Early Buddhism, Slaves, Outcasts, and the Lowest Social Classes

To try and answer my own interrogation (I confess I am commenting before having fully read the text yet), perhaps it has to do with the idea that in principle a “slave owner” could, for all intents and purposes, “free” his “slaves” without their social status having to be changed. It might be assumed that opportunities would be scarce for them out in the general society and they would have all the more incentives to stay if they are treated well.

It seems to me that the Buddha perhaps considered social reform (SN 4.20):

Then as he was in private retreat this thought came to his mind, “I wonder if it’s possible to rule legitimately, without killing or having someone kill for you; without conquering or having someone conquer for you; without sorrowing or causing sorrow?”

Mara then tries to encourage the Buddha to pursue this:

“The Blessed One, sir, has developed and cultivated the four bases for psychic power, made them a vehicle and a basis, kept them up, consolidated them, and properly implemented them. If he wished, the Blessed One need only determine that the Himalaya, king of mountains, was gold, and it would turn into gold.”

But the Buddha rebukes this, saying that a mountain of gold would not be enough for even one person.

I find the sutta bit hard to interpret, but it might be saying something like “even in a post-scarcity society, governing still means sorrowing and causing sorrow because people always want more”.

However, the way the Buddha organized the monastic orders seem to radically depart from the social hierarchies of the time.

You mention DN 2 in the essay:

“I can, great king. Well then, I’ll ask you about this in return, and you can answer as you like. What do you think, great king? Suppose you had a person who was a bondservant, a worker. They get up before you and go to bed after you, and are obliging, behaving nicely and speaking politely, and gazing up at your face. They’d think: ‘The outcome and result of good deeds is just so incredible, so amazing! For this King Ajātasattu is a human being, and so am I. Yet he amuses himself, supplied and provided with the five kinds of sensual stimulation as if he were a god. Whereas I’m his bondservant, his worker. I get up before him and go to bed after him, and am obliging, behaving nicely and speaking politely, and gazing up at his face. I should do good deeds. Why don’t I shave off my hair and beard, dress in ocher robes, and go forth from the lay life to homelessness?’

After some time, that is what they do. Having gone forth they’d live restrained in body, speech, and mind, living content with nothing more than food and clothes, delighting in seclusion. And suppose your men were to report all this to you. Would you say to them: ‘Bring that person to me! Let them once more be my bondservant, my worker’?”

“No, sir. Rather, I would bow to them, rise in their presence, and offer them a seat. I’d invite them to accept robes, alms-food, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick. And I’d arrange for their lawful guarding and protection.”

Though the sangha clearly wasn’t founded for the purpose of providing social mobility, in practice ordination seems to possibly provide a path out of oppression for the socially disadvantaged.

Here we see kings willing to bow down to their former slaves, and not being willing to re-enslave them.

In the sangha as well, I assume junior monks and nuns of a higher caste would have to bow down to and respect their elders of a lower caste.

It seems to me that ordaining under the Buddha could entail a rise in social status for members of the lower castes that would have been otherwise impossible in the Indian society of the time.

Something to consider I guess.


When the Buddha made a casteless Sangha, he wasn’t doing anything unheard of. There were other religious movements that didn’t recognize caste, like that of the Jains. It’s noteworthy that he insisted on making the nuns junior to the monks, using the “everyone else was doing it, too” excuse when he explained this to his foster mother. This makes me think the Buddha was more interested is rolling with established precedent rather than social change.


Well put @Erik_ODonnell.
It is really subtle the way the Buddha, as a founder of the Sangha, created an opening for that sort of emancipation, which has more to do with enablement of liberation than with forcing onto the world some sort of idealistic model of fairness or equality.


I come to a very similar conclusion in my (not so well written but well researched) ‘Early Buddhism and Caste (2019)’ (academia.edu) (google drive).

There is certainly a general message to lay people of compassionate and wholesome behavior. The more specific focus of a classless society applied (with exceptions, as you point out) to the monastic order. But even within the largely egalitarian Sangha the family and social background was not erased. Monastics largely kept their name, which made it immediately clear which caste, class, and clan they used to belong to. Occasionally we see how this led to friction


I am replying to a comment made in another topic because I think it is more on-topic here

Well, there is more than enough evidence that the Buddha opposed cruelty. He rarely - if ever - went to the extent of getting political about it, I think he gave general spiritual advice and let the people figure out for themselves how that spiritual advice should be applied in non-monastic daily life.

So I don’t think it would be even controversial to say that the Buddha would not praise the kind of extremely abusive slavery that is for example portrayed in the movie 12 Years A Slave, given that he spoke clearly against cruelty. But even slavery comes in all shapes an forms. One can surely imagine a situation where someone is socially recognized as a “slave” yet is not subject to cruelty, and this is a scenario where it becomes a bit more difficult to have a clear answer.

I think it is quite clear that the suttas portray “imprisonment” (bandhana) as a bad thing. So it would not be too far fetched to consider that he would regard depriving a person of their freedom as unwholesome. If this line of thinking is correct, it could still allow for “slaves” but they would have to be for “free” all intents and purposes regarding the “master” (even if they still regarded as “slaves” by the rest of society).

Also, I think it could useful to look at Ashoka’s edicts if we want to widen the scope of inquiry, as Ashoka is often regarded as a model of Buddhist leader.

Edict 5:

Now, in times past (officers) called Mahamatras of morality did not exist before… They are occupied with servants and masters, with Brahmanas and Ibhiyas, with the destitute; (and) with the aged, for the welfare and happiness of those who are devoted to morality, (and) in releasing (them) from the fetters (of worldly life). They are occupied in supporting prisoners (with money), in causing (their) fetters to be taken off, and in setting (them) free, if one has children, or is bewitched, or aged, respectively. They are occupied everywhere, here and in all the outlying towns, in the harems of our brothers, of (our) sisters, and (of) whatever other relatives (of ours there are). These Mahamatras of morality are occupied everywhere in my dominions with those who are devoted to morality, (in order to ascertain) whether one is eager for morality or properly devoted to charity.

Edict 9 & 11:

Herein the following (are comprised), (viz.) proper courtesy to slaves and servants, reverence to elders, gentleness to animals, (and) liberality to Sramanas and Brahmanas; these and other such (virtues) are called the practice of morality. Therefore a father, or a son, or a brother, or a master, (or) a friend or an acquaintance, or even a (mere) neighbour ought to say : "This is meritorious. This practice should be observed until the (desired) object is attained, (thinking): “I shall observe this”.

Also somewhat relevant is Edict 1:

All men are my children. As on behalf of (my own) children I desire that they may be provided with complete welfare and happiness in this world and in the other world, the same I desire also on behalf of [all] men.And you do not learn ? how far this (my) object reaches. Some single person only learns this, (and) even he (only) a portion, (but) not the whole. Now you must pay attention to this, although you are well provided for. It happens in the administration (of justice) that a single person suffers either imprisonment or harsh treatment. In this case (an order) cancelling the imprisonment is (obtained) by him accidentally, while [many] other people continue to suffer. In this case you must strive to deal (with all of them) impartially. But one fails to act (thus) on account of the following dispositions: envy, anger, cruelty, hurry, want of practice, laziness, (and) fatigue. (You) must strive for this, that these dispositions may not arise to you. And the root of all this is the absence of anger and the avoidance of hurry. He who is fatigued in the administration (of justice), will not rise; but one ought to move, to walk, and to advance.

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Well, there is more than enough evidence that the Buddha opposed cruelty. He rarely - if ever - went to the extent of getting political about it, I think he gave general spiritual advice and let the people figure out for themselves how that spiritual advice should be applied in non-monastic daily life.

So I don’t think it would be even controversial to say that the Buddha would not praise the kind of extremely abusive slavery that is for example portrayed in the movie 12 Years A Slave, given that he spoke clearly against cruelty. But even slavery comes in all shapes an forms. One can surely imagine a situation where someone is socially recognized as a “slave” yet is not subject to cruelty, and this is a scenario where it becomes a bit more difficult to have a clear answer.

The Blessed One would not have agreed with it, no. He would obviously teach that it was wrong livelihood, cruel, unwholesome etc and if a king or leader were to ask him about it he would teach them the same. However, I don’t think he would have gone and actively campaigned against it nor do I think he would have taught the monks and nuns to do so. I don’t think he would teach the householders to do so either. As you say, I think he would leave that up to us. It is then for us to decide how engaged with the world we want to be. Some will choose to campaign against it, other householders would not due to wanting to renounce the world as much as possible whilst still being a householder.

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I too think that this is the most sensible interpretation of the texts

Again, I think we can be more confident than just to assume that this is correct. Just imagine that the historical Buddha actually actively campaigned against slavery, encouraged slaves to oppose their status, or warned householders/kings with karmic retribution if they didn’t release their slaves - then the texts we have available to us would be pretty worthless. We would have to conclude that the texts are completely unreliable about the Buddha’s position towards social questions. And this again would open pandora’s box: Ok, then what else about the texts is completely unreliable?


This conversation has taken an unexpected turn, but I agree with you

This is a good point, and is something that is lost when Western monastics take on Pali names. Like, when the Buddha called Sariputta by his mother’s name rather than his birth name, wouldn’t that have only underscored his family background?

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On a tangent but not completely unrelated note, it might be interesting to note this phrase in Edict 3 :

Moderation in expenditure (and) moderation in possessions are meritorious.

@Gabriel, what do you make of e.g. SN 3.9:

Now at that time a big sacrifice had been set up for King Pasenadi of Kosala. Five hundred chief bulls, five hundred bullocks, five hundred heifers, five hundred goats, and five hundred rams had been led to the pillar for the sacrifice.

His bondservants, employees, and workers did their jobs under threat of punishment and danger, weeping with tearful faces.

The great sages of good conduct
don’t attend sacrifices
where goats, sheep, and cattle
and various creatures are killed.

But the great sages of good conduct
do attend non-violent sacrifices
of regular family tradition,
where goats, sheep, and cattle,
and various creatures aren’t killed. …

I presume animal sacrifices would have been an important tradition and social practice at the time of the Buddha:

(from AN 3.49) “Brahmin, I don’t praise all sacrifices. Nor do I criticize all sacrifices. Take the kind of sacrifice where cattle, goats and sheep, chickens and pigs, and various kinds of creatures are slaughtered. I criticize that kind of violent sacrifice. Why is that? Because neither perfected ones nor those who have entered the path to perfection will attend such a violent sacrifice. [Italics mine]

What do you make of the often found refrain (e.g. An3.66):

…don’t go by oral transmission, don’t go by lineage, don’t go by testament, don’t go by canonical authority, don’t rely on logic, don’t rely on inference, don’t go by reasoned contemplation, don’t go by the acceptance of a view after consideration, don’t go by the appearance of competence, and don’t think ‘The ascetic is our respected teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unskillful, blameworthy, criticized by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to harm and suffering’, then you should give them up.

You might also be interested in AN 5.191:

In the past brahmins neither bought nor sold brahmin women. They lived together because they loved each other and wanted their family line to continue. These days brahmins both buy and sell brahmin women. They live together whether they love each other or not and they want their family line to continue. But these days dogs neither buy nor sell female dogs. They live together because they’re attracted to each other and want their family line to continue. This is the third tradition of the brahmins seen these days among dogs, but not among brahmins.


You use the word ‘class’, but it doesn’t seem to me like you are aiming for a marxist (class based) reading of the texts?

I also think your draft could benefit from clarifying what you mean by ‘social reform’ and ‘socially conservative’, how do you bridge these modern terms with the Indian context 2500 years ago?

Also, perhaps ‘decidedly not’ is a bit strong? It would be helpful if you clarified your standard for a ‘social reform movement’ in the beginning, because it would be easier for the reader to see whether the texts meet that standard or not.

Thanks for sharing your draft btw :slight_smile:


Thanks so much for taking up this important topic and treating it seriously. I’ll at it all more carefully, but a few things pop to mind.

The most apparent thing to me is how much this echoes my own personal experience, and can be seen in terms of privilege. When I went to a monastery, I was accepted and loved and supported, and to me it was all about meditation and Dhamma. I looked down on people who got too “political” or socially involved. As I stayed longer, though, I began to see how people were excluded and harmed. Firstly women, of course; their exclusion and marginalization is not merely a “training in humility” as I used to naively think: it is an ever-present physical danger and exposure to rape and harassment. I also started to notice how issues of race affected things; as a white man, I was, and am, accepted in ways that people from other backgrounds are not.

In a sense, I can see that the Buddha, being from a privileged background, attracted others from a similar background. As a general rule, it tends to be those who have enough who see through it and want to renounce. Those who have never had anything don’t have the luxury of renunciation. Hence I am not convinced when you say:

the plight of the lower and lowest classes is hardly addressed in the early Buddhist texts – this must have been a conscious decision by early teachers and transmitters, if not even by the Buddha himself

Such things are often a matter of oversight, not a conscious choice. I believe that we are still implementing very serious and harmful forms of discrimination, which are not even on the radar of social justice movements; the most obvious being discrimination against the unintelligent. In future years, it will be as unthinkable to insult someone as “stupid” as it is today to call someone an “n-word” or a “retard”. But we are not there yet. But we are not making a conscious choice to harm unintelligent people.

There is of course a difference between the general principles (of love and fairness, of ethics, compassion, and caring) and the specific application of principles in time and place. We shouldn’t use the lack of specific context as an excuse for our own ethical limitations.

You say:

Early Buddhism was therefore decidedly not a social reform movement in favor of the socially disadvantaged

I don’t think this is wrong, exactly, but it’s not supported by your argument. Yes, in the specific case of ordination of slaves there is no social reform. But the issue is a lot bigger than that.


I suggest that conscious edition choices were made because I assume that class-based dhamma questions and answers must have come up - although admittedly this can be my projection.

If we take another afterlife religion, Christianity, we find explicit siding with the poor. If candalas, slaves, or other lower class people addressed the Buddha wouldn’t they have automatically implied a class perspective? For example:

  • How can I be reborn as a wealthy khattiya or gahapati?
  • There is so little I can donate - how can I still participate in the Buddha/Sangha as a field of merit?
  • I would like to leave lay life and join the Sangha, but I’m afraid that as a candala monastic I won’t get the necessary means to survive. How should I go about it?

Is it possible that such questions did not come up in 50 teaching years? And when they did, what determined if they were transmitted? Who was first in not repeating these teachings - the Buddha, the first reciters, the later urban reciters, the bhanakas, the nikaya editors? Whoever it was, there must have been at several points systemic choices saying “Nah, we won’t make this a ‘thing’, let’s focus on other/more important teachings”.

I’m not at all saying btw that the early Buddhist movement should have given the lower classes more voice. But I simply can’t imagine that those voices were not there. Even if the Buddha/Theras didn’t bring up the topic, surely class-specific questions or topics were raised by interlocutors.

Vin 3.169, Vin 4.4, and Vin 4.12 contain a rebuke of the Buddha for monks who insulted other monks for their jāti and gotta (i.e. their class and clan background), so there was at least some class-based friction within the Sangha.

In short, I can’t see how the lack of occurrence or representation of lower class topics could have been an oversight and find it more plausible that selection and omission have taken place during the transmission process.


Well yes, I think that’s well-reasoned. It’s an important question, so I hope it gains some traction.


Another type of way Sangha could have practiced slavery in non-violent attitude. Might have been misinterpreted here after in Nalanda University. But the idea was to give the person another chance if he did something really grave against the sangha. Probably to teach him a lesson? Is there anything like that somewhere?

The book How the Brahmins Won

Xuanzang himself volunteered to participate in a debate on one occasion. The event is described as follows:186
At that time a heretic of the Lokāyatika school came to seek a debate and wrote his argument in fourteen points, which he hung on the door of the monastery, while he announced, ‘If anybody is able to refute any one point of my argument, I shall cut off my head to apologize!’
After the passage of several days, nobody came out to accept the chal- lenge. The Master [= Xuanzang] then asked his personal servant to take down the poster, destroy it, and trample the broken pieces under his feet. Being greatly enraged, the Brahmin asked, ‘Who are you?’ The servant said in reply, ‘I am a servant of the Mahayana-deva.’ The Brahmin, who had already heard of the fame of the Master, was ashamed of himself and did not say anything more. The Master sent for him and brought him to the presence of the Venerable Śīlabhadra [Xuanzang’s teacher of Nālandā Monastery], with various virtuous monks as witnesses, to start a debate with him about the principles of his school and the theories founded by other heretical sects as well.
At this point Xuanzang starts to criticise various heretical schools, among them the two Brahmanical schools of philosophy called Sāṃkhya and Vaiśeṣika, but not, surprisingly, the Lokāyatika school. Only his criticism of the Sāṃkhya school is given in some detail. The text then continues:
In this manner the argument was carried on with repeated refutations; and the Brahmin remained silent and said nothing. Then he rose to his feet and said with apology, ‘I am defeated, and I am ready to keep my word.’ The Master said, ‘We Buddhists do not take any man’s life. I now make you my slave, and you should work according to my orders.’ The Brahmin was glad to obey the Master’s orders with reverence, and was brought to his living quarters. All those who heard about this event praised it with delight.

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I haven’t fully digested this entire thread, which has been an excellent subject, but on the subject of the Buddha’s relationship with the “lowest social classes,” as the OP states, the story of Sunita always comes to my mind, and I cannot read this story (the below is a story narrative from Thich Nhat Hanh) without feeling a tear well up. Maybe I am getting older and more sentimental, but the idea that the Buddha embraced this man and the way the two met is such a compelling story, and speaks to the Buddha’s heart when in contact with the lowliest of the castes at his time.

verses of the senior monks
the book of the twelves
chapter one

12.2. Sunīta

One day, as the Buddha and bhikkhus were begging in a village near the banks of the Ganga, the Buddha spotted a man carrying nightsoil. The man was an untouchable named Sunita. Sunita had heard about the Buddha and bhikkhus, but this was the first time he had ever seen them. He was alarmed, knowing how dirty his clothes were and how foul he smelled from carrying nightsoil. … He hastily put the buckets of nightsoil down and looked for a place to hide. Above him stood the bhikkhus in their saffron robes, whiIe before him approached the Buddha and two other bhikkhus. Not knowing what else to do, Sunita waded up to his knees in water and stood with his palms joined.

Curious villagers came out of their homes and lined the shore to watch what was happening. Sunita had veered off the path because he was afraid he would pollute the bhikkhus. He could not have guessed the Buddha would follow him. Sunita knew that the Sangha included many men from noble castes. He was sure that polluting a bhikkhu was an unforgivable act. He hoped the Buddha and bhikkhus would leave him and return to the road. But the Buddha did not leave. He walked right up to the water’s edge and said, “My friend, please come closer so we may talk.”

sunita 1

Sunita, his palms still joined, protested, “Lord, I don’t dare!”

“Why not?” asked the Buddha.

“I am an untouchable. I don’t want to pollute you and your monks.”

The Buddha replied, “On our path, we no longer distinguish between castes. You are a human being like the rest of us. We are not afraid we will be polluted. Only greed, hatred, and delusion can pollute us. A person as pleasant as yourself brings us nothing but happiness. What is yom name?”

“Lord, my name is Sunita.”

“Sunita, would you like to become a bhikkhu like the rest of us?”

“I couldn 't!”

“Why not?”

''I’m an untouchable!"

“Sunita, I have already explained that on our path there is no caste. In the Way of Awakening, caste no longer exists. It is like the Ganga, Yamuno, Aciravati, Sarabhu, Mahi and Rohini rivers. Once they empty into the sea, they no longer retain their separate identities. A person who leaves home to follow the way leaves caste behind whether he was born a brahman, ksatriya, sudra or untouchable.(1) Sunita, if you like, you can become a bhikkhu like the rest of us.” …

The Buddha handed his bowl to Meghiya and reached his hand out to Sunita. He said, “Sariputta! Help me bathe Sunita. We will ordain him a bhikkhu right here on the bank of the river.” … .

Never in the history of Kosala had an untouchable been accepted into a spiritual community. Many condemned the Buddha for violating sacred tradition. Others went so far as to suggest that the Buddha was plotting to overthrow the existing order and wreak havoc in the country.

The Buddha said, “Accepting untouchables into the sangha was simply a matter of time. Our way is a way of equality. We do not recognize caste. Though we may encounter difficulties over Sunita’s ordination now, we will have opened a door for the first time in history that future generations will thank us for. We must have courage.” …

Before long, the uproar over Sunita’s ordination reached the ears of King Pasenadi. A group of religious leaders requested a private audience with him and expressed their grave concerns over the matter. Their convincing arguments disturbed the king, and although he was a devoted follower of the Buddha, be promised the leaders that he would look into the matter. Some days later he paid a visit to Jetavana.

He climbed down from his carriage and walked into the monastery grounds alone. Bhikkhus passed him on the path beneath the cool shade of trees. The king followed the path that led to the Buddha’s hut. He bowed to each bhikkhu he passed. As always, the serene and composed manner of the bhikkhus reinforced his faith in the Buddha. Halfway to the hut, he encountered a bhikkhu sitting on a large rock beneath a great pine tree teaching a small group of bhikkhus and lay disciples. It was a most appealing sight. The bhikkhu offering the teaching looked less than forty years old, yet his face radiated great peace and wisdom. His li steners were clearly absorbed by what he had to say. The king paused to listen and was moved by what he heard . But suddenly he remembered the purpose of his visit, and he continued on his way . . …

The Buddha welcomed the king outside his hut, inviting him to sit on a bamboo chair. After they exchanged formal greetings, the king asked the Buddha who the bhikkhu sitting on the rock was. The Buddha smiled and answered, “That is Bhikkhu Sunita. He was once an untouchable who carried nightsoil. What do you think of his teachings?”

The king felt embarrassed. The bhikkhu with so radiant a bearing was none other than the nightsoil carrier Sunita! He would never have guessed such was possible. Before he knew how to respond, the Buddha said, “Bhikkhu Sunita has devoted himself wholeheartedly to his practice from the day of hi s ordination. He is a man of great sincerity, intelligence, and resolve. Though he was ordained only three months ago, he has already earned a reputation for great virtue and purity of heart. Would you like to meet him and make an offering to this most worthy bhikkhu?”

The king replied with frankness, “I would indeed like to meet Bhikkhu Sunita and make an offering to him. Master, your teaching is deep and wondrous! I have never met any other spiritual teacher with so open a heart and mind. I do not think there is a person, animal or plant that does not benefit from the presence of your understanding. I must tell you that I came here today with the intention of asking how you could accept an untouchable into your sangha. But I have seen, heard, and understood why. I no longer dare ask such a question. Instead allow me to prostrate myself before you.”

1. In traditional Indian society brahman refers to the caste of priests, ksatriya the caste of warriors and such·a the caste of ordinary people. The untouchables are people of the lowest caste who traditionally are not allowed to physically touch people of other caste s.


I assume this is the commentary’s story?

I’m wondering if the reason for Christianity’s “siding with the poor” is because the early Christians were persecuted/stigmatized, not to mention that so many of them were Jews who had to live through the Jewish War. In other words, the early Christian writers probably felt a need to console those who lost their fortunes, as there were a great many of them. The Early Buddhists, by contrast, might have experienced some tension/conflict with rival religious groups, but nothing approaching outright “persecution.” They even enjoyed some patronage from Kings, so the early Buddhists might have felt obliged to accommodate their teachings for the ruling classes.

The earliest Buddhists enjoyed more privilege than the earliest Christians, in other words.

That is very probably the case. The situation of sectarian movements in Palestine was probably very different from the charismatic samanas in East India. My comment was meant to generally (and oversimply) state that low social class can be in the scope of upcoming religions and is not necessarily overlooked as maybe other characteristics.