Is there any Sutta evidence for social criticism of the Buddha

I quite regularly think what would happen to religious leaders should they have lived in the modern world. I think Jesus would have a fairly high chance of ending up with a long-term jail sentence, Muhammad could also face certain difficulties given his military undertakings. The Buddha’s ministry would hardly be overshadowed by such harsh repercussions. However, he would be likely to face some rather severe social criticism, primarily in the media:

  • His followers are required to live a renunciant life, forsaking their sexuality, gender-specific worldly modes of behaviour, as well as the large chunk of their personal property;
  • The Buddha would have quite a cordial relationship with the economical and political establishment of his time, not rejecting even controversial figures and sometimes receiving costly gifts like monastery land or dwellings;
  • The Sangha would in some opinions show unsatisfactory levels of concern with modern problems like climate change or humanitarian issues;
  • Some of the imagery used by the Buddha in his preaching would be considered rather sinister and disturbing (contemplation of the body, etc.);
  • The Buddha could be accused of breaking up families (cf. with the canonical story of him abandoning his own families),
  • The Buddha would be accused of sexism (no matter how hard you try there can always be someone accusing you of sexism :slight_smile:)

However, this may not only be typical of the modern time. One of Ven. Analayo’s essays addressed such a controversy regarding the Buddha’s public image. SN 42.9 may also represent another PR attack on the Buddha. My question is whether there is other Sutta evidence of social, non-doctrinal criticism of the Buddha during his lifetime?


Interesting, great essay by Analayo. I like your question about social criticism of the Buddha during his own time, but I think it’s dangerous and misleading to try to interpolate the lives and teachings of teachers who lived thousands of years ago onto the cultural and societal ideas of our own time.

I highly doubt Jesus would have ended up in jail in this day and age, probably just would’ve ended up like any one of these people.
I honestly think any speculating at what kind of criticism the Buddha would receive if he lived in the present day is entirely useless, because there are so many interpersonal, environmental and cultural variables at stake.

Take for instance sexism. Was the Buddha considered sexist in his own time? Do we even know what he actually said? Our definitions of prejudice were different even 100 years ago and will probably be different again in another 100 years. Would his modern day perspective be different if he was born in the U.S. as opposed to modern day India? Why would modern day society accuse the Buddha of sexism particularly but not of racism or religious prejudice (because convert monks were required to take extra probationary time)?

I think about these questions too, but I tend to be cautious on drawing conclusions because I think there’s always a tendency to reconstruct history according to our own biases.


I think you are right about us being cautious when applying the biographical data of religious leaders to the present situations. Thinking about it, you may be right about Jesus not ending up in jail, since he was mostly prosecuted for sacrilege and not for his alleged claims of being the King of the Jews. On the other hand, saying things like ‘leave your mother and father and follow me’ are not that well accepted in the modern Western society at all.

It is true it is difficult to assess how the Buddha’s position on gender issue would be different today. However, what do you think would happen to a relatively recently founded religious organiziton on whose premises a dead body of a female disciple (with possible traces of sexual violence) would be found? Even more importantly, how would the society react to a mass suicide by monks exercizing in asubha if this episode is authentic? Talking about things like this, it is relatively safe to assume the social reaction would be quite univocal.

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that’s still more tolerant than putting one up on a cross like he was back then


[quote=“Vstakan, post:3, topic:2977”]
Thinking about it, you may be right about Jesus not ending up in jail, since he was mostly prosecuted for sacrilege and not for his alleged claims of being the King of the Jews.
[/quote]Apologies if this is too off topic.

There is a good argument for Jesus, if he existed historically as a single figure, to have been persecuted as a enemy of Rome more-so than as a heretic Jew. The dominant narrative we have is that Rome was ultimately responsible for his trial and execution.

Rome had recently installed a puppet ruler, Herod, to rule over the Hellenized Jewry within its dominion. Herod was not a popular ruler (there is even a well known Christian legend that he slew all the firstborn of some area when Jesus was born but this part of Jesus’s hagiography and likely did not happen). He was a thoroughly Hellenized Jew, who patronized both Judaism and the Greek religion alongside each other, and even sponsored the building of Greek temples in Jewish territory. This only furthered his reputation as a “Roman puppet”.

The “historical” Jesus, as well as a host of many other contemporaneous “Christs”, were claiming, either metaphorically or literally, a “kingship” over the Jews, which was a challenge to Roman rule, whether the claims were metaphorical or not. A challenge of sacrilege or heresy would have been a Jewish accusation, to be tried in a Jewish court of the time. Instead, Jesus received capital punishment from the state.

The claim that the Jews wanted to put Jesus to death, but lacked a law to do so, and therefore turned to Rome, is a very popular traditional folk explanation, but it is one that does not take into account Jewish law of the time (there is even a line in the popular 70s concept album, Jesus Christ Superstar, that says “We turn to Rome to punish Nazareth./We have no law to put a man to death,” to give an idea how widespread this belief is).

Jewish authorities could have very easily jailed and executed Jesus, they were every bit in their right to do so, but for whatever reason, it was Rome ultimately who is said to have executed this figure.

But the studies of Early “Historical” Christianity are as complex and manifold a field as the studies of EBTs. There are lots of other narratives that are likely to be correct.

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