Silence! Well, Sort Of

Richard Laidlaw

Bali, Mar. 7, 2019

IT’S Nyepi today in Bali. Tomorrow, Mar. 8, 2019 CE, it will be the first day of 1941 in the Balinese Hindu Caka (say Shaka) calendar of 210 days. We’ve been more or less fixtures in Bali since 1926.

Our first Nyepi, back in the Roaring Caka Twenties, was an eye-opener. We had a live-in housekeeper that first year and, come Nyepi, she sent us away to a designated tourist hotel. Nyepi was not for Bules; too difficult, she told us. We thought she meant Bules were too difficult rather than that Nyepi was, but demur we did not.

Bules are foreigners; usually white ones. The word is informal, which is to say it’s rude, which is probably why these days you find it used even in court proceedings when some silly white person has got into trouble, as too many do.

But we were curious, and asked her how she proposed to spend Nyepi (in our house). The answer was instructive: having a quiet little party with a few of her friends who would move in for the magic 24 hours.

Several years later we decamped to a favourite seaside resort for Nyepi – these days we just stay home, because it’s easier and really no trouble – where we and other cultural refugees were shooed out of the restaurant after a very early dinner so the place could plunge properly into darkness.

We had booked our usual poolside bungalow. And while we sat quietly on its terrace, making sure the lights in the room behind did not escape to alert any bad spirits that there were people around, the hotel staff arrived en masse with all the pool toys and had a lively party in the H2O.

In more recent times Bali’s authorities have tightened up on Nyepi observance. The Internet is “closed” for 24 hours – 6am to 6am – though that’s functionally the mobile Internet. Hence the appearance of this little piece today, brought to you by the fixed installation at our house. The airport is closed for 24 hours and only police and public order and emergency vehicles are allowed on the roads. The day after Nyepi dawns nearly pollution free.

Actual observance is governed locally, though there seems to have been a shift recently towards a more universal code of practice. Effectively, everyone stays at home and does nothing, or does something very quietly, spending time in contemplation of sins and the meaning of life.

Our banjar (local “adat” precinct) disappointed us this year. We didn’t get the usual “no light no noise no sex” letter they stick on your gate before Nyepi. The nearest one I saw yesterday, returning from a late supplies mission, was on the gate of a house about 250m from ours. They must have miscalculated stock required.

Over recent years the concept of Nyepi has attracted the interest of locally resident lovies and the wider global diaspora of chakra-shakers and the like. It’s been touted as a sort of extra-powerful Earth Day, an idea that everyone who isn’t a Balinese Hindu should immediately take up as a gift from the List of Gaia’s Preferred Myths. It would do us all good, it is said. Yeah, right.

In the warp and weft of modern western life, not to mention its supposed yins and yangs, eastern philosophies have gained new traction. It’s always been a syncretic process, religion, in which beliefs formed in the early forest faerie sector have leached from one into the other. The founding Abrahamic influence in Christianity is by no means remote from this factor. Nonetheless the mysticism of eastern religions has new attractions for westerners whose culture has staled and whose civilisation is in cyclical decline.

Bali, of course, is the latest leitmotiv in chief of this phenomenon. Its unique syncretic Hindu religion – part Majapahit, part Buddhist, part animist – emphasises karma and incorporates eroticism that many outsiders, not all of them westerners, confuse with sexual licence. A whole cottage industry is now devoted to servicing the desires of western women to have their chakras adjusted. For the most part these desires are misplaced and too often have been fuelled by pulp-faction Eat Pray Love-style self-awareness books. The women get touched up both literally and figuratively.

Needless to say, none of it has anything to do with Bali’s Silent Day or the Hindu beliefs from which it springs. Nyepi is not an early Earth Day concept that the consumer-capitalist world should seize upon as a corrective to its many ills, real or imagined. To assume Silent Day is a formula for social renewal outside of its specific rites, or, worse, to actively suggest that should be so, is disrespectful of Nyepi rather than respectful of it.

For unbelievers, the requirements of Nyepi are more honestly observed in their quiet breach. The Internet for example is a utility, a function of modern life. If the religious authorities believe Hindu adherents shouldn’t use it on Silent Day, then that’s a matter for religious instruction. The faithful should wish to forgo it of their own volition.

Nyepi is not an opportunity for unbelievers to submerge themselves by specious acquisition into the sublime wonders of an imaginary world without intrusive technology. They can do that any time they like, by switching off their phones. It is for Balinese Hindus. It is a rite that flows from their belief system and it deserves honour and respect from everyone, unbelievers included.

It doesn’t demand detailed participation. Silent Day requires that certain measures are applied to your dwelling place and behaviour, and that’s fine. Observing the letter of these things, such as showing no lights or playing music that would be audible beyond your boundary, is no more difficult than, say, taking care not to publicly contravene Ramadan fasting restrictions in a majority Muslim community.

That’s chiefly a matter of courtesy and common sense. We could do with a lot more of that, everywhere.