Ambattha Sutta: Complex Enough to Make Your Head Split in Pieces

I was, like my Treeing Walker coonhound on a walk, sniffing around on various sites and came across an article critiquing a new scholarly book on the Buddha and his views on caste in Brahmanic society. The Ambattha Sutta was the focus of the discussion, and the author of the book took the view (per the book review summary) that the Buddha had strong ideas on caste, and was keen to make distinctions based on caste. Now, this did not sound to me like the Buddha that I know from my somewhat lazy itinerant study of the Suttas, so I began to look a bit further.

I found this article: http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/21.3-Ambattha-S-d3-piya.pdf which may be of interest to those familiar with DN 3. It’s an interesting and complex read, and lays out the complexities of the Sutta and gets at the heart of what this prominent Sutta may be describing about the Buddha’s teachings on and against caste, and the important warnings against the “brahminization” of monastic practice.

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After learning about the general history of ancient Eurasia, I’ve a strong suspicion that the conflict in the Ambattha sutta is not between castes but between cultures. That is, the Sakyans were Central Asians and the Brahmins were from the settled “civilized” Indian culture. Central Asians were despised as barbarians by all the settled civilizations (Rome, Persia, India, and China) because they were nomadic, warlike, and egalitarian (women were more equal and leaders of confederations were elected by clan chiefs). A quick way to get a picture of what the Central Asian nomads were like, think “Klingons” from Star Trek the Next Generation.

By contrast, the settled peoples were authoritarian and peace-loving. They had hereditary kings, strict laws and customs, and women and minorities were repressed. They fought wars to build empires and establish a peaceful and orderly society. The nomadic peoples were a constant threat to that peace and order. And the settled civilizations considered them culturally repugnant. They didn’t build cities, didn’t bathe, didn’t read or write (in later eras), and most importantly, they were quick to settle differences with violence and behaved like “land pirates” raiding and exhorting wealth from the weaker settled peoples.

It’s a strange juxtaposition to us in modern times, but in ancient times authoritarian government was civilized and egalitarianism was barbaric. The world was divided between the civilized empires and nomadic free tribes that terrorized them periodically. The nomads were better at warfare than the civilized peoples because they had the best horses, skilled riders, excellent archers, and (most importantly) could be absolutely brutal. Even Roman legions, perhaps the best armies of the civilized world, found it very difficult to fight them to a draw. Atilla the Hun can be credited with toppling the western Roman empire even though he died before he could conquer them. He had done enough damage that they fell apart afterward and the Dark Ages began in Europe.

So, when I read the DN 3 Ambattha Sutta, I can see the conversation being one in which a so-called civilized priest encounters a barbarian shaman and treats him in this prejudiced way. It explains the brahmin reaction to encountering the Sakyan culture when he and his teacher visited one of their cities. “They were so uncouth!” Barbarians didn’t observe strict rules of politeness than urban peoples did, nor did they care much about castes or even gender roles. Women could divorce their husbands and talk back to them! It’s the same reaction we read about when a Chinese literati or a Roman diplomat encountered a Central Asian tribe.

(There’s a funny story of a Chinese diplomat who was captured by a Manchurian tribe and made to marry one of their women. He eventually escaped and returned to China and wrote the only description that still exists about that tribe’s culture at the time. But historians have to read between the lines of the Chinese author’s distain for those nasty barbarians who let their women behave like men!)

These stories like the one we read in DN 3 I think hint at the Sakyas being originally a Central Asian tribe that settled on the periphery of civilized India in modern-day Nepal. In the Dirgha Agama parallel DA 20, it says that when King Okkāka banished his sons, they went south to settle by the Himalayas. DN 3 doesn’t have that detail in that part of the story but later the Buddha does say,

He went to a southern country and memorized the Prime Spell. Then he approached King Okkāka and asked for the hand of his daughter Maddarūpī.

Meaning to me that the native land where King Okkaka was located somewhere north of India where his sons had settled and become the Sakya.

The implications of this are interesting. It may be the conflict between the ascetics and the brahmins in India during the Buddha’s time was between the religion of Central Asian shamans and the religion that had developed in the settle cities of India, with its castes, gods, and Vedas, etc. The two religious traditions were mixing, having conflicts, but gradually merging into a shared tradition that today we call Hinduism.

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Good points! Re: a shared tradition called Hinduism…on this topic, I would recommend Ambedkarite Buddhist scholar Kancha Ilaiah’s essay, “Why I am not a Hindu”, in which he describes the manners, customs and religion of his own Dalit/Bahujan community…(Ilaiah himself identifies as a shudra intellectual, not a Dalit) which he describes as in many ways separate from and opposed to brahmanical Hinduism, particularly on issues like women. To add some more detail around the word “shared tradition”.

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Fascinating perspective, Charles! There’s an article by Bryan Levman, “The muṇḍa/muṇḍaka crux: What does the word mean?” which brings out the same point. Apparently, the pejorative often hurled at the Buddha’s disciples by Brahmins, muṇḍaka, often translated “shaveling” was also an oblique reference to eastern tribals: again, people from outside the Aryavarta. I think you make an important point here regarding the respective degrees to which we review these culture clashes as being “inter-caste” or “inter-cultural.” If I may, though, I would only nuance your point a bit by saying that, to your remark

my response would be that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I get the feeling that ALL people with whom they came in contact fell somewhere within the imaginaire of Brahminical social categorization–even those outside the pale of Brahmin civilization. Albeit a gross oversimplification, tribals in India today could be said to represent peoples who, even at this point, have yet to be brought within the Aryan fold. Yet, technically speaking, they still have a caste classification.

As tends to be my wont, I am trying to avoid a this or that dichotomy.

Also, one last question: were the Indo-Aryan Brahmins really a “settled” people?

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Not originally. That’s where it gets complex historically. Even the Romans were originally Indo-Europeans who migrated to central Italy and settled down there. And they maintained vestiges of the egalitarian nomadic politics for a long time. So it’s a matter of timing. The Sakyas in my little theory would be newcomers who more recently left the nomadic life and settled down, whereas the Brahmins had settled centuries earlier and started building cities, farming, etc. As a result of the urban life being well established, they had changed, but they still chanted the hymns from their nomadic past. The real nomads didn’t farm or build cities. They wandered on the steppes of modern day Russia pulling their houses on carts or building temporary tent encampments when they went to war.

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Jayarava wrote a paper about possible Iranian Origins of the Sakyas. Maybe of interest to you?

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