Selves In Bali

Hoyt Edge and Luh Ketut Suryani

Luh Ketut Suryani is co-author with Gordon Jensen of Trance and Possession in Bali, which discusses similarities and differences between voluntary possession trance states and multiplicity in more detail.

I. Introduction

The concept of self occupies a central place in the Western Weltanschauung, and Wierzbicka (1993) has argued that at least some of its traditional components are universal. It is a natural question, therefore, to ask what view of the self is central in the Balinese worldview: how do they conceive of the self, and in what ways is it like--and in what ways is it dissimilar to--a Western concept?

Such an investigation is interesting for three reasons. First, there is inherent value in adding to our understanding of the world by finding out how another culture thinks about such a central concept. Second, if we understand the Balinese concept of self, we can investigate the topic cross-culturally, examining the ways in which Balinese and Western concepts are similar and dissimilar. Cognition often works in juxtaposition; when dealing with such a fundamental notion as the self, it is hard to understand our own ideas about self unless we can compare it to other notions. In noting differences, such a study might provide us with conceptual categories with which we can reinterpret the Western idea of self and help us to understand ourselves better. Third, with more information on non-Western selves, we can make progress in seeing whether the concept of self is universal, or, if not, whether some aspects of it are.

And yet there are problems in inquiring into the Balinese concept of self; as we may feel discomfort at the difficulty of trying to elucidate the basic concept of self in the West, it is equally difficult to do so in Bali. However, there are two further reasons for this discomfort, the first applying to the West, as well.

First, even beyond the problem that it is difficult to elucidate such a central concept, there is widespread concern that the goal is an inappropriate one, since it implies essentialism. To believe that there is one concept that adequately describes the self assumes that there is an essential quality of self that one is trying to grasp, to mirror. Yet, much of contemporary philosophy, particularly in feminism and in postmodernism, argues against such essentialism. Kondo (1990) has pointed out specifically that "the invocation of 'culture and self,' 'a concept of self,' or a 'notion of persons' links up with static, essentializing global traits" (p. 37). Feminists, in particular have argued that one must view the self as de-centered, as having no essential, defining quality. They proposed that the idea of a centered, essentialized self is a left-over from a Cartesian and atomistic (and sexist) view of the world which must be eschewed in a postmodern, egalitarian world. Further, Hobart (1990) has pointed out the difficulties in searching for essentials in anthropological study.

In general, we agree with this criticism, in that we, too, reject essentialism as an epistemological standpoint. The totalizing impulse in essentialism has provided a conceptual justification for colonialism (both politically as well as in the dominance of Western ideas), not to mention that it is bad philosophy. These arguments have been made elsewhere, so I will not reprise them here. However, let me mention that although we reject essentialism, we disagree with the feminists who have argued that the idea of the self as a center should be rejected; we believe that it is a helpful metaphor and should not be dismissed. Indeed, the Balinese worldview, suggests that it is an important metaphor, as we will explain later.

We have mentioned that there are two theoretical reasons why we may want to eschew an analysis of "the concept of self" in Bali, the first reason being that we should reject essentialism. The second reason, flowing from the first one, is more practical: if we look for an essential concept of self in Bali, we do not find one; rather, we will discover a number of concepts. There is no one quality that defines the self, but there is a list of them that we can examine. This conclusion is not the result of a failure to find a central concept; it is not a negative conclusion, but it is a positive one. It says that the self is multifaceted and that any attempt at esssentializing it would fail to understand it sufficiently.

To explain why this result is a positive finding, let us examine a similar situation, contrasting monotheism with polytheism. The former says that there is one, essential, God, and the emphasis is on God's unity. Polytheism, as it is popularly understood, asserts on the other hand that there are many Gods, but it can be interpreted simply as emphasizing the multi-facetedness of God, that God's nature, if you will, is best found in diversity rather than unity, in polyphony rather than in a single melody.[i] We are suggesting that the urge to essentialism is a kind of epistemological monotheism, a monodoxy. The opposite approach, a polydoxy if you will, asserts the epistemological primacy of diversity and of the legitimacy of different perspectives. The multiplicity of approaches does not point to a failure to capture the essence; rather, it demonstrates the success of capturing the complexity.

This polydoxical approach is supported by another central idea in Bali, characterized in the phrase, "desa, kala, patra," or, "place, time and circumstance (or custom)." Everything must be seen through the eyes of this relativising concept. There is no essential belief, custom, or way of being, but all are contextualized depending on place, time and circumstance. We will return to this notion later in discussing one of the ways of understanding the self, but for the present, it is enough to point out that this approach to the world is de-essentializing.

Our argument rejecting essentialism seems to point to the inadequacy, particularly in Balinese culture, of the central philosophical question asked in this anthology--what the ontological status of the self is in a cross-cultural context. This question is too tinged by the assumptions of a Western approach and, hence, too narrow for the Balinese context. At least in Bali, they would never ask the question this way in a polydoxical world, since everything, including the self, depends upon place, time, and circumstance.

Further, we need to be careful to avoid essentializing their non-essentialism. This is an important point, because too often in the West we continue our essentialist approaches and assume that we have gotten hold of the essential way the Balinese think and thus we dichotomize the West and the East (Said); "we" think this way, and "they" think that way (i.e., the Balinese are non-essentialists), and we know this because we now have grasped the essentially different characteristics of the culture. But, that doesn t seem to be the situation at all. The extreme contextualized view of the self, at least in Bali, is a preferred mode of approaching the world, rather than an essentialist approach. Hobart (1990) explains it this way: "Essentializing is a strategy, or style, to which Balinese resort in various circumstances," pointing out that the "Balinese on occasion do enunciate what they hold to be definitive" (p. 117). However, he (1986) warns us against thinking that the Balinese "may be adequately explained from a single perspective" (p. 132). This approach is consistent: if they are basically not essentialist, then there is no one approach that is right and that mirrors the way things are, either essentialism or non-essentialism.

Therefore, the approach we will take in discussing how the Balinese think about the self will focus on the multi-facetedness of their views; it will emphasize the plurality of approaches without trying to reduce them to a single view or trying to argue that we have grasped any essential way the Balinese think. To have a variety of ways of talking about the self, which may not even be consistent, and which do not smoothly link one to another, is simply not a problem to the Balinese. We need to examine the selves of the Balinese, not look for an essential self.

We turn now to discuss five ways the Balinese think about the self; this list is not intended to be exhaustive, but it should certainly give the flavor of the complexity of their views.

II. Five Ways of Thinking about the Self in Bali

A. Related in Community

An important metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson) for the Western understanding the self over the last three hundred years has been atomism. In changing from an Aristotelian science, 17th century science resurrected Democritian atomism and asserted that the ultimate constituents of the world were atoms: individual, self-sufficient, non-divisible units of matter. Since this seemed to be such a powerful and useful model in the physical world, philosophers employed the same model as a metaphor to understand the self. Selves, or minds, were assumed to be individual, self-sufficient, non-divisible units. The metaphor was applied in several ways by various philosophers, from the atoms being substantial minds in Descartes, to ideas in Locke, to monads in Leibniz. All of these approaches had the effect of substantializing the mind, of making it an individual unit.

This individualism was reinforced by another use of the metaphor of atomism in the social contract, when Locke (1980) argued that our basic nature should be viewed as a political atom, as the bearer of individual human rights. In the State of Nature, which indirectly describes our natural, essential selves, we are independent and unconnected to others; human rights attach to these atomic selves, so they are not derived at all from community since all such associations are the products of a later social contract. Ontologically speaking, the atomistic individual is primary in the political world, being based in the state of nature. In our natural condition, we are separate atoms, unrelated to others; we set up relations with others only through a social contract, when we decide that the advantages of such relations outweigh the disadvantages.

It is possible to argue that this metaphor was incorporated also in laissez-faire economics, and in psychology as the view that our thinking is the result of the association among mental atoms. These arguments do not need to be made here because we are concerned only with the general thesis that the metaphor of atomism has formed the basis of our understanding of the person in the Western world. As described above, in the social contract our basic nature is independent and pre-social. Ontologically speaking, we are not formed from groups, but groups are formed from independent persons. We are defined by our independence, and relationships are secondary. We enter into them contingently, and they do not define who we are.

In fact, we seriously question the adequacy of the atomistic metaphor as being at all adequate. As pointed out by Hobart (1990), this position presupposes a neat, pre-social division between the individual and the group (or collective); in other words, the Lockean assumption of this dichotomy believes that it assumes that one can talk about persons pre-socially. We believe that we not only fail to do this in practice, but that it is a conceptually confused attempt (Edge 1994). We have never seen a pre-social human, unless it is the wild-child, raised by wolves or in a closet, and the product of these experiences are hardly what we want to call human in any robust sense; rather, they are pitiful caricatures of persons, whose parents we would prosecute if found responsible for imposing these inhuman conditions on a child.

Actually, our experience of ourselves is much more like what Socrates expressed in his argument in the Crito that he should not escape from prison. He used a parent-child metaphor to emphasize the closeness of the person to the community; we are all products of being raised with the language and mores and expectations and knowledge of the community, and in a real sense, we are its children.

We have mention the Socratic position to point out that a radically different approach to the self and community has been propounded in the West, one that incorporated a relational and not an atomistic worldview. Keeping this in mind, we can see that the Balinese idea of self nestled in community, which we will introduce below, not only has a conceptual cousin in early Western thought, but also that this idea in important respects may fit the experience of ourselves more closely than an atomistic view.

The Balinese have a much more holistic view of the self, conceiving of themselves as members of community groups. Steven Lansing (1974) describes the relationship using the term, kaiket, or to be tied. The Balinese are tied to their local banjar (community), their desa (consists of a few banjar), various temple organizations, rice growing groups, a multitude of special interest groups, and even the ancestors (Jensen and Suryani). They do not try to seek an identity pre-socially and logically prior to these groups, but rather these groups help define who they are. The Balinese do not think of the self as independent. It is not just that we are influenced by our relationships, but that they form a part of us. Similarly, the Balinese schematize all directions in the compass, connecting each direction with a color, as well as with a god. In the center is Siwa. The point is not that Siwa is centrally located among these directions, or that Siwa is influenced by these gods, but that Siwa is derived from all of the gods; all of these gods are a part of Siwa. In the same way, the self is like Siwa; the self is composed of all of its relations.

These organizations are the ones where ceremonial action is required, for instance, to hold a cremation for someone in the banjar, or to celebrate the gods coming down to a particular temple. At these times, everyone in the banjar is expected to freely participate, sometimes pitching in and working for several days at a time, perhaps requiring a person to take off from work. Our studies have shown that these responsibilities are not viewed as a burden to members of the banjar. We can cite two reasons for this. The first is quite practical. Each person knows that when the times comes that they have to put on, e.g., a cremation, they cannot do this by themselves, and so if they have helped others, then they know that the others will help them in their time of need. But, the second reason is more conceptual. If they identify themselves with this group as part of their identity, then this is not a requirement imposed on them from the outside, as a government directive might be, but a request internal to the self in an important sense. The obligation is not alien from them, but one that stems from their selves understood relationally.

Perhaps it would be useful here to make a quick point since there has been a great deal of misunderstanding about it. Trans-cultural psychologists (Triandis 1989) have made the distinction between individualist cultures, such as America, and collectivist cultures. The above description of Balinese relatedness would classify Bali as a collectivist culture, where the individual self is subsumed to the goals of the group. Our research in Bali, however, has shown that this dichotomy between individualist and collectivist cultures is simplistic, however much it points to legitimate differences among cultures. While there is a strong collectivist aspect to Balinese culture, with central responsibilities to and identity with local groups such the banjar, this should not be taken as a general characteristic of all Balinese life. Actually, this collectivist aspect of Balinese life is quite circumscribed. Within certain domains of life, these groups are paramount, and exclusion from them is the worst punishment that one can be imposed on a Balinese, as it would be virtually impossible to fulfill ones duties to family, to the ancestors, and to the gods without organized help from others. But, outside of these domains, there is a radical individuality among the Balinese where individual creativity and difference are not only accepted, but they are expected as a part of developing yourself as a human.

Perhaps to a degree unknown in the west, this individuality is built into their way of understanding people. For instance, among the Balinese there is the tendency to recognize that it is quite difficult to explain the action of others, and "are inclined to treat the question of intentions or the reasons for doing something, as private, if indeed knowable at all" (Hobart, 1986, p. 151) In their individuality, people are free to act in their own way outside of the limitations mentioned above. So, collectivism and individuality are both important in defining persons in Bali. It may come as a surprise to essentializing Westerners to discover that these traits, which are dichotomous in the West, are accepted as normal in Bali; fundamental collectivism and radical individuality sit side by side in the Balinese.

B. The Self as Contexted

Related to the previous view of the self as relational in Bali can be found another concept, that the self is situated within contexts. This way of looking at the self stems from the position we described earlier: desa, kala, patra. There we discussed this notion as pointing out the de-essentializing tendency of the Balinese. Understanding and behavior must meet local criteria and perspectives. There is no one way of understanding something, nor does one correct code of conduct exist. Depending on the place, the time, and the circumstances, one acts differently, or one confronts the world differently.

As an aside, it is worth noticing that this view is not very different from Aristotle's position in the Nichomachaean Ethics (1987). Notice that this position, while it is a kind of relativism and it constitutes a rejection of essentialism, does not imply the lack of a standard. There was a right way to act in a given circumstance for Aristotle, even though it depends on the person and the place, the time, the person, and the circumstance. In like manner, adat does exist; indeed, local custom is often very precise and strict. Adat may change from place to place, but in any one place, it is precise.

Both Geertz (p. 388-9) and Lansing (1974, p. 56) have argued that the best way to understand this contextual approach to the self is found by first considering it as a key to understanding the Gods in Bali. Except for special times of the year during a ceremony, the Gods do not inhabit a temple, and when they come, they assume distinct characteristics depending on the particular context. Lansing says: "A god may come to a certain temple for a brief 'visit' and acquire thereby a definite name and personality, but when he visits a different temple a few miles away he will have a different name and a different, utterly distinct personality" (p. 56). In other words, Shiva, one of the Balinese trinity, may take his seat in two different temples. The Balinese do not deny that both are Shiva, but they will hold that the characteristics of Shiva differ from one temple to the next. There is no essential Shiva who is the same in the two places.

In like manner, it is inappropriate to ask what the essential characteristics of a human are. Personhood is defined not by essentialism, but by perspectivism. Depending on the context of the person--what is banjar, desa, rice temple, etc., are--we are dealing with a specific person. In other words, there is no pre-social self which is defined by a set of properties, but the individual person is defined by the specific context in which the person is found (or chooses--determinism is not implied). Not only is understanding (epistemology) contexted, but so is ontology.

We can make an analogy to the use of masks in Bali. Assuming a role on stage in the West is understood as a person playing a character, pretending to be another person. The mask is like a role; it is put on a person, who continues to be that person, although hidden; one doesn t want to be seen as e.g., Jack Schwartz playing Hamlet, and we readily say that Jack has done a good job when we lose sight of it being Jack and focus only on the character. Nevertheless, on analysis we insist that Jack, with his own separate personality, remains himself behind the role.

This is not the Balinese view. In effect, all of us are multiple personalities (Suryani and Jensen), but usually not in any disordered way. Rather, one personality is dominant in one context, while another displays itself in a separate context. These roles are not different from a separate, independent self--a mere playacting by a self--but when one dons the mask, one becomes that character, which is in reality one aspect of one's self.

Thus, the emphasis is not, as it is in the West, on an essential self standing behind the masks, a self that remains the same throughout different contexts. Rather, the self is composed of multiple personalities, and depending on the context, one is dominant. The self is composed of these aspects and there is no core that lies behind these roles. Thus, the self is dynamic and multifaceted.

C. The Importance of Bodily Identity

Given the tradition of mind-body dualism, philosophers in the West have wondered if the identity of the self over time essentially resided in the mind or in the body. Practically, the question is important in establishing responsibility for action; does there exist a self such that I can punish the same person who committed the crime months earlier On a strictly conceptual basis, the question is still important in investigating the essential quality of the self: is it composed of the mind or the body

To examine this question, John Locke (1964) created an imaginary scenario, wondering if the mind of a prince woke up to find itself in the body of a cobbler, would we say that this self is the self of the cobbler or of the prince Do we locate the self in bodily continuity, or in mental continuity Locke's answer was in the latter; he argued that it is the prince who continues in this hybrid.

Mark Hobart (1989) asked the same question to the Balinese, except he modified the story. What if one morning a duck came up to you and said that it was, e.g., Desak Nyoman Kawit, your next door neighbor, and that inexplicably she had awaken this morning in the body of a duck. Is this duck really Nyoman, he asked the Balinese. The question provoked much discussion, but finally it was decided that the duck was not Nyoman and could not be a person since the duck would be unable to participate in ceremonial life, given its body.

In other words, what it means to be a person in Bali is tied to the body, to the actual performance of ceremonies, which are so important in Balinese life. Indeed, the greatest punishment a village can assign to a person is a kind of banishment in which others are disallowed to help you in important ceremonies concerning your family or your ancestors, central ceremonies that cannot be carried out without the help of others.

Balinese culture and Balinese religion are so intertwined that it does not make sense to separate them. Geertz (1973) reports that he has asked Balinese basic questions about a ceremony, such as which god was being worshipped, and the ordinary person was quite nonchalant about understanding the details of the ceremony; when asked why they found it so important to participate in the ceremony if they lacked this information, the people reported that participation is a mark of being Balinese. Eiseman (1989, p. 221), showing the importance and the ubiquity of ceremonial life, points out that women traditionally have spent 30% of their waking hours making offerings. Although Balinese culture is more Westernized in many respects, including more women working outside of the home in offices, religious ceremonies remains the backbone of Balinese life.

Ceremonial life is more an orthopraxy than an orthodoxy. The emphasis does not lay in holding correct beliefs (thus, lacking knowledge of the ceremony was not important), nor is the emphasis on purifying an internal self. In prayer, one is primarily making contact with God and setting up the relationship. Of course, this requires a seriousness, but the focus is not primarily on the internal self, but the participation in the ceremony. The idea in some more extreme expressions of Christianity (and of Hinduism, for that matter) of self-mortification of the flesh (of the external) to cleanse the internal soul does not resonate with the Balinese. The body is not opposed to the mind/soul, and in ordinary life no decision is taken to identify the self with the mind/soul in juxtaposition to the body. The self is inextricably embodied in Bali because who you are is tied to ceremonial life.

But, it needs to be pointed out that the idea of embodiment does not have the same implications in Bali as it does in the West, where the assumption has been dualism, the radical distinction between mind and body. The purpose of Locke's story was to see whether personal identity is tied to the body or to the mind. But, notice that the self in Bali is embodied in order to carry out ceremonial tasks, and this result does not have the same ontological implication in Bali since they are not dualists. To assert a bodily component does not exclude a mental component. Indeed, for the Balinese, all material objects are imbued with spirit. Not only does the duck have spirit, but so do automobiles, purely mechanical objects from a Western perspective. Indeed, offerings are made to automobiles on the appropriate days in the belief that the spirit of the car can help people.

D. Atman

The Balinese worldview is a combination of traditional Hinduism, coming from Java in the 11th century (and probably earlier); Tantric Buddhism; indigenous animism; and what the Balinese call adat, or local custom. Although they refer to their religion as "water religion," or as Balinese Hinduism, to distinguish it from Hinduism in India, its worldview nevertheless is influenced by this tradition in which emphasis is placed on the self as atman, or individual soul or spirit. But, to focus on our individuality and our separateness is to fall prey to the veil of illusion. Those who are enlightened know that, ultimately, the atman is the brahman, the universal soul of which everything is a part. The Upanishads gives the ultimate identification: tat twam asi, or thou are that, or that the individual is ultimately a manifestation of the universal soul. This view fits in well with animism, which holds that all things are imbued with soul. Hinduism says that, ultimately, all things are part of the universal soul.

Although the Balinese will hold this view when asked, their practices undercut this pure position, as well as the traditional concept of reincarnation. Rather than identifying the atman with the Brahman (or that the atman is pure god), Balinese practice points to the atman, or individual soul, being a combination of the divinity, the parents, and the ancestors (passed down as traits as a part of karma).

This latter view is best discussed in the context of the Balinese practice involved in reincarnation; again, if asked, the Balinese will say that they believe in the traditional Hindu interpretation of reincarnation, but their practices show that their system is more complicated. True to the traditional interpretation, they will go to a balian (healer) to find out which ancestor has reincarnated in a baby; it is the soul of the ancestor that reincarnates according to this view. Before six months, the baby is considered to be so close to the gods that it is treated with special respect. But, after the sixth month ceremony, it is believed that the baby gets a fixed human spirit, and they seldom talk about a previous life. If the person begins to have problems, like having temper tantrums, the priest will perform ceremonies that relate to e.g., the birth date, but not to a reincarnated soul. The reference to a reincarnated soul seems to vanish.

Balinese practices reveal that they believe in traits from the ancestors being reincarnated, but not the souls of the ancestors, and these traits (both good and bad) are one's karma. Passed down almost like genetic traits, one's karma tells a person what they must do in this life to stop the bad karma and to unify with god when one dies. These traits are passed from one's parents, who in turn may have gotten them from their parents, and so on, and one has the task of correcting these bad traits if they are not to be passed on to one's children. But, the focus is on traits being passed down, not a soul.

E. Self as Mediator

The Balinese have a tripartite division of reality: the upper world, which contains the divine, generative forces; the lower world, which contains the evil, degenerative forces; and the middle world of space and time. As opposed to traditional Hinduism, this middle world is not an illusion, which we will discover during enlightenment; rather, the veil of illusion, which must be stripped for the Balinese, is the view that this world exists independently of the other two. In fact, the existence of this world depends on the balance between the upper and the lower worlds.

This tripartite division is found throughout Bali, from the three divisions of the temple, to the three parts of the family compound, to the three parts of the island, and to the three parts of the person (the head represents the upper world, while the feet represent the lower world) (Budihardjo 1991).

The human, then, assumes a position between the upper and lower worlds. At the same time the person is a mediator between the two worlds as well as the product of the two worlds. The primary function of the person is to maintain the balance between the worlds. As opposed to the Western dualistic projection of good and evil, the latter being the goal of life, the Balinese take the radical position that everything is a manifestation of God, and so even the degenerative forces are divine and are a natural part of the cycle of life (for instance, death simply is the step towards rebirth). Shiva symbolizes both creation and destruction.

There are certain people who have special responsibility to mediate between the two worlds. The clowns, for instance, in traditional Balinese drama (which is spoken in Kawi, old Javanese related to sanskrit), has the responsibility to translate what is going on in the drama and comically comment on it (Lansing 1983). Mediums (Edge 1993) also serve the same function, mediating among the worlds and bringing information from the upper and lower worlds. People entranced in temple ceremonies and possessed by the gods also bring messages from the two other worlds.

While these people have special responsibility to mediate among the worlds, each individual is a representation of and a product of the balance between the upper and lower worlds. Each person should keep himself balanced, making offerings to both the upper world and lower world, as well as performing those ceremonies which bring balance between these two worlds. The existence of the person, and what s/he is, is a result of the balance between the two opposing forces.

III. Polysemy and the Self

We do not claim that these five ways of understanding the ontological status of the self in Bali are exhaustive. Geertz (1973) has pointed to the Balinese preference for polysemy, the proliferation of meaning as opposed to a reducing of meanings. The Balinese prefer a symbol that is rich to one that is simplistically clear, and one that is deep to one that is apparent. Reality is so complex that no characterization can adequately grasp it. The contexts are so numerous that one can never grasp the world fully. And just as reality is this complex, so are gods, and so are selves. At best we can examine manifestations, but we can never grasp the concept in any essentialist manner. At one point, Hobart (1986) exclaims: "would the real Balinese stand up" (p 140) and rejects such essentialist thinking.

The social psychologist, Kenneth Gergen (Gulerce 1995), comes to much the same conclusion in discussing Western culture when he argues in a more linguistic vein that there are a myriad of discourses concerning the self found in culture. Rejecting an atomistic notion of the self and emphasizing the relational quality of the self, he says that we should "reconceptualize what we call the individual self and the intersection of multiple relations" (p. 156), but he admits that this idea of a relational self "is but a momentary and analytically useful freezing of but an isolated part of an ongoing confluence of relational processes" (p. 158)

Perhaps it is easier, therefore, to say what the Balinese concept of self is NOT, or at least to point out that certain Western concepts (atomism) or proclivities (to essentialism as a standard practice) simply fail to make sense of the Balinese world. Further, the so called Hard Problem in Western philosophy, the question of whether consciousness can be adequately explained by some sort of non-mentalistic language, looks like a non-problem in the Balinese worldview. The Hard Problem assume as the starting point a mind-matter split, and then one asks whether there is something essential about consciousness that is graspable by non-mental language. In other words, this question makes sense only in an essentialist world. In the Balinese worldview where there are a multitude of legitimate ways of looking at the world, but where none is essential or ultimately reducible to the other, then there are no Hard Problems, only interesting and perhaps playful ones. Depending on the context and on what we may want to accomplish, there may be good reason to treat consciousness in a certain way, whether functionally or otherwise, but we would fail to grasp the contextuality of epistemology and ontology if we thereby thought that we had achieved an essentialist, or even a uniquely better way of talking about consciousness.[ii]

Let us return to one final point before concluding our discussion. At the beginning of the essay, we said that the metaphor of the self as a center should not be discarded in contemporary philosophy, that the rejection of the essential self does not imply the rejection of a centered self. In rejecting a center, feminists have had a Cartesian, substantial self in mind, and we agree that this idea should be abandoned. But the Cartesian world was a static one, not a dynamic one. In such a world, the center is ponderous and unchanging. It is a self that is weighed down with essentialism.

On the other hand, in a dynamic world, a world where change is the norm, the idea of a center is helpful. We can see this by returning to our discussion of the centrality of the notion of balance among the Balinese. In their worldview, the idea of balance is one of the central notions and prime values. We have already mentioned that they seek a balance between the upper world and the lower world, between the generative and the degenerative forces. The existence of the visible world depends on maintining this balance. In the famous Calongarang the forces of good (represented by the Barong) and of evil (represented by Rangda) meet and engage in battle, but the end result is not a triumph of good over evil, but of maintaining both in the appropriate balance.

And just as one must maintain the balance in the external world between the generative and degenerative forces, so one must do the same in the internal world. This is true not only because this balance should be maintained at every level, but also because there is a unique relationship between the internal and the external. The Balinese also talk about the self in terms of it being a microcosm (Bhuana Alit) that reflects the microcosm (Bhuana Agung). The internal and the external are mirror images of each other; balance in the internal world will produce it in the external world, and visa versa. For instance, if a person falls, the problem does not derive simply from an imbalance in the physical body (the external), but there is also an imbalance in the spirit as well, each being reflections of the other. As balance is sought in the macrocosm, so it is sought in the microcosm.

In a world where balance is a fundamental notion, the idea of a center becomes primary, however dynamic this center is viewed. This is obvious in physical movement; when one is balanced, there is the center of balance; one gets out of balance when one overextends. Take, for instance, the example of a tightrope walker; the successful tightrope walker is one who is constantly mindful of his or her balance, who maintains a center of gravity, and who does not extend beyond this center. This center of gravity is temporary and changing, but it is nevertheless real. Without a center, the tightrope walker loses balance and falls.

Therefore, we believe that the idea of a center plays an important part in understanding the self in a dynamic, ever changing world. There is no essentialist self, because the self is dynamic and it is built out of changing relationships and contexts. But, nevertheless, the idea of a centered self serves the function of pointing out the ideal of balance in the self and of rejecting just any willy-nilly composition. As the center of gravity must be maintained in the tight rope walker, so a dynamic center in the self offers us an ideal, a heuristic idea, for a well-functioning self in a world of changing contexts and relationships.

IV. Conclusion

We have argued against essentialism in understanding the Balinese concept of self. The Balinese worldview is more perspectival and dynamic. It is more contextual, relational, and polysemic. Therefore, we have argued that no one description of the Balinese concept is adequate. Rather, we have discussed five ways in which the Balinese think about the self and have suggested that, depending on the context--the place, the time, and the circumstance--each is an adequate way of characterizing the self.


[i] . In fact, this seems to be the Balinese view; although they have the idea of a single God, and this concept has gained in importance since the late 40's, the daily emphasis lies in the many gods. The idea of a single God seems mainly to serve as a placeholder for the notion that everything derives from and is dependent on the divine realm.

[ii] There are interesting similarities between the Balinese approach to truth and that of the American Pragmatist, William James (1948), but these similarities cannot be pursued here.


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