Adat Iban and Ritual

Adat and Ritual

In traditional Iban society ritual and spiritual belief played an important role in upholding adat. Large areas of adat are believed to have been revealed, or conferred upon mankind, by the gods. Thus the repudiation of adat invites divine displeasure and possible retaliation by the gods and spirits. Retaliation might befall the transgressor alone, but very often it threatens the entire community to which he belongs. Thus anyone who refuses to follow adat is thought to bring his community, his longhouse and possibly even the larger river area in which he lives, into spiritual danger, and in former times he might, in extreme cases, have been ostracized as a result, and left at the mercy of strangers.

In addition many of the primary rules of adat are best described as ritual observances (see Richard 1963). These include interdictions, or taboos (penti-pemali). Their infraction requires, in most instances, ritual expiation and the provision by the transgressor of ritual objects for sacrifice and to strengthen the soul or souls of those endangered by his actions. The nature of the objects provided varies with the taboo violated. For minor infractions, an egg might be sufficient, but for more serious cases, chickens or pigs are required for sacrifice and blood lustration. Unless ritual counteraction is taken supernatural punishment is thought to result. For the most serious offences, such as incest or mockery of animals, the result is universal wrath, or kudi, in the form of natural calamities, floods, earthquakes, destruction of crops, epidemics, famines and miraculous petrifaction.

On the other hand, faithful observance of pemali and other ritual injunctions prescribed by adat is thought to ensure spiritual favor and the continuing goodwill of the gods and spirits. Those who adhere to adat are thus rewarded and enjoy protection from spiritual harm. Some wrongful acts are thought to cause those who commit them to become spiritually cursed (busong). The consequences more specifically fall upon the transgressor, or members of his immediate family and those who are cursed are thought to suffer illness, accidents or other misfortunes as a result. An act of theft, for example, causes the thief to suffer misfortune, even if the theft itself goes undetected. In this way the notion of busong reinforces secular fines and moral norms as an important support of the Iban legal system (cf. Heppell 1975: 128-31). This is because many of the acts thought to cause busong are covert, like theft, adultery or other sexual delicts, and so are often undetected, or if suspected, are difficult to prove. Thus even though a wrongful act may remain unpunished, a sense of moral disapproval is reinforced by a belief that the culprit will eventually be visited with misfortune as a consequence of his actions.

The Iban believe that anyone who successfully cheats another, or escapes punishment for his crimes, even though he might appear to profit temporarily, ultimately suffers supernatural retribution (tulah). In addition, a person who refuses to accept a judicial settlement is similarly thought to suffer busong or unlucky. In traditional society the coercive effect of this notion was important because the settlement of disputes depended upon the mutual acceptance of a judicial decision by the contending parties, as there existed no external means of enforcement beyond the diffuse social pressure exerted by community elders, kindred and other longhouse members.

As a rule, busong is the automatic consequence of many kinds of wrongful acts and there is ordinarily no ritual defence against its occurrence. There are also a number of pemali, or taboos, the consequence of whose violation cannot be counteracted by ritual expiation, or by reparation to those who might otherwise suffer as a result. Thus there are a number of relatively minor pemali, for the breach of which there is no fine or prescribed ritual sanction, even though it causes possible spiritual harm to others. For example, in Saribas a person should not drag rattan or other jungle vines (randau) from the river landing to the longhouse, for doing so is believed to invite demonic spirits (antu gerasi) into the house. Similarly a person should not pound bark cloth from the late afternoon until dark for fear of attracting spirits to the settlement. Both these acts are prohibited (pemali), but neither is fineable nor met with by ritual sanctions. However, those who break them endanger themselves and others and are likely to be roundly condemned.

Formerly the Iban, by the use of charms and other supernatural means, protected their padi crops, fruit-trees and other property from theft, as well as from other forms of loss. Should an individual suffer loss from an unknown thief, he might curse the culprit. In other situations, however, the use of curses was strongly disapproved and anyone suffering illness or misfortune as a consequence of having been cursed by another person was entitled by adat to claim damages. In the case of a dispute, should one party curse the other, the former thereby forfeits any claim to reparation in connection with the original transgression.

Anything owned by an individual is thought of by the Iban as an extension of his person. As a result, any loss or damage done to an individual’s property also harms its owner, not in a direct physical sense, but spiritually, by causing injury to the owner’s spiritual personality, or soul (samengat). In the same way, a physical injury, or the loss of social esteem is likewise thought to harm an individual’s soul. Thus any act that causes another person bodily injury, loss of social respect, or does damage to his property is seen by the Iban, not only as a secular grievance, but also as an attack upon the victim’s soul, and in all such instances ritual compensation is required to repair the spiritual injury done, in addition to any secular damages, or indemnities, that might be claimed. The notion of the soul thus has a highly important legal dimension in Iban adat and secular forms of redress are reinforced in cases of personal loss caused by others by ritual reparation.

Injury to the soul is thought to impair its owner’s ability to withstand the attacks of malevolent spirits and other agents of supernatural danger. As a result, the victim is likely to suffer illness and possibly even death. To prevent this, remedial measures must be taken to restore the vitality of his soul. These measures vary with the loss he has suffered and are described later on in this study for different types of personal injury and property damage. However, the general remedy is a ritual strengthening of the soul (kering samengat). The party guilty of causing injury is required to produce the ritual objects needed for this rite, ordinarily a chicken for sacrifice; a metal object, usually a knife or adze blade, used to impart strength to the injured soul, and a small jar for spiritually containing it and so keeping it secure. At times an injurious act may constitute a collective danger to the inhabitants of an entire longhouse.

Heppell (1975: 133-134) gives a useful account of these ritual remedies as a social control mechanism and hypothesizes that the ritual strengthening of the soul was the earliest conventionalized means of making reparation in Iban society. Out of these measures developed later on the practice of making payment of value, in the form of fines and indemnities. Whether this is the case or not, there can be little question as to the importance of these ritual remedies. Until a trouble case is settled, and the possible injury done to the soul of the aggrieved party is mended, the victim is thought to live in spiritual danger.

Consequently strong disapproval is likely to be expressed towards a transgressor who refuses to make reparation, or is slow in doing so. Illness tends to be seen as the physical manifestation of an ailing soul. Thus if the injured party should subsequently fall ill or die, this is likely to be attributed to the fact that reparation was never made, and the original culprit may be held responsible and can expect to face additional damage claims, backed up in the past by possible threats or retaliation by the victim’s supporters.

The spiritual danger of unresolved contention may effect not only an individual through harm done to his soul, but may collectively endanger the whole longhouse to which he belongs. Dissension within a longhouse and failure to abide by the adat rumah, the “longhouse rules”, are believed to cause a state of angat, or spiritual “heat”. The community is described as “hot”, in a spiritual sense, and as a result its members are likely to suffer chronic illness, crop failures, famine and other misfortunes. In addition, the effectiveness of major rituals performed by the longhouse is thought to be lessened when a community is divided by internal quarrels.

Thus traditionally, for example, before the major farming rites that precede the initial clearing (manggol) of farms can be held, it is necessary first to clear away all outstanding litigation, particularly boundary disputes, so as to restore social cohesion within the community performing the rites, as a necessary pre-condition to their success. Thus longhouse members are compelled to settle their differences. In the case of major ritual festivals as well, all are opened by admonitions delivered by the community leaders present to all of those who have gathered enjoining them to put aside their past grievances, avoid quarrelling and breach of adat, for the success of the rituals they perform depend upon their preserving social harmony among themselves.

Finally large areas of adat are concerned directly with relations between mankind and the spiritual world and stipulate the correct form of ritual activity, the order and content of prayers and invocations and the nature of offerings to be made on different occasions. More generally yet, it is believed that the gods and spirits are themselves subject to adat. In this connection, Jensen (1974: 112) has argued that for the Iban, adat comprises a “divine cosmic order and harmony … designed to ensure a mutually satisfactory relation between men and other inhabitants of the universe”. Thus, man, to the Iban, he argues (1974:112),

“is part of a whole which encompasses other people and other levels of existence. He believes the universe to be inhabited by various groups, human, spirit, animal and vegetable, which have some interests in common but also some diverging and conflicting interests. Adat exists to ensure harmony in this universe and to promote the well-being of all its inhabitants, among them the Iban”.

Any offence against adat disturbs this universal order (1974:113). Thus a state of harmony or equilibrium is said to exist between mankind, nature and the spiritual world. Any infraction of adat disturbs this harmony and creates a state of disequilibrium in man’s relationships with the gods and spirits. Heppell (1975: 277) quite rightly disputes this view. The Iban tend to view these relationships in more highly personalized terms. While actions contrary to adat are thought likely, in many instances, to provoke the displeasure of the gods and spirits, or to lay individuals or whole communities open to spiritual attack, in virtually all cases it is particularly individuals and communities and specific gods and spirits that are involved, not abstract, notions of universal harmony. Moreover, it is specific instances of wrong doing that must be identified and corrected in order to preserve those affected from spiritual harm. On the other hand, it is felt that health and security depend upon the faithful observance of adat. Only by acting in accordance with its provisions are the members of a community able to live at peace with one another and in a state of ritual well-being with respect to the spiritual world.

“Each Iban,” as Heppell (1975: 303-304) observes, “belongs to an adat community, the harmony and continued existence of which is dependent on its members behaving as the adat requires.” Unresolved contention divides this community, and so is thought to jeopardize its spiritual and material well-being, while the resolution of contention and redress of breaches of adat represent a triumph of adat that restores the adat community. The health and prosperity of a community, as an expression of divine favor, is ultimately seen by the Iban as a continuing proof of the correctness of adat and a demonstration of its indispensable social and spiritual worth.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s