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Social Conditions and Messages
of the Buddha through the Sonadanda Sutta
  
By Thich Thanh Nguyen

      Digha Nikaya is the first among the five collections of the Nikaya sutra which contains simple and daily but sublime discourses of the Buddha. Digha Nikaya contains thirty-four sutras in total which are divided into three divisions: Silakkhandha Vagga Pali, Mahà Vagga Pali, and Pathika Vagga Pali. The first division contains thirteen sutras which deals with the morality and wrong views of other sects concerning their views on sacrifice, caste, and religious practices. The second division contains ten sutras which deals with historical, biographical, and the doctrinal aspects of Buddhism. The last one deals with the universal, the responsibility of a person in the society, and the religious practices of other sects. Sonadanda sutra is the fourth sutra of the first division of the Digha Nikaya. The sutra is the discussion between Brahman Sonadanda and the Buddha about the characteristics which make one a true Brahman. This paper will discuss the Indian social conditions at the time of the Buddha and the messages which the Buddha wants to deliver through the dialogue, namely equality, and virtue and wisdom.

      First of all, we examine the conditions for the Buddha to preach this sutra. The Buddha once stayed at Gaggara lake in Kampa of Anga. Sonadanda, a famous Brahman of Anga heard about the reputation of the Buddha. So, together with his disciples and other Brahmans, he came to see the Buddha, and the dialogue took place.

      Secondly, we analyze the content of the sutra. It is divided into three parts. The first part is the argument among the Brahmans that should the Brahman Sonadanda visit the Buddha or vice versa. Other Brahmans thought it was nonsense for Sonadanda to call upon the Buddha because Sonadanda’s reputation would decrease and the Buddha’s would increase. Moreover, Sonadanda was well born on both sides, of pure descent through the mother and through the father back through seven generations, with no slur put upon him. Sonadanda was handsome and well-versed in the Three Vedas, and so on. Therefore, it was not fitting for Sonadanda to call upon the Buddha; rather it was more appropriate for the Buddha to come to see Sonadanda. After hearing so, Sonadanda explained why it was fitting for him to see the Buddha. Finally, all of them agreed that they should visit the Buddha.

      The second part is the dialogue between the Buddha and Sonadanda. The Buddha asked him what were the characteristics that make one a true Brahman. According to Sonadanda, there were five characteristics that one could declare himself as a Brahman “without being guilty of falsehood.” The five characteristics are:

  1. A Brahman is well born on both sides, on the mother’s side and on the father’s side, of pure descent back through seven generations, with no slur put upon him, and no reproach, in respect of birth.

  2. Then he is a repeater (of the sacred words), knowing the mystic verses by heart, one who has mastered the Three Vedas, with the indices, the ritual, the phonology, and the exegesis (as a fourth) and the legends as a fifth, learned in the phrases and in the grammar, versed in Lokayata sophistry, and in the theory of the signs on the body of a great man.

  3. Then he is handsome, pleasant to look upon, inspiring trust, gifted with great beauty of complexion, fair in colour, fine in presence, stately in behold.

  4. Then he is virtuous, increased in virtue, gifted with virtue that has grown great.

  5. Then he is learned and wise, the first, or it may be the second, among those who hold out the ladle.1

After hearing these five characteristics, the Buddha asked him if it is possible to leave one out of these five characteristics. The answer of Sonadanda was “yes.” After asking Sonadanda several times to eliminate the characteristics he thought were less important, there are only two characteristics remained. They are virtuous, and learned and wise. The Buddha agreed so.

      In the last part of the sutra, at the request of Sonadanda, the Buddha broadly explained the meaning and how to promote virtue (sila), and wisdom (prajna).

      What are the social aspects of Indian society which we can learn from this sutra? Through the sutra, we learn that the caste system was well-established in India during the Buddha’s time. There were four distinct castes: Brahman, Ksatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra. Among these four castes, the Brahman was the highest one. The social discrimination was also visible that the lower caste (Sudra) could not learn the Vedas or marry to the higher caste. The caste system was inherited from generations to generations, i.e. children of a Brahman family would be Brahmans, and Sudra’s would be a Sudra’s forever. For example, Sonadanda was a pure Brahman for he was well born on both sides of pure mother and father back seven generations. Another aspect is that the society evaluates people “by birth.” This was the reason why Sonadanda took out the characteristic that “by birth” one was a true Brahman, all other Brahmans were strongly against him. They said Sonadanda against his tradition and totally converted to Buddhism. In addition, there was a great pride of birth and their social position of the higher castes, especially the Brahman. When Sonadanda, a famous and well-versed Brahman of Anga, decided to call upon the Buddha, all other Brahmans tried to stop him for they think such famous Brahman like Sanadanda, the Buddha should call upon him, rather not Sonadanda call upon the Buddha. The first two reasons which they used to persuade Sonadanda were: (1) Sonadanda’s reputation would decrease and the Samana Gotama’s would increase, and (2) Sonadanda was well born in a pure Brahman family back seven generations. According to them, Sonadanda had a high position in the society, and he was born into the highest caste, so as such a person, only others should call upon him.

      Through the dialogue, the Buddha also wants to deliver two important messages. Firstly, he emphasizes the importance of virtue and wisdom. Of these two characteristics, Sonadanda said that it was impossible to leave one out, and the Buddha agreed. All the teachings of the Buddha are suffering and the way to end suffering. The way to end suffering is the way of the Three Studies which is constituted of virtue, meditation, and wisdom. These three factors have a mutual relationship. From virtue there arises meditation, and from meditation there arises wisdom. One must fulfill virtue and wisdom in order to achieve Enlightenment:

    From wisdom, oh Gotama, is purified by uprightness, and uprightness is purified by wisdom. Where there is uprightness, wisdom is there, and where there is wisdom, uprightness is there. To the upright there is wisdom, to the wise there is uprightness, and wisdom and goodness are declared to be the best thing in the world. Just, oh Gautama, as one might wash hand with hand, or foot with foot, just even so, oh Gautama, is wisdom purified by uprightness, and uprightness is purified by wisdom. Where there is uprightness, wisdom is there, and where there is wisdom, uprightness is there. To the upright, there is wisdom, to the wise there is uprightness, and wisdom and goodness are declared to be the best thing in the world. [The Buddha agrees so.]2

Thus, virtue and wisdom elaborate and purify one another just like one washes his hand with hand or foot with foot. Without virtue there is no wisdom, and without wisdom there is no virtue. One who is virtuous will have wisdom, and if he has wisdom, he will be virtuous. To that end, one has to be perfect in virtue and wisdom in order to end suffering or to attain Enlightenment.

      Furthermore, through the dialogue, the Buddha also stresses equality. To declare as a Brahman was not a matter of birth, rather of his deeds. All people can be a Brahman if he performs good deeds. In contrast, if a person who was born in a Brahman family but performs bad deeds, he could not be called a Brahman. Just like the example of Angaka, a nephew of Sonadanda, he was well born into a pure Brahman family, well-versed in three Vedas. If he kills living beings, takes what has not been given, and speaks lies, should he be called a true Brahman? In this case, how can color avail him? What of the verses? What of his birth? None of these conditions help him as a Brahman. However, if he was virtuous, learned, and wise, we could rightly declare him as a true Brahman.3 So, in the eyes of the Buddha, there were no castes, and all are equal:

    Majesty, in the Way of Liberation, there is no caste. To the eyes of the enlightened person, all people are equal. Every persons blood is red. Every persons tears are salty. We are all human beings. We must find a way for all people to be able to realize their full dignity and potential.4

 In the same manner, Buddha-hood was not a matter of birth. All sentient beings have Buddha nature, and they all can attain Enlightenment if they correctly follow the way which the Buddha has shown to them: “Do not ask of the origin (jati), ask of the behavior. Just as fire can be born out of any wood, so can a saint be born in a kula of low status.”5

      In conclusion, the Sonadanda sutra’s content expresses what happens daily in Indian society at the time of the Buddha. The caste system and social discrimination are described in this sutra. Indian society at that time evaluates people by their birth not by their deeds. That was the reason the higher castes (Brahma and Ksatriya) were proud of their birth and social position. Sakyamuni Buddha appeared and declared that there was no distinction between people. All were equal. People promote themselves to higher states by their good deeds, not by their birth. Through the sutra, the Buddha also stresses the importance of virtue and wisdom. One has to perfect these two in order to achieve salvation. 
 
 

Bibliography 

Davids, T. W. Rhys. 1992.  Dialogues of the Buddha. Vol. 1. Oxford: Pali Text Society.

Singh, Upinder. 2008. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the  12th Century. New Delhi: Pearson Education.

Thich, Nhat Hanh. 1991. Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha.  Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press.

 

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Update: 01-02-2010


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