How long has the caste system existed? And why were all named Buddhas either Brahmin or Kshatriya?

Someone has pointed out this list of previous Buddhas

One thing I find curious is that even though the time and space ranges involved are gigantic (aeons and the whole universe), the Buddhas are all issued from the caste system, and thus supposedly from India.

So my first question would be: why were they all from India, and from one of the top 2 castes, when they could have arisen anywhere in the uncountable solar systems within our universe? (Actually I have the same question about the Buddha’s previous lives, since they all seem to have happened in India).

And the second is: do we know how long the caste system has existed for? Has it existed long enough to be consistent with having so many Buddhas born within it?

Or perhaps these stories of past Buddhas and details of past lives of the Buddha are not to be taken as historical, factual records, but instead as legends and edifying stories?

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Having an aristocrat Brahmin go forth into homelessness is quite the revolutionary act. It sets the whole caste system on its head. Here is a person of privilege renounced walking barefoot with the untouchables bowing to none, accepting all.

India is quite old. I’ve walked in Varanasi, Jerusalem and New York. Guess which is oldest. :smiley:


certainly not New York :wink:

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Those are good questions, but there are no easy answers. Most people here share in common a love of the EBTs and the suttas, but you’ll get a diversity of opinion on such questions. IMO the Buddha was a spiritual genius and he left behind a cohesive and beautiful spiritual approach, practice and community system (that consistently shines through the suttas). The Buddha didn’t seem to have much interest in ontology. There’s generally not a lot about spiritual mechanics, e.g. there’s really no recipe for how reincarnation is supposed to work. He focused on providing solutions for life’s problems as he saw them. The cosmological stuff, complex layers of deva realms and the like, does seem a bit out of kilter with all that. That, though, was the cosmological world view of the time (he didn’t pull this out of thin air). Rebirth is part of that picture too, though it’s far more central to his doctrine than the general cosmological hierarchy.

Some people here would be essentially one-life Buddhists (find the suttas, associated practice and communities useful for this life and perhaps don’t think there will be other lives). Others accept rebirth but might not find some of the past life stories fully credible. Others go with most or all of what’s in the suttas.

There’s also a fair bit of mention of psychic phenomena/miracles in various parts of the suttas. Some take these at face value, some don’t, and yet others are undecided.

The suttas (in particular those with good parallels) are IMO the coal face. For good or ill, they are probably about as close as we’re going to get to the historical source (though there’s no doubt quite a bit of noise mixed in there as well). They are what they are. You can pick a teacher or tradition or school which filters out many of these questions and has its own well-developed answers and emphases. For many, that’s probably easier and simpler and saves time (no doubt smart people in those traditions formulated the varying answers). Or you can go down into the Buddhist basement and poke around in the rather disorganized jumble and see what you’ll find. You might find something nice lying about! :wink:


The cosmological stuff, complex layers of deva realms and the like, does seem a bit out of kilter with all that.

Not so out of kilter. The Buddha taught this for completeness. He knew that there were some among them who would, after entering deep meditative state, encounter gods, demons, ghosts, and the like. Thus, he spoke on them so that people would understand experiencing them is Not enlightenment.


Similarly to your question about the past Buddha’s being male, the EBTs make a clear distinction between a Buddha and someone who has attained bodhi in some other way. While caste and gender have no bearing on the potential for awakening overall in any particular life, a Buddha is someone whose life corresponds to a certain narrative and restores the path of Nibbana for others after it has been lost to the cycles of the universe.

One aspect of that seems to be that a Buddha begins from a prominent position and abandons the maximum amount of privilege possible in their society. This demonstrates the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of worldly attainments, and makes clear that their motives are pure- someone who walks away from another caste or gender role could be accused of gaining a worldly advantage by giving up their prior role. Everyone understands the motives of a menial worker who gives up emptying latrines, or a woman in a patriarchal society who wants to avoid marriage to a domestic tyrant and death in childbirth. The motives of a crown prince renouncing his birth right are harder for the average person to grasp, because they already have what everyone in their society wants.

Primacy among castes seems to have fluctuated among the kshatriyas and brahmins- the EBTs give evidence of this in the Buddha’s debates with brahmins, as do Hindu legends like Axe Wielding Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu who punishes kshatriya for usurping brahmin privilege.

I don’t think that there is a good answer to how old the caste system is. There is at least one verse in the Rg Veda that equates different parts of the primordial being with the four castes- the high castes being the upper parts of the body, and the lower castes being composed of the feet and legs. Some scholars have ascribed the origins of the caste system to the ‘Aryan invasion’ theory of Indian history- that horse-riding invaders from the Central Asia plains made themselves the higher castes, and reduced the natives to menial roles, but I think that theory has been somewhat dismissed over time. Varna may have been a feature of the Indus Valley civilization but we know very little about that era.

The time periods used in the EBTs sound fanciful and hard to equate with historical dating in any reliable way. The time frames involved are described in terms of the cycles of contraction and expansion of the universe, so by that interpretation they come from universes before the Big Bang and current universe, and lived in societies that had reached a stage of development equivalent to that of the Buddha’s historical era. They are from ‘previous versions’ of our world in another universe, so normal historical reasoning doesn’t quite apply.

It’s possible that, as seems to be the case with the Jains, there were some figures from an earlier tradition that were remembered as mythical or semi-mythical characters but without accurate dates for their lives and the intervals between them. Western scholarship tends to dismiss the pre-Gotama Buddhas as fantasy, but I think Xuanxang reported that there was a temple in Bodh Gaya dedicated to Devadatta and the previous two Buddhas, and given the long history of recording lists of kings and teachers it may be possible that some of the names and biographies are those of real figures, but that their dating reflects the transition from history to myth.

The Buddha is depicted knowing about the lives of previous Buddha’s, but this seems to be a by-product of his memory of past births and knowledge of karma. It’s also possible that the names and time frames emerged from visionary/meditative experiences and/or were later inventions to give the Buddha a more impressive-sounding lineage.


Simple answer: the suttas with past buddhas and their castes were compiled by a person with the historical memory of a few generations, during which these two castes were consistently the elite - the composer projected this into the past and came up with a fantasy history that represents only the time they lived in. Sometimes the obvious answer makes the most sense…

No it has not, especially not in the Buddha’s region (Kosala, Magadha). At the time of the Rgveda you had tribes and clans, not castes. The first reference to castes is a very late mantra in the Rgveda and slowly over time it got cemented in society until is was pretty much fixed in the Dharmasutras around 150BCE. You can assume that the more the suttas show a conflict of castes they come from a later stage.


Dont take that as evidence of a whole sect dedicating to those figures. I believe these were more like local shrines for lay-folk to worship than anything…

I don’t have a fixed view about this subject, but I think of it like this:

When Malunkyaputta refused to continue until the Buddha told him the nature of the universe, the Buddha castigated him and reiterated his mission which was to teach the ceasing of dukkha, not the source of all worldly wisdom. The simile of The Poisoned Arrow tells of the folly of considering the inessential to be essential and seeing the inessential to be essential.

The EBTs are a beautiful mix of straight on teachings, stories, similies, poetry, and myth, all literary ways of getting the message across. It’s impossible to place each and everything in the correct category. The essential message is how to fully see dukkha, remove the hinderances and fetters, develop the awakening factors and eradicate the influxes in service of fully awakening to peace and happiness. The entire canon is the context and wonderful world where it all takes place.

Often I can’t relate to how life was then; exactly the same in human terms, yet so different in culture.

I’m careful not to get entrenched in views, any view, even the dhamma. So there’s always room for the maybe. I tend to think that it’s highly unlikely that India existed for eons. Perhaps there are alternate universes. I suppose if Malunkyaputta demanded the Buddha explain that he would have responded in the same way.


Dont take that as evidence of a whole sect dedicating to those figures. I believe these were more like local shrines for lay-folk to worship than anything…

It’s definitely not much to draw conclusions from, but it’s suggestive of the idea that a lineage of Buddhas before Gotama was seen as a public source of legitimacy. There are apparently also some commentarial and pilgrim’s references to schismatics who acknowledged the earlier Buddhas but not Shakyamuni or Devedatta. That could obviously be a later schism and an attempt to get away from the authority of the orthodox sangha but it’s an interesting data point.

The idea of a Buddha as a class of being or sage also seems to be familiar to many of the figures of the EBT, who never need to ask exactly what a Buddha is (though the Buddha gives a kind of definition in several places as well).

You can obviously descend into esotericism and speculation on the point, but it’s interesting to me that the Thera who encountered the Gotama Buddha’s disciples after his parinibbana but preferred to remember it according to his own tradition was named “Purāṇa”, a word meaning ‘ancient (legend)’, used in the Hindu tradition to refer to a collection of anonymous ancient scriptures, and in Sri Lanka as a collective name for the ‘ancient authorities’ who composed the Sinhala commentaries before Buddhaghosa put them into Pali. Some of the jatakas and the like are very likely pre-Buddhist (or at least pre-Gotama) so the idea of there being some measure of continuity with an earlier tradition doesn’t seem completely far-fetched- the samana movement itself was evidently already regarded as ancient and well established by the time of the historical Buddha.


If you want to successfully fight color discrimination, will you be a whit or a black?
I think a white person could be in a strong position than a black person.
In the same way, if you want to fight the caste system it is better to be born to a higher caste. If you are a king and give up everything people will believe you more than a poor person trying to convince that attachment is fruitless.


Good questions. The Buddha was part of a larger movement of homeless wandering ascetics that flourished in India of his time and which likely can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization (about 2000 years before the Buddha Gotama). Likely his account of past Buddhas stems from the collective memory of these wandering ascetics of enlightened sages of past times. I have heard that some of the names are identical with names used by the Jainas to account for their past teachers. Thus, these sages of the past were not part of a sectarian movement, but were the common heritage of this loosely knit society of wandering ascetics. The incredible time frame as well as the caste background were likely details added by the later biographers.
As for caste, one of the contributors above has said it may have come from the Indus Valley civilization, but this is admittedly speculation. The only records of actual likely origin are in the Vedas. but it was likely much looser than in the time of the Buddha. Caste as it appears in the Pali Suttas is beginning to be more rigid than in the Vedic period, but it is also evident from the suttas that many people evaded the rigid rules of marriage etc. The hardening of caste into the jati system of modern India took thousands of years, and it is much more rigid now than in the time of the Buddha.
As far as why from India. first of all, that is the only world known to the writers of the biographies. Secondly, and very importantly, the Buddha Gotama could not have appeared in any other country or society than northern India. This is due to the fact that the wandering ascetics were supported and honored by all of society, including by royalty. Only the Brahmins were uneasy with the wandering ascetics, but their tradition also caused them to have feelings of admiration as well as aversion for the wanderers. Even the kings of the various kingdoms bowed down to the Buddha, as well as to other spiritual teachers. there was no pope or orthodoxy, or inquisition. This was an amazing time of free thought and practice that produced amazing results. No other country had all of these factors that created the conditions fr the arising of a Buddha and other sages. and these favorable conditions likely had existed for some thousands of years.


Wow, you reply is really interesting, thank you!

That’s interesting, so it seems that we should take the accounts of the Buddha’s previous lives more as edifying myths than as historical records. In case you (or anyone on SC) has some references on the last point you mention (the names of past Buddhas are identical with those used by Jains) I would be very interested. :smiley:

ok, in light of what you previously said this now makes sense. I had been wondering: if the Buddha can remember past aeons and knows about many solar systems, he should also know about other countries than India. But if the accounts of previous Buddhas are more like legends written by later biographers, it makes sense that they would not have known other places.

I would take them as edifying myths composed by the biographers, based on collective memory of real sages who lived in the Indus Valley and Vedic periods, previous to the Buddha. For those who have invested the Buddha with omniscience, this would be a limited view. I cannot be the judge of this. It is an article of faith. My personal skepticism allows for the possibility but not for the proven verity of such. The Buddha was asked about omniscience, which was claimed by other teachers of the time. He was skeptical of their claims and denied his own omniscience, but did state his areas of knowing, which are much beyond the ken of normal people. Despite the Buddha’s statements on the subject, later tradition, both Theravada and Mahayana, endowed the Buddha with omniscience, and it is unquestioningly accepted as such by most traditional Buddhists.


I can’t remember the source of having heard that some of the names on the list of Buddhas and Jaina Tirthankaras are the same. I remember hearing it or reading it, and noting it as very interesting, but I didn’t write down the source. Sorry, that is not very helpful. I will try to track it down and let you know if I find it.