art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese pitra yadnya

Yoga expert George Feuernstein (2000:81) observes that ‘the authorities of
Yoga are agreed that it is of acute importance how a person dies. Only com-
plete control of the death process, as effected by full awareness during and
after the dropping of the body, guarantees a benign postmortem existence.’1
In this sense, all yoga might be understood as a preparation for death, al-
though of course according to popular Western understandings, yoga con-
sists of physical and mental exercises to enhance health and longevity. Eliade
(1969:362), eminent historian of comparative religion, has characterized yoga
as an anticipation of death. He traces the relationship between yoga and the
process of cosmic reabsorption thus:

After describing the process of creation by Śiva … the Śiva Sam�hitā describes the
inverse process, in which the yogin takes part: he sees the element earth become
‘subtle’ and dissolve in water, water dissolve in fire, fire in air, air in ether, etc.,
until everything is reabsorbed into the Great Brahman. Now, the yogin undertakes
this spiritual exercise in order to anticipate the process of reabsorption that occurs
at death. (Eliade 1969:272.)

In this article I argue that Balinese death rituals, or rituals for the ancestors
(pitra yadnya), including the public spectacle of cremation, involve instructing
and assisting the dead person in performing the yogic art of dying. In doing so
I will attempt to show how the ritual actions parallel the steps of Kundalinī or

I would like to thank two anonymous readers for Bijdragen for their challenging but very
constructive critiques. Their comments have importantly shaped the final presentation of my
arguments. I also thank I Gusti Nyoman Mirdiana for his invaluable help in collecting the ethno-
graphic data discussed here.
Note on orthography: Except for direct quotations, where I follow the original, I use Feuerstein’s
simplified Sanskrit spellings (2000) for Sanskrit terms and the Kamus Bali-Indonesia (1978) for
Balinese words.

MICHELE STEPHEN is a writer. She holds a PhD from the Australian National University. Her
main field of academic interest is the anthropology of religion. She is the author of A’asia’s gifts; A
study of magic and the self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995 and Desire, divine and de-
monic; Balinese mysticism in the paintings of I Ketut Budiana and I Gusti Nyoman Mirdiana. Honolulu:
University of Hawai’i Press, 2005. Dr Stephen may be reached at J.Stephen@mail.bigpond.com.

Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (BKI) 166-4 (2010):426-474
© 2010 Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde

The yogic art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese pitra yadnya

Laya yoga2 whereby the yogi seeks to achieve the reabsorption of the cosmos
in precisely the manner just described. Eliade (1969:272, 362) also refers to a
link between Tibetan mortuary rituals and yoga. Although completely differ-
ent in nature, I would suggest that the Balinese rites have a similar underlying
aim to the Tibetan practices – that is to provide the dead person with the yo-
gic knowledge necessary to achieve enlightenment or liberation at the time of
leaving the body and failing that, to guide the spirit to the best rebirth possible.
Balinese death rituals are extraordinarily complex and rich symbolic pro-
ductions and have, of course, important ramifications – social, psychological,
political, and economic – that will not be dealt with here.3 This article does
not pretend to be a comprehensive treatment of all aspects of the pitra yadnya,
but focuses specifically on the similarities with Laya yoga. Ostensibly such an
enterprise seems to involve imposing a foreign framework of interpretation
on totally unrelated data. I did not in fact set out with the intention of mak-
ing such a comparison; it was suggested to me only in the course of collecting
general information about cremation (ngaben); but as I pursued the similari-
ties they seemed to become more and more persuasive. A single small detail,
a representation of the dead person termed a pangawak (Figure 1), an item
which might easily go unnoticed in the hurly burly of ritual performance, first
suggested to me the idea that when approached from the perspective of the
dead person, the death rituals might be understood as an instruction in yoga.
In this article I present a. an ethnographic description of the pitra yad-
nya based upon observation, interviews with Balinese and textual research
and b. my interpretation of the symbolism of these rituals based largely on
understandings drawn from the accounts of modern, Western scholars and
students of yoga. It might be objected that to establish my argument, I need
to do so by reference directly to the Sanskrit traditions of yoga, Advaita, and
Shaiva teachings. As a cultural anthropologist, my attention was drawn not
by similarities between the rituals and a specific text or body of texts, but
rather by a general resemblance to the Kundalinī or Laya yoga familiar to
me from Western studies. Such expositions, of course, are not the source of

See Woodroffe (1974:1-2) for a definition of Kundalinī yoga. Woodroffe (1974:48) makes it
clear that Kundalinī and Laya yoga are one and the same. Goswami (1999) also treats the terms
as synonymous. Feuerstein in his Foreword to Goswami’s book (1999:xiii) explains ‘Laya refers
to the absorption of the elements (tattva) constituting the body, which occurs when the Kundalini
power rises from the psychenergetic center (cakra) at the base of the spine toward the center at the
crown of the head’. This absorption or purification of the tattva is also referred to as bhūta-shuddi
(Goswami 1999:127), a term which, as Feuerstein (2000:57) observes, is also often used synony-
mously with Kundalinī yoga.
In previous publications (Stephen 1998a, 1998b) I have discussed Balinese cremation from a
comparative perspective, focusing on psychoanalytic interpretations of mortuary ritual. These
psychoanalytic interpretations represent another level of analysis and will not be taken up in this
article which deals only with the cultural logic of the ritual symbolism.


Michele Stephen

the Balinese rituals, but they provided me with a basis of understanding on
which to consider the possible meanings expressed in the rituals.
Anthropological understanding involves moving beyond the observer’s
cultural categories, attempting to identify and explicate the modes of thought
and experience of the observed. Yoga is concerned with inner mystical expe-
rience, something purely philological scholarship cannot capture. Thus to
explicate the classic Indian texts on which Balinese ‘yoga’ might be based is
in itself a task that requires an investigation of the inner experiences involved.
Furthermore, the early colonial scholars who studied the Sanskrit and the
Balinese texts and observed the mortuary rituals did not have available to
them the results of modern scholarship in comparative religion, popular
Hinduism, anthropological studies of shamanism, trance, possession, and
meditation, nor the understandings of Western students of yoga and medita-
tion which have burgeoned in recent years. We are now in a position to read
the texts – and the rituals – from a very different perspective, so that what
previously was regarded as theology and religion can be now be understood
in the context of kinds of inner experience which were not only little known
but completely foreign to most earlier scholars. For these reasons I do not
offer here a comprehensive review of the literature (Stuart-Fox 1992); nor have
I sought to comb the early sources in support of my arguments for to do so
would involve me in endless arguments with their outdated, culture-bound
interpretative frameworks. My aim is to provide a reading of the symbolism
of the pitra yadnya from the perspective of more current understandings and
based primarily upon my own detailed observations of present ritual prac-
tices. Identifying the original Indian sources which might have given rise to
the Balinese rituals and texts is a separate task not attempted here.
Had the resemblance I noticed proved to be a trivial or minor one, I would
not have bothered to pursue the matter. As I began to follow my hunch, how-
ever, I was amazed how close a relationship could be traced between the actual
performance of the Balinese rituals and the descriptions of Kundalinī yoga to
be found in modern Western studies. Indeed the correspondence proved to be
so striking that I would have been prepared to argue for it even in the absence
of any direct evidence of an explicit textual knowledge in Bali of Laya yoga.
Only after completing the first draft of this article did I come across Palguna’s
study of the Dharma Śūnya, which pointed me to another text, the Wrhaspati
tattva, revealing that the philosophy of the emanation and reabsorption of the
tattva which forms the basis of Laya yoga, was and is explicitly known and
expounded in Balinese texts. This served to clinch the argument in my view.
However, I discuss these texts only briefly later in this article as they did not
contribute directly to the interpretations developed here (although they are
evidently consistent with them); furthermore to fully examine their implica-
tions would have resulted in an essay of unmanageable length.

The yogic art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese pitra yadnya

The pangawak, Balinese yoga, and cremation

In August 2006 I was invited by the organizer, well-known Balinese artist, I
Ketut Budiana, to participate in a workshop being held for Balinese artists
on the role of art in religion. This was a practical workshop not concerned
with theory or philosophy of religion, but an opportunity for young artists in
particular to learn techniques for producing artworks required for cremation
rituals. As it turned out I was unable to attend, but I urged my research as-
sistant to do so and he brought me back photos of objects made at the work-
shop. These consisted of various items usually made by the household of the
officiating Brahmana priest. What immediately caught my attention was the
pangawak, a symbol of the physical body of the deceased. It consisted of a thin
flat rectangular sheet of palm leaf (as used for lontar) on which was inscribed
a naked human body and various mystical formulae (Figure 1).
At the time I was involved in researching Balinese concepts of dream-
ing and was led to several philosophical texts (tutur) that dealt with differ-
ent states of consciousness, including dreams. When I saw the photo of the
pangawak I realized that the inscription on it was connected with these texts.
Such texts, of course, constitute esoteric knowledge available only to the tiny
elite who are permitted to read them, in essence Brahmana scholars and high
priests (Rubinstein 2000:31). The inscription on the pangawak, however, gave
me the idea that this esoteric knowledge might perhaps be used on behalf of
every dead person. Might the pangawak be not just a symbol of the body of
the deceased, but also a means of showing the deceased the correct way of
leaving the body at death?
Although not referring specifically to the pangawak, Hooykaas (1976a)
notes several similarities between the ritual actions of the pedanda in the cre-
mation rituals and his daily ritual of Surya-Sevana – a practice wherein the
soul of the priest is caused to unite with the god Siwa (Shiva). The idea that
the pedanda is employing some kind of yogic meditation at the cremation ritu-
als might therefore not be regarded as such an outlandish idea.
I have discussed elsewhere (Stephen 2005:104-9) the nature of yogic practic-
es described in many Balinese texts, drawing attention to their similarities with
Kundalinī yoga, especially with regard to what Hooykaas (1973a:49) refers to
as the ‘thrilling mystery of the marriage of fire and water’ – symbolized by the
scared syllables, ANG and AH, that in turn stand for Uma and Shiva, pradana
and purusha, cosmic female and male principles. These meditative practices
involve the collapsing of the ten sacred letters (dasaksara) into one, the sacred
syllable OM, thus symbolizing the returning of the multiplicity of the universe
to the unity from which it emerged (see also Zurbuchen 1987:52-8; Hobart
2003:218-9). The ten letters – Sa, Ba, Ta, A, I, Na, Ma, Si, Va, Ya – are based on
abbreviations of five names of Shiva coupled with the famous mantra Om


Figure 1. The pengawak

The yogic art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese pitra yadnya

Namah Shiva Ya. The ten letters are dissolved into five (panca aksara), the five
into three (triaksara), then into two (ANG and AH, the cosmic duality or rwab-
hineda), and finally into one, OM.
The Balinese texts explain that in yogic practice during life, the adept
strives to unify ANG and AH, Uma and Shiva, pradana and purusha, to obtain
amerta, the water of eternal life. At death, however, the two must not be
allowed to meet, therefore ANG, fire, must be placed above AH, water, revers-
ing their usual position. These positions we should understand as being
visualized by the adept. ANG, fire, naturally rises and AH, water, naturally
moves downwards, but by reversing their positions, they move apart from
each other. Several Balinese texts refer to this reversal as the key to achieving
freedom from the cycle of births and deaths.4 Indeed a published Kawi text
from Bali, the Jñānasiddhânta (Soebadio 1971:87-107), devotes a whole long
chapter to the proper yogic practice of dying.
If we return to the pangawak symbol used in the cremation rituals (Figure
1), we can see that placed over the abdomen of the figure is a circle of Balinese
letters constituting the dasaksara, with the symbol AH placed below them; the
triaksara are written on the chest, an ongkara (OM) symbol on the throat, and
above the head is written the symbol ANG.5 The pangawak thus appears to
provide no less than a kind of diagrammatic summary of the yoga described
in the texts with which I was familiar. I also discovered that in short article
on cremation Hooykaas (1976a) describes several lontar texts revealing that
the separation of ANG and AH forms the basis of the pedanda’s preparation of
tirta pangentas – a special type of holy water of key importance in the crema-
tion ceremonies. Thus it seems evident that in the pitra yadnya, the Brahmana
priests, at least, are employing a form of yoga on the behalf of the deceased
– and it is similar, or linked, to Kundalinī yoga.
In this article, however, I will focus on the symbolism of the observable
ritual actions performed by the relatives of the dead and other lay participants,
rather than the esoteric understandings of the Brahmana priests. Certainly it
is my view that the two are closely related, but the rituals performed by the
pedanda and their precise meanings consist of closely guarded esoteric knowl-
edge. I found that pedanda were expert and helpful informants but invariably
they diplomatically sidestepped my questions when I touched too closely on
certain matters; some explained that they could not discuss such things fur-
ther with an uninitiated person. It was useless, therefore, if not offensive to
attempt to elicit information about esoteric meanings by direct questioning of
the very few persons who might be expected to know. Pedanda undergo strict
initiation in order to attain their position and only those of Brahmana caste are
eligible even to try to qualify. According to Rubinstein (2000:31), only pedanda

I have discussed these texts elsewhere (Stephen 2005:104-9, 158, note 67).
The pangawak is illustrated in Wirz 1928: Figure 3.


Michele Stephen

are permitted to read the tutur texts; and since it is in the tutur texts that yoga
is described (Zoetmulder 1974:179), evidently only pedanda traditionally had
access to such knowledge. My most important guide in my early fieldwork,
Brahmana scholar Ida Bagus Sutarja, emphasized from the beginning that in
terms of understanding the rituals there are those who can do the work, the
majority, those who know what needs to be done, the community leaders, and
those who know why the ritual actions are performed, the Brahmana priests.
The longer I spend in Bali, the more I appreciate the truth of his words.
For these reasons I focus here on publicly observable rituals and published
texts. Where I discuss the role of the pedanda it is on the basis of observable
actions, what ordinary people say about it, and what can be gleaned from
various published works. In the process of writing this I have certainly come
across information that helps to illuminate further for me the role of the
Brahmana priests. However I shall not attempt to deal with this issue here, but
address it in a separate publication. Although many Balinese would blanch
at the thought of carrying out the rituals for the dead without the help of
Brahmana priests, in some regions their participation is not required. Howe
(1969), for example, observed in the community he studied that Brahmana
priests were never called upon to carry out the death rituals. Thus for some
Balinese the public rituals are complete in themselves.
As the argument that follows is lengthy and intricate, I think it appropriate
to explain at the outset the manner in which it develops. I begin by outlining
the Shaiva philosophy of the 36 tattva and its relationship to Kundalinī yoga.
This provides the necessary conceptual background against which to consider
the ritual performances. I then describe step by step an actual cremation I
observed. Next I attempt to relate each of the actions described to the yogic
process of reabsorbing the first 25 tattva of Shaiva philosophy. The three phases
of the rituals, ngaben, nyekah, and segara-gunung, are described in turn and each
is interpreted as expressing a specific stage of reabsorption. These three phases
are also related to the three ‘bodies’ postulated by Tantric philosophy – the
sthūla-sharīra (the physical body), the sūkshma-sharīra (the subtle body), and the
kārana-sharīra (the causal or body of bliss). Finally, I consider textual evidence
demonstrating that the philosophical basis of Kundalinī or Laya yoga is, or
was, well known in Bali. I conclude with some comments on the metaphor of
the journey as representing the obtaining of inner, mystical experience.

The 36 tattva of Shaiva philosophy

In order to trace precisely how Kundalinī yoga might relate to the Balinese
pitra yadnya we need to be familiar with a. the Shaiva system of the 36 tattva6

Feuerstein (2000:305) defines ‘tattva’ as ‘thatness’, ‘Reality; also, a category of cosmic exis-

The yogic art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese pitra yadnya

according to which the world emanates from a single source and might be
collapsed back into it, and b. the manner in which the practice of Kundalinī
yoga is connected with the lowest 25 of these tattva. The concepts need to
be outlined in some detail as they are essential to the argument that follows
and may not be familiar to all of my readers. The following account is based
primarily on Woodroffe’s classic study, The serpent power; it is one of the clear-
est accounts I have come across, it is the source of many later accounts, and
furthermore it matches very closely the Balinese material.7 However, I also
draw on several other writers, including Eliade (1969), Silburn (1988), Danié-
lou (1992), and Feuerstein (1998, 2000).
According to Woodroffe (1974), Tantric Shaiva philosophy conceptualizes
the universe as emerging through a process of emanation of the 36 tattva,
beginning with Parama-Shiva and ending with prithivī, earth (matter in solid
state). This system was based on the 25 tattva of Samkhya philosophy, to which
Shaivism added another 11. The creative process begins with Parama-Shiva,
the first tattva, consisting of Pure Consciousness. Within the absolute unity of
Pure Consciousness arises a desire to express and experience itself as form, a
desire which leads to the duality that ultimately gives rise to material creation.
The potential to create form emerges within Parama-Shiva as Shakti (energy,
power) and thus brings about the second tattva, shiva-shakti-tattva. Woodroffe
(1974:31) observes that Shiva and Shakti are both Consciousness but that ‘the
former is the changeless static aspect of Consciousness, and Śakti is the kinetic,
active aspect of the same consciousness’. At this stage of incipient dualism,
the distinction between ‘I’ (aham) and ‘This’ (idam) comes into existence but
is still contained within the one unity (Woodroffe 1974:33). From this state
of unified potential duality, Shiva and Shakti gradually become differenti-
ated as Consciousness and Energy. It is Shakti, the energetic aspect of Pure
Consciousness, mythologically represented as the Goddess, consort of Shiva,
who creates, or rather emanates, through various stages, the physical universe.
A second transformation in Consciousness leads to the third tattva, known as
Sadā-Shiva, wherein the ‘This’ component of the duality becomes emphasized.
Sadā-Shiva gives rise to another transformation known as ishvara-tattva, where
the ‘I’ is stressed, and in turn leads to shuddha-vidyā-tattva, where both elements
have equal emphasis (Woodroffe 1974:33). These first five tattva are known as
the Pure Principles (shuddha-tattva), where dualism exists as a potential but the
essential unity of ‘I’ and ‘This’ is maintained. With the emergence of Shakti as
Māyā, the sixth tattva, the process of veiling and limiting Consciousness begins.
Māyā and the five kancuka, or coverings, constitute tattva 6 through to 11.
Maya’s general function is of veiling or contracting consciousness, so that

The serpent power is extensively used by Pott (1966) in Yoga and yantra, a study often referred
to in the Balinese literature.


Michele Stephen

Pure Consciousness, in its desire to experience itself as form, takes on various
limitations (Woodroffe 1974:52). The five kancuka represent these limitations
(Woodroffe 1974:39-40). The first is kalā, part, by which the unlimited nature of
the Absolute becomes particularized, or divided into parts (Feuerstein 1998:64-
6). The second is vidyā, knowledge, whereby the all-knowing Consciousness
becomes finite knowledge. The third is ragā, attachment, the principle by
which Consciousness is drawn to particular experiences rather than existing
in plenitude. The fourth is kāla, time, whereby the eternal, timeless nature of
Consciousness is now measured and limited in time. The fifth, niyati, neces-
sity, denotes the gradual limitation of the independence and pervasiveness of
Consciousness as it takes form. The 11th tattva, or level of emanation is puru-
sha, the Self, the conscious subject which experiences the body and the world,
in other words, the individual soul. It is Pure Consciousness which has under-
gone the limitations placed upon it by Māyā and the five coverings, but it does
not yet possess embodied form. In purusha develops an awareness of another,
prakritī, first as part of, and then as separate from itself. Finally, through the
action of this ‘other’, the material world is brought into being.
The first five tattva constitute the pure categories (shuddha-tattva); Māyā,
the five kancuka, and purusha constitute the pure-impure categories (shuddha-
ashuddha-tattva). The remaining 25 tattva from prakritī to the lowest, earth
(prithivī), constitute the impure categories (ashuddha-tattva) which comprise
the physical world (Woodroffe 1974:39). For the purposes of this article, it is
the emanation of the material world from purusha and prakritī via the remain-
ing 23 tattva that is of primary interest, for as I shall attempt to show, the
Balinese death rituals aim to bring the dead person back to the point at which
embodied consciousness began, that is with purusha and prakritī (or pradhāna,
the term more usually found in Balinese texts).
Prakritī is the ‘ultimate “material” cause of both Mind and Matter, and
the whole universe which they compose’ (Woodroffe 1974:51). As a finitizing
principle, she contains three primary characteristics, the guna, which serve to
make finite form in the infinite formlessness of Consciousness. These three are
tamas, which suppresses or veils consciousness, rajas which serves to make it
active, and sattva which acts to reveal consciousness (Woodroffe 1974:52-3).
Different combinations of the three guna give rise to all the multiplicity of the
physical universe, from apparently inert matter (dominated by tamas) to the
most elevated consciousness of the human sage (dominated by sattva).
Prakritī exists in a quiescent and an active state (Woodroffe 1974:53-4).
From the active state issues the 23 tattva that compose mind, senses, and
matter, which emerge in that order. First of the three tattva that constitute
mind is buddhi, consciousness of being but without awareness of an ego; the
second is ahamkāra, the personal consciousness aware of being a particular
‘I’; and finally manas, which as the seat of the desire to perceive or act, gives

The yogic art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese pitra yadnya

rise to and is the organizing principle of the senses. The senses, the indriya,
of which there are ten – five of perception and five of action – are the facul-
ties of the mind which enable it to perceive and act. They are not physical
organs, ‘but the faculty of mind operating through that organ as its instru-
ment’ (Woodroffe 1974:59). The five senses of perception, in descending order
are: hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. The five capacities for action, the
actions the self makes in response to sensation, are: mouth (speaking), hands
(grasping), legs (walking), anus (excretion), and genitals (procreation). At this
stage however, the physical organs have not yet come into being, and we are
dealing with potentials to realize the desires of mind. As the indriya unfold to
act upon a material world that does not yet exist, so they bring it into being,
since the existence of the senses implies there is something to sense, that is an
object of sensation (Woodroffe 1974:58). The five tanmātra emerge next, these
are the basic potentials or organizing general principles for physical matter,
and thus what gives rise to it. They in descending order are: sound, touch/
feeling, colour/form, flavour, and odour. From the five tanmātra emerge at
last sensible matter, the five gross elements, the panca-mahā-bhūta which con-
sist of ether (ākāsha), air (vāyu), fire (tejas), water (apas), and earth (prithivī) and
with the emergence of the final element, prithivī, the world of physical matter
as we perceive it has come into being (Woodroffe 1974:69).
Woodroffe (1974:70) emphasizes that the five mahā-bhūta are not elements
in the sense of different forms of solid matter, they are rather five different
forms of motion in which the potential for physical matter is differentially
realized. In the etheric state, motion is unlimited in all directions; in air
motion is transverse; in fire motion is upward and expanding; in water
downward motion leads to contraction; and finally that motion which pro-
duces cohesion, thus leading to the solidity of earth. Each level of motion is
perceived through an appropriate sense. The etheric is perceived as sound;
aerial motion is perceived through touch as resistance and feeling; the fiery is
perceived as colour by sight; the fluid as flavour through the action of taste;
and the earthy or solid state is perceived through smell as odour.
It also needs to be understood that in the process whereby purusha (spirit/
soul) becomes an embodied consciousness, three stages and three different
‘bodies’ are involved.8 The embodied, individualized soul is termed ‘jīva’.
It is the limited and bounded form which the ātman (the soul) takes when it
assumes bodily form in the vegetable, animal, and human worlds (Woodroffe
1974:55). From prakritī, the 24th tattva, emerges the causal body (kārana-
sharīra), sometimes called the ‘body of bliss’, and also the Paraśarīra accord-
ing to Woodroffe (1974:54). This body lasts until liberation (mokshsa) when
the soul is freed from its limitations as jīva and is returned to the universal

Woodroffe 1974:54. In some teachings, five bodies are included (Feuerstein 2000:157; Govinda


Michele Stephen

soul. The jīva inhabits this body in dreamless sleep, wherein one is aware
on waking that one has had a good sleep but remembers only the fact of the
experience, of being in a particular state. From this causal body emerges the
subtle body (sūkshma-sharīra) which is composed of mind (made up, as we
have seen of buddhi, ahamkāra, and manas). The subtle body is inhabited by jīva
in the dreaming state. From the subtle body arises the gross or coarse body,
sthūla-sharīra, composed of material substance. This is the body experienced
by the jīva, or self, in the waking state.
From the perspective of this emanationist philosophy, the whole universe
in all its diverse forms has been projected forth from an original, undivided
Pure Consciousness, and these forms may in turn be collapsed back into it.
The individualized, embodied consciousness which is ‘I’ is in this view pre-
cisely the same Pure Consciousness that is the source of all, the only difference
being that in order to take physical form and experience itself in action, the
original Pure Consciousness must submit its self to the contracting, limiting,
and finitizing principles that produce material form. To achieve freedom from
this bound, embodied state, one needs only to reverse the process by which it
came about in order to realize one’s true nature as Brahman or Parama-Shiva.
This is precisely what the yogi attempts to do.

Kundalinī yoga and the first 25 tattva in ascending order

In essence, Kundalinī yoga involves the awakening of the Kundalinī force in
the human body and raising it through the six cakra (which are located at the
base of the spine, the genitals, the navel, the heart, the throat, and between the
eyebrows) until she is united with Shiva in the highest cakra at the crown of the
head. The six lower cakra are identified not only with psycho-energetic centres
in the body, they also represent the stages or tattva of the emanation of the
material world just described. The lowest, the mūladhāra-cakra, represents earth
(prithivī); the svāhdhisthāna-cakra, water (apas); the manipura represents fire (te-
jas); the anāhata represents air (vāyu); the vishuddha, ether (ākāsha); and the ājnā,
represents mind or mental faculties (manas) (Woodroofe 1974:141). Each of the
first five levels is associated with the appropriate tanmātra, and indriya of per-
ception and action (Woodroffe 1974:142). Thus the mūlādhāra-cakra is earth and
the tanmātra of smell, and the indriya of smell (perception) and feet (action).
The first five cakra constitute the panca-mahā-bhūta, the five states of matter in
motion, from the lowest and coarsest to the most refined, in ascending order.
When Kundalinī moves up through the cakra, a reversing of the process
of emanation takes place, so that earth is dissolved back into the tattva from
which it emanated, that is earth into water, water into fire, fire into air, and
air into ether (Woodroffe 1974:241-2). At this point the components of the

The yogic art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese pitra yadnya

physical body have been dissolved, along with the respective tanmātra that
gave rise to them and the indriyas that enabled the world to be perceived and
acted upon. The material body (sthūla-sharīra) is finally dissolved back into
its origin, the subtle body (sūkshma-sharīra), located with mind (manas) in the
ājnā-cakra. Then mind is taken back to its origin – the causal or body of bliss
(kārana-sharira) – when Kundalinī rises to the sahasrāra-cakra and there unites
with Shiva. To return to the mundane, the yogi must bring Kundalinī back
down to the mūladhāra-cakra, thus effecting a re-emanation of the physical
world as each cakra is passed through in descending order.
Woodroffe (1974:82) summarizes the nature of Kundalinī yoga thus:

The Yoga-process is a return-movement to the Source which is the reverse of the
creative movement therefrom. The order of production is as follows: Buddhi, then
Ahamkāra, from the latter the Manas, Indriya and Tanmātra and from the last the
Bhūta. As the seat of the Source is in the human body the cerebrum in which there is
the greatest display of Consciousness, the seat of Mind is between the eyebrows and
the seats of Matter in the five centres from the throat to the base of the spine. Com-
mencement of the return movement is made here and the various kinds of Matter
are dissolved into one another, and then into Mind and Mind into Consciousness.

In brief, Kundalinī yoga involves the 25 tattva from prithivī to purusha, the aim
of the practice being to dissolve each of the tattva, starting from the bottom,
into the element above it; so that earth is dissolved back into water, water into
fire, fire into air, and air into space. Thus all physical matter is transcended
and returned to its mental origin, mind (manas). The final step is to transcend
mind also and thus unify the remaining duality into one to produce the divine
amrita. Each of the first five tattva, the panca-mahā-bhūta, correspond in the
human body with cakra or energetic centres. When the yogi wishes to return
to normal consciousness the Kundalinī must be directed back through the
six cakra in descending order, thus bringing the material world back into be-
ing. At the approach of death, the yogi can use the same techniques to leave
the body and achieve liberation (Woodroffe 1974:411, 280-1). Essentially,
Kundalinī yoga involves a process of dissolution (laya) whereby the embod-
ied soul (jīva/atman) is returned to the original unity from whence it came.
Woodroffe (1974:23) explains:

when dealing with the practice of Yoga, the rule is that things dissolve into that from
which they originate, and the Yoga process here described is such dissolution (Laya).

All the 25 elements just described involved in Kundalinī yoga – the five mahā-
bhūta, the ten indriya, the five tanmātra, manas, ahamkāra, buddhi, purusha and
prakritī (pradhāna) – are not only commonly encountered in Balinese texts,


Michele Stephen

they are specifically mentioned and symbolized in the Balinese pitra yadnya,
as we shall see.
Although the three stages of the pitra yadnya about to be discussed involve
only the lowest 25 tattva, in order to appreciate the logic of the whole system,
and to understand how yet further mortuary rituals, such as maligia, might
be added to the basic three, we need to be aware of the existence of several
higher tattva (the precise number varies, but a total of 36 is usually included
in Shaiva systems).

Merely to describe what the pitra yadnya observances involve is in itself no
easy task. Furthermore my analysis requires more than a brief summary of the
rituals, such as are to be found in general and popular accounts. The rituals
are complex and extend over a long period of time so that it is very difficult
for one person or even a team to observe them all.9 There is always variation
from region to region or even from village to village in Bali. There are many
different kinds of cremation depending on the age and status, and mode of
death of the person concerned (Howe 1980:318-21; Hooykaas 1976a). Further-
more Balinese rituals are constantly changing over time and what happened
in the past is by no means a reliable guide to present practices. Obtaining a
definitive ethnographic description is thus a virtual impossibility. Hooykaas
(1976a:35) has ruefully drawn attention to these and other difficulties in the
way of any comprehensive investigation of the pitra yadnya.
For these reasons I have felt it preferable to base my account on my own
observances during three separate performances of the rituals in the same
Ubud community. I had access to these events as a family with whom I have
built up a close relationship over the last decade was involved in all three. The
first, held in 2001, was an individual cremation performed for three members
of the same extended family belonging to the Wesia class. The second, held in
2006 was a communal ceremony performed for a whole banjar, in which 36
persons were cremated, including one member of the same Wesia family. The
third, performed in 2008, was for a single individual of the same Wesia family,
in this instance, a direct cremation where the body was not, as is usually the
case, buried for a period of several months or more prior to the rituals. I have
thus been able to observe variations in different types of ceremonies, while

For example, the communal rituals I witnessed in 2006, began on 6 July and finished on 28
August. Planning the events had, of course, commenced months beforehand. The direct crema-
tion described here began on 15 January and the first two stages were completed on 29 January,
but due to the family using up its available resources, the final stage had to be postponed for
several weeks.

The yogic art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese pitra yadnya

benefiting from the constancy provided by the same location and the same
family. I have also had the opportunity to witness parts of several sequences
of the pitra yadnya, in various locations, but not to follow them systematically.
All the pitra yadnya (2001, 2006, and 2008) that I have observed closely com-
prised three stages: the first is referred to as ngaben, the second nyekah or ngasti,
and the third segara-gunung. Although Balinese writers Kaler (1993) and Arwati
(2007) treat segara-gunung as part of nyekah, my observances indicate that three
different ceremonies are involved and are organized as such.10 These three
basic units may be held separately, although this must be sequentially, and
not all three are always included, furthermore other additions are possible. At
present in the Ubud area and Gianyar region this threefold sequence seems to
be the usual practice; and because of the expense involved, there is a tendency
at present to hold them together where appropriate and possible. Although he
uses somewhat different terms to refer to the segments, Howe (1980) describes
the same threefold sequence as being carried out in the 1970s in Pujung,
Tegallalang, indicating a consistency in practice over the last several decades.
Each of the three components will be discussed in turn. My intent is to
present the rituals as they are actually performed and might be observed by
anyone today, and to offer my interpretation of the possible symbolic signifi-
cance of these actions. In order to distinguish as clearly as possible between
emic and etic perspectives, the discussion of each component is organized
into two parts: first the ritual performance is described then following in a
separate section is my interpretation. The ethnographic description thus is
intended to stand independently of my interpretation. Although this format
inevitably involves a degree of repetition, I ask for the reader’s patience since
a failure to distinguish between the two would result in a blurring of the par-
allels with Laya yoga I seek to elucidate.

Ngaben: The dissolution of the five mahā-bhūta

As is well known, Balinese cremation usually takes place several months or
even years after the death of the person, who in the interim is interred in the
village cemetery. The first important step in the cremation rituals, after the in-

The three booklets published in Indonesian by Balinese authors (Kaler 1993; Arwati 2007;
Surayin 2005) referred to in respect to the pitra yadnya explain in simple terms the rituals and
their requirements to ordinary Balinese. The authors are not Western-trained scholars but a
knowledgeable senior teacher, government servant, and community worker, and all three are
responsible for several other similar publications dealing with ritual and religion. Such booklets
are intended primarily as guides to the organizers of rituals (in effect the families involved), not
as scholarly expositions. Hooykaas (1973:20) noted the proliferation of such Balinese works on
philosophy and religion more than 30 years ago, a trend that continues today.


Michele Stephen

tention to hold them has been announced, is to go to the grave site and call the
spirit of the deceased back to be united with a symbolic body, which is none
other than the pangawak described earlier. This opening stage of the rituals, after
the lengthy preparations are complete, is termed ngawangun (awakening). Up
until cremation the spirit of the deceased is believed to continue to stay around
the grave and graveyard, and thus is thought to cause trouble for the living if
it is left too long in this state. The post-mortem condition of the spirit is like
the state of dreaming, people say, so the deceased must now be woken up and
called to participate in the rituals about to be performed on her or his behalf.
Ngawangun involves the relatives and a priestly officiant bringing to the
grave a litter on which are placed symbols of the spirit and the body, the adegan
and pangawak. The spirit of the deceased is then called to enter the symbolic
container provided for it, and the litter is carried home where it is welcomed
by waiting relatives as if the deceased were returning after a long absence. The
symbols of body and spirit are then placed in the bale dangin and relatives come
to offer food and drink to the deceased. In the case of a direct cremation, where
the body of the deceased is kept in the house compound until cremation, nga-
wangun is omitted, as an actual body is being processed. The cremation about
to be described is such an example. It begins with calling the spirit from the
pura dalem (the village temple associated with the spirits of the dead) not the
grave; but from this point on the rituals are hardly different, the body symbol
being treated as if it were an actual corpse although on a miniature scale.

A ritual performance of ngaben

A direct cremation performed in 2008 is described here. I have used the writ-
ten programme prepared by the organizers (the family of the deceased) as a
guide to the many events that took place over several days.11

Preparation (15-28 January 2008)
The death took place on 15 January 2008. As the deceased, a woman in her
late 70s, was the wife of a village priest (pemangku) and thus herself a priest,
it was decided by her family that she should have direct cremation. The body
of a priest should not be buried prior to cremation as is usually the case with
other persons; furthermore, her family was sufficiently prosperous to be able
to afford the costs this would involve.

11 These programmes, although not always reliable in every respect, provide important infor-
mation concerning the sequence of events, the places they are to be held, the participants, and the
offerings required, as well as giving the names of each step in the complicated proceedings. As
many as possible of the steps listed were observed and photographed. However, I do not discuss
the offerings (banten), unless these are specifically mentioned, or their symbolism, as to do so
would involve an article of unmanageable length. My account is based on my own observations;
the organizer’s programme of events; photographs and notes of the events taken by a member of
the family; and comments and explanations given by participants.

The yogic art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese pitra yadnya

Following death, the body, which had been preserved with formalin, was
placed in the bale dangin in the family house compound. The burning of the
corpse took place two weeks later on 29 January. Almost immediately prepa-
rations began. These included building various temporary bamboo structures
in the house compound, constructing the tower (bade) on which the body
would be carried to the cemetery and the elaborate animal-shaped sarcopha-
gus in which the body would be burned, and making the large quantity of
offerings that would be required. The family, helped by neighbours and the
village community as a whole, quickly set about these tasks. The official
opening of the rituals (nyambut karya) took place on 24 January and was
performed by the priest (pemangku) of the village pura dalem at three o’clock
in the afternoon in the house compound of the deceased. Four days later, on
28 January, the next important events took place with the family going to
numerous temples in the morning to collect holy water (nunas tirta), and in
the afternoon to the houses of two Brahmana priests to collect and bring home
the piranti, consisting of several elaborately constructed symbolic objects
said to symbolize various physical, mental, and spiritual components of the
deceased (mendak piranti upakara ke griya).

The day of burning or ‘throwing away’ (pengutangan)
The actual burning of the body, preceded and followed by a number of im-
portant rituals, took place on 29 January. The nine steps to be described are
not always, as in this case, performed on the same day. Depending on the time
available, some may be held the day prior to or subsequent to the actual burn-
ing; however, they need to be understood as a connected sequence, performed
in the following order. The numbered actions listed here and the times are
based on the organizers’ programme; and all the actions listed for the days in
question are discussed.

1. Mendak ke pura dalem – 8.30 a.m., 29/1/08
At about 8.30 in the morning the rituals got underway with members of the
family going to the pura dalem to collect the spirit of the deceased,12 which was
asked to enter a special container termed an adegan or sanggah urip.13 It was
then carried back in procession to the house and placed next to the corpse on

In the case of persons already buried before cremation (the usual situation), the day of the
actual burning begins with the relatives going to the grave very early in the morning before
daybreak and exhuming the remains, usually just bones by this stage. The bones are taken one
by one out of the grave by the close relatives, carefully cleaned and then placed together in the
form of a body, covered and wrapped with cloth, and placed on a specially constructed stand in
the cemetery to await cremation later in the day, along with the various symbols of the body and
spirit of the deceased which are brought from the house.
13 According to my Balinese informants adegan means ‘house post’ or ‘support’; urip means
‘life’; and sanggah means ‘shrine’ or ‘stand’. Thus the object referred to is not simply a symbol of
the spirit, but a place for it to reside during the ceremonies.


Michele Stephen

the bale dangin (where it had been lying since death). The soul and the physi-
cal body of the deceased having been brought together again, the relatives felt
that the dead person was actually present. Relatives said that they felt a strong
sense of her personality being there with them at this point. She was wel-
comed as if returned from a long absence and offered food and refreshment.
This welcoming back of the dead person is termed penyapa (greeting). Soon,
however, the relatives who had just welcomed her home, started to mourn the
deceased, who was said to have just died (that is after coming to life for a few
minutes, she dies again).

2. Melaspas petulangan, penyelang margi – 9.30 a.m.
About an hour later a melaspas ritual14 was performed for the sarcophagus and
the tower in which the corpse was to be carried to the cemetery. These struc-
tures had been placed on the main road in front of the gate to the deceased’s
house compound where the consecration was performed by a pedanda Siwa.
The priest, seated on a special dais nearby, prepared the holy water, essen-
tially involving a process of inner visualization and the recitation of mantra,
which usually lasts about 50 minutes.15 The men who would soon carry the
tower and sarcophagus prayed briefly in front of the priest and received holy
water when it was ready.

3. Mandusan – 10.30 a.m.
Following melaspas, relatives inside the house compound removed the corpse
from the bale dangin and placed it on a specially constructed bamboo couch
nearby. The naked body was then cleaned, washed, and decorated. This ritual
cleansing is performed by a Brahmana priestly functionary (given the title ida ba-
gus adji). First the body was doused in copious quantities of scented holy water
(toya kumkum), the finger and toe nails were scraped clean, the hair washed, oiled
with scented oils and combed. The body was then further decorated with jewel-
lery and flowers. During the procedure the relatives crowded around touching
the body and placing money and gifts on it. Finally male relatives wrapped the
corpse in yards of white cloth, tied it up in mats, placed it in a plain wooden box,

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