Buddhism Buddhism and Caste
Greg Bailey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0191


Scholarly interest in Buddhism and caste stems from two interrelated motivations. The first being to investigate that the Buddha somehow criticized caste as an institution; and, the second, that in the 20th century many low-caste Hindus, under the influence of Ambedkarite teachings rediscovered and converted to Buddhism in order to escape caste discrimination. The mass conversion associated with the second event has led scholars and activists to trace anti-caste attitudes back to the earliest Buddhist literature. Ultimately both questions revert to the fundamental question of the identity of Buddhism and Hinduism in respect of their social representations and the areas in which differences in the status of social groupings are stressed. Where scholars are looking back from the 20th century a methodological problem arises in dealing with the earliest manifestations of Hinduism and Buddhism. Assuming Buddhism emerges as an institutionalized religion after the death of the Buddha at around 400 BCE and that Hinduism can be retrospectively identified at around 200 ACE as a religious development of several practical/theoretical streams, there is a six-hundred-year gap. This is not just a problem of definition of the two religions, because neither were ever precisely defined cultural entities. Rather it is a problem relating to the meaning of caste as such and its mirroring in early Buddhist and other contemporary literature that came to be recognized in later centuries as a precursor to a Hindu worldview. Above all, there is the problem of defining caste in the ancient period and of finding a Buddhist acceptance or critique of it in early Buddhist literature up until 200 ACE.


Descriptions of castes and sub-castes date back to the Manusmṛti of about 100 ACE. In this text there are about fifty different lineage groups, called jāti in Sanskrit, defined as arising out of an admixture of other lineage groups. Jāti becomes the prominent word for caste (a Portuguese word) subsequently, but for centuries prior to it the word varṇa = “color” was used to designate social class divided into the four occupational groups of brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, and śudra. These words designate reference groups rather than specific lineage groupings, but within them all kinds of sub-groups developed that came to be called caste, with the proviso that members of such groups could be recognized, usually by the surname as belonging to a particular varṇa. Rau 1957 deals with pre-Buddhist social groupings, and Brinkhaus 1978 is a careful study of the development of “mixed-castes” as they are treated in late Vedic literature and the Dharmasūtras. Dumont 1970 is a classic on the ideology behind caste, and Quigley 1993 gives an excellent critique of many contemporary theories of caste. Smith 1994 discusses the origins of the four classes (varṇa) in Vedic literature.

  • Brinkhaus, Horst. Die Altindische Mischkastensysteme. Alt-und-Neu-Indische Studien 19. Wiesbaden, West Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1978.

    A careful philological study of the development of mixed-caste groups in the centuries following the early development of Buddhism. Focuses on Hindu sources and presents an increasingly complex social situation that certainly existed in embryonic form in the Buddha’s time but that becomes more formally recognized in the Dharmasūtras and later śāstras.

  • Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1970.

    A classic work that analyzes caste as an ideological system, involving especially the opposition between king and Brahmin. It has spawned many other related studies and much criticism, but it is still fundamental for understanding the ideological structure lying behind caste, even where this is sometimes contradicted by ethnographic evidence.

  • Quigley, Dermot. The Interpretation of Caste. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Offers a critical analysis of most major theories, devoting much space to Dumont and Hocart, before dealing with the crucial problem of caste and kingship. The final chapter offers his own view of caste and brings out all the complexities involved in defining what this means as a living social institution.

  • Rau, Wilhelm. Staat Und Gesellschaft Im Alten Indien: Nach Den Brāhmaṇa-Texten Dargestellt. Wiesbaden, West Germany: Harrassowitz, 1957.

    A somewhat dated but still valuable treatment of pre-Buddhistic social forms, economic activity, and kingship. Part 3 deals with the social classes in considerable detail, presenting a situation where varṇa is known but not caste as it is later understood.

  • Smith, Brian K. Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varṇa System and the Origins of Caste. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Using copious sources from Vedic literature of all periods, Smith discusses (chapter 2: pp. 26–57) the evidence pertaining to the mode in which social classes are classified. In chapter 3: (pp. 55–85) he discusses the origins of the varṇas and how these overlap with, and possibly derive from, other classificatory systems. More theoretically inclined than Rau.

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