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Buddha and caste system

Buddha and caste system

buddha and caste


Bhikku U. Dhammaratana

There are some writers who try to depict the Buddha, the Enlightened One, as the teacher of Nibbana who had nothing to do with the affairs of the contemporary society. This is a misrepresentation of the greatest teacher of humanity. It is true that when we think of the Buddha it is a picture of moral and spiritual perfection that appears before our mind. Our first impression is that of the Lord who had solved the problem of life and death that is the problem of Samsara. It is the mighty figure of the great conqueror that appears before us. He received, as no other figure in human history, the spontaneous homage and veneration of millions of people in his very life time. Greatness of Tathagata, the incomparable teacher, is beyond measure. All this refers only to one aspect of the life of the Buddha. That is his Bodhi or enlightenment which is concerned with the ultimate nature of things or the reality as such. This gives us only one aspect of the Buddha, namely, his Mahapragya or the supreme wisdom. This represents the Buddha as the teacher of Nibbana. The other aspect is Mahakaruna or his supreme compassion. If one represents the divine aspect of the Buddha the other represents his human aspect. To have full picture of Tathagata both the aspects have to be taken into consideration. One without the other is incomplete.

buddha and caste

Here it has to be borne in mind that, after the Mahaparinibbana of the Buddha, as the centuries rolled by, people began to lose the human touch of the master. A tendency began to develop among the people to remember him only as the teacher of Nibbana. The disciples went on emphasising one aspect of the master to utter negligence of the other. As a result, in course of time, the divine aspect alone was remembered and the human aspect altogether lost sight of. But fortunately, at a later stage, this fact was recognised by a section of disciples who brought out the importance of both the aspects and reasserted their significance. This gave rise to the Bodhisatva doctrine. The essence of the doctrine lies in the teaching that Buddhahood is the full flowering of the two principles of pragya or wisdom and karuna or compassion. It has already been mentioned that the principle of pragya represents the divine aspect of the Buddha and karuna his human aspect.

It is with reference to the second aspect that we have to understand the role of the blessed one in relation to the social problems of his day. When the Buddha appeared on the Indian scene the masses of the country were suffering under the dead weight of an age-old system which was maintained in the interest of a section of the people. While a few enjoyed all the rights and privileges of life the majority were reduced to serfdom. The irony of it was that this machinery of tyranny was maintained in the name of religion that was Brahmanism. Brahmanism had become a citadel of vested interests. It is true that as his primary concern the Buddha delivered his message of spiritual emancipation to the suffering humanity. But then he did not lose himself in enjoying the bliss of Nibbana. The Buddha was Mahakarunika, the Lord of compassion. As such he could not remain indifferent to the injustice done to millions of people through Brahmanism. The Buddha did not close his eyes, as so many interested people try to make out, to the terrible condition of the mass of his day. On the contrary he had to fight several battles against the social evils prevalent in the contemporary society and the greatest battle was fought on the caste front.

As the teacher of Nibbana the Buddha rode to success through a bed of roses so to say. Wherever he went people were attracted by his noble personality beaming forth peace and serenity. They flocked to him with great enthusiasm and listened to his message of emancipation. The rich and the poor, kings and peasants came and sat at his feet. But when he came to question certain traditions and institutions of the day he had to face strong opposition at the hands of the upholders and the agents of the vested interest. In fact he was abused, all sorts of stories were spread against his noble character and even plots were hatched to endanger his life. On one occasion he was refused food in a Brahman village as a teacher against their time honoured tradition and institutions1. On another occasion he was refused even water and that again in a Brahmin village2.

It is said that in both the cases the inhabitants of the respective villages were under the influence of Mara. So the poor Mara has been made a scapegoat. But then that is only a polite way of putting the thing without laying the blame at the door of a particular community or an individual. For all this Tathagata returned them his love. In the end he conquered them all through his mahamaitri or sheer force of universal love.

Caste system at the time of the Buddha

When the Buddha was born, caste system was one of the burning questions of the day. Although, generally speaking, it was an established institution among the masses, yet, in some quarters its position was hotly debated. Even among Brahmins, the very creators and upholders of the system, there was a section who questioned the hereditary character of the system. Vasetthasutta3 bears ample testimony to this fact. According to it, two young Brahmin students Bharadvaja and Vasettha fell into a discussion as to what makes a Brahmin. On the one hand Bharadvaja contended that one who is of pure birth, on the side of both father and mother, up to the seventh generation, is a Brahmin. On the other hand Vesettha held that it is the noble character of a Brahmin that determines him as such. One maintained heredity as the determining factor of a Brahmin whereas the other maintained character to be so. As the dispute could not be settled one way or the other they agreed to go to the blessed one for a decision on the matter. In course of a long discourse the Buddha explained to them that it is the conduct that makes a man noble or mean and birth and other accidents do not count at all. These points to the fact that though caste system was a well established institution then, it was not beyond dispute. Here and there individual Brahmins questioned the validity of the system. But then those Brahmins confined themselves to the discussions of merits and demerits of the case and did not go beyond that. The first person to raise his voice against the system was Vardhamana Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. Then the Buddha appeared on the scene and organised a regular movement against it.

The Buddha’s contribution

Contribution made by the Buddha towards the solution of the problem of caste may be said to be the greatest. To understand the manner as to how the Buddha dealt with it, we have to learn the nature of the foundation on which the system was based. Three points may be stated to constitute its basis: infallible character of the Vedas, heredity and the inherent superiority.

Infallible Character of the Sacred Scriptures

Caste system was declared as a divine arrangement which could be interfered with only at the risk of courting the wrath of god. Statements were included in the religious scriptures to this end. The infallible character of the Vedas, as a divine revelation, was established by another theory. So the people in general did not dare question their validity. Thus the authority of the sacred scriptures went a long way in maintaining the caste system. The Buddha saw in this the strongest point that supported the age-old traditions. So he dealt the first and the severest blow at it when he advised people not to accept anything on the mere authority of the scriptures and so on. The Buddha’s advice in this regard, which occurs in Kalama sutta and several other places, should not be taken as referring to philosophical matters only. It should be taken as general observation applicable to all cases of authority. This holds good equally in the case of scriptural statements on caste system also. In other words, the Buddha questioned the infallible nature of the sacred scriptures. He asked them not to accept anything unreasonable simply because it is recorded in the scriptures or upheld by other authorities.

It is true that authority, traditional or otherwise, has got two sides, a good side and a bad side. When it supports a right cause it might do lot of good. In the same way, when it supports a wrong cause it certainly does lot of harm. Reason alone can make a choice between the two. So the Buddha advised the people to accept or reject a thing after taking into consideration merits and demerits of the case. By advocating the rational method the Buddha taught them freedom of thought. Thus the Buddha dealt the first blow at the first fortification made by Brahmins for safeguarding the caste institution.


Hereditary character of the system was based on a theory of creation first referred to in the Purusa Sukta of the Rig Veda. According to it Brahmins came from the mouth, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaisyas from the thighs and Sudras from the feet of Brahma, the creator. This myth had been circulated by the Brahmins so as to explain the social gradation devised by them and justify their place of superiority in the same. In their discussions with the Buddha Brahmins often cited this instance to prove their superiority4. But then the Buddha pointed out to them that it was only a myth without any relevance to facts. He told them that human beings are born from the parents and not from any imaginary being. As regards Brahmins, he showed them that they are born of mothers who have to undergo the same natural processes, as others, in the matter of conception, delivery and so on. Young Assalayana puts forth the claim of the Brahmins in the following manner, “Brahmins, Gotama, maintain that they only form the superior class, all other classes being inferior: that Brahmins alone are of fair complexion and all the rest are of dark complexion; that purity resides in Brahmins alone and not in Non-Brahmins: and that only Brahmins are Brahman’s legitimate sons, born from his month, offspring of his, creation of his and his heirs.”

Thereupon the Buddha said, “Assalayana, the wives of Brahmins are known to have their periods, conceive, lie in and give suck. So how do they maintain all this when they are themselves born of woman like everybody else.”5

On the same point the Buddha says to another Brahmin, “The Brahmins have quite forgotten the past when they say so. On the contrary the wives of Brahmins have their periods, are seen to be with child, bring forth and nurse children. And yet it is these very woman-born Brahmins who say that ….Brahmins are genuine children of Brahma, born from his mouth, his offspring, his creation and his heirs! This is false through and through.”6

Thus the Buddha showed up the mythical character of the Brahmanical theory and propounded the equality of birth in the case of all human beings.

Inherent superiority

The Buddha also exploded the claims of Brahmins to inherent superiority with reference to several points.

Brahmins were believers in the law of kamma. The Buddha pointed out to them that, like others, they have to suffer the consequences of their misdeeds. If there is any inherent superiority in Brahmins they would not commit such deeds nor would they suffer for them. But then Brahmins do commit them and suffer the consequences thereof.

With reference to this point Mahakaccana, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, says to Avantiputta, king of Madhura, “If a noble kills, robs, fornicates, lies, slanders, is bitter of tongue, tattles, covets, harbours ill-will, and has a wrong outlook will he, after death at the body’s dissolution, pass to a state of misery and woe?”

“Such a noble will pass to a state of misery and woe. This is my view, and this is what I have heard from sages. Would the like doom await a Brahmin, or a middle class man, or a working class man of like disposition?”

“Yes, it would.”

“If this be so, do you think all classes are on precisely the same footing herein or not?”

“Undoubtedly, if this be so, all classes are on precisely the same footing and I see no difference between them.”

The same holds good with reference to their righteous conduct. This very argument has been used by the Buddha to convince Assalayana and other Brahmins of the emptiness of their pretensions, equality before the moral law gave the lie to the claim of the Brahmins to inherent superiority.

Then again the penal code of the country made no distinction with regard to different castes. For the same offence the members of different castes had to undergo the punishment. This is again evident from the discussion between Mahakaccana and Avantiputta. Mahakaccana says to the king, “If a noble is a burglar, thief, housebreaker, footpad or adulterer, and if your people catch him and haul the malefactor before you for sentence, what would you do to him?”

“I should put him to death or confiscate his goods of banish him or otherwise deal with him as circumstances required, for the noble is now a malefactor.”

“Would the same apply to malefactor from any of the three other classes?”

“Yes, it would.”

“If this be so, are all four classes on precisely the same footing herein or not?”

“Undoubtedly, all four classes are on precisely the same footing, and I see no difference between them.”

So this point also went against the superiority of the Brahmins.

The Economic factor Predominant

Mahakaccana, after advancing many points in refutation of the supremacy of the Brahmins, points out to the king that a wealthy man of one caste could employ the services of a man of any other caste. Thus he says, “If a noble grows rich and wealthy can he have as his servant another noble, or a Brahmin, or a middle-class man, or a working-class man to get up early, to go late to bed, to serve him diligently and to carry out his orders.”

“Yes, he could.”

“And if it were a Brahmin who had thriven, could he like-wise have as his servant a Brahmin, a middle-class man, a working class man, or a noble?”

“Yes, he could.”

“And if it were either a middle-class man or a working-class man who had thriven, could he likewise have as his servant some one of the three other classes?”

“Of course, he could.”

“If this be so, do you think all four classes are on precisely the same footing?”

“Undoubtedly, if this be so, all four classes are on precisely the same footing and I see no difference at all between them.”7

So a poor Brahmin would wait upon a rich Sudra to earn his bread. This point too proved the false nature of the claim to inborn superiority on the part of Brahmins.

Equality in spiritual sphere

As the hereditary teacher Brahmins claimed that spiritual achievements could be made by them alone. The Buddha refuted this claim also and pointed out that with the necessary discipline, earnestness and effort all could attain them. In this connection he says to young Assalayana:-

“Is it only a Brahmin, and not a man of other three classes, who in this country, can develop, in his heart the love that knows no hate or ill-will?”

“No, Gautama, all four classes alike can do this.”

“What strength or support does that lend to the Brahmin’s claim?”

“Is it only a Brahmin, and not a man of the other three classes who can go down to the river with his string red bath-balls to shampoo himself with, and can there rub off the dust and dirt?”

“No, Gotama, all four classes alike can do this.”

“What strength or support does that lend to the Brahmin’s claim?”8

“Suppose a noble who has been anointed king were to assemble a hundred men of mixed origins and were to say them – “All of you who are nobles or Brahmins take any kind of wood of sal or pine or sandal or lotus and make a blazing fire with it. And you that come of low stocks – trappers, rush-plaiters, cartwrights and vermin killers you light your fires with cattle-troughs or hog-troughs or wash-tubs or bits of woodbine. What would happen, do you think? Would it be only the fire kindled by the high-born which would blaze up with a bright flame and serve the purpose of fire ? And would the fire of the low people fail herein?”

 “No, Gotama, it would be just the same with high and low; every fire alike would blaze up with the same bright flame and equally serve the purpose of a fire.”

“What strength or support does this lend to the Brahmin’s claim?”

The conclusion is obvious – all are equally qualified to attain inner purification and burn the light within.

A local institution

When the interested people tried to prove the divine origin of caste institution with reference to its universal character, the Buddha told them that it was not so. In this connection he pointed out, as recorded in Assalayana sutta9, that in Yona, Kamboja and the adjacent countries there were no such caste distinctions as then prevalent in India. In these countries there were only two classes-masters and servants. They were not hereditary in character. This distinction was purely based on economic reasons. So according to their economic condition a servant would become a master and vice versa. This went to show that caste system was a local institution brought into existence and maintained by a section of the interested people.

Social Grades Are Conventional in Nature

Agganna sutta10 presents the Buddhist view of the origin of social grades and distinctions. According to the sutta, in the beginning there was a casteless society. But, in course of time, as the society began to grow in complexity, laws were laid down for the maintenance of peace and order among the people. Naturally there arose the necessity of somebody to administer the law. Accordingly they selected the man with the most commanding personality for the function. He was known as Mahajanasammata Raja or the ruler appointed by the common consent of the people. This was the origin of the Kshatriyas or rulers. In the same way those of noble character were appointed to look after the moral welfare of the people. They came to be known as Brahman and so on. In the beginning these offices were not hereditary. As such only persons with necessary qualifications were appointed to them. Later on hereditary factor entered in them and a rigid form of class system came into being. At a still later stage this was converted into caste system. The main purpose of Agganna sutta is to show the conventional character of the class system. As such it is only social and divine in origin.

Occupational Character of Caste system

In Vasettha sutta the Blessed One has given a detailed explanation of the occupational character of caste system. There the Buddha has shown caste distinctions maintained by advocates of the system are without a basis. In this connection he points out that in the of case animal life there are different varieties based on differences and essential characteristics. This is equally true of plant life also. But, as for man, there do not exist such differences which justify their classification into water-tight compartments. On the contrary they are one and the same in the essential characteristics. So humanity is one.The distinctions sought to be maintained by the caste institution is arbitrary in character. The Buddha proved this fact with reference to the Brahmin community itself. Now the Brahmins of the day used to follow various professions. There were priests, traders, farmers and so on among them. Still, even as now, in those days they used to call themselves Brahmins. The Buddha interpreted the term Brahmin means a person of the highest spiritual attainments and as such one who has risen above class and caste distinctions. So the current usage was quite a wrong one. The Tathagata pointed out to them that those who till the soil are farmers and not Brahmins, those who deal in merchandise are traders and not Brahmins, those who officiate at religious ceremonies are priests and not Brahmins and so on.To make the point clear I quote the relevant passages from the sutta :-

“Know ye the grass and the trees, although they do not exhibit it, the marks that constitute species are for them, and their species are manifold.

Then know ye the worms and the moths, and the different sorts of ants, the marks that constitute species are for them, and their species are manifold.

Know ye also the four-footed animals small and big, the marks that constitute species are for them, and their species are manifold.

Then know ye also the fish which range in the water, the marks that constitute species are for them, and their species are manifold.

Then know ye also the birds that are borne along on wings and move through the air, the marks that constitute species are for them, and their species are manifold.

As in these beings the marks that constitute species are abundant, so in men the marks that constitute species are not abundant.

Not as regards their hair, head, ears, eyes, mouth, nose, lips, brows, neck, shoulders, belly, back, hip, breast, sex, union, hands, feet, palms, nails, calves, thighs, colour or voice are there marks that constitute species as in the case of other beings.

Difference there is in other beings, but among men this is not the case, the difference amongst men is nominal only.

For whoever among men lives by cow-keeping-know this, O Vasettha-he is a husbandman, not a Brahmin.

And whoever among men lives by different mechanical arts – know this, O Vasettha – he is an artisan, not a Brahmin.

And whoever amongst men lives by trade – know this, O Vasettha-he is a merchant, not a Brahmin.

And whoever amongst men lives by serving others know this, O Vasettha-he is a servant not a Brahmin.

And whoever amongst men lives by theft-knows this, O Vasettha-he is a thief not a Brahmin.

And whoever amongst men lives by archery know this, O Vasettha-he is a soldier, not a Brahmin.

And whoever among men lives by performing household ceremonials-know this, O Vasettha-he is a sacrificer, not a Brahmin.

And whoever amongst men possesses villages and countries-know this, O Vasettha-he is a king, not a Brahmin.

By work one is a husbandman, by work one is an artisan, by work one is a merchant, by work one is a servant.

By work one is a thief, by work one is a soldier, by work one is a sacrificer, by work one is a king.

Not by birth is one a Brahmin, nor is one by birth Non-Brahmin; by work one is a Brahmin, by work one is Non-Brahmin.

Adhered to for a long time is the views of the ignorant, the ignorant tell us, one is a Brahmin by birth.

For what has been designated as ‘name’ and ‘family’ in the world is only a convention, what has been designated here and there is understood by common consent.”10

Thus the Buddha showed that people are known after their occupations. Hence the question of superiority or inferiority does not arise with reference to them. There are no inborn characteristics which justify the caste distinctions. They are the result of conventions established by the people. So humanity being one, caste distinctions do not stand.

It is clear from the above account how in course of his discourses and discussions Tathagata exposed the caste system. He went to the very root of the matter and revealed the false character of its foundation. Whenever an unreasonable and impertinent Brahmin would persist in his stubbornness, the master did not hesitate to say bare naked facts before him and bring him to his senses so as to show him the true state of affairs. Thus on several occasions, as quite evident from the above passages, when Brahmins put forward the theory of creation attributed to Brahma in support of their case the Buddha made it plain to them that it was not at all a sound theory for them to take shelter in. In this manner, with reference to points detailed in the above account, the Buddha demolished the very foundation of the system and refuted the claims of the Brahmins to any superiority over the rest of the people.

(This is Chapter II of his book ‘Buddha and Caste system’)



1. Lokattaravadin school is a case in point 

2. Samyuttanikaya, 1. p. 140

3. Udana, Udapana sutta, p. 81

4. Suttanipata, Sutta No.35

5. Mjjhima Nikaya 1. p.13, ibid pp. 84-85

6. Majjhima Nikaya, 11. p.85; Digha Nikaya, 111, p.78

7. Digha Nikaya, 111. p. 78-79

8. Majjhima Nikaya 11. 44

9. Majjhima Nikaya 11. p. 84. cf. ibid.p.102

 10. Majjhhima Nikaya 11. p.85

11. Digha Nikaya, 111, pp. 77-94

12.Suttanipata pp 111-114



Transcribed by Surekha Bedide.

Image courtesy: the internet.