On kahapanas and a minimum wage

In AN 10.46, the Buddha begins a discussion with his relations, the Sakyans, by asking about the appropriate wage for a good worker. This is meant to lead up to a discussion of the worth of keeping the uposatha; meanwhile, however, it reveals something of the materialism of his family!

The Buddha presents a sliding scale of remuneration for an honest day’s work. The first wage is half a kahapaṇa. Now, the kahapaṇa was the standard currency at the time, and its value is debatable. So it is often left untranslated.

How do we measure the worth of things? How much is a day’s work, a day out of a human life, worth? Can we say that a miserable 50 cents is worth a day’s work? How many people reading this would even give a second thought to doing this?

I wonder whether this is an unconscious force leading us to leave kahapaṇa untranslated. It makes it easier to avoid the implications.

However, the sad fact is that the poverty line for rural people in India today is, in fact, 32 rupees/day, which is 48 US cents. Needless to say, millions of people fail to meet this standard.

If we translate kahapaṇa as “dollar”, we are capturing something real about the value of work in a poor country. A basic wage in India, then as now, is 50 cents for a day’s work.

Perhaps this can’t be sustained across all contexts, but at least we might convey something of the worth of human labor, as opposed to leaving it untranslated, which conveys nothing.

We just don’t know whether Indian society then was as unequal as it is today, and for this reason it would be useful to consider a wider scope of texts. I am thinking in particular of pārājika 2. According to this text one might get flogged, banned, or imprisoned for stealing the worth of pāda or more. According to the commentary a pāda is a quarter of a kahāpaṇa. This means that if one translates kahāpaṇa as “dollar”, then one would be subject to these punishments for stealing 25 cents! I think this is just far too low.

By way of comparison, in Western Australia one gets a spot fine for any theft up to $500. Above this one has to go to court, but even then there is no guarantee one will go to prison. Typically, prison sentences start for thefts above $1,000.

But this is exactly my point. We can’t understand the scale of values because we compare it with ours, which is so different. Point being, what is the punishment for this in India? Things are not the same there. Of course things have changed since the Buddha’s time, but it’s still closer than Australia.

Theft is brutally punished, if it’s by poor people of course: death for stealing a cell phone. If you’re poor you can get 3 years for 320 rupees = US $4.80. The minimum amount is not specified in the penal code, so is probably much lower than this. Examples of theft include stealing a tree, a plate, a ring, a dog, or a book. A second hand book or plate would be about a dollar, so a dollar for a kahapaṇa is looking about right.

As for income inequality, the same sutta lists wages from half a kahapana up to 100 kahapanas for a day’s work, so there’s your scale right there. (50 kahapana is the maximum in the Sinhala manuscripts.) Again, it seems to me this is probably reasonably comparable to contemporary wages in India: 50 cents to $100. Not counting the rich, of course, but this is wages for labor.

Given the consequences of committing a parajika, perhaps we need to rethink the way we treat this rule to takes these differences into account. A monk in WA might steal a book and not be parajika, but in India he may well be.

Is it not likely that Indian society has got much harsher? The caste system is far more developed now than it was then. The suttas speak of brahmins working for low caste people, for example. The Sangha then was casteless, whereas now admittance to the Sangha is sometimes caste based, for instance in the Siam Nikaya in Sri Lanka. As you have so often argued, we need to be careful not to read the present into the past.

Indeed. I have long argued that using the standard of the rule itself is the way to go, rather than using a highly conjectural approach based on the commentaries . And this would give different results in different societies, which I think is probably quite ok. Our societies are simply too different on so many levels that it makes no sense to have an inflexible and absolute universal standard in these matters.

It might. But again, the point is not that contemporary Indian society is the same as ancient Indian society, but that it is more similar to ancient Indian society than it is to contemporary Australian society, or other western cultures.

But this is not an assumption, it is a hypothesis which, in this specific case, is confirmed by the evidence available to me.

As far as I know, based only on my vague memories, the examples of things stolen under parajika 2 are, in fact, precisely the kinds of things that I mention above. And the punishments are clearly similar. So unless there’s any evidence to the contrary, it seems to me that in this instance there is, in fact, a reasonable correlation.

Translating kahapana as “dollar” (which, of course, is itself a vague term) gets us into the ballpark of what it actually meant. If there’s any evidence to the contrary, bring it.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things that haven’t changed. The point made in several articles above is that you can get done for a trivial theft if you’re poor. Exactly the same thing is stated in AN 3.100:

What kind of person is jailed for stealing half a dollar, a dollar, or a hundred dollars? A person who is poor, with few possessions and little wealth.

What kind of person isn’t jailed for stealing half a dollar, a dollar, or a hundred dollars? A person who is rich, with a lot of money and great wealth.

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It is hard to know exactly what would constitute such evidence. You suggest that “the examples of things stolen under pārājika 2 are, in fact, precisely the kinds of things that I mention above” which is true on the face of it. However, much of the vibhaṅga is much later than the rules, perhaps by several centuries, and so inflation would have to be taken into account. A monk would probably have committed a pārājika through a much slighter theft at the time of Ashoka than he would at the time of the Buddha. When the word commentary defines the meaning of a king’s punishment in terms of monetary values it is in fact creating new problems.

If hard evidence is hard to come by, we are left with gut feeling, which is notoriously unreliable.

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Not really. This is the evidence so far.

  1. Wages for a worker were between half a kahapana and a hundred kahapanas per day. Today they’re between 50 cents and, say $100 or so. This is very strong evidence: the minimum wage is a basic measure of value, as it shows what it takes to get someone to commit to a day’s work.
  2. The crime of theft is defined in pretty much same terms then as now, starting with the theft of petty objects.
  3. The punishment is pretty much exactly the same then as now, jail (officially) and flogging and death (unofficially).

My conclusion is that the practical value of a kahapana was in the ballpark of a dollar in modern India. This would be easily disproved if there were relevant examples that fell significantly outside this spectrum.

And no, I don’t think the difference between the Buddha’s time and Ashoka’s significantly affects this. If it does, some concrete examples would be nice.

My original point remains: our understanding of these things has been overly conditioned by our expectations based on our experiences in modern Western societies. This predisposes us to think that 50 cents for a day’s work, or a stiff jail term for the theft of a plate, are extreme. But they’re not extreme, they are the daily reality of many, perhaps most, of the world’s people.

I wonder how many kahapanas for a freshly-hunted Himalayan monkey, still covered in pitch?

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But what sort of worker are we talking about here. The Pali says kammaṭṭhāna, which seems to mean occupation (see CPD). According to AN8.55 this includes any work by which one makes a living. It is hardly surprising, then, that the differences should be so great. A brahmin at a king’s court would be expected to earn a lot more than a manual labourer. 100 or 200 times more does not seem excessive by modern western standards.

According to the origin story to pārājika 2, Daniya stole enough timber to make himself a hut. And this was the basis for the pārājika rule. According to one of the case stories, a monk incurred a pārājika for stealing a bowl of rice. One possible explanation for this massive difference is that the origin story is from the time of the Buddha, whereas the other refers to a much later time.

Perhaps. But my point also remains: we need to be careful not to read modern Indian conditions back into the EBTs.

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Interestingly enough the daily wage of the President of India is $75. Even for politicians in developed countries the wages are a only few hundred dollars/day. It’s a hard life!

:laughing: haha yeah “officially”

But of course. I wonder if anyone really thinks that’s what the president earns?

Anyway the original context was an honest wage, not “perks”.

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Fair enough!

If we are looking at what a society would consider on the scale of a reasonable wage, at least in theory, it entirely matches the argument and your point.

A lot of Americans warned us about how western scholars were digging deep into Indian Vedas and Buddhist Sutras to help feed atrocity literature, hopefully you aren’t one of them.
On the system of wages, i suggest you refer to the Arthashashtra although compiled much later than Buddha’s time but was compiled from previous Arthashashtras(many) into one. The system of wages, taxation, and law governing civil and criminal activity are written well in detail.
As far as Caste system is concerned, first of ‘Caste’ is a Portuguese word, used my the colonial rulers to make sense of the demographics of India by conjucting 2 separate forms of traditional Indian ways of identification ‘Jati’ and ‘Varna’. Jati is similar to tribe, different jatis hated each other and in these Jatis and across them people were divided in the Varnas as per the order of Lord Sri Krishna ( Avatar of Lord Vishnu the preserver), initially Varna was based on ‘Guna’ meaning quality. The Dalits are not Shudras, they were non- aryas. Arya comprised of Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra the Varna of all could be changed based on Guna. The Dalits or Non Aryas were allowed to live elsewhere, also the Hindu followed Sanatana Dharma and the Dalits follow Sarna Dharma, they are very different.
Caste was infused with a racist identity by the British who viewed those having skin and features similar to them as Higher in the social order, Kala( Black) in India referred to people on more than just skin colour based on their Karma and low birth as well. Now a parallel to this existed in the western society in the born of birth as a ‘Royal’ and a ‘Commoner’ a royal was a royal and a commoner was a commoner.
As for the poverty in India, I suggest you read up Economics during 1947 when India got Independence 70% of the population was poor, because of the taxation imposed by the British to fund to Industrial development and World War 1 & 2, the Indian government inherited it, just as you cannot blame the poor for being poor it is no fault of India for the widespread poverty. Also blaming the caste system had nothing to do with poverty existing now, it is all the capitalistic ambition of the west, don’t want to take the blame don’t speak about it, because everyone was poor whether Brahman or Dalit.
Also Marxism imported from the west has ruined the most poor states of India by forcing them to take up weapons and slaughter each other in the name of equality.
The only downfall of India was its sabotaging by Western societies of its culture, teaching english to 100 people is easy try teaching it to a Billion.
India wasn’t given any fruits of western industrialization, in India people died in trains being stuffed whereas half the train used ro carry food to feed the British educated advanced developed ideal society, whereas 3 Million people died of famine in Bengal.
And people are learning Pāli, the same language of the culture which was Barbaric.
How Indian society should have been is out of the question, what is made of it is a sad reality, ‘a culture that was Raped’ is the exact term.
Btw Krishna Avatar of Vishnu, was black in colour born in a jail cell, what do you make of that?

Death for stealing a cellphone, an article by the Times Of India(TOI) in India we call it the Toilet-paper Of India(TOI), do you understand we have paid news in India?
Go report a stolen book/tree in an Indian Police station and see the response of the officer. Dog or Ring(Jewelry) would be theft in any country.

That is about 5000 Rupees/Day , rice cost 50 Rupees per kg, Milk 12 Rs, Dal 40 Rs, Wheat 110 Rs for 5kgs, Potatoes 20 Rs per Kg, Onions 30 Rs per Kg.
Hard life?
10 Dollars for a Gallon of Milk roughly 600 Rs, 5 Dollars for Bread roughly 300 Rs, it is not possible to even eat, what will you eat laptops and cellphones?

Buddha, i guess taught slandering and lies as Right Speech in the EBT’s.
@sujato Holier than thou i guess buddy.

I was having a look inside a few books:

International Numismata Orientalia: On the Ancient Coins and Measures of Ceylon by T. W. Rhys Davids

Studies in Indian Coins by D.C. Sircar

Finally, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland of 1901 has an article on this topic, beginning on page 859, by C. F. Rhys Davids.

As far as I can tell, the kahapana was probably a copper or bronze weight standard, only later acting as coinage with copper/bronze, silver, & gold varieties.

The value of a kahapana can apparently be put into relation with other contemporary moneys, but a standard cost of a day’s worth of groceries (for example) doesn’t appear to be available.

Hi Daman

If there have been mistakes made here, your corrections (or indeed opinions, are welcome). Particularly if you have some direct experience.

However, having some direct experience, doesn’t mean your perceptions are going to be accepted by everyone - welcome to be expressed, but not necessarily agreed with. And that is as it should be within a setting that values kindness and truth.

It would seem you care a great deal about something, so much so that you appear to be seeing offense where none was intended to be given. The perils of “attachment”. That’s fine in the sense that you’re allowed to feel and see things as you do. However, it may be more practical for the purposes of putting your views forward, if you allowed others to put theirs forward and only disagreed with them in gentle terms.

We all make mistakes though. So perhaps you would like to have the following comment deleted? It’s not useful to you in that its tone is unpleasant and is likely to put people off - we do seem to take people more seriously when they don’t sound like they’ve got some kind of axe to grind, when they come across calmer and more settled.

Moreover, the following comment is most unkind.

It’s merit lies in perhaps illustrating how the Buddha’s teaching on “perception” and “view” etc. are accurate. The more we have one particular view, the more we perceive in that way (the less we’re open to other ways), the more we think on it, the more we are likely to speak it and possibly make bad kamma. (Or good kamma - if it’s based on some degree of Right View).

It shows the subjectivity of perception for I certainly don’t perceive Bhante Sujato in such a light.

So where is the truth in your statement - if both our perceptions are subjective? Well, that’s not our business. It’s not our business to make personal comments. It’s up to each one of us to look at ourselves.

However, this sort of unkindness will be forgiven, but certainly not encouraged here. This is a forum for all to feel safe and openly share. The following is not in line with these aims.

Please do be more careful. Thank you.


a quote from Ven Thanissaro’s ‘Buddhist Monastic Code’ pp. 78-9 on parajika 2

any case of stealing counts as an offense, but the gravity of the offense is determined by the value of the object. This is the point of the phrase in the rule reading, “just as when there is the taking of what is not given, kings… would banish him, saying… ‘You are a thief.’” In other words, for a theft to entail a pārājika it must be a criminal case, which in the time of the Buddha meant that the goods involved were worth at least five māsakas, a unit of money used at the time. Goods valued collectively at more than one māsaka but less than five are grounds for a thullaccaya; goods valued collectively at one māsaka or less, grounds for a dukkaṭa. As the Commentary notes, the value of the articles is determined by the price they would have fetched at the time and place of the theft. As stated above, in the case of smuggling the Vibhaṅga measures the value of the object, for the purpose of this rule, as the duty owed on it, not the value of the object itself.
This leaves us with the question of how a māsaka would translate into current monetary rates. No one can answer this question with any certainty, for the oldest attempt to peg the māsaka to the gold standard dates from the V/Sub-commentary, which sets one māsaka as equal to 4 rice grains’ weight of gold. At this rate, the theft of an item worth 20 rice grains’ (1/24 troy ounce) weight of gold or more would be a pārājika offense. One objection to this method of calculation is that some of the items mentioned in the Vinita-vatthu as grounds for a pārājika when stolen—e.g.