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Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

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.

2 comments on “Jati, Rebirth and the Caste System

  1. don socha
    2019/08/21

    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
      2019/08/21

      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.

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