Caste System in Bali – Brahmana, Ksatrya, Wesya and Sudra

A Complex System of Social Function in Ancient Community

“When they divided Purusa, how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
The Brahmin was his mouth, of both his arms was the Ksatriya made. His thighs became the Wesya, from his feet, the Sudra was produced.” Rig-Veda 10.90

Even though this topic is considered as something uncommon to be discussed or informed toward one another in Balinese community, this ancient social order still affects the way people in Bali socialise and “be treated” in daily life. Things like choosing the softer language to talk to higher caste people, a specific diet that should not be ignored, limitations on inter-caste marriage and other regulations make Bali’s life was pretty complicated back then. Young generations of Bali some are not aware of these provisions, but those who were born in a family with a strong religious and customs value have been familiar with this subject since they were kids.

History has recorded the caste system was introduced to Bali by Majapahit royal family and all their people who refused to convert their faith during the Muslim invasion. At the beginning, each member of the caste functioned differently. The Brahmanas to preach and teach, the Ksatryas to govern, the Wesyas to run the shops, and the Sudras to do lower jobs. As the time went by, these caste systems were subdivided and fragmented into many other status groups. Somehow it’ll be quite hard to be understood by the people from outside Bali (even sometimes when you ask the local Balinese they don’t know about this stratification anymore).

Here are brief information about four castes in Bali:

  1. The Brahmanas (Brahmin), are all considered to be descendants of Pedanda Wawu Rauh or also known as Dang Hyang Nirartha the founder of the Shaivite priesthood in Bali. The Balinese from this caste will always have Ida Bagus (male) and Ida Ayu/ Dayu (female).
    If a Brahmana man marries a Ksatrya woman, his caste remains the same, and in some specific cases, the woman even can also be elevated to become a Brahmana woman. If a Brahmana man marries a Wesya woman, his status remains unchanged, but the woman keeps her Wesya title. But, it will be another case if a Brahmana woman marries a man from lower castes. In the past, the woman must face horrible punishments (killed by jumping into the fire, drowned in the sea, isolated, etc) including “Patiwangi” ceremony when she decided to marry commoners. Luckily, this punishment is considered in contrast with Tri Hita Karana teachings, Tri Kaya Parisudha, Vasudaiva and other Hinduism values. So they no longer have to suffer any physical punishment, but Brahman women still need to give up her title if she persists in marrying a guy from the lower caste.
  2. The Ksatrya, warriors, nobilities and kings. The important history of this caste is strongly related to Gelgel Kingdom in Bali (now Klungkung), which had been conquered by Meruti, a king sent by Erlangga (Balinese king of Kediri Kingdom in Java). After claiming the territory of Gelgel kingdom, Meruti established one of his loyal fellows with the title Dewa Agung. Dewa Agung had two children named Tjokorda and Anak Agung, these titles remained with their offspring, all down the genealogical lineage until today.
    Some Balinese from Ksatryas caste tend to claim and tell people that they’re equal to Brahmanas, but this is not exactly true. However, there was a history of strife between the two highest castes in Bali to claim which one is more superior between another. If a Ksatrya dies, a Brahmana can pray toward his corpse, but not in reverse. A Ksatrya may undergo intensive studies and training as a Brahmana or a priest, but he won’t get the same title as a holy man or “pedanda”, but his title will be “Begawan”. There were also complex rules regarding mixed marriages with lower caste which caused a name changing into Predewa, Pengakan, Bagus and Prasangiang.
  3. The Wesya, the caste of the merchants and administrative officials. People in this caste always have Gusti, Ngurah, Dewa and Sang included in their name. The Wesyas came from Java along with other castes. They originated from three groups named: Tan Kober, Tan Kaur and Tan Mundur, at that time, all the names of the people from these three groups were called Gusti.
  4. The Sudra, the outsiders, “the jaba” or the commoners. This caste is dominating the number of populations in Bali by more than 93%. The Sudra do not possess such titles to make their names start with. The beginning of Sudra names indicates the order of birth (same for male and female): Wayan or Putu if they are the first child, Made or Kadek if they are the second child, Nyoman or Komang if they are the third child, and Ketut (meaning “the last one”) if they are the fourth child.

During religious ceremonies or other events in the village/ community, usually, the committee will give more respect and special consideration to the higher caste people by providing a special place to sit and other special treatment.

Balinese language is also divided into four different levels of politeness: low, medium, high and sacred Bali language. A Sudra will usually communicate with Satria, Brahman or Wesya in high Bali language and the higher caste people usually answer lower caste people in low Bali language to affirm their superiority. Nowadays, only some Brahman know the sacred language (and some scholars). Among themselves, the top three castes people usually communicate in medium Balinese.

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