in Eastern literature. A year later he switched to the study of anthropology and linguistics, privately reading Albert Schweizer, Radhakrishnan, and the Indian Bhagavadgita formerly unknown in Bali. In 1956, he went on a grant to the Universitas Indonesia (UI) in Jakarta to study under the well known anthropologists Prof. Alaar and Prof. Koentjaraningrat. At the same university, a fellow Balinese, Ida Bagus Mantra, who had graduated from the Shantiniketan Vishva Bharaty University in India, founded by Rabindranath Tagore, was continuing his studies in a related field. In their free time, both men instigated other Balinese students to study the Hindu religion together. Having graduated from UI, Prof. Bagus returned to Bali where he conducted fieldwork on various topics such as the Balinese ritual system, the impact of tourism on Balinese society and culture, the history of an early Balinese religious reform organization as well as Balinese folklore. After he had spent two years at the University of Leiden from 1971 to 1973, he wrote his dissertation on a socio-linguistic aspect of the Balinese language. Since 1983, he has worked as professor of anthropology at the Universitas Udayana in Denpasar, gaining a reputation as a Balinese homme de lettre of international status.

In response to what he frequently describes as the growing Islamization of Indonesian society, Prof. Bagus started to become an activist on behalf of the Hindu religion in the beginning of the 1990's. In 1991, he convened a seminar at the Bali Beach Hotel in order to discuss strategies onhow to forestall any further derogatory remarks about Hinduism on the part of Muslim Indonesians such as those made in the tabloid IKRA. In 1995, he joined the first Bali-wide demonstration against the Bali Nirvana Beach Resort, a hotel complex built by successful Sumatran Muslim entrepreneurs, the Bhakrie brothers, which desecrated the sacred ground around the famous temple Tanah Lot. Having distinguished himself as a spokesman for democracy and the preservation of local culture, Prof. Bagus was elected as a member of the Indonesian Parliament during the interregnum of ex-President Habibie. In 1999, he initiated the establishment of the Forum for the Awareness of Dharma (Forum Penyadaran Dharma), and increasingly talked about Hindutva in connection with the contemporary Indonesian Hindu movement.

Prof. Bagus has visited India several times. In 1999, he was part of a Balinese delegation that was invited by the Indian government to talk about closer cultural cooperation between Bali and India. At the moment, he is busy lobbying for the establishment of a Hindu Centre dedicated to the protection of the status of Hinduism within Indonesian society and the development of the human resources within the national Hindu community. Prof. Bagus cannot be described as a religious or spiritual leader like Ibu Gedong. He is an intellectual Hindu activist striving to prepare the Hindu community for the challenges caused by being a religious minority in contemporary Indonesia. As an academic, he tries to promote a rationalized, modern form of Hinduism, the practice of which he likes to see firmly rooted in a profound knowledge of Indian philosophy still uncommon among Indonesian Hindus. In order to promote the study of Indian philosophy, he has recently published writings of Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in the Indonesian language. However, as an anthropologist, he cannot endorse the substitution of Balinese religious practices by forms of religious service imported from modern India. Hence, he has witnessed the growing popularity of the Hare Krishna and the Satya Sai Baba movement in Bali with reserve. *

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 23 | Theme Modern Hinduisme