Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Jati, Rebirth and the Caste System

I’ve been reading that the word ‘Jati’, which is what is used in the Pali scriptures to mean ‘birth’ is wrongly translated as ‘rebirth’. As Thanissaro explains, there is no word for ‘rebirth’ in the Pali scriptures. It’s just ‘Jati’, ‘birth’ and that’s it.

According to Nanavira Thera, the actual Pali word for ‘rebirth’ is something entirely different. Nanavira Thera: “…jati is ‘birth’ and not ‘rebirth’. ‘Rebirth’ is punabbhava bhinibbatti’.”[66] Nanavira Thera, A note on paticcasamuppadda. In: Clearing the Path, p.20.

We are not going to be endlessly reborn into the caste system. We know that from science, plus only Hindus are born into a religious caste system from which there is no escape except death. So we can dispense with the nonsense about ‘rebirth’ in Buddhism altogether. It’s a wrongly translated, wrongly interpreted crock.

But now I’m reading that the word ‘Jati’ in the Indian context means “birth caste”, in other words, it’s the caste that you are ‘born into’ as part of the caste system. So Ambedkar was right–the Buddha’s teachings were meant to free people from “Jati” which is “birth caste” or the caste system, not the natural process of being born, and certainly not “rebirth”.

Nikas Foxeus: “In the [Burmese] pre-colonial period, an important meaning of amyou was a descent group or kinship and implied a common origin. It is synonymous with the Pāli word jāti, ‘birth’, which in India referred to ‘caste’. It also denoted varṇa, the four Indian ‘status groups.'”(see Niklas Foxeus: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0048721X.2019.1610810#.XVOaU63vcVA.twitter)

The Wikipedia article on the caste system in India says the same: “The caste system consists of two different concepts, varna and jati, which may be regarded as different levels of analysis of this system.” Jati:  literally “birth”, is a group of clans, tribes, communities, and sub-communities, and religions in India. Each Jāti typically has an association with a traditional job function or tribe. Religious beliefs (e.g. Sri Vaishnavism or Veera Shaivism) or linguistic groupings may define some Jātis.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste_system_in_India

So ‘Jati’ is not just ‘natural birth’, it’s your social birth, what you are ‘born into’, your social status, ethnic group, language, religion, culture, position in society. It is your conditioned existence, your ‘social conditioning.’ It is entirely social, but tied to natural birth. According to Ambedkar, that’s what the Buddha was trying to free people from.

And if you know that “jati” is your ‘conditioned birth’, the social conditions that you were ‘born into’, then you know that ‘dhukkha’, the conditioned suffering that stems from ‘jati’, is conditioned suffering, social suffering, the suffering of caste, class, race, gender, family oppression, poverty, poor health, lack of nutrition and other social-material conditions.

The root of dhukkha, conditioned suffering, is tanha, craving, but who’s craving? It could be the craving of those who exploit people for their own wealth and power, while from the point of view of the exploited, it is those who are struggling to survive. From the Buddhist point of view, there is a way to end conditioned suffering, social suffering, and for Ambedkar, it’s the Eight-fold path and the movement for social justice.

In the Dhammacakkappavattana (Wheel-turning) Sutta, there is no language that specifies that it is only the individual who suffers and only the individual who is the cause of his or her own suffering, which is how it is normally taught. The Buddha presents the Four Truths in a non-personal, non-individualized, very generalized way. “Birth is suffering…the origin of suffering is craving…the cessation of suffering is…and the path to the end of suffering is….it is to be experienced…” In fact it is just as possible to interpret the origin of suffering as stemming from ‘someone else’s’ craving that impacts on you or another individual, in a form that we call abuse or trauma.

Furthermore, it is also possible to interpret this passage as generalized suffering within society, collective suffering, in the form we call oppression. The origin of suffering could be the ‘craving’ that drives the entire capitalist system; ‘becoming’ as the social striving for achievement that forces everyone to strive for achievement or suffer as a ‘loser’; the ‘sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress and despair’ could have any number of social causes—poverty, racism, sexism, caste/class—and not originate with the individual who suffers from them. It’s become traditional and almost unquestioned that we understand the Four Truths as individualized suffering, but I think that’s an incomplete or misinterpretation.

Likewise, the Eight-Fold Path is taught as an individualized path, but could also be interpreted collectively, as the way a community or society should function. Indeed, Thanissaro’s interpretation (Access to Insight) says that this First Sermon could be interpreted as ‘the law’ of the Buddha, which would apply to a whole community (sangha) or society as well as an individual: “In ancient Indian philosophical and legal traditions, this sort of discussion is called a wheel. Thus, this passage is the Wheel of Dhamma from which the discourse takes its name.”

The ‘mental’ limbs of the Eight-Fold Path—view (1), intention (2), effort (6), mindfulness (7), concentration (8)—could be interpreted as critical consciousness, i.e. gaining the critical consciousness necessary to understand conditioned birth, conditioned suffering, and liberation from those conditions, so that one is finally ‘born free’, never born again into those kinds of social conditions.

This interpretation may not be present in the scriptures and commentaries (and if not, so what?), but it is certainly in the interpretation that Ambedkar brought to the Buddhist teachings.

4 comments on “Jati, Rebirth and the Caste System

  1. don socha

    Sangha as cabal or cell? Taking the focus away from the individual and particulars, or accidents, aligns better with materialism, of course. But might less intransigence be communicated with the term ‘inherited suffering’ than with ‘social’ or ‘conditioned suffering’? I’m probably unnecessarily quibbling here, but might the former more readily indicate potential for change? Doesn’t social change, and changes in conditioning, sound more daunting? Given that, how might this align with the probably initial but most positive, least daunting steps urged by union organizers?

    • Shaun Bartone

      I also think there is an ‘inherited’ condition of birth, which is your genetic heritage, your ancestral lineage, your species, and so on. There are genetic predispositions to disease and disability, just as there are genetic predispositions to exceptional abilities. But whether a certain genetic/ancestral/species trait is an advantage or a disadvantage (suffering) depends on the environment. But which is more changeable? A genetic inheritance or a social caste? It seems obvious that changing one’s social conditioning, or at least ameliorating it, is far more achievable than changing one’s genetic inheritance.

  2. jayarava

    There are at least 8, possible 9 words that mean rebirth in Pāḷi: see this discussion: https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/different-pali-words-translated-as-rebirth-reborn/3383 Which does not mention punabhava which is in fact the most common term.

    “So we can dispense with the nonsense about ‘rebirth’ in Buddhism altogether. It’s a wrongly translated, wrongly interpreted crock.”

    This is a crock. The idea of rebirth is not dependent on a single word translation. Just as the idea of launching a rocket into space is not vitiated by the lack of a distinct word for it. We do launch rockets into space, even if launch is a word that pertains to putting a boat in the water. Ṭhanissaro is a very poor guide in this respect.

    Rebirth is integral to Buddhism at every stage of intellectual development that we have access to. It is assumed to be built into the metaphysics of the world. We die and we are reborn. Yes, there were historical arguments over *how* this happened, but apart from a few marginal tribes on the periphery (such as the Kālāmas) there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that rebirth was a pan-Indian eschatology and not doubted by any of the major Indian religions.

    That said, I agree that rebirth is not a belief that is sustainable in a modern scientific worldview. However, I disagree that we can simply dispense with it and continue to use Buddhist jargon as though this makes no difference. Without rebirth the whole intellectual structure of Buddhism falls apart. If one abandons rebirth then very little is salvageable. And to pretend this is not so seems disingenuous.

    The speculative metaphysics presented here in Buddhist terms in this essay is far from convincing or useful. Basically, the author wants legitimise some pretty ordinary folk philosophy by adding a veneer of Buddhist terminology despite having stripped that terminology of all of its Buddhist significance.

    It’s wholly unsuccessful as a method for doing philosophy. Why not have the courage of your convictions and simply abandon the Buddhist schtick all together? What I suspect is that then this would just be another untrained but nonetheless opinionated philosopher making assertions that have no authority or legitimacy.

    • Shaun Bartone

      Hi Jayarava, thanks for commenting on my article. First, the idea that ‘Jati’ means ‘birth’ and not ‘rebirth’ is not my idea. I quoted and cited the Pali scholar who made this argument, Nanavira Thera. So if you have an argument about that, talk to Nanavira Thera.

      I extrapolated his idea as a way to rethink the whole idea of ‘birth’ and ‘rebirth,’ which I agree is essential in Buddhist doctrine. I’m trying to reimagine these concepts in modern terms, in terms of their social significance, rather than in terms of the individual path. I’m a sociologist, not a philosopher or a Buddhologist. I’m trying to develop a Buddhist sociology, attempting to socialize (collectivize) Buddhist doctrine. This article is not speculative metaphysics, it’s Buddhist social theory.

      Here’s the core of it:
      So ‘Jati’ is not just ‘natural birth’, it’s your social birth, what you are ‘born into’, your social status, ethnic group, language, religion, culture, position in society. It is your conditioned existence, your ‘social conditioning.’ It is entirely social, but tied to natural birth. According to Ambedkar, that’s what the Buddha was trying to free people from.

      If you’re offended by this article, you should read the other stuff on my Engage! and Dharmaecology blogs–you’ll be utterly horrified. And if you think that’s bad, you should read my series on ‘Buddhist Futures’, you’ll be completely dumbfounded. I have seemingly endless ways to offend Buddhist orthodoxy.

      What’s happening here, Jayarava, is something called Buddhist Anarchy, made possible thanks to the Internet. It’s the freedom to think what I want, write and publish what I want, and no one can stop me. We are free to create Buddhisms never imagined before.

      Buddhism hasn’t just entered the West, it has entered the INTERNET, which means NO ONE HAS ANY CONTROL OVER BUDDHISM FROM NOW ON. Nobody, not you, not the scholars or the orthodoxy, the monks, the llamas, the acharyas–no one. From now on Buddhism is Recombinant Buddhism, and it will be hybridized with all sorts of ideas that no one has ever thought of before. Until now.

      Btw, could you criticize some of my other articles please? I need to build up traffic on my site.

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