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Indians and Westerners who know Buddhism through Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and other modern pamphlet literature, sometimes believe that the Buddha started a movement of social reform, mobilizing against caste and recruiting among low-caste people.
As against this, Chinese and Japanese Buddhists who have studied their religion only through its source texts, think that Buddhism was an elite movement, recruiting among the upper castes and patronized by kings and magnates. We will argue that these believers are right, while the neo-Buddhists in India and outside enthusiasts in the West are wrong.
A good place to start is the Buddha’s use of the term Ārya. Buddhists claim that when the Buddha lived and taught, the term Ārya had a general psychological-ethical meaning “noble”, a character trait larger than and not dependent on any specific cultural or religious tradition or social class (let alone linguistic or racial group). It is used in the famous Buddhist expressions, the “four noble truths” (catvāri-ārya-satyāni) and the “noble eightfold path” (ārya-astāngika-mārga). However, we must look at the historical data without assuming modern and sectarian preferences.
Firstly, we must take into account the possibility that the Buddha too used the term Ārya in the implied sense of “Vedic”, broadly conceived. It no longer meant “Paurava”, the ethnic horizon of the Veda-composing tribes (whereas in Anatolian and Iranian it would retain this ethnic meaning, “fellow citizens” against “foreigners”, “us” against “them”), but in the post-Buddha Manu Smrti and in general Hindu usage, it would retain the association with the Vedic tradition, hence the meaning “civilized” in the sense of “observing Vedic norms and customs”. The Buddha too may have conceived of his personal practice as restored-Vedic and more Vedic than the “decadent” formalism around him. “Back to the roots” is of all ages, and it may have affected the Buddha as well. What speaks in favour of this thesis is that the Buddha himself, far from being a revolutionary, appealed to the “ancient way” which he himself trod, and which “the Buddhas of the past” had also trodden.
After Vedic tradition got carried away into what he deemed non-essentials, he intended to restore what he conceived as the original Vedic spirit. After all, the anti-Vedicism and anti-Brahmanism now routinely attributed to him, are largely in the eye of the modern beholder. Though later Brahmin-born Buddhist thinkers polemicized against Brahmin institutions and the idolizing of the Veda, the Buddha himself didn’t mind attributing to the Vedic gods Indra and Brahma his recognition as the Buddha and his mission to teach. His disciples took the worship of the Vedic gods as far as Japan.
As Luis Gómez [1999: “Noble lineage and august demeanour. Religious and social meanings of Aryan virtue”, in Bronkhorst & Deshpande: Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia, Harvard, p.132-133] points out, the Buddhist usage of Ārya is subject to “ambiguities”, e.g. in the Mahāvibhāsā: “The Buddha said, ‘What the noble ones say is the truth, what the other say is not true. And why is this? The noble ones […] understand things as they are, the common folk do not understand. […] Furthermore, they are called noble truths because they are possessed by those who own the wealth and assets of the noble ones. Furthermore, they are called noble truths because they are possessed by those who are conceived in the womb of a noble person.’”
At the end of his life, the Buddha unwittingly got involved in a political intrigue when Varsakāra, a minister of the Magadha kingdom, asked him for the secret of the strength of the republican states. Among the seven unfailing factors of strength of a society, he included “sticking to ancient laws and traditions” and “maintaining sacred sites and honouring ancient rituals”. [Dīgha Nikāya 2:73] So, contrary to his modern image as a “revolutionary”, the Buddha’s view of the good society was close to Confucian and indeed Brahmanical conservatism. Far from denouncing “empty ritual”, he praised it as a factor of social harmony and strength. He wanted people to maintain the ancestral worship of the Vedic gods, go to the Vedic sites of pilgrimage and celebrate the Vedic festivals. In this light, his understanding of Ārya may have been closer to the Brahminical interpretation of the term as “Vedic” than nowadays usually assumed.
This even applies to the Buddha’s view of caste. Of most of the hundreds of men recruited to the Buddha’s monastic order, we know the provenance, hence the caste. More than 80% of the hundreds of men he recruited, were from the upper castes. More than 40% were Brahmins. The Buddha himself was a Ksatriya, son of the President-for-life of the proud Sākya tribe, and member of its senate. His lay patrons, who had their personnel or their feudal subordinates build monasteries for the Buddha, included most of the kings and magnates of the nether Ganga region. Indeed, this patronage is the main reason why Buddhism succeeded in becoming a world religion where most other contemporaneous sects dwindled and disappeared.
The successor-Buddha prophesied for the future, the Maitreya, is to be born in a Brahman family, according to the Buddha himself. When the Buddha died, his ashes were divided and sent to eight cities, where the elites had staked their claims purely in caste terms: “He was a Kshatriya and we are Kshatriyas, so we are entitled to his ashes.” Clearly, his disciples, after undergoing his teachings for forty-five years, were not in the least hesitant to display their caste in a Buddhist context par excellence.
In his study of caste and the Buddha (“Buddhism, an atheistic and anti-caste religion? Modern ideology and historical reality of the ancient Indian Bauddha Dharma”, Journal of Religious Culture, no.50 (2001)), the German Indologist Edmund Weber quotes the biographical source-text Lalitavistara and concludes: “The standpoint which caste a Buddha should belong to has not been revised in Buddhism up to the present day. It is dogmatised in the Lalitavistara in the following way: a Bodhisattva can by no means come from a lower or even mixed caste: ‘After all Bodhisattvas were not born in despised lineage, among pariahs, in families of pipe or cart makers, or mixed castes.’ Instead, in perfect harmony with the Great Sermon, it was said that: ‘The Bodhisattvas appear only in two kinds of lineage, the one of the brahmanas and of the warriors (kshatriya).’”
A word returning frequently in Buddhist texts is “nobly-born”. Buddhists were proud to say this of their Guru, whose noble birth from the direct descendants of Manu Vaivasvata was an endless object of praise. Birth was very important to the Buddha, which is why his disciples wrote a lot of hagiographical fantasy around his own birth, with miracles attending his birth from a queen. The Buddha himself said it many times, e.g. of the girls who should not be molested: they should be those of noble birth, as distinct from the base-born women who in the Buddha’s estimation were not equally delicate.
The Buddha also didn’t believe in gender equality. For long he refused to recruit women into his monastic order, saying that nuns would shorten its life-span by five hundred years. At long last he relented when his mother was widowed and other relatives, nobly-born Kshatriyas like the Buddha himself, insisted. Nepotism wasn’t alien to him either. But he made this institution of female monastics conditional upon the acceptance that even the most seasoned nun was subordinate to even the dullest and most junior monk. Some Theravada countries have even re-abolished the women’s monastic order, and it is only under Western feminist influence that Thailand is gradually reaccepting nuns.
The Buddha’s ascent to Awakening was predetermined by physical marks he was born with, according to his disciples. Buddhist scripture makes much of the Buddha’s noble birth in the Solar lineage, as a relative of Rāma. The Buddha himself claimed to be a reincarnation of Rama, in the Buddhist retelling of the Rāmāyana in the Jātakas. He also likened himself to the mightily-striding Visnu. Later Hindus see both Rama and the Buddha as incarnations of Vishnu, but the Buddha started it all by claiming to by Rama’s reincarnation.
To play devil’s advocate, we could even extend our skepticism of the Buddha’s progressive image to an involvement in the racist understanding of Ārya. Some pre-WW2 racists waxed enthusiastic about descriptions by contemporaries of the Buddha as “tall and light-skinned”. [Schuman, H.W., 1989: The Historical Buddha, London: Arkana, p.194] That would seem to make him “Aryan” in the once-common sense of “Nordic”.
Nowadays, some scholars including Michael Witzel [on his own Indo-Eurasian Research yahoo list] suggest that the Buddha’s Śākya tribe may have been of Iranian origin (related to Śaka, “Scythian”), which would explain his taller stature and lighter skin in comparison with his Gangetic fellow-men. It would also explain their fierce endogamy, i.e. their systematic practice of cousin marriage. Indeed, the Buddha himself had only four great-grandparents because his paternal grandfather was the brother of his maternal grandmother while his maternal grandfather was the brother of his paternal grandmother. The Brahminical lawbooks prohibited this close endogamy (gotras are exogamous) and, like the Catholic Church, imposed respect for “prohibited degrees of consanguinity”; but consanguineous marriages were common among Iranians. (They were also common among Dravidians, a lead not yet fully exploited by neo-Buddhists claiming the Buddha as “pre-Aryan”.) The Śākya tribe justified the practice through pride in their direct pure descent from the Ārya patriarch Manu Vaivasvata, but this could be a made-up explanation adapted to the Indian milieu and hiding their Iranian origin (which they themselves too could have forgotten), still visible in their physical profile. So, that would make the Buddha an “Aryan” in the historically most justified ethnic use of the term, viz. as “Iranian”.
At any rate, nothing in Buddhist history justifies the modern romance of Buddhism as a movement for social reform. Everywhere it went, Buddhism accepted the social mores prevalent in that country, be it Chinese imperial-centralistic bureaucracy, Japanese militaristic feudalism, or indeed Hindu caste society. Buddhism even accepted the religious mores of the people (a rare exception is the abolition of a widow’s burial along with her husband in Mongol society effected by the third Dalai Lama), it only recruited monks from among them and made these do the Buddhist practices. In “caste-ridden India”, the Buddhist emperor Aśoka dared to go against the existing mores when he prohibited animal-slaughter on specific days, but even he made no move to abolish caste.
Buddhism wasn’t more casteist than what went before. It didn’t bring caste to India anymore than the Muslims or the Britons did. Caste is an ancient Indian institution of which the Buddha was a part. But he, its personal beneficiary, didn’t think of changing it, just as his followers in other countries didn’t think of changing the prevailing system.