Caste (vaõõa) is the Hindu belief that humans were created by God as four distinct and different types; priests, warriors, merchants and labourers. According to this belief the different castes should make their living in different ways, should not mix and should be treated differently. Beyond the four castes are the outcastes, canóàla, those who have no caste and are considered beyond the pale of ordinary Hindu society. The Buddha was an outspoken critic of the caste system and at least a dozen of his discourses are devoted to highlighting its contradictions and cruelties. The Buddha’s tribe, the Sàkyas, were excessively proud of their high caste status. When a group of them requested to become monks the Buddha ordained Upàli, a low caste barber, first thus giving him a precedence that would require the others to bow to him.
The Buddha criticized the caste system on several grounds. The claim that it was ordained by God is no more than a myth (Majjhima Nikaya 2. 148). Caste is not practiced everywhere and thus must be a regional custom rather than a universal truth (Majjhima Nikaya 2. 149). The claim that different castes have different abilities and personalities is not born out by experience and is thus invalid (Majjhima Nikaya 2. 150; Sutta Nipata 116). Low castes and outcastes may be dirty because they are compelled to do dirty jobs but if they wash themselves they become as clean as everyone else (Majjhima Nikaya 2. 151). The caste system engenders cruelty and suffering and is thus evil. Despite the Buddha’s repudiation of caste, less extreme variations of the system are practiced in Sri Lanka, Tibet, Burma, Thailand and even Japan. Since the 1950’s, millions of low caste and outcaste people in India, following the example of their leader Dr. Ambedkar, have converted to Buddhism to escape the indignities of the caste system.
Here are the Buddha's most famous words regarding caste:
"Birth makes no Brahmin, nor non-Brahmin, makes; it is life's doing that mold the Brahmin true. Their lives mold farmers, tradesmen, merchants, and serfs. Their lives mold robbers, soldiers, chaplains, and kings. By birth is not one an out-caste. By birth is not one a Brahmin. By deeds is one an out-caste. By deeds is one a Brahmin."
- (Majjhima Nikaya 98, Vasettha Sutta 57-59)