NYEPI: Balinese Hindus carry their temples' effigies and sacred objects to the ocean during the Melasti purification ritual held ahead of Nyepi(JP/ I Wayan Juniartha)
Nyepi is just one day away and as the island's youngsters put the finishing touches on their ogoh-ogoh -- huge papier-mache dolls that represent evil spirits -- , some of the island's most critical thinkers are wondering whether the noisy, celebratory elements of the ritual have eclipsed its silence, contemplative core.
"Balinese Hinduism is a dramatic religion, in which every ritual is a symbolic performance rich with meanings and, most importantly, has a carefully designed plot and a powerful dramatic climax," said noted scholar I Ketut Sumarta.
Sumarta is the editor-in-chief of Sarad, a monthly magazine that stands for progressive thinking on Balinese culture and religion.
Sumarta said the series of rituals that took place before Nyepi was a like clever dramatic play that gradually ushered a Balinese Hindu into the ultimate state of sunia.
Sunia, which literally means silence or void, is the most common word used by Balinese philosophers to describe the perfect state of spiritual realization.
"It doesn't refer to the cessation of existence. It refers to the emergence of a new existence; the one that has succeeded in liberating itself from all the worldly attachments," another scholar, Nyoman Sugi Lanus, added.
The "dramatic play" starts with Melasti, a purification procession to the ocean, lake or springs. In this ritual, Balinese Hindus escorted their temple's effigies and sacred objects to the nearest large body of water.
Water, the physical manifestation of Lord Wisnu the Sustainer, has long been considered by the Balinese as having the supernatural quality of cleansing any spiritual defilement.
The majority of Balinese believe that Melasti aims to purify the temple's effigies and sacred objects.
However, it is a notion vehemently dismissed by Sumarta and Sugi.
"The effigies are the representation of the divine deities, which need no absolution," Sumarta said.
Melasti, he argued, is the ritual during which Balinese Hindus are asked to purify their bodies and souls in the presence of their revered deities.
"It is a very powerful spiritual cleansing, because our existence, both physical and mental, is bathed with the combined power of the spiritual beings of the land, sea and air," he said.
The first act in the dramatic play is then one of self-purification, the cleansing of one's own soul and body.
The second act takes place during the grand sacrificial ritual Tawur Agung at noon on the day before Nyepi. The ritual is held at every major traffic intersection and public square on the island. Through the ritual, Balinese Hindus aim to pacify the restless forces of nature, such as wind, fire, earth and water. These restless forces are traditionally known as Buta Kala, a term that is often translated as "evil spirit".
"During our existence, we continually take things from nature ... we disrupt its balance. Tawur Agung is the ritual during which we give something back to nature to restore the balance," Sumarta said.
The second act, therefore, is a declaration of gratitude to nature; an acknowledgement that the survival of our existence depends on the continuation of the natural equilibrium.
The third act, Sugi said, is the simulation of chaos. It takes place on the night before Nyepi in a ritual known as Ngerupuk.
During this ritual, Balinese Hindus march around their respective villages with bamboo torches in their hands and making the loudest amount of noise possible. It is said this is an attempt to scare demon spirits out of the villages.
As early as the mid 1980s, Balinese youths began parading ogoh-ogoh during Ngerupuk to symbolize evil spirits. At the end of Ngerupuk, the ogoh-ogoh are taken to the village's intersection and burned to the ground.
"Essentially, it is an act of purifying the world around you and the final battle between man and the various characters and emotional flaws that haunt his existence -- the demon within his body and soul," Sugi said.
The third act comprises two scenes; the purification of the universe and the battle against one's own demons.
"Only after a devotee has completed all these acts can he or she enter a state of perfect silence; the sunia," he said.
Only after purifying their own souls and bodies; after respectfully acknowledging and paying their debts to nature and other creatures; after cleansing the world around them; and after emerging victoriously from the battle against the demons within, can Balinese Hindus catch a glimpse of what sunia truly is during Nyepi, the Day of Silence.
"Hopefully, on the first morning after Nyepi, one will embrace the day as a new being, a liberated spiritual being," Sugi said.