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The Material and the Immaterial (Part 1)

September 04, 2009

By Anand Krishna
For The Bali Times



I remember reading Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) when I was in junior high school: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” I must admit, I had, until then, neither seen much of East, nor of West. So I had no clear idea of what he was actually referring to.

Years later when I started travelling, meeting different people and doing business with them, I realized that there was some truth in what the great writer had said. Less than 50 years after Kipling’s death, I realized that East was still East, and West was still West. But the twain could meet. The possibility of meeting was very much there. We could meet on so many common grounds.

Today, the meeting is not only urgent, but also imperative. I see the East as the storehouse of ancient wisdom, which is still very much relevant; and the West as the pioneer in modern sciences and technology.

A wise East without modern sciences and technology becomes dull and inert. It has no dynamism, no lifeforce. On the other hand, a scientific West without wisdom becomes greedy and arrogant. It loses its humanity and morality. East and West must meet. They have to.

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I was discussing this with one of my scholar friends on the isle, when he referred to a very old Balinese concept of Sekala/Niskala. This is a popular term, often translated as Material/Immaterial, Corporeal/Non-Corporeal, Worldly/Spiritual or Here/Hereafter.

Sekala/Niskala, however, has several other deeper meanings. First of all, it is not a philosophical concept, but, rather, a guiding principle to living and life. Literally translated, sekala is “within time” and niskala is “beyond time.”

Sekala is eternal, the universal human values – the continuity. Niskala is modernity, development, growth and progress – the change. Sekala is the stationary screen upon which the moving pictures of niskala are being projected.

It would be wrong, as unfortunately many do, to limit sekala to the marketplace, and niskala to places of worship. More erroneous is the association of religious rituals and outer forms of worship alone with niskala, and all other “worldly” activities with sekala.

Ironically, this is the case today. We have, actually, gone a step further by considering an act of “niskala” worship or religious ritual to have the capacity to wipe away all “sekala” errs and mistakes.

In our ignorance, we now believe that we can commit any crime – cheat, harm, inflict pain, injure or even kill – and there is always a ritual to save us from punishment here and hereafter.

We erroneously believe that we can get away with all the wrongs we do. For all those wrongs are done in the realm of sekala, whereas the religious rituals belong to the realm of niskala. And since niskala is higher than sekala, a single niskala act can cancel all, or at least several, sekala wrongdoings.

This is a totally wrong, and very dangerous perception of sekala/niskala. This perception must be corrected.

We have already seen the damage done to Bali and Balinese society by such wrong perceptions. An investor comes with a bag full of money and shows his interest in “making a better use of an unused area.” No, the area is not “unused”; it has its use as conservation forest.

So he goes to the Forestry Ministry and gets a special permit to explore the land for commercial purposes. “No, it is not exactly commercial. Think of the new jobs that will be created. Think of our seriousness and efforts to beautify Bali.”

To beautify Bali? But we thought Bali was already beautiful. Anyway, we come up with another reason, a very valid one. The area is considered “sacred.” It is a niskala area. Alas, we send out a wrong signal.

The investor gets a clue. His next move is to collect some of the priests and community leaders. “There must be some way out. You are men of God, and the best among men. You know what religion is, what the traditions are and what the cultural values are. If the sanctity of the place is disturbed, you certainly know how to take care of that by certain rituals and religious ceremonies.”

This is only one instance of how we have fallen into a trap created by us in our folly. There are many more such instances. It is not just the traditional houses and ricefields turning into resorts, restaurants and spas; our villages have been converted into golf courses.

An agent from another island tells his potential buyer: “Everything can be arranged here. I know Bali and the Balinese more than they know themselves. And I know their religion. I understand their customs. Just tell me which piece of land you want and I will get it for you.” As easy as that.

One can harm the ecosystem and destroy the environment. No problem. Build a small temple along with your luxurious hotel. Call one of the local priests, put him in charge of the temple – and bingo! You are safe.

Your hotel is perhaps a huge sekala mistake, “but you see worldly is, after all, worldly. A single act of niskala can undo everything.”

Sekala and Niskala: Material and Immaterial. “You see, ‘immaterial’ has a dual meaning: ‘non-matter,’ as well as ‘it does not matter.’ So we use the second meaning.”

Words are misunderstood, or their meaning is purposely twisted to suit one’s needs. I try to imagine the Bali of the 1970s. Bali then, and Bali now. They are two different faces of Bali.

Many overseas visitors are still stupefied with Bali’s beauty. They are perplexed, speechless. Yes, Bali is still beautiful. But its virginity is gone. Its simplicity, its sanctity, its purity and its innocence are gone. They belong to the Bali before the 1970s.

Having said that, I must also add that not all is gone. Bali has not lost everything. She still has her soul. This must be saved. For if Bali loses its soul, it loses everything. Then Bali would become lifeless.

Sekala and Niskala, both are equally important. A body without soul is of no value. And a soul without body cannot express itself. So any damage done to the body is also damage done to the soul, to its potential to express itself.

I find it very, very difficult to imagine Bali full of malls, apartment buildings and high-rise buildings. Do we need them? We have them in plenty on other isles in the archipelago. Can’t we have a piece of Bali with its natural beauty, and without any cosmetics?

* * *

Coming back to my scholar friend with whom I was discussing this subject, his understanding of Sekala/Niskala was no different than most of us Easterners: “The West is materialistic; the East is spiritual. It is the Western influence that is destroying our spiritual base.”

No, Sir. I do not agree. But more on this next week.

The writer is a spiritual activist and author of more than 120 books. To know more about his activities in Bali, call Aryana or Debbie on 0361 7801595 or 8477490; or visit www.aumkar.org and www.anandkrishna.org.