Many suttas (SN 6.11; SN 21.11; MN 53; AN 11.10; DN 27) contain the following phase:

‘The aristocrat is best of those people ‘khattiyo seṭṭho janetasmiṃ,

who take clan as the standard. ye gottapaṭisārino;

But one accomplished in knowledge and conduct vijjācaraṇasampanno,

is best of gods and humans.’ so seṭṭho devamānuse’ti.

Why is the aristocrat best of those people who take clan as the standard?


Taken in the context of a conversation between the Buddha and a Brahman in the Ambaṭṭhasutta (DN 3), it is quite clear how this verse is supposed to be interpreted.

Given the hierarchy of caste, the Buddha argues, brahmans are indeed inferior to aristocrats (i.e. rulers and nobles). He depicts brahmans as subservient to the aristocratic class, and indicates that the aristocratic class is more exclusive -- an aristocrat could become a brahman, but a brahman could never become an aristocrat.

Thus, this verse should be taken as an argument against brahmanical superiority. Rather -- and this is something repeated in several other places -- a mendicant has worth not on account of their birth, but their sound ethics, great wisdom, and role as a teacher (of dhamma). This is a standard argument against caste hierarchy, which is depicted as illogical given how brahmans are subordinated to the nobility in practice. Instead, the Pali canon places the Buddha and the Buddha alone at the top of a newly configured hierarchy (ostensibly based on ethics and wisdom alone, but sometimes on the basis of Gotama's godlike preeminence among all beings).

  • what exactly did the Buddha say in DN 3? Please quote the relevant passage. Thank you Apr 23 '19 at 1:27
  • I'm not going to quote the entire passage, because it's a significant section of an already long conversation. It does end with the verse you are curious about, though, so my best advice would be to read the whole thing yourself.
    – v nu
    Apr 23 '19 at 3:01
  • One specific point he makes is that, if the aristocrats banished one of their own, he would still receive a seat or water among the Brahmans. (The Buddha asks: api nu so labhetha brāhmaṇesu āsanaṃ vā udakaṃ vā -- and the answer is yes). The reverse would not be true -- so, indeed, aristocrats are the best within the hierarchy of caste
    – v nu
    Apr 23 '19 at 3:05
  • I do not have the reputation yet to comment on ruben's point, but I would add that I disagree. The idea that caste refers to 'varna' and 'jati', whereas 'gotra' means clan, is a recent codification that dates to the 19th century. In the context of the Pali canon, 'gotta' more generally means lineage and the according status of one's lineage. 'Caste' is a suitable translation that does not rely on anachronism.
    – v nu
    Apr 23 '19 at 3:10
  • Sorry to add so many comments, but I had one more thing to add. "Gotta" in this case should be translated as "caste," because it clearly refers to a varna in khattiya (sanskrit: ksatriya). Khattiya is not a clan in the modern sense of a gotra.
    – v nu
    Apr 23 '19 at 3:14

Interestingly, in AN 5.179, it lists aristocrats before other castes (vaṇṇa or varna):

among aristocrats, brahmins, merchants,
Khattiye brāhmaṇe vesse,

workers, or outcastes and scavengers —
sudde caṇḍālapukkuse.

In the suttas you quoted, it says "the aristocrat is best of those people, who take clan as the standard". The word for "clan" here is gotta or gotra, which is different from caste (which has two types of concepts - vanna or varna, and jāti). The caste system from the Hindu scriptures is varna.

Gotta or gotra is an unbroken male lineage from a common male ancestor. Two persons from the same gotta or gotra cannot get married.

From a caste perspective, Hinduism takes brahmana to be the highest caste, followed by khattiya or kshatriya.

However, from a clan perspective, the suttas take the khattiya or kshatriya i.e. aristocrat, to be the best of people (jana).

Perhaps the reason for this is that kings are always khattiya or kshatriya, and their lineage is always an unbroken male line from the first king of that dynasty. Since a king is the best of people in any country, and his clan (in terms of ancestral lineage) is always aristocrat, so aristocrats are presumably the best of people in a country from the perspective of clans (gotta).

  • I chose this answer as supreme because it said: "from caste (jāti). Jati = caste. Saddhu Apr 17 '19 at 20:23
  • Based in DN 3, the concept of "lineage" in this answer appears correct, Oct 5 '19 at 21:59

I assume it means, "Among or according to the those who take the clan as standard -- i.e. according to those who judge according to the clan in which a person is born -- the aristocrat is best."

That was a conventional/social belief at the time -- i.e. that there were clans or castes. And according to that maybe the aristocrat was best by definition -- the sutta says Khattiyo, that's presumably "Kshatriyas" mentioned in the Varna (Hinduism) article.

Compare with e.g. the Dhammapada, "It is not by birth that one is a 'Brahmin', a holy man" -- see also DN 4.


Khattiya... since the Buddha wasn't, against many believes and adds, a "Marxist" or "phseudo-liberalist" "only" because he didn't made an end there and made the real "Samana" to the highest of the four able to gather? Other groups (then the four, aristocrats, priests, warrior, samanas) actually have no real (ethical) standards.

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