Evidence, Logic and Reason: the Buddha and the Caste System

When we think of the Buddha, or Buddhism, the words and ideas that generally come to mind are: compassion, karma, nirvana, metta, meditation, religion, the Four Noble Truths and so on. Evidence, logic and reason do not figure in this list, yet the Buddha used these to great effect in his teachings. His arguments against the caste system provide an excellent example.

The Historical Buddha

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Who was the historical Buddha and how do we know what he personally thought and said? Let’s take a little detour to explore these legitimate questions. If you already know the answers, or if you want to cut to the chase quickly, please feel free to skip to the next section.

There is general agreement among historians that the Buddha (“the Enlightened one”) lived in the plains of Northern India between the sixth and fifth century BC. Read this article for more information.

When the Buddha died sometime around 400 BC, his followers arranged the First Buddhist Council soon after with a goal to preserve his teachings for posterity. At the Council, held in Rajgir, Bihar in modern day India, the ‘suttas’ (discourses with the background contexts and stories) of the Buddha were recited by his attendant of many years Ananda, and the ‘vinayas’ (disciplinary rules with the contextual stories) of the ‘sanghas’ (monasteries) were recited by Upali. These were committed to memory and preserved via an oral tradition.

The suttas and vinayas were recorded in writing in the Pali language in 29BC in Sri Lanka at the Fourth Buddhist council, and this body of writing is known as the Pali Canon. (Pali is a vernacular derivative of Sanskrit, and while it is not the language the Buddha himself spoke, it would be close to it.) The Pali Canon is recognized as the most complete record of the earliest Buddhist tradition. Called the Tipitaka (three baskets), it comprises the ‘Sutta Pitaka’, ‘Vinaya Pitaka’ and the ‘Abhidhamma Pitka’ which consists of commentary/ interpretation of the teachings. Scholars generally agree that those suttas attributed to the Buddha are most probably very close to what he thought or said. English translations of the Canon are now fairly widely available.

Some of the important suttas and vinayas of the Pali Canon translated into English are available to the general public at this site, created by a remarkable individual starting in 1993 in a basement using a dial-up computer. A number of Buddhist scholars and dedicated volunteers have contributed to the content on the site.

Assalayana Sutta

Now let’s get back to the original story. A few years ago I was at a Buddhist meditation center, and there was some time before the session was due to start. There were some Buddhist books on a shelf; I picked one up, opened it at random and started reading. I was immediately struck by how different it was compared to a typical scriptural composition. The section I had stumbled upon was the Assalayana Sutta; the book was “The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha” – a translation of the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali Canon by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikku Bodhi. I bought the book later and read many of the suttas. These confirmed my first impression that the suttas in the Canon were unlike any religious texts I had read before.

Here is the setup of the Assalayana Sutta. Some Brahmins are concerned that the Buddha teaches that all four castes (Brahmin – priests; Kshatriya: warriors/ nobles; Vaishya – traders/merchants and Shudra – workers) are equally pure, whereas the Brahmins consider themselves the highest caste, offspring of Lord Brahma himself. They want a Brahmin to go argue their case with the Buddha, and they settle on Assalayana, a young learned Brahmin, master of the three Vedas and other difficult subjects. Assalayana is reluctant, but eventually acquiesces to the bidding of his seniors and visits the Buddha along with a large number of Brahmins.

The sutta then describes the arguments that the Buddha uses to persuade Assalayana of fallacy of the latter’s position. What is truly remarkable, given the time in history this discussion took place (c. 5th century BC), is the nature of the arguments that the Buddha does use, and those he does not.

If you want to read the sutta in full, you can find it here. A little note of caution: the suttas tend to be a little repetitive (possibly as a device to help with memory during the oral tradition) but otherwise generally quite readable.

Here are the arguments, summarized and paraphrased (for brevity) that the Buddha poses to Assalayana, who initially holds steadfast in his position but is eventually worn down:

  1. Brahmin women are seen having their periods, becoming pregnant, giving birth and nursing their childen – so how do Brahmins claim they are born of the Brahma?
  2. In neighboring countries including Yona (Ionia or Greek Bactria) and Kamboja, there are only two castes: masters & slaves, and sometimes masters become slaves & slaves masters.
  3. Would a Brahmin suffer a different fate in the afterlife compared to other castes if he were to kill living beings, steal or otherwise engage in bad conduct? If not, why would the Brahmins consider themselves different?
  4. Is a Brahmin entitled to different rewards in the afterlife compared to other castes if he engaged in righteous behavior in life? If not, how are the Brahmins different?
  5. Is only a Brahmin capable of developing a mind of loving kindness; and not a noble, merchant or worker? Is only a Brahmin capable of washing himself clean at a river using bath powder and a loofah?
  6. Will the fire built by upper castes using more expensive wood have a color, flame and radiance, and perform its function; and the fire built by lower castes or outcasts using inferior wood not have color, flame or radiance and would not perform its function?
  7. What would you call the offspring of cohabitation between a Kshatriya male and a Brahmin female? A Brahmin male and a Kshatriya female? A Brahmin or a Kshatriya? (Assalayan answers the offspring can be called both).
  8. What would you call the offspring of a mare and a donkey? Assalayana answers mule – sees there is a difference in this case; and agrees there is no difference in the previous cases.
  9. Of two Brahmin brothers, one is studious and the other not, who deserves to be served first at a feast? (Assalayana answers the one who is studious). Again, of two Brahmin brothers one is studious but of bad character; and the other not studious but virtuous; who deserves to be served first? (Assalayana now changes his answer to the virtuous brother).

At this juncture the Buddha points out to Assalayana that the latter had conceded that neither birth nor scriptural learning led to merit of one caste or person over another; only the conduct of the individual was relevant – which was the basis for the Buddha not differentiating between the castes. Assalayan sat crestfallen, with his shoulders drooping. The Buddha noted this.

  1. For his next argument, the Buddha narrated a story, instead of asking a direct question (possibly to soften the situation?). The crux of the story was that a group of seven haughty Brahmins were asked how can they be certain that their ancestors on their paternal or maternal sides had never co-habited with non-Brahmins? And if they could not be certain how could they assert that they were Brahmins? The Brahmins had to concede that they could not be sure.

The sutta concludes by informing us that Assalayana became a follower of the Buddha, but that is not so important for us in this blog post. Let’s review the arguments and see if we can come up with some that the Buddha did NOT use:

  • The Buddha did NOT invoke the authority of a creator being, a supreme god (perhaps different from that of the Brahmins) who held that all humans were equal.
  • Neither did the Buddha invoke the authority of any scripture…”it is so written”, or of sages.
  • The Buddha did not appeal to a sense of ethics or morality directly. For example, he did not say that “it is the righteous, moral and ethical thing to do to treat all human beings as equal”. One can argue that in some of the arguments the Buddha uses morality (notably in 3, 4 and 9 above). However these are framed as “if a person engaged in such-and-such conduct, why should her caste have any role to play in the results she may face in the afterlife?” This is more an argument by reason based on cause-and-effect, action-and-consequence and not on morality.

The Buddha does say during the discourse that a person should exhibit good conduct- which is in the broader context of cessation of suffering and not for its own sake. But that’s the subject of a different blog post……..

Can Ethics and Morality be Derived from Observation and Rational Thinking?

To sum up, then, all the arguments that the Buddha used were based on empirical evidence (or lack thereof), logic and reasoning; resulting in a conclusion that was ethical and moral (all humans are equal). Food for thought – can ethics and morality be derived from observation and rational thinking, without religious faith and beliefs? Let me know in your comments below.


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