Varṇa (T. rigs) has multiple meanings in Sanskrit. In Buddhist texts, an important usage of varna refers to the system of castes or social classes in traditional Indian society. In this system, society was generally classified into four varnas:
- Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers.
- Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators.
- Vaishyas: merchants and agriculturalists.
- Shudras: laborers and servants.
Translator Ani Jinpa Palmo states that varna refers to:
- ...the traditional class-distinction of Indian society associated with different psychological types and the kind of work or social function deemed appropriate to them. In the course of time, the caste system became extremely complex. Buddhist texts refer only to the original fourfold system and repudiate it in the sense of rejecting the idea, still current in Indian society, that such distinctions are immutably dictated by the circumstances of birth.
Siddhartha Gautama was born into the kṣatriya class, but he renounced his traditional role when he decided to follow the spiritual path and seek enlightenment. In the early Buddhist texts, the Buddha is critical of the ritual activities of the Brahmin Vedic priests, particularly of rituals of animal sacrifice.
The Buddha and the early Buddhist sanghas accepted followers from all social classes.
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