In recent decades something referred to as collective kamma or group kamma has been posited and discussed. According to this theory, groups of people or even whole nations can supposedly suffer the results (positive collective kamma never seems to be discussed, its always negative kamma). The revered Tibetan master Lati Rimpoche recently claimed that the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust was the result of great wickedness they had all 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.
Nothing like the idea of collective kamma is found in or even hinted at in the Buddha’s teachings. There is no Pali or Sanskrit words for collective kamma in the traditional lexicons. The idea is also absent from later Buddhist texts. In his Abhidharmakosabhasya Vasubhandu has a comment that could be interpreted as suggesting something like 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’.” (Vasubandhu, Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya. Vol.1, translation by Leo M. Pruden 1991.
Let us consider Vasubhandu’s words carefully. All the persons mentioned in this example would have come together with a common negative purpose and thus would have all made some negative kamma, as Vasubhandu 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 into evil 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 likely differences into consideration, it is only realistic to imagine that the vipaka 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 suggesting collective kamma.
The earliest unambiguous mention of collective kamma that I have been able to find is in the eclectic and highly dubious writings of the occultist Helena Blavatsky (d.1891). 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 teacher, 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 not a reality. After all, Buddhism does not have an exclusive claim to all truth. Perhaps Madam Blavatsky had insights into kamma 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 negitive kamma. Another versions of the idea maintains that a large number of innocent individuals belonging to a group can suffer the negative kamma made by a smaller number of individuals within the group. In both cases the suffering supposedly comes in the form of war, famine, plague, massive natural disasters, etc. 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 senior 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.
There are numerous logical, evidential, doctrinal and even commonsense 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 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 work? 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 operates something like this would have be necessary. Kamma would have had to manipulate 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. Then it would have had to pre-plan and 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 to frightened to oppose it. And when the required six million Jews had suffered sufficiently for their past evil deeds, kamma would have had to then arrange and manipulate innumerable complex causes and effects in such ways that the war ended. Kamma must be as powerful and as intelligent as any supreme being!
Let us examine the 2004 tsunami, another event often sited 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 this 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 effected area, either because they were reborn there and lived there, or that they were visiting the area at the chosen 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 arrange 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 kamma to be responsible for the tsunami would require accepting that it is able to influence the Earth’s tectonic plates so that they moved to just the right extent and at just the right time so that the resulting waves play out thousands of people’s kamma. Apart from stretching credibility beyond breaking point, I reject the idea of collective kamma because if such a thing existed the Buddha would have mentioned it. And he does not.