In Buddhism, as in Indian spirituality generally, a core requirement is the presence of a significant body of spiritual specialists, the various samaṇas, ājīvakas, nigaṇṭhas, munis, and of course bhikkhus. The existence of these religious professionals presupposes an economic system with sufficient surplus to support them. With the exception of occasional periods of drought or war, it seems that, whether in ancient India, or in the various Asian countries down to the present day, it has never been difficult for the society to provide the needs of even sizable populations of renunciants. Far from it: the support for the Sangha extended far beyond what was required for them to live, and resulted in massive, sustained, and incredibly expensive building of monumental structures.
It is one of the ironies of Buddhist history that today, a much smaller population of renunciates struggles to get support even for a daily meal and a simple hut in the wealthiest country that has ever existed.
Where did this surplus come from? A recent article in Nature notices that in neolithic times wealth inequality was much less in the New World than the Old, and points to a key difference between the two regions: cattle and horses.
The hypothesis is that ownership of domesticated cattle and horses allowed for much more efficient cultivation of land, hence a larger food surplus, and led to the emergence of the “rich”, the first capitalists, whose “capital” was their beasts of burden.
This is interesting from many points of view, but especially when you consider how important cattle and horses were for the early Aryans. It seems, in fact, that they domesticated the horse, and the cow was of course core to their wealth.
So it seems that harnessing these beats of burden leads to the creation of inequality; and inequality allows the creation of a professional spiritual class. Why is it, then, that as inequality grows even more, we seem to find ever less need for specialized spiritual professionals?