Canang Sali: Bali’s Ubiquitous Hindu Offerings (Indonesia)

The first time I went to Bali, way back in 2005, I was a much different traveler.  Having just visited a few countries at that time made me nervous about solo travel, and coupled with that, fearful of taking rides at airports, especially after a disorienting flight.  So visceral was my anxiety that instead of taking the hotel shuttle to Jimbaran, I walked for about 2+ hours at night, wheeling two suitcases in that exhausting tropical humidity.  This was also before mobile phones could show you where you were, so I was working off of rapidly disintegrating printed maps to get to the hotel.

What does that have to do with Balinese Hinduism?  Nothing…except that I probably accidentally tripped over more than a few of the ubiquitous canang sari along the way.

Before diving into what canang sari represents, it’s vital to point out that Bali is Indonesia’s last prominent Hindu bastion, a relic of centuries of Hindu and Buddhist rule throughout the Indonesian archipelago, roughly peaking between the 5th and 13th centuries AD.   However, there are some key differences between Balinese Hinduism and Hinduism followed by much of India— namely, Balinese Hinduism incorporates aspects of Buddhism, beliefs in animism, Malay ancestral worship, a lack of a caste system, and no child marriages.  Also, in keeping with the Indonesian government’s creation of Pancasila (five principles) – in which monotheism is a requirement to be a sanctioned religion – Balinese Hindus primarily worship Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, a deity unknown to most followers of Hinduism in India.  Although there are many minor gods representing water, fire, earth, fertility, rice, and so on, it was necessary for Balinese Hindu acolytes to accept that these lesser gods all form one primary deity, Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa.

What exactly is canang sari?  Loosely translated as essence (sari) in a palm frond tray (canang, pronounced cha-nang), canang sari are offerings to local gods left daily by Balinese women, typically in the early morning or around dusk.  Depending on the ritual and importance of that day, they may either small or grandiose, and will be filled with flowers, herbs, food, money, and incense.

Canang sari are strategically placed by entrances to family compounds, altars, temples, in addition to restaurants, hotels, and other structures.  Chiefly, canang sari show to the deities the time spent by each family in making them, to keep the good and bad balanced, and as a thanks for keeping the family harmonious.

Preparing Canang Sari, Bali, Indonesia

In addition to the incense, the basic ingredients of the canang sari are called the peporosan; they symbolize the Trimurti, or the three dominant Hindu gods:

  • Shiva, the destroyer, represented by white lime
  • Vishnu, the preserver, represented by a red betel nut
  • Brahma, the creator, represented by a green gambier leaf

On top of the canang sari are flowers dedicated to sincerity and love, placed in specific cardinal directions:

  • White petals for Ishvara, supreme lord/personal god, pointing East
  • Red petals for Brahma, pointing South
  • Yellow petals for Shiva, pointing West
  • Blue/Green petals for Vishnu, pointing North

Once that incense fizzles out, however, you might notice some local fauna nibbling away at canang sari.  According to tradition, as long as there’s no more incense to be burned, it’s totally ok to do so…not that the animals know anyway!

What is Falun Gong (法轮功)?

Truth (真)

Compassion (善)

Forbearance (忍)

Those three words represent the primary tenets of Falun Gong (法轮功/法輪功) aka Falun Dafa (法轮大法), a quasi-religious movement first practiced in China by Mr. Li Hongzhi in 1992.

Drawing from a combination of Buddhist and Taoist teachings, as well as employing qigong (气功) breathing exercises, the characters of Falun Gong translate as achievement (功) through the wheel (轮) of law (法).

Even if you haven’t heard the term Falun Gong, you have may seen propaganda littering hardware store windows and bus stops for Shen Yun, the performing arts show fully backed by Mr. Li and his acolytes.

Taken in a pre-July 1st, 2020 Hong Kong

Sounds harmless enough, right?  But, if Falun Gong merely exists as a way for people to improve their health by doing a few breathing exercises and lithe movements, what caused this spiritual movement to be banned in China by June 1999?

Simply put, the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, and cannot tolerate any potentially competing ideology in its territory.  Unlike other health-focused movements such as Tai Ji (太极), adherents of Mr. Li were under the impression that through practicing Falun Gong, they were able to join a path to salvation and enlightenment, with some even believing Li to have the power to levitate.

At first glance, it’s a bit David and Goliath, isn’t it?  Then again, the CCP would absolutely not want a contemporary analog to the mid-1800s Taiping Rebellion, in which Mr. Hong Xiuquan believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and claimed to receive orders to rid China of all the non-native Manchu rulers.

Anti-Falun Gong messages, in a pre-July 1st, 2020 Hong Kong

As Falun Gong gained more followers, Beijing first prohibited the sale of its official text, called the Zhuan Falun (转 法轮).  Some periodicals even started claim that practitioners were so taken by Mr. Li’s gospel that they committed suicide.  After a mass display of loyalty to Mr. Li in front of the CCP headquarters in Beijing, Office 610 was set up in June 1999 to oversee the prohibition of Falun Gong in China, as well as to “disappear” thousands of believers.

Mr. Li fled to a usual suspect, the United States – notably, there is no extradition treaty between the US and China – and in New York state, he set up the secretive Dragon Springs Falun Gong facility in Cuddebackville.  As with other religious beliefs, it is likely that there are still underground followers in mainland China.  However, being that Falun Gong is one of the CCP’s “Five Poisons” – along with Uyghurs, Tibetans, democracy movements, and Taiwanese separatists – any news of their successes and practices is suppressed and/or censored.