Religious Beliefs. Indigenous Karen religion is animistic, rooted both in nature and in the ancestral matrilineage. It is based on belief in cosmogonic deities and several important supernatural powers, which are propitiated by specific rituals and ceremonies. This indigenous religious system includes the concepts of k'la ( kala ), or life principle, which is possessed by humans, animals, and some inanimate objects, and pgho, an impersonal power. Many Karen in the plains of Burma and in the highlands of Thailand embraced Buddhism through contact with Burman, Mon, Shan, and Thai Buddhists. In 1828 Ko Tha Byu became the first Karen to be converted by Christian missionaries, beginning conversions on a scale unprecedented in Southeast Asia. This is often explained by the striking parallels between Karen cosmogonic myths and the Old Testament. By 1919, 335,000, or 17 percent of Karen in Burma, had become Christian. In some areas Karen religion was syncretic, incorporating Buddhism and/or Christianity into indigenous religious practices. This sometimes took the form of a millennarian cult with a powerful leader and with elements of Karen nationalism envisioning a new order on Earth in which the Karen would be powerful. The data in Thailand indicate that of Pwo Karen, 37.2 percent are animist, 61.1 percent Buddhist, and 1.7 percent Christian; of Sgaw Karen, 42.9 percent are animist, 38.4 percent Buddhist, and 18.3 percent Christian (1977). Although current figures are unavailable for Myanmar, it is estimated that most Pwo and Pa-O Karen practice Buddhism and animism, that many Sgaw Karen are now Christians, mainly Baptist, and that most Kayah are Catholic.
The Karen cosmogonic myth tells of Y'wa, a divine power who created nature, including the first man and woman, and of Mü Kaw li, the basically feminine deity, who in serpent form teaches them their culture, including rice production, the identity of the ancestral spirit ( bgha; ther myng khwae in Pwo), rites of propitiation of various spirits, and methods for securing k'la. Y'wa gives the Karen a book, the gift of literacy, which they lose; they await its future return in the hands of younger white brothers. The American Baptist missionaries interpreted the myth as referring to the biblical Garden of Eden. They saw Y'wa as the Hebrew Yahweh and Mii Kaw li as Satan, and offered the Christian Bible as the lost book. Bgha, associated mainly with a particular matrilineal ancestor cult, is perhaps the most important supernatural power. The other significant supernatural power, called the "Lord of Land and Water" or "Spirit of the Area" (Thi Kho Chae Kang Kho Chae), protects the well-being of the people in the village with which he is associated. There are also local deities associated with elements of nature such as trees and rivers, or with agriculture (e.g., the rice goddess).
Religious Practitioners. The two major traditional religious practitioners are the village headman, who is the ritual specialist who leads the ceremony to the Lord of Land and Water, and the eldest woman of the senior line of the matrilineage, who officiates at the sacrificial feast for the ancestral spirit, bgha. There are people endowed with pgho, the impersonal supernatural power, including prophets ( wi ) and medicine teachers ( k'thi thra ); some Karen possessing pgho became leaders in syncretic millennial religious movements. There are also witches or "false prophets" ( wi a'bla ) who put their power to evil purposes.
Ceremonies. The most significant traditional ceremony is probably the propitiation of the bgha by all the matrilineally related kin, led by the eldest and most senior woman. A sacrificial feast is held at least annually to prevent the bgha from consuming the k'la of kin-group members. Iijima suggests this collective ritual expresses the essence of traditional Karen identity. Rites of sacrifice to the local Lord of Land and Water, held each year for territorial protection, are officiated over by the village headman. In addition, agricultural and lifecycle rituals are conducted, local spirits are supplicated with offerings or minor ceremonies, and k'la is secured by ordinary people or specialists.
Arts. Weaving (discussed above), with embroidery and seed work embellishing many woven garments, is the most notable Karen art. Karen make jewelry from silver, copper, and brass; ornaments of wool or other materials; beads; rattan or lacquered-thread bracelets; and traditionally earplugs of ivory or silver studded with gems. In the Thai hills, males are still tattooed for adornment. Music, both vocal and instrumental, is performed with nearly all traditional religious rituals, and Karen ballads and love songs are sung on many occasions. Karen ceremonial bronze drums, crafted by Shan artisans, are treasured as ritual objects by Karen householders—as well as by art collectors in Bangkok and abroad. Karen Christians have developed music that combines traditional Karen, church, and Western popular music.
Medicine. The causes of illness and death are traditionally spiritual. Marlowe notes that for Sgaw Karen, illness is the system through which the spirits of places ( da muxha ) and spirits of the ancestors ( sii kho muu xha ) signal their displeasure or their desire to be fed. K'la can become detached from human bodies during vulnerable times such as sleep or contact with the k'la of a person who has died, and must be ritually secured to the body to avoid illness or even death. Divination using chicken bones, feathers, eggs, or grains of rice is often employed to find the spiritual origin of a disease. In the case of k'la or soul loss, a shaman may be summoned to perform a soul-calling ceremony. There are rites of propitiation for various nature and ancestor spirits that cause illnesses. Karen also use herbal and animal-derived medicines.
Death and Afterlife. Karen have two categories of death: "natural" death resulting from old age and certain diseases, and "violent" death resulting from accidents, magic, attacks by spirits, childbirth, and murder. Some non-Christian Karen believe in an afterlife in a place of the dead, which has higher and lower realms ruled over by Lord Khu See-du. The k'la leaves the body at death; eventually it will be reincarnated in a proper body but, as a ghost, it can possess the body of another person. In traditional villages family and friends gather to sing eulogies and make music (today this may take the form of amplified pop music) to send off the newly liberated spirit and ensure that it does not remain in the place of the living, thus bringing bad luck. The dead person's possessions, which emanate the owner's k'la, may be removed from the village. The dead body is washed, dressed in the finest clothing, and buried in a coffin or mat. On their return from the burial ground villagers erect obstacles to prevent the k'la of the deceased from following. Animist and Buddhist funerals may be extensive rites involving the slaughter of many animals, whereas Christian funerals are much simpler.