The Politics of Karma

Buddhism and Society

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

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…

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