With a high priest on Bali: How we “Surga” find paradise.
Today I am visiting a high priest, Pedanda Ida Resi. I want to know what a Balinese high priest thinks about inner peace and freedom. What are his experiences? And of course it also interests me to know what his tasks - the duties of a high priest - really are. How did he become a high priest? More than anything, I am interested in his character, his charisma, his radiance. On Bali, all meaningful ceremonies are held by a high priest referred to as Pedanda. High priests do not participate in worldly activities. They are on a par with saints. Their lives are dedicated exclusively to meditation, rituals and the study of theology. During the religious ceremonies they become one with God through rituals, silent prayers, the sounding of bells and evocative movements of the hands. Normally speaking, a high priest is a descendent of the Brahmin family line, the highest caste. Ida Resi is an exception. His father was a farmer. Due to his extraordinary abilities, he was elevated to the Brahmin caste and was thus allowed to become a high priest. Officially, Bali no longer has a caste system. As a rule, high priests begin to learn Sanskrit from a very young age and study traditional religious texts, philosophical writings, ancient wisdom books and secret teachings. Once they have become ordained as high priests by way of extensive ceremonies, they live in perfect surrender to the divine. They are consulted on all important decisions. They speak Sanskrit, the sacred language of the Hindus, because all important religious texts (such as the Vedas) are written in Sanskrit. The priests are always clothed in white for the ceremonies. In most cases, they sit in an elevated position within an open area of the temple. I am very excited. The high priest's assistant picks up my husband and I by car. We drive to Kedurang Madenan.
We must dress appropriately. I bought myself a Kebaya - a special blouse made of lace – just for the occasion, something which the Balinese usually wear in temples and for ceremonies. I also have a sarong wrapped around my hips and a scarf (a Sentang). My husband is wearing a white sarong with silver appliqué. He has an Udeng wrapped around his head - a typical Balinese headdress for men, also worn on temple visits. We bring sacrificial gifts with us which have been organised be Sri. Sri is of Balinese origin but grew up in Austria. She translates our conversation. Following the short and respectful greeting, the high priest sings a mantra in a sonorous, deep voice with words that I don't understand. We close our eyes and listen. He then patiently answers my questions. Out of respect for the high priest, Sri did not always translate immediately when interruptions felt inappropriate, thus his answers are not always translated word for word.
How did you become a high priest? What was your call?
My grandmother was also a high priest. I have inherited this skill from her. I never wanted to be a high priest. I would have preferred to work as a teacher and teach children. But God had something else in store for me. Already as a child (when I was 5 years old) I saw a white being. At first I was alarmed because I was the only one who could see it. No one else noticed it. Later, when I was older, it demanded that I become a high priest. I refused, meditated, prayed, begged for help. I desperately hoped that I would not have to become a high priest. The light being, this apparition, continued to seek me out. In the end I agreed and accepted my task. Today, I cannot imagine being anything else, even though I carry so much responsibility as a high priest and must give all my time, energy and commitment to this task.
How were you prepared for this task?
As with all high priests, I had to learn Sanskrit in order to be able to understand and learn the sacred scriptures which are all written in Sanskrit. I was taught by other high priests and initiated into the duties of a high priest. Only when I was truly ready and had passed all necessary tests, did I become a high priest.
In contrast to Catholicism, priests and high priests on Bali are allowed to marry and have children. Also this high priest is married and has three children, a boy and two girls.
How does your family relate to your task of being a high priest, to not having a 'normal' Balinese man as husband and father?
At first it was very difficult for my wife to never have me to herself. I am not a private person. We don't have a private space. I serve God around the clock. My whole life is dedicated to that. Our house is always open for anyone who needs help. As a high priest, I am not there for my family alone but rather for everyone, always on duty. In time, my wife learned how to cope well with this by no means easy situation. I am very grateful that my family accept and support my task.
What exactly are your tasks, the tasks of a high priest?
At a cremation ceremony, for example, I am responsible for assisting the deceased in finding their place in heaven and to rest in peace. Every detail – from sacrificial offerings to the invocations – must be right. I am only called for specific tasks and only participate in big temple celebrations and complicated rites that require special knowledge. I never watch TV like others do and lead a very different life. Alongside my normal tasks as high priest, I receive instructions from this white being which tells me what I need to do. Sometimes I receive instructions to help a particular person. Then I look for him. Sometimes I am only called upon to pray for someone in need of help or to hold a ceremony. I cannot pursue a hobby or simply do nothing. My whole life, everything, is aligned to God, to serve the highest. I do not want to be idolised by people for being a high priest, I just want to help them. I am there to accompany them, to support them in freeing themselves from their suffering. It makes me happy when I can help others. Regardless of what a person may have done and regardless of how far they have strayed from their path, I try to help them. I am there for everyone. Helping, that makes me happy.
Don't you sometimes miss a normal life?
No, I don't miss anything. I am totally happy with my life. I have never missed anything.
What do high priests actually live from?
Money is not allowed to play a role in the life of a high priest. In effect, we live from donations.
What is the difference between a high priest and a normal priest?
Every priest and every high priest knows what they are required to do. There are the Pedanda (the high priests) and the Pemangku (the normal temple priests). All meaningful ceremonies are held by Pedanda. Normal temple priests receive sacrificial offerings, supervise temple festivals, distribute the holy water and lead big processions.
How can we humans once again experience lightheartedness and inner freedom?
Paradise is there for everyone. Paradise is within every human being. My task is to open it, to bring heaven closer to them. Whether or not we feel Surga – paradise - depends on us, on each person. If you have a lot of love and are at peace with yourself, you can experience paradise within yourself. Heaven is within us. If we open ourselves to it, then we are able to feel it.
Many people have stressful daily lives. What can help them in the midst of all their daily challenges to experience Surga – paradise – within themselves?
Many people (particularly in the west) are very busy and so heady, trapped in their thoughts, that they have no space nor leisure for it and are very, very closed. First of all, it is important to accept our life plan. We all have a task that we need to fulfil. Mine is to be a high priest. Everybody has received a plan, a way to lead their life, a kind of task. It is particularly important to love, to be loving with others and oneself, to love and appreciate our partner. It is also important not to fall into feelings of envy or greed, the need to avenge ourselves or do others wrong. Compassion, a good heart, honesty with oneself and others, are the key to heaven. With regard to money, it is important to have no fear of losing it, not to cling to it, but rather to trust and be guided by the divine. Helping others when they are in need also brings us closer to Surga, to paradise. Doing good for others makes us happy. Ultimately there are no words to describe this experience, to describe paradise, Surga. Everyone must experience it for themselves. It is within us, we must open ourselves. Sometimes I walk in the forest. I also sense the divine in nature. It is everywhere, visible for anyone who is open to it.
Which role does belief in a particular religion have to play?
There are people who are religious in the temples, who come to ceremonies, but who are not really present in their hearts, grudging and dishonest. I can clearly see which feelings people bring into the temple. Some people who don't believe in anything and also don't belong to any religion are closer to paradise if they have an open heart and do good. It has so much more to do with the purity, the love, the good in people, than the belief in a particular religion. Surga – paradise - can be experienced by anyone, regardless of whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or don't belong to any religion in particular.
Which exercises, prayers or advice can help people to experience paradise?
To sing the Gayatri Mantra or to recite it, is a great aid to tapping into our inner paradise. It works, regardless of whether one is Hindu, Christian, Muslim or a non-believer. You do not need to be a Hindu. Anyone can recite it or sing it in the mornings or just before going to bed in the evening, or when travelling on a motorbike as a form of protection. It is helpful for any kind of problem. It works, regardless of whether you believe it or not.
The Gayatri-Mantra is a universal prayer, which was laid down in the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of humanity. (Rg Veda III 62.10). It is considered to be the essence of Vedic teachings and is referred to as Veda sara or also 'Mother of the Vedas'. It goes like this: Om bhūrbhuvaḥ svaḥ tatsaviturvarenyam bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt. (For beginners, there are CD's to sing along to, also sung by western singers and non-Hindus.)
On Bali, high priests are perceived as God. How do they see themselves?
The high priest is equal to God, and must therefore behave accordingly. God lives in every human being, otherwise we would not breathe, we would not live. God is in all people, only many people are not prepared to recognise this. If we behave well and are honest, then goodness comes towards us. We become closer to God. God exists in every body, in every being. God lives in everyone and everything.
To finish, he once again sings a mantra. I thank him: “Terim makasih”. He answers: “Sama, Sama”. With pleasure. I feel a very deep, inner tranquillity. The high priest simply is, peaceful and unspectacular. Yet it is exactly this simple, unadorned way of being at peace within himself that convinces me, and the deep peace that surrounds him.