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The Politics of Karma

Buddhism and Society

by Melford E. Spiro
Harper & Row, 524 pp., $17.95

Islam Observed

by Clifford Geertz
Yale University Press, 136 pp., $6.50

The three volumes noted here are part of a flood of recent English-language writing on Eastern religions. The stimulus seems to come from two main sources. On the one hand there is a genuine interest in how far these systems of thought offer intellectually satisfying alternatives to the Jewish and Christian theological traditions familiar to the West. The emphasis is on theodicy—the explanation of evil—and soteriology—the theory of personal salvation. These are also what interested Max Weber, and it is no doubt relevant that an English translation of The Sociology of Religion1 first appeared in 1963.

The other stimulus is political. In this age of neocolonialism many Western intellectuals are obsessed with the idea that they have a moral duty to aid in the “modernization” and “development” of the countries of the Third World, a process which is commonly interpreted as that of persuading Africans and Asians to acquire an acquisitive enthusiasm for all the technical gadgetry that goes along with the American Way of Life. In this view it is suspected, not perhaps without reason, that the traditional religions of the East are an obstacle to progress. This in turn has encouraged serious inquiry into how far there really is a relationship between religious ideology and practice on the one hand and the processes of economic and political change on the other.

In the outcome the detached observer may detect a consistent but striking divergence of opinion between the native-born American writers and those who come from other backgrounds. This point was made some years ago by E. Sarkisyanz,2 who is himself of Iranian origin. Writing of conditions in Burma around 1960 he found nothing inconsistent in the combination of Marxist and Buddhist objectives embodied in U Nu’s political program, but he noted that “U Nu’s Buddhist sentiments shocked many well-meaning American observers as they happened to conflict with the unquestioned American assumption that Democracy should involve a separation of Church and State.”

The Americans in question have stated their case in different ways, but all, I think, would agree with Manning Nash when he argues that although Burmese Buddhism is a socially cohesive force its implications are so fundamentally conservative that it is extremely ill adapted to serve as “the ideological harbinger of massive and thorough-going social change.”3

The literature to which I refer falls into a number of partly crosscutting categories, with Clifford Geertz’s now almost classic essay on Islam—it was first published in 1968—in a class by itself. Some of the authors are interested in religion per se, some in the influence of religion on politics and economics, some vice versa, in the influence of politics on religion, some in the place of religion in day to day rural life, and so on. Most of the American writers tend to approach their subject matter with prior assumptions derived from their personal Western experience of categories in the English language; they therefore take it for granted that Buddhism (or Islam or Hinduism) is “a religion” strictly comparable to Christianity. They then discuss this religion as a distinct institution (or set of institutions) which exists in its own right independently of the secular society in which it is embedded.

The essence of religion, thus isolated, is usually held to consist of a body of doctrine—and here Western scholars, with their Biblical prejudices, show a consistent preference for the authority of sacred books, e.g., the ancient Pali, Arabic, and Sanskrit texts, rather than the explanations of modern theologians. Alternatively religion is thought of as church activity and the author then concentrates his interest on the varieties of patterns of ritual and the structure of ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The Theravada Buddhist Sangha with its emphasis on monasticism and its long history of sectarian divisions is particularly attractive to analysts of this latter sort. But here too Western writers may be troubled by their own history. Protestant Christianity was a reaction against monastic Catholicism; modern Americans have no experience of a Christianity in which monasticism is central. Hence there is a tendency to think that Buddhism as a doctrine and Buddhism as a church are separable entities. At the same time, the Christian record suggests that the monastic structure of the Sangha is a mark of its medievalism, or conversely that “true” Buddhism, being essentially monastic, is fundamentally conservative and otherworldly. From this it is inferred that the deep political involvement of all contemporary Buddhist churches in the political struggles of their respective countries must somehow be alien to their proper nature.

When applied to Asian religious practice the Judaeo-Protestant belief that true doctrine is enshrined in sacred texts and that all else is superstition takes the form of drawing a sharp distinction between the Great Tradition (i.e., the “true” faith as indicated in the sacred scriptures) and the multifarious accretions of subsidiary local cults, the worship of guardian spirits, saints, demons, relics, and whatever, which are embraced under such labels as “animism,” “supernaturalism,” “folk religion,” “demonology,” “superstition.” The general attitude is that such phenomena are essentially very “primitive” and that they represent the long-term survival of archaic magical practices which antedated the arrival of the “higher religions.” Folk religion and Buddhism are then seen as separate systems which coexist but serve quite different functional purposes.

Scholars do not all take this view. Some indeed hold the exactly opposite opinion that at all levels the Great Tradition and “local animism” form a single syncretic system, but Professor Spiro has aligned himself very emphatically in the other camp. His new book is the second part of a series which is planned as a trilogy. The first part4 was an account of Burmese “animism” to the exclusion of Burmese Buddhism; now we have an account of Burmese Buddhism to the exclusion of animism. The planned third volume will “be devoted to personality and social structure.”

We may conclude that Professor Spiro is temperamentally a “splitter” rather than a “lumper,” and Buddhism and Society confirms this expectation throughout. It is a long and scholarly and above all very orderly work, most of which belies its title, since only in the last thirty pages or so does the author actually discuss the place of Buddhism in Burmese society. For the rest Spiro writes of Burmese Buddhism as a system in itself and for itself, a body of doctrine, a sequence of practice, and a monastic church. Each main section is itself split into tidy subheads; thus doctrine is discussed under Nibbanic Buddhism, Kammatic Buddhism, Apotropaic Buddhism, and Esoteric Buddhism. This certainly makes for easy understanding and, for those who seek a lucid account of what Buddhists say they believe, Spiro’s carefully classified account could scarcely be bettered. But a good deal of the discussion gives the impression of being rather remote from the reality of the Buddhist layman’s practice.

Spiro, it should be understood, bases his argument on direct experience. In 1961-62 he spent fourteen months living in a village in Central Burma. Nevertheless a great deal of the Buddhism that is being talked about here is a system of ideal types based on verbal responses to leading questions which are themselves derived from sacred texts. The result is very formal, as with a catechism. Significantly it is in the section on Esoteric Buddhism, in which, as Spiro freely admits, the prior distinction between Buddhism on the one hand and folk religion (nat worship) on the other altogether breaks down, that the reader is first fully persuaded that the discussion has been about the beliefs of real human beings.

Indeed, depending upon one’s point of view, the strengths and weaknesses of the book are very much the same. Spiro describes the formal theory of an ideal type Buddhism and he then describes certain modifications of this ideal type as if they constituted the Buddhism of Burmese practice. Finally he describes other ideas and practices which are “marginal and peripheral, if not heterodoxical” to what he treats as the normative pattern. This is fine so far as exposition is concerned but in the long run it is misleading. On the ground, Buddhism is not partitioned in this way. There is no “true faith” which can be discovered by burnishing away the dross of doctrinal error.

The analysis has the weakness of all functionalist arguments. Since orthodoxy is made to appear workable, the implication is that “normal” Buddhism is highly conservative in its political implications. Spiro himself is quite explicit about this. While admitting that, in the light of Burmese history, it must be conceded that “in certain cultural contexts, the doctrine of karma can be a powerful source of political instability” (p. 443), he claims that, in general, “it would be difficult to invent a more convincing moral justification for, and therefore a more stabilizing influence on, the economic status quo.”

This thesis is repeated in various forms throughout the book. “Genuine” monks are motivated by religious goals and are thus different from laymen; only “bogus” monks have worldly goals (pp. 322-3). And consistent with this he concludes his book on a note of moral lamentation: Monastic worldliness poses a serious threat to Burmese society. Tainted by implication with the profane, monks who engage in political action and other forms of worldly behavior are no longer revered.

But this is not so much an inference from observation as a deduction from what Spiro claims to be the logic of Buddhist doctrine. The facts of the case are that at no period in Burmese history have the monks avoided commitment to political action.

But comments of this sort are really rather unfair since Spiro states explicitly (p. 437) that he considers that “the effects of religion on social and cultural life which constitute the typical interests of religious sociology” are “theoretically uninteresting.” What he seems to mean by this is that he himself is relatively uninterested in discussions of how the performance of religious rituals may promote social integration or how membership in political factions may correspond to religious affiliation. He does not deny that there are political monks or that the activities of political monks may have important secular consequences, but he insists that the “great majority” of the monks are strongly averse to political involvement of any kind. Therefore, since his ultimate concern is with how religious ideology affects the individual personality, he puts his own emphasis on the normal type, that is, on the nonpolitical monk.

So instead of treating us to the details of local political and religious activity, as in the more usual type of social anthropological village study, Spiro talks about general orientation at a Weltanschauung level. He is concerned with how “conceptions of man and society, nature and history, time and causality and many other metaphysical and ontological ideas may seriously affect social behavior.” This is heady stuff. In practice, the author’s aims are more modest: inspired by Weber’s notions of the relation between the Protestant ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he is searching for a relation between Buddhist conceptions of salvation and worldly action. Hence most of his book is concerned to show how the ideology of karma, in both orthodox and twisted form, works itself out in the behavior of ‘genuine” monks and good Buddhists.

For example, on page 86 Spiro expounds a series of “solutions” which his informants offered when faced with the following paradox. According to orthodox doctrine, as spelled out in The Questions of King Milinda and elsewhere, there is no identity of substance either physical or metaphysical between the “I” that now exists and the “I” that will be reborn into a future existence. Yet doctrine also maintains that karma is a force which determines one’s life fate, but that one’s karma is itself produced by all one’s past actions. The sequence is: good (past) karma—generates merit—generates pleasant retribution in this and future existences—generates good (future) karma. Bad (past) karma operates in the reverse direction. Kammatic theory therefore lays down that the principle reward for meritorious action in this existence will be an improvement of the karma of a future existence. But if “I” am not going to be reborn as myself anyway but only as someone else, what is the point of performing meritorious acts?

I can confirm that intellectual Buddhists really do concern themselves with intellectual puzzles of this sort. Just what they do about it is another matter. Spiro claims that they transform the paradox into a very practical rule of life: “The only thing you can rely on is karma (i.e., yourself)” (p. 134), and this he affirms is strictly consistent with the kind of conditioning which Burmese children receive in childhood. “Burmese socialization is characterized by an important discontinuity between the indulgent nurturance of infancy, and its rather serious withdrawal in childhood” (p. 133). Frankly I wouldn’t know. This is certainly not the last word that will be said on the subject, but Buddhism and Society is not a book to be ignored.

The two other books under discussion, which are both based on lecture series, have very different aims. The title Religion and Change in Contemporary Asia is self-explanatory. It contains the text of a course of lectures delivered at the University of Minnesota in the spring of 1968. The contributors are all scholars of repute and their range covers China, Japan, Vietnam, India, Burma, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Most of the essays are primarily concerned with the religious component in contemporary politics. The arguments are necessarily very condensed but the detail is always interesting and sometimes horrifying. Robert Jay’s personal impressions confirming reports about politico-religious massacres in Java deserve special credit here.

But the essay I like best, which is also the longest, is by Agehananda Bharati on the theme “Hinduism and Modernization.” It is less political than the other essays but extremely perceptive and is an elaboration on the theme that “modernization in India follows a pattern which is uniquely Indian,” which Bharati sees as somehow mixed up with the fact that the values of the East and the West have in India become so totally confused. Here is one of his comments:

When the late M. N. Roy asked Gandhi about his view of the erotic sculpture profusely visible on Indian shrines, Gandhiji retorted, “If I had the power, I would pull them all down.” But these temples will not be pulled down because Khajuraho and Konarak are tourist—and hence dollar—attractions. I was delighted to notice recently that the flagship of Air India had finely drawn apsarases and other pulchritudinous damsels from Khajuraho printed on the cabin wall paper.

In this regard Bharati’s sensibility is somewhat akin to that of Professor Geertz, who ends his book with a story about “a Moroccan student, highly educated, French speaking but traditionally raised…on an airplane bound for New York, his first trip away from home…frightened as well he might be…he passes the entire trip with the Koran gripped in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other.”

Islam Observed poses directly the issue that, I have suggested, too many American writers take for granted. What do we really mean when we say that Islam is “a religion”? What do Morocco and Indonesia have in common? Both are parts of Islam, but in what historical, political, or even religious sense are their respective institutions the same or different?

Geertz’s discussion of these issues is brilliant and most elegantly presented. He distinguishes Moroccan and Indonesian religious attitudes as Utopian and Fabian respectively. In both cases the challenge of the progressive secularization of thought in the modern world was met by resorting to “scripturalism”—that is to say, by going back to the sacred texts. But where the Moroccans followed a course of religious perfectionism and sought to purge religious life of all that they regarded as superstition, the Indonesians have chosen to manipulate their traditional religious symbolism in such a way as to encapsulate modernity in an all-embracing syncretism.

Geertz shows that these different ways of coping with the challenge of externally imposed change have been long established; each society has its own traditional mode of facing the future while relying on the past. Muhammed V of Morocco, who died in 1961, and President Sukarno of Indonesia, who was deposed in 1967, each managed to be a highly individual personality in his own right, but at the same time each was also a traditional leader conforming to the locally established traditional mold. The precise part that “religion” has played in all this is hard to pin down; but that is understandable because Geertz does not look upon religion in general, or Islam in particular, as a separable Great Tradition in the same sense as Spiro writes of Buddhism.

The varieties of Islam in Geertz’s view result from a “traffic with sacred symbols,” but the result is not a church that exists apart from society; it is society itself. In these two countries in the classical period of Islam “world view and ethos reinforced one another because the way people thought they ought to live their lives and to a reasonable degree actually did lead them and the truths they thought they apprehended at saintly tombs or shadow plays were in tune with one another, were locked together in an organic, indeed an immutable union.”

This is a fine book with a deservedly fine reputation.

  1. 1

    Max Weber, translated by Ephraim Fischoffs, The Sociology of Religion (Beacon Press, 1963).

  2. 2

    E. Sarkisyanz, Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution (Martinus Nijhoff: The Hague, 1965).

  3. 3

    Manning Nash, The Golden Road to Modernity (John Wiley, 1965).

  4. 4

    M. E. Spiro, Burmese Supernaturalism (Prentice-Hall, 1967).

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