why did buddhism reject the caste system
At the time of the Buddha the caste system was firmly established in India. According to this system, a person’s position in society was determined from the time he was born and there was no way to change his lot in life. There were four castes, or classes, of people in society:
(Part Two) 24. The Buddha on the Caste System
Brahmanism, the predominant religion in India during the Buddha’s time, divided all humans into four castes (attu vanna), priests, warriors, traders and labourers. Social contact between each caste was minimal and the lower one’s position in the system the less opportunities, the less freedom and the less rights one had. Outside the caste system were the outcasts (sudra) people considered so impure that they hardly counted as humans. The caste system was later absorbed into Hinduism, given religious sanction and legitimacy and has continued to function right up till the present. The Buddha, himself born into the warrior caste, was a severe critic of the caste system. He ridiculed the priests claims to be superior, he criticised the theological basis of the system and he welcomed into the Sangha people of all castes, including outcasts. His most famous saying on the subject is : ” Birth does not make one a priest or an outcaste. Behaviour makes one either a priest or an outcaste”. Even during the time when Buddhism was decaying in India and Tantrayana had adopted many aspects of Hinduism, it continued to welcome all castes and some of the greatest Tantric adepts were low castes or outcastes.
Despite this, various forms of the caste system are practised in several Buddhist countries, mainly in Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Japan where butchers, leather and metal workers and janitors are sometimes regarded as being impure. However, the system in these countries has never been either as severe or as rigid as the Hindu system and fortunately it is now beginning to fade away. The exception to this is Nepal where Tantric priests form a separate caste and will neither initiate into their priesthood or allow into their temples those of other castes.
The teaching of Buddhism and the rejection of the idea of the caste system:
“There is a social aspect to Ambedkarite Buddhism,” said Mangesh Dahiwale, a veteran Dalit rights activist in Pune. “It’s not just an emancipatory path for individuals. We think it doesn’t make sense for you to become Buddhist alone when your society is downtrodden,” he said. This contrasts with Buddhism’s popular consumption in the West, which is often oriented around individualist concepts like personal fulfillment and peace of mind.
Still, in a country of over 1.2 billion people, the number of registered Indian Buddhists remains tiny at about 8.4 million. About 87 percent of them are Ambedkarites or converts, and the rest are ethnic Buddhists in the Himalayan provinces or Tibetan refugees who followed the Dalai Lama to India. But accurate statistics on Buddhist converts are hard to find because many are not registered as such on the census.
In the same way,
wherever one is born
among human beings —
noble warriors, brahmans,
outcastes, or scavengers —
if one is tame,
with good practices,
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
gone beyond all dhammas,
through lack of clinging
offerings to this spotless field
bear an abundance of fruit.
As for contemporary Asian societies, many of these societies were previously or concurrently Hindu in relation to the arrival of Buddhism. Similar to when the Buddha was alive, Buddhist monks generally do not act to oppose & destroy other religions. Buddhism is not like Judaism or Christianity. Thailand is an excellent example, where most religious people still follow other religions, such as spirit, ancestor or Brahma worship (even though they consider themselves “Buddhist”).