Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Buddha and Caste

               Indians and Westerners who know Buddhism through Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and other modern pamphlet literature,  sometimes believe that the Buddha started a movement of social reform, mobilizing against caste and recruiting among low-caste people. As against this, Chinese and Japanese Buddhists who have studied their religion only through its source texts, think that Buddhism was an elite movement, recruiting among the upper castes and patronized by kings and magnates. We will argue that these believers are right, while the neo-Buddhists in India and outside enthusiasts in the West are wrong.

                A good place to start is the Buddha's use of the term Ārya. Buddhists claim that when the Buddha lived and taught, the term Ārya had a general psychological-ethical meaning “noble”, a character trait larger than and not dependent on any specific cultural or religious tradition or social class (let alone linguistic or racial group). It is used in the famous Buddhist expressions, the “four noble truths” (catvāri-ārya-satyāni) and the “noble eightfold path” (ārya-astāngika-mārga).   However, we must look at the historical data without assuming modern and sectarian preferences.

Firstly, we must take into account the possibility that the Buddha too used the term Ārya in the implied sense of “Vedic”, broadly conceived. It no longer meant “Paurava”, the ethnic horizon of the Veda-composing tribes (whereas in Anatolian and Iranian it would retain this ethnic meaning, “fellow citizens” against “foreigners”, “us” against “them”), but in the post-Buddha Manu Smrti and in general Hindu usage, it would retain the association with the Vedic tradition, hence the meaning “civilized” in the sense of “observing Vedic norms and customs”. The Buddha too may have conceived of his personal practice as restored-Vedic and more Vedic than the “decadent” formalism around him. “Back to the roots” is of all ages, and it may have affected the Buddha as well. What speaks in favour of this thesis is that the Buddha himself, far from being a revolutionary, appealed to the “ancient way” which he himself trod, and which “the Buddhas of the past” had also trodden.

After Vedic tradition got carried away into what he deemed non-essentials, he intended to restore what he conceived as the original Vedic spirit. After all, the anti-Vedicism and anti-Brahmanism now routinely attributed to him, are largely in the eye of the modern beholder. Though later Brahmin-born Buddhist thinkers polemicized against Brahmin institutions and the idolizing of the Veda, the Buddha himself didn’t mind attributing to the Vedic gods Indra and Brahma his recognition as the Buddha and his mission to teach. His disciples took the worship of the Vedic gods as far as Japan.

As Luis Gómez [1999: “Noble lineage and august demeanour. Religious and social meanings of Aryan virtue”, in Bronkhorst & Deshpande: Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia, Harvard, p.132-133] points out, the Buddhist usage of Ārya is subject to “ambiguities”, e.g. in the Mahāvibhāsā: “The Buddha said, ‘What the noble ones say is the truth, what the other say is not true. And why is this? The noble ones […] understand things as they are, the common folk do not understand. […] Furthermore, they are called noble truths because they are possessed by those who own the wealth and assets of the noble ones. Furthermore, they are called noble truths because they are possessed by those who are conceived in the womb of a noble person.’”

At the end of his life, the Buddha unwittingly got involved in a political intrigue when Varsakāra, a minister of the Magadha kingdom, asked him for the secret of the strength of the republican states. Among the seven unfailing factors of strength of a society, he included “sticking to ancient laws and traditions” and “maintaining sacred sites and honouring ancient rituals”. [Dīgha Nikāya 2:73] So, contrary to his modern image as a “revolutionary”, the Buddha’s view of the good society was close to Confucian and indeed Brahmanical conservatism. Far from denouncing “empty ritual”, he praised it as a factor of social harmony and strength.  He wanted people to maintain the ancestral worship of the Vedic gods, go to the Vedic sites of pilgrimage and celebrate the Vedic festivals. In this light, his understanding of Ārya may have been closer to the Brahminical interpretation of the term as “Vedic” than nowadays usually assumed.

This even applies to the Buddha’s view of caste. Of most of the hundreds of men recruited to the Buddha’s monastic order, we know the provenance, hence the caste. More than 80% of the hundreds of men he recruited, were from the upper castes. More than 40% were Brahmins. The Buddha himself was a Ksatriya, son of the President-for-life of the proud Sākya tribe, and member of its senate. His lay patrons, who had their personnel or their feudal subordinates build monasteries for the Buddha, included most of the kings and magnates of the nether Ganga region. Indeed, this patronage is the main reason why Buddhism succeeded in becoming a world religion where most other contemporaneous sects dwindled and disappeared.

                The successor-Buddha prophesied for the future, the Maitreya, is to be born in a Brahman family, according to the Buddha himself. When the Buddha died, his ashes were divided and sent to eight cities, where the elites had staked their claims purely in caste terms: “He was a Kshatriya and we are Kshatriyas, so we are entitled to his ashes.” Clearly, his disciples, after undergoing his teachings for forty-five years, were not in the least hesitant to display their caste in a Buddhist context par excellence.

In his study of caste and the Buddha (“Buddhism, an atheistic and anti-caste religion? Modern ideology and historical reality of the ancient Indian Bauddha Dharma”, Journal of Religious Culture, no.50 (2001)), the German Indologist Edmund Weber quotes the biographical source-text Lalitavistara and concludes: “The standpoint which caste a Buddha should belong to has not been revised in Buddhism up to the present day. It is dogmatised in the Lalitavistara in the following way: a Bodhisattva can by no means come from a lower or even mixed caste: ‘After all Bodhisattvas were not born in despised lineage, among pariahs, in families of pipe or cart makers, or mixed castes.’ Instead, in perfect harmony with the Great Sermon, it was said that: ‘The Bodhisattvas appear only in two kinds of lineage, the one of the brahmanas and of the warriors (kshatriya).’”

                A word returning frequently in Buddhist texts is “nobly-born”. Buddhists were proud to say this of their Guru, whose noble birth from the direct descendants of Manu Vaivasvata was an endless object of praise. Birth was very important to the Buddha, which is why his disciples wrote a lot of hagiographical fantasy around his own birth, with miracles attending his birth from a queen. The Buddha himself said it many times, e.g. of the girls who should not be molested: they should be those of noble birth, as distinct from the base-born women who in the Buddha’s estimation were not equally delicate.

                The Buddha also didn’t believe in gender equality. For long he refused to recruit women into his monastic order, saying that nuns would shorten its life-span by five hundred years. At long last he relented when his mother was widowed and other relatives, nobly-born Kshatriyas like the Buddha himself, insisted. Nepotism wasn’t alien to him either. But he made this institution of female monastics conditional upon the acceptance that even the most seasoned nun was subordinate to even the dullest and most junior monk. Some Theravada countries have even re-abolished the women’s monastic order, and it is only under Western feminist influence that Thailand is gradually reaccepting nuns.

                The Buddha’s ascent to Awakening was predetermined by physical marks he was born with, according to his disciples. Buddhist scripture makes much of the Buddha’s noble birth in the Solar lineage, as a relative of Rāma. The Buddha himself claimed to be a reincarnation of Rama, in the Buddhist retelling of the Rāmāyana in the Jātakas. He also likened himself to the mightily-striding Visnu. Later Hindus see both Rama and the Buddha as incarnations of Vishnu, but the Buddha started it all by claiming to by Rama’s reincarnation.

To play devil’s advocate, we could even extend our skepticism of the Buddha’s progressive image to an involvement in the racist understanding of Ārya. Some pre-WW2 racists waxed enthusiastic about descriptions by contemporaries of the Buddha as “tall and light-skinned”. [Schuman, H.W., 1989: The Historical Buddha, London: Arkana, p.194] That would seem to make him “Aryan” in the once-common sense of “Nordic”.

Nowadays, some scholars including Michael Witzel [on his own Indo-Eurasian Research yahoo list] suggest that the Buddha’s Śākya tribe may have been of Iranian origin (related to Śaka, “Scythian”), which would explain his taller stature and lighter skin in comparison with his Gangetic fellow-men. It would also explain their fierce endogamy, i.e. their systematic practice of cousin marriage. Indeed, the Buddha himself had only four great-grandparents because his paternal grandfather was the brother of his maternal grandmother while his maternal grandfather was the brother of his paternal grandmother. The Brahminical lawbooks prohibited this close endogamy (gotras are exogamous) and, like the Catholic Church, imposed respect for "prohibited degrees of consanguinity"; but consanguineous marriages were common among Iranians. (They were also common among Dravidians, a lead not yet fully exploited by neo-Buddhists claiming the Buddha as “pre-Aryan”.) The Śākya tribe justified the practice through pride in their direct pure descent from the Ārya patriarch Manu Vaivasvata, but this could be a made-up explanation adapted to the Indian milieu and hiding their Iranian origin (which they themselves too could have forgotten), still visible in their physical profile. So, that would make the Buddha an “Aryan” in the historically most justified ethnic use of the term, viz. as “Iranian”.

                At any rate, nothing in Buddhist  history justifies the modern romance of Buddhism as a movement for social reform. Everywhere it went, Buddhism accepted the social mores prevalent in that country, be it Chinese imperial-centralistic bureaucracy, Japanese militaristic feudalism, or indeed Hindu caste society. Buddhism even accepted the religious mores of the people (a rare exception is the abolition of a widow’s burial along with her husband in Mongol society effected by the third Dalai Lama), it only recruited monks from among them and made these do the Buddhist practices. In “caste-ridden India”, the Buddhist emperor Aśoka dared to go against the existing mores when he prohibited animal-slaughter on specific days, but even he made no move to abolish caste.

                Buddhism wasn’t more casteist than what went before. It didn’t bring caste to India anymore than the Muslims or the Britons did. Caste is an ancient Indian institution of which the Buddha was a part. But he, its personal beneficiary, didn’t think of changing it, just as his followers in other countries didn’t think of changing the prevailing system.

(first published on the Hindu Human Rights website)


Nirjhar007 said...

I think we should not truly believe in anything without observing the bases and you have again shown the power of that path, really there are not many folks in Bharata or Earth who follow the path specially in the field of Indology, most of them create false war for their loved theories.
As you know Scythian origin theory of Gautama is a putative one and old with no direct evidence, directness is satya and satya is riddance, we are all here to find the truth the satya.
Have a good time.

Ray Lightning said...

Buddhism is an offshoot of the republican states that were dotted over the north Indian landscape. These republican states were egalistic, but not open to outsiders. A modern equivalent would be a country like Switzerland.

The republic of the Shakyas is one of the most well-known. Another famous clan are the Licchavis, who formed the republican state of Vaishali. Such republican states are found only in north India (at one point, the whole of the Ganges basin was dotted by them) but not in Iran. This is why it is silly to assume that the Shakyas are the Scythians - the scientific rigour in archeology and history is at a pretty low standards as far as India is concerned.

Just like the republican states, Buddhism is an elite religion, it never claimed to be an egalistic religion. Of course, it stresses compassion to all creatures. But it doesn't say that people are equal. Much to the contrary.

Nirjhar007 said...

What you wrote is just fine and i'm asking you this practical question: What is the validity of Caste now?.

Naras said...

Ananda Coomaraswamy has written on lines similar to you. His conclusion is also similar. The use of Buddha for political purposes starts with Ambedkar.

TechnicalPhilosopher said...

Mr. Elst,
I will have respectfully disagree with some of your findings.
Some sutras point the other way round e.g. lotus sutra says anybody can attain buddhahood and we are all boddhisattvas of the earth, including women. There is an example in the lotus sutra of a dragon girl attaining enlightenment, or so was inferred by the likes of Tien Tai and Nichiren.
The buddhist sutras are like the bible in many regards, their veracity is suspect and so is their interpretation.
There are several thousand of them anyway.
I respect you very much, but I would impore you to research more throughly into the matter.

Nirjhar007 said...

But you have to consider the fact also that those sutras were written 400 to 600 years after Gautama a time enough to throw many indirect stuffs.

Unknown said...

Buddhism and Caste

One of the tragically comic experiences one can have as a brahmin to watch helplessly as uppercastes and OBC’s who deal in land, trade and business pass derogatory remarks about brahmins.
I live in Mumbai, where my household help known as ‘bais’ belong to Dr Ambedkar’s ethnicity and caste. You only have to listen to what they say about north Indian Dalits or Bnegali Muslims(who are often in competition with them for jobs) to understand ‘liberal’ India.
In Tibetan Buddism, the Chenrezig, Padmasambhava and descent of the Dalai Lamas is always from higher castes. Buddhist country elites are never from lower class stratas. The Tibetan monastic heirarchy was very stratified like feudal systems.
Jesus and his ancestry whether temporal or spiritual is never from the pariah class( he is supposed to represent).
In Jainism the nobleman are all rich merchants and jain temples are often ornamented with very precious material substances including diamonds. Jains are often some of the biggest diamond trading elite businessman.
Part of all this is the extreme nature of the FOLLOWERS of spiritual leaders- while they themselves may have been moderate seeking to reclaim a spiritual sensibility lost to their faith…..hypocritical and puritanical followers corrupt.
Our own independence movement and leaders created their own versions of puritanical philosophy which has resulted in a corrupt India. With due apologies Gandhism and Nehruvian ethos is full of such extremism while they themselves had industrialists foot their bill.
Ethical philosophy in the collective sense requires earthy grounding without this one has only corrupt nothingness!

Shanti Jagannathan said...

It is possible that 'modern day romance with Buddhism' has more weight rooted in the evolution of Buddhist teachings and deeper interpretations than you are willing to give credit. Buddhism was not a vehicle for social reform but it was very much a vehicle for the enlightenment of all people. Buddha was known to have taught 'according to the times and the capacity of the people' and there are layers of Buddhist teachings. I draw your attention to the "Lotus Sutra" or Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, that forms the basis for T'ient'ai and Nichiren schools.

Some of the flaws you attribute to Buddhism were part of the early teaching; the ultimate teachings contained in the Lotus Sutra were way more progressive. If there is one thing that stands out is their 'universality' in application and their 'humanistic' underpinnings. In the eighth volume of his Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra, T’ien-t’ai explains the appearance of the treasure tower. "No treasure tower exists other than the figures of the men and women who embrace the Lotus Sutra. It follows, therefore, that whether eminent or humble, high or low, those who uphold the Sutra are themselves the treasure tower, and, likewise, are themselves the Thus Come One Many Treasures". (Nichiren Daishonin).

The five fold comparison throws more light on this: (1) Buddhism is superior to non-Buddhist teachings (eg, Confucianism); (2) Mahayana Buddhism is superior to Hinayana Buddhism. (3) True Mahayana is superior to provisional Mahayana; the Lotus Sutra compared to provisional pre-Lotus Sutra. In the provisional Mahayana teachings, the people of the two vehicles, women, and evil persons are excluded from the possibility of attaining enlightenment, but not in true Mahayana or Lotus Sutra; (4) The essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra is superior to the theoretical teaching of the Lotus Sutra. (5) The Buddhism of sowing is superior to the Buddhism of the harvest.

Could it be that 'noble' is noble in character rather than in birth? Enlightenment was a path for both people of high descent and otherwise. Evil rulers like Ajatashatru attained enlightenment by following a great teacher and so did countless ordinary people. To Maitreya, this is what Buddha said: "I transmit to you, Maitreya, this unexcelled, perfect enlightenment in order that, at a later time, during a later life, a similar teaching of the Dharma will spread in the world. Maitreya, in the future there will be noble sons and daughters, devas, nagas, yaksas, gandharvas, and asuras, who, having planted the roots of virtue, will produce the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.” The Buddha said to the venerable Ananda, "Receive then, Ananda, this expression of the teaching of the Dharma. Remember it, and teach it widely and correctly to others!"
from Vimalakriti sutra:

At the beginning of the "Emerging from the Earth" chapter, countless Bodhisattvas of the Earth appear, and Maitreya addresses the Buddha, asking by whom these bodhisattvas were taught. Shakyamuni replies that they are his original disciples whom he has been teaching since long. To Maitreya's second question: How could Shakyamuni possibly have trained all these bodhisattvas in the mere forty-odd years since his enlightenment, the Buddha's revelation in the "Life Span" chapter discloses that he actually attained enlightenment in the inconceivably distant past.

The Buddha had noble lineage, but he discarded it; his 'august demeanor' had nothing to do with his origin. We should not detract from the value of Buddhist teachings for present day times with divisive discussions on "aryans' or 'caste' etc. Scholars have a responsibility (and a 'noble'
role) in interpreting for the people, what is good and universal for the peaceful and tolerant advancement of societies.

Capt. Ajit Vadakayil said...


buddha was born during the reign of bindusara of sishunag dynasty in 1900 BC, and NOT in 623 BC as per vatican propaganda.

the history of india has been systematically destroyed/ stolen by the christian invaders. the muslim invaders only translated.

translations in arabic still exists in the fox holes around the ancient gold mines of timbuktoo -- they traded gold with spices and knowledge from kerala, india.

fibonacci is given the credit of the golden ratio of 1.618 in 1200 AD-- the truth is this italian thief stole from an arabian translation book of vedic maths , which he stumbled upon at bejaya, algeria.

the sri yantra of 8000 BC, is constructed from the golden mean.

punch into google search SCIENCE MEETS VEDANTA, THE LAST FRONTIER- VADAKAYIL. i have out a video of the construct.

a lock of buddha's hair is preserved in the botauang paya of myanmar. DNA tests dont lie.

it was necessary for vatican to push back history, because as per the old testament of bible, the big bang of the cosmos and noah's arc are VERY recent events.

capt ajit vadakayil

Bhuvan said...

An excellent and succinct comparison between Buddhism and Hinduism by Ram Swarup can be found here:

Muse (# 01429798200730556938) said...

@ TechnicalPhilosopher,

Buddhism qualifying everyone for Buddhahood and Bodhisatvahood is a very later phenomenon.

Interestingly, this change happened only outside of India.

Pre-buddhist Hindu literature already qualifies everyone the ultimate spiritual achievement.

Therefore, it is not new invention of Buddhism either.

Elst ji, thanks.

Nirjhar007 said...

Exactly and precisely.

Shankar Sharan said...

Thank you, again, Dr Elst. For bringing to our notice the difference of actual Buddhist principles and practices prevalent in Buddhist countries with the manufactured Buddhism of contemporary Indian Marxists and Christian missionaries' inspired neo-Biuddhists, who are just using the name Buddhism only to denigrate Hindu/ Sanatan dharma.

Unknown said...

This is an awesome article. I have always wondered about Buddhism and the wests love affair with it. This article sheds a lot of light on what I had percieved earlier through my own studies. Unfortunately, any Hindu who has these views are deemed Hindutvas or supporting RSS, in which I do not.

Mr. Elst, I have one request in which I hope you will elaborate on. The notion that is now being tossed around by western scholars is that Jainism and Buddhism have existed before Hinduism and stem from the Indus Valley (as a part of the shramana tradition) and Hinduism was bought by Aryans and are a part of the Brahamana traditions. My question is, how can Jainism and Buddhism be older and a part of a "shramana" tradition if the Vedic scriptures are older. And where is such a division coming from? From my understanding, both Buddha and Mahavir did not exist before 600-500 BC but yet their traditions are older than Hinduism?

Such views also credit the idea that Hinduism was brought in by Aryans from outside while Jainism and Buddhism are native to India/Indus Valley.

This view is being touted around all over including wikipedia. I would love to see an article from you.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Let me both disagree and agree with the views expressed here.

The Buddha did lessen the relevance of caste in his teachings. Further, he did say that one became a Brahmin or outcaste by deed, not birth. I refer to the Alavaka Sutra. In that he was a social progressive. He also redefined the use of the word Brahmana in his Dhammapada - the last chapter therein to mean Arhat.

This said, much of what Dr. Elst mentions is in fact not incorrect either. Let me provide added evidence. Pre-modern Japan had the outcaste Burakumin which was likely a Buddhist import into the fabric of that society. Korea had a similar institution of untouchability until it was abolished by the Confucian resurgence under the Yi dynasty in the 1300s CE. In short, it may well be plausible that Buddhism may have carried untouchability with it to the Far East.

Anonymous said...

Kat Revari

Hinduism is as much a child of the Indus Valley civilization as may be the Shramanic tradition. The Vedas were influenced by the Indus valley culture. Further, Hinduism as a significant non-Vedic lineage as well.

American said...

There is additional data relevant to caste-like discrimination and Buddhism:

1. Ragyabas (Ra-gyap-pa): the hereditary, endogamous outcast amongst Buddhists of Tibet. The occupation of Ragyabas was disposal of the dead, leather work and such. They were shunned and lived in ghettos separate from their fellow Buddhists.

2. Jianmin (賤民): the hereditary, endogamous outcast among Buddhists of China. Segregated and shunned, their occupation and history is too long to summarize here. See, Anders Hansson, Chinese Outcasts: Discrimination and Emancipation in Late Imperial China (ISBN 978-9004105966)

3. Baekjeong (백정): the hereditary, endogamous outcast amongst Buddhists of Korea. Like outcasts in other Buddhist parts outside India, they were considered ritually polluted and shunned.

There are more examples. It is unclear whether (1) the caste system existed before Buddhism came, adapted to it, and let it continue or (2) these outcaste groups came into existence after Buddhism became established, or (3) something else happened.

Of course, caste or casta has been seen other societies and religions too.

BhargavJ said...

You say:

"The Buddha himself said it many times, e.g. of the girls who should not be molested: they should be those of noble birth, as distinct from the base-born women who in the Buddha’s estimation were not equally delicate."

I'd like to know the source, the name of the scripture, and if possible, the exact verse / shloka number where the Buddha says this, please.

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