SuttaCentral

“Vasala” probably doesn’t mean “outcaste” as such

At Snp 1.7 we find the Vasala Sutta, often translated as the “Outcaste” by such luminaries as Ven Bodhi and KR Norman. The basic meaning of vasala appears to be “wretch”, and that is how I have translated it throughout. The term “outcaste” has, of course, a specific meaning in India: one who is rejected from and outside of the four castes recognized by the brahmins. Normally in Pali this would be caṇḍāla. Neither Norman nor Bodhi offer a justification for translating vasala as “outcaste”, and the usage elsewhere in the canon doesn’t seem to support it.

  • Ud 3.6: A monk calls other monks vasala (because of past life predelictions), there’s no hint caste is involved.
  • MN 93, some brahmin sages curse an interloper as vasala; here caste is a topic, but there’s still no explicit reason to think vasala means “outcaste” and Ven Bodhi translates as “wretch”.
  • SN 7.1: a brahmin husband angry with his wife calls her vasala, but she’s a brahmin.

The Sanskrit usage doesn’t support a meaning of “outcaste”; normally it just means “wretch” etc., and where it does have a caste association it is with a śūdra, i.e. low caste, not outcaste.

The sutta concludes with a set of comparisons of the kind found commonly, saying one is not a brahmin by birth, nor is one a vasala by birth, but by deeds. This certainly suggests that a vasala is defined at least in part by birth, although “low caste” would fit just as well. The Indian caste system was not so clearly defined in the time of the Buddha, and I think this was a word that had a general meaning of “wretch” that could come to be loosely applied in a caste-ish way, rather than being a specifically caste-defined term.

5 Likes

Dear Bhante, I do recollect the term Vrshala(which I presume is the Sanskrit for Pali Vasala) was used in the play Mudra-Rakshasam as a term by which Chanakya, the wily Brahmin minister, used to address Chandragupta Maurya. It couldn’t have been “wretch” in that context since a king cannot be a wretch but ‘low caste’ would fit there because per later Sanskrit/puranic tradition, Chandragupta Maurya was a ‘Sudra’ (This is just from my memory though, need to double check). That usage is of course much later but it is possible that same import was there earlier too.

7 Likes

I can’t shed any direct light on the Pali, but in its earliest Sanskrit usage, vṛṣalá- seems to mean something like servant, or perhaps better, labourer. It’s related to vṛ́ṣan- ‘manly, strong; stallion, jack’ etc. Later, and further afield, you have forms such as Buddhist Sogdian, wšn- ‘man’.
Presumably then, the word came to be used as an insult because it indicated one was of low birth and had to earn their living through manual labour (like, but not necessarily, a śūdra-). Finding a good English equivalent is tricky, but I agree ‘outcaste’ seems a bit wide of the mark.

6 Likes

Perhaps then, ‘peasant’ is a better translation - being a derogatory term for a country labourer but later attributed to a class of people/by birth as in labour-class/peasantry/‘sudra’.

7 Likes

Good point! This is actualy referenced in the Sanskrit dictionary. Apparently it was used as a name of Chandragupta. Perhaps it is a case where he reclaimed the term.

Thanks. Actually I should modify my entry above, there are in fact some cases where the Sanskrit appears to mean “oucaste” acc. to the dictionary, including in the Brihadarannyaka.

Hmm, interesting.

I just noticed that the Vinaya has gāmadhammaṁ vasaladhammaṁ, lit. “village-practice, vasala-practice”, and “peasant” would fit there well.

The defining feature in Pali is that brahmins use it as a term to look down on others. In the Vasalasutta, it is paired with samaṇaka and muṇḍaka, both of which are also terms of abuse by brahmins, which are not strictly caste-based as such. English words like “pleb” spring to mind. But it’s hard to find something that isn’t too colloquial.

Perhaps “lowlife”? Or “scum”?

5 Likes

English:

Vassal: “a holder of land by feudal tenure on conditions of homage and allegiance.”

Vassal state:

“A vassal state is any state that has a mutual obligation to a superior state or empire, in a status similar to that of a vassal in the feudal system in medieval Europe. The obligations often included military support in exchange for certain privileges.”

“By the time of Siddharta’s birth, the Shakya republic had become a vassal state of the larger Kingdom of Kosala.[39][40]” —-Wikipedia

1 Like

Something to with his lineage/parentage I think?

The founder of previous Nanda dynasty was said to be founded by one of the Queens and the royal barber. Chandragupta himself has no clear parentage attributed to him (I read somewhere that his mother was not a royal).

Maybe vṛṣalá- is a derogatory term, something on the line of a ‘b4$t4rd’?

1 Like

The occurrence in BrU doesn’t tell us much: it says that a married woman on her period isn’t to be touched by a vṛṣala- or vṛṣalī- for 3 days. Then she should bathe, put on new clothes etc.

In the Viṣṇu-Dharma-Śāstra, it is said that a girl who is not married by the time she enters puberty is considered a vṛṣalī- in her parents house. As Hoffmann pointed out, it’s not the case that she looses her caste, but that she becomes nothing more than a maid at home.

In the Āśvalāyana-gṛhya-sūtra, a vṛṣala- seems to be equated with a jaraddasa- ‘old servant’.

So one might consider a translation ‘serf’ (?)

Karl Hoffmann discusses the term in his article ‘Vedica’ Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft 41 (1982). I’m happy to send screenshots of the relevant 2 pages if anyone wants (note, the article is in German).

5 Likes

I’m happy to have a look for you, if that helps.

2 Likes

Thank you, sabbamitta. I read German so no problem for me. I just thought I’d offer the text to anyone who would like to read the discussion themselves.

1 Like

That’s really helpful Leon, I will continue to consider the rendering. But clearly a sense is emerging that is not as specific as “outcaste” and not as derogatory as “wretch” but more like “peasant, serf, lower-class, lowlife”.

6 Likes