- SOCIAL STRATIFICATION
Societys stratification system is
caused by human beings. Such divisions status regarded as high or low in status, weak or
strong in power are influenced by biological, physical. Psychological, and karmic factors
pertaining to moral acts and their consequences and laws pertaining to spiritual
Buddhist thinking attempts to
understand these influences which, coming together causes the formulation of a particular
stratification system. Primarily it is mans ignorance which causes the division of
society into different levels, either based on ascription or achievement. The Buddhist
approach is to understand the basis of this ignorance and realize the futility of social
stratification in human society.
Buddhist thinking sometimes attempts to
understand people in a society by dividing them into strata based on the internal
qualities they possess. The state of inner development would provide according to
Buddhism, a better way of grouping people into various strata- if at all such a system is
necessary. In such a division there is logical explanation and a moral or ethical base
where, as in social stratifications based on caste, class or ethnicity one cannot find
either an ethical or a logical explanatory process.
Instead, the Buddha contributed his
ideas to this interpretation of arranging the role and the status of an individual based
on inner qualities. When some monks in the order began to exert influence, being conscious
of their birth or lineage, the Buddha condemned such an attitude. These monks believed
that the best lodging, best food etc. should go for those of noble ranks. I.e. Brahmins,
kshatriyas." in the religion I teach, the standard by which precedence in the matter
of lodging and the like is to be settled is not noble birth or having been a Brahmin or
having been wealthy before entry into the order".(J.tr. Vol.I, 92-93).
Caste was prevalent in India from
immemorial times. During the Buddhas days,, caste was a fundamental principle in the
social life of the people. A person belongs to a caste by virtue of his birth, and under
no circumstances could this caste be changed during his lifetime. The Buddhas
contribution in this context is his acceptance of the fact that ones caste could be
changed. He put this thinking into practice by acceptance people from all castes
considered high and low-into his community of monks.
The Buddha admitted Up li , the
barber into the community of monks. Not only was Up li belonging to one of the
despised occupations of the lower castes admitted to the order of monks, but also was
recognized as an expert on Buddhist monastic law. Sunş ta, an inividual who was a
scavenger was also admitted to the Buddhas order of monks regardless of the fact
that he came from the Cand la caste-one of the lowest in the caste hierarchy,
virtually an outcast. Sunş tas experience is captured (in Psalms of the brethren
XXIX) in the following manner:
"Humble the clan wherein I took my
birth and poor was I and scanty was my lot; mean task was mine, a scavenger of flowers,
one for whom no man cared, despised, abused, my mind I humbled and I bent the head in
deference to a goodly tale of folk. And then I saw the all- enlightened come, begirt and
followed by his bhikkhu train, great champion entring Magadhas chief
town, I laid aside my baskets and my yoke, and came where I might due obeisance make, and
of his loving kindness just for me, the chief of men hated won his way, low at his feet I
bent, then standing by, I begged the masters leave to join the race and follow him,
of every creature chief then he whose tender mercy watcheth all the world, the master
pitiful and kind gave me my answer, come bhikkhu, he said thereby to me was
Two slave girls (Pu¤ and Pu¤
il ) are examples from women who were admitted to the order. According to Rhys
Davids, eight and half percent of women admitted to the order of nuns were
base-born he further states that is most likely that this is just about the
proportion which persons in similar social rank bore to the rest of the population.
I¤n the society of the Buddhas
time the lowest rank of the fourfold caste system was occupied by the sudras. " A
sudra, according to Manu cannot commit an offence causing loss of his caste so degraded
was he "(Ghurye, 1932, 84) . NO economic opportunities were available for one born as
sudra, free access to well and sometimes the use of the public roads were denied to them.
Religious freedom and equality before the Law does not arise in the case of the Sudra.
The Buddha interpreted the role in a
different manner from that adopted by those who adhered to the caste system. A Brahmin
occupying the highest rung in the caste-ladder, according to the Buddha has to be called
such not because of his birth, but because of his actions. The Buddha: ignored completely
and absolutely all advantages or disadvantages arising from birth, occupation or social
status and sweeps away all barriers and disabilities arising from the arbitrary rules of
mere ceremonial or social impurity"(SBB,Vol.I, 100) .
The community of monks established by
the Buddha put into practice the teachings propagated by the teacher. During his lifetime
when the Buddha was asked by Brahmins as to what his caste was, the Buddhas reply
was, " Do not ask me for my birth." nada, a disciple od the Buddha once
went into the city for alms. As he desired to drink some water and come near a well, a
girl of a very low caste was drawing water from the well at this particular time. When
nanda requested water from her, the girl said, "I belong to Maatanga caste,
Sir". nanda replied , "I did not ask for your birth, sister, I asked for
water." Then she gave water to nanda (quoted by E.J. Thomas, Life of the
In a discourse with a Brahmin youth
named Assalaayana, the Buddha advances a clear-cut argument to disprove the caste theory
of the Brahmins. Brahmins are born from women who have their periods (as other women),
conceive, give birth and give suck . So how could they be superior in birth to others? In
certain districts, instead of the four-fold caste system, one finds only two
castes-masters and slaves and a vice versa . So how could one accept the
four-fold caste system with unchanging caste positions as universal?.
Would a Brahmin not suffer from his
evil acts such as the slaughter of beings etc. and only men of certain castes suffer from
such acts? The results of such evil acts are similar in their effect on every human being
regardless of caste system distinction.
Do only Brahmin not suffer from his
evil acts such as the slaughter of beings etc. and only men of certain castes suffer from
such acts? As all four castes are able to develop such hearts, there is no superiority
attached to Brahmins in this context.
Would a fire lighted by a person
belonging to a Brahmin caste be different from a fire lighted by a man of another caste?
If both of them had taken the same type of firewood, would the fire differ from its colour
, heat etc., distinguishing the fire lighted by the Brahmin from that of the other?
Even among brahins, the skilled and the
educated Brahmin stands above others, and the morally superior one above even the skilled
and the educated. This shows that the value of a human being lies not in birth but in the
attainment of skills, knowledge, moral habit etc. (M.II.148-154).
In a discourse with a Brahmin youth
named AmbaŠ Š ha (D.I.8766), the Buddha goes on to expose the myth of caste purity . the
Brahmin youth was so proud of his Brahmin caste that he did not think of observing the
common courtesies in talking with the Buddha. The youth did this because the Buddha was
not a Brahmin, but a kshatriya whom he considered as inferior to him in caste status.
"And what family do you then,
AmbaŠ Š ha, belong to?" the Buddha asked from the Brahmin youth.
And when the youth replied, the Buddha
went on, "Yes, but if one were to follow up your ancient name and lineage, AmbaŠ Š
ha, on the fathers and the mothers side , it would appear that the S
kyas were once your masters, and you are the off spring of one of their slave girls. But
the S kyan trace their line back to Okk ka the king."(D.I.114-115).
The Buddha brings historical evidence
in order to confront AmbaŠ Š ha who is excessively proud of his own Brahmin ancestry.
The historical evidence was obviously known not only to AmbaŠ Š ha , but also to those
who at the time listened to this conversation between the Buddha and the Brahmin youth. If
there were inaccuracies in such evidence, the prod but learned AmbaŠ Š ha could
certainly have pointed it out. His silence is sufficient to indicate that the historical
facts adduced by the Buddha were known to all of them at the time. The Brahmin
youths pride was thus broken down, and together with the argument that the Brahmins
are a super caste. The Buddha believes in no caste superiority, a super caste. The Buddha
believes in no caste superiority, and if necessary, he would have utilized a similar
argument to disprove the fallacy of kshatriya supremacy.
Buddhist thought developed five main
arguments against caste. they are the biological, evolutionary , sociological, ethical and
the "spiritual unity of mankind" arguments. The same arguments are valid even in
the case of race. Biologically, all human beings are of one single caste. "If as
brahmins affirm, all men proceed from one individual brahma, how could a four-fold
inseparable diversity among men arise?"
Among animals there are distinctive
traits. The foot of the elephant may be different from that of the horse; that of the
tiger unlike that of the deer or hare. But one could not see such a difference from a man
of one caste and another. In the case of animals, colour, figure, odour, etc., provide
further diagnostics to separate this race or castes of animals.
But we cannot follow the same line and separate human beings into castes. So are the
plants and trees. They can be put into races or casters by virtue
of their distinguishing features in the leaves, stem , flowers, fruits, bark etc. All
human beings on the contrary, are alike in flesh, blood, bones, figure etc.
- "V seŠ Š ha, I will expound
- To you in gradual and very truth
- Division of the kind of living things
- For kinds divide behold the grass and trees.
- "They reason not, yet they possess the mark
- after their kind, for kinds indeed divide,
- Consider then the beetles, moths and ants;
- They after their kinds too possess the mark,
- "And so four-footed creatures, great and small
- Fish and pond-feeders, water-denizens
- Birds and the winged creatures, fowls of the air
- "They after their kind all possess the mark;
- For kinds divide, each after his kind bears
- His mark. In man there is not manifold
- Not in the hair or head or ears or eyes
- "Not in the rump, sex organs or the breast,
- not in the hands or feet, fingers or nails;
- "Not in the legs or thighs, colour or voice,
- is mark that forms his kind, as in all else
- nothing unique in mens bodies found
- the difference in men is nominal."
- (Sn. VV, 3600-3611 Tr. E.M.Hare in Woven Cadences)
A Brahmins sense of pleasure and
pain does not differ from that of a human being coming from another caste. A man or woman
from the Brahmin caste sustains life in the same way as others in different castes. They
all die from the same causes or illnesses. In the case of trees and plants as well as
animals, there are remarkable differences from one type to another; and does not find this
difference among human beings.
The variations in skin colour, hair,
shape of nose or head found among groups of human beings are negligible when compared to
specific variations in various animal and plant species. Man is thus biologically, one
The evolutionary argument goes on to
say how caste names originated as mere conventions. With division of occupations such a
conventional grouping according to the work that one does become necessary. According to
Asvaghosa (quoted by Jayatilleke, 1992,42), "The distinction between Brahmin,
kshatriyas, vaishyas and sudras are founded merely on the observance of diverse rites and
the practice of different professions." "One who engages in trade, comes to be
known as a merchant; one who indulges in military pursuits is known as a soldier, and one
who administers the country as a king. It was not by actions that one performs or the job
one does" (Ibid).
The four castes (it was laid down by
tradition ) were created by the god. As such, people born into a caste should perform
whatever woud assigned to that caste by the creator. The Buddhist theory, rejecting the
idea of a creator god, accepts the fact that society evolved itself from simple
beginnings. The aptitude and functions that a particular caste specialized, arose due to
the conventional practice that the caste was engaged in. people are not born in certain
castes with special aptitudes which are genetically determined.
There is no pure caste from an
evolutionary point of view. No one can say at least his or her parents and grandparents
even up to seven generations had observed caste purity in their
inter-marriages (D I, 92-99). : we really do not know who we are," and as such could
we speak about caste purity, which is only a myth?
The Buddhist thinker Asvaghosa raises
the following question pertaining to the purity of caste. "did you say
that he who is sprung from brahmin parents is a Brahmin? Still I object that, since you
must mean pure and true Brahmins, in such case the breed of Brahmins must be at an end,
since the fathers of the parent race of brahmins are not , any of them. Free from the
suspicion of having wives who notoriously commit adultery with sudras. Now, if the real
father be a sudra, the son cannot be a Brahmin, notwithstanding the Brahminhood if the
mother" (quoted in Jayatilleke, 1992,94).
There is no bar to inter-marriage
within castes. Human history records innumerable instances of such inter-marriage. The
"purity theorists" profounded the theory that such inter-marriages would not end
Buddhist discourses describe the
evolution of society in detail. Human beings began to live in households, and due to their
lust, rights of property came to be recognized. When such people began to enfringe on the
rights of each other, they chose men differing from the others in no wise except in virtue
to restrain the evil-doers by blame or fine or banishment. These were the first
kshatriyas, and the others chose to restrain the evil dispositions which led to the
evil-doing . and these were the Brahmins, differing from the others in no wise, except
only in virtue. Then certain others, to keep their households going, and maintaining their
wives, started occupations of various kinds, and these were the first vaishas" (SBB.
Part I, Vol.II, 106).
The third argument is based on
sociological considerations. When one examines certain societies, one finds two caste
systems. In some other societies there is no caste system at all . If the almighty God
created the four castes, the four-caste system should be available in all human societies,
and as such, there is no logic t accept the fact that the four caste system was a divine
Based on the divine origin, the
Brahmins consider themselves as the most superior born of the mouth of brahma,
but when one compares the Brahmins wit other human beings, n differences so remarkable as
to distinguish them as a super caste are observed. Caste prejudices, discrimination and
attitudes are social in origin, having nothing to do with creation or a god. The Brahmins
purposely cultivated such prejudices an d attitudes in order to derive material advantages
for them. Rigidity of caste was maintained by them with such an ulterior purpose in mind.
The sociological conditions existing in
the society enabled the so-called high castes, the kshatriyas and the Brahmins who
possessed more wealth to command the services of others. It is because of such wealth and
power which they possessed that they were anle to utilize the services of sudras. It was
not the caste superiority that was at work, but sheer economic power.
Purity of caste depended on the magical
belief in pollution. Pollution would ensue if a high caste person, (i.e. Brahmin) comes
into contact with a low caste sudra. A J taka story in the Buddhist tradition
(J.179) shows the futility of this claim. When possessed by the pangs of hunger, a high
class Brahmin snatches the half-eaten foof packet if a low caste Cand la had
finished his meal was used to cure the high caste Brahmins of a spell cast on them
Pollution could not only be conceived
in physical terms if one desires to examine its role in everyday life. A low caste sudra
or a high caste brahmana could, if they so desire, get into the water, bathe and purify
themselves. The same physical purity that a brahmana gains could also be accomplished by a
sudra. Buddhist thinking dismisses this sort of "pollution" concept and does on
to say that if at all purity of thought could be achieved (thoughts away from
passion, ignorance and hatred), there, one may be able to talk of internal
purity or pollution. The Buddha in re-interpretation the role of a
brahmana introduced a new concept dismissing totally the earlier definition of a brahmana
based on purity of caste. This re-interpretation contributed much to the
undermining of the brahmin concept based on nothing but accident of birth.
"Not by matted hair, nor by
family, nor by birth does one become a brahmana, but in whom there exists both truth and
righteousness, pure is he , a brahmana is he" (Dh. P. 393).
"Because he has discarded evil, he
is called brahmana" (Dh.P.368).
"I do not call him a brahmana
because he is born of a womb or sprung from a brahmana mother. He is merely a " dear
addresser," if he is with impediments. He who is free from impediments, free from
clinging, him I call a brahmana" (Dh.P. 396)/
"He who is not wrathful, but is
dutiful, virtuous, not moistened with craving, controls and bears his final body, him I
call a brahmana" (Sh.P.400).
The ethical argument attacks the
privileged position that the brahmins desired to maintain in the religious sphere.
Buddhist thinking arguers that anyone could develop spiritually ones faculties and
reach the highest possible point of spiritual development. The Buddha in contrast to the
Brahmin doctrine said that, "It is they who alone are saved, and not others, "
stating that spiritual salvation was possible for men and women of all castes,
irrespective of the fact that they are born high or low.
Furthermore, the law of karma works in
the same way for all without any distinction as to one is of high or low caste. According
to the law of karma, reward and punishment are strictly in proportion to good and evil
done, and ones birth or caste has no relevance in this
context . "Moral and spiritual development is not a prerogative of people who are
specially favoured by their berth, but is open to all, and is within the reach of
all" (Jayatilleke, 1992,50). No one could purify oneself by eternal acts such as
emerging oneself in water. What is necessary is inward development. That was the ethical
dimension to measure human beings , adopted in Buddhist thought.
The spiritual unity of making could be
understood when one looks at the lot of human beings all over the earth. These human
beings are subjected to disease, decay and finally death. The different castes or races to
which they belong do not absolve them from these inevitable processes which is the lot of
human beings everywhere. All of them thus "desire for self-gratificatrion, personal
immortality, and for final domination over death."
In the struggle for self-gratification
and happiness, all human beings stand in the same footing. Their capacity to attain final
salvation is there in everyone of them, irrespective of the race or caste to which they
belong to. the spiritual unity of mankind is seen in this potential which exist in
everyone to better himself and reach the highest point possible. In this ,no one could
distinguish this potential varying among human beings according to caste or race.
Buddhist thought examined the concept
and practice of caste and attempted to understand it. It is nothing but a convention
which, at a stage in the evolution of society certain groups encouraged and utilized to
gain advantages for them. The divine origin of caste , with the pollution theory was
introduced with this purpose in mind. It flourished die to ignorance among people who
never did understand its real origin.
The caste ideology led to a form of
discrimination in society. Equality in political opportunity was denied to the low castes.
Economic opportunity was reserved for higher castes. Well-paid jobs and lucrative
positions in society were not made available to lower castes. Even so , social opportunity
was denied as in the case of education-a privilege made available only to high castes. So
was the freedom of worship. Religion became the prerogative of high castes. The lower
castes were forbidden to take part even in religious worship. Finally, caste
discrimination led to denial of justice before the law to lower castes. There was one
system of justice for the high castes and another one for those who are born low.
Consequently, when the law was violated, the transgression of the same offence led to two
different sorts of punishments depending on ones position at birth (i.e. caste).
Class as such is not identified other
than in a very general manner as a factor in social stratification. Kings were regarded as
powerful individuals because political power was invested in them. They had wealth, but
the wealthy class recognized in Buddhist teachings were the merchants (SeŠ Š hi).
Householders were known as Gahapathis , whereas ordinary people comprised farmers etc.
Although these general divisions were
found mentioned in Buddhist discourses, the most important development for Buddhist
thought is the meaning that the Buddha gave to wealth (dana). One may possess great , but
unless one possesses spiritual wealth, it would be impossible to make use of and sustain
already available material wealth. Spiritual wealth consists of wisdom (prajn ) and
virtues (sş la). Virtues are qualities as sharing , discipline, sacrifice etc. there is
no value in wealth gained by means of violence and injustice. In the same manner, wealth
is there for making oneself happy and also to be shared with others. Value of wealth
enhances when it is divided and shared without clinging on to it.
This theory of wealth into which an
essential ethical component is added, makes the Buddhist theory of wealth an unique
development in human thought. One may become wealthy through various means-he or she may
be born in a wealthy family or win a fortune due to past good karma. Another may collect
wealth by dint or hard and dedicated work. In contrast to this are the people who earn
wealth through unjust means.
Wealth is not for the purpose of public
exhibition or ostentation. One has to utilize it for ones own comfort and also that
of others. Wealth becomes valuable (i.e. real wealth) in the way it is utilized in order
to gain happiness for oneself as well as others. Once there was a man who died, leaving an
immense amount of wealth, misery accumulated and kept without utilizing for his own
happiness or that of others. The Buddha on this occasion stated that such wealth if
properly utilized would have made that man as well as others happy. Now, in the case of
this man, the wealth was wasted. Wealth is useful, and gains more value when it is not
hoarded in a miserly fashion or wantonly wasted but utilized on purposes that provide
happiness for oneself as well as for others (S.I. 89).
Buddha created a path that facilitated
social mobility in a society where such movement was almost impossible, primarily because
of caste and even class. The community of monks organized had no caste or class
distinction. Anyone hailing from a rural family or from an ordinary low caste was accepted
on an equal bases. A new name replacing the old name was given, and thus , nobility was
Mobility was facilitated by the
emphases on achievement. Education or gathering of knowledge and development of discipline
and cultivation of positive inner qualities (i.e. virtues) was considered as a factor that
promotes mobility. Skilfullness is thus over and over again praised in Buddhist teachings.
Unequall distribution of wealth tales
place due to various reasons. Among them. Ignorance or lack of knowledge and wisdom is
considered the prime factor. The absence of knowledge or wisdom enables powerful and
crafty forces to exploit weaker sections of society to their advantage. It is ignorance
which makes the people idle and thus leave them bereft of necessary skills. Exploitation
can never tale place if knowledge and skills are made available to all.
Political, social, cultural, economic
as well as psychological factors promote ignorance, and thus means of exploitation of
individuals or groups by other individuals or groups. Karma committed by an individual
could determine his birth in rich or poor circumstances.
Once a Brahmin youth questioned the
Buddha in this manner: "What is the reason and the cause for the inequality among
human beings , despite their being human?" the Buddha replied: "Beings inherit
their karma; and it is karma which divides beings in terms of their inequalities."
When Buddha stated that inequalities in
life are caused by karma, oen has to accept the term karma as covering past volitional
activities-present ones and also future ones an individual would do. The past karma has
caused the present birth in a rich or poor circumstances. But once we are born, we are
free to determine our own volitional acts, and these become our new karmas although a past
karma committed by me has influenced my present status , it does not mean that this is my
lot which I cannot change. By engaging in positive karmic activity, I could change my
present and future. Karmic laws are tendencies, and not inevitable determinants that one
It is my ignorance that binds me to
negative karmic activities. But when this ignorance is dispelled, the volitional action
that I undertake brings better karmic results. At the same time , in addition to karma,
there are the biological, social, physical and psychological laws in life. Of these, one
or more could contribute to the inequality in combination with karmic influences . all
these laws are causal, but not deterministic.
The central teaching in Buddhism is to
strive to change karma, and then, control over the effects of kamma . for this-spiritual
development would be necessary. But in the would, if good karma could be performed by
individuals and groups, inequalities could be proportionately reduced. The dispelling of
knowledge by means of education would help us to minimize inequalities, nullifying the
impact of not only the karmic tendencies, but also other causal four laws of nature.
Dispelling of ignorance by whatever means at our command is the surest way to free the
human would from the differences caused by social stratification.
- Sincere thanks to Bhikkhu Minh Dieu for
transcription of this article