Review: Desire - divine and demonic

Desire, divine and demonic
Published: Mar 02, 2008

Michele Stephen

Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2005
ISBN 0824828593 A$65

In Desire, Divine and Demonic: Balinese mysticism in the paintings of I Ketut Budiana and I Gusti Nyoman Mirdiana, Michele Stephen presents a case for understanding Balinese religion as both complex and systematic, with a great philosophical and esoteric depth firmly grounded in Hindu theology. This contrasts with analyses that have viewed Balinese religion as maintaining only a thin veneer of Hinduism over a myriad of uniquely Balinese ritual practices. As Stephen herself points out, hers is not a new approach, but rather adds to a recently growing body of work by a number of scholars of Balinese religion, including Howe, Lansing, Lovric and Rubinstein.

A central focus of this book is a close examination of paintings by two contemporary Balinese artists, I Ketut Budiana and I Gusti Nyoman Mirdiana, to elucidate the belief system Stephen sees underpinning Balinese Hinduism. Budiana’s practice emphases transformation from the divine into the coarse and the struggle between creative and destructive forces. His imagery often references the mother, in both benign and horrific forms. Mirdiana is especially interested in his work with the interplay between the complementary divinities of Siwa and Uma – especially in their destructive forms as Kala and Durga – and with the transformative and cleansing power that their interaction produces. Stephen situates these themes within the Tantric Shivaite form of Hinduism and shows that Balinese art, like Balinese religious ritual generally, is an important means of realising this spiritual world view in physically perceivable form.

The remainder of the book develops the argument that Balinese Hinduism is a system for confronting and dealing with a dynamic cosmos that is in constant flux, not a world of balance and harmony as often presented in both popular and scholarly literature. Stephen provides readers with both a rich anthropological analysis of work by two Balinese artists and an articulate case for the Tantric nature of Balinese religion.     ii

Reviewed by Michael C Ewing (

Inside Indonesia 91: Jan-Mar 2008