Southeast Asian Studies
Online ISSN : 2423-8686
Print ISSN : 2186-7275
ISSN-L : 2186-7275
Karma versus Magic: Dissonance and Syncretism in Vernacular Thai Buddhism
Kanya Wattanagun
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2017 Volume 6 Issue 1 Pages 115-137


For a number of scholars, syncretism as an analytical approach to a group’s or an individual’s religiosity has several shortcomings. Denoting the mixture of tenets or practices belonging to different traditions, syncretism presupposes a clearly demarcated boundary between the syncretized traditions (McDaniel 2011, 17). It also implies scholarly wrought labels and categories, which are hardly shared by the people whose religiosity becomes the subject of academic scrutiny (Tambiah 1970, 42; T. G. Kirsch 2004, 706). In this paper I demonstrate that despite its shortcomings, syncretism can be employed to expound vernacular Thai Buddhism, whose heterogeneous composition has been argued to be “beyond syncretism” (Pattana 2005, 461). Ethnographic cases presented in this paper reveal that several Thai Buddhists, noting a dissonance between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic, differentiate Buddhist from non-Buddhist elements. The rationalization they employ to resolve this dissonance is a syncretistic activity that renders their multifarious religiosity internally consistent and meaningful. These cases challenge the assumption that syncretism is inapplicable to the highly diversified and hybrid ways Thai Buddhists observe their faith since they neither draw the boundary between diverse religious tenets and customs nor adhere to a single orthodox ideal.

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© 2017 Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University
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