The Buddha, His Life and Teachings

Caste Problem

Caste, which was a matter of vital importance to the brahmins of India, was one of utter indifference to the Buddha, who strongly condemned the debasing caste system. In his Order of Monks all castes unite as do the rivers in the sea. They lose their former names, castes, and clans, and become known as members of one community,the Sangha.

Speaking of the equal recognition of all members of the Sangha the Buddha says:

"Just as, O monks, the great rivers Gangâ, Yamunâ, Aciravati, Sarabhû, and Mahi, on reaching the ocean, lose their earlier name and identity and come to be reckoned as the great ocean, similarly, O monks, people of the four castes (vannas).... who leave the household and become homeless recluses under the Doctrine and Discipline declared by the Tathâgata, lose their previous names and identities and are reckoned as recluses who are sons of Sâkya" (Udâna 55).

The Buddhist position regarding racism and racial discrimination made explicit at such an early age is one reflected in the moral and scientific standpoint adopted by UNESCO in the present century (Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, UNESCO 1978).n40

To Sundarika Bhâradvâja, the brahmin who inquired about his lineage, the Buddha answered:

"No Brahmin I, no prince,
No farmer, or aught else.
All worldly ranks I know,
But knowing go my way
as simply nobody:
Homeless, in pilgrim garb,
With shaven crown, I go
my way alone, serene.
To ask my birth is vain."n41

On one occasion a caste-ridden brahmin insulted the Buddha saying. "Stop, thou shaveling! Stop, thou outcast!"

The Master, without any feeling of indignation, gently replied:

"Birth makes not a man an outcast,
Birth makes not a man a brahmin;
Action makes a man an outcast,
Action makes a man a brahmin."

(Sutta-nipâta, 142)

He then delivered a whole sermon, the Vasala Sutta, explaining to the brahmin in detail the characteristics of one who is really an outcast (vasala). Convinced, the haughty brahmin took refuge in the Buddha. (See The Book of Protection.)

The Buddha freely admitted into the Order people from all castes and classes when he knew that they were fit to live the holy life, and some of them later distinguished themselves in the Order. The Buddha was the only contemporary teacher who endeavoured to blend in mutual tolerance and concord those who hitherto had been rent asunder by differences of caste and class.

Upâli, who was the chief authority on the Vinaya,the disciplinary rules of the Order,was a barber, regarded as one of the basest occupations of the lower classes. Sunita, who later won arahatship, was a scavenger, another base occupation. In the Order of Nuns were Punnâ and Punnikâ, both slave girls. According to Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids, 8.5% of the number of those nuns who were able to realize the fruits of their training were drawn from the despised castes, which were mostly illiterate.n42