Merit: An Overview
MERIT: AN OVERVIEW
The terms merit and merit making are used in connection with religious practices that have the calculated aim of improving the future spiritual welfare of oneself or others. However, the number of contexts in which a specific terminology such as merit (Lat., meritum ) or its older analogue, the Buddhist puṇya (Pali, puñña ) has developed are surprisingly few. It is probably for this reason that most well-known systematic or phenomenological studies of religion have little or nothing to say on the subject. Elsewhere, the use of these terms in writing on religion is widespread but extremely sporadic, occurring mainly in discussions of generally related subjects such as judgment, reward and punishment, grace, and salvation.
In religion west of India, the earliest specific teaching on merit, or merits, is found in rabbinic Judaism, although merit was not the subject of formal definitions. From the third century ce, the concept played an increasingly significant role in Western Christianity; it reached a high point in the Middle Ages, only to be drawn into the vortex of Reformation debate on grace and the relation between works, faith, and man's justification in the sight of God.
Recent years have seen a smooth and indeed justifiable transfer of the English term merit (as well as of European equivalents such as the German Verdienst ) to that area of Buddhist practice and interpretation covered by the Sanskrit term puṇya and its equivalents. The term merit making implies an observational, analytic stance not usually found in studies of merit in Christianity, which have been more doctrinal or theological in tone. Nevertheless, interesting parallels can be drawn between Buddhism and Christianity as regards merit. Elsewhere, the relationships are much less clear, and comparative questions have to be suggested much more loosely insofar as they are relevant at all. The following observations should be understood as indicating the general context in which specific teachings on merit have arisen in rabbinic Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
India and China
That religious action has practical effects in this existence and others has been widely assumed in the religious systems of Asia, though with many variations. In the Indian context, the common assumption of post-Vedic religion is that of a series of existences, each conditioned by the karman, or accrued causal momentum, of the previous existence. Since karman can be either bad or good, there is room for improvement through religious practice or moral effort. Thus, loose analogies exist with other religious teachings on reward and punishment, religious works, and spiritual development. The main characteristic of Indian assumptions on the subject, whether Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist, is that karmic cause and effect are in principle self-regulating, not subject to divine decision, arbitration, or satisfaction.
In Jainism, seven "fields of merit" (puṇyaksetra ) are recognized as conducive to a pleasantly advanced rebirth. These have been presented by Padmanabh S. Jaini in The Jaina Path of Purification (Berkeley, 1979) as seven categories of meritorious activity: donating an image, donating a building to house an image, having the scriptures copied, giving alms to monks, giving alms to nuns, assisting laymen in their religious or practical needs, assisting laywomen similarly. The concept of karman should not in itself, however, be regarded as amounting to a doctrine of merit. This would push the analogy beyond its limits.
In Chinese religion, two relevant strands are discernible. First, there is the tradition of self-discipline and cultivation, in Confucian form oriented socially and pragmatically, in Daoist form linked to the achievement of supernormal powers, longevity, and even immortality. The idea of achieving supernormal physical and psychical powers through strenuous self-discipline is also present in Indian religions, including Buddhism, and hence in all cultural areas influenced by China and India. At the same time, this motivation for religious practice and achievement is not directly related to any concept analogous to merit.
Second, Chinese religion also knows the theme of postmortal judgment, presided over by Yen-lo (counterpart of the Indian god Yama) as god of death and ruler of the hells. Aided by his assistants, Yen-lo brings out the inexorable law of karman, and many illustrated works depict this as a warning to the living. (See, for example, the illustrated volumes Religiöse Malerei aus Taiwan: Katalog and Die Höllentexte, publications 1 and 2 of the Religionskundliche Sammlung der Philipps-Universität Marburg, 1980, 1981.) Religious imagery of this kind, though clearly related, does not entail a distinct doctrine of merit except insofar as it is influenced by Buddhism.
Egypt and Ancient Near East
In ancient Egypt, the diffusion of the cult of Osiris as lord of the underworld who had died, been judged, and risen again, provided the first common focus for postmortal expectation and concern. Elaborate funerary rites were accompanied by preparations for judgment before Osiris assisted by assessors. The candidate for new life asserted his innocence of numerous moral transgressions and saw his own heart weighed on scales against a feather representing truth in the sense of divine order (maat ). Gradually, efforts were made to organise the outcome of the judgment in advance by preparing in advance lists of good deeds and declarations of innocence. This process was ritualized and commercialized through the sale of appropriate rolls of text to be filled in with names before death, modern scholars have named these texts collectively The Book of Going Forth by Day. On the other hand, these phenomena may be regarded as the earliest indication of attempts to establish an individual's worth—in effect to "make merit" for him, in order to achieve a desired effect after death.
The idea of merit apparently did not develop in Mesopotamia, where notions of existence after death remained shadowy and pessimistic. Nor did Canaanite or early Hebrew views of death include a postmortal goal toward which the individual could work. The Hebrew concept of Sheʾol as a silent, forgotten abode beneath the earth was related at least in type to the Babylonian.
The clearly delineated cosmological dualism of Iranian religion gave prominence to the alternatives awaiting the individual after death. The spiritual position of the soul was determined in accordance with its behavior before departure from the body. In principle, the thinking is analogous to the Egyptian conceptions mentioned above, for there is evidence of attempts to influence the judgment. Eschatologically, Iranian ideas strongly influenced developing Judaism, so that Sheʾol became the place of postmortal punishment, while up to seven heavens were enumerated as abodes of pleasure and bliss.
A theistic worldview in the Abrahamic tradition does not necessarily entail a detailed doctrine of merit, as may be seen in the cases of the Qumran community, very early Christianity and, later, Islam. In both the teachings of Qumran and of the New Testament, the concept of calculable merit is entirely lacking. What is required is total, inward obedience to the law, or will, of God. The subsequent development of Christian teachings on merit has been variously described and interpreted. Historical priority must be ascribed to the rabbinic teachings on merit, or merits, which, in a transposed form, underlay Paul's interpretation of the death of Jesus. (This relationship has been skillfully delineated by W. D. Davies in Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 2d ed., London, 1955, pp. 227–284.)
The rabbinic doctrine of merit, though articulated in detail in the first four centuries of the common era, is based on two fundamental ideas which reach much further back in Jewish tradition. These are, first, that keeping the Mosaic covenant with God (i.e., observing the Torah), will lead to blessing and welfare and, second, that the responsibility and benefit of this covenant are essentially corporate and pass from generation to generation. Stated negatively, disobedience leads to punishment in the form of social or political suffering, but this punishment can be moderated by credit accumulated by previous generations. Looking forward, the idea of caring for one's children spiritually as well as physically was a motivating force for assiduousness in religious duty and charitable works. The justifiableness of a man, his standing before God in these respects, is summed up in the term zakkut.
As Davies points out, this line of thought is not without variations: some rabbis taught that the dividing of the waters at the exodus took place on account of the merits of Abraham, or the combined merits of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while others stressed the meritorious faith of the Israelites at the time. The underlying spirit of the teaching is neatly expressed in Arthur Marmorstein's summary of the ideas of Rabbi Yanna'i: "A man who kindles light in daytime for his friend when it is light, what benefit has he derived? When does he obtain any advantage from light? In case he kindles it in the night-time, in darkness. The affection Israel has shown in the wilderness was kept for them from that time, from the days of Moses" (Marmorstein, 1920, p. 17). From regarding the keeping of the Torah as meritorious, and beneficial for future generations, it was not far to the idea that God gave the Torah so that merit could be achieved or even the idea that the whole of creation was designed to this end.
As to life beyond death, reference to this was by no means lacking, and it was considered possible that some individuals, through lack of merit, might fail to be rewarded. Nevertheless, the calculation of one's credits and debits was always regarded as ultimately in the hands of God, so that while relatively good men might tremble, even the wicked might hope. In practical terms, merit was typically considered to accrue through "faith, charity, hospitality, the circumcision, Sabbath and festivals, the study of the Torah, repentance, the Holy Land, the Tabernacle, Jerusalem, the tithe, and the observances in general" (ibid., p. 65).
With Islam, it was, and is, expected that realizable duties will be fulfilled. However, God, and only God, knows what is actually possible for each individual; moreover, he is patient of human weakness. Thus, insofar as it is possible, the pilgrimage to Mecca is required of Muslims. This may be regarded as a negative doctrine of merit in that every Muslim has to assess whether or not he or she is able to make the pilgrimage. While Islam has always recognized that some acts are not strictly required but are nevertheless praiseworthy, any assessment of human behavior for the purpose of achieving salvation was quickly ruled out by the strong emphasis on the preeminent knowledge and grace of God, which amounted to predestination. A broadly similar doctrinal structure was to appear, in the Christian world, in Reformation theology, and in Jansenism.
A simple typology of religions with respect to concepts of merit and broadly related aspects of religiosity may be delineated in four parts.
First, it should be noted that much religion simply has not included the concept of merit, especially when notions of the future are shadowy, when a future existence is prepared for by elaborate funerals for royalty only, or when life after death is understood in any case to be the same for everybody. Thus, primal religions—even, for example, the highly developed Japanese Shintō—presuppose neither a radical dividing of the ways based on merit nor any elaborate path of cumulative spiritual development for the individual. Such religions naturally bear powerful religious values, such as a sense of cosmological orientation and belonging. Transactional religiosity, however, is directed in this context towards proximate, this-worldly, goals such as social and economic well-being, the avoidance of disaster and sickness or, in a modern differentiated economy, personal welfare and success.
Second, when clear-cut conceptions of future existence have developed, we see an extension of transactional religiosity into the future, as in Egyptian and Iranian religions, or, in a very different way, in Indian religion. The same holds for Chinese religion, though not without influence from Indian Buddhism. Such transactionalism may or may not be morally differentiated. The key feature here is that an element of future-directed management and even calculation is introduced to cope with an assumed judgment to come or with implications of the present for future existences. In principle, responsibility lies with the individual, although he may seek the assistance of priests, or, in the interesting variation of rabbinic Judaism, draw on the worthy performance of previous generations. Islam also belongs to this type, although in this case there is little interest in calculation and a great reliance on God's compassionate appraisal of what could realistically be expected from each individual in the circumstances of life.
The third type is represented above all by Buddhism and Christianity, although these emerged from quite different assumptions. Here we see that specific doctrines of merit arose at the point of intersection between transactional religiosity and soteriological concern. The natural, or primal, community is left on one side, and the possibility of the transfer of merit from transcendental or intermediate beings is envisaged. Interestingly, this latter idea did not go unopposed in Theravāda Buddhism, where it was criticized on ethical grounds. At the same time, the recommendation of merit-creating activities by the priesthood becomes normal.
Fourth, Buddhism and Christianity are similar not only in having produced an individualized soteriology based, at times, on a doctrine of merit. They have also both seen movements within the tradition which radically internalized the reception of spiritual assistance or grace. For Christianity, this is connected with the Reformation; for Buddhism, such movements are associated with the teachings of the Japanese patriarchs Hōnen (1133–1212) and, above all, Shinran (1173–1263). The latter argued, for example, that there was no value in reciting the Nembutsu (calling on the name of Amida Buddha) on behalf of the deceased because as a human work it could not benefit them in any way. All that was possible was reliance on the grace of Amida Buddha to effect rebirth in the Pure Land in the western heavens. Thus, the soteriological focus was internalized and the idea of merit was transformed from within. These subjectivizing trends within the Buddhist and Christian traditions, though influential, have not become dominant, and, broadly speaking, the vocabulary of merit continues to play a distinctive role in both.
Davies, W. D. Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 2d ed. London, 1955.
Jaini, Padmanabh S. The Jaina Path of Purification. Berkeley, 1979.
Marmorstein, Arthur. The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinical Literature. London, 1920.
Religiöse Malerei aus Taiwan: Katalog and Die Höllentexte, Publications 1 and 2 of the Religionskundliche Sammlung der Philipps-Universität Marburg, 1980, 1981.
Brokaw, Cynthia J. The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order in Late Imperial China. Princeton, 1991.
Lehtonen, Tommi. Punishment, Atonement and Merit in Modern Philosophy of Religion. Helsinki, 1999.
Schopen, Gregory. "Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism: The Layman/Monk Distinction and the Doctrines of the Transfer of Merit." Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 10 (1985): 9–47.
Wawrykow, Joseph P. God's Grace and Human Action: 'Merit' in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas. Notre Dame, 1995.
Michael Pye (1987)