Society and Religion in the Buddha’s India

Classes and families

In the Buddha’s India society had four classes, called ‘colours’ (vaṇṇa), with three light-skinned classes and one dark-skinned class called ‘workers’. These classes were not yet ‘castes’ because intermarriage was still possible.

  • nobles (khattiya)
  • brahmans (brāhmaṇa)
  • merchants (vesso)
  • workers (suddo) (M.2.150).

The first two classes were held to be superior (aggamakkhāyanti) because the others paid respects to them (M.2.129). At the top, nobles were superior to brahmans (D.1.98-9). Nonetheless, some brahmans felt nobles should pay respect to brahmans (D.1.91); and that only brahmans should wander for alms; that nobles should be the soldiers; merchants, the farmers; and workers should do the rest. When the Buddha asked if the whole world had authorised this, and they agreed that it had not, he said it was like forcing a cut of expensive meat on a penniless man and getting him to pay for it (M.2.180).

Sometimes, in the suttas, merchants and workers get labelled as ‘householders’. Perhaps it was more polite than calling them ‘merchants’ or ‘workers’. If they were wealthy, they were grouped as ‘high families’ (ucce kule). The ‘high families’ therefore were:

  • families of wealthy nobles (khattiyamahāsālakule)
  • families of wealthy brahmans (brāhmaṇamahāsālakule)
  • families of wealthy householders (gahapatimahāsālakule)
  • wealthy families (aḍḍhe) (A.2.84) - hard to differentiate from the other three above.

Below the four classes were ‘outcaste families’ (pukkusakulā) or ‘low families’ (nīce kule) (A.1.162; M.2.152) who were divided according to occupation:

  • families of scavengers (caṇḍālakule)
  • families of basket-weavers (veṇakule)
  • families of hunters (nesādakule)
  • families of wheelwrights (rathakārakule)
  • families of sweepers (pukkusakule)
  • beggars (daḷidde) (A.2.84).

Below beggars were slaves, who were called akula, ‘no family’ (D.1.93). Families of poor nobles, brahmans, merchants and workers do not fit into this scheme; they seem neither high nor low.

Within families, individuals had a personal name (nāma) and a family name (gotta).


The term “ascetics and brahmans” reflects the two divisions of religious life. Brahmans were considered the religious orthodoxy; the ascetics were the heterodoxy. However, many brahmans were not religious. Some were chief ministers (D.2.72); some were ploughmen (S.1.172) or ox-herders (S.1.170); some were rogues (M.2.185) and some would even lie to the king (S.1.74). The term “ascetics and brahmans” does not refer to these non-religious brahmans (e.g. see A.4.45). But, according to the Buddha, even religious brahmans are truly brahmans only if they practise the eightfold path (S.5.25).

Of those committed to their religion, some were masters of their tradition and had hundreds of students (Sn.105); some would shave their heads, and look like ascetics not brahmans (S.1.168); some were mendicants, and proud of it (S.1.182); some lived in the woods with their young students, fasting, bathing at dawn, studying the Vedas, keeping rules and vows, performing ablutions and matting their locks, all for the sake of worldly gains (S.4.118); some performed fire-sacrifices of milk-rice with ghee (S.1.166), or, on their Uposatha Day, rise up three times at night to offer fresh butter. Even brahman women could have students (S.4.121). And grateful students would offer their teachers a fee (S.1.177), so teaching for some would become their livelihood. They could then become wealthy, wear perfume and garlands, eat fine food, and travel in chariots, unlike the early brahman sages, and the Buddha would goad them about it (D.1.105).

The traditionalists amongst the brahmans claimed to be of pure descent to the seventh generation (D.1.114) and were moral and praised wisdom, even though they were unable to explain what wisdom was (D.1.124). They claimed to be ‘born of Brahma’s mouth’ and aimed to either unite with Brahma at death, or to reach the Brahma world, though the best way to accomplish this was a matter of dispute, because brahman teachers proclaimed different methods (D.1.235; D.2.241).

The Buddha compared these teachers to a file of blind men, none of whom had discovered themselves what they were teaching others; and who indulged in sense pleasures and were obstructed by the hindrances, and by wives and and by wealth. Therefore they had nothing in common with Brahma, and would certainly not reunite with him. Their knowledge of the three Vedas, the Buddha called their ‘threefold destruction’ (D.1.248). He said if one regards oral tradition as truth, it is a holy life without consolation, because some scriptures are well transmitted, some are not (M.1.520). Nonetheless, both the Buddha and Venerable Sariputta realised that the brahmans devotion to Brahma (brahmalokādhimuttā) was skilful, and would teach them a way to reach the Brahma world (D.1.251; M.2.194).

Some brahmans, on hearing Dhamma, would quickly become the Buddha’s disciples (D.1.252) sometimes bringing with them all their students (Sn.111) and might quickly attained arahantship. Brahmans who chose to be ascetics like this, would be accused by other brahmans of joining the ‘shavelings’, of deserting the highest class, and mixing with the ‘dark fellows born of Brahma’s foot’ (D.3.81). Some of these critical brahmans would even approach the Buddha to abuse and revile him personally (S.1.160-185) and the Buddha would teach them about anger, and they ended up as monks themselves. Or as lay disciples, in which case they would still be called ‘brahmans’ (D.2.166).

The word ‘samana-brahmana’ helped solve a problem, because when brahmans became ascetics, they shaved off their their hair, and became thus unrecognisable as brahmans, which would lead some brahman laymen to then audaciously ask unrecognised ascetics about their birth. If it was the Buddha they asked, he told them they should ask about conduct, not birth (S.1.168).

Like anyone else, if brahmans ordained as monks, the Buddha told them to say that they were ascetics, sons of the Sakyans (samaṇā sakyāputtiyamhā'ti). If their faith was strong, they could say they were “true sons of the Sublime One, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, heirs of Dhamma” (bhagavato'mhi putto oraso mukhato jāto dhammajo dhammanimmito dhammadāyādo'ti) (D.3.84) for which, of course, they would have to be truly free of attachment to brahman beliefs .


Ascetics (samaṇā) were above the class system: “Though an ascetic be of humble birth, even nobles salute him” (S.1.45). Asceticism was a religious option available to all, but brahmans and nobles seemed the most interested in it. Self-ordination was common (M.1.170; S.2.220). Asceticism meant celibacy (brahmacārī) (S.4.181) as well as the training in the five precepts (A.3.275). Some ascetics were shaven-headed, some not (Vin.1.71). The downfall of an ascetic is, once surrounded by laypeople, becoming luxurious, greedy and reverting to indulgence (nikāmayati, gedhaṃ āpajjati, āvaṭṭati bāhullāya) (M.3.116).

In the suttas and vinaya, several terms for ascetics are prominent:

  • Titthiyā: members of non-Buddhist sects, either clothed or unclothed (Vin.1.305; M.3.111; Vin.2.22; D.3.115). Those who left their sects were called aññatitthiyapubbo ‘former members of another sect’ (Vin.1.69-71) and underook a four-month probationary period if they wanted ordination from the Buddhists. Members of other sects were not usually called ‘ascetics’ (samanas) by the Buddhists: maybe their moral standards were too low. Synonyms for titthiyā are: ‘wanderers’ (paribbājakā) and ‘wanderers of other sects’ (aññatitthiya paribbājakā). The term 'former members of another sect' does not apply to other sects lay disciples; therefore if a monk disrobes and becomes a lay disciple of another religion, he may still be re-ordained as a Buddhist monk (A.3.396-9; D.1.190-203). If he became an ordained member of another sect, this would not be possible (Vin.1.68).
  • Acelakas: naked wanderers. Of the Buddha’s six main adversaries (who are discussed below), five practised nakedness. Acelakas seemed to assume that lifelong celibacy was impossible, because they would casually ask friends how many times, in the holy life, they had had intercourse (M.3.125). Some of them, like the naked dog-ascetic, became Buddhist monks and even arahants (D.1.177; M.3.127; M.1.391). In the suttas and Vinaya, some ‘paribbajakas’ may in fact be acelakas. For instance, Nigrodha, who praised nakedness, was called a paribbājako (D.3.36).
  • Ājīvakas: naked wanderers and self-mortifiers led by Makkhali Gosala.
  • Jaṭilās, matted-hair ascetics: They believed purity was through fire-worship and plunging into cold water (Ud.6). Their fire-worshipping was a sensual experience involving women (kāmitthiyo) (Vin.1.36). The only teachers of this group that are described in the Buddhist scriptures are the Kassapa brothers (Vin.1.25).

    Matted-hair ascetics were almost brahman ascetics. Both groups matted their hair, performed rituals with water and fire, and could receive ordination from the Buddhists without undergoing a four-month probationary period. This would explain the puzzle of Keniya, who was a matted-hair ascetic, but had confidence (abhippasanno hoti) in the brahman Sela, and who was conversant with the brahman scriptures and tradition. Though he admired the Buddha, and even watched Sela with his three hundred students ordain as Buddhist monks, he himself was not won over. Perhaps he was attached to his large hermitage, and his friends and relations who he twice involved in his grand offerings to the Sangha (Sn.pp103-6; Vin.1.245).

  • Niganthas, Jains, the ordained disciples of Nigantha Nataputta, of whom the Buddha was thoroughly critical (A.5.150). In turn, their anger towards the Buddha could be vicious: they once accused him of eating animals specially killed for him (A.4.187). They were mendicants (M.1.371) and, judging from the next comment, practised nakedness – though not the female niganthas like Bhadda Kundalakesa, who wore a single garment (Thi.134). Their lay disciples (sāvakā) usually wore white (D.3.117) but were naked on Uposatha days (A.1.206).

    The goal of niganthas was to end suffering by destroying past kamma, which, in spite of their lofty vows of harmlessness, was undertaken through self-mortification practices. These practices included, for example, standing continuously, rejecting seats (M.1.92; M.2.214) for which the Buddha said they were blameworthy, and explained to them the folly of their ideas (M.2.214).

    On the Uposatha day their lay disciples were made to renounce their possessions in the morning. They stripped off, and announced that they owned nothing, which, because it was a false statement, the Buddha said was as good as lying; in the evening they resumed the use of their belongings without having had them re-offered, which the Buddha said was as good as stealing (A.1.206).

    The Buddha’s conversations with niganthas would either quickly end in deadlock (M.1.372) or in the niganthas bluntly asserting that Nigantha Nataputta was “all-knowing and all-seeing” (M.2.221). Saccaka was a relative success, in that he acknowledged his impudence, though it took a thunderbolt-bearing spirit to break his stubbornness (M.1.232).

    Of all the wanderers, the niganthas seemed to have the largest following of lay disciples, particularly amongst the Licchavis (M.1.229). However, the Buddha was so successful in attracting away these disciples (M.1.380; A.4.184) that the niganthas accused him of using ‘converting magic’ (M.1.375; A.2.190). Those lay disciples who had been the niganthas’ biggest supporters, the Buddha would tell to continue in their offering of alms to niganthas (M.1.379; A.4.184).

  • Paribbajakas: Sometimes paribbājakā definitely means ‘clothed wanderer’ (Vin.4.92; S.1.78). But ‘paribbājakā’ sometimes means non-Buddhist wanderers in general, both clothed and unclothed (Vin.4.285) and is therefore synonymous with other general terms e.g. titthiyā.

    Buddhist monks had much dialogue with wanderers, who - even the self-mortifiers (D.3.36) - would typically be congregated in parks designated for them, having loud and unedifying conversations; though some of them lived quietly alone (M.1.481).

    Sometimes wanderers had their own teachers, either the big six, or others like Samanamandikaputto who had an assembly (parisāya) of three hundred disciples (M.2.23) and Nigrodha and Potthapada who both had three thousand (D.3.36; D.3.178). However, many wanderers, even if they had different teachers, respected the big six, or the Buddha. Sometimes these wanderers would ask the Buddha or his monks for teachings (M.2.31; S.4.251). Although the Buddha willingly taught them, he compared wanderers to cracked water-pots, inferior to his own lay-disciples, because it was likely they would forget whatever he told them (S.4.317).

    Some wanderers claimed that their own teachings were identical to the Buddha’s (M.1.64), implying that they therefore knew as much as he did; so the Buddha would set them questions on Dhamma that they were unable to answer (e.g. M.1.85). Some wanderers, for the sake of a following, tried to claim the Buddha’s teachings as their own (S.2.119). Others were jealous of the Buddha, and tried to destroy his reputation with plots involving female wanderers like Cinca or Sundari (Ud.4.8), or challenged him to miracle-working duels (D.3.12).

    Some wanderers were luxurious, and would use sunshades or wear expensive cloth (Vin.2.130; Vin.3.240). Some became sexually involved with female wanderers (M.1.305) and some had wives (Ud.13). However, some wanderers quickly understood Dhamma. Strangely, some then took refuge in the Buddha, but chose to be lay-disciples, not monks, like the ox-ascetic (M.1.391; S.5.75), probably due to some worldly attachment. Some ordained to become arahants, or even went on to become leaders of the Sangha, like Kassapa (S.2.220), Sariputta and Moggallana (Vin.1.41).

    There was greater success in converting solitary wanderers (M.1.489; M.1.496) rather than those living in large congregations (D.3.57). The teachers of these large groups seemed to be particularly obstructed, either by their attachment to fame (M.1.524), or by their students preventing them (M.2.39). Potthapada was an exception. He became a Buddhist lay disciple in spite of the ridicule of his three hundred wanderer-disciples (D.1.189-202).

Lay people and the probationary period

There are three possible ways to explain why brahmans and other laypeople did not have to undertake a four-month probationary period before being accepted for ordination with the Buddhists.

The first explanation is this: The suttas say that the brahmans approved of the Buddha’s doctrine on kamma (M.2.167; D.1.115). Obviously, then, they did not hold perverted views on kamma, even though the same suttas make it clear that they did not openly affirm kamma. It is likely that the other classes in society, the nobles, merchants and workers had the same attitude to kamma. This passive acceptance of kamma puts them into approximately the same category as the matted-hair ascetics, who did not need to undertake the probationary period because, the Buddha said, they positively affirmed kamma (kammavādino, kiriyavādino) (Vin.1.71).

The second explanation is this: If former members of other sects can all be defined as celibates, then brahmans and other classes of lay people did not have to undertake probation because they were not celibate. Even if some of them were celibate, that was a private decision, not a religious duty. If this is the reason, then former Protestant priests seeking ordination as Buddhist monks would not need to undertake probation; but Catholic priests would.

A third explantion is this: Judging from the guidelines on probation (Vin.1.70) it seems that wanderers coming to ordain as Buddhists were likely to bring with them various unsavoury habits, like visiting families at the wrong time; or mixing with prostitutes, eunuchs and nuns (vesiyagocaro, paṇḍakagocaro, bhikkhunīgocaro vā hoti); or failing to undertake duties to their fellows in the holy life (sabrahmacārīnaṃ uccāvacāni kiṅkaraṇiyāni tattha na dakkho hoti na analaso); or being disinterested in developing the higher morality, concentration and wisdom; or getting angry if the Buddha was praised, and pleased if he was blamed.

It seems likely that the paribbājaka lifestyle allowed wanderers to cultivate these kind of bad habits which Buddhist teachers found difficult to later train out of them. For some reason, brahmans and other lay people did not develop such habits, and so were not required to undertake probation, even if they had been lay disciples of wanderers of other sects (D.1.190-203).

Six prominent adversaries of the Buddha

Amongst the ascetics, the Buddha had six prominent adversaries. These were all naked except for Sanjaya Belatthaputta. These teachers had large followings, but were not much respected, even by their own disciples (M.2.3). None of them claimed to be fully enlightened (S.1.68).

Purana Kassapa

Doctrine: There is no kamma (natthi kiriyā'ti) (M.1.405)

Kassapa denied the existence of both merit (puññaṃ) and evil (pāpaṃ) whether it involved keeping or breaking precepts or undertaking spiritual training, though he himself practised nakedness, squatting and hair-pulling (M.1.516). He illustrated his kamma-denial with fantastic similes that involved turning humanity into one heap of flesh with a razor-rimmed wheel, or walking the length of the River Ganges, offering gifts and donations (M.1.516). He claimed to have infinite knowledge, even when asleep, and declared that the universe was finite (A.4.428). He highly admired Makkhali Gosala (A.3.384), and adopted his views (S.3.69; S.5.126).

Makkhali Gosala

Doctrine: Everything happens by chance (natthi hetū’ti) (M.1.408)

Gosala was the leader of the ājīvakas, who were naked ascetics. Gosala’s model of samsara was elaborate; it included, for example, one million four hundred thousand principle sorts of birth etc. (D.1.54). He claimed that the defilement or purification of beings had no cause; beings are purified or defiled for no reason at all. They are moulded by fate and chance (niyati saṅgatibhāvapariṇatā). No form of austerity or discipline can bring kamma to fruition, or make ripened kamma fade away, he said. The number of births and deaths beings experience has been measured out to them, and that measure can be neither increased nor decreased. Like a ball of string that rolls till it is unravelled, everyone circles samsara till their suffering comes to an end. Nonetheless, ājīvakas undertook starvation practices, taking food at stated intervals, and also practised nakedness, squatting and hair-pulling (M.1.238; M.1.516) but they remained plump due to periods of over-eating (M.1.128). Their commitment to austerity led them, on one occasion, to condemn Buddhist monks for using parasols (Vin.2.130).

The Buddha summarised their doctrine as “natthi kammaṃ, natthi kiriyaṃ, natthi viriyan”ti (no kamma; no deeds; no effort). Of all religious doctrines, the Buddha regarded theirs as the most vile (patikiṭṭho). He said that in ninety-one aeons, only one ajivaka ever went to heaven at death, and that was because he held the doctrine of kamma (M.1.483).

Gosala must have been very charismatic; Purana Kassapa praised him as being whiter than white (A.3.384) and Saccaka the nigantha admired his self-mortification practices (M.1.238) and adopted his views. This ability to attract disciples led the Buddha to compare Gosala to a man-trap, born into the world for the discomfort and destruction of many beings (A.1.286; A.1.33).

Ajita Kesakambali

Doctrine: There are no other worlds (natthi paro loko'ti) (M.1.402)

Kesakambali said that the person is the body, and that both person and body are destroyed at death. Therefore there is no kamma, no duties to parents, and no spiritual teachers. He practised nakedness, squatting and hair-pulling (M.1.515). One of his disciples, Prince Payasi, performed gruesome experiments on convicted thieves to help prove there was no soul, and no life after death. Venerable Kumara Kassapa compared Prince Payasi’s views to a load of dung, and converted him to Buddhism with twelve clever parables (D.2.316).

Pakudha Kaccayana

Doctrine: Everything is unchangeable

He claimed that the universe is constructed of seven eternal bodies: earth, water, fire, air, pleasure, pain and the soul (jīve). These bodies are permanent and do not obstruct each other. Within the seven bodies there is apparently no person, for there is no speaker, no hearer, no intimator, no cogniser. In killing, there is no depriving anyone of life; the knife merely passes between the seven bodies. Like the others, Kaccayana practised nakedness, squatting and hair-pulling.

Sanjaya Belatthaputta

Doctrine: eel-wriggler

Through dullness and confusion (mandattā momūhattā), when Sanjaya Belatthaputta was asked whether he thought there was another world, or spontaneously born beings, or fruit of kamma, or when asked about the destiny of the Tathagata after death, he equivocated: “If you asked me whether there’s fruit of good and bad kamma, if I thought there was, I would tell you so. But that’s not what I think. I don’t think thus. I don’t think otherwise. I don’t think not otherwise. I don’t think not not otherwise” (D.1.59; M.1.521).

Sanjaya was the first teacher of Sariputta and Moggallana, who, unlike himself apparently, were in search of the Deathless (amataṃ) (Vin.1.39). It is ironic that Sariputta, the Buddha’s disciple foremost in wisdom, had as his first teacher someone who, in King Ajatasattu’s opinion, was the most stupid and confused of all ascetics and brahmans (sabbabālo sabbamūḷho) (D.1.59).

Nigantha Nataputta

Doctrine: Jain

Nataputta taught that all feeling, including suffering, is due to previous kamma. Kamma is exhausted by avoiding new kamma and by burning off old kamma through self-mortification (M.2.214). Nataputta claimed to have infinite knowledge, even when asleep, and declared that the universe was infinite (A.4.428). When he accused the Buddha of being an annihilationist, the Buddha concurred, saying that he declared the annihilation of greed, hatred and delusion (A.4.183).     |     © 2008, Bhante Varado     |     Install the Gentium font