Role of caste and class in Theravada Buddhism

I just finished reading Richard Gombrich's "Theravada Buddhism: A Social History, from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo", and was rather stunned to see that "in modern times the main issue that has split the Sangha into separate nikaya has been caste", and specifically that there has been a refusal to ordain monks from lower castes. Now certainly Sri Lanka has a milder caste system than India, and other Theravada countries supposedly have none, but I'm wondering if the same attitude is there regardless, that Buddhism is for high-class (if not necessarily high-caste) people, and them only. I know for a fact that in Thailand it can be pretty costly to ordain as a monk, and I know that Buddhism was 40% Brahmin at the very beginning, and probably throughout, so I'm wondering what it's like elsewhere, or whether it even matters. Any knowledge or opinions are welcome.

jesus and buddha

professor of religion Oden explains :”how utterly middle class were the first Christians. Christianity in its foundational period under Paul and others was essentially a bourgeois religion -...-. I can't think of any religion that doesn't say our sources were proletarian”1. No wonder the same might apply to Buddhism. Just like the abolitionist, Marxist and civil rights movement, the middle class -whether male and/or White- leads one ideology after another from the pulpit as the unwashed congregation dances and applauds.
There are many parallels between the lore of the Jesus and Buddha movement.
Savior-hero-founders -paying a primitive homage to class struggle- seemingly love mingling with bottom-feeders, the last, meek and dejected: shepherds, fishermen, prostitutes, drifters, lepers, transgressors, slaves, beggars are purposefully chosen as their confidants, subjects, disciples, and ideal companions. Humility becomes expedient as societal pecking orders evaporates as the newfangled horde enters fusion.


Earl Hardie Karges's picture

Class and caste in Buddhism and Christianity

Hmmm, thanks, interesting take from an entirely different angle, not what I was expecting, but very welcome, and also surprising, since Jesus was certainly not from a prominent family, even if the Buddha was, as was Muhammad, for that matter. So this question can not only apply to Buddhism, but any and all religions. And the obvious follow-up question: was this the original intent, an inevitable consequence, or a hostile take-over? Interesting topic for further research, and I'll avoid any reference to Marx for the time being...


There are similarities between the Jesus and Buddha lore.
For example, John the Baptist in some rendition becomes Jesus' "cousin", much as I read somewhere that Ananda, Sariputta and Moggallana were "cousins" (?) of the Buddha. They were of high birth, just as Jesus was hailed as "son of David" descended from the heavens (Ascension of Isaiah) much as Buddha had descended from Tushita.
Joseph's genealogy (Jesus' foster father) bills him as David's descendant, who ought to register for census in Bethlehem because there he (presumably) still held property.
All religions fish for converts.
Gautama Buddha explained the true “aryan”1 was not2 the member of Hindu upper classes claiming unbroken lineages from mythological heroic ancestors, but the religious practitioner starting from an intermediate state of development.
Confucius explained the true “gentleman” (a term reserved for the nobility of the various Chinese States) was he who followed the moral code Confucius had expounded. Jesus followed in the same steps, for the ultimate Kingdom would belong neither to Hebrew priests or zealots, nor to Graeco-Roman imperial elites, but to the scum of the Earth. Marx scorched the upper classes to the advantages of the toiling have-nots, future rulers of a world of plenty. Mussolini hailed as future master race no other than the ragged Italian masses.

In order for the rabble saviors, heroes and founders rouse to play the part of vanguard, taboos and virtues have to be redefined, often in a hyperbolic way that cripples the very concept of right and wrong, being and not being. This isn't exclusive to Christianity: Buddhism in China, for example, recruited among the lower classes and was shunned by upper classes at the beginning, which can be said of all major religions.


Earl Hardie Karges's picture

Class and caste in Buddhism

Sergio: I agree with much of what you say, especially in regard to the Abrahamic religions, EXCEPT:

1) the Aryans were not mythological, but an actual large invasive group of light-skinned people of R1a (East European) y-DNA genome whose descendants are very much evident to this day in not only India, but also Afghanistan and Tajikistan (and there in a largely unmixed form),


2) the Buddhist Sangha apparently did NOT recruit from the lower classes, as I'm seeing percentages of 40% Brahmin from the very earliest days of Buddhism, with almost as many 'ksatriyas' and 'vaishyas' and very few 'shudras' (please pardon any misspellings).

So class, if not caste, consciousness, seems to have played a role in Buddhism since the beginning, and could easily have been deducible by skin color, despite Gombrich's assertions that the 'color' that 'varna' refers to is not skin color.

The masses would certainly become more interested once the Buddha's reputation for miracles and magic became enhanced over the years, especially with the cults of stupa and relic worship in the sub-continent and the advent of Buddhist art and statuary in the far northwest, but that's the lay community, not monastics.

But back to the original question. What I want to know is: are there still class distinctions in the Theravada sangha, as Gombrich indicated was definitely the case not so long ago in Sri Lanka? Or for that matter, in any Buddhist sangha, but not the lay community, (and I'm not interested in the parallels with Christianity or Islam at this point). So if anyone has knowledge of the social-class composition of any of the Buddhist sanghas in Burma, Tibet, Taiwan, Japan, etc. I'd be curious to know. Thailand I am already a bit familiar with. Thanks!

Sergio Leon Candia's picture

hi all! I would say that

hi all!
I would say that some sort of modern way is still at work in Theravadin countries.
Even in Thailand the nicknames for monks are royal brother or father.
And in practical terms, there is a tendency to treat the monastic as royalty, even incurring in Vinaya violations such as the monastic sitting in high-luxurious sits.
well. ok, sorry but I didn't have much time to give a better contribution but remembered that I had talk about this with a monk friend of mine.

best wishes to all!

Earl Hardie Karges's picture

Caste and class in Buddhism

Thailand is probably a mixed bag, and subject to local conditions. On the one hand, ordination is not free, and can be quite costly. On the other hand, the forest temple where I stayed and practiced in north Thailand had two youngsters resident there who were simply abandoned by their tribal parents, a practice which was likely common in times past, though rare now. In my many forays as driver for the temple, I can't say I ever saw another example of that (but many dogs and cats, haha). The situation in Sri Lanka is somewhat explainable, if not excusable, as a vestige of Brahmanism, so I guess the real question is about Burma/Myanmar, with their Rohingya problem, etc. Any knowledge of the situation there, in the Sangha, would be welcome.

p.s. Also, in Thailand, the term being translated as 'royal', i.e. 'luang', is a bit of a catch-all term, and in northern dialect simply means 'big' or 'great'...