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Caste

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Caste (vaṇṇa) is the Hindu belief that humans were created by God as four distinct and different types; priests (brāhmaṇa), warriors (khattiya), merchants (vessa) and labourers (sudda). According to this belief, the different castes should make their living in different ways, should not mix and should be treated differently. Beyond the four castes are the outcastes (nīcākulā or vasala), those who have no caste and are considered beyond the pale of ordinary Hindu society.

The Buddha was an outspoken critic of the caste system and at least a dozen of his discourses are devoted to highlighting its contradictions and cruelties. The Buddha’s tribe, the Sākyans,were excessively proud of their high caste status. When a group of them requested to become monks, the Buddha ordained Upāli, a low caste barber, first, thus giving him a precedence that would require the others to bow to him.

The Buddha criticised the caste system on several grounds. The claim that it was ordained by God is no more than a myth (M.II,148). Caste is not practised everywhere and thus must be a regional custom rather than a universal truth (M.II,149). The claim that different castes have different abilities and personalities is not born out by experience and is thus invalid (M.II,150; Sn.116). Low castes and outcastes may be dirty because they are compelled to do dirty jobs, but if they wash themselves they become as clean as everyone else (M.II,151). The caste system engenders cruelty and suffering and is thus evil. The Buddha further pointed out that the supposed divine origin of caste differences is even contradicted by economics. If an outcast managed to become wealthy he could employ a desperately poor brahman and compel him to wait on him, serve him, and do his bidding (M.II,85). From the Buddhist perspective, how people are treated, the respect they receive, the opportunities they have, even where they are reborn, should depend on their behaviour, not what caste they are born into. The Buddha said: ‘Without righteousness, all castes can go to purgatory. All castes are pure if they act with righteousness.’ (Ja.VI,100).

The Buddhist attack on caste took many forms and lasted for many centuries. In the Divyāvadāna there is a story about an outcaste woman whom the Buddha ordained as a nun, to the horror and anger of the upper caste citizens of Sāvatthi. The Buddha is then portrayed as giving these citizens a series of arguments as to why caste is invalid. The most interesting of these arguments is that one could have been high caste, low caste or outcaste in one’s former life or that one might be in the next life, and that one’s future is conditioned by one’s behaviour in this life (i.e. kamma), not by which caste one belongs to.

Despite the Buddha’s repudiation of caste, less extreme variations of the system exist in most Buddhist countries. For example, the paya kyun of Burma are the descedants of monastery slaves, and the buraku of Japan and the ragyapa of Tibet , were originally degraded because they worked as fishermen, scavengers or butchers. These groups are marginalized by their respective societies. Sri Lanka’s monastic sects are all divided along caste lines. Since the 1950’s, millions of low caste and outcaste people in India , following the example of their leader Dr. Ambedkar, have converted to Buddhism to escape the indignities of the Hindu caste system.

Caste (vaõõa) is the Hindu belief that humans were created by God as four distinct and different types; priests, warriors, merchants and labourers. According to this belief the different castes should make their living in different ways, should not mix and should be treated differently. Beyond the four castes are the outcastes, canóàla, those who have no caste and are considered beyond the pale of ordinary Hindu society. The Buddha was an outspoken critic of the caste system and at least a dozen of his discourses are devoted to highlighting its contradictions and cruelties. The Buddha’s tribe, the Sàkyas, were excessively proud of their high caste status. When a group of them requested to become monks the Buddha ordained Upàli, a low caste barber, first thus giving him a precedence that would require the others to bow to him.

The Buddha criticized the caste system on several grounds. The claim that it was ordained by God is no more than a myth (Majjhima Nikaya 2. 148). Caste is not practiced everywhere and thus must be a regional custom rather than a universal truth (Majjhima Nikaya 2. 149). The claim that different castes have different abilities and personalities is not born out by experience and is thus invalid (Majjhima Nikaya 2. 150; Sutta Nipata 116). Low castes and outcastes may be dirty because they are compelled to do dirty jobs but if they wash themselves they become as clean as everyone else (Majjhima Nikaya 2. 151). The caste system engenders cruelty and suffering and is thus evil. Despite the Buddha’s repudiation of caste, less extreme variations of the system are practiced in Sri Lanka, Tibet, Burma, Thailand and even Japan. Since the 1950’s, millions of low caste and outcaste people in India, following the example of their leader Dr. Ambedkar, have converted to Buddhism to escape the indignities of the caste system.

Here are the Buddha's most famous words regarding caste:

"Birth makes no Brahmin, nor non-Brahmin, makes; it is life's doing that mold the Brahmin true. Their lives mold farmers, tradesmen, merchants, and serfs. Their lives mold robbers, soldiers, chaplains, and kings. By birth is not one an out-caste. By birth is not one a Brahmin. By deeds is one an out-caste. By deeds is one a Brahmin."

References

Buddhism and the Race Question, J.N. Jayatilleke, 1958.

Source

www.buddhisma2z.com