Classical Indian Buddhist texts rely a great deal on two concepts: puṇya (Pali puñña) and pāpa. The former is good, something to pursue; the latter is bad, something to avoid. They have something to do with our actions and their results: punya comes out of our good actions and brings good results for us, pāpa comes out of our bad actions and brings bad results. We find these concepts all over the place in pretty much any Indian Buddhist text we might pick up. Next week I’ll explore in more detail what they are and how we might best think about them. This week I want to start with something more basic: how should we translate them into English? Absolutely not, I would argue, with the two words that Buddhism scholars most commonly use for them: namely “merit” and “sin” respectively.
The use of “merit” to translate puṇya derives from the Catholic theological term, to which it bears some resemblance. But Peter Harvey and Barbra Clayton‘s books have both pointed out a key problem with the English word “merit” as a translation of puṇya: it implies has strong connotations of desert or entitlement. These connotations are not necessarily there in the Catholic term, but few English-speakers anymore – even Catholics – are likely to first think of Catholic theology when they hear the term “merit”. A far more common use is the likes of “This merits a reevaluation” – “merit” meaning “deserve”. But “deserving” has nothing to do with puṇya. It refers to the impersonal, causal, possibly cosmic power of action to produce happy or fortunate results, without any actor (such as a deity or an institution) rewarding the deserving.
The problems loom similarly large with “sin” is a translation of pāpa. For puṇya and pāpa are clearly opposites and juxtaposed as such. But even in Catholicism, “merit” and “sin” are not opposites. Indeed, “sin” really has no opposite. It’s not merely that it has no semantic opposite in English – as would be the case for a word like “well-being”, where it’s easy enough to invent an awkward opposite term like “ill-being” and have one’s readers know what it means. Rather, the very concept of sin does not lend itself to an opposite: it has to do with a basic, intrinsically bad, state and nature of human action and character. If pāpa were sin, its corresponding concept puṇya would need to be something with a similar scope and gravity that was also based in human action. But the theology of sin holds no such concept. To the extent that Christian theology allows for an opposite of sin, it would likely be “grace”: a concept which does not correspond with the agent’s actions and their results, and therefore has little to do with puṇya. For these reasons, sometimes “demerit” is chosen instead for pāpa. But not only is “demerit” awkward, as far as I know it does not occur in the Catholic theology that was the reason for choosing “merit” in the first place; and it falls into the same problems of desert that afflict “merit” as a translation in the first place.
Now, in the context of nineteenth-century English usage, “merit” and “demerit” might perhaps have been the closest English concepts available to render puṇya and pāpa, despite the aforementioned flaws. But that isn’t so anymore. The twentieth century has seen the Sanskrit word karma, especially in the phrases “good karma” and “bad karma,” enter the English language in widespread popular usage, first in works explaining South Asian traditions and then more widely in a New Age context. The popular English usage of “good and bad karma” refers to the good and bad fruits of one’s actions, which come back to affect one positively or negatively in the future. One can observe plenty of random examples of this usage. I was once discussing this usage in the Harvard graduate student café (which has no significant Buddhist theme). A colleague of mine – inclined to Christian theology – who didn’t think the usage was that common. I pointed him to the tip jar in that very café, which bore the large prominent label “Tipping brings good karma.”
This modern usage corresponds exactly to the meaning of the Buddhist terms puṇya and pāpa, even though those terms do not themselves involve the Sanskrit word karma (which simply means “action”). There is, at any rate, no disputing the close connection between Sanskrit karma, on the one hand, and puṇya and pāpa on the other; the latter are typically referred to in Sanskrit as karmaphala, the fruits of action. Therefore I think it is best to translate puṇya and pāpa as “good karma” and “bad karma” respectively; as adjectives, one can turn to the slightly more awkward “karmically good” and “karmically bad”.
Why does all this matter? It’s not just a translation issue, not just that I find the use of “merit”, “demerit”, “sin” to be annoying. It also has to do with some of the hidden methodological debates in Buddhist studies. Jonathan Z. Smith famously argued in Drudgery Divine that much of what passed as the neutral historical study of Christian origins was in fact animated primarily by Protestant-Catholic apologetics and polemic. One might perhaps expect such a result in a field so deeply important for Christian belief. What’s more surprising is that similar Christian debates have reproduced themselves in Buddhist studies. The debates chronicled by Smith may have helped make “Protestant” a dirty word in religious studies more generally – including Buddhist studies, where Gregory Schopen seeks to dismiss the textual study of Buddhism by referring to its “Protestant presuppositions”, and Yavanayāna Buddhism is often referred to with the epithet “Protestant Buddhism” (and the implicit claim that it is therefore not really Buddhism but Protestantism).
It seems to me that the negative use of “Protestant” in religious studies is often motivated by exactly the kind of apologetic agenda that Smith attacked: an assumption that “real religion” is somehow more Catholic. The translations of puṇya and pāpa show us a case where, by contrast, Catholicizing leads us astray. Henry Steel Olcott, often pointed to as a key figure in the foundation of “Protestant” Buddhism, was not a Protestant but a Theosophist – part of a movement that inspired the modern “New Age” movement, where the use of “good karma” and “bad karma” is now widespread. In the case of translating puṇya and pāpa, to put it bluntly, the Catholics got it wrong and the hippies got it right.
(This discussion expands on a passage in my dissertation.)