Neena Mahadev, "Karma and Grace: Religious Difference in Millennial Sri Lanka" (Columbia UP, 2023)


Around the turn of the millennium, Pentecostal churches began to pepper majority-Buddhist Sri Lanka, setting off a sense of alarm among Buddhists who saw Christianity as a neocolonial threat to the nation. Rumors of foul play in the death of a Buddhist monk, as well as allegations of proselytizing in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and during the final stages of civil war, spurred nationalist anxieties, moral panics, and even episodes of violence by Buddhists against Christians suspected of facilitating “unethical” conversions.

Through vivid ethnography and keen observations of media events, Karma and Grace: Religious Difference in Millennial Sri Lanka (Columbia UP, 2023) illuminates disputes over religious freedom and pluralism amid the rise of charismatic Christianity in Sri Lanka. Neena Mahadev explores the dueling efforts of Buddhist nationalists and Christian evangelists to reshape Sri Lanka’s religious, economic, and political landscapes. She considers theological and political impasses between Buddhism’s vast timescales of karma and Christians’ promises of the immediacy of their God’s salvific grace. While Christian missions spread “the Good News,” subsets of Buddhists produced bad press, sting operations, and disparaging media to impede born-again churches from taking root. In gripping detail, Mahadev recounts how modernist and traditionalist Theravāda Buddhists, Pentecostal newcomers, long-established Christian denominations, local deity and spirit cults, and the innovations of mavericks intermingle in a multireligious public sphere. Even amid trenchant conflicts, Karma and Grace demonstrates that social proximity between rivals is also conducive to religious experimentation and the ambiguities of identity that allow Sri Lankans to live with difference.

A transcript of this interview is available here

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

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Jessica Zu

Jessica Zu is an intellectual historian and a scholar of Buddhist studies. She is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Southern California.

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