The Problem with Karma: Notes from the Conflict in Sri Lanka

Over the past month, there has been some speculation among members of the global Tamil community on whether Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Texas to obtain cancer treatment in secret. The story in itself is not particularly interesting, but it does have relevance for the post-conflict situation in Sri Lanka. Many reacted to the news not with sadness, but with a sense that cosmic justice was being meted out. Some argued that Rajapaksa, responsible for mass human rights violations during the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war, was now getting his just desserts. Although many nationalist Tamils profess to be atheist or secular, the reaction to the news was always framed in Hindu and Buddhist notions of karma, popularly defined in the West as "what goes around comes around."

For Sinhala soldiers as well, the notion of karma was ever-present throughout the war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which came to a bloody conclusion in May 2009. As Daniel Kent's recent research makes clear, Buddhist monks blessed Sri Lankan soldiers before they went out for training, preached at their funerals, and counseled soldiers and their families about the conduct of war and its justification.

For many years, scholarship on Buddhism, and Eastern religious traditions generally, was often guided by a crude assumption that Western religions held a monopoly on violence, while the East was largely peaceable. Over the last several years, research into conflict in Buddhist societies has forced scholars to rethink our assumptions. According to Kent's research in Sri Lanka, for example, there is real debate within the Sri Lankan army about notions of karma and intention in the killing of enemy soldiers. While there are many different aspects to the discussion, I focus here on one important question: whether religion, particularly discussions of karma and intention, restrict genuine reconciliation between Sinhala and Tamil communities in post-conflict Sri Lanka. I rely heavily on Kent's research on the Sri Lankan army, but much of what follows can likely be applied to the Tamil community as well.

Karma may complicate moves toward reconciliation in Sri Lanka, firstly, by assigning causal explanations to events that are largely inexplicable. Kent recalls interviewing a Sri Lankan Corporal, named Specs, at Panagoda army camp near Colombo, who told the story of narrowly escaping a blast from an improvised explosive device. His friend, who was not so lucky, was blinded and had both of his hands blown off. For Specs, his survival is explained with reference to karma. "That sort of thing must occur as the result of merit," he says, "one becomes disabled like this because of some sort of negative karma, but one's life is saved because one has done some sort of merit. That is what we think. It must be that. It is the way of karma." Not only do karmic explanations bring a spiritual rationalization to bear on worldly events, but these justifications often tend to be self-serving. In other words: I survived because I am good.

Perhaps more important for our present purposes is the way in which karma is linked with intention. Kent interviewed one monk, the Venerable Pilassi Vimaladhajja, who pointed out that negative karma does not accrue when an enemy is killed. "Vimaladhajja is not giving soldiers a blank check to kill whomever they wish while fighting the enemy," writes Kent, "He stresses that if a soldier has the intention to kill, a negative karma occurs. If a soldier's intention is to fight the enemy in order to protect the country and religion, however, their actions do not produce negative consequences." As Kent observes, those who hold this belief look at killing as secondary with the primary intention being the protection of the country.

As with the example above, however, it is assumed that karma, as a cosmic force, is supremely capable of discovering one's underlying intentions. Depending on how the soldier's life subsequently turns out, his ideas of karma and intention may have to be re-evaluated. As one soldier told Kent: "Honestly it is possible to rape and pillage during war without being caught. However, if you do that, nothing will ever go right for you ... there was one incident when we were in Trinco ... the Tamils had cultivated a field and left it. Our guys went and harvested the rice. They harvested the rice, sold it and took the money ... there were 21 guys who did that. All 21 of them were killed on the same day at the same time."

Such faith that karma will mete out punishment with mathematical certainty may work against the potential for remorse, regret or reconciliation. The very fact that some soldiers are still alive and living a life of health, wealth and happiness, is, with profound circular logic, seen as evidence of just conduct during war. This, in essence, is the problem with karma.