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Nandasena Ratnapala

Society’s 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 man’s 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 process.

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 Buddha’s 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 Buddha’s contribution in this context is his acceptance of the fact that one’s 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. Sunş ta, an inividual who was a scavenger was also admitted to the Buddha’s 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. Sunş ta’s 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 ent’ring Magadha’s 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 master’s 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 (Pu¤  and Pu¤ 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.

I¤n the society of the Buddha’s 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 Buddha’s 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 distinction.

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 AmbaŠ Š 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, AmbaŠ Š 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, AmbaŠ Š ha, on the father’s and the mother’s 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 AmbaŠ Š ha who is excessively proud of his own Brahmin ancestry. The historical evidence was obviously known not only to AmbaŠ Š 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 AmbaŠ Š 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 youth’s 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 supremacy.

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 men arise?"

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 seŠ Š 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 men’s bodies found
the difference in men is nominal."
(Sn. VV, 3600-3611 Tr. E.M.Hare in Woven Cadences)

A Brahmin’s 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 beings.

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" (Ibid).

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 genetically determined.

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, 1992,94).

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" (Dh.P.368).

"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 one’s 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 one’s ‘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 over death."

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 origin.

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 one’s 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 (SeŠ Š 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 (sş 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 one’s 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 deterministic.

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.

Sincere thanks to Bhikkhu Minh Dieu for transcription of this article


Updated: 1-1-2001

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