Ritual Burdens

The Story of Ni Ketut Kasih

Ni Ketut Kasih is a widow who lives in a small village in Bali, Indonesia. She is a proud mother of four children and the grandmother of twelve grandchildren. She’s lived her whole life surrounded by the complex cadences and mandates of the Balinese ritual calendar with events such as temple observances, holy days, festivals, etc. happening nearly every other day, and for many years Ketut has faced a specific kind of difficulty with the stress and anxiety surrounding her ritual obligations as the village’s ceremonial leader. 

She anticipates and prepares for the ceremonies and rituals far in advance, repeatedly assessing the state of her family’s preparations because of her position in her community as priestess. She finds her mind overrun by thoughts of failure and worry as she also reminisces the stresses of her childhood when her father was taken as a prisoner of war and she was forced to leave her schooling in order to look after her family. 

When the worries get too much, Ketut has a “fit”, she could disappear from home leaving her family and wander off to far places acting out in alarming ways such as undressing herself in the market or challenging others to a fight.  When her situations get beyond the support her family could give her, they take her to the state psychiatry hospital or give her the medications prescribed for her manic-episodes. She generally recovers quite fast and experiences long stretches of peace and quiet before another financial obligation or ritual evokes more stress, causing another episode. 

Ketut’s response to the stressors caused by familial, ritual or financial obligations raises questions about the purpose of these rituals and the psychological cost it brings for the those that execute and organize it. Ketut’s case exhibits a unique assemblage of stressors such as cultural obligations, childhood trauma, and neurobiology overlay to trigger cyclic manic-depressive episodes. This shows us the impact of individual paradigms of suffering and the requisite connotations which make ritual burdens excruciating on mental health.

Familial Support- Both a Stressor and Strength 

In an intricate but compelling discourse, it’s seen that Ketut’s family has always acted as both a stressor and strength throughout the course of her life. Meeting her extended family tends to elicit feelings of shame if rituals are improperly carried out and anger or envy over financial differences between family relations, however, her immediate kin provide a shield of support by actively avoiding labeling or stigmatizing her diagnosis in any way. 

During times when she calls herself as sakit jiwa, or mentally ill, her family unwaveringly does not call her gila, or crazy. Despite the fact that she’s been institutionalized many times for her manic-episodes, the family chooses to normalize Ketut’s experiences and in evading to merge her symptoms with herself, her family accentuates the temporary nature of her illness and this provides a sense of continuity to her daily life. 

The “Burden” Paradox of the Balinese Ritual

The term “ritual density” is used to describe the frequency of rituals/ceremonies within any particular culture. The Balinese culture is known to be one of the most ritually dense cultures in the world. The Balinese ritual calendar is 210 days long and full of cyclic events. An integral part of the Balinese ritual customs is the sesajen, or offerings. In the documentary, Ketut and her family talk about the practice of ngayah, “pledging oneself to god by making ritual offerings.” This idea shows us that the importance given to the preparation of these offerings in not only just the tangible result of the product but also the manifestation of the devotional method in which it was made in the end product. 

In Balinese culture, the etiology of illness and healing of a wide variety of personal and family diseases and problems are often interpreted as a result of inadequately done, forgotten or neglected rituals. Because of this, many families go into debt in order to ensure that a ceremony is performed in an appropriate and well-timed manner in order to avoid such kind of troubles. Thus, in making offerings and performing rituals correctly, many Balinese women take it upon themselves to ensure the well-being of their families and their communities. The extensive female labor and female leadership in consolidating sometimes hundreds of family members involved in ritual preparations may speak to the esteemed and valued role that women play in Balinese spirituality. 

Understanding the herculean task of physical labor, time, emotional and monetary investment, and spiritual strength required to make these offerings and fulfill familial obligations, combined with the importance of ritual in Balinese families and communities emphasizes how ceremonies aren’t just culturally elaborate celebrations, but also culturally evident stressors that strain pre-existing weaknesses or cause an illness episode in the likes of individuals such as Ketut. Thus, it becomes a matter of irony that the rituals meant to shield and encourage the purity, peace and balance of the community can also result in significant mental pressure for an individual.

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