Balinese Hindus’ Afterlife Beliefs as Stable Constructs: An Effect of High Frequency Domestic Rituals

in Journal of Cognition and Culture
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In this investigation, Balinese Hindus were interviewed to explore the impact of ritual practice on the flexibility and pattern of afterlife beliefs. Adults from communities where ancestral ritual practices are widespread were asked whether bodily and mental processes continue after death. Prior research with the ancestor-worshiping Malagasy Vezo revealed that their responses to such questions varied depending on narrative context (tomb vs. corpse scenario) and which conception of death they subsequently deployed: A religious conception, wherein death marks the beginning of a new form of spiritual existence, or a biological conception, wherein death terminates all living processes (Astuti & Harris, 2008). No studies to date have looked at the narrative effect in a culture having close proximity to altars dedicated to ancestors and frequent rituals to honor them. To explore the cross-cultural replicability of the narrative effect, an adaptation of Astuti and Harris’ experiment (Study 1, 2008) was conducted with Balinese Hindu adults. Participants heard one of two death scenarios and were asked about a deceased person’s capacities. Results revealed that Balinese adults were not influenced by narrative context. While they ascribed more mental than bodily capacities to the dead, they attributed comparatively more capacities overall than the Vezo. A distinctive Balinese pattern of capacity attribution was found, notably high attributions of an enduring spirit and real-time perceptual capacities. Findings suggest that the proximity and high frequency of rituals directed toward ancestors serve to shape, strengthen, and stabilize religious conceptions of death, while weakening the salience of solely biological conceptions.



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  • Balinese adults’ mean percentages of continuity (“yes”) responses to questions about bodily and mental capacities as a function of narrative context: tomb vs. corpse narrative. Error bars represent standard error of the mean.
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  • Balinese and Vezo adults’ mean percentages of continuity (“yes”) responses to questions about mental and bodily state capacities. Error bars represent standard error of the mean.
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  • Balinese and Vezo adults’ mean percentages of continuity (“yes”) responses to questions about perceptual and cognitive capacities. Error bars represent standard error of the mean.
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  • Percentage of Balinese adults endorsing body, mind, and spirit functioning as a function of narrative context (tomb vs. corpse scenario).
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