Was the Buddha advocating the caste system?


In the way you are using the words “direct social agenda” as a structured plan to transform society, there are none i know of. However, things do not have to be either white or black. The training in sila is an integral part of the Buddhist path, and the whole purpose of morality, in a way, is to organize the relationship between the individual and others.

In Buddhism, there are teachings for lay people which addresses the relationship with the family, with partner, issues of integrity at work, what constitutes a good friend, on the virtues of generosity, gratitude …etc. There are also rules organizing the relationship between monastics and lay people.

There are also the four brahma viharas. Mental and emotional developments are not two separate things in Buddhism, at least as i understand it.

Social media are supposed to be neutral platforms for their users. They do have certain rules to cover themselves legally and to regulate the platforms they manage, but they have no ethical teachings to offer. Big difference!

So, its not only about impact, but about intention. The intention of the teachings is to end suffering.

While the scholarly approach to the texts is a disciplined one, it comes at an expense in my opinion. For example, you wont find a sutta that indicates a social agenda, and yet, one would be naive thinking that the Buddha did not know that the well being of the individual and the world affect each other. He had to design his message to the individual though, and sometimes encourages him/her to seek solitude even, for good reasons. And yet, seeking a sutta that explicitly states a social agenda, and making this as a criteria to measure the Buddhist intentional impact on society is an oversimplification in my opinion.

And who knows to what extent this rigid/dry approach to the texts led to the emergence of later teachings which emphasized selflessness and activism and making it even THE ideal!

Finally, i don’t disagree that the OP question is valid, but we seem to have different approaches to answering it.


This is where we differ in our understanding. Sila (which by the way should be better translated as ‘restraint’ rather than ‘morality’) to me is purely about the individual. The aim is channeling conduct to allow higher states of mind and better rebirth.

This can be validated by the suttas much better than the view that it’s a tool for to organizing the relationship between the individual and others.

What for you is a scholarly approach is for me respecting the texts. I’m not very interested in a Buddhism that I create in my own fashion, I’m interested in what Early Buddhism was. It’s not a problem for me to have parts of my practice that are based on the texts, and parts that I add myself, coming from other sources, e.g. about society…

It would have been so so very easy to create a Buddhist reality that fits your view, so it must be significant that it isn’t. For example the sila of the monastic is “not to accept slaves as a gift” (SN 56.87, AN 4.198, AN 10.99, MN 27, MN 38, MN 51, MN 66, MN 94, MN 101, MN 112, DN 1, DN 2). - Nice and restrained, but not to my standards, I wouldn’t even accept slaves as a lay person :slight_smile:

In DN 30 Gotama wished in a former life for the benefit of ‘people’ (bahujanassa atthakāmo) and that they would flourish in “wealth and grain, fields and land, birds and beasts, children and wives; in dāsakammakaraporisa s (i.e. slaves-workers-servants); in family, friends, and kin”. In this sutta ‘people’ are elite men, neither women nor the lower class. (similarly in SN 3.19, AN 3.70, AN 5.42, AN 5.148, AN 8.38, AN 9.20, AN 10.23, AN 10.74, MN 26, MN 66).

In SN 3.19 and SN 3.20 the obligation of King Pasenadi is to take care of the people around him, including servants and slaves - not to set them free.

In MN 21 a female slave provokes her mistress until “she grabbed a rolling-pin and hit Kāḷī [the slave] on the head, cracking it open.” The only consequence for the mistress was a bad reputation – be careful not to get a bad reputation is the message!

The texts are what they are, and you can argue their authenticity. Yet, if you could name only one sutta that encourages gahapattis to even consider setting free their slaves as a good ethical deed I’ll be quiet. Otherwise I think the ‘scholarly’ reading of actual texts is more respectful towards Early Buddhism than a romanticized one.


I’m a bit of a broken record on this I suppose, but I think the earliest and most authentic Buddhism is preserved in the last two books of the Sutta Nipata. The Buddha was a world-renouncing ascetic. He left worldly society because he perceived it as a depressing sphere of greed, stupidity and violence. The ideal he had before him, that of the muni, is a person who is indifferent to the goods and pleasures the world regards as important; who foregoes making acquisitions of any kind, whether material or mental; who is uninterested in debating views; and who has no conception of himself as either superior to, inferior to , or equal to other people in any dimension, whether socially or intellectually. He has given up everything, even the sense of being an individual person with a fixed identity and fixed set of beliefs and disciplines.

He was not a supporter of the social structure of the worldly society around him - clearly, since he had entirely rejected that society - but he also had no positions on how that society might be reformed. He did think that if others followed him in rejecting worldly life, they would be happier, and that they could all live as unattached, free wanderers, without any ill will whatsoever, and friends to all they encountered, even those disposed to do them harm.

It was all downhill from there. That pure, free life couldn’t be sustained as the company of followers grew in size, and all sorts of worldly people wanted to be part of the movement in some way, or benefit from the blessings of some impressive holy man whose path they barely understood. So what followed is increasingly complicated disciplinary rules for the monks, lay followers insisting on making big donations, providing parks and dwellings, and competing among themselves for attention and merit, diplomatic negotiations of a sort with kings and officials, infighting, specislization and diversification among the monks, etc. I think the Buddha thought he had to do all of these things out of compassion, but at the same time regretted it all, and understood it to be a spiritual decline from those earliest days. He was never happier than when he had time to go off by himself away from everyone and meditate.


— this post is posted without appropriate reflection, feel free to skip this post

would MN 38 be enough ?

dāsidāsapaṭiggahaṇā paṭivirato hoti
they avoid male and female bondservants

while it is possibly the earliest, i don’t think they are good in describing Buddhism as a way/path.
also, “buddhism” as a path also change during Buddha’s life, like de-emphasize of ugliness meditation in favor of mindfulness of breath SN 54.9. This being so, can we really say that the earliest is the most authentic?


I don’t know, you tell me. Is “don’t accept slaves as a gift” the same as “set your slaves free, they are human beings and suffer from oppression”?

Besides, I quoted these suttas in #62 already…


Reformation were necessary , but Buddha perceived it as not sufficient to bring about the change that would last forever .


Indeed. Even Sila can be misunderstood evident by how it does not lead to wisdom in other religions. Calling it “restraint” as if there is nothing positive about it is equally a misunderstanding in my opinion.

One potential approach to the texts is to view each sutta as addressing a certain context, setting things straight by knowing how things can go wrong. For example, take the idea of the rules being tools for restrain and self discipline. Devadatta tried to introduce new monastic rules (the more is the better) and many monks got deceived by what he did. The Buddha, seeing clearly where things can go wrong, insulted him and dismissed him.

I think we, as practitioners, through our practice, can train ourselves to see how things can go wrong, and how easily we can get distracted by seeing things as fixed rules. Both seeing things as fixed rules, and denying the importance and existence of rules can be equally deluded in my opinion.

Take generosity as an example, which means letting go of something we conventionally own for the well being of another. Would not freeing a slave be an act of generosity? If not, why not? because the suttas did not state clearly that freeing a slave is an act of generosity?

So, showing the limitations of your approach does not mean i am introducing a romanticized version of it. The suttas can be viewed at times as set of rules, and can be seen as general guidelines. The criteria, in my opinion, understanding where things can go wrong. (suffering).

For example, from your understanding of the teaching, if the Buddha encountered a person who wanted to free his/her slave, out of good will and compassion, without playing the hero role and making a big fuss out of it, would he disapprove it? or would not he praise it? Even freeing a slave can go wrong in teachings that emphasize the role of intentions in determining the quality of actions.



What do you think, great king? Suppose you had a person who was a bondservant, a worker. They get up before you and go to bed after you, and are obliging, behaving nicely and speaking politely, and gazing up at your face. They’d think: ‘The outcome and result of good deeds is just so incredible, so amazing! For this King Ajātasattu is a human being, and so am I. Yet he amuses himself, supplied and provided with the five kinds of sensual stimulation as if he were a god. Whereas I’m his bondservant, his worker. I get up before him and go to bed after him, and am obliging, behaving nicely and speaking politely, and gazing up at his face. I should do good deeds. Why don’t I shave off my hair and beard, dress in ocher robes, and go forth from the lay life to homelessness?’

38 After some time, that is what they do. Having gone forth they’d live restrained in body, speech, and mind, living content with nothing more than food and clothes, delighting in seclusion. And suppose your men were to report all this to you. Would you say to them: ‘Bring that person to me! Let them once more be my bondservant, my worker’?”

361.61 39 “No, sir. Rather, I would bow to them, rise in their presence, and offer them a seat. I’d invite them to accept robes, alms-food, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick. And I’d arrange for their lawful guarding and protection.”

40“What do you think, great king? If this is so, is there a fruit of the ascetic life apparent in the present life or not?” “Clearly, sir, there is.

I think the Buddha knew that the best way around a corrupted system was the develop a new system in terms of his monkhood, or he might have spent his entire 45 years doing nothing else.


I’m not ‘calling’ it restraint, it’s a proper alternative translation. As you know, many elements in Buddhism are stopped, implying that good things come out of it… obstacles, asavas, greed/ hatred/ delusion, etc.

I cannot help but still concluding that you’re bending Early Buddhism to your will. Monastics need to be told to brush their teeth, and laypeople should understand by themselves to set their slaves free? Remember that there are even explicit rules not to kill other humans! How redundant was that rule, as if nobody knew?

If you read between the lines whatever you assume to find there must be plausible in a bigger picture. And it cannot be shown that the Buddha was a social revolutionary. Sure, he was compassionate, beyond the brahmaviharas even - but what would have happened if he had started advocating freeing slaves? He would have become a social leader, a politician, and what purpose would that have served the Dhamma? It would have damaged it immensely. Besides - there is not a trace of this in the suttas.


Just because we’re in the Buddhist fan-club it doesn’t mean that the Buddha did back then everything we wished him to do, or what we would expect from a spiritual leader nowadays.

Social activism is such a different agenda than promoting a purely spiritual path that we would need substantial sutta material to back up this assumption, not even just a sutta here and there. An agenda like this would have left traces.


I agree with everything you are saying, we are not in disagreement. It is the big picture that helps us to answer questions such as the ones raised by the OP. Relying on a direct reference in the suttas, while has its use, can make seeing the bigger picture elusive.

I also agree with your analysis, that introducing a direct rule eliminating slavery would have done more harm than good in an already distracted world. But the lack of direct reference does not mean that the Buddha condoned slavery , thought of it as a wholesome practice or approved of it.