Ven. Shravasti Dhammika has made an update with some additional information to his article on collective karma. Here it is reprinted with his permission:
(note: he uses Pali spelling most of the time; kamma = karma)
In recent decades something referred to as collective kamma or group kamma has been posited and discussed. The term has been used not only in popular writing but occasionally even by psychologists, therapists, sociologists and other professionals. If by collective kamma one means something like Emile Durkheim’s concept of collective consciousness then this would be quite acceptable. By collective consciousness Durkheim meant that a large number of people with shared history, language, customs and beliefs may well think and behave in ways that are similar or that have modalities in common. Collective kamma, however vaguely understood or interpreted, is quite different from this. It is the notion that the kamma a person or group of people created by acting in a particular way can have the same or similar vipāka on another person or number of people who did not act that way. For example, the revered Tibetan master Lati Rimpoche recently claimed that the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust was the result of great wickedness some of them had committed in previous lives. Others have claimed that the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge was likewise kammic retribution for past evil done by the Cambodian people. The most recent mass tragedy to be dubbed an example of collective kamma was the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In the days immediately after this disaster a prominent Singaporean monk was reported in the local newspaper as saying that most of the tsunami victims were fishermen suffering the kammic consequences of decades of killing fish.
Nothing explicitly mentioning the idea of collective kamma is found in the Buddha’s teachings and there is no Pāḷi or Sanskrit terms for collective kamma in the traditional lexicons. The idea also seems to be absent from later Buddhist texts also. However, in his Abhidharmakośabhāsya Vasubandhu has a comment that could be interpreted as suggesting collective kamma. He says: “When many persons are united with the intention to kill, either in war, or in the hunt, or in banditry, who is guilty of murder, if only one of them kills? As soldiers, etc., concur in the realization of the same effect, all are as guilty as is the one who kills. Having a common goal, all are guilty just as he who among them kills, for all mutually incite one another, not through speech, but by the very fact that they are united together in order to kill. But is the person who has been constrained through force to join the army also guilty? Evidently so, unless he has formed the resolution: ‘Even in order to save my life, I shall not kill a living being’.”
If indeed Vasabandhu was positing collective kamma the example he gave for it is not very convincing. Let us consider it carefully. All the persons mentioned in this example would have come together with a common negative purpose and thus would have all committed some negative kamma, as Vasubandhu correctly says. However, the nature and intensity of their individual intentions may well have varied. Some might have been enthusiastic about what was planned, others less so, one or two may have had serious reservations. Further, the kammic background of each person would have been different. One could have been a hardened criminal who had committed many crimes before, another might have been a novice in crime, while a third might have been basically good but weak and easily led by his friends. With such a variety of motives and backgrounds how each member of the gang would have felt and acted subsequent to their crime is likely to have been just as diverse, ranging all the way from cruel satisfaction, to cold indifference, to regret. Taking all these quite plausible and even quite likely differences into consideration, it is only realistic to imagine that the vipāka of each person in the group would be of very different strength and that it would manifest at different times and in very different ways. Thus a second look at this passage will show that it is not a convincing argument for collective kamma, if indeed that is what it is meant to be.
One incident from the Buddhist tradition that could be suggesting something like collective kamma is a story about the Sakyans, the Buddha’s kinsmen. Viḍūḍabha, the king of Kosala, massacred “all the Sakyans” including even “the suckling babes”, and they suffered this fate supposedly because “the Sakyans” had sometime previously poisoned a river in a dispute over its water (Ja.IV,152). In reality, only a few Sakyans would have committed this evil deed, and although the Sakyan chiefs probably authorized it and a number of others may have approved of it, the majority, particularly the babies and children, would have had nothing at to do with it. Thus the idea of collective kamma idea is implicit in this story. How are we to explain this? The story is not in the Tipiṭaka but comes from the of the Jātaka commentary, a text of uncertain but late date. Some scholars consider it to have been composed in Sri Lankan rather than India. But whoever the author was it seems likely that he was just storytelling, rather than positing the idea of collective kamma as a specific doctrine. The fact that no later commentators took the story as a cue to develop the idea of collective kamma strengthens this assumption. Also, another version of the story, from the Mahāvaṁsa Ṭīkā, says that there were survivors of the massacre, thus undermining that claim that “all Sakyans” suffered the negative vipāka of the kamma created by others.
The version of collective kamma which maintains that the consequences of deeds done by some within a group can be experienced by others within the same group, contradicts one of the most fundamental Buddhist concepts; that each individual is responsible for themselves.
The earliest unambiguous mention of collective kamma that I have been able to find is in the writings of the 19th century occultist Helena Blavatsky. In her The Key to Theosophy, 1889, Blavatsky make reference to what she called “National Karma”. The idea seems to have subsequently been taken up by various believers in the occult, then absorbed into New Age thinking, from where it has spread to Buddhism. It is surprising how many Buddhist teachers, learned and otherwise, speak of collective kamma as if it were a part of authentic Dhamma, despite its recent origin and it having no precedence in traditional Buddhism.
Nonetheless, it could be argued that just because collective kamma is not mentioned in any Buddhist scriptures does not mean that it is false. After all, Buddhism does not have an exclusive claim to all truths. Perhaps Madam Blavatsky and others had insights that the Buddha or later Buddhist masters lacked. So it will be worthwhile to examine the idea of collective kamma more carefully to see if it has any validity.
There are various versions of the collective kamma idea. One maintains that large numbers of people can be reborn into a particular group which then suffers together because of their shared negative kamma. Another version maintains that a small number of innocent individuals belonging to a group can suffer the negative kamma made by a larger number of individuals within that group. In these first two versions the suffering supposedly comes in the form of war, famine, plague, earthquakes or other natural disasters. Yet another version of this second theory is that individuals can suffer for evil they have done by having something horrible happen to someone related to them. I have heard people, in one case a senior monk, say that giving birth to a handicapped child is not a result of the victim’s bad kamma but of the parents’.
The dilettante exponent of Buddhism and so-called “perennial philosophy”, Ananda Coomaraswamy, was unable to understand how kamma could be transmitted through a series of lives without a soul and so he read into Buddhism a kind of universal heredity kamma. “No man lives alone, but we may regard the whole creation…as one life and therefore as sharing a common karma, to which every individual contributes for good or ill…The great difficulty of imagining a particular karma passing from individual to individual, without the persistence of even a subtle body, is avoided by the conception of human beings, or indeed of the whole universe, as constituting one life or self. Thus it is from our ancestors that we receive our karma, and not merely from ‘our own’ past experience; and whatsoever karma we create will be inherited by humanity for ever.” Garma C. C. Chang’s unique interpretation of Buddhism allowed for collective kamma. According to him: “The evidence of collective karma is not lacking in our own world” and he gave as evidence of this “the fate of the American Indians, of Aztecs, of Mayans and to a certain extent Negroes and Jews…” Unfortunately, the evidence of collective kamma is noticeably lacking from Buddhist scriptures and Chang was unable to quote any in support of his claim.
There are numerous doctrinal, logical, evidential, moral and even common sense problems with the collective kamma idea in any of its forms. Let us examine some of them. Proponents of collective kamma are long on generalizations but noticeably short on details. How, for example, does kamma organize all its mass causes and effects? How and in what form does it store and process all the data needed so that one individual experiences this kammic consequence and another one experiences that? How do the logistics work that would be needed to guarantee that a large number of individuals are reborn at this time, within that group and at a certain location so as to experience the required suffering? And what is the force or energy by which kamma makes all these extraordinarily complex arrangements? No explanations are forthcoming.
If we explore specific examples of what is claimed to be collective kamma we will see just how problematic the idea is. Let us look at the monstrous crimes the Nazis committed against European Jewry during the Second World War. If some form of collective kamma really operates something like this would have be necessary. Kamma would have had to somehow construct things so that six million evil-doers were reborn in what was to become Nazi occupied Europe and be living there between 1939 and 1945. It would have had to pre-plan decades ahead to arrange the social and political situation in Germany so that a fanatical anti-Semite came to power. Concordant to this it would have been necessary to select millions of other people to be reborn in Germany with attitudes and outlooks that either supported Nazism, or were too apathetic or too timid to oppose it. And when the required six million victims had suffered sufficiently for their past evil deeds, kamma would then have had to arrange and manipulate innumerable complex causes and effects in such ways that the war ended when everyone had got their just deserts. For those Buddhists unacquainted with the most ancient texts or have never bothered to study them, kamma is little different from an omnipotent, omniscient god. Grama C. C. Chang again: “In many ways karma, in the Buddhist tradition, is almost equivalent to what general expression calls the Will of God.”
Now let us examine the 2004 tsunami, another event often cited as an example of collective kamma. The tsunami killed some 200,000 people, injured another million and left hundreds of thousands of others homeless. Even the most ill-informed person knows that the directly observable cause of the tsunami was an earthquake that shifted the tectonic plates on the floor of the ocean off the coast of Sumatra. This released a vast amount of energy which in turn caused huge waves to form. For the tsunami to be collective kamma it would require several things. As with the Holocaust, kamma would have had to pre-plan things so that vast numbers of people were in the affected area, either because they were reborn there and lived there, or that they were visiting the area at the required time, i.e. in the late morning of the 26th December. Extraordinarily, amidst the chaos of the deluge, the panic, the collapsing buildings and the debris being swept along, kamma would have had to contrive things so that the thousands of victims involved got their exact kammic retribution, no more and no less; so that those whose kamma required them to be killed were killed, that those whose kamma required them to be seriously injured were so injured, that those who only had to sustain minor injuries did so, and those whose kamma required only that their houses be destroyed suffered only that loss, and so on. But even more extraordinary, for the tsunami to be an example of collective kamma would require accepting that kamma is able to influence, not just humans, but even the Earth’s tectonic plates, making them move to just the right extent and at just the right time so that the resulting waves were able to play out on thousands of people’s vipāka. There seems to be no end to the extraordinary abilities that speculation is able to attribute to kamma. And of course all this may be true. Just let it be known that nothing even remotely like this was taught by the Buddha.
Ven. S. Dhammika