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I ask this question as someone on Twitter was arguing that Buddhism is casteist. He claimed that only upper castes were permitted to enter monkhood. I told him this was completely false and shared the example of Upali the barber. He shared the following link: Buddhism: An Atheistic and Anti-Caste Religion? by Edmund Weber.

The standpoint which caste a Buddha should belong to has not been revised in Buddhism up to the present day. It is dogmatised in the Lalitavistara in the following way: a Bodhisattva can by no means come from a lower or even mixed caste:

“After all Bodhisattvas were not born in despised lineage, among pariahs, in families of pipe or cart makers, or mixed castes.”

Instead, in perfect harmony with the Great Sermon, it was said that:

“The Bodhisattvas appear only in two kinds of lineage, the one of the brahmanas and of the warriors (kshatriya).”

I corrected him that the document referred to Bodhisattvas and not ordinary monks who could grow to become full Arahants. He claimed that the religion was still casteist as only Brahmin and Kshatriyas could become Bodhisattvas. What does the Pali cannon say regarding this? Can you share any studies done on this by scholars?

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List of the named Buddhas

In countries where Theravāda Buddhism is practiced by the majority of people, such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, it is customary for Buddhists to hold elaborate festivals, especially during the fair weather season, paying homage to the 29 Buddhas described in the Buddhavamsa. The Buddhavamsa is a text which describes the life of Gautama Buddha and the 27 Buddhas who preceded him, along with the future Metteyya Buddha.[2] The Buddhavamsa is part of the Khuddaka Nikāya, which in turn is part of the Sutta Piṭaka. The Sutta Piṭaka is one of three main sections of the Pāli Canon of Theravāda Buddhism.

I note that in this table the class (varṇa) of all 29 is listed as either Kshatriya or Brahmin (except 3 which aren't listed).

So the answer seems to be "yes" if you include the Buddhavamsa -- which I imagine is the only text which says that.

Along with the Apadāna and the Cariyāpiṭaka, the Buddhavaṃsa is considered by most scholars to have been written during the 1st and 2nd century BCE, and is therefore a late addition to the Pāli Canon.

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  • It doesn't write after, it is sāriputta's literature. If one considers the age of canon by the writing style, it is going to be weird like "Sāriputta can't have his own speech style. Everyone who was in the same time with Buddha must speak like Buddha only." While the fact is everyone in same age has his own speech style. – Bonn Jul 31 at 16:32
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The following sutta quotes from Gihi Sutta and Sundarika Sutta show that a person of any caste, social class or background can become an Arahat. The Therigatha has numerous examples of women who became Arahats.

From the Gihi Sutta (AN 5.179):

In the same way,
wherever one is born
among human beings —
noble warriors, brahmans,
merchants, workers,
outcastes, or scavengers

if one is tame,
with good practices,
righteous,
consummate in virtue,
a speaker of truth,
with conscience at heart,
one who's abandoned birth & death,
completed the holy life
put down the burden,
done the task
fermentation-free,
gone beyond all dhammas,
through lack of clinging
unbound:
offerings to this spotless field
bear an abundance of fruit.

From the Sundarika Sutta (SN 7.9):

Then Sundarika the brahmin went up to the Buddha, and said to him: “Sir, in what caste were you born?”

“Don’t ask about birth, ask about conduct.
For any wood can surely generate fire.
A steadfast sage, even though from a low class family,
is a thoroughbred checked by conscience.

However, is it true that only a brahmana or kshatriya can become a Buddha?

I think it's the other way round. The Mahāpadāna Sutta quoted by that paper simply implies that the bodhisattvas (the beings intent on awakening) tend to have a karmic background that usually results in favourable birth destinations, rather than stating that the bodhisattvas can NEVER be of lower castes.

For e.g. professional basketball players tend to be tall persons, but it does not mean that ONLY tall persons can become professional basketball players.

We can relate from the Tamonata Sutta quote below that the bodhisattvas tend to be persons in light who are headed for light, by virtue of their good conduct and mindset:

"And how is one the type of person in darkness who is headed for light? There is the case where a person is born into a lower class family — the family of a scavenger, a hunter, a basket-weaver, a wheelwright, or a sweeper — a family that is poor, with little food or drink, living in hardship, where food & clothing are hard to come by. And he is ugly, misshapen, stunted, & sickly: half-blind or deformed or lame or crippled. He doesn't receive any [gifts of] food, drink, clothing, or vehicles; garlands, perfumes, or ointments; bedding, shelter, or lamps. He engages in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct. Having engaged in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct, he — on the break-up of the body, after death — reappears in the good destination, the heavenly world. This is the type of person in darkness who is headed for light. .....

"And how is one the type of person in light who is headed for light? There is the case where a person is born into an upper class family — a noble warrior family, a priestly family, a prosperous householder family — a family that is rich, with much wealth, with many possessions, with a great deal of money, a great many accoutrements of wealth, a great many commodities. And he is well-built, handsome, extremely inspiring, endowed with a lotus-like complexion. He receives [gifts of] food, drink, clothing, & vehicles; garlands, perfumes, & ointments; bedding, shelter, & lamps. He engages in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct. Having engaged in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct, he — on the break-up of the body, after death — reappears in the good destination, the heavenly world. This is the type of person in light who is headed for light.


Additional quote from "Buddhism in a Nutshell" by Ven. Narada Mahathera, to show that people from not-so-favourable backgrounds joined the monastic order, and became arahats or otherwise important members:

It was the Buddha who first attempted to abolish slavery and vehemently protested against the degrading caste system which was firmly rooted in the soil of India. In the Word of the Buddha it is not by mere birth one becomes an outcast or a noble, but by one's actions. Caste or color does not preclude one from becoming a Buddhist or from entering the Order. Fishermen, scavengers, courtesans, together with warriors and Brahmans, were freely admitted to the Order and enjoyed equal privileges and were also given positions of rank. Upali, the barber, for instance, was made in preference to all other the chief in matters pertaining to Vinaya discipline. The timid Sunita, the scavenger, who attained Arhatship was admitted by the Buddha Himself into the Order. Angulimala, the robber and criminal, was converted to a compassionate saint. The fierce Alavaka sought refuge in the Buddha and became a saint. The courtesan Ambapali entered the Order and attained Arhatship. Such instances could easily be multiplied from the Tipitaka to show that the portals of Buddhism were wide open to all, irrespective of caste, color or rank.

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  • Note: AN8.65 doesn't mention bodhisattva at all, but does confirm that people of all circumstances can "reappear in a good destination", which is perhaps what your point was? – OyaMist Jul 31 at 15:56
  • @OyaMist Yes. Usually bodhisattvas can be related to, as persons who are in light and headed for light, by virtue of their good conduct and mindset. – ruben2020 Jul 31 at 16:19

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