Date: Wed, 11 Oct 1995 15:03:15 +0100
From: "peter.harvey" [email protected]
Subject: Texts on Buddha’s attitude to the 4 classes
From: Peter Harvey
Dan Lusthaus (Re: Justice in Buddhism) kindly gave some references relating to the Buddha’s attitudes to social distinctions. As I found these useful for my own work, I’ve extracted the key information from the texts, as below. They are all from Vol.II of the //Majjhima Nikaaya//:
//Madhura Sutta//, M.II.83-90:
The king of Madhuraa to Mahaa Kaccaana:
‘brahmans speak thus: "Only brahmans form the best class, all other classes are low; only brahmans form the fair class, all other classes are dark; only brahmans are pure, not non-brahmans; brahmans are own sons of Brahmaa, born of his mouth, born of Brahmaa…". (p.84). In reply to the request for a response, Kaccaana argues that ‘this is merely a sound in the world’, as a member of any of the four ‘classes’ [brahman, noble, merchant, worker, though the Buddha usually lists nobles, then brahmans…] could, if he were rich, have a member of any of the four classes as a servant. (84-8). The king thus agrees, ‘this being so, these four classes are exactly the same; I do not see any difference between them in this respect’. Kaccana then gets the king to agree that a member of any of the classes would have a bad rebirth if killed and lied etc. . Liewise if they would be reborn in a heaven by following the precepts (86-8). Likewise, he gets the king to agree that he would punish a thief from whatever class, treating him as a ‘thief’, not a noble, brahman, merchant or worker (88). Likewise, the king would respect and support a monk from whatever class background (89). After all of these points, the king repeats, ‘this being so, these four classes are exactly the same; I do not see any difference between them in this respect’.
//Ka.n.nakatthala sutta//, M.II.125-33
The Buddha explains that, while nobles and brahmans are respected in society, all people are capable of the fruits of spiritual effort, if they put in that effort (M.II.128-30).
//Vase.t.tha sutta// M.II.196, = Sn.p.115-123 Brahman Bhoaradvaja one is a brahman by purity of birth Brahman Vasettha: one is a brahman by ‘moral habit and right practice’ (Sn.115-16). Could not agree.
They ask the Buddha.
‘I will expound
Division in the kinds of living things; (600) For kinds divide. Behold the grass and trees! They reason not, yet they possess the mark After their kind, for kinds indeed divide (v.601; p.117).’ Goes on in a similar way about various insects, four-footed aninals, reptiles, fish, birds.’For kinds divide. Each after his kind bears His mark; in man there is not manifold (607). Nor in the hair or head or ears or eyes… Not in the legs or thighs, colour or voice, In marks that forms his kind as in all else (608-10; p.118)’. ‘Nothing unique/specific in men’s bodies is found: The difference in men is nominal (611; p.119)’.
One becomes a farmer, artisan, trader, servant, thief, soldier, priestly celebrant or raja by the kind of work one does, and none of them are a brahmana (vv.612-19; p.119).
‘I call none "brahman" from mere parentage, Tho’ he be ‘Sir’-ed and wealthy too: the man Of naught, who grasps not, brahman him I call! (v.620; p.119)’. Then goes to describe other good qualities by which one is a brahman (Arahat).
‘What the world holds as "name" and "lineage" Is indeed nominal, terms risen here And there by popular opinion (648) Adhered to long, views of the ignorant! The ignorant declare: "A brahman is (649) By birth". None is by birth a brahman; none By birth no brahmana; by deeds is one A brahmana, by deeds no brahmana! (650; p.122). Is a farmer etc by deeds.
//Esukaari sutta// M.II.178-84
Brahman Esakaarii to the Buddha: brahmans lay down types of service for the four classes. A member of any class can be served by a member of that class or a lower one, but not by a member of a higher one. What does the Buddha think? The Buddha asks him if everyone agrees when the brahmans say the above. he admits that they do not. The Buddha then compares this to forcing a poor man to have to pay for a morsel of food forced on him (177-78)
‘I, brahman, do not say that everyone should serve. But brahman, I do not say that everyone should not serve. For if, brahman, there is a servitor who is worse for his service, not better, I do not say he should serve. But if, brahman, there is a servitor whi is better for his service, not worse, I say that he sould serve (178). Moreover, it is right that a member of any of the classes should only have, as a servant, he or she who is better, not worse, by acting as such. The Buddha then explains that, by ‘better’ and ‘worse’, he is not talking about birth, appearance, possessions (179). ‘The servitor, brahman, in whom as a result of his service faith grows, moral virtue grows, learning grows, renunciation grows, wisdom grows, I say of him that he should serve’ (180).
Esukaarii then assert that a brahman should live by alms, a noble by bow and quiver, a merchant by agriculture and cow-keeping, and a worker by sickle and pingo; these are, respectively, the ‘wealth’ of each of the classes. If they do not live by these, they fail to carry out their proper obligations and are like thieves. Again the Buddha asks if everyone agrees with this, as above (180-81). He goes on to say that one’s ancestors will have been reckoned to have belonged to various classes, depending on what family they were born into, but that ‘a man’s wealth is Dhamma, ariyan, supramundane’ (181), and that if someone, from whatever class, ‘goes forth’ and practises the path, he is ‘accomplishing the right path, Dhamma…’.
//Dhaananjaani sutta//, M.II.185-96.
Dhaana~njaani was a brahman was a Buddhist disciple who had started to act in a plunderous way. Saariputta comes to him and asks him if he is being diligent. In reply the Brahman says’ How could I be diligent, good Sariputta, when there are my parents to support, my wife and children to support, … rites to perfom… duties to support for the king- and this body too must be satisfied and liiked after’. That is, he gave a string of excuses for his behaviour. In reply, Sariputta says he must be responsible for his actions, and not blame them on others, for his rebirth will be determined by his actions, whatever the excuses. he should therefore support himself and others by more wholesome means (185-91).