Read an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Karma and Grace: Religious Difference in Millennial Sri Lanka

An excerpt from Karma and Grace: Religious Difference in Millennial Sri Lanka, by Neena Mahadev— as reviewed in the Winter 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide

By Neena Mahadev

This excerpt from Karma and Grace: Religious Difference in Millennial Sri Lanka, by Neena Mahadev— as reviewed in the Winter 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide — is provided courtesy of the publisher, Columbia University Press. We thank Columbia for sharing this with Buddhadharma’s readers, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.


Buddhist nationalists and Christian evangelists consider the question of whether the sovereignty of their religion can be secured to be contingent on the extent to which their tradition is recognized as offering an apt moral compass to orient people and the nation. Much of this consternation centers on the traditions of religious giving and the scrutiny to which these traditions were subject in peak moments of publicity. As demonstrated in the previous chapter, Sinhala Buddhists perceived Christianity to be specially albeit unfairly equipped with a material force capable of drawing in new converts: that is, capital, coupled with the injunction to give to charity. I showed through the iconic conversion of the businessman-cum-philanthropist, how contemporary Christian (Catholic, as much as Protestant and Pentecostal) concepts of salvation are connected to prosperity and poverty, possession and dispossession.

Giving and gifting, both religious and secular, constitutes a substantive node of interreligious conflict in Sri Lanka. This is evident in the ways in which millennial Christian urgency and Buddhist nationalist anxiety played out with new intensity in the conjunction of the tsunami disaster (2004) and the end of the civil war (2009). Sinhala Buddhist revivalists disputed the moral grounds of Christian charity and even secular humanitarianism, treating them as ever-ready instruments in the production of Christian converts and anti-national subjects. Suspicious of the surge of humanitarian aid and charity, they perceived these seductive and moralistic “foreign” pathways as a political affront to Sinhala Buddhism. To understand the amplification of interreligious conflict that stemmed from these kinds of gifts and transactional forms, in the remainder of this chapter I explore Christian charity in comparison to Buddhists’ repertoires of almsgiving (dāna) and other acts of care. The history of the Buddhist-Christian encounter in Theravādin contexts reveals that tensions arose around the practices of dāna (almsgiving) and charity, specifically concerning the seductions of material gifts, the problem of indebtedness, and the implicit obligations that stemmed from receiving gifts. Scholars commonly link such perceptions concerning the unspoken obligations to donors—including religious patronage and conversion—to classical anthropological theories of the gift, reciprocity, and debt (Bowie 1998; Korf et al. 2010; Sihlé 2015; Brac de la Perrière 2015).

At its foundations, the ethical sanction for Buddhist almsgiving is quite different from that of Christianity. As such, what it means for a Buddhist and for a Christian to be a generous moral agent are different as well (Sihlé 2015). Chris- tian charity and Buddhist dāna are distinct kinds of gifts that differently mediate people’s religious affinities and their obligations to religious community. Sin hala Buddhists identify a slant in Western media that wittingly or unwittingly mischaracterizes dharmic practices and sensibilities concerning generosity. As the ethnography in this chapter illustrates, Buddhist acts of care are often undertaken unceremoniously and are seemingly so ordinary that they are invisible to the international media’s eyes. At the same time, in their competition with rivals and adversaries, Sinhala Buddhist revivalists take great pride in rendering Buddhist forms of generosity legible for the world stage.

Dāna is archetypically the donation of provisions to the Buddha and mendicant monks who follow the Buddhist path. In return for their care and material provisioning for monastics, lay donors are karmically rewarded with merit (puñña karmaya). Under certain conditions, Theravāda Buddhists also transform their conceptions of dāna in ways that reinforce the ethic of compassion toward all who are suffering (Bowie 1998; see also Hallisey, “Challenges”). By the mid-nineteenth century, Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalists deepened pan-Buddhist solidarities internationally, and simultaneously propelled practices of philanthropy, altruism, and “socially engaged Buddhism” (Jayawardena 2000; Bond 2004).

The influxes of humanitarian and charitable aid in the new millennium, paired with the majoritarian nationalist anxieties that were triggered by the growth of new styles of Christian influence, have provoked and inspired a new era of Buddhist charitable and social service work in Sri Lanka. Extending earlier phases of revival, Buddhist dāyaka (laity) and some mendicant monks renewed the practice of shramadāna (social service) and giving charitably to the poor as means to undercut the competitive materialist edge that Christianity appears to have over Buddhism. Because of the priority to stave off conversions to Christianity, in some domains Sinhala Buddhists dedicated to social service have redefined the idea of “dāna” to also include the act of giving to the indigent poor (Mahadev 2014; Gajaweera 2020). Some rare mendicant monks, as we will see, reinvented their vocations by involving themselves in projects of giving to materially deprived and disaster-struck Sri Lankans. Since primacy of place has traditionally been given to lay patronage that channels provisions toward the sangha, orthodox circles of Sri Lankan Buddhists occasionally take these transformations of meritorious practice as a paradox with respect to their duties to uphold the Vinaya or monastic rules. Considering the established hierarchies in these repertoires of giving and the present contingencies that shape the entanglements of charity and dāna illuminates the nature of the derogations of “self- ishness” that Buddhist nationalists and Christian evangelists lodge against one another’s religious goals.


A version of the draft legislative bill on the “Prohibition of Unethical Conver- sions” that had been disseminated throughout Sri Lanka by Gazette Notification in 2004 decries conversions that took place through “force, allurement, and other fraudulent means.” The All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress’s Buddhist Commission Report (2009) details numerous incidents in which Christian NGOs were said to have given material “inducements” to tsunami-affected people with an agenda to recruit new converts. In the report, two organizations that operated in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse, came under fire for opportunistically evangelizing in Sri Lanka.5 Some proselytizing groups purportedly rescinded charitable aid if the recipients rejected Bible offerings and invitations to come to church (89, sections 352–53). The report quotes a woman from Kandy who remarked upon her neighbor’s conversion, stating that “this is a business conversion”—“meeka bisnas convert ekak” (88, section 343). The exasperation conveyed by the Sinhala woman, as it is portrayed in the report, suggests that what belies the persuasions to and persuasiveness of Christianity is something suspiciously transactional and disingenuous.

Despite the alleged pragmatics of the “business” of conversion, both in theory and praxis Christians see grace as attached to pastoral care and to charity. In India, care of the subaltern who seek escape from indigent poverty as well as Brahmanical caste denigration, discrimination, and anti-Dalit atrocities often conceive of conversion away from Hinduism as an avenue to free themselves from oppression. Indian Dalits have historically converted to Buddhism under R. Ambedkar, to atheism under E. V. Ramaswamy Naiyakar (Periyar), to Islam, and frequently to Christianity. Tacit claims of karmic continuity underpin Hindutva ideologues’ attempts to dissuade conversion to other religions, and thus the ideology of karma can play out perniciously in India given the cruel derogations against those of putatively “low” caste (Wadley 1994; Cotterill et al. 2014). Dalit oppression is a direct result of typically intransigent hierarchies in the religious establishment, and moreover historical subjugation within agrarian servitude and slavery, endemic in precolonial southern India (Viswanath 2014; Mohan 2015). Anti-caste activism centers around Dalit self-respect. As such, anti-Brahmanism has been a substantial course of political action and coalesced with the work of itinerant Protestant missionaries during the era of British colonialism. Indeed, Christianization was part and parcel of Dalits’ resistance to caste strictures especially in southern India (Mosse 2012, 11). As such, historically, anticolonialism has not found much resonance among Dalits in India. From the perspective of Dalits, no nationalistic form of religiosity could alleviate entrenched forms of caste discrimination (Rao 2009). Thus, too, in India where Buddhism is rare and is delinked from majoritarian nationalism, Ambedkar and his followers considered conversion to Buddhism to be an appropriate avenue to throw off the yoke of caste. Nowadays, the disruptive and liberatory aspects of Pentecostal conversion, arguably more than Catholicism or Protestantism, have also served as an especially fecund vehicle for Dalits’ rejection of caste as the basis for sociality in India (Bergunder 2008; Roberts 2016).

Very differently to the case of Hinduism in India, among Sinhala Buddhists of contemporary Sri Lanka, caste does not feature quite as prominently nor as perniciously (Simpson 1997, Seneviratne 2000).6 Yet in several sectors, caste does persist as a form of social channeling among Sinhala Buddhists and draws subtle lines of belonging and exclusion. In certain realms caste can constrain kin relations and affinal partnerships. Historically in Ceylon, caste has been prominent in intra-sangha disputes, and it gave shape to the formation of sangha lineages (nikaya) and affiliation. Even as there is a good deal of mutability of Sinhala caste confinements in comparison to contemporary India, to some degree caste can affect political clout and occupational mobility. In chapter 6 I offer a small glimpse of how poverty, more than caste, intersects with Christianity and the conditions of possibility and constraint of socioeconomic mobility in a village setting where caste holds social relevance.7 In short, in Sri Lanka various factors contribute to why people feel impelled to convert or feel categorically dissuaded from changing their religion. While caste may not be a primary factor in contemporary Sri Lanka, it can inflect social disadvantage and put latent limits upon social mobility.

Material provisioning of social care is certainly one reason for attraction to Christianity. Flows of giving are cause for anxiety among Sinhala Buddhists, and Christians occasionally attribute this to “jealousy” over the social and economic capital that Christians wield. One Sinhala Colombo-based mainline Protestant minister attributed the rise of Christianity in Sri Lanka to the attractiveness of Christians’ generosity. In our 2009 interview, he held that lay Buddhists become “put off” by all of the obligations to maintain the monks. He explained the economic logic for this resentment: “You see, the Buddhist monks take alms on a daily basis from the laypeople. When Buddhist laypeople see all that the Christian pastors do for their people, they get attracted to Christianity. So when the people convert, the monks get upset. Conversion hits the monks in the stomach, you see? ” he said, while emphatically poking at his own stomach, gesturing to how the Buddhist sangha loses its constituents to Christianity and thus how conversion materially strangles the monks’ livelihoods. The point is consonant with the linkage identified in chapter 1 whereby entrepreneurs pitched insurance as a social and economic protection to be directed toward Buddhist clergy who may face a declining base for material support due to economic modernization. The differential effects of Buddhist and Christian forms of obligation, need, and desire are central to the interreligious antipathies in this context.

Excerpted from Karma and Grace: Religious Difference in Millennial Sri Lanka, by Neena Mahadev. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Neena Mahadev

Neena Mahadev is an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale-NUS College and holds a courtesy appointment with the National University of Singapore.