Review of C. Geertz Negara, The Theater State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980) in South Asia Research 3(2) (1983): 135-40.
REVIEW ARTICLE: NEGARA: THE THEATRE STATE IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BALI1
David N. Gellner
This recent work by one of America’s foremost, if not the foremost, anthropologist is, I would like to suggest, of immediate and instructive interest to South Asianists, and in particular to students of Nepalese history and society. Bali, like the Kathmandu Valley, is a relatively small bounded area on the edge of the Indian culture area. Like the Kathmandu Valley, it possesses extremely fertile agricultural land capable of supporting, from an early period, a dense rice-growing population, a complex division of labour, extravagant religious activity and a high level of artistic sophistication. But the similarities go beyond this: both Bali and the Kathmandu Valley received the forms of their premodern culture from India. Although Nepal has undergone Indian influence longer and more persistently than Bali, the earlier influences were submerged by medieval ones, and it was precisely at this latter period that Bali, along with the rest of Southeast Asia, was undergoing Indicisation.
Anyone familiar with Nepal or India will be struck by the frequency of Sanskrit vocabulary and Hindu concepts in Geertz’s book. That Bali is Hindu is not of course a new discovery. What Geertz has done for the first time, to my mind persuasively and successfully, is to provide a picture of how the traditional Balinese state worked, what the people who ran it were trying to do, and how it affected, and was shaped by, Balinese society. In doing this he has provided a model for understanding not merely the states of pre-Muslim Indic Southeast Asia, as he hopes (pp. 9-10), but also, contrary to what he himself believes (see below), those of Hindu India as well. Although he himself would not be so ambitious, I think his model has something to teach us about Nepal too.
Geertz reconstructs the traditional Balinese state from written sources, from the memories of aged informants, and by careful extrapolation from his knowledge of present practices. The book presents a concise but rounded picture of what was evidently an extremely complicated society (yet another similarity which will not be lost on those familiar with Newar culture!) Not the least of Geertz’s achievements is the presentation of such a mass of complex material readably and dynamically. It is a mature work, the result of many years’ involvement with the area (Geertz’s first publication on Bali came out in 1959 according to the bibliography).
One of the first things one has to realise about traditional Bali is that nearly everything we nowadays associate with government was in the hands of villagers, and was not the concern of kings or barons at all. At the village level there were three crucial organisations, the hamlet, the congregation (which grouped [p. 136:] together several hamlets) and the irrigation society. The hamlet was responsible for the upkeep of the roads, etc., the administration of law, the settlement of disputes, and the legitimation of marriages, land transfers and so on. “Perhaps the bulk ... of Balinese government, in the strict sense of the authoritative regulation of social life, was carried out by the hamlet, leaving the state free to dramatize power rather than to administer it” (p.49). The congregation controlled worship and ritual within its confines and laid down what was to count as custom and law for its members (which varied in details, though not in basic principles, from congregation to congregation). The irrigation society, involved in a series of nested segmentary relationships with other societies using the same waters, administered the crucial water resource. In a careful and detailed analysis Geertz shows how water lay quite outside the control of the state, which is one decisive reason, as Geertz points out, why Wittfogel’s theory of oriental despotism provides no help in understanding this type of political system.
What then did the state control? The duties of villagers to their overlords were only two: to pay tax and to contribute labour, either in building, taking part in rituals or in fighting. The crucial facts about these obligations were that they were each individually precisely defined and that, taken together, they were arranged, not in neat unambiguous lines up and down, but in an unsystematic, irregular maze sanctioned by tradition but not, it would seem, by logic or efficiency. Thus different villagers from the same village would owe allegiance to different lords. One villager could owe different types of service to different lords. There was nothing to stop villagers working the land of, i.e., being the tenant of, a lord to whom they owed no service; indeed this seems to have been quite common. And neither of these things, service and tenantry, had any necessary relation to tax-paying. Thus “it was possible for a man to be a kawula [i.e., owe service] to one lord, be a land tenant of a second, and to pay taxes to a third” (p.68).
Not only were the ties of the populace to the state fragmented in this way, so were both the organisation of the village and of the state itself. Thus irrigation societies had (and still have) members from many different hamlets and congregations, and hamlet inhabitants belonged (and still belong) to many different irrigation societies, as their rights and lands were scattered. Lords delegated tax and labour collection to different officials who would typically have responsibilities scattered throughout the realm, a few houses here and a few houses there.
From the modern point of view this whole organisation is likely to appear doubly irrational: such a complicated, deliberately complicated, structure - holdings and rights of all [p. 137:] kinds being scattered here and there - was certain not to maximise output; and secondly, the surplus produced was burnt up in ’an unending rivalry of prestige [which was] the driving force of Balinese life’ (p.120). The point of such intricately complex social structure was, I would say (Geertz does not discuss this), to provide security; it was by traditional standards an affluent society, and there was not prospect, until the modern world intervened, that economic production could be radically increased. In these circumstances, the villagers’ interest lay not in marginal increases of productivity, but in security. This was provided by the seemingly irrational fragmentation of political control. No one individual or institution had anything more than partial, limited and intermittent control of human and other resources. Insofar as this is true of all traditional societies, it suggests why villagers and peasants are so notoriously conservative. That these Byzantine social arrangements did provide the Balinese villager with security of a sort is evident from Geertz’s remark that “the lord was essentially powerless against agricultural sabotage by hostile peasants”; thus, in the area of Bali he chooses to illustrate his model lordly landholders could only extract a half of the crop from their tenants, whereas peasant landholders got two-thirds (p.175). Geertz does not discuss how often villagers had to fight for the lords to whom they owed service, or how likely they were to get killed doing it, but evidently the chance was small and the service not onerous.
With society and the state organised in such a haphazard and irresolvably fragmented manner, it was inevitable that concentrations of power were momentary and fragile, built on circumstances of the moment and not on any lasting structural basis. The rivalries and feuding of different lords which flowed to and fro evidently left the organisation of village life quite untouched. In this I suspect it was similar to Malla period Nepal, in which numerous local guthis took care of the regulation of most areas of life, while the kings indulged, as in Bali, in relentless status competition based on “court ceremonialism” and “mass ritual” (p.13). This activity at the court, while it did not impinge politically all that much on the village, was crucial culturally. The court was in Geertz’s term an “exemplary center” which thanks to its greater resources and purer descent was closer to the world of the gods than the villagers were. (Of course there was not just one exemplary centre but a whole contested hierarchy of them, each trying to outdo the others in the extravagance of their rituals.) As Geertz puts it, the round of grandiloquent ceremony at the royal centres was as much a form of rhetoric as it was of devotion, a florid boasting assertion of spiritual power ... The state cult ... was an argument, made over and over [p. 138:] again in the insistent vocabulary of ritual, that worldly status has a cosmic base, that hierarchy is the governing principle of the universe, and that the arrangements of human life are but approximations, more close or less, to those of the divine (p.102).
Geertz is not content however with constructing a model of a type of state so far neglected by political and sociological theory. Using his Balinese material, he wants to challenge the very philosophical bases of much conventional political science. In doing so he makes two different claims it seems to me, one that is acceptable, the other not. On the acceptable side he charges Western political theory with consistently ignoring the place of ritual in politics. The ability to perform the ceremonies of state is part of what political struggle is about; to represent powerholders as cynically manipulating them in order to fool a gullible population is a simple misrepresentation. Rulers often believe in them as much as, or more than, the ruled. We may perhaps infer that Ronald Reagan agrees with Geertz on this from the remarks he is supposed to have made when he felt his aides were overburdening him with business: he wasn’t being allowed enough time “to be President”.
From this however Geertz moves over, if I interpret him correctly, to the claim that all views of how politics work are culturally relative, and none has universal validity. But if this is so, then presumably Bali has nothing to teach the inhabitants of the modern world. And in fact Geertz himself presupposes throughout his analysis the view he appears to reject in the closing pages, viz., that politics are always and everywhere about the ability to mobilise men and resources, whatever the varying purposes that mobilisation may be directed towards. As he himself points out, part of the paradox of Balinese politics, which ensured its endemic instability, was this: the more successful a king was in imitation of the divine, the more cut off he was from the day-to-day activity of politics - i.e., controlling men and things - and therefore the more vulnerable he became (p.133).
Writing in this journal, it is perhaps appropriate to end by discussing the differences Geertz believes to exist between his model of the Indic state, which he confines to Southeast Asia, and traditional Indian forms. He writes, beginning with a recapitulation of Dumont (Religion, Politics and History in India, pp.67-8):
There were, in the traditional hierarchical states of the Mideast and Asia, three main forms of kingship. In such archaic bureaucracies as those of Egypt, China [p. 139:] or Sumeria, the king was himself head priest.... In India ... the king was what Louis Dumont has called a “conventional” rather than a “magico-religious” figure.... And finally in Bali, as in most of the rest of Southeast Asia … the king ... was the numinous center of the world, and priests were the emblems, ingredients, and effectors of his sanctity... (p.126).
In the notes to the main text Geertz speculates on what the reason for this difference between India and Southeast Asia might be. In fact the reason is his unfortunate reliance on Dumont’s work, at the point where it is weakest, viz., in his treatment of kingship. Geertz’s model is far more applicable to India than he realises. Dumont based his picture of Hindu kingship on a few rather ancient texts (the Digha Nikaya, Manu, the Arthasastra) without considering later developments. His central point, that Indian kingship was secularised by the pre-eminence of the Brahman, would seem to apply only to a somewhat distant period of Indian history. Very quickly the king became ’resacralised’, if that is the right way to put it. To give just one example, this was recorded by Mrs Stevenson: “Merit is not only acquired by going to sacred places, it is also - and this is less understood in England - acquired by looking at sacred people, such as Brahmans, true ascetics, Ruling Chiefs, and still more by gazing at the face of the King-Emperor”.2
The rise of tantric forms of religion - understood in its broadest sense to include grandiose temple worship as well as secret power-conferring rites - is certainly connected with this ’resacralisation’ of the king. So far as I know however, scholarship has yet to show exactly how this occurred. The study of medieval India and its religion unfortunately lags behind that of the ancient period, preferred as a source by traditional Western scholars and neo-Hindu Indian reformers alike. Enough is known however to be clear on one thing: when Geertz describes how the Balinese king’s power was symbolised by his throne (padmasan), how the king was the world’s axis (linga), and possessed divine power (sakti), and how the palace, and indeed the whole kingdom, was conceptualised in terms of an opposition between the more refined, sacred and mysterious inner versus the coarse, increasingly less sacred and more open outer sphere, then it must be admitted that traditional Bali and medieval Nepal had virtually identical ideas about how kingship worked.
1. Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-century Bali (Princeton, New Jersey 1980), $5.95.
2. Margaret Sinclair Stevenson, The Rites of the Twice-Born (London, 1920), p.366; emphasis is original.
I should like to record my gratitude to the Leverhulme Trust which is funding my research in Nepal, and to the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies for the use of its facilities.