There’s no other place in the world quite like Bali. There are many reasons why Bali is so popular, but one has to be the melting pot of religions that gives Bali such a rich cultural background. And whilst almost nine-tenths of Indonesia embraces Islam, over 83 percent of today’s Balinese population are proudly Hindu, and they wear their religion with pride. Because to the Balinese, Hinduism is not just a religion: it’s a way of life. And, as we’ll see, it’s almost impossible to separate religion from superstition, culture, and everyday life.
In this article, we’re going to give you an introduction to the six main religions in Bali. We’ll cover the basic beliefs of each religion, how it fits into the Balinese culture, and how it arrived on the island in the first place.
We understand that religion can be a controversial subject, so we’re not going to include any social comments or personal observations — just the facts.
What are the Main Religions in Bali?
There are currently six officially-recognized religions in Bali. Along with population percentages from the most recent 2018 census, these religions are: Hinduism (83.5%), Islam (13.4%), Protestantism (1.7%), Catholicism (0.8%), Buddhism (0.5%), and Confucianism (0.01%). Other non-recognized religions make up the difference, but these were not reported in the census.
For comparison, the main religions across the whole of Indonesia are Islam (87.2%), Christianity (7%), and Catholicism (2.9%). Hinduism barely makes the list, at less than 1.7%.
In 2014, the Indonesian Religious Affairs Ministry recognized the Baháʼí faith as a religion, with between 350 and 500 followers in Bali. However, this has not yet been written into Indonesian law, and so there are still only six official religions in Indonesia.
Which God is Worshipped in Bali?
There are several gods worshipped in Bali, because Bali has six official religions. The main religion, serving over 83% of the Balinese population, is Hindu, which worships a supreme being called Sang Hyang Widhi. This supreme being manifests in three forms which are all worshipped separately. They are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva, the god that destroys the universe in order to recreate it. Of these three, Shiva is the most powerful.
Other gods worshipped in Bali include Allah (Islamic religion, 13.4%), The Holy Trinity or Yahweh (Catholic and Protestant Christian religions, 2.5%), and the single supreme deity Sang Hyang Adi Buddha, which is worshipped by Buddhists and also others such as Confucianists, although they see Confucious as their prophet rather than Buddha.
Indonesian Religions: A Brief Note
When Indonesia won its independence from the Dutch in 1945, one major problem was how to organize the religious life of its citizens, with so many different beliefs and customs demanding to be heard. Ultimately, the Indonesian government established a program of five shared values called Pancasila (five principles), which became fundamental ideologies for the country.
The first of these ideologies, called ketuhanan yang maha esa, explicitly refers to a monotheist belief and worship of one God. This meant that any polytheist religions that existed before Indonesian independence were banned, and followers had no choice but to accept a new religion. This rule still exists today, and in the intervening years, many Indonesian religions have struggled to maintain official recognition, with successive presidents often applying their own interpretations of ketuhanan yang maha esa for political gain.
Hinduism in Bali (83.5%)
Balinese Hinduism is officially known as Agama Hindu Dharma, which roughly translates as ‘the (religion of the) Hindu code of living’. But locally, the Balinese Hindus prefer to use the older name Agama Tirta, meaning the religion of water. Bearing in mind that they’re surrounded by nothing but the sea, this makes perfect sense!
Beliefs of Balinese Hinduism
Balinese Hinduism borrows freely from the ‘original’ Indian version but retains the animistic beliefs of their Javanese ancestors. (Animism is the belief that all things, even abstracts like physical space, have a spiritual essence, in the same way that all living things have a soul.) The Balinese don’t just believe that gods dwell in heaven, rather they feel that their gods are around them all the time. A Balinese Hindu’s main goal in life is to strive for perfection and purity of spirit and thus achieve moksa, meaning to become one with the universe.
The basic underlying belief is that the island of Bali is owned by a supreme being called Sang Hyang Widhi, and he has entrusted it to the people. This supreme being manifests as the Trimurti (three forms), which are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva, the god that destroys the universe in order to recreate it. Of these, Shiva is the most powerful and therefore the most revered.
But there are plenty of other lesser gods and spirits. There are gods and goddesses for earth, fire, and water, and there are divine spirits for health, fertility, and childbirth. Hinduism is an ever-evolving faith, and existing gods must continually take on new responsibilities. So Saraswati, goddess of learning, is also responsible for computing and technology, whilst Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and purity, receives prayers asking for divine guidance with choosing that week’s lottery numbers.
Bali’s Hindu gods and good spirits live high in the mountains, whereas the forces of evil dwell at the bottom of the sea. This is the reverse of most island cultures, where good things, mainly food, come from the water. However, the Balinese have seen many volcanic eruptions through the ages, especially from Mount Agung, so it’s no surprise that they believe all that fiery destruction from on high is the wrath of a very powerful god.
Worship of your ancestors is also a big part of the religion. Balinese Hindus believe that all spirits were once mortal, and that every family line has ancestors that can be traced back to the gods. These spirits are housed in shrines, often decorated in black and white to represent good and evil, and you’ll see offerings being made at roadside and personal shrines almost constantly. The job of preparing offerings traditionally falls to the woman of the house, whilst men spend their time tending the rice fields or discussing village affairs.
Places of Worship
There are over 650 Hindu villages in Bali, and each is required to have three Hindu temples, though many of the larger villages have several dozen. Aside from these, each family has its own family temple, and a lot of hotels have their own temple, as do many government offices. So it’s no surprise that there are well over 20,000 temples in Bali, ranging from small indoor shrines to grand golden palaces. Some have a deep religious significance, such as the famous sea temple of Uluwatu. Often you’ll see Balinese offering a gift to Varuna, god of the sea, and praying for the visitors who’ve come to surf Uluwatu’s famous waves.
The holiest place in Bali is Pura Besakih (mother temple): a series of 23 sacred temples on the slopes of Mount Agung. Miraculously, it completely survived an otherwise catastrophic volcanic eruption in 1963. The oldest temple, and the most sacred, is Pura Penataran Agung (great temple of state), which dates back well over 2,000 years. The winged gateway, similar to the Instafamous ‘Gateway to Heaven‘ at Pura Lempuyang, was built as an entrance for the gods, whom the Balinese believe regularly come to Earth to discuss current affairs and take offerings.
The Caste System
Like many Hindu societies, Bali has a caste system. It’s not strictly enforced, and younger generations of Balinese see it as just an old tradition. However, this ancient social order can still affect the way people in Bali socialize with each other in daily life: people will often adopt a much softer tone when they speak with someone of a higher caste, and upper-caste citizens are offered prominent places at ceremonies and festivals.
In Bali, there are four castes: Sundras, the commoners, or workers, who make up over 90% of the population; Wesias, the warrior caste, which also includes traders and some nobility; Satrias, the caste of kings; and Pedanas, the holy men and priests. In Balinese Hinduism, the old law prohibiting intermarrying between castes has been overturned, and people are free to marry without stigma.
Ceremonies and dancing
For the Balinese Hindus, dance is inseparable from religion. With so many temples honoring so many gods, there’s always a religious ceremony or procession going on somewhere. And there will always be a group of dancers dressed in green and gold, moving in time to the gamelan music played by the village musicians. Even the dance displays for tourists have spiritual importance, as some of the more energetic performers can enter a higher state of enlightenment as they dance. Before performing, dancers must make a small offering of food and flowers at their family shrines, appealing for holy taksu (inspiration) from the gods.
The most important festival is Galungan, which is a celebration of dharma (the good ways) over adharma (the evil path). On this day, the spirits of the dead are said to descend from heaven, to fight off the evil forces that threaten to rise from the water.
When was Hinduism introduced to Bali?
According to most scholars, Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, with roots that date back more than 4,000 years. The origins of Balinese Hinduism can be traced back to the 1st Century, but it really started in about 1520 when many Indonesians, began to convert to Islam to help increase trade. A number of Hindu priests, artists, and intellectuals refused to conform to Islamic rule, and fled to Bali.
While the people of Bali Aga (the Bali ‘originals’) retreated to the hills to escape this new influence, the rest of the Balinese population simply adapted it for themselves, merging the Hindu faith with their animist beliefs. After a long struggle to prove that Bali Hinduism was not just a sect, it was established as one of the official religions of Indonesia in 1959.
Islam in Bali (13.4%)
Although Islam is the major religion of Indonesia, in Bali it’s treated as a minority religion. However, that label of ‘minority’ may now be outdated, as more and more Muslim immigrants move to Bali for a better way of life. In Jembrana district, the part of Bali closest to Java, Muslims now make up more than 35 percent of the population, and numbers are growing in various parts of Bali. The main Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr is Bali’s busiest time, and Muslim visitors are happy to pay top premiums for hotel suites, bringing in much-needed tourism dollars.
Beliefs of Balinese Islam
Balinese Muslims practice a very moderate version of Islam, which incorporates existing Hindu rituals and ceremonies so as to blend in with local customs. The core beliefs of Islam, known as the Five Pillars, are unchanged: that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his holy prophet; and that believers should pray five times a day, give alms to the poor, fast during the month of Ramadan and make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.
However, in contrast to other Islamic countries, Muslim women are not segregated, nor are head coverings compulsory (although they’re becoming more common). Also, a lot of Islamic traditions seen as too archaic, such as polygamy, are rare. That being said, a stricter version of Islam is starting to spread to Bali, introduced by new arrivals from ultra-conservative areas such as the island of Lombok.
Places of Worship
The largest mosque on the island is Masjid Agung Sudirman, in the city center of Denpasar, Bali’s capital city. In contrast to traditional mosques, it has a modern, open-plan design. Another notable mosque is Masjid Ar-Rahmat, which is very popular with Muslim tourists and is usually full of different nationalities and ethnicities, especially during Friday prayers.
As well as mosques, there are at least ten holy graves in Bali that are rapidly becoming important destinations for Muslim pilgrims. One of them, the tomb of Siti Khodijah, is particularly significant, as it’s for a Balinese princess who converted to Islam in the 18th century.
When was Islam introduced to Bali?
Arab Muslim traders entered Indonesia as early as the 8th century, and their Islamic religion was being spread by scholars and missionaries by the end of the 12th century. The first Muslim community in Bali was a village called Gelgel, and their 13th-century mosque is a popular tourist attraction due to its 55-foot minaret tower.
Christianity in Bali (Protestantism, 1.7%, Roman Catholicism 0.8%)
We’ve decided to group these two because Christianity in Bali is practiced by very few people: in fact, there are less than 100,000 Christians of any denomination on the entire island.
Beliefs of Bali Christianity
The word ‘catholic’ means ‘all-embracing’, and historically the catholic church has seen itself as the only true worldwide church under the leadership of the pope. By contrast, the protestant belief was born from the 16th Century’s period of reformation and considers all denominations of all churches as equal.
It might seem that these Christian values do not sit well with Balinese culture, but in fact they complement each other. Benny Wirawan, a native who grew up in Bali, recently wrote about what it’s like living as a Christian Balinese. “We adhere to traditional Balinese values,” he explains, “which are not so dissimilar from Christian values. Our Balinese identity also permeates our worship. We incorporate Balinese architecture into our churches, we incorporate Balinese gamelan music into the liturgy, and we translate all our hymns into Balinese.”
The Indonesian government has helped to integrate Christianity into their country by observing Christian holy days. Currently, Christmas, Good Friday, and the Ascension of Christ are officially recognized as public holidays in Indonesia (and therefore in Bali), and no Christian is expected to work on those days.
Places of Worship
Bali Catholics have one central cathedral, the Katedral Roh Kudus (Cathedral of the Holy Spirit) in Denpasar, The capital has three more catholic churches, and there are a further three elsewhere in Bali. Protestants have a slightly wider choice, with approximately 20 interdenominational churches around Bali, many of which offer English-speaking services.
The biggest Christian communities are in Palasari and Blimbingsari, both found in Melaya District in the highlands of west Bali. The church in Palasari — the oldest in Bali — incorporates plenty of nods to Balinese architecture such as a facade that resembles a temple gate, and spires that copy the meru (multi-roofed shrine) in a Hindu temple.
The church in Belimbingsari is as not as extravagant as the one in Palasari, but it’s also constructed in a distinctly Balinese style – instead of a church bell, there’s a Balinese kulkul (warning drum) like those in a Hindu temple.
When was Christianity introduced to Bali?
The earliest evidence of Christianity is from the year 1511 when the Portuguese invaded the Indonesian islands and started to spread Catholicism. About seventy years later, Dutch traders established communities in Indonesia and converted a lot of the population to Protestantism.
The declaration of Indonesian Independence from the Dutch colonizers in 1949 allowed Catholicism and Protestantism to spread at a greater rate, and it increased dramatically in 1965 when Sukarno was overthrown.
Buddhism in Bali (0.5%)
Nearly all of the Buddhists in Bali are either ethnic Chinese or people from other parts of Indonesia. Although Buddhism is, arguably, the oldest religion in Bali, it seems that the practice may be in decline. The Venerable Shravasti Dhammika, a Buddhist monk for over 40 years, visited some of the temples in Bali. On a Balinese Buddhist studies website, he comments that it was “sad to see that the monks in them did little more than conduct rituals and do blessings for the people who came. I was treated with the greatest respect, but it was clear that my hosts knew little about the Dhamma.” (The Dhamma, literally ‘the upholding’, is based upon the actions and teachings of the Buddha, which Buddhists are encouraged to follow).
Beliefs of Bali Buddhism
Buddhists are led by the Four Noble Truths, which define the goal of Buddhism. These truths are all about overcoming the suffering caused by human desire, and were the first teachings given by the Buddha himself. Buddhists aim to transcend their physical self, which is achieved through the attainment of nirvana and thus ending the cycle of death and rebirth.
Waisak Day, which celebrates the life, death, and enlightenment of Buddha, is the most important holy day in the Buddhist calendar. It takes place once a year during a full moon, usually in May, and it’s been an official national holiday in Indonesia, and therefore also in Bali, since 1983.
Places of Worship
There are at least nine Buddhist temples in Bali, including one in Singharaj, in the north of the island, which was built by the Thai and Indonesian governments in 1971. Perhaps the most famous is the Brahma Vihara Arama, which is a working Buddhist monastery built with a lot of (intentional) Hindu influence. Set on a hill in Desa Banjar, north Bali, the monastery was founded by a Buddhist monk who, amongst other notable achievements, was a noted practitioner of the ancient Indian Vipassana technique of meditation.
When Was Buddhism introduced to Bali?
The history of Buddhism and Hinduism in Indonesia is highly intertwined. Indian merchants first arrived in Bali in about 200 BC, and it was probably these who introduced Buddhism and Hinduism. During the 9th century, both religions were practiced side by side; Buddha and Shiva (who creates, protects and transforms the universe) were regarded as manifestations of the same spiritual being.
In 1515, the collapse of the Majapahit (the Javanese Hindu empire) saw a great increase in Indonesians turning to Islam. Many of Java’s religious and intellectual elite refused to convert, including the last surviving Buddhist monks and scholars, and they sought refuge in Bali. For a time, Buddhism prevailed, but gradually it became indistinguishable from Hinduism.
Following the downfall of President Sukarno in the mid-1960s, the ideology of Pancasila meant that Indonesian policy only recognized monotheist religions. Buddhist clerics turned to their sacred texts and quickly asserted that in the Theravāda version of Buddhism, there was indeed the concept of a single supreme deity, Sang Hyang Adi Buddha. This fulfilled the official requirements, and Buddhism was granted status as an officially-recognized religion in 1969.
Confucianism in Bali (0.01%): A Brief Overview
Confucianism is very similar to Buddhism, and some see it as more of a set of core beliefs or perhaps a social movement, rather than a distinct religion. Originating in China, Confucianism came to Indonesia in the 3rd century, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that Confucinists formed an organized religion, called Khong Kauw Hwe (“Confucian Religion Society”) in Jakarta. This set out that Confucianism was a separate religion, and Confucious was its prophet.
Balinese Confucianism has been affected by more than its fair share of political conflicts. It was recognized as an official religion in 1965, but two years later President Suharto issued an instruction that effectively banned the entire Chinese culture; including all Chinese beliefs, celebrations, festivities, and even Chinese names. In 1969 it added back to the list, but in 1979 it was again excluded when the presidential cabinet decreed that Confucianism was definitely not a religion.
This saw a lot of Balinese Confucianists “changing” their religion to Buddhism or Christianity — at least on their identity cards. To rub salt in the wound, an unnecessary Minister of Home Affairs directive in 1990 re-stated that there were only five official religions in Indonesia. When Suharto fell in 1998, the new Indonesian president immediately rescinded the 1967 and 1978 directives, and Confucianism was once again officially recognized as a religion in Indonesia.
Over the last few decades, immigrants from other parts of Indonesia have drastically changed Bali’s religious demographic, with an influx of people seeking to benefit from the tourist industry. A lot of these are wealthy Muslims with political connections, who have been buying up prime real estate for development, often for hugely discounted prices. Worryingly, this has started to create Hindu-Muslim tensions where none existed before.
On 12th October 2002, a group of Muslim al-Qaida jihadists claimed responsibility for a bomb attack that killed 202 people in Kuta, Bali’s party city; and 23 more died in a similar wave of bombings at Jimbaran beach in 2005. After the bombings, there were a few calls for the removal of Muslim migrants who had settled in Bali, but instead of condemnations, local leaders called for calm. The reason was mainly financial: more Muslims visit Bali than any other category of visitor, and the Balinese economy is heavily dependent on their tourist dollars.
In recent years, followers of Christianity in Bali have experienced increased levels of persecution. In May 2017, a court in Indonesia sentenced Jakarta’s Christian governor to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam. He had told a group of local fishermen that “any politician who tells you that the Quran forbids voting for non-Muslims is lying”, which was seen as anti-Islamic. The governor did no jail time, but his chances of re-election were scuppered and he lost out to a Muslim candidate. This anti-Christian movement in Indonesia threatens to spread to Bali if left unchecked.
In Closing: the Bright Side
Although the above items might paint a bleak picture, it’s important to note that they are all sourced from news websites and, as the saying goes: “good news doesn’t sell newspapers.” We know from personal experience that the real outlook in Bali is much brighter.
In May 2017, Bali United played Borneo FC in a Liga 1 match. When midfielder Yabes Roni — a Balinese Christian — scored his second goal, he spontaneously clasped his hands together in prayer. Also wanting to offer up thanks were Miftahul Hamdi, a Muslim, and Ngurah Nanak, a Hindu. If these three major Balinese religions can pray side-by-side on a football field, then perhaps they can get along just as well back home.
Another example of religious harmony is the fantastic Puja Mandala complex in Nusa Dua, completed in 1997. This unique landmark, built with assistance from the Government Religious Affairs Minister, houses a Hindu temple, a Muslim grand mosque, a Buddhist temple, and both Catholic and Protestant churches.
Most Balinese are more hopeful than alarmed about the future. Local communities still support each other, as they have for many years, and will continue despite the political grandstanding. As one elder from a Muslim community near Denpasar told a local magazine: “For centuries now the Hindu [neighborhood associations] and the Bugis [South Sulawesi Muslim] villages have existed peacefully. This is because we have structures in place, between the elders of both communities, to talk and avoid conflict. We take immediate action to ensure that problems are resolved quickly, and collaboratively. I learned this as a child while watching my father, and the young will learn it now from us.”
Perhaps the greatest reassurance of religious peace is the motto of Indonesia, which was officially adopted in 1945 and is inscribed on the Garuda Pancasila, Indonesia’s national symbol. The phrase is in old Javanese, and reads Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which translates as “Unity in Diversity” or, put more simply, “Out of many, one.”