Was the Buddha advocating the caste system?


Could you please name some Suttas that you feel are early and, late? Do you believe the older Suttas give expression to others - not the historical Buddha? Do you feel the earlier Suttas are the actual teachings of the historical Buddha?

I can see no reason why the Buddha’s background (social status) - and his perceptions about society - before the renunciation would have been completely annihilated when he woke up?


Is it though?

Certainly its odd immoral people are born poor and ugly, but isn’t it an extra step to decide that we ought to treat them significantly different on top of that?

Isn’t it an extra step to decide that these new births, “punished” as it were by karma, require additional punishment (from us)?

There is an affliction filled thread on DhammaWheel called “North Carolina’s Bathroom Laws” (warning, it is severely anti-trans, do not read if highly sensitive or in crisis) were we can see all manner of American-style social conservatism being passed off as dhamma. Right down to the typically American distain for the poor, mixing, as it were, with Buddhism.


Would you please open a new thread with this question? It will give many people the opportunity to share their ‘favourites’…

Of course it’s an extra step. But when I’m aware that a good percentage of people are susceptible to look down on others, I would choose my words very carefully.

Let’s say I was an Indian woman in ancient times and not a conventional ‘normative’ beauty. It wouldn’t have really helped to find a partner if I was told that I had inherited a bad character on top of that. These things easily turn to a self-fulfilling prophecy. With each slip people would say “See?! She’s angry again!” I would feel judged and depressed my whole life.

To me at least this is not a teaching that is ‘good at the beginning, in the middle, and good at the end’.


This is a third-hand story.

I remember reading, I believe on DhammaWheel on a thread from a very long time ago, when it was a very different forum, around 2012 perhaps, a story from a poster who had volunteered in some capacity at a Buddhist school in Asia.

One of the young students, a girl, was having a lot of difficulty learning to read. Apparently, this girl was taken to a fortune-telling monk (oh boy!) and he determined that the girl had been a wicked emperor in a past life, and had burned books. Her karma was to be bad at reading. The poster that I remember reading, I believe, said that the young girl decided to give up on trying to learn how to read.

Certainly people decide to use the dharma for all sorts of things, to all sorts of consequences.


You asked the question how do I know ?
I responded that devadatta as one example and if according to the sutta it could be more , not that I am fault finding . This is just a fact in Buddhism .


I don’t doubt there are positive examples as well. People get motivated by all sorts of things. But when there is public knowledge like ‘ugly people were angry in their former life’, then it seems to be quite a heavy burden for the affected ones.

In comparison it is very difficult to turn the metta- or non-hatred teaching into something wicked. So in that sense the latter would be for me personally a more resilient teaching for the centuries.


::sigh:: i think if examined one would have to admit americans, like everyone else who has lived or is living, are complicated, of diverse views, of diverse behaviors. Nothing for which to cultivate aversion.

Why pluck that thought out into the light? Because harboring such is actually harmful.


Correct. But if you knew that smoking caused lung cancer, not saying it would not be the compassionate thing to do, as some may listen and benefit from it. That it might cause some stigma to smokers or even those who subsequently developed lung cancer seems a lesser but serious concern, hence metta for all. It’s unfortunate that unwholesome thoughts might misprehend this teaching - in any case it’s not compulsory or dogmatic teaching.

With metta


So if I ‘compassionately’ say that Gypsies are prone to stealing I would still give some of them the chance to better themselves, right? And of course I would not be responsible if some people with “unwholesome thoughts might misprehend this teaching”…

There is nothing ‘unfortunate’ about it. We can predict with certainty that it will lead a good number of people to hatred. As it is today, so it was 80 years ago and 2500 years ago as well.

[If anyone is wondering, of course I’m arguing against stigmatizing people!]


It’s well stated in many suttas that human beings are the owners of their kamma and related by their kamma. People with mostly fortunate kamma are said to end up in similar groups.

Kamma from the past or present leads to the experience of pleasure or pain in this life, but that “kamma-debt” is huge… since beginningless time and interacting with so many variables. It’s simplistic to say x leads directly to y, but there’s still a tendency for x to lead to y.

Through many rebirths we’ve all been rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, hell-beings and devas. That’s what should compel us to compassion. We’ve been there before; We wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. What matters is what we do now.

I don’t think it’s different than advising someone that breaking the law will probably land them in jail, and saying that people in jail have most likely broken the law. But, ok, now you’re in jail… what can you do? Train your mind and do what it takes to improve your situation.

If you mistreat others because you think they deserve it, that becomes your dark kamma. Sure, that might not be stated in the same sutta, but it’s in the Canon as a whole, and the Canon can’t just be read in bits and pieces. That gives rise to wrong view.

"When you see someone in a bad way, in distress, you should conclude: ‘In all this long time, we too have undergone the same thing.’ " —SN 15.11


Yet it is ahistorical to assume that people had the whole canon at their disposal at at all times. People had exactly that: bits and pieces. They couldn’t ‘proof-read’ what they heard from their local Buddhist priest against other suttas. I think that made it even more important for authentic suttas to be unambiguous.

I’m sorry, but any assumption about how kamma works beyond one’s life is purely speculative. It’s one thing to assume that yes, that there is some kind of rebirth, it’s plausible, and in fact necessary for the architecture of the teachings. But to pretend to know any mechanics of it is presumptuous.

And the suttas that pretend to specify it are, for my taste, insultingly simple. “Do action x and you end up in hell no.6” “Do action y and you end up in heaven no.22” “Be stingy and you’ll be poor” “Be angry and you’ll be ugly”. The world I live in seems to be a tad more complex than that.


:slight_smile: My just deceased cat spent the first 6 or 7 months of that life feral. This seemed to result in some conditioning… because when she saw human faces up close, she started, as if reacting in revulsion to ugliness in all human faces…

Now one can dismiss that as just silly anthropormorphizing nonhuman… or concede she may have had a point. :slight_smile: Or that there might be benefit in extinguishing most senses of superiority.

:slight_smile: Interesting discussion, don’t let it get under yoyr skins.


I agree. The Buddha says this is how Nigantha’s viewed kamma.


Sutta references please?


Chief, how does Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta teach his disciples?” “Sir, this is how Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta teaches his disciples: ‘Everyone who kills a living creature, steal, commits sexual misconduct, or lies goes to a place of loss, to hell. You’re led on by what you usually live by.’ This is how Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta teaches his disciples.” “‘You’re led on by what you usually live by’.SuttaCentral


No one can know with certainty if the Buddha was completely against the cast system or not, but what we can know with more certainty is that any ideal would eventually turn into some sort of hierarchical structure, even if this ideal is wisdom or equality itself.

If we compare, for the sake of argument, the cast system with the a hierarchical system based on virtue and wisdom, we would see that they both differ in certain values, which is connected to some sort of interpretation of reality. Those who have their hierarchy based on wisdom would most likely believe in some sort of free choice, even if this choice takes the form of the human ability to know to some degree the consequences of their actions. On the other hand, those who have their hierarchy based on the cast system, they value a predetermined social order driven by a belief system in Kammic consequences from previous lives (another interpretation). Some try to combine the two into one system by not negating the effects of previous lives, nor deny people equal opportunity in this very life.


Uff, but that quote is out of context, read SN 42.8 for yourself guys. The Jains here are not rectified for their belief in hell and karma that leads to it. The Buddha rather says

You’re led on by what you usually live by’: if this were true, then, according to what Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta says, no-one would go to a place of loss, to hell.

The sutta goes on to say that people can avoid hell by changing their ways.

On the other hand we have the dozens of suttas that show how certain voices of the EBT are obsessed with who goes to hell and for what. Take just these suttas (AN 1.290, AN 3.117, AN 3.118, AN 3.146-149, AN 4.85, AN 4.121, AN 6.54, SN 3.21) where misconduct leads to hell. The whole rebirth logic, scaring people, prescribing antidotes etc. was a real obsession for late ancient India when the hell concept was introduced.


That’s an interesting thought, and probably true, just for how societies work. Still, it’s important to rectify the myth that the Buddha was a social egalitarian. He was not.

He said that he (and other arahants) was beyond any jati. And we find only in AN 8.19 and Khandaka 19.1.4 that entering the Sangha one leaves behind nama and gotta and becomes simply a follower of the Sakyan son. And even that passage is ‘inspired’ by Chandogya Upanisad 6.10 and is not original.

What is clear is that the Buddha was for kindness and ethical non-harming behavior (as the Jains were, and probably more ascetics). We simply don’t have dozens of suttas where he stands for social reforms or for abolishing the caste system, or slavery. He created his own society with the Sangha, and otherwise left society as it was.


I agree that the Buddha did not seem to have a direct social agenda, but his focus on the individual definitely affects society in many positive ways. It is also reasonable to expect people who follow the Buddha to focus on action and merit rather than labels.

This is why, in my view, a scholarly/historical approach to the question raised by the OP, does not necessarily lead to an accurate answer in my opinion.


It’s not really that difficult. Just see for yourself if there is a direct social message in the EBT. Is there? Then why imagine something that is not there?

Take facebook and social media. A few years ago people said they’re a revolution for democracy all around the world. Now the tides have turned and people say they’re a threat to democracy. Be the effects as they may, they’re tech companies, interested in profit and stock market success, not politics.

So, of course, everything that affects the life of people on a large scale affects society, Buddhism, Christianity, all religions, technology, agriculture, media, the legal system… But it doesn’t mean that social change is the target and purpose of these developments. Early Buddhism had an effect on society, but it targeted the individual, not society. The OP question is totally valid in asking for clarification on this.