Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Karma versus Magic: Dissonance and Syncretism in Vernacular Thai Buddhism

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Karma versus Magic: Dissonance and Syncretism in Vernacular Thai Buddhism

Article excerpt

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Syncretism: A Problematic Analytical Model?

Syncretism as an approach to an individual's or a group's religiosity has been problematized in many respects. Its descriptive definition, which denotes a process in which "elements of two different 'traditions' interact or combine" (Shaw and Stewart 1994, 10), implies a clearly demarcated boundary between the syncretized elements. This boundary, however, presupposes static, universal categories, which hardly exist among diverse ways people interpret and observe their faiths (McDaniel 2011, 17; Pattana 2012, 14). The subjective definition of the term, which means either "illegitimate mixing" in a pejorative sense or "legitimate mixing" in a positive sense, also entails grave pitfalls (Droogers 1989, 8). The negative interpretation evokes the image of a pure, authentic tradition that is debased once it is commingled with foreign elements (Shaw and Stewart 1994, 2). The positive application essentializes etic, scholarly wrought categories that are not necessarily adopted by the people whose hybrid religiosity becomes the subject of academic scrutiny (Tambiah 1970, 42; T. G. Kirsch 2004, 706).

This outlook on the discrepancy between emic and etic perspectives, which renders syncretism a problematic analytical model for some scholars, articulates two allied sentiments. First, religion as observed by people in real, diverse contexts is distinct from religion as defined by elites within the hierarchy of institutional religion or by scholars in academia (Yoder 1974, 7-8). Second, it is biased to refer to the elite's definition of religion as the norm in relation to which laymen's religiosity is assessed and analyzed (Tambiah 1970, 41; Primiano 1995, 46-47). However, can we discard syncretism on the grounds that since laypeople do not differentiate tenets and practices belonging to diverse belief traditions, they do not syncretize these elements but rather simultaneously adopt them? Or can we propound that syncretism as an analytical concept is inadequate because it inadvertently asserts scholars' preconceived categories, and laypeople do not make sense of their religiosity in terms of these preconceptions?

This paper presents ethnographic cases from Thailand that reveal ways in which lay and ordained Thai Buddhists resolve a dissonance within their manifold religiosity. Practicing Theravada Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism that gained influence in mainland Southeast Asia beginning in the twelfth century CE (Swearer 2010, ix), Thai Buddhists have an understanding of a religious goal that revolves around the doctrine of karma and its notions of merit (bun), demerit (baab), and rebirth (Piker 1973, 300). Theravada Buddhism, nonetheless, is not the only tradition that informs Thai Buddhists' religiosity. Elements of non-Theravada origins, such as magico-animistic and Chinese Mahayana4 tenets and practices, constitute Thai Buddhists' religious repertoires. The ethnographic cases presented in the following section demonstrate that these elements from diverse traditions do not always peacefully coexist within the mindset of the believing individual. In several cases, rationalizations are made to impose a hierarchy on contradictory tenets. This cognitive act resolves the dissonance noted by the believing individual and renders his or her manifold religiosity internally coherent. In light of this undertaking, I suggest that Thai Buddhists' religiosity is not really "beyond syncretism" (Pattana 2005, 461), because, as illustrated by the cases presented in the following section, syncretization is one of many strategies adopted by Thai Buddhists to configure their inclusive and heterogeneous religious repertoires.

The thought process Thai Buddhists adopt to align their belief in magic with the doctrine of karma, I argue, evinces syncretism, which in this study specifically means the conscious synthesizing of tenets or practices considered to be of different categories and fundamentally incompatible with one another. …

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