Was the Buddha advocating the caste system?

Hi all,

I am reading the Dhammapada and I’ve come across verse 193 this morning, after reading that verse and the background story, I find it compelling to open a thread to clear my doubts.

“It is hard to find the noblest of men; he is not born everywhere nor in every clan. To whatever clan such a wise man is born, that clan prospers.”

The background story says that Ananda asked a related question, and the Buddha replied that noble people are only found in the Khattiya and Brahmin family, why is this so? I thought the Buddha was the one who rejected the caste system, saying that “nobility is not dependent on birthright but by actions”?

Any thoughts?



ahhh background stories. :slight_smile:

But the verse itself suggests that the noblest is wise, and might be born in “whatever” clan…


yes, don’t believe the background stories. But it’s quite a complex topic that I investigated to some depth. Bottom line (simplifying, but okay):

There are suttas explicitly saying that everyone is the same, not many though.

There are more that say that khattiyas, brahmins and householders are the same. But ‘householder’ is a euphemism - ‘gahapati’ is actually a wealthy man, head of a family, sometimes with many wives, and with slaves.

Few others make a point that khattiyas are better than brahmins.

But those are general statements. When it comes to specifically addressing people EBT-Buddha dealt mostly with brahmins, rich lay people and aristocracy (and other ascetics, wanderers, jains).

So the suttas, while generally promoting egalitarianism in fact support the power structure as it was. Suddas, candalas, slaves (and women too) are rarely addressed, supported.

Even within the Sangha social differences between social classes continued to linger, we have some hints for this in the Vinaya.

From the exceptions we have I concluded that the closer Buddhism moved to the cities and away from the forests the corroding social values also infiltrated the Sangha and the recorded teachings. Our suttas are, I assume, the transmitted teachings mostly of urban monks and big monastery transmission lines, especially the Anguttara.

What the Buddha himself said regarding class and caste is open for discussion. I personally see enough evidence for class-neutral old layer suttas. But the fact is that the EBT as a whole are much more on the side of the rich and powerful and less addressing or supporting the oppressed and disadvantaged.


I can’t see that he respected castes and clearly reworded the high caste meaning of the word Brahmin, for instance- he reinterpreted this to mean man of high virtue (and wisdom) ie an arahanth. He wasn’t exactly going to tear up the ‘Brahamin’ stall in the market place. He operated in a much more restrained manner.

In a prophetic dream he sees birds of different colour (varna, another term for caste, I believe) coming to join the sangha and loosing their colours and becoming white instead. He only had control over the social system he set up, the sangha and not the wider community and he changed it.

He clearly attacks animal sacrifice, Atman and Brahman of the Brahmins. This he wouldn’t have done if he was supporting them.

with metta

I don’t want to cause offense, but for those who want to defend ‘social EBT Buddhism’ please point out the suttas which encourage the release of slaves, or address slaves at all or tell them how to develop spiritually under their difficult circumstances. Slaves are the only group not allowed to ordain btw.

And Canadalas (sometimes translated ‘outcaste’) are never spoken to either, or else please name the suttas.

On the other hand when the Buddha recalls the past six Buddhas in DN 14 three of them were khattiyas and three of them brahmin. So apparently the universe and rebirth-mechanism really have punished the lower classes.

Not to mention the suttas which idiotically imply that poor and ugly people are so because they had no morality in their former life (e.g. AN 4.197).

Mind you, I’m sure these are later suttas, but I would like to see ones which specifically support the ugly and poor (not just neutrally).


Interesting. i vaguely recall that a regional visitor wrote “home” that the region had no slaves (at least as far as that observer could identify based on what he could recognize elsewhere).

What is in ordaining which makes it impossible for a (self or society?) identified slave? Ordination into Sangha is the newer part, historically, yes?

a POV might see this as essentially revolutionary, OR, perhaps, as essentially non challenging to the status quo.

What is ultimately liberating, which appears to be the Buddha’s unswerving focus?

Wouldn’t being a slave at the time be the result of, or be considered an extension of being in debt? Or is there some specific prohibition on slaves ordaining that I haven’t seen?

One interesting sutta in this regard is the Vimala Sutta (Sn 1.7). Its discussion of who is a true outcast ends with these words:

“Not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a brahman. By deed one becomes an outcast, by deed one becomes an brahman.”



I think this is Megasthenes who wrote that the Indians had no slaves. We don’t know why he wrote this, but we’re quite sure that there was slavery in India. Maybe it didn’t look like the Greek kind of slavery, maybe it was more civilized, who knows. But also he was not as far to the east as the location of the EBT was.

Two terms are used in the Vinaya for people excluded from ordination regarding slavery: dāsa (slave, in Khandhaka 1.39.7 ff.), and people who are not bhujissa (free-people, Khandhaka 1.76.1). Because of the structural similarity of the two passages we have to assume that the two are synonymous. The debtor is an additional category. Unfortunately we don’t have too many details. But it is mentioned in passing that slaves could become free-people (MN 39, DN 2, DN 10).

It’s quite clear from some contexts that the Sangha didn’t want to become a safe haven for slaves, criminals, debtors, certain sick people and people in royal service - bad reputation…

This is obviously closer to the spirit of original Buddhism. There are some other egalitarian suttas with ‘outcasts’, i.e. Candalas, but not too many unfortunately (SN 3.25, SN 7.7, AN 3.57, AN 5.179)


It seems his message against the caste system was well known enough to send opponents to debate him.

This Gotama the contemplative prescribes purity for the four castes. Now who is capable of disputing with him on this statement?" And on that occasion the brahman student Assalayana was staying at Savatthi. Young, shaven-headed, sixteen years old, he was a master of the Three Vedas with their vocabularies, liturgy, phonology, etymology, & histories as a fifth; skilled in philology & grammar, he was fully versed in cosmology and in the marks of a Great Man. The thought occurred to the brahmans, “This brahman student Assalayana is staying in Savatthi… He is capable of disputing with Gotama the contemplative on this statement.” MN93.

People biased against the dhamma will probably downplay such texts and highlight whatever texts that confirm the view they are clinging to, which is human nature.

With metta


Aren’t tons of other groups not allowed to ordain depending on how you interpret the texts?

Depending on how you interpret the texts, homosexual and transexuals cannot ordain.

In my understanding, I don’t have any issue to both accept that:

  1. The family in which we are re-born is conditioned by kamma, and so in a country with a caste system, there would be a correlation with the castes (e.g. the Buddha stating that the best caste was the katthiya, only means that for a re-birth, this caste was the one requiring the most good past kamma)
  2. But once we are born, it does not matter in what caste or condition we are, only our conduct and action matters and make us wise men or fool (which was a view opposed by the Brahmans).

So it might be true that we are reborn in the conditions that we deserve… but the danger is for people to use that state of re-birth and tag it on someone for the rest of his life (like the caste system).

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… not sure i understand your meaning. If not “the rest of his life”, what characterizes an appropriate moment to use such a tag?

The caste system is a artificial human construct, not an ultimate reality or reflection of ultimate reality. That isn’t to say the Buddha didn’t address artificial human constructs, he did, but to say he advocated their existence is not accurate. Seems to me at least his concerns were how to navigate those constructs for the purposes of spiritual progress and practice only.

That’s right, I meant that dāsas were the only social group. Whereas other people not allowed were in a difficult position because of life circumstances (debt, sickness, certain occupation), slaves were probably born as slaves and therefore more a socio-economic group than the others.

maybe too much assumption, let’s be careful

The Buddha gave advice on weight loss. His outlook on what required attention for spiritual progress was not worldly.

Do you mean people who read? I’m certainly not “against the dhamma” but against declaring that everything in the suttas is sacrosanct.

MN 93 is a polemic against brahmin superiority, not for other people. Anti-brahmin superiority is a topos in a specific transmission line, in MN 84, MN 93, DN 3, and DN 27.

Some other suttas are egalitarian regarding vanna too, MN 90 and MN 97. Egalitarian towards jāti (another social categorization) is SN 3.24.

Anyhow MN 93 has one elite talking to another. Of the 10.000 suttas how many actually address lower class?

The elite carpenter Pañcakaṅga (SN 36.19, MN 59, MN 78, MN 127) is certainly not poor. Also Ambapālī, the courtesan from DN 16 was elite rich.

We have Citta, an elephant trainer’s son, in DN 9. Another one, Pessa, in MN 51. A horse-trainer in AN 4.111. A salt-maker’s son in AN 4:188. A smith in AN 10:176. A cowherd in SN 35:241.

That’s six suttas - and no more to my knowledge. None of them is a Candala or a slave either.

I assume that the Buddha and his major arahants were teaching more lower class. But the texts reflect a specific interest in brahmins, aristocracy, rich men (!) and other ascetics.


As said in another post, it’s an artificial construct. But in all societies, you have poor and rich families, influential and non-influential ones, and my present-day understanding is that past good kamma has an influence onto where you land in your next human rebirths: in our society there would be a correlation with ‘classes’, in India with castes, etc depending on the construct at that time and place. But one should never use these constructs to judge someone or discriminate against one - this should only be based on action and conduct. And this is where the caste system is terrible, because these constructs are used to discriminate, they don’t give equal chance based on skills and conduct and are used to justify evil behaviours.

Sorry I can’t express myself very well. The point I was trying to make was just that for me all these various suttas about castes that might seem contradictory are not contradictory at all. In my understanding of the system they all fit together quite well. But my skill in words are not up to the level required for this important subject, so I will stop here for now.

Indeed. Rebirth into wealth seems to be difficult to survive, overcome, and allow appropriate attention to spiritual progress. Rebirth into superficially fortunate-in-worldly-view does not seem fortunate at times. … may all beings be happy, be peaceful, seeing what is as it is without delusion or distraction.

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