In order to understand the social role of adat it is necessary to describe some of the main features of traditional Iban society that bear on its workings as a body of primary rules, sanctions and judicial principles. The basic jural units of Iban society are the longhouse and the family. Essentially the longhouse consists of a series of family apartments, joined laterally, and connected by a communicating passageway, gallery and open-air verandah. Each apartment, or bilek, together with its section of gallery and verandah, is separately owned and maintained by a single family, much like a row of terraced apartments. Each family, whose members share a bilek, subsists as an independent domestic unit (cf. Freeman 1958). The family possesses its own fields and other lands on which its members cultivate their own rice, grow and collect a large variety of supplemental crops, and in general produce very nearly all of their other necessities. Although it may exchange labor (beduruk) with members of other families, the bilek family is responsible for its own affairs and prospers or fails largely on its own. In addition to its landholdings, fruit trees and standing crops, its bilek apartment and agricultural and domestic tools, every family also owns its own jars, brass wares and other heirloom valuables, possesses charms and other ritual paraphernalia, and is subject to its own ritual prohibitions, or pemali.
In composition, the Iban family is typically a small group, very similar to that of European and American society, except that it is organized as an enduring group. In each generation, one child, either a son or a daughter, real or adopted, remains after marriage in possession of the bilek to continue the family group and take over the temporary management of its economic and ritual estate. The Iban are highly concerned with the perpetuation of the bilek family. This is stressed through the use of important symbols of continuity, such as sacred strains of rice, ritual prohibitions and the inheritance of personal names, and it is the responsibility of each generation of family members to provide, as far as possible, for the future wealth and well-being of subsequent generations.
It can be seen from this that the Iban family is clearly a significant right-bearing unit in a jural sense. In addition to rights in tangible property, the family is also the focus of a complex of social rights and duties traditionally enjoined and upheld by adat. Some elements of family law are discussed here, particularly in connection with marriage, divorce and adoption, but a more detailed description of the jural nature of the family, provisions of membership, inheritance and division of its properties can be found in Freeman (1958, 1970: 1-60). In general terms, the family is a primary unit of jural rights and liabilities. The family head is responsible for defending its interests against encroachment and for representing its members should they be involved in litigation with the members of other families. When a family member is found guilty of a wrongful act, fines are usually paid out of family resources. Also owing to Iban notions that personal character is inherited, a family’s reputation suffers from the misdeeds of its past members.
Although each of its component families is largely autonomous, the longhouse as a whole also functions as an important legal unit. In former times, every longhouse was, as we have noted, a politically sovereign community. Even now, the longhouse headman is looked upon as the chief guardian of community adat. He and other longhouse elders are expected to be well-versed in adat and to make known to their followers what the rules of adat require of them. Through informal meetings and judicial hearings they are also expected to enforce compliance with these rules and, following their stipulations, resolve disputes and redress complaints that arise within the community.
In addition to this the longhouse as a whole is thought to possess a collective ritual status with regard to the spiritual world (Richards 1963: 1-2). Ritual is essential to preserve the spiritual well-being of the whole longhouse, as well as its families separately, and in the middle sections of this study Mr. Sandin outlines the major ritual festivals, or gawai, performed by the longhouse and describes the adat gawai, or rules of ritual procedure, that govern the performance of each of these festivals. More generally yet, observance of adat and ritual well being are closely interrelated, a point I shall return to presently. As the author stresses at the outset of this study, the longhouse is a religious congregation, whose members are bound together by ties of ritual interdependence. For this reason, adat is of special importance to the Iban, for not only does it preserve social harmony among longhouse members, but, in doing so, it makes possible ritual cooperation upon which their collective prosperity and well-being is thought to depend.
In the early chapters of Part One, the author describes specific rules of adat, the breach of which is met with by formal legal actions, including ritual expiation, fines or other forms of reparation. Here Mr. Sandin is concerned with adat generally, and in treating legal aspects of adat, his interest is primarily with the substantive side of customary law. However, some account of the legal procedures by which judicial decisions involving adat are made and enforced is useful here, given the social importance of adat in containing conflict and defining and upholding community norms.
Before the establishment of Brooke rule there were a number of offences in Iban society for which an individual might be killed: incest, arson, adultery when discovered in flagrante delicto, and homicide within the community (Heppell 1975: 146). In the latter two cases, Iban leaders traditionally intervened in an effort to forestall bloodshed. Well before the Brookes arrived, a system of blood compensation (pati nyawa) existed as a means of averting retaliation in the case of homicide. This system is described here, and elsewhere Mr. Sandin (1967: 87) has given an historical account of its use. Despite the presence of this convention, revenge killing was always a danger, as Iban leaders formerly lacked the power to compel their followers to make compensation.
In other situations when a person refuses to make reparation for a wrongful act, its victim may take recourse by forcibly seizing property belonging to the transgressor. The property seized is not necessarily kept, but part of it may be later returned after a settlement is negotiated. This institution is called ngerampas. Ordinarily the victim seeks to gain the backing of his kindred before proceeding and must pledge jars to compensate any supporters killed or injured in carrying out the seizure. Those who take part arm themselves and the appropriation is done openly and with force. Ngerampas is not necessarily a final settlement, but was often used in the past as a way of compelling the transgressor and his kindred to submit to negotiations. The procedure is dangerous, for it might meet with resistance, but this was generally discouraged by a convincing display of force and the knowledge that the attacking party is acting upon a legitimate grievance. Heppell (1975: 162-166) gives an excellent account of ngerampas for the Batang Ai region where, despite government suppression, it continued to be practised until recently. In the Saribas it was abandoned much earlier, falling into abeyance by the end of the last century, and instead reparations in value were imposed in face-to-face hearings (baum) backed by longhouse and regional leaders.
Another form of self-help traditionally permitted was resort to the use of wooden weapons in the conventions of batempoh and bepalu. These are described in the first chapter of this study. Heppell (1975: 177-88; 1976) also gives an account of bepalu from the Batang Ai, but there are significant local differences as noted in later textual notes. In Saribas, bepalu formerly occurred only in cases of adultery and was a form of private retaliation in which a cuckolded husband took direct action against an adversary, using a club or with the intent of administering a sound beating.
Again, the dangers of the procedure were recognized, as it occasionally resulted in fatalities or an outbreak of feud, and traditionally leaders sought to compel the parties involved to accept mediation by judicial hearing. In historical times, the practice in Saribas was for the longhouse headman to sacrifice a cockerel the moment a case of adultery was known. This constituted a public announcement that the matter was under judicial review. Once this was done the adversaries were not permitted to confront one another until a hearing was convened, and thus resort to self-help was treated as an affront to the headman’s authority and was fined accordingly. This practice also prevented killings in the event that the couple was found in flagrante delicto.
Batempuh was, in contrast, a public contest. It was resorted to in cases of boundary disputes between neighboring communities, in which neither side would voluntarily agree to withdraw its claim. The matter was settled by a fight in which the two sides were permitted to use only wooden clubs instead of spears and swords. The side that lost the fight was forced to withdraw its claim and the contested land was awarded to the victors. Leaders of the two sides were required, as a precondition, to pledge jars to compensate for deaths or injuries incurred by their followers, and the contest itself had first to be sanctioned, and was under the strict supervision of regional leaders. In the Saribas major leaders sought traditionally to avert batempoh because of the danger that people might be killed and actual fighting break out. The historical data that Mr. Sandin cites here suggests that their efforts were usually successful.
In particularly intractable cases, resort was sometimes made in the past to legal contests or ordeals in which the outcome was believed to be super-naturally determined. These ordeals are also described in the chapter that follows and consisted of diving contests (kelam ai), cockfights (nyelam), and the thrusting of hands into boiling water (bachelok belong) or into a fire (bachelok api). As a general rule, these procedures were used, as tests of innocence or ways of choosing between conflicting claims, particularly those of ownership, in situations where there exists no possible way to arrive at an infallible Human judgment. Like batempoh, ordeals were conducted according to strict rules, were judged by impartial witnesses, and were supervised, and compliance with their outcome upheld, by regional leaders. Ordeals had the advantage of giving a clear-cut verdict which other forms of legal action might not be able to achieve because of a lack of evidence or demonstrable proof. Partly as a result, elimination of ordeals proved difficult, despite government prohibitions at various times, as the author notes here in connection with diving contests.
Traditionally Iban leaders sought to settle disputes, as far as possible, through negotiation and attempted to avert recourse to self-help and other means that might potentially lead to open violence. In this, they were greatly aided by the highly comprehensive nature of traditional adat itself, which, although unwritten gave systematic definition of offences and correct punishments. Also important in this connection was the role formerly played by “go-betweens”. Within a longhouse, respected elders frequently intervened in disputes, restraining the two sides and acting with their consent as negotiating agents. Such intervention was strongly supported by Iban values, particularly by the notion that a breach of adat or unresolved contention posed a collective spiritual danger to the well being of all community members. Public-spirited elders, including the longhouse headman and friends of the disputants, might even agree to make token compensation themselves, called sa-uta iring manok. In doing so, a speedy settlement was often achieved that avoided acrimony and possible loss of face by the principals.
In disputes between the members of different longhouses, the role of the go-between was much more formalized. Ordinarily the go-betweens representing the aggrieved party traveled to the culprit’s longhouse and invited the elders of the settlement to a meeting. In the Saribas these go-betweens were called penunggu. Upon arriving at the culprit’s longhouse, they typically constructed a shelter (langkau penunggu) some distance away made of materials supplied by the culprit’s kinsmen. Here they received unarmed emissaries from the latter’s longhouse, and it was these third parties who negotiated a settlement on behalf of the principals. Except in the remote Ulu Layar, this practice died out in the Saribas in the 1880′s, but Heppell (1975: 221) reports that the use of go-betweens still persists in a modified form in Batang Ai. As a warring people, Iban culture traditionally placed high value on masculine aggressiveness and for this reason the use of go-betweens was traditionally an important judicial convention because it allowed the principals to submit to negotiation without direct confrontation and made it possible to make and accept reparation without suffering loss of face.
Of even greater importance was the face-to-face hearing, the baum or betunga. Heppell (1975: 8-9) sees the present day system of longhouse and Penghulu courts (bechara) as a “hybridization” of the traditional Iban baum and the introduced concept of the court. However, there appears to have been some difference here between major regional groups in the relative importance in the past of the baum as a judicial institution. In the Saribas, local and regional leaders appear to have exercised greater authority than was generally true among the Iban elsewhere. Consequently they seem to have enjoyed greater success in compelling disputants to accept negotiation in face-to-face hearings and the decisions made by the baum appear to have carried greater force traditionally than may have been the case elsewhere. Thus these hearings functioned as a nascent court system well before the arrival of the Brookes. However, Heppell is right when he points out (1975: 227) that their nature was profoundly altered when the formal authority of the state backed decisions. Even so, the present day bechara is thoroughly in-digenized and its workings are closely modeled on those of the traditional baum. More than this, the baum itself remains the chief means by which local conflicts are resolved.
The term baum, or aum, describes any meeting convened by a local leader. These meetings may be held for a number of reasons. In the Saribas, for example, a general distinction is made between baum mit and baum besai, “small baum” and “large baum”. The latter is typically a conference of headman and other leaders from neighboring communities who gather to discuss some matter of general concern. The baum mit, on the other hand, is convened by the longhouse headman, usually for the purpose of resolving a private matter between his followers. The matters dealt with are frequently disputes, or complaints brought by one longhouse member against another. Here the Tuai Rumah acts, not so much as a judge, as an arbiter, attempting sometimes with the help of kin and neighbors, to persuade the two parties to settle their differences amicably. Such baum usually make an informal settlement possible without the need for judgment (di bechara) otherwise, except in the case of serious wrong-doing, they represent the first stage in the process of adjudication and provide the Tuai Rumah with an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the issues involved in the dispute.
Another form of baum is the baum rumah. This is a meeting called by the Tuai Rumah to which representatives of each family are invited to discuss matters of common interest to the whole longhouse. Despite their individualism, the Iban frequently refer important decisions to the whole community, and once a decision is made through community discussion, individual longhouse members are expected to accept and follow the consensus arrived at. Such meetings may be called for a number of special purposes. The baum bumi, for example, is held just before the beginning of a new farming year to discuss farming matters, such as the location of padi fields, or to synchronize the time of clearing. The baum begawai is held to arrange for any kind of gawai festival, to determine the Tuai Gawai – or festival leader, the number of guests to be invited and so on. The baum ngaga jalai is held to discuss the clearing or maintenance of public paths and waterways. If, for example, a fallen tree blocks a river or stream to boat travel within the longhouse domain, such a meeting is called to organize a community work party to remove the obstruction. The baum berumah is held to plan the construction of a new longhouse, to pick a site, decide upon the order of bilik apartments and so on, and the baum rabat, to arrange vigils for the dead. Typically each of these meetings is held on the Tuai Rumah’s gallery in the evening after the main work of the day is done. Unlike the baum mit, they rarely have to do with legal disputes. Nevertheless, questions of adat regularly arise, and in the course of deliberations the responsibilities of each family are often stipulated and fines agreed to in the event that these responsibilities are not fulfilled.
If a complaint is serious or cannot be resolved informally, by a small baum, a public hearing, or bechara, is called by the Tuai Rumah, usually upon the request of one or both of the disputants. Ordinarily this is done in minor cases only after all possible channels of informal settlement have been exhausted. A basic principle of Iban judicial process is utai mit gaga nadai, “make small things nothing”, meaning that, in petty trouble cases, every effort should be made to erase a dispute by mutual conciliation before it reaches the level of formal litigation.
A public hearing is held on the gallery of the Tuai Rumah, and usually on neighboring ones as well, as longhouse bechara is typically well attended. Notice is given some days in advance, and, if necessary, messengers are sent out to call back those staying at their fields. Besides the disputants, witnesses and community elders, representatives from each family in the longhouse are notified and expected to be present. All are free to take part in the deliberations that are open to the whole community. Seated near the Tuai Rumah on the principal gallery are senior family heads and other elders known for their knowledge of adat or otherwise respected in the community for their success in practical affairs. The Tuai Rumah, or the Penghulu in the case of the Penghulu’s bechara, is expected to call for the public counsel of these men before he pronounces a final judgment. Their advice is usually concerned with identifying the appropriate rules of adat and of fitting their provisions to the specific circumstances of the case being heard. In doing so, they often cite precedent from judgments made in past cases of a similar nature. Their counsel is important and in the Saribas is formalized in the case of the Penghulu’s court in the requirement that the Penghulu take the advice of at least two elders before coming to a decision. Their combined knowledge of adat and of past judgments adds to the authoritativeness of the final decision arrived at, and helps to ensure its impartiality and faithfulness to the living tenets of adat thus established through judicial usage.
When everyone has assembled on the galleries, the Tuai Rumah opens the meeting by stating that its purpose is to-settle a dispute and that, while strong emotions may be involved, those taking part must act respectfully so as to restore goodwill between the litigants and their kin. In this manner the Tuai Rumah calls the attention of everyone present to the purpose of the bechara and impresses on them their overriding responsibility to preserve community order. Should the disputants, or their supporters interrupt the proceedings by talking out of turn or behaving abusively, this is dealt with at once, as disrespect toward the Tuai Rumah, and the culprits are fined and must pay up before the proceedings can continue. Such fines are called hukum tuai. Feelings often run high during a bechara, and maintaining respect for the proceedings is crucial to gaining acceptance of the decision finally arrived at.
Consistent with the further judicial ideal of utai basal gaga mit, “make large things small”, the basic purpose of the bechara is not so much punitive action, as conciliation. In handling more serious cases, “large things”, the task of the Tuai Rumah is essentially to find a solution that both parties can accept. Ideally such a solution should restore at least some degree of goodwill.
In order to achieve this it is necessary that the pertinent rules of adat be isolated and clearly stated and that the final judgment be linked to the opinions of the senior counselors and others present and be supported by the weight of former judgments. In the course of the hearing itself, each side is called upon to present its case and the evidence of witnesses is also heard. In this manner, by freely discussing the issues of contention, those who take part in the bechara are able to make an attribution of rights and wrongs, and the Tuai Rumah makes explicit use of the general consensus arrived at in this way in rendering his final judgment. As a result, it is difficult for the adversaries to reject the solution thus handed down by the bechara.
The presence of kinsmen and neighbors is also a strong restraining pressure and recognition of the fact that all must go on living together means that most settlements involve some degree of mutual concession. Also as Mr. Sandin stresses here, the Tuai Rumah and Penghulu take special pains in passing judgment to allow the adversaries, particularly those found at fault, to accept the decision with a minimal sense of personal defeat.
The basic objective of both the baum mit and the bechara is to extinguish a dispute (madam ka laya). As Heppell writes (1975: 299),
“The Iban judicial decision need not result in what a Westerner would regard as a just solution, but it does result in the adversaries openly agreeing to terms which extinguish a dispute and enables a modicum of harmony to be restored to the group.”
Thus a solution is sought to which both parties can accede. This may involve a consideration not only of justice, but of the determination and personal circumstances of those involved. Even so, the rules of adat are always important, and all decisions must be made within their framework. The headman and other elders must take care not to give advice that is contrary to adat, because any decision that they make may be used as precedent for settling similar disputes in the future. In offering counsel they are expected to cite the rules of adat that fit the case and, taking into account intent and possibly other factors bearing on the case, specify the fine or other sanction stipulated by these rules.
A common saying in the Saribas is that, “by using the staff of adat”, the tungkat adat, symbolized by the staff formerly sent out by the Penghulu to summons litigants to his court, “one is able to stay on the main path”, that is, in the path of right conduct. Thus every legal judgment should be faithful to the principles of adat. That these principles continue to work, despite the rapidly changing nature of Iban society, is itself evidence of the continuing respect in which adat is held by the Iban, the comprehensiveness of its principles and the considerable judicial skills possessed by contemporary Iban leaders in applying them to the varying conflicts that arise in everyday life.
Finally in reviewing Iban legal procedures, it must be remembered that these coexist today with a superimposed structure of state and national legal institutions. From the early decades of Brooke rule, the immediate link between the two has been the District Court. Ultimately all decisions made by local bechara may be reviewed by the District Court, while cases outside the jurisdiction of local bechara come directly under its purview. During the Brooke period down-river Iban made frequent use of the District Court, particularly in land disputes, and historically it represents a highly important legal institution to the Iban. An account of the District Court is beyond the scope of this study.
Heppell (1975: 286 and 336) presents a tabulation of cases heard in the Second and Third Division courts at different times between 1860 and 1930, based on court records, which gives a useful picture of the types of cases brought before it. However, the District Court itself is mentioned only in passing, and a systematic study of its impact on traditional mechanisms of social control remains to be made.
In the decades immediately before and after the turn of the century, the Iban came to be known as an extremely litigatious people owing to the frequent use they made of government courts (cf. Pringle 1970: 190-94; Ward 1966: 128-29). It is clear for the Saribas at least that courts were used, among other things, as an arena in which the authority of political rivals was challenged and inter community boundaries were contested in a time of rapid economic change and mounting population pressure. This is very much less true today, and it is interesting to note that the Saribas Iban now resort far less often to government courts than they did formerly. For example, in the Paku area of the Saribas, which has an Iban population of some four thousand persons, court hearings are extremely rare today, and even local bechara are infrequent; to my knowledge less than two dozen formal bechara, including longhouse bechara, have been held in the whole area since the Japanese occupation. This situation reflects, I believe, the continued resilience of adat and continuing effectiveness of the more informal process of longhouse conciliation described here. However, in the absence of a study of the District Court, it remains uncertain how wide spread these changes are among the Iban.
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.