August 26, 2007

Canang Sari
Kuta (Bali), Indonesia

Canang sari: The little Hindu spirit offerings found in abundance in Bali.

Balinese Hinduism lacks the traditional Hindu emphasis on cycles of rebirth and reincarnation, but instead is concerned with a myriad of local and ancestral spirits. These deities are thought to be capable of harm, and Balinese place great emphasis on dramatic and aesthetically satisfying acts of ritual propitiation of these spirits.

Three times a day Balinese Hindus place small offering baskets in temples or prominent places outside their home or business. Typically made of palm leaf, flowers, and foodstuffs, canang sari are an art form unto themselves.

In it's simplest form, the offerings are basically a ritual about giving back what has been given to you by the Gods. It is a sharing that is not based upon fear, but on gratitude to the richness of life. Offerings appease the spirits and brings prosperity and good health to the family. It is a duty and an honour at the same time, and in Balinese perspective a very natural and almost logical thing to maintain a good relationship between people and spirits.

But I look at these little offerings and can't help but think how silly they are. People go through all this effort to appease the spirits, but do the spirits not care that people walk or drive over them? Do the spirits not care that someone comes along and tosses their offerings into a big trash bag in the early evening?

I think the disposal of the offerings is what really bugs me about this tradition, not the belief itself. You've got these religious offerings, but as soon as the incense burns itself out they're nothing more than food for the birds to pick at—something to be discarded.

I think I'd be more understanding of the practice if they gathered the offerings at the end of the day and burned them with respect. Returning something to ashes is a strong part of several religions, and would make more sense to me than simply tossing them out with the garbage.

But hey, at least it's better than wailing Muslim prayers pumped through loudspeakers.

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