Caste in Popular Buddhism in Sri Lanka

U.G.L.B. Jayasooriya


Buddhism is among major religious beliefs worldwide and is considered a philosophy rather than a religion. It is the doctrine preached by the Buddha. One of the most important teachings of Buddhism is equality; the Buddha rejected discrimination based on caste, colour, and so on and taught his followers to do the same. However, some current Buddhist practices clearly adhere to the caste discrimination prevailing in society. Hence the study was carried out to evaluate attitudes and perceptions of monks and laypersons about the prevailing caste related Buddhist practices against Buddha’s doctrine. A qualitative study was conducted on 20 subjects selected through purposive sampling. The sample was a mixture of laymen/women and Buddhist monks. In-depth interviews were conducted for approximately one hour per individual. The results revealed that the divisions of nikaya or monastic order/fraternity in Buddhism is primarily formed and continues based on caste differences. Further the study revealed the awareness of the general public regarding the caste-based practices in the Temple of Tooth. But none of there spondents could justify any of the findings in relation to Buddhist doctrine, and a majority believed caste-based practices as a tradition transferred from generation to generation. It was also explained by a few that casteism has become a tradition which the public accept blindly without questioning it in relation to Buddhist teachings. The results of the study recommend that Sinhala Buddhists who appreciate equality should contribute to a social discourse attempting to change caste-based discrimination. The study also suggests that people should get rid of conservative ideas to reject unacceptable practices prevailing in popular Buddhism so as to promote and protect pure Buddhism.

Keywords: Buddhism, caste, discrimination, nikaya (monastic order/fraternity)