Early Buddhist Critique of the Brahminical Theory of Varṇadharma and Svadharma

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Buddhism appeared in ancient India in the sixth century B.C. Before the rise of Buddhism, the major philosophical traditions can be classified into two major traditions: Brāhmaṇa and Ṥramaṇa. The two most fundamental elements of Brahminism are the doctrine of sacrifice (yāga, yagña) and the doctrine of four social classes (varṇa). Brahminical tradition based its doctrines on the Vedas[1] as the final authority in all matters. They claimed that, the Vedas are “not of human agency (apauruṣeya) and are supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called śruti.[2] They interpreted varṇadharma and svadharma and established themselves as mediators between god and man. It is important to note that Brahminical theory of varṇadharma and svadharma, and the authority of the Vedic scriptures are criticized and rejected by the Ṥramaṇa tradition.[3] Buddhism has closest similarity with Ṥramaṇa tradition.[4] The Buddha completely rejected Brahminical theory of varṇadharma and svadharma together with the authority of the Vedic scriptures and disproving the Brahmā[5] as the lord of all creatures. The Buddha as a teacher (satthā) brought a new message to the Indian society. His discovery saying that it is not the teaching inherited from past tradition, not known to his contemporaries. This is he wanted to establish in the very first sutta known as “Dhammacakkappavattana sutta.”[6] Thus, he made some statement regarding some religions that were in the past and also some religions that were existed at his time.

In this paper, firstly, I will concentrate on the four-fold division of society or caste (caturvarṇa) aspect of Brahminical concept. Secondly, I will discuss Brahminical theory of varṇadharma and svadharma as contained in recognized Brahminical scriptures like Vedas and Dharmaśāstra like Manusmṛti. Finally, I will establish my arguments giving an objective exposition of their theory with references to Buddha’s teaching preserved in Pāli literature.

Brahminical Theory of Varṇadharma and Svadharma

The word ‘varṇa’ (Pāli vaṇṇa) is a Sanskrit term derived from the root ‘vṛ’ meaning “to enclose” or “colour”. Varṇa and caste systems are believed to have become related to mean the same thing, as caste. The varṇa system is also known as varṇāśramadharma which is based on principles laid out in the scriptures of the Vedic tradition. The Puruṣa sūkta[7] in the Ṛg-veda refers to the four principal varṇas described in Manu’s code[8] , namely: the brahmin or brahman[9] (Pāli and Sanskrit brāhmaṇa), the kshatriya (Pāli khattiya and Sanskrit kṣatriya), the vaisya (Pāli vessa and Sanskrit vaiśya) and the sudra (Pāli sudda and Sanskrit śūdra). According to Vedic text, among the four varṇas, the superior varṇa was that of the brahmin varṇa, traditionally priest. The second highest of the four varṇas was kshatryia varṇa, traditionally the ruling class or military. The third varṇa was that of the vaisya varṇa, primarily composed of merchants and farmers. The fourth and lowest of the varṇas, was that of the sudra varṇa, traditionally composed of labourers. The brahmins along with the kshatriyas and vaisyas, claim to be of the ‘twice born’ (dvija) castes of the classical theory.

The term svadharma is a Brahminical term combination of two words: sva and dharma. Sva means “one’s own,” and dharma means “nature”, indicates that anyone’s given class or caste (varṇa) is his or her own nature. Concerning varṇāśramadharma, svadharma refers to the duties prescribed in accordance with one’s social class or caste. That is obligation of those born in their respective castes to perform their respective duties and no others. Gombrich explains that, one’s nature is at the same time one’s duty. In principle, there is a finite number of such essence (and duties) and in total, they are equal dharma in the singular. Here, he identified the word dharma in singular form.[10] The Vedic text makes it very clear that different varṇas have different dharmas. For example, the dharma of a brahmin is to impart knowledge, whereas the dharma of a kshatriya is to protect the country and her innocent or defenceless people.

The Origins of the Four Varṇas

The origins of the four varṇas are back to Vedic period. According to the Indian history, there were a number of civilizations in ancient India. Civilisation appears in India, according to the archaeological evidence, about 3000 B.C., in other words about 2500 years before the Buddha.[11] Here, I would pay attention to only two civilizations: Indus valley civilization and Aryan civilization. Indus valley civilization is pre-Aryan. This group of people built a civilization along the Indus River. That is why they are known as Indus valley civilization. Olivelle points out that, it lasted from around 2300 until the middle of the second millennium BCE and centered on the two major cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.[12] They had their own culture and religious views. In the course of the time, Aryans people entered into upper Indus valley from the west. The Aryans who came into India first settled the fertile land of the upper Indus tributaries (the area of present-day Punjab) but soon migrated farther east into the Ganges Valley.[13] It is believed that they were a pastoral or priest and very advanced in militarily. As a result, they were able to suppress the Indus valley people and settled in those areas where they thought for them useful. We can assume this is supposed to have taken place in 1,500 B.C. to 1,600 B.C.

Aryans people also came with some religious doctrines. It should be consider that at that time, it was a very simple religion where people believed in the existence of so many gods and goddesses. The main religious function, expected of the follower, was offering sacrifice (yajña) in order to please god and get his help for the follower.[14] Later on they composed the famous literature which is known as “Veda.” One is the Ṛg-veda, containing hymns to be recited by the chief brahmin. The second one is the Yajur-veda which explains how to offer sacrifice. The third one, the Sāma-veda, explains how to chant the hymns meant for particular purposes. The fourth is the Atharva-veda, a collection of spells and incantations, stories, predictions, charms and some speculative hymns. However, the most elaborate exposition of varṇāśramadharma is to be found in Manusmṛti, also known as Mānava-Dharmaśāstra, an important Dharmaśāstra of brahmins. Manu claims that the same Brahmā, who created this world, also created Manusmṛti and taught it to him.[15] It is the first reference to the creation and also to the mention of the four varṇa system. Further, Vedic text claims that for the growth of these worlds, moreover, he produced from his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet, the brahmin, the kshatriya, the vaisya and the sudra.[16] The system of four varṇas was also said to have been created by god according to the quality (guṇa) and kind of action (karma) as stated in the Ṛgvedic text and Bhagavad-Gīta. For example, Bhagavad-Gīta stated thus, “The fourfold caste was created by me according to the quality and actions.”[17]

It is well accepted belief that Vedism was transformed into Brahmanism as brahmin or priest class had the dominating power in that society. Lamotte points out that, when the Āryans settled in the Ganges basin, the religion was transformed. Vedism became Brāhmanism, a collection of religious and social concepts which were defined and directed by the brahmin who constituted a priest body.[18] Thus, the four varṇa systems were well-established in Indian society.

God’s Instruction to the Four Varṇas

The Brahminical tradition beliefs that, man has different natural duties according to the varṇa (social class) or they are born. Further, Brahminical text like Manusmṛti and Bhagavat-Gīta mentioned that god has assigned the different duties to four different varṇas.

To the brahmins, he (god) assigned the duties of reciting and teaching the Veda, learning, offering and officiating at sacrifices (yajñas), and receiving and giving gifts (dānā).[19] The brahmins also are expected to have clarity, self-control, austerity, purity, patience, honesty, knowledge, wisdom and religiousness — such is the duty of a brahmin, born of his own nature.[20]

To the kshatriyas, he assigned the duties of protecting the subjects, giving gifts, offering sacrifices[21] , learning (the Veda), and avoiding attachment to sensory objects.[22] Again, Bhagavad-Gīta maintains that, heroism, power, determination, capability, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the task of a kshatriya, born of his own nature.[23]

To the vaisyas, he assigned the duties of looking after animals, giving gifts, offering sacrifices[24] , learning (the Veda)[25] , trading, lending money and doing agricultural work.[26] Again, according to Bhagavad-Gīta, farming, cow herding and trade are the task of a vaisya, born of his own nature.[27]

There is special address given to sudras by Manu. Manu says, “Sudra has to perform only one duty. That is the ungrudging service of those varṇas.”[28] Again, according to the Bhagavat-Gīta, labouring and giving service to others are the task of a sudra, born of his own nature.[29] There was no standard work or economic opportunities for sudras except a slave labour because Vedic text restricted his work saying, the sudra is always born to be the servant of another.

According to Brahminical theory, a follower of Brahminism should perform his own duty, that is, the duty that comes to him by birth, from the varṇa to which he belongs. Manu reminds the duty of each varṇa saying, “Far better to carry out one’s own law (duty) imperfectly than that of someone else’s perfectly; for a man who lives according to someone else’s law falls immediately from his caste.”[30] And, it was the duty of all the brahmins to see these duties are obeyed. No one is to argue critically about them because Manu instructs that sṛuti (scripture) should be recognized by Veda and smṛti (tradition) as law treatise— “if a twice-born[31] disparages these two by relying on the science of logic, he ought to be ostracized by good people as an infidel and a denigrator of the Veda.[32] Manu also warns, if a person of inferior birth out of greed lives by activities specific to his superiors, the king shall confiscate all his property and send him into exile. [33]

As I mentioned above, the term svadharama indicates that each one’s caste, which is assigned from the god creator, cannot be changed. Brahminical tradition, therefore, maintains that the duties of each varṇa are fixed by nature (by god). They claim that god is creator of all things and has placed the brahmins in the highest position. “Because he originated from the highest part of the body, because he is the eldest, and because he retains the Veda, the brahmin is by law the lord of this whole creation”[34]. The brahmins were also the sole possessors of every rites and ceremonies. They, occupying the highest position in society, enjoyed the privileges of conducting all kinds of rites and ceremonies and instructing the other three varṇas.

The sudras were given the lowest rank in the fourfold class system. Moreover, Manu warns them saying, “Even if he (a sudra) mentions their names and varṇas with disdain, a red-hot iron nail ten fingers long should be driven into his mouth.”[35] “If he arrogantly gives instruction on the law to brahmins, the king should pour hot oil into his mouth and ears.”[36] Manu also warns that, brahmins should not even recite the texts in the presence of sudras.[37] It (Veda) should be studied diligently and taught to his pupils properly by a learned brhamin, and by no one else.[38] Furthermore, Manu says, brahmin alone is entitled to teach. However, a brahmin, must not teach the sudra and woman even if he dies with his knowledge without imparting it to anybody.[39] If, however, a man learns the Veda without permission by listening to someone who is reciting it, he is guilty of stealing the Veda and will go to hell.[40] When they accepted the theory of the divine creation, it means no one can change the varṇa because it is will of God. A person was born into a caste and belonged to it for all his/her life.

Criticism of the Brahminical Theory

Buddhism did not accept the Brahminical theory of varṇadharma and svadharma and the theory of creator god. This particular aspect was discussed by the Buddha in several discourses of the Pāli Canon. According to the Buddhist discourses, individual brahmin as well as group of brahmin approached to the Buddha in various occasions and tried to establish their theory or argued with the Buddha. However, in every occasion, the Buddha argued and completely rejected their theories; and established his own theories. The main three basic arguments of Buddhist against this theory of varṇadharma and svadharma; and the theory of creator god are:

Atheistical Debate

Buddhism does not accept the theory of creator god. In various Pāli texts, the theory of divine creation (issaranimmānavāda) is rejected. If we review the history of ancient India, we find that there were six different teachings in the Buddha’s time, and some of them especially Makkhali Gosāla insisted the theory of creator (issaranimānavāda). The Buddha criticized this theory in various arguments. One of the arguments is as follows: “When we see the world, it is filled with lots of cruelty such as violence, droughts and floods. If god is kind and compassionate, how could he create the world with so many disasters? Therefore we can say that such god is not compassionate or incapable of knowing that the world is so cruel.”[41] In several other places, the Buddha criticized the epistemological grounds of revelation itself. In the Tevijjā sutta, he blamed the brahmins saying neither any one of them, nor of their pupils, nor of their predecessors to the seventh generation who are well versed in there Vedas, even the sages of old whose words they hold in such deep respect never know which state of being united with Brhamā,[42] though they points out the path to be united with Brahmā. Further, he says that the brahmins who talk state of being united with Brhamā are making meaningless statement because they cannot make the concept of god meaningful in any way. “O Vāseṭṭha, just as the queue of the blind people, the first blind man can’t see the way, neither the middle blind man nor the last blind man; even so the word of the brhamin who are well versed in three Vedas is similar leading the blind. So, the word of the brhamins in the three Vedas turns out to be laughable, mere words, vain and empty.”[43] Thus, the Buddha denounced the concept of Brahmā as the creator of the universe.

Again, according to Buddhism, Individual existence is a process of inter-dependent mental (nāma) and material phenomena (rūpa), all in a state of constant change. The theory of “dependant origination” or “causal genesis” (paṭiccasamuppāda) is the most fundamental doctrine in the teachings of Buddha by which Buddha rejected the theory of divine creation (issaranimmānavāda). In its general formula “When this is, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; when this isn’t, that becomes not; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.”[44] It means that all phenomena and everything in this world are both conditioned (paṭiccasamuppanna) and conditioning (paṭiccasamuppāda); they are, therefore, relative and interdependent. In Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa notes that there is neither a god nor a Brahmā can be called the maker of this wheel of life; empty phenomena roll on, dependent on conditions all.[45] This law establishes a causal connection between our actions and their consequences (kiriyavāda). And thus, ensures the possibility and desirability of human effort (viriyavāda). Being endowed with mutually arising characteristics, this doctrine opposes Brahminical theory of creation. Thus by denying the theory of creator and union with the Brhamā, the theory of varṇadharma and svadharma was also collapsed.

Empirical and Experiential Debate

The theory of varṇadharma and svadharma goes against our daily experience. According to this theory, the four varṇas came out from the four different parts of the god (the creator).[46] But in reality this is not so. In the Assalāyana sutta the Buddha rejected their theory saying thus, “The brahmins women are known to have their periods, to become pregnant, to give birth and to give suck. Born from the wombs of the brhamins women, do they say thus: “Brahmins are the highest caste, the others are low; brahmins are the fairest caste, the others are dark; only the brahmins become pure, not non-brahmins; brahmins alone are the sons of Brahmā, born from his mouth, offspring of his, created by him, heirs of Brahma?”[47] We see that all brahmins are in fact womb born of brahmins women in the natural way. Their mothers feed them, nurture them. If they truly come from god, why do mothers come to the scene? God should take care of them instead of their mothers. Furthermore, what the mothers of brahmins are doing is not so different from what the mothers of sudras or tribes (indigenous people) are doing. Therefore, this theory cannot be fit with our daily experience.

The Buddha also remarked that in the society there were various works: sometimes brahmins were engaged in warfare, some kshatryias left home and engaged in religious practices like the Buddha himself, and even some sudras became millionaires. If the theory of varṇadharma and svadharma works well, how can these lots of exceptional trans-castes happen? Thus by examining our daily experience, the theory should be collapsed.

Anthropological/Historical Debate

There are historical arguments of Buddhism, in Aggañña sutta, against the theory of varṇadharma and svadharma. In the beginning, says the sutta, all human beings were “like unto themselves, not unlike.”[48] In this sutta, the Buddha explained about the formation of earth at the beginning of world cycle, its population by beings, the origins of sex and property, the origin of kingship, and finally the origin of four varṇas (social class), their titles, and their order in the society system. Gombrich comments is that, the whole story of the origin of society, which forms the bulk of the text, is a parody of Brahminical texts, especially the Ṛg Vedic ‘Hymn of Creation’ (RV X,129) and the cosmogony at BĀU (Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad) 1,2.[49]

According to Aggañña sutta, it was not a society without any kind of administration. There was various safe guard of protecting properties and members of the society. There was the sense of punishment. Person who stole the paddy were banished and sexual intercourse publicly were also punished. The sense of morality arose, and the decisions were taken in assembly. People gathered and discussed the issues. Sometimes the punishment made by majority decision. In order to look after their properties they should put one who can protect them, and the chosen one was called “mahāsammata”—selected by many or all (mahājanasamtoti mahāsammato). Then, they bestowed also the second title: ‘kshatryia’, and finally the third title: ‘rājā’. The rājā means that the king is the person who delights the people cautiously (dhammena pare ranjetiti rājā) by the promise to get rid of the chaotic situation. The kshatryia (khattiyo) means the person who is the lord of the fields (khettā na patīti kho khattiyo) by protecting the fields from outside invasion. Then, amongst the people, some of them set aside evil, impolite things and set up retreats and huts in the forests and meditated there. They were called ‘jhayanti’ or ‘jhayaka’. But some other people who did not meditate, but compiled books. They were called ‘Ajjhayaka’ which meant ‘who don’t meditate’. These people who decided unwholesome practice, leaving the householder life, called brahmin (pāpake akusale dhamme bāhentīti kho brāhmaṇā).[50] In this sutta Buddha points out that “there are people who decided to live by cultivating paddies, called kshatryia; rulers (khettā patīti kho khattiyo). There are people who decided to put away from immoral customs and unwholesome practice, leaving the householder life, called brahmins (vāheyyāmā’ti brāhmaṇo). Among the people, some began to engage in various trades, called vaisya (visukammante payojentīti vessā). There are people who engaged in menial works i.e. hunting, called sudra (luddācārā khuddācārātīti suddo).”[51] Thus, when the time passed and the society gradually developed, people divided into various groups on the basis of what works they choose for their livelihood. Then eventually formed four different categories which were known as brahmin, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra.

This beautiful story gives a new light on our understanding of the evolution of society. It describes how to the basic, essential and social institution came out. Therefore, it cannot be simply rejected as a myth; the history is narrated in this story of Aggañña sutta in a different form as ancient style. There is no pure caste from an evolutionary point of view. Gnanarama points out that, the institution of the Great Elect is not a creation of Brahma, the creator god of the Hindu pantheon, but an institution created “of the people, by the people, for the people.[52] In this description of four varṇas, there is no intervention of god.[53] The emergence of four groups was the result of the natural process that the people freely selected their professions in the society. God had no role to take on it. Therefore, the theory of varṇadharma and svadharma also had no place to stay on it.

Biological Debate

Even though Buddhism maintains all men and women are equal, there are distinctions also between two individuals. The basic differences between men are called difference of individuals (puggalavemattata) and difference of faculties (indriyavemattata).[54] Therefore, one person is not equal to another. But, Buddhism says that on certain other grounds of doctrine “all are equal.” The structure of individual does not differ from another: all are equal in a sense that individuals are combination of five aggregates (pañcakkhanda) and the combination of name and form (nāma-rūpa). Furthermore, the basic problems of humanity also are all equal: the first Noble Truth (dukkha). Therefore, equality between man and man is a basic Buddhist teaching although in a certain aspect.

Vāseṭṭha sutta was addressed to two young brahmins who argued each other on the issue of supremacy of brahmins: one insisted the brahmin is superior by birth and the other said superior by deed. Then they brought the issue to the Buddha, saying that they had the problem of theory of birth (jāti-veda) and would listened to and follow the Buddha’s answer. The Buddha replied, “I will explain this to you from the very beginning and as it is.” That means he will explain historically and realistically. Then he said, “I will explain to you the generic divisions of living beings (jātivibhṅga pāṇa); for many are the kinds of birth. There are various species among the living beings. The Buddha categorized them into seven wider categories: (a) the grass (tiṇa) and trees (rukkha), (b) the insects (kīṭa), and the winged creatures (butterfly, grasshopper, etc (paṭaṅga), and the different sorts of ants (kunthakipillika), (c) four footed animals (catuppada) of both small and large, (d) four footed animals whose bellies are their feet (pādudara), the long-backed class of snakes (dīghapiṭṭha uraga), (e) the fish (maccha) (f) the birds (pakkhī), (g) the human being (manussa). Within each of these major categories, there are sub-species and each of them is different from one another: for example, among the four footed animals, lions are different from elephants. Thus, each sub-species is different because their characteristics were inherited differently from the birth. This special characteristic inherited by birth was called jātimaya liṅga. Therefore, thousands of species are different from one another on the basis of jātimaya liṅga. As far as human beings are concerned, however, there is no jātimaya liṅga. One man is not different from another man because no one has a special characteristic which is inherited by birth (evaṃ natthi manussesu liṅgaṃ jātimayaṃ puthu). Therefore, all men are equal. This kind of equality is not found among the other species of living beings.”[55]

The Buddha goes on to say that, “Taking the example of certain parts of body such as hair, head, ears, eyes, mouth, nose, lips, or brows, skin colour (vaṇṇa), so on some people think that one man is different from the other endowed with certain parts of body, but amongst men this is not the case. They are not differentiated from another on any of this list.”[56] Further, Buddha states that, the best of gods and men is not the one who is pure in lineage, but the one who is perfect in wisdom and righteousness.[57]

Taking the example of complexion such as different colours of white, brown, yellow and black, some people (anthropologist) have believed that there are different species of human being until recently. All of those assumptions, however, are withdrawn. Now all scientists agree that human beings are all equal (Homogeneous). The Buddha explains that people’s thought of different groups of human being by birth is just their imagination. Therefore, it is clear that we human beings do not fall into jātimaya liṅga. Only difference that exists among the human being is the differences, which would come up on the basis of the livelihood. The Buddha points out that, one does not become a brahmin by birth, nor by birth one does not become a non-brahmin. One becomes a brahmin by what he does for his livelihood, and one becomes a non-brahmin by his livelihood.”[58] In the same way, there are no distinguishing characteristics of genus and species among men, unlike in the case of grasses, trees, worms, moths, birds, etc.

Therefore, what is evident for the above statement is that the apparent divisions between men are not due to basic biological factors but are ‘conventional classifications’. Biologically, man is of one species[59] and therefore, any claim on the divine origin is refuted.

Sociological Debate

According to Assalāyana sutta, there is no absolute or universal value of the Brahminical theory of varṇadharma because their varṇa theory is a particular phenomena of the northern India. It does not exist even in the southern part of India. If the almighty god created the four varṇas, the four- varṇa system should be available in all parts of the world. Furthermore, he points out that, in other countries outside of India, there are various other social orders. However in the countries like Yonā (Greek of modern Greece) and Kambojā (Cambodia)[60] there are only two social classes: masters or free (ayya) and slaves (dāsa); each individual can become one of those social states—“O Assalāyana, in Yona, Kamboja, and such frontier regions, there are only two castes: ayya and dāsa; and one having been an ayya may become a dāsa, one having been a dāsa may become an ayya.”[61] The Commentary explains this by saying that supposing a brahmin goes there and dies, his children might consort with slaves, in which case their children would be slaves.[62] It is not an unchangeable class. The four caste system of the brahmins, therefore, has no an absolute value.

Moral and Ethical Debate

This argument is found in the Madhura sutta of Majjhimanikāya. According to this sutta, even among brahmins, the virtuous and morally superior brahmin stands above the educated but unvirtuous brhamin.”[63] This shows that the value of a human being lies not in birth but moral behavior. According to the theory of karma, it operates equally to all individuals of the different social castes. The Buddha says, “According to this moral principle, man’s activities and tendencies make him a farmer (who cultivates the land), a craftsman (who produces utensils and instruments), a servant (who serves others for a living), a thief (who takes to stealing), a soldier (who serves in the army), a teacher (who learns and imparts knowledge to others), a king (who rules a country), a minister (who helps the king in governing the country). In short, one is a ruler (khattiya), a priest (brāhmaṇa), a businessman (vessa) or a servant (sudda) is due to one’s moral behavior and actual activities. By birth, one is not a brahmin or an out-caste (vasala). It is his activities that make him so.”[64] Therefore, the four caste system of the Brahminical theory, has no an absolute value.

Brahmins claim to superiority of birth is further refuted by suggesting an ethical etymology to the word brahmin: ‘One is a brahmin because he has abandoned evil.’ In the Assalāyana sutta, the Buddha said, “a warrior, a brahmin, an ordinary man or a slave, who destroys life, takes what is not given, misbehaves in sexuality, lies, slanders, talks roughly, talks frivolously, covets, bears an angry mind and has wrong view, after death would be born in decrease in hell.”[65] Again, in the same sutta, he says, “who abstains from such evil acts would be born in heaven.’[66] Here, Buddha argued that not only an ordinary man but also a brahmin suffer from his evil acts and get rewards from his good acts. Therefore, there are no differences who think they are born, in the highest caste, the others are low. Again, according to Saniti sutta, in the society people are divided into two groups: good people (sukkābhijātika) and bad people (kanhābhijātika). The Buddha says that human nature cannot be identified with good or bad: good person can become bad and bad person can become good; it depends on the behaviour of each individual. In this ethical sense, all are also equal; cannot be judged by social caste.[67]

Therefore, ethically, all human beings are equal by birth, sex and race. Only their moral conduct, which is directed by the intention or choice (cetanā), makes them noble or ignoble, higher or low.

Spiritual Debate

The brahmins claim that, they alone were saved and not others.[68] However, according to Buddhism, all men and women are equal in terms of their potentiality to reach the ultimate spiritual goal as mentioned in several suttas. For example, according to the Kaṇṇakatthala sutta, the king of Kosala once questioned the Buddha on this subject: ‘Lord, there are these four castes: kshatriya, brahmin, vaishya and sudra. Is there any distinction or difference among them (in regard to the quality of their salvation)?’ The Buddha replies, “The difference among them would lie in the diversity of their exertion.”[69] “Just as if, sire, a man were to kindle a fire with dry herbs (sākakaṭṭha), and another man were to kindle a fire with a dry sal wood (sālakaṭṭha), and a third were to kindle a fire with dry mango wood (ambakaṭṭha), and a fourth with dry fig wood (udumbarakaṭṭha)— now what do think you, great king : among those fires generated from different kinds of wood, would there be any difference between the glow of one and the glow of another, the color of one and the color of another, the radiance of one and the radiance of another?” ‘No difference at all, Lord.’

“In the same way, great king, in the power that is kindled by persistence and generated by exertion, I say that there is no difference in regard to their salvation.” Further, he says, anyone, from four caste, who is self-restrained in deeds (kāyena saṃvuto), self-restrained in speeches (vācāya saṃvuto), and self-restrained in thoughts (manasā saṃvuto), and developed himself in the seven factors of Enlightenment (satta bodhi-pakkhiyā dhammā), then he would attain the eradication from the (stains) of mind in this present life.[70] Jayatiloke points out that 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 one’s ‘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 birth, but is open to all, and is within the reach of all.[71] Early Buddhism maintains that anyone of these four classes becomes a monk (bhikkhu), an enlightened person (arahant), who has destroyed the stains of mind (khīṇāsava), has done what must be done, has relieved himself from fetter (saṁyojana), who has attained freedom (salvation), who has broken the bondage of birth, who had been freed due to knowledge; then they would be declared as the best from all of them, in accordance to the Truth (dhamma) and not from the basis of not Truth (adhamma).[72] Therefore, all men are equal by birth and all men have potential to liberate themselves.

What we can draw from the forgoing explanation is that in Brahminical tradition the rights of human beings were violated by the so called brahmin priest. From birth to death, in every step in life, the sudras were denied freedom, respect, education, power, wealth, and justice. Even, he had no right, unlike the ‘superior’ castes (i.e., brahmins, kshatriyas and vaisyas), to be initiated or to have religious ceremonies performed for him;[73] even the contact with a sudra was considered as impure (asuci). The god dictates all the people of four classes to follow one’s own duty (svadharma) without being ostracized. In short, the social system that Brahmanism followed was a monopoly as in every step of life, the god placed brahmins into superior class to other classes. Therefore, we can say that Brahminical theory of varṇadharma and svadharma are based on the principle of inequality and injustice; and their system of dharma is a vicious, which divides people into high and low.

On the contrary, Buddhism completely rejected major Brahminical theory because their theory is opposed to the human rights i.e. equality and freedom. Buddhism treated all people equally. According to Buddhism, caste or colour does not prohibit one from entering the noble order of the saṅgha where all are treated as equally. In the Smaññaphala sutta, the Buddha says that if anybody, whatever his caste is, joins the Order, he will get respect from all faction of the people including the king; even the ordinary person joins the Buddhist order, he will receive the same respect. It is mentioned in the Buddhist text that fishermen, scavenger, courtesans, together with warriors and brahmins were freely admitted into the order and were also given position of rank. For example, Upāli was a barber of the king Suddhodana’s palace. He was regarded as a lowest caste in his society. But, when he entered the Buddhist order, the equal opportunity was given to him. He learned the Vinaya very well and he became the Vinaya master. Later he held the leading position of the first Buddhist council. He was equal to all the other disciples of the Buddha who came from different castes. Such is the Buddhist treatment towards all human beings.

Another distinguishing characteristic of Buddhism is that, in Buddhism, the freedom of people is recognized from their birth itself, and the recognition of their equality in dignity and rights is reflected clearly in the Buddha’s emphasis on self—reliance, extolling what He called personal effort (attakāra), human endeavour (purisa-kāra), human strength (purisa-thāma), human energy (purisa-viriya), human velour (purisa-parakkama) and human responsibility (purisa-dhorayha).[74] Furthermore, this concept is reinforced by His maintaining that liberation itself is within the reach of all people. Buddhism demands that “one should live with friendliness and compassion towards all beings (sabbapāṇabhūtahitānukampī ca viharati)”[75] , and “having laid aside cudgel and sword (nihitadaṇḍo nihitasattho).” [76]

In the Dhammapada, there is a chapter named Brāhmaṇavagga, where the Buddha described the true nature of a brahmin. For example, the Buddha says, “One does not become a brahmin by matted hair, lineage or birth. In whom there is truth and the dhamma, he is pure, he is a brahmin”[77] In another verse he says, “He who is loving, devout, virtuous, not arrogant, restrained and living his last life– him do I call a brahmin.”[78] Moreover, he mentioned five qualities of a brahmin saying a brahmin is only a true brhamin if he is well-born on both the father’s and mother’s side, if seven generations before him were pure-born brhamin, if he is a scholar well-versed in the three Vedas, if he is handsome and pleasing, if he is virtuous, intelligent and wise. These are the five qualities of a true brhamin. [79]


What we can draw from the foregoing discussion is that in Brahmanical tradition the rights of human beings were violated by the so called Brahmin priest. From birth to death, in every step in life, the sudras were denied freedom, respect, education, power, and justice. The god dictates all the people of four classes to follow one’s own duty (svadharma). In short, the social system that Brahmanism followed was a monopoly as in every step in life the god placed Brahmin into superior class to other classes. Therefore, we can say that Brahminical theory of varṇadharma and svadharma are based on the principle of inequality and injustice; and their system of dharma is a vicious which divides people into high or low. Buddhist argument against Brahminical belief is logical and scientific thinking of the Buddha as His teaching is based on human values of freedom, equality and well-being.


  • A – Aṅguttara-Nikāya
  • BhG – Bhagavat-Gītā
  • Dhp – Dhammapada
  • D – Dīgha-Nikāya
  • ed./eds – edition/editor/editors
  • ESD – English-Sanskrit Dictionary
  • M – Majjhima-Nikāya
  • MA – Majjhima-Aṭṭhakathā
  • Manu – Mānava-Dharmaśāstra
  • PED – Pāli-English Dictionary
  • S – Saṃyutta-Nikāya
  • Sn – Sutta-Nipāta
  • tr. translation
  • Vin Vinaya
  • Vism Visuddhimagga
  • vol. volume/volumes


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