Buddhism and caste system

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Buddhism and caste system

Postby Rakshasa » Thu Jun 27, 2013 6:19 pm

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.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby maybay » Thu Jun 27, 2013 7:39 pm

Rakshasa wrote: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.

All text is history. Each text has a context and takes a position. The four noble truthes are the essence of Hinayana teachings. They are the apex of pragmatic spirituality. What could Mahayana texts add but elaborations for the diverse characters of beings? Don't look for truth in elaboration. You might as well call watching advertisements educational. At least when you look for truth in Hinayana teachings you arrive at nobility.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby Seishin » Thu Jun 27, 2013 9:42 pm

If mahayana Buddhism was trying to introduce a caste system (which I don't believe) then it failed in my opinion.

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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby M.G. » Thu Jun 27, 2013 9:56 pm

Like other religions with ancient histories and preserved texts, Buddhism contains such voluminous writings that one could probably find something, somewhere in an authentic Buddhist scripture that more or less supports or opposes any conceivable political position, at least with a bit of tweaking.

For example, I've heard it argued by more informed people than myself that Buddhism is actually the only ancient religion fully compatible with Western liberalism in its orthodox form.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby Wayfarer » Thu Jun 27, 2013 10:29 pm

There is a lot of literature on this question. As I had always understood it, the Buddha's rejection of caste was one of the hallmarks of the movement. All the very many references to 'the true Brahmin' are intended to show that nobility comes about by conduct and discipline, not through birth-right. Richard Gombrich's books, such as What the Buddha Thought and How Buddhism Began go into some detail about that. I am surprised by that reference in the Lalitavistara Sutra, because it doesn't seem characteristic to me. Indeed as you appear to say, one of the reasons Buddhism died out in India was because it didn't recognize castes.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby LastLegend » Thu Jun 27, 2013 10:48 pm

I am wondering if you can post a passage from the Sutra that points to that you said.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby JKhedrup » Fri Jun 28, 2013 9:51 am

Please do cite the texts for us.

In my opinion, there is only one example of an actual, functioning caste system in Buddhism. This is upheld by a small minority within the Siam Nikaya nowadays, who limit ordination to members of the Govigama caste. However, this is onlyone of Sri Lanka's three traditional,major monastic lineages. The Amarapura, one of the other monastic lineages, was founded by members of other castes who funded an expudetion to Burma where monks received upasampada, and the order was then established in Sri Lanka and lasts to this day.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby Rakshasa » Fri Jun 28, 2013 11:37 am

The standpoint which caste a Buddha should belong to has not been revised in Buddhism up to the pre-
sent 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.” 25
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).” 26
In which of the two high castes they were born depended on the fact which of the two had the better
reputation at that particular moment. "When the Brahmins are especially respected on earth, they were
born in a lineage of Brahmins, when the warriors play a greater role, they appear in a noble family." 27
According to Buddha, at his time the kshatriyas were above the now impure brahmanas. That is why,
only a kshatriya can have the Buddha-ship. "Today the nobility has priority in the world, therefore the
Bodhisattvas were born in a noble family." 28
Worldly reputation determines the Buddhas' caste, not the moral qualification of the family or the caste.
Lower castes have never had the chance to consider Buddha among them namely because they don't
have a good reputation.
The Bodhisattva explains to the gods that he should be born only in a family of a noble birth and caste.
Furthermore the family ought to have procreated only in a direct line and on the man’s side, an adop-
tion is impossible. Otherwise, purity would not be guaranteed. The purity of the family is so essential,
that the father-to-be Suddhodana says: "King Suddhodana is pure on the side of the mother and father
and was born in a respected family." 29


http://www.google.co.in/url?sa=t&rct=j& ... mk&cad=rja


Dont know about the exact verse, but I got the above from an article.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby muni » Fri Jun 28, 2013 11:39 am

The ideas of superiority and inferiority are samsaras' harming delusion. Then to say that only in the highest castes an understanding can be is like saying our nature simple like it is always -so also "before" we start our classifation, is dependent on that very classification.

We can also say that our air is dependent on our status whether we breathe high or low.

But castes-likes are everywhere where the idea of a self is, not only in India.
In wisdoms' naturally equanimity is no any differentiation.

Buddha thaught untouchables, not? Certainly he didn't perceive "them" like that.

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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby Wayfarer » Fri Jun 28, 2013 11:57 am

From the cited article:

The early Buddhist theology shows clearly that the gods were highly respected and enthusiastically worshipped by the Buddhists.


According to this Buddhist tradition, it is thanks to the gods and in a broader sense to the brahmanas, who joined Siddharta straightway in big numbers, that Buddha addressed the people and made the path of salvation accessible to them as well. Therefore, Buddhism owes its origin to the gods and brahmanas.


I would be surprised if this were true, but I'll keep an open mind. I would like to know a little more about that scholar, Edmund Weber. He seems to have a barrow to push, from what I can see.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby muni » Fri Jun 28, 2013 12:15 pm

Buddha taught that one was not noble by birth, but by one's thought, word, and deed.

http://home.earthlink.net/~brelief2/bud_ind.html :namaste:
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby Seishin » Fri Jun 28, 2013 1:25 pm

Lalitavistara Sutra http://read.84000.co/browser/released/U ... 46-001.pdf

And why, monks, did the Bodhisattva behold the family of his birth? Because a
bodhisattva is not born into an inferior family, like a family of outcastes, flute makers, cartwrights, or servants. A bodhisattva is only born into one of two families—a
priestly family or a family of the ruling class. When the priestly families are dominant in the world, the bodhisattva is born into a priestly family. When the rulingclass families are dominant in the world, the bodhisattva is born into a ruling-class
family. Thus, monks, at this time the ruling-class families were dominant in the
world, so bodhisattvas were born into such families


I believe he is referring to his own birth into this world in this sutra.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby maybay » Fri Jun 28, 2013 1:40 pm

Rakshasa wrote:Dont know about the exact verse, but I got the above from an article.

What we have here is a hermeneutical problem with the Lalitavistara Sutra. This is compounded by a German intellectual who is probably quite sympathetic to Plato's ideas on the purity of the ruling class and at the same time still trying to come to terms with the Nazi Eugenics of the last century.
Plato thought a strict separation of races/classes was the only way to ensure stability of government. His ideas have had a formative effect on European thinking. It wouldn't be the first time a Western intellectual went riffling through Buddhist texts to support his ideas. Its the search for precedence. We all do it. Buddhism is in vogue, so what better place to look.
I'm sorry if this sounds curt, but there's really no question in Buddhism about the irrelevance of the caste system—for the Hinayana that is.

Virtue and learning I was fain to test;
Henceforth I doubt not virtue is the best.
Virtue excels vain gifts of form and birth,
Apart from virtue learning has no worth.
A prince or peasant, if to sin enslaved,
In neither world front misery is saved.
Men of high caste with those of base degree,
If virtuous here, in heaven will equal be.
Not birth, nor lore, nor friendship aught avails,
Pure virtue only future bliss entails.

- Silavimamsa Jataka

That was said by the Bodhisattva, who in other births was not even born human. So there's no question that progress on the path to enlightenment is independent of caste/species. The Buddha does not argue with the world, and so he does not deny the hierarchies of the world—but nor does his Dharma depend on them.

For the Mahayana though it's not so simple. The intentions behind the Mahayana exceed that of the Hinayana. In the Lalitavistara Sutra, all the text is really saying (and often it's the text itself doing the saying) is that to manifest as a Buddha in this world the Lord had to take the form of either a Brahmin or a Ksatriya, because that is what is prefered in this world. We need to appreciate the politics of Indian religious institutions, social sensitivities, and that sort of thing.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby Rakshasa » Fri Jun 28, 2013 8:35 pm

From what I have read, the Hinayana was vociferously against Brahmanic caste system. In fact, the caste system did not exist in India as it exists today. Buddha himself gave examples of places like Kambojas where there did not exist any caste. Bhuridatta Jataka tells that tale of Brahmin going to a Naga kingdom and boasting about the superiority of Brahmins, which a great being (Buddha in previous birth) rebukes as a fraud and tells how they can see the caste system being enforced on them before their very own eyes. Buddha himself is variously referred to as a Shudra, having been born from Brahma's feet in many early Pali Suttas.

In Sonandata Sutta, the Brahmin Sonandata lays down five criteria that define a Brahmin as:

decent birth, fair complexion, vedic education, goodness or virtue, and wisdom

But Buddha reduces the criteria to only two : goodness and wisdom.

Interesting to see that "fair complexion" was one of the criteria. Reminds me about Patanjali who also says that Brahmins are the whitest. Shows how the early Indo-Aryan Brahmins were Iranic in origin and looked distinct from other Indians.


But the whole trend seems to have changed by the time of Mahayana. I see an acceptance of caste system as a natural reality in Mahayan scriptures.


Buddha thaught untouchables, not? Certainly he didn't perceive "them" like that.


Untouchables did not exist during Buddha's time. India was not a whole single "country" as it exists today, with a well established caste system. In fact, most of the contemporary untouchables descend from people who were "outcasted" for following Buddhism, after Brahmanism triumphed over Buddhism.


But castes-likes are everywhere where the idea of a self is, not only in India.


Classifying someone low or high simply based on their birth, and giving them no chance to rise higher in their life, while even creating obstacles for certain section of society to liberate itself or progress, is almost non-existent in many western countries. Probably because people belong to a single race.

In India it was not the case. There were many races at that time from Caucasians in the west to Mongoloids, to Dravidian Australoids to Austro-Asiatic language speaking tribes. Caste system is a direct consequence of race differences. It has little to do with work or profession.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby LastLegend » Fri Jun 28, 2013 8:49 pm

Also, we have to consider that to be born into a high class is display of merits. Buddha was born a Prince with good looks, and lacked nothing of the material world. A being who lacks of great merits cannot be born as a Prince or King. Also, as maybay suggested, if Buddha were born into a low class, it would have been problematic for him to transmit Dharma.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby Rakshasa » Fri Jun 28, 2013 8:57 pm

LastLegend wrote:Also, we have to consider that to be born into a high class is display of merits. Buddha was born a Prince with good looks, and lacked nothing of the material world. A being who lacks of great merits cannot be born as a Prince or King. Also, as maybay suggested, if Buddha were born into a low class, it would have been problematic for him to transmit Dharma.



I dont think you know the reality of caste system. What you are talking about is class system. For example, in India today, thanks to affirmative action, there are many former untouchables who are rich and flourishing. But they are still despised because of their caste. On the other hand, there are "Brahmins" and "Kshatriyas" who are poor. So who has had greater merit? Someone who is born into a poor Brahmin family barely making a sustenance or a rich former untouchable who has every luxury of life? Mayawati, a political leader of the Dalits, is a multimillionaire, and her followers almost worship her. Does she have more merit or less than an a Brahmin living in a village, sustaining his family through temple donations? Of course, there are people in Brahmin or Kshatriya families who are born with birth defects, are they less meritorious?

Buddhism supports the theory that if you are rich and prosperous, have good looks, and are loved in society, you probably have a lot of merit from the past lives. But this has nothing to do with Brahmanic caste system which is based on birth.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby Nighthawk » Fri Jun 28, 2013 9:02 pm

Caste system in Buddhism? This is a first for me.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby Konchog1 » Fri Jun 28, 2013 9:12 pm

"After all Bodhisattvas were not born in despised lineage,
among pariahs, in families of pipe or cart makers, or mixed castes.”

“The Bodhisattvas appear only in two kinds of lineage, the one of the brahmanas and of the warriors (kshatriya).”

"When the Brahmins are especially respected on earth, they were
born in a lineage of Brahmins, when the warriors play a greater role, they appear in a noble family."

"Today the nobility has priority in the world, therefore the Bodhisattvas were born in a noble family."
In other words, anyone can practice the Mahayana and become a Bodhisattva, but after becoming a Bodhisattva, one is only reborn as a respected and impressive member of society, which in ancient India required being a member of a high caste.

The reason for this is two: 1. the karma of being a Bodhisattva results in high rebirths and 2. being respected allows the Bodhisattva to better lead and guide sentient beings

The Buddha is the prime example for this. If he had been Shudra or Chandala instead of Kshatriya, would as many people followed him? Would have received the royal support he did? Would his teachings have been respected?

Being Indian, you know the answers to these questions.

Indeed, the Kshatriya were the most respected caste during the Buddha's time, therefore he was a Kshatriya. If the Brahmin were the most respected then he would have been a Brahmin. If Chandala, then Chandala. And so forth.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby LastLegend » Fri Jun 28, 2013 9:15 pm

Rakshasa wrote:
I dont think you know the reality of caste system. What you are talking about is class system. For example, in India today, thanks to affirmative action, there are many former untouchables who are rich and flourishing. But they are still despised because of their caste. On the other hand, there are "Brahmins" and "Kshatriyas" who are poor. So who has had greater merit? Someone who is born into a poor Brahmin family barely making a sustenance or a rich former untouchable who has every luxury of life? Mayawati, a political leader of the Dalits, is a multimillionaire, and her followers almost worship her. Does she have more merit or less than an a Brahmin living in a village, sustaining his family through temple donations? Of course, there are people in Brahmin or Kshatriya families who are born with birth defects, are they less meritorious?

Buddhism supports the theory that if you are rich and prosperous, have good looks, and are loved in society, you probably have a lot of merit from the past lives. But this has nothing to do with Brahmanic caste system which is based on birth.


There is cause and effect...why was a particular individual born into a super rich family, and not me? You must remember this world is samsaric. That's why there is always suffering which is a result of ignorance. Caste system is a demonstration of ignorance. If that woman was born into a rich family, but now does not understand and practice Dharma, her merits are not that great as compared to a person who was born poor but then became a monk and practice Dharma. Having merits to be born rich does not mean a good thing.
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Re: Buddhism and caste system

Postby maybay » Sat Jun 29, 2013 7:47 am

Rakshasa wrote:From what I have read, the Hinayana was vociferously against Brahmanic caste system.

Your examples are hardly vociferous. And please quote so we can all see the source of your argument.
In the Sonandata Sutta for instance it was the Brahmin himself who, on being questioned by the Buddha 'reduces the criteria', as you put it.

Classifying someone low or high simply based on their birth, and giving them no chance to rise higher in their life, while even creating obstacles for certain section of society to liberate itself or progress, is almost non-existent in many western countries. Probably because people belong to a single race.

You have no idea what you're talking about.
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