Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh (early history)

by Prakash Narayan | 2011 | 63,517 words

This study deals with the history of Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh (Northern India) taking into account the history and philosophy of Buddhism. Since the sixth century B.C. many developments took place in these regions, in terms of society, economic life, religion and arts and crafts....

Caste hierarchy as exhibited in the Buddhist texts

The use of two different schemes of categorization has been revealed by a comprehensive reading of early Pali texts; the former reflects the existing Brahmanical divisions of society into brahmanas, khattiyas, vessas, and suddas; whereas the latter, being unique to the Buddhists reflects that of the khattiya, brahmana, and gahapati.[1] The existing division of brahmana, khattiya vessa, and sudda is associated most often with situation in which the Buddha converses with a brahmana.[2] Occasionally the four-fold division occurs in discussions with kings as well.[3] While making the point it is regularly mentioned that all divisions of people into these social groups are irrelevant in relation to their potential for salvation. It is never mentioned in discussions with the laity. Neither the brahmana nor the Buddha while conversing with brahmanas use the second scheme of classification. It is used regularly in situations where Buddhist monks or the laity were present[4], in the context of wealth, learning, and eminence.

Buddhist references to the four-fold division of society do not similarise the Brahmanical system of differentiation. Khattiyas are placed first by the Buddhists in the serial order of social groups being enumerated with brahmana following next.[5] This contrasts with the brahmana’s explanation of the four-fold scheme in the same texts.[6] Buddhists[7] emphatically denied the Brahmanical stand on the question of the superiority of brahmanas as a social group over all others with the inclusion of khattiya. A special tension can be noticed between the khattiyas and brahmanas[8] throughout the Buddhist texts, so that Khattiyas were placed above brahmanas[9] in any system of classification. The difference in the Brahmanic and Buddhist points of view is striking, if one glances at the Agganna sutta, the Buddhist genesis myth. Here the Khattiya has been first marked out from the mass of the people and represented as essential to the social order, not the brahmana.[10]

In fact, in this myth the brahmana similarises the bhikkhu who lives on the periphery of society, collectiong alms from villages and towns and returning to the forest to mediate.[11] No evidence has been found concerning the brahmana playing any role in society.

Buddhism rejects the Brahmanical arrangement of categories in a hierarchy of services in which the low automatically serve the high, even where the Buddhists mention the four-fold scheme. The brahmana Esukari states in the Majjhima Nikaya that three types of service have been ordained by brahmanas: first where a brahmana may be served by another brahmana, or a khattiya, vessa, or sudda, and third where the sudda may be served by another sudda since ‘who else could serve the sudda?[12] The young brahmana Ambatt ha also refers to the three vannas of khattiyas, vassas, and suddas as serving the brahmanas.[13] The Buddha refuted the Brahmanical division of society based on service and rejected brahmana attempts to force their opinions upon the people when the people did not accept them.[14] Nevertheless, the Buddha held that receiving services is conditioned on one’s ability to pay for service, and not by one’s position in a status hierarchy. In the Madhura sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha pertinently refuted the brahmana claim to superiority based on the criteria of the lower vanna serving the higher. He pointed out that anyone including suddas who had wealth, corn, gold, and silver could have in their employment others who would rise earlier than the employer, rest later, carry out his pleasure, and speak affably to him.[15] It is important that in the Agganna sutta the suddas are associated with ‘hunting and such like trifling pursuits’[16] and not with the service of the higher vannas. Their status was at the bottom of the social scheme due to their low level of culture. Consequently, it is evident that the idea of the sudda as one whose specific function was to serve the brahmana, khattiya, and vessa[17], finds no parallel in Bhuddhist texts.

Footnotes and references:


Or sometimes indicated as the khattiya, brahmana, gahapati and samana.


D.N., I, pp. 80, 204; M.N., II, pp. 404-13.


M.N., II, pp. 310-11; M.N., I, p. 375.


A.N., II, p.89; M.N., I, p. 122; M.N., II.p.70, Cullavagga, p.225.


D.N., III, p. 64; D.N., I, pp. 80, 204; M.N., II, pp. 311-12,370.


M.N., II, p. 440.


D.N., I, p.86; D.N., III, p. 64; D.N., II, pp. 442-8; M.N., II, pp. 310-16.


R. Thapar, ‘Social Mobility in Ancient India’, Ancient Indian Social History, p. 131.


Dumont has remarked on the relations between the brahmanas and the khattiyas. He says, ‘In theory power is ultimately subordinate to priesthood, whereas in fact priesthood submits to power’ (L. Dumont, Homo Hierachicus, p. 111). Buddhism reflects the actual situation when it places the Khattiyas over the brahmanas.


D.N., III, p. 72.


Ibid., p. 73.


M.N., II, p.441; M.L.S., II, p.336.


D.N., I, p. 80.


M.N., II, p. 441.


M.N., II, pp. 311-12.


D.N., III, p.74; D.B., III, p.91.


In fact the apastamba Dharmasutra states that the higher the caste which is served by the shudra the greater is the merit he gains (The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, S.B.E., Vol. II, p. 2). For references to sudras serving the higher castes see Gautama Dharmasu, The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, S.B.E., Vol. II, p. 230; Vashishta Dharmasutra, The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, S.B.E., Vol. XIV, p. 11; and Baudhayana Dharmasutra, The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, S.B.E., Vol. XIV, p. 199.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: