Societys stratification system is caused by human beings. Such
divisions status regarded as high or low in status, weak or strong in power are influenced
by biological, physical. Psychological, and karmic factors pertaining to moral acts and
their consequences and laws pertaining to spiritual phenomena.
Buddhist thinking attempts to understand these influences which, coming
together causes the formulation of a particular stratification system. Primarily it is
mans ignorance which causes the division of society into different levels, either
based on ascription or achievement. The Buddhist approach is to understand the basis of
this ignorance and realize the futility of social stratification in human society.
Buddhist thinking sometimes attempts to understand people in a society
by dividing them into strata based on the internal qualities they possess. The state of
inner development would provide according to Buddhism, a better way of grouping people
into various strata- if at all such a system is necessary. In such a division there is
logical explanation and a moral or ethical base where, as in social stratifications based
on caste, class or ethnicity one cannot find either an ethical or a logical explanatory
Instead, the Buddha contributed his ideas to this interpretation of
arranging the role and the status of an individual based on inner qualities. When some
monks in the order began to exert influence, being conscious of their birth or lineage,
the Buddha condemned such an attitude. These monks believed that the best lodging, best
food etc. should go for those of noble ranks. I.e. Brahmins, kshatriyas." in the
religion I teach, the standard by which precedence in the matter of lodging and the like
is to be settled is not noble birth or having been a Brahmin or having been wealthy before
entry into the order".(J.tr. Vol.I, 92-93).
Caste was prevalent in India from immemorial times. During the
Buddhas days,, caste was a fundamental principle in the social life of the people. A
person belongs to a caste by virtue of his birth, and under no circumstances could this
caste be changed during his lifetime. The Buddhas contribution in this context is
his acceptance of the fact that ones caste could be changed. He put this thinking
into practice by acceptance people from all castes considered high and low-into his
community of monks.
The Buddha admitted Up li , the barber into the community of
monks. Not only was Up li belonging to one of the despised occupations of the lower
castes admitted to the order of monks, but also was recognized as an expert on Buddhist
monastic law. Sun≠ ta, an inividual who was a scavenger was also admitted to the
Buddhas order of monks regardless of the fact that he came from the Cand la
caste-one of the lowest in the caste hierarchy, virtually an outcast. Sun≠ tas
experience is captured (in Psalms of the brethren XXIX) in the following manner:
"Humble the clan wherein I took my birth and poor was I and scanty
was my lot; mean task was mine, a scavenger of flowers, one for whom no man cared,
despised, abused, my mind I humbled and I bent the head in deference to a goodly tale of
folk. And then I saw the all- enlightened come, begirt and followed by his bhikkhu
train, great champion entring Magadhas chief town, I laid aside my
baskets and my yoke, and came where I might due obeisance make, and of his loving kindness
just for me, the chief of men hated won his way, low at his feet I bent, then standing by,
I begged the masters leave to join the race and follow him, of every creature chief
then he whose tender mercy watcheth all the world, the master pitiful and kind gave me my
answer, come bhikkhu, he said thereby to me was ordination given."
Two slave girls (PuŌ and PuŌ il ) are examples from
women who were admitted to the order. According to Rhys Davids, eight and half percent of
women admitted to the order of nuns were base-born he further states that is
most likely that this is just about the proportion which persons in similar social rank
bore to the rest of the population.
IŌn the society of the Buddhas time the lowest rank of the
fourfold caste system was occupied by the sudras. " A sudra, according to Manu cannot
commit an offence causing loss of his caste so degraded was he "(Ghurye, 1932, 84) .
NO economic opportunities were available for one born as sudra, free access to well and
sometimes the use of the public roads were denied to them. Religious freedom and equality
before the Law does not arise in the case of the Sudra.
The Buddha interpreted the role in a different manner from that adopted
by those who adhered to the caste system. A Brahmin occupying the highest rung in the
caste-ladder, according to the Buddha has to be called such not because of his birth, but
because of his actions. The Buddha: ignored completely and absolutely all advantages or
disadvantages arising from birth, occupation or social status and sweeps away all barriers
and disabilities arising from the arbitrary rules of mere ceremonial or social
impurity"(SBB,Vol.I, 100) .
The community of monks established by the Buddha put into practice the
teachings propagated by the teacher. During his lifetime when the Buddha was asked by
Brahmins as to what his caste was, the Buddhas reply was, " Do not ask me for
my birth." nada, a disciple od the Buddha once went into the city for alms. As
he desired to drink some water and come near a well, a girl of a very low caste was
drawing water from the well at this particular time. When nanda requested water
from her, the girl said, "I belong to Maatanga caste, Sir". nanda replied
, "I did not ask for your birth, sister, I asked for water." Then she gave water
to nanda (quoted by E.J. Thomas, Life of the Buddha, 242).
In a discourse with a Brahmin youth named Assalaayana, the Buddha
advances a clear-cut argument to disprove the caste theory of the Brahmins. Brahmins are
born from women who have their periods (as other women), conceive, give birth and give
suck . So how could they be superior in birth to others? In certain districts, instead of
the four-fold caste system, one finds only two castes-masters and slaves and a
vice versa . So how could one accept the four-fold caste system with unchanging caste
positions as universal?.
Would a Brahmin not suffer from his evil acts such as the slaughter of
beings etc. and only men of certain castes suffer from such acts? The results of such evil
acts are similar in their effect on every human being regardless of caste system
Do only Brahmin not suffer from his evil acts such as the slaughter of
beings etc. and only men of certain castes suffer from such acts? As all four castes are
able to develop such hearts, there is no superiority attached to Brahmins in this context.
Would a fire lighted by a person belonging to a Brahmin caste be
different from a fire lighted by a man of another caste? If both of them had taken the
same type of firewood, would the fire differ from its colour , heat etc., distinguishing
the fire lighted by the Brahmin from that of the other?
Even among brahins, the skilled and the educated Brahmin stands above
others, and the morally superior one above even the skilled and the educated. This shows
that the value of a human being lies not in birth but in the attainment of skills,
knowledge, moral habit etc. (M.II.148-154).
In a discourse with a Brahmin youth named Ambaś ś ha (D.I.8766), the
Buddha goes on to expose the myth of caste purity . the Brahmin youth was so proud of his
Brahmin caste that he did not think of observing the common courtesies in talking with the
Buddha. The youth did this because the Buddha was not a Brahmin, but a kshatriya whom he
considered as inferior to him in caste status.
"And what family do you then, Ambaś ś ha, belong to?" the
Buddha asked from the Brahmin youth.
And when the youth replied, the Buddha went on, "Yes, but if one
were to follow up your ancient name and lineage, Ambaś ś ha, on the fathers and
the mothers side , it would appear that the S kyas were once your masters, and
you are the off spring of one of their slave girls. But the S kyan trace their line
back to Okk ka the king."(D.I.114-115).
The Buddha brings historical evidence in order to confront Ambaś ś ha
who is excessively proud of his own Brahmin ancestry. The historical evidence was
obviously known not only to Ambaś ś ha , but also to those who at the time listened to
this conversation between the Buddha and the Brahmin youth. If there were inaccuracies in
such evidence, the prod but learned Ambaś ś ha could certainly have pointed it out. His
silence is sufficient to indicate that the historical facts adduced by the Buddha were
known to all of them at the time. The Brahmin youths pride was thus broken down, and
together with the argument that the Brahmins are a super caste. The Buddha believes in no
caste superiority, a super caste. The Buddha believes in no caste superiority, and if
necessary, he would have utilized a similar argument to disprove the fallacy of kshatriya
Buddhist thought developed five main arguments against caste. they are
the biological, evolutionary , sociological, ethical and the "spiritual unity of
mankind" arguments. The same arguments are valid even in the case of race.
Biologically, all human beings are of one single caste. "If as brahmins affirm, all
men proceed from one individual brahma, how could a four-fold inseparable diversity among
Among animals there are distinctive traits. The foot of the elephant
may be different from that of the horse; that of the tiger unlike that of the deer or
hare. But one could not see such a difference from a man of one caste and another. In the
case of animals, colour, figure, odour, etc., provide further diagnostics to separate this
race or castes of animals. But we cannot follow the same line and
separate human beings into castes. So are the plants and trees. They can be put into
races or casters by virtue of their distinguishing features in the
leaves, stem , flowers, fruits, bark etc. All human beings on the contrary, are alike in
flesh, blood, bones, figure etc.
"V seś ś ha, I will expound
To you in gradual and very truth
Division of the kind of living things
For kinds divide behold the grass and trees.
"They reason not, yet they possess the mark
after their kind, for kinds indeed divide,
Consider then the beetles, moths and ants;
They after their kinds too possess the mark,
"And so four-footed creatures, great and small
Fish and pond-feeders, water-denizens
Birds and the winged creatures, fowls of the air
"They after their kind all possess the mark;
For kinds divide, each after his kind bears
His mark. In man there is not manifold
Not in the hair or head or ears or eyes
"Not in the rump, sex organs or the breast,
not in the hands or feet, fingers or nails;
"Not in the legs or thighs, colour or voice,
is mark that forms his kind, as in all else
nothing unique in mens bodies found
the difference in men is nominal."
(Sn. VV, 3600-3611 Tr. E.M.Hare in Woven Cadences)
A Brahmins sense of pleasure and pain does not differ from that
of a human being coming from another caste. A man or woman from the Brahmin caste sustains
life in the same way as others in different castes. They all die from the same causes or
illnesses. In the case of trees and plants as well as animals, there are remarkable
differences from one type to another; and does not find this difference among human
The variations in skin colour, hair, shape of nose or head found among
groups of human beings are negligible when compared to specific variations in various
animal and plant species. Man is thus biologically, one species.
The evolutionary argument goes on to say how caste names originated as
mere conventions. With division of occupations such a conventional grouping according to
the work that one does become necessary. According to Asvaghosa (quoted by Jayatilleke,
1992,42), "The distinction between Brahmin, kshatriyas, vaishyas and sudras are
founded merely on the observance of diverse rites and the practice of different
professions." "One who engages in trade, comes to be known as a merchant; one
who indulges in military pursuits is known as a soldier, and one who administers the
country as a king. It was not by actions that one performs or the job one does"
The four castes (it was laid down by tradition ) were created by the
god. As such, people born into a caste should perform whatever woud assigned to that caste
by the creator. The Buddhist theory, rejecting the idea of a creator god, accepts the fact
that society evolved itself from simple beginnings. The aptitude and functions that a
particular caste specialized, arose due to the conventional practice that the caste was
engaged in. people are not born in certain castes with special aptitudes which are
There is no pure caste from an evolutionary point of view. No one can
say at least his or her parents and grandparents even up to seven generations had observed
caste purity in their inter-marriages (D I, 92-99). : we really do not know
who we are," and as such could we speak about caste purity, which is only a myth?
The Buddhist thinker Asvaghosa raises the following question pertaining
to the purity of caste. "did you say that he who is sprung from brahmin
parents is a Brahmin? Still I object that, since you must mean pure and true Brahmins, in
such case the breed of Brahmins must be at an end, since the fathers of the parent race of
brahmins are not , any of them. Free from the suspicion of having wives who notoriously
commit adultery with sudras. Now, if the real father be a sudra, the son cannot be a
Brahmin, notwithstanding the Brahminhood if the mother" (quoted in Jayatilleke,
There is no bar to inter-marriage within castes. Human history records
innumerable instances of such inter-marriage. The "purity theorists" profounded
the theory that such inter-marriages would not end in disaster.
Buddhist discourses describe the evolution of society in detail. Human
beings began to live in households, and due to their lust, rights of property came to be
recognized. When such people began to enfringe on the rights of each other, they chose men
differing from the others in no wise except in virtue to restrain the evil-doers by blame
or fine or banishment. These were the first kshatriyas, and the others chose to restrain
the evil dispositions which led to the evil-doing . and these were the Brahmins, differing
from the others in no wise, except only in virtue. Then certain others, to keep their
households going, and maintaining their wives, started occupations of various kinds, and
these were the first vaishas" (SBB. Part I, Vol.II, 106).
The third argument is based on sociological considerations. When one
examines certain societies, one finds two caste systems. In some other societies there is
no caste system at all . If the almighty God created the four castes, the four-caste
system should be available in all human societies, and as such, there is no logic t accept
the fact that the four caste system was a divine creation.
Based on the divine origin, the Brahmins consider themselves as the
most superior born of the mouth of brahma, but when one compares the Brahmins
wit other human beings, n differences so remarkable as to distinguish them as a super
caste are observed. Caste prejudices, discrimination and attitudes are social in origin,
having nothing to do with creation or a god. The Brahmins purposely cultivated such
prejudices an d attitudes in order to derive material advantages for them. Rigidity of
caste was maintained by them with such an ulterior purpose in mind.
The sociological conditions existing in the society enabled the
so-called high castes, the kshatriyas and the Brahmins who possessed more wealth to
command the services of others. It is because of such wealth and power which they
possessed that they were anle to utilize the services of sudras. It was not the caste
superiority that was at work, but sheer economic power.
Purity of caste depended on the magical belief in pollution. Pollution
would ensue if a high caste person, (i.e. Brahmin) comes into contact with a low caste
sudra. A J taka story in the Buddhist tradition (J.179) shows the futility of this
claim. When possessed by the pangs of hunger, a high class Brahmin snatches the half-eaten
foof packet if a low caste Cand la had finished his meal was used to cure the high
caste Brahmins of a spell cast on them (J.479).
Pollution could not only be conceived in physical terms if one desires
to examine its role in everyday life. A low caste sudra or a high caste brahmana could, if
they so desire, get into the water, bathe and purify themselves. The same physical purity
that a brahmana gains could also be accomplished by a sudra. Buddhist thinking dismisses
this sort of "pollution" concept and does on to say that if at all
purity of thought could be achieved (thoughts away from passion, ignorance and
hatred), there, one may be able to talk of internal purity or
pollution. The Buddha in re-interpretation the role of a brahmana introduced a
new concept dismissing totally the earlier definition of a brahmana based on
purity of caste. This re-interpretation contributed much to the undermining of
the brahmin concept based on nothing but accident of birth. (Sn. 21-66).
"Not by matted hair, nor by family, nor by birth does one become a
brahmana, but in whom there exists both truth and righteousness, pure is he , a brahmana
is he" (Dh. P. 393).
"Because he has discarded evil, he is called brahmana"
"I do not call him a brahmana because he is born of a womb or
sprung from a brahmana mother. He is merely a " dear addresser," if he is with
impediments. He who is free from impediments, free from clinging, him I call a
brahmana" (Dh.P. 396)/
"He who is not wrathful, but is dutiful, virtuous, not moistened
with craving, controls and bears his final body, him I call a brahmana" (Sh.P.400).
The ethical argument attacks the privileged position that the brahmins
desired to maintain in the religious sphere. Buddhist thinking arguers that anyone could
develop spiritually ones faculties and reach the highest possible point of spiritual
development. The Buddha in contrast to the Brahmin doctrine said that, "It is they
who alone are saved, and not others, " stating that spiritual salvation was possible
for men and women of all castes, irrespective of the fact that they are born high or low.
Furthermore, the law of karma works in the same way for all without any
distinction as to one is of high or low caste. According to the law of karma, reward and
punishment are strictly in proportion to good and evil done, and ones
birth or caste has no relevance in this context . "Moral and
spiritual development is not a prerogative of people who are specially favoured by their
berth, but is open to all, and is within the reach of all" (Jayatilleke, 1992,50). No
one could purify oneself by eternal acts such as emerging oneself in water. What is
necessary is inward development. That was the ethical dimension to measure human beings ,
adopted in Buddhist thought.
The spiritual unity of making could be understood when one looks at the
lot of human beings all over the earth. These human beings are subjected to disease, decay
and finally death. The different castes or races to which they belong do not absolve them
from these inevitable processes which is the lot of human beings everywhere. All of them
thus "desire for self-gratificatrion, personal immortality, and for final domination
In the struggle for self-gratification and happiness, all human beings
stand in the same footing. Their capacity to attain final salvation is there in everyone
of them, irrespective of the race or caste to which they belong to. the spiritual unity of
mankind is seen in this potential which exist in everyone to better himself and reach the
highest point possible. In this ,no one could distinguish this potential varying among
human beings according to caste or race.
Buddhist thought examined the concept and practice of caste and
attempted to understand it. It is nothing but a convention which, at a stage in the
evolution of society certain groups encouraged and utilized to gain advantages for them.
The divine origin of caste , with the pollution theory was introduced with this purpose in
mind. It flourished die to ignorance among people who never did understand its real
The caste ideology led to a form of discrimination in society. Equality
in political opportunity was denied to the low castes. Economic opportunity was reserved
for higher castes. Well-paid jobs and lucrative positions in society were not made
available to lower castes. Even so , social opportunity was denied as in the case of
education-a privilege made available only to high castes. So was the freedom of worship.
Religion became the prerogative of high castes. The lower castes were forbidden to take
part even in religious worship. Finally, caste discrimination led to denial of justice
before the law to lower castes. There was one system of justice for the high castes and
another one for those who are born low. Consequently, when the law was violated, the
transgression of the same offence led to two different sorts of punishments depending on
ones position at birth (i.e. caste).
Class as such is not identified other than in a very general manner as
a factor in social stratification. Kings were regarded as powerful individuals because
political power was invested in them. They had wealth, but the wealthy class recognized in
Buddhist teachings were the merchants (Seś ś hi). Householders were known as Gahapathis
, whereas ordinary people comprised farmers etc.
Although these general divisions were found mentioned in Buddhist
discourses, the most important development for Buddhist thought is the meaning that the
Buddha gave to wealth (dana). One may possess great , but unless one possesses spiritual
wealth, it would be impossible to make use of and sustain already available material
wealth. Spiritual wealth consists of wisdom (prajn ) and virtues (s≠ la). Virtues
are qualities as sharing , discipline, sacrifice etc. there is no value in wealth gained
by means of violence and injustice. In the same manner, wealth is there for making oneself
happy and also to be shared with others. Value of wealth enhances when it is divided and
shared without clinging on to it.
This theory of wealth into which an essential ethical component is
added, makes the Buddhist theory of wealth an unique development in human thought. One may
become wealthy through various means-he or she may be born in a wealthy family or win a
fortune due to past good karma. Another may collect wealth by dint or hard and dedicated
work. In contrast to this are the people who earn wealth through unjust means.
Wealth is not for the purpose of public exhibition or ostentation. One
has to utilize it for ones own comfort and also that of others. Wealth becomes
valuable (i.e. real wealth) in the way it is utilized in order to gain happiness for
oneself as well as others. Once there was a man who died, leaving an immense amount of
wealth, misery accumulated and kept without utilizing for his own happiness or that of
others. The Buddha on this occasion stated that such wealth if properly utilized would
have made that man as well as others happy. Now, in the case of this man, the wealth was
wasted. Wealth is useful, and gains more value when it is not hoarded in a miserly fashion
or wantonly wasted but utilized on purposes that provide happiness for oneself as well as
for others (S.I. 89).
Buddha created a path that facilitated social mobility in a society
where such movement was almost impossible, primarily because of caste and even class. The
community of monks organized had no caste or class distinction. Anyone hailing from a
rural family or from an ordinary low caste was accepted on an equal bases. A new name
replacing the old name was given, and thus , nobility was made easier.
Mobility was facilitated by the emphases on achievement. Education or
gathering of knowledge and development of discipline and cultivation of positive inner
qualities (i.e. virtues) was considered as a factor that promotes mobility. Skilfullness
is thus over and over again praised in Buddhist teachings.
Unequall distribution of wealth tales place due to various reasons.
Among them. Ignorance or lack of knowledge and wisdom is considered the prime factor. The
absence of knowledge or wisdom enables powerful and crafty forces to exploit weaker
sections of society to their advantage. It is ignorance which makes the people idle and
thus leave them bereft of necessary skills. Exploitation can never tale place if knowledge
and skills are made available to all.
Political, social, cultural, economic as well as psychological factors
promote ignorance, and thus means of exploitation of individuals or groups by other
individuals or groups. Karma committed by an individual could determine his birth in rich
or poor circumstances.
Once a Brahmin youth questioned the Buddha in this manner: "What
is the reason and the cause for the inequality among human beings , despite their being
human?" the Buddha replied: "Beings inherit their karma; and it is karma which
divides beings in terms of their inequalities."
When Buddha stated that inequalities in life are caused by karma, oen
has to accept the term karma as covering past volitional activities-present ones and also
future ones an individual would do. The past karma has caused the present birth in a rich
or poor circumstances. But once we are born, we are free to determine our own volitional
acts, and these become our new karmas although a past karma committed by me has influenced
my present status , it does not mean that this is my lot which I cannot change. By
engaging in positive karmic activity, I could change my present and future. Karmic laws
are tendencies, and not inevitable determinants that one cannot change.
It is my ignorance that binds me to negative karmic activities. But
when this ignorance is dispelled, the volitional action that I undertake brings better
karmic results. At the same time , in addition to karma, there are the biological, social,
physical and psychological laws in life. Of these, one or more could contribute to the
inequality in combination with karmic influences . all these laws are causal, but not
The central teaching in Buddhism is to strive to change karma, and
then, control over the effects of kamma . for this-spiritual development would be
necessary. But in the would, if good karma could be performed by individuals and groups,
inequalities could be proportionately reduced. The dispelling of knowledge by means of
education would help us to minimize inequalities, nullifying the impact of not only the
karmic tendencies, but also other causal four laws of nature. Dispelling of ignorance by
whatever means at our command is the surest way to free the human would from the
differences caused by social stratification.