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Was Buddha really anti-caste?

VedAitharaju

The narrative surrounding Buddha’s stance on caste has been a subject of debate and misconception, often fuelled by modern Neo-Ambedkarite Buddhist ideologies and the interpretations of higher intellectuals. While it is commonly believed that Buddhism was inherently anti-caste and that Buddha denounced the caste system, a closer examination reveals a more complex reality. Buddha’s relationship with caste was nuanced, and he held views that challenged simplistic categorizations.

Edmund Webner’s essay on Buddhism provides insight into Buddha’s perspective on caste. According to Webner “Buddha tells about the earlier Buddhas in the so called MahapadanaSuttanta – Great Sermon on the Legends. He refers to their membership of (high) caste as the first characteristic of their full enlightenment.” [1]

Buddha proudly states, “And now I, the venerable and fully enlightened one, was born a warrior and have come from the caste of warriors, o monks.” [2] This indicates a certain level of caste consciousness in Buddha’s teachings.

The “Lalitavistara,” a Buddhist text, further accentuates the caste aspect. It explicitly states that a Bodhisattva cannot emerge from a lower or mixed caste. A verse in the text asserts, “After all Bodhisattvas were not born in despised lineage, among pariahs, in families of pipe or cart makers, or mixed castes.” This highlights Buddha’s emphasis on specific caste backgrounds for those aspiring to attain Bodhisattva status.

Contrary to the popular belief that Buddha was entirely anti-caste, he exhibited a very strong pro caste perspective. Buddha’s resentment towards brahmanas stemmed from his observations of them marrying non-Brahmin women, which he likened to “behaviour of dogs.” The SoṇaSutta reflects his sentiments. [3] Buddha also asserts “The Sakiyas(his own Kshatriya clan) would rather practice incest than mix with the brahmanas.”[4]

However, it is important to note that despite his resentment, Buddha did admit a significant number of Brahmins into his Sangha. Scholar Hans Wolfgang Schumann highlights that a majority of Buddha’s disciples were actually Brahmins. [5] This complex interplay between Buddha’s personal sentiments and his actions underscores the intricate nature of his views on Brahmins. Buddha praised ancient Vedic Brahmins as the ideal “Brahmins” in BrahmanadhammikaSutta[6] , but interestingly goes on to attack them in SonaSutta for accumulating wealth, and mixing with others like they didn’t do earlier he implies. What this behaviour of Buddha reflects is the idea that he thought the ancient Vedic Brahmin lifestyle was ideal and the lifestyle that was to be followed by Brahmins, but once Brahmins dropped this life they had become “impure”. This sentiment is almost proven by his exact words “In the past, brahmans searched for alms for their morning meal in the morning, and for their evening meal in the evening. At present, brahmans, having eaten as much as they like, swelling their bellies, leave taking the leftovers. At present, dogs search for alms for their morning meal in the morning, and for their evening meal in the evening. This is the fifth ancient brahmanical tradition that is now observed among dogs but not among brahmans.”

The constant implying of the words “in the past” in each phrase describing Brahmins in the SonaSutta echoes this sentiment further. This can be used to further understand the context of Buddha’s views later on where he echoes the superiority of the Kshatriya varna over Brahmins in the present times.

Buddha’s acknowledgment of caste extends further into his teachings. He regarded birth in a particular caste as a significant factor for spiritual realization. The concept of purity holds great importance in Buddhism. As Webner says “The Bodhisattva explains to the gods that he should be born only in a family of a noble birth and caste. Furthermore the family ought to have procreated only in a direct line and on the man’s side, an adoption is impossible. Otherwise, purity would not be guaranteed. The purity of the family is so essential, that the father-to-be Suddhodana says: “King Suddhodana is pure on the side of the mother and father and was born in a respected family.”” [6]

Buddha’s position on caste was not as simple as being anti-Brahmin either. Instead, he elevated the kshatriyas to a higher position in the hierarchy, placing them above the now “impure” brahmanas. Why? As Webner quotes “When the Brahmins are especially respected on earth, they (Buddhas) were born in a lineage of Brahmins, when the warriors play a greater role, they appear in a noble family..”

Buddha believed that only a Kshatriya could achieve Buddha-ship in his times as Kshatriyas were now above the impure Brahmins asserting, “Today the nobility has priority in the world, therefore the Bodhisattvas were born in a noble family.”The reasons of why he looked at Brahmins of his days as impure, had nothing to do with reform or discriminatory practises Brahmins espoused, in fact it was the opposite. Buddha resented Brahmins of his times for mixing with other castes, and leaving the old hierarchical Vedic lifestyle as stated above.

Buddha’s stance challenges the notion of him as a caste reformer. His elevation of the kshatriya caste and resentment towards brahmanas for mixing with others signify a complex approach to caste dynamics. Yet, Buddha’s admission of Brahmins into his Sangha, his emphasis on noble birth, and his classification of both Brahmins and Kshatriyas as being of superior stock imply a recognition of the importance of caste in understanding and practicing his teachings.

In light of these observations, it becomes clear that portraying Buddha as an unequivocal crusader against caste is an oversimplification. Neo-Ambedkarite ideologies that present Buddha as an advocate for a completely casteless society miss the intricate details of his views. Buddha’s complex relationship with caste and his multifaceted teachings deserve careful introspection.

In conclusion, Buddha’s stance on caste is far from the black-and-white portrayal often presented in modern interpretations. While he exhibited elements of resentment and favouritism towards certain castes, he also acknowledged the importance of caste affiliation in the context of his teachings. By elevating the kshatriya caste and admitting Brahmins into his Sangha, Buddha communicated a belief in the superior spiritual potential of both these castes. Thus, understanding Buddha’s relationship with caste requires delving into the layers of his teachings and the complexities of his historical context.

Sources:

[1], [2], [4]:Buddhism: an atheistic and anti-caste religion? : Modern ideology and historical reality of the ancient Indian Bauddha Dharma, by Edmund Webner published in 2001, by the Goethe University of Frankfurt in the Journal of religious culture aka Journal fürReligionskultur

[3]: The Dog Discourse, SonaSutta (AN 5:191)

[6]: Brahmanadhammika Sutta (SamyuttaNikaya 2.7),

Ved Aitharaju
Ved Aitharaju
Screenwriter By Study. Filmmaker By Profession. And a Columnist By Fealty. To Express The Intricate Threads of This Multiverse. A Scout by Providence Lost in The Boundless Paradox Of Creation.

1 COMMENT

  1. In buddha’s era, it is not possible to write bramhan or kshatriya in pali.Is that bramhan similar to today’s bramhin caste?. No traveler had mentioned that they found caste in India. If there was no caste system at that time, how buddha will oppose caste system?

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