Though there is no doubt that Buddhism as a social philosophy is more humane and sympathetic to oppressed groups than orthodox Brahmanical tradition, yet the ideal society envisaged by the Buddha, where the righteous ruler would abolish destitution and ensure means of subsistence to all sections of his people, remained elusive.1 Provision of equal treatment is the basic facet of social justice. How this facet was addressed by the Buddha or in the early texts is a moot question. In the Indian context, the question of social philosophy of Buddhism, the position of dāsa-karmakara (slave-servant) and the Sociology of Stratification from Buddhist sources have been deftly dealt with by Uma Chakravarti in her seminal essays.2 Gregory Schopen’s pioneering studies on the monastic situation,3 like looking at the Buddha as owner of properties, issues relating to ownership of servants in monasteries, etc., has opened up new avenues of research. Nevertheless, there is still some scope left to trace new data, discuss afresh the already known ones and investigate the Buddha’s and Buddhist attitude and practices towards fairness of treatment and inequality. Keeping this in mind, this essay proposes to examine the presence of a category of servants or slaves called ārāmikas in monasteries, as also the Buddha’s idea of kamma or karma for a better life.
Thanks to the seminal work of Dev Raj Chanana,4 we are well aware of the kind of slavery that was prevalent during what Chanana calls the ‘Buddhist Epoch’. One must not also forget U.N. Ghoshal’s study of ‘Ancient Indian Slavery’,5 where he also addresses the question of slavery in the period of early Buddhist literature.
In Buddhist literature of all kinds, stock descriptions of wealth, even that gifted to the Buddha, regularly list male and female slaves. To cite an example, we have the case of the distribution of the estate of a householder from Śravasti who left a written will donating all his possessions to the Jetavana monastery. The property was to be divided by the Buddha and he kept the male and female slaves along with some other possessions for the community of monks from the four directions.6 The term generally used for slave in early India was dāsa. The Dīghanikāya Ammhakathā7 mentions four types of dāsa: (a) in-born (antojāta), (b) purchased (dhanakkita), (c) taken by force or brought from another country (karamarānita) and (d) voluntary (samamdāsavyam upagatā). The Vinaya enumerates the first three. Obviously, the text is talking about the prevalent categories in society. The jātakas abound in depiction of slaves in the houses of rulers, seṭṭhis (merchants) and gahapatis (householders). Prices of slaves are also mentioned.8 It is evident that in principle the Buddha did not subscribe to the institution of dāsa. The Buddha had initially outlawed the practice of accepting dāsa or dāsi by monks in the Lakkhanasutta of Dīghanikāya, though later on attendants and servants were given entry to the monastery. However, there is no evidence to show that the Buddha denounced the institution of dāsaper se or regarded it as a social evil. The Buddha dealt with the problem of slavery in two ways. First, by rejecting the idea of superiority or inferiority based on one’s birth and, secondly, by arguing that the decisive factor behind superiority or inferiority is one’s moral behaviour and not birth.
Uma Chakravarti argues that
the only possibility of an effective escape from the inegalitarian and hierarchical structure of society envisaged by the Buddha was in the institution of saṅgha. The saṅgha was devised as a parallel society where one could construct, with immediate effect, a new structure of relations.9
The saṅgha was theoretically thrown open to all regardless of the social origin of the entrants. But there was a caveat—runaway slaves could not be ordained unless they received manumission. In other words, slaves needed to be free from their shackles first in order to enter the saṅgha.10 Now why was it so? Will it be wrong to think that the Buddha did not want to annoy the upper elements like rulers, seṭṭhis, gahapatis and the like for whom the slaves worked? Gahapatis enjoy a special category in the Buddhist texts: they are an inherent part of the kula (family) scheme and they were owners and controllers of the primary means of production in the form of land. They were thus the major employers of labour and so there was always a possibility that a run-away slave could come from the house of a gahapati. From N.K. Wagle’s seminal work on society during the time of the Buddha,11 we know of a separate social group called seṭṭhi-gahapati and the high position of seṭṭhis and gahapatis in the eyes of early Buddhism. These gahapatis and seṭṭhis were patrons of the Buddha and it is understood that by allowing the slaves to enter into the saṅgha the Buddha did not want either to distance the gahapati, seṭṭhi and king from the saṅgha or to interfere in the established set of socio-economic obligations. To maintain a balance, it is said that he advised people to have a correct attitude towards the serving population. However, contradiction prevails when, on the one hand, the desire for properly treating the serving people is brought out, it being said that a silavati woman behaves correctly towards her slaves, and, on the other, in the descriptions of the six quarters, he places the dāsas in the lower quarter, the hetthimā disā (according to the commentary it is the feet, where the base palitthana is).12 He asked members of the servile class to be obedient to their masters for their salvation lay in complete obedience. Herein comes the doctrine of kamma and the division of kamma and sippa into low (hina) and high (ukkatta) in the Vinaya texts.13 This doctrine of Buddhism maintains that one’s own actions dictate the fruits that one will enjoy in the future for better or for worse. Thus, in the area of social and economic divisions, the distinctions between rich and poor, and between high and low families, were implicitly accepted although not explicitly endorsed. Meritorious actions and alms giving would ensure rebirth in the families of khattiyas (Kshatriyas), Bāhmaṇas and gahapatis. It can be argued that this whole idea of rebirth in high families through meritorious deeds, instead of bridging the gulf between the high-born and low-born, merely raises the aspiration of low-born to be born in a family of some status. The donative records of the early historical period are replete with instances of donations of stūpa and kupa (well) or donations to monks and monastic institutions. Through the principle of kamma, Buddhism accepted an ideological justification for the existence of social hierarchy. All sects of Buddhism encouraged such donations which in return secured merit for the donor.
In early Mahāyāna Buddhism another way to accumulate merit and, finally, nirvāna, was to make Buddha images in clay14 or erect stūpas. Here too we notice that privilege was given to a person born of a uchchakula (high family). It is said in the Pratityasamudpāda Sūtra,
If a devoted son or daughter of good family were to make on an un-established place a stūpa the size of an āmalaka fruit—with a yaṣṭii the size of a needle and an umbrella the size of a bakula flower—and were to put in it the verse of the Dharma relic of Pratityasamutpāda, he or she would generate brahmic merit (Brahmapuṇyam prasavet).15
The Bodhigarbhlaṅkāra recommends the practice to ‘monks, nuns, lay men and lay women’ and again ‘sons or daughters of good family’.16 The idea behind the insertion of dhāraṇis is explained in an inscription which states that the construction of a single caitya (stūpa) with a deposit of a dhāraṇi inside it confers on the donor the merit of the erection of one lakh of Tathagata caityas. The repeated mention of good family by Buddha raises a question. How do we qualify good family? We know that the term kula has been generally used to denote the family.17 There are a number of ways in which the kula figures as a unit in the system of stratification in Buddhist society. It has been shown by Wagle that there were four
“Be very careful about what you read,” Gregory Schopen advises students, “because you never know where it’s going to lead you.” His own path, a lifelong study of Buddhist religion and philosophy, has led him to Brown as the Rush C. Hawkins Professor of Religious Studies.
Gregory Schopen became interested in religious studies when he read a book about Buddhism in high school. “I tell my students to be very careful about what you read because you never know where it’s going to lead you,” Schopen said.
Buddhism’s complexity and novelty led him from Deadwood, S.D., to Black Hills State College (Spearfish, S.D., majoring in American literature), to McMaster University in Ontario, Canada (M.A., history of religions), to the Australian National University in Canberra (Ph.D., South Asian and Buddhist studies; thesis: Bhaisajyaguru-sutra and the Buddhism of Gilgit).
Schopen’s parents were very supportive of his choice of study, although his grandparents had reservations. “They were worried about the well-being of my soul,” Schopen said.
Today Schopen is recognized as an expert in Buddhist philosophy and Mahayana lifestyles. He lectures internationally, contributes to numerous papers, and has written several books including Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks (1997), Buddhist Monks and Business Matters (2004), and Figments and Fragments of Mahayana Buddhism in India (2005), among others.
In January Schopen joined the Brown faculty in the Department of Religious Studies as the Rush C. Hawkins Professor of Religious Studies.
Schopen’s current research focuses on Indian Buddhist monastic life and early Mahayana movements. Buddhism is multifaceted; there is no single Buddhism, Schopen said. Originating in India, Mahayana Buddhism is one of many branches — arguably the oldest and still sharing the basic foundation of Buddhism. Schopen studies monasticism as a religious institution and how it works both in India and in the Christian world.
Like the many branches of Buddhism that originally intrigued him, it was the promise of a larger and varied conversation that brought Schopen to Brown. “I knew the work of several people here in religious studies, work that I admire,” Schopen said. “I’m interested in people who are working on similar things in very different geographical areas.”
After three and a half decades of scholarship and writing, Schopen recognizes that “there is far more to learn in the field than what I already know.” So the conversation continues, but the field has also brought him accomplishments and experiences he never expected. In 1985, he was among 25 distinguished thinkers and activists who received MacArthur Fellowships, a group that included human rights champions Marian Wright Edelman and Robert M. Hayes and the dancer/choreographers Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. He has taught and studied Buddhism in Tokyo, Paris, Kyoto, Oxford, and Christchurch, New Zealand. He works in eight languages beyond English: French, German, Italian, classical Sanskrit, Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit, Pali, inscriptional Prakrits, and classical Tibetan.
In addition to his international appointments, Schopen has served on the faculty at Indiana University–Bloomington (1984–91), the University of Texas–Austin (1991-99) and the University of California–Los Angeles (1999–2012).
His experience as a teacher of religious studies and Buddhism has been positive and engaging. “The students are interesting, unusually polite, and they do the reading,” Schopen said, “but to get a discussion going ...”
He is optimistic that the move from California to Rhode Island and his first encounter with Brown students will rekindle the conversation and spark challenging, rewarding discussions.