Was the Buddha a part of the Vedic Kshatriya Varna

I really got confused on this. There are scholars like Bronkhorst, Gombrich and Levman who state that the Buddha grew up in a Non Vedic environment and hence his tribe did not fall into any of the 4 Vedic Varnas. Then we have the Ambattha Sutta where a Brahmin states that the Shakyans were primitive and did not respect nor follow the Brahmins and yet in the Pabbājasutta it shows the Buddha was part of a Kshatriyan/Vedic lineage. And then there are Hindu scriptures that state the tribes of the Magadha(including the Shakyans) are non aryan.

The Baudhāyana-dharmaśāstra (–4) lists all the tribes of Magadha as if they were outside the pale of the Āryāvarta; and just visiting them required a purificatory sacrifice as expiation" (In Manu 10.11, 22)

So was the Buddha a Vedic Kshatriyan or not ? Or did he belong to the non vedic tribes that the Magadha region was inhabited by ? The more I think about this, the more confused I get.

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To answers the title question: No.

Happy Sunday.

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I was hoping for a little bit more information, but anyway thanks for the answer. Hope you have a good Sunday as well.

It is quite confusing, scholars have different interpretations, but from what I have gathered:

You are correct to say that the Sakya were a non-aryan tribe originally, though around the time of the Buddha it was probably a bit mixed already. The brahminical influence slowly went eastwards and by the time of the Buddha this influence had gained a foothold in for example Kosala (of which the Sakyan ‘republic’ was a vassal). This means that certain Brahminical ideas were established even in the relative outskirts of the Sakyan republic. So the Buddha would refer to himself as a Sakyan and as a Kshatriya.

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The Buddha was a reformist within the samana movement, rather than a reactionary against Vedic Brahminism.


There are quite a few informed voices on this forum, so hopefully we can find some clarity.

Well, first thing, the Varnas are hardly mentioned in the Vedas as such. Basically it’s only in the latest strata in the Purusasutkta that there is mention of the four. Obviously the idea had become prominent since then, so we’re talking about say from 900 BCE or so (very roughly). That gives plenty of time for the idea to spread across northern India.

There’s not a huge amount of information about the Buddha’s upbringing, but such statements are overly cut and dried. The Buddha was called Gotama, which as I have recently pointed out, is a Brahmanical gotra, the name of which the Sakyans would have adopted as the lineage name of their purohita, i.e. the family high priest who officiated at the coronation their clan members (that it was a republic with limited kingship is immaterial.) Similar naming conventions are observed throughout the canon. Indeed, once you start to notice it, the influence of Brahmanical kingmaking is everywhere.

Never did the Buddha suggest that he, in terms of his background, was anything other than a khattiya, this comes up countless times in the suttas. Any theory of the Buddha that begins by discarding everything that the Pali canon says about him is a fools’ errand.

A relatively early account of the Sakyan’s religious leanings comes with the intervention of the sage Asita in the birth of Siddhattha. No doubt the reference is somewhat later than the Buddha’s life and I do not take it as historical. Nonetheless it represents a situation that people of the time found plausible. Asita was one of a class of what I call “dark hermits” who are respected rishis who appear out of nowehere, their names reflecting “darkness” in some way, and associated with the South (where people have darker skin). They challenge the existing order and the brahmanical notions of caste. In fact they appear as quasi-outsiders, neither completely integrated nor completely outside the Brahmanical fold.

And this is one of the problems with the idea you mentioned at the start. Things aren’t that simple. It is 100% normal for people in India, or all of Asia really, to undertake and practice all sorts of religious ideas without really worrying about purity, which is the concern of the philosophers and ideologues.

Ambattha was a fool, and he was put in his place by his teacher Pokkharasadi, who, as another post on here has recently shown, was a genuine Brahmanical teacher of great influence.

The Buddha says his people were “native”, i.e. not Indo-European, but so what? Culture is not the same as heritage. Look at the world today: how many people whose heritage is “Chinese” or “Indian” or “Vietnamese” and they drive Korean cars, listen to American music, eat Italian food, and go to the Church of a Palestinian Jew.

It was a shifting situation, and still is. The Buddha’s region had been predominantly Brahmanized by his time, but was still contested to some degree. At that time the frontier had shifted to the south, with Avanti and Andhra being in the process of Brahmanization.

It’s more than the texts being “early” or “late”, although that’s a part of it. Different authors have different expectations and perspectives. Even today, Muslims from Saudi often see Muslims from east Asia as not “real” Muslims. The process of “Arabization” is ongoing, as attested by the very existence of the word in Indonesia.

But back to the Baudhāyana, it itself is by no means as clear as this. The whole passage is discussing a controversy.

The country of the Āryas (Āryāvarta) lies to the east of the region where (the river Sarasvatī) disappears, to the west of the Black-forest (Kālakavana), to the north of the Pāripātra (mountains), to the south of the Himālaya. The rule of conduct which (prevails) there, is authoritative.

I’m not really sure where the Paripatra mountains are, but at least some sources locate them at the Vindhyas (Deccan).

The same passage also quotes an opinion:

In the west the boundary-river, in the east the region where the sun rises,–as far as the black antelopes wander (between these two limits), so far spiritual pre-eminence (is found).

The boundary-river is the Sarasvati. The black antelope is here today, in those days its range was probably wider.

Point is, none of these definitions is really definite, they attest to a discussion, growth, and difference between the Brahmins of old.

Not quite, it says they were “mixed”, and it lists:

Avantī, of Aṅga, of Magadha, of Surāṣṭra, of the Dekhan, of Upāvṛt, of Sindh, and the Sauvīrās

None of which specifically include the Sakyans. Another inference. But even if it does include the Sakyans, if they are “mixed”, then who among them were Brahmanized? Surely the first to be influenced by the new, sophisticated philosophical and ritual culture that was sweeping India would have been the upper classes. “Mixed” would doubtless refer to the persistence of non-Aryan beliefs and practices among the people, which is still the case today.

Suttas like DN 20 Mahasamaya, located in the Buddha’s home town of Kapilavatthu, evidence a complex and deep knowledge of Vedic ideas, and this is far from the only place.

I believe that we are currently in a renaissance of understanding of the Buddha’s place in his culture, one that continues to benefit from research and insights from multiple perspectives. Check out the work of Lauren Bausch, it’s excellent.


That’s true, however not everything that the Pāli canon says about the Buddha (or of anyone else) is historically accurate either. There is evidence to indicate that the redactors of the Pāli canon have made substantial ahistorical changes to the text of several suttas.

For example, in DN3 the pali has Ambattha say about his lineage “Kaṇhāyanohamasmi, bho gotama”. Here kaṇhāyano translates to something like “descended from the dark… i.e. kaṇha”. That makes no sense and no such brahmin surname has been found in Vedic traditional sources. From the Tibetan Kangyur (which itself was probably based on a Mulasarvastivadan or another sanskrit version of this sutta) we learn that the word used was Kāṇvāyana (a descendant of the Ṛṣi named Kaṇva) which appears very likely to be correct as it is a historically attested gotra based surname. The Pali tradition has therefore evidently changed it to kaṇhāyana to lend credence to the following charge that the buddha supposedly made of the origins of Ambattha’s clan from a slave girl (whose baby ostensibly immediately on birth pleaded its mother to wash its darkness/dirt away) and of the etymological derivation of the name of the non-existing brahmin clan (kaṇhāyana) from that fictitious baby.

But if the actual word had been left as is (as Kāṇvāyana) that would make the Buddha’s charging his family with slave origins (and Ambattha confessing under duress that what the Buddha said of his family’s origin was exactly what he had already heard from his brahmin elders, as described in the sutta) nonsensical.

Besides Ambattha would not have needed the Buddha to ‘expose’ the history of his gotra, as simply bearing the gotra name would have made it crystal clear what his family origins were - such things were common knowledge in the society in which these brahmins lived in that day. So there is much to question about the historical veracity of suttas like these.

It looks like the parts about Ambattha treating the Buddha with disrespect, the Buddha questioning him about the name of his family/clan to ascertain who he was, and Pokkharasādi later visiting to apologize for his disciple’s conduct were likely true/historical - but the Buddha in return calling all Kāṇvāyanas descendants of a slave girl who served in king Ikṣvāku’s household would have made the Buddha the butt of jokes. So evidently there is plenty of interpolation in this sutta, as in many other suttas I have chanced to read.

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