Disciplining the Violent

by Steven Ramey

Monks in Myanmar encouraging violence, while that image challenges common assumptions about those who identify as Buddhists, accounts of such events often actually reinforce those assumptions. On April 30 people identified as Buddhists burned mosques and homes of a minority group identified as Muslim, reportedly resulting in injuries and one death. A recent BBC account of this ongoing conflict in Myanmar reiterates the trope that Buddhists follow a non-violent tradition. The author, a fellow at Brasenose College of Oxford who has studied conflict in Sri Lanka, drew parallels with Sri Lanka to argue that political interests corrupted the ideal teachings of nonviolence and justified violent action to protect position and power.

Three days before this particular attack on mosques and homes in Myanmar, another conflict between three European climbers and a group of Sherpas on Mount Everest raised similar issues. One account of the conflict particularly emphasized its unusual nature, asserting that the Sherpas are Buddhists who usually refrain from violent emotions or actions because such emotions pollute the mountain, which the Sherpas consider sacred. The account characterized the Sherpas as generally accepting with equanimity the economic disparity between themselves and the climbers who hire them because the Sherpas see themselves as existing in “a parallel universe.” The authors certainly reinforced a romanticized image of Mount Everest and the communities involved, while simultaneously explaining the conflict as a factor of economic disparity and tense labor relations.

In explaining these events, both accounts reflect the persistence of the trope that religion, at least in its purportedly pure, original form, is a force for good. Political and material interests generate the violence that challenges this idealized image. Thus, the Buddha, among others to whom teachings such as non-violence are attributed, remain idealized, free from any political or material interests. Dividing society between good aspects that we commonly label religious and problematic aspects that we label political constructs the first as an idealized, incorruptible space for the good and thus disciplines those who respond with violence (at least violence that we deem inappropriate) as corrupting their own religious identity, as we have constructed it and ascribed it to them.


Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, where he also directs the Asian Studies program. He received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where his work focused on contemporary religions and identity in India. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave 2008) analyzes issues of identity within Sindhi Hindu communities. 

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