Compare and Contrast the Ways in Which the ‘Natural Environment’

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 26 September 2016

Compare and Contrast the Ways in Which the ‘Natural Environment’

The natural environment is a key influence in cosmogonic and cosmologic conceptions of human beings as persons among Australian Aboriginal people and to a lesser extent Balinese people. Meyers (1987[1973]) asserts that personhood is socially generated and defined by culture; the conception of personhood in a society is intrinsic to the very nature and structure of human society and social behaviour universally. The environment in which a society is found has particular influence over the social behaviour, structure and interactions of its inhabitants, and impacts on daily life and ritual observances.

The Australian Aboriginal understanding of human beings as persons is an amalgamation of cosmogonic and cosmologic concepts of the Dreaming and a “system of totemism” which govern the ‘social person’ and fluctuate according to variation in natural environment (Peterson, 1972:12). Conversely Balinese understanding of human beings as persons is a “depersonalizing” system, based on cosmologic concepts of cycles of reincarnation that influence naming orders, status, ceremony and religion, social structure, heavily constructed with a separation of human and animal and a domestication of the natural environment (Forge 1980, Geertz 1973).

The differences arising between Australian Aboriginal and Balinese concepts of personhood are derived from variations in ecology, social organization and culture that stem from the distinctive diversity of their respective natural environments and cosmogonic and cosmologic conceptions. Australian Aboriginal understanding of human beings as persons is closely linked to an intimate social and cultural relationship with their natural environment, which stems from cosmogonic and cosmologic concepts of the Dreaming.

Bodley (2000:31) explains the Dreaming answers basic existential, meaning of life questions and offers a way of life doctrine prescribing basic social categories and ritual activities, ascribing cultural meaning to the natural environment. The cosmogonic aspects of the Dreaming involve supernatural beings forming the land through their actions and wanderings, leaving trails then re-entering the earth to slumber. (Strehlow, 1978). Australian Aboriginal concepts of personhood stem from the cosmogonic notion that the person is a reincarnation of one of these supernatural ancestors or ancestresses.

Strehlow (1978:20) asserts that according to reincarnation beliefs, some part of the ‘life’ left by the ancestor on their trail, could enter into the body of a human mother who crossed these trails, and could take on new life as her human infant. Strehlow exemplifies the Aranda doctrine of conception, and the possession of two souls by every human being, differing from animals in acquiring a second ‘life’ of the ancestor spirit that is immortal (1978:21).

Thus Australian Aboriginal notions of personhood are linked inexplicably to the natural environment through place of conception and the identification with an ancestral place of the right patrilineal moiety where the second soul entered and made them a true person. This identification is in the form of a totem, giving the individual certain rights and ritual observances within that natural environment (Peterson 1972:16). Peterson (1972:12) describes the Australian Aboriginal social organisation, and thus concept of personhood, as derived from a “system of totemism”.

The Australian Aboriginal totemic system is based upon cosmologic notions of the Dreaming, and is explicitly linked with conception beliefs. Strehlow asserts that the most important ramifications of conception and reincarnation beliefs of Australian Aboriginals were the totemic relationships that they established and the links they forge between the mortal man and the changeless forces of eternity (1978:24). Totem relations dictate social organisation and kinship, Bodley states that members of a “band” may be referred to as ‘people of’, whereas individuals may have an affiliation and rights within several countries (2000:37).

Conception away from the father’s estate in no way weakens the child’s links and rights in the father’s clan, but rather bestows additional rights and privileges on the estate that he was conceived (Peterson 1972:17). Conception is in terms of “the water” or spiritual well you come from, a clan estate is the “bone country”, indicating that the link with the father and patrilineal natural environment has a physical expression in the bones of a person’s body (Peterson 1972:17). Conception and reincarnation beliefs ensure that Central Australian Aboriginal communities were constituted of peoples that belonged o a variety of totems and lands, and that each individual had a personal totem that determined the nature of his rights and duties, and ultimately the understanding of his personhood (Strehlow 1978:26). In contrast to the close identification of Australian Aboriginals with their natural environment, Forge (1980) asserts the Balinese view nature as “fundamentally fanged and hairy”. This notion is replicated in traditional artwork as consistent representation of animals with prominent teeth arranged in a way that is not found in the natural environment.

Forge (1980:6) suggests this arrangement of teeth is part of Balinese culture, highlighting the Balinese aversion to animalism and a desire to emphasize the distinction between animalism and humanity. Furthermore ritual observance of tooth-filing and blackening, of the front six teeth symbolic of undesirable passions, between puberty and marriage is explicitly said to diminish the similarity between man and animal and produce a “real human” (Forge 1980:239). Forge (1980:7) asserts “in Bali nature does not produce mankind, even in physical form; the body needs cultural modification to reach true humanity”.

Thus the Balinese have an almost tooth-idiom, Forge (1980:12) suggest the Balinese have culturally created a contrast between modified human teeth and the teeth of animal and supernatural beings that symbolize uncontrolled power. Additionally, the Balinese view the forest as an intermediate zone between the world of men, culture and cultivation, and the world of gods, and inhabitants of the forest, good and bad are seen as aspects of humanity with which a person must come to terms with in order to be in control and realize personhood (Forge 1980:15).

Consequently the Balinese view their natural environment as power needing to be remade in a cultural and human form through domestication; through control the Balinese human becomes a person. The Balinese understanding of persons as human beings in social organization is derived from a complex system of naming orders that are essentially depersonalizing (Geertz 1973). Geertz (1973:376) states that in Balinese cosmology the stages in human life are not conceived in terms of the process of aging biologically, to which bares little importance culturally, but of social regenesis.

Rather than place identifying names or personal names, birth order names and more so teknonyms, e. g. ‘father-of’, are the primary means of identification in Balinese society, furthering Geertz assertion of a depersonalizing social order where enormous value is placed a person’s procreation (1973). Balinese life is not only irregularly punctuated by frequent holidays, but by frequent temple celebrations which involve only those who are birth members of the temple (Geertz 1973:395).

Most individuals belong to half a dozen temples or more, thus Balinese life is culturally cross-cutting, dominated by ritual observances and auspicious calendar days (Geertz 1973:396). In terms of the significance of observances of Balinese calendars to the natural environment, the lunar-solar calendar is useful in agricultural contexts so that planting and harvesting are regulated and control of the natural environment is actualized (Geertz 1973:398).

Temples have symbolic connection with agriculture and fertility and celebrate the reception of gods according to the calendar (Geertz 1973:398). The Balinese conception of personhood is influenced by shared obligations at a given temple, common residence in hamlets or bandjar and ownership of rice land in an irrigation society (Geertz 1959). “Bali is a land of temples”, and membership is cross-cutting of these groups in Balinese society (Geertz 1959:994).

Temple worship is significant in the concept of personhood and also for ritual observance of fertility and agricultural or natural environment. The irrigation society or subak regulates all matters to do with the cultivation of wet rice, and members are organized according to location to a single water source (Geertz 1959:995). The organization of the Balinese irrigation system within their natural environment provides the context within which Balinese agricultural activities are organized to control and domesticate the natural environment.

The natural environment influences Australian Aboriginal and Balinese understandings of personhood in varied ways, as a product of varying cosmogonic and cosmologic beliefs and practices. As Strehlow (1978) asserts, Australian Aboriginal cosmogony and cosmology of their natural environment significantly influences notions of personhood through conception and reincarnation beliefs and ancestral spirits. Similarly Geertz (1973) discusses the impact of reincarnation beliefs on the cosmologic understanding of humans as persons as depersonalizing contemporaries among he Balinese.

However, among the Balinese naming orders are transcendent of place, whereas naming of Aboriginal Australians is distinctly tied to place and natural environment in totemic systems. It is apparent that Australian Aboriginal cosmogony and cosmology of the Dreaming and the conception of personhood in society is tied intrinsically to the natural environment. Conversely, the Balinese social organization is largely separate from a preoccupation with the natural environment, and is focused on control and an emphasis on the difference between animalism and humanity.

Such divergent reactions to the natural environment are a direct product of variations in ecological surrounds; the totemic identification with the land of the Australian Aboriginals is due to an inherent need to harmonize with the harsh climate. Balinese assertions of domestication and strict boundaries between human and animal are a product of fear of the dangers of the forest. In conclusion, there is no single universal conception of personhood, and the natural environment impacts upon the reactionary organization of a society to either live with or control through domestication, Australian Aboriginal and Balinese respectively.

The environment in which a society is found has particular influence over the social behaviour, structure and interactions of its inhabitants, and impacts on daily life and ritual observances, as seen in both the Australian Aboriginal and Balinese people. The different cultural constructions of personhood around the globe cannot be interpreted in terms of narratives of the progressive emergence, either of rationality or of individuality, in terms of European progression, but rather as singular expressions within varying universal social behaviour and organization.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 26 September 2016

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