Rakshasa wrote:Caste system in Buddhism (especially Mahayana) is an issue that makes me have my doubts regarding the validity of some of the teachings of Buddhism - whether these were added from external source to dilute it or were indeed the beliefs of the monks who wrote them. Being from India, I am well aware of the gross inhumanity that this caste system inflicts on the less privileged classes of society. People are classed into a hierarchy just on the basis of their birth, which is pretty much equal to racism.
I am especially referring to Lalitavistara Sutra which preaches that only a Kshatriya and a Brahmin - both of which are the top two castes/varnas of the Brahmanic society - can ever become Buddhas (or Bodhisattvas). I am not sure whether to ignore this as a later import to the sutra, or to treat it as a truth. If I ignore it as a later addition in the Sutra, then I will have to be skeptical about many other things in Sutras like these which could be later additions into the Sutra.
It is well and clear that in the time of the Buddha, and a few centuries after that, when the caste system was not well established and the Brahmins did not have much influence in the Southern and Eastern parts of India, the Buddhists who came in contact with Brahmanic thesis of caste system fiercely rebuked it. For example, Asvaghosa wrote Vajrasuchi challenging the caste theory of Brahmins and their claims of superiority. But it seems that by the time of the Mahayana Sutras the caste system was so thoroughly imprinted into the consciousness of society that its ideas of superiority and inferiority by birth made their way into Mahayana Buddhism and its sutras itself. However, from what little I know, the phase of Vajrayana again shows that there were last attempts by Buddhists to challenge the caste system and their claims of superiority again - before eventually even they completely disappeared from the face of India after Brahmanism became triumphant over it.
1. At the Buddha's own time, the Brahmanic caste system was the not the standard social system in central-eastern India (eg. Magadha, Kosala, etc.) See Bronkhorst, Greater Magadha
, Buddhism Under the Shadow of Brahmanism
, etc. S
2. Later, around the time of Asoka onwards, Brahmanism became the basic standard of social thought, ie. the caste system, etc.
3. Earlier biographies of the Buddha written from Asoka's time onward, mentioned the "castes" as a development from this gradual changes.
4. Some of these discuss that past Buddhas came from either the Brahman and Ksatriya castes. However, this is descriptive, not a prescriptive.
5. The Lalitavistara is a mid period biography of the Buddha. It is also probably from the North West, which was closer to the Brahmanic heart land. Brahmanism was definitely now the norm in this area. Quite possibly the above factor led to the notion that a Buddha must be
from either the Brahmanic or Ksatriya caste, ie. prescriptive not descriptive.
6. So, don't take such statements as saying much about what the Buddha taught, or what the rest of Buddhists actually thought.