The Madhura Sutta

(majjhima Nikāya, Sutta 84)

5,279 words

The Madhura Sutta concerning Caste. By Robert Chalmers....



ART. XIV.--The Madhura Sutta concerning Caste. By ROBERT CHALMERS.

THE Sutta of which the Pāli text and commentary, together with a translation, are here given, is No. 84 of the Majjhima Nikāya. In addition to the interest which attends every addition to our knowledge of the great canonical books of primitive Buddhism, this Sutta may claim a twofold interest of its own, derived (i.) from the form in which the dialogue is cast, and (ii.) from its subject.

As regards the form, whilst the Madhura Sutta is unlike the generality of Suttas in presenting as the chief interlocutor not the Buddha himself but one of his disciples, yet it is not without parallels in this respect. For example, in Sutta No. 44 of the Majjhima Nikāya[1], the learned Sister Dhammadinnā expounds the Truth to her whilom husband; whilst in Suttas Nos. 15 and 43 Moggallāna and Sāriputta respectively play the chief part, and there are not even the final words of approval with which in No. 44 the Buddha endorses what Dhammadinnā has taught. There is, however, one essential point in which the Madhura Sutta is marked off from even such Suttas as the three mentioned. For, whereas in all those three, even in Nos. 15 and 43, we are carefully, if irrelevantly, informed of the precise spot at which the Buddha was dwelling at the time of the dialogue--in the Madhura Sutta it is expressly stated that the Buddha was no longer living but dead. The only parallel which occurs to me is found in the (unedited) Ghotamukha Sutta (No. 94 of the Majjhima Nikāya), where the circumstances leading up to the statement are precisely similar to those of the Madhura Sutta. The important fact which these two Suttas formally prove is that, like Christianity in the hands of St. Paul, Buddhism, after the death of its founder, continued to develope in the hands of his disciples.

In the Madhura Sutta Kaccāna discusses, as the Buddha had discussed in other Suttas, the great Indian institution of caste--or 'colour' according to the literal translation of the term used for caste alike in Pāli and in Sanskrit. It is not within the province of this paper to investigate the evolution of the caste-system from the primary distinction of colour between the white Aryan invaders and the 'black men' whom they first encountered in India. By the time that Buddhism arose, some five centuries before the Christian era, caste was an accomplished fact; within the Aryan pale, society was more or less rigidly divided into the four 'classic' castes.

Thus in the Kaṇṇakathāla Sutta (No. 90 of the Majjhima Nikāya) the Buddha is represented as saying--

"There are these four castes--kshatriyas, brahmins, vaiṣyas, and ṣūdras. Of these four castes, two--the kshatriyas and the brahmins--are given precedence, to wit, in salutation, homage, obeisance, and due ministry."

It is important at this point to note that the Pāli Piṭakas, in specifying the four castes as above, invariably give precedence to the kshatriyas--the rājanyas of the Vedic hymns. As it may be taken for certain that, when this 'kingly class' first arose, it was supreme in Indian society, the Piṭakas preserve the ancient tradition in their championship of the established precedence of the kshatriyas against the presumptuous usurpation of the brahmins, and mark the transitional epoch when the brahmin's claim to pre-eminence, p. 343 though urged with growing arrogance, had not yet extorted universal recognition--more particularly from the kshatriyas. There is an excellent illustration of this in the Ambaṭṭha Sutta (No. 3 of the Dīgha Nikāya), where the young brahmin Ambaṭṭha denounces the Sakyan kshatriyas as follows:--"The Sakyan race is fierce, violent, hasty, and long-tongued. Though they are naught but men of substance, yet they pay no respect, honour, or reverence to brahmins." And the young brahmin goes on to complain that he himself had not been treated by them in Kapilavastu with the respect which he expected. Without attempting to deny the allegation, the Buddha urges that the Sakyans were at home in their own city, and that Ambaṭṭha had no right to be so angry because no notice was taken of him. Far more important for our present purpose are sections 24-28 of the same Ambaṭṭha Sutta, which deal with the treatment accorded by kshatriyas and brahmins respectively to the son (i.) of a kshatriya youth by a brahmin girl, and (ii.) of brahmin youth by a kshatriya girl. In reply to the Buddha's series of questions, the young brahmin is forced to admit that in both cases alike the brahmins will recognize the hybrid offspring as a full brahmin, whereas the kshatriyas will not admit to kshatriya rank anyone who is not the child of kshatriya parents on both sides. "So it is clear," triumphantly argues the Buddha, "whether you regard it from the male or from the female side, that it is the kshatriyas who are the best people, and the brahmins their inferiors." Similarly, the young brahmin is forced to admit that, if a kshatriya is expelled by his fellows, the brahmins will welcome him as one of themselves, and he will rank as a full brahmin;[2] whereas an expelled brahmin is never received by the kshatriyas. Hence, even when a kshatriya is in the depths of degradation, still it is true that the kshatriyas are the best people, and the brahmins their inferiors! Having got the young brahmin so far in recognizing the lesson taught by the facts of life, the Buddha clinches the matter with a favourite quotation[3]:--

   "Moreover, it was the Brahmā[4] Sanaṁ-kumāra[5] who uttered this stanza--

The kshatriya is best among folk who heed lineage. He who knows and acts aright is best among gods and men.

   Now this stanza, Ambaṭṭha, was well sung and not ill sung by the Brahmā Sanaṁ-kumāra, well said and not ill said, sensible and not senseless. I, too, Ambaṭṭha, join in saying that the kshatriya is best among folk who heed lineage," etc.

On enquiry of Sanskrit scholars, I have been unable to discover any trace of this remarkable gāthā in existing Brahminical literature. Now, it is hardly conceivable that Buddism could have concocted the verse, and have had the impudence to foist its authorship upon the venerable personality of Sanat-kumāra; the forgery would have been too monstrous, and the exposure too certain. On the other hand, with the growing claims of the brahmins to precedence, so inconvenient an utterance by so eminent a brahminical authority would naturally tend to be relegated to oblivion, and so, in course of time, to be dropped altogether out of the official recension of brahmin texts. But it is to be hoped that the discovery of the gāthā in Sanskrit may at once corroborate the Buddha in his favourite quotation, and dispel all prima facie suspicion of brahminical suppressio veri.

The general feeling of Buddhism in favour of kshatriya precedence is briefly indicated in the statement of Chapter iii. of the Lalita Vistara, which is thus translated by Foucaux:--"Les Bōdhisattvas naissent certainement dans deux familles, celle des Brahmanes et celle des Kchattriyas. Quand c'est la famille des Brahmanes qui est respectée, ils naissent dans une famille de Brahmanes; quand c'est la famille des Kchattriyas qui est respectée [yadā kshatriya-guruko loko bhavati], ils naissent dans une famille de Kchattriyas. Aujourd'hui, réligieux, la famille des Kchattriyas est respectée, c'est pour cela que les Bōdhisattvas naissent dans une famille de Kchattriyas."

If we pass from social to intellectual rank, it is interesting to note that--at least, in the Upanishad period, in which Buddhism probably arose--there was anything but a tendency among the brahmins who composed the Upanishads to despise the philosophic attainments of the kshatriyas. In the Upanishads it is the great kshatriya kings who are always represented as teaching the brahmins Vedānta. And in the Chāndogya Upanishad (of which there is a translation by Professor Max Müller in vol. i. of the Sacred Books of the East), frequent references are made to the superior learning of kshatriyas. It is a kshattiya sage who appears in Book i: 8, 1, silencing the brahmins, and again in Book v. 3. At the end of Book v. 3, occurs a very remarkable passage in which Gautama, the father of the Gautama gotra, who had gone to the court of the King of Pañcāla for instruction in the knowledge of a future life, is thus addressed by the king:--

"Since, o Gautama, thou hast thus spoken to me and since this wisdom never came to the brahmins before thee, therefore among all people (or in all worlds) to the kshatriya caste alone has this instruction belonged."[6]

In the Vāseṭṭha Sutta (No. 35 of the Sutta Nipata and No. 98 of the Majjhima Nikāya) the Buddha appeals to comparative morphology to show that caste distinctions are unscientific. There are numerous generic and specific marks distinguishing the several grasses and trees, worms, moths, beasts, birds, and fishes; but these numerous marks are not found on men as on all other living creatures; the distinctions between man and man are individual, not specific or generic. Herein, Gotama was in accord with the conclusion of modern biologists that "the Anthropidæ are represented by the single genus and species, Man,"--a conclusion which was the more remarkable inasmuch as the accident of colour did not mislead Gotama, as it did within living memory the citizens of a free and enlightened republic.



So far, this sketch of caste from the Buddhist point of view has been confined to what the Kaṇṇakathāla Sutta calls diṭṭhadhammika, i.e. facts of the visible world. It remains to consider the Piṭaka view of caste with reference to samparāyika, i.e. matters concerning the life hereafter. On this head the Piṭakas are emphatic in asserting the irrelevancy of all caste distinctions; the saving Truth was open to attainment by all castes alike in equal degree. Of the many illustrations which might be adduced to show the worthlessness of caste in the higher life, one of the most picturesque occurs in the Kaṇṇakathāla Sutta, and is here given in an English version.

Says the King to the Buddha: "There are these four castes, sir--kshatriyas, brahmins, vaiṣyas, and ṣūdras; let us suppose them to be imbued with the five forms of strenuous exertion to win Release. In this case would there be any distinction, sir, any difference between these four castes?"

"Here too, sire (replies the Buddha), I do not admit any difference whatsoever between them, that is to say as regards Release compared with Release. Just as if, sire, a man were to kindle a fire with dry herbs, and another man were to kindle a fire with dry sal-wood, and a third were to kindle a fire with dry mango-wood, and a fourth with dry fig-wood--what think you, sire? Would these divers fires kindled with divers wood show any difference whatsoever in flame as compared with flame, in hue as compared with hue, in brightness as compared with brightness?"

"No difference at all, sir."

"Even so, sire, is the inward illumination which is kindled by effort and nursed by strenuous exertion. I say that there is no difference whatsoever herein, that is to say in Release as compared with Release."



The Madhura Sutta, as will be seen infra, deals with the caste system under five heads. It teaches that caste

  1. cannot ensure material success in life;
  2. cannot save the wicked from punishment hereafter;
  3. cannot debar the good from bliss hereafter;
  4. cannot shield evildoers from the criminal law;
  5. and cannot affect the uniform veneration extended to the réligieux, whether he be sprung from the highest or the lowest of the four castes.

In all these important respects the four castes are exactly equal.[7] The Madhura Sutta does not go on to state, nor does any Sutta with which I am acquainted venture to state, that in every possible respect the four castes were on one identical footing of equality. Such a statement would have evinced a certain blindness to facts. For, though in all essentials caste was an empty name to the Buddha, nevertheless, the distinctions of caste had a residual sphere of petty activity, and ranked among the 'accidents' of life. Whilst caste had no part in the higher life (which was alone worthy or an earnest man's attention), and was irrelevant in the less trivial of mundane relations, yet there undoubtedly remained a region where, in the absence of higher qualifications, the hereditary distinctions of caste were accepted as an appropriate differentia between little men. But into this trivial region Gotama disdained to enter. He was content to explode the caste theory, without denouncing it as a formal institution.

The MSS. which I have used in settling the Pāli text of the Madhura Sutta are four in number--two Burmese (B) and two Si"nhalese (S). The Burmese MSS. are (i.) the Mandalay manuscript (Bm) taken from King Theebaw's library, and (ii.) the Phayre manuscript (Bp), forming part of the collection of Buddhist texts obtained by Sir A. Phayre. These two MSS., which are both in the India Office Library, are from the same original, but Bm is incomparably superior to Bp, not only in calligraphy, but in accuracy and scholarship. The India Office Library also contains one of the Si"nhalese MSS. which I have collated, namely, that quoted as St, which is the Turnour manuscript.

In collating this with the Copenhagen manuscript in the Si"nhalese character (Sc), I was struck with the constant uniformity of readings of the two MSS., particularly in copyist's blunders and lacunæ. There can be no doubt that both are copies of a common original, as also are Bm and Bp.

For the text of Buddhaghosa's Commentary on the Madhura Sutta I have relied on a single manuscript, in the Si"nhalese character, in my own possession, which Mrs. Bode has been so good as to transcribe for me. In the notes to the Sutta the readings of Buddhaghosa in his Commentary are cited as 'Bu.' In this connection it seems well to repeat the words of Vilhelm Trenckner, in his preface to vol. i. of the Majjhima Nikāya (P.t.s. 1888):--"Whenever Buddhaghosa's readings, from his comments upon them, are unmistakable, they must in my opinion be adopted in spite of other authorities. His MSS. were at least fifteen centuries older than ours, and in a first edition we certainly cannot aim at anything higher than reproducing his text as far as possible."

Footnotes and references:


Analysed in Miss Foley's article in this year's J.R.A.S.


This conflicts with Prof. Rhys Davids' statement (Hibbert Lectures, 1881, p. 24) that at the rise of Buddhism "no kshatriya could any longer become a brāhman."


It occurs in the Majjhima and Saṁyutta Nikāyas, as well as in the above passage in the Dīgha.


At page 239 of his Buddhism, Bishop Copleston strangely mistakes Brahmuno for brāhmaṇena, and translates "It was a brahman"!


In note 14 to page 38 of his Vishṇu Puráṇa (London, 1840), H. H. Wilson says:--"The Kaumāra creation is the creation of Rudra or Nílalohita, a form of Šiva, by Brahmá, which is subsequently described in our text, and of certain other mind-born sons of Brahmā, of whose birth the Vishṇu Puráṇa gives no further account: they are elsewhere termed Sanat-kumára, Sananda, Sanaka, and Sanátana, with sometimes a fifth, Ribhu, added. These declining to create progeny, remained, as the name of the first implies ever boys, Kumáras: that is, ever pure and innocent; whence their creation is called the Kaumára. . . And the Linga has . . . 'Being ever as he was born, he is here called a youth; and hence his name is well known as Sanat-kumára.'This authority makes Sanat-kumára and Ribhu the two first born of all; whilst the text of the Hari Vansa limits the primogeniture to Sanat-kumára. . . . Sanat-kumára and his brethren are always described in the Saiva Puráṇas as Yogis: as the Kúrma, after enumerating them, adds: 'These five, oh Brahmans, were Yogis, who acquired entire exemption from passion'; and the Hari Vansa, although rather Vaishnava than Saiva, observes that the Yogis celebrate these six, along with Kapila, in Yoga works."

In Pāli, Sanat-kumára becomes Sanaṁ-kumāra, still retaining the meaning of {Greek: o áei párðenos}. Buddhaghosa, in his commentary on the above Pāli text as it occurs in the 63rd Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, says:--"Sanaṁ-kumāra means 'The maid of yore.' From very ancient days he has been known as 'the Maid.' Tradition says that, when among men in the epoch of the Five Little Maids (? = the five mind-born sons of Brahmā above), he grew to Insight, and, dying with Insight full and undimmed, was re-born in the Brahmā Realm. His old existence was so sweet and dear to him that it was always in such semblance that he went about. Therefore, he was known as Sanaṁ-kumāra."



See also the same legend in the .Satapatha Brāhmaṇa


Bishop Copleston (p. 234) states that "in Madhura Sutta (Maj. Nik. v. sic.) Gotama explains that all castes are ultimately equal, as the good, of whatever caste, will enjoy the like reward of their deeds in heaven, and the bad suffer alike in hell.'

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