The Buddha was not a “Hindu prince”

At least one of the quotes sites that perpetuates Fake Buddha Quotes refers to the Buddha as a “Hindu prince.” This term is doubly misleading, since the Buddha was definitely not a “Hindu” (even in his early life), and neither was he a prince in any real sense.

One of the main religious groupings that the Buddha debated was the hereditary Brahmin caste, who studied the Vedas and Upanishads. They didn’t appear to have a name for their religion, which had a philosophical side but mainly seemed to emphasize ritual and sacrifice—often animal sacrifice—and were very concerned about maintaining the orderliness of society, although there was a more radical wing that may have explored meditation. Needless to say, the Buddha did not regard himself as being part of the Brahminical tradition although he did try at times to subvert the language of Brahminism to say that “true Brahmins” are made—by their ethically skillful actions—and not born.

There’s nothing in the Pali canon that suggests the Buddha was ever a follower of the Brahminical tradition, even in his youth. In fact the area of the Indian subcontinent that he came from (the Sakyan territory), doesn’t seem to have been dominated by Brahminism, although it’s said that there were Brahmin villages there. The very fact that some villages are mentioned as being “brahmin” suggests that Brahminism was not ubiquitous there.

The two teachers he practiced with prior to his Awakening, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, were from roughly the same geographical area as himself. They taught meditation rather than practicing the ritual-based practices of the Brahmins. They would have considered themselves to be “shramanas,” or radical, forest-based religious seekers, rather than “brahmanas,” who were of course home-dwelling, town- and village-based, and religiously conservative. Here’s what Dr. Alexander Berzin says of the shramanas:

The shramanas were wandering mendicant spiritual seekers. They came from castes other than the brahmins and sought liberation by leaving society from the start. They lived together in the forests, with no caste differences, as a spiritual community (Skt. sangha), rather than as solitary ascetics. They organized their autonomous communities on the model of the republics, with decisions made by assemblies. Moreover, all of them rejected a supreme god, such as Brahma, or any other form of a creator. Although the shramana communities had no caste differences within them, the laypeople who followed their teachings to a lesser extent and supported them still lived with the structure of the caste system.

This is the religious tradition that the Buddha practiced in, both before and after his Awakening. His religious community was not part of the Brahmin tradition, but a conscious rejection of its religious conservatism and social rigidity.

Of course now we might lump the shramana and brahmin traditions together under the heading “Hinduism,” but at the time of the Buddha that would have seemed absurd. It would like considering Islam and Christianity to be one religion. The term “Hindu” didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha, and the word wasn’t created until the 19th century. There were many religious traditions being practiced at the time of the Buddha, and they certainly were not unified into anything that could be called Hinduism. There isn’t a term in the Pali canon that corresponds to the word “Hindu.”

As Dr. Berzin notes, there’s no evidence that there was a concept of caste in the Sakyan territory (caste was an important aspect of Brahminical practice) and the Buddha seemed to regard the four-fold caste system of Brahminism as a foreign affair. The Sakyans regarded their warrior caste as being socially superior to the Brahmin caste, while in other parts of the continent the Brahmins had the top spot.

The appellation “prince” is arguable, depending on how you understand that word. Here’s Vishvapani in his Gautama Buddha (Quercus, 2011):

So far as we can tell, Gautama’s father Suddhodana, was a Shakyan aristocrat, and some sources call him a ‘raja’. But despite the version of Gautama’s life made familiar in legendary accounts, this doesn’t mean that he was a king (they were called ‘Maharajas’). It is possible that he was just one aristocrat among many, but according to some sources, Suddhodana was the Shakyans’ chief raja. We know from descriptions of other gana communities that chieftains were elected in a meeting of representatives of aristocratic families at the assembly hall…”

Excavations of the likely candidates for the Buddha’s home town don’t reveal any palaces, and in fact the term the Buddha uses when he does describe his father’s houses as “palaces” is not the same as the term used for the dwelling of a “king” (maharaja). Probably the term “mansion” would be more appropriate. So Suddhodana was more like a “tribal chief” than what we would think of as a king, and Gautama a “chief’s son” rather than a “prince.” The largest houses that have been excavated are of wooden construction, with people living above the animals’ accommodation. The archaeological evidence, in other words, doesn’t point to anything very royal.

The account of the young Gautama slipping into first jhana under the Rose-Apple tree while his father plowed a field was quite possibly nothing to do with the “ritual ground-breaking” of a king, but Suddhodana simply doing a bit of work on his farm.

Trevor Ling in “The Buddha” suggests that the Buddha’s father may have been the elected head of an aristocratic ruling class. We know that the Sakyan territory was governed by a council of some sort. And while Suddhodana may have been the head of this council (although he also may not), he certainly wouldn’t have had kingly powers.

Here’s Richard Gombrich, one of the world’s leading Buddhist scholars, on the Sakyan Republic:

The Buddha came from a community called (in Sanskrit) Shakyas; hence his commonest Sanskrit title, Shakyamuni, ‘the Sage of the Shakyas’. This fact is of great historical importance, because according to the Buddha (or, strictly speaking, according to words attributed to him in the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta) he modelled the organization of his Sangha on that of such communities as his own. Historians usually call these communities ‘tribes’, but I am wary of that term, which corresponds to no word in Sanskrit or Pali. ‘Tribe’ evokes an isolated community with no socially structured inequality. The Shakyas seem not to have had a varna [caste] system but they did have servants. They were isolated to the extent that they were self-governing, and their polity was of a form not envisaged in brahminical theory. We deduce that the heads of households – maybe only those above a certain age or otherwise of a certain standing – met in council to discuss their problems and tried to reach unanimous decisions. Some historians call this an oligarchy, some a republic; certainly it was not a brahminical monarchy, and makes more than dubious the later story [emphasis added] that the future Buddha’s father was the local king. This polity presented the Buddha with a model of how a casteless society could function. In the Sangha he instituted no principle of rank but seniority, counted in that case from ordination; maybe age was the ranking principle in the Shakya council.

(From Theravada Buddhism, page 49–50)

The word “prince” — without reference to all the above — is highly misleading. And to call the Buddha a “Hindu prince” is doubly misleading.

There were kings (maharajas) on the Indian subcontinent at that time. In fact they were expanding their power and territory. Not only were the monarchies competing with each other, but they were busy mopping up the last of the northern republics, of which the Sakyan clan was one. Those kings had real royal powers, lived in palaces, and had large armies. The smaller-scale tribal republics didn’t stand a chance. The monarchies came to dominate, and shortly after the time of the Buddha the republics passed away, and the republican form of government became unthinkable. Quite possibly people couldn’t think of any other way of society being organized, since they’d never known anything different, and when they heard of the Buddha’s father being a “raja” they imagined him to have been something like the “maharajas” they were familiar with.

Of course later tradition also builds the Buddha into a king, because that sounds more impressive. We all want to build up our heroes.

14 thoughts on “The Buddha was not a “Hindu prince””

  1. Genuine question of curiosity – every traditional biography I’ve read of Siddhartha Gautama, including ones from the Pali canon, insist that he was a Kshatriya. Obviously this could be a projection of the varna system onto his life (and what each of the varnas means has changed radically throughout the history of India), but my question is what primary sources do we have from which we can learn anything about what the Buddha’s era was “really like,” and therefore question the authority of these biographies in saying that the Shakyas had *some* version of the varnas? As I said, genuinely curious, because I always love to educate myself further.

    1. I think you’re right, MCB. According to the Pali canon, MCB, the Sakyans identified as “khattiyas” or warriors, and there’s a temptation to try to fit that into the four varna system. But the fact that they saw themselves as warriors doesn’t mean that they saw themselves as part of the Brahminically ordained social hierarchy. As far as sources go, there’s the Pali canon itself, which contains bits and pieces about the Sakyan’s social system and that of other republics. You’re probably best checking out Vishvapani and Gombrich to see what their sources were.

  2. Hindu is a modern name or a collective identity given to various sects of people who live in the geography of india,

    Hindu-ism is a modern term or an umbrella term given, which includes a very larger spectrum of non history-centric cultural practices, literature, spiritual texts, which roots to or the fundamental metaphysics rooted into the foundation of Sanathana Dharma (eternal dharma).

    All the peoples/sects in india having Dharma as their founding stone are referred to as hindus. calling it simply a way of life will be a reductionist approach.

    Coming to the point here, i want to refute your claims point by point and disprove them.

    //They didn’t appear to have a name for their religion//
    Never, there existed a need for a collective identity because of the absence of the rivalries and, each and every sect was radically immersed into dharmic foundation and philosophy. No philosophy with negating world view existed those times.
    IF seen through Western lens or abrahamic lens, YES there existed no unified religion of hinduism. But if looked from Dharmic persective there was no need for a collective religious identity, since every single sect was nothing but the manifestation of Dharma.

    //the Sakyan territory doesn’t seem to have been dominated by Brahminism//
    the sakyan community itself belongs to the Vedic/Dharmic tradition.

    //Buddha did not regard himself as being part of the Brahminical tradition//
    it is not necessary to follow Brahminism, in order to fall into the intellectual realm of hinduism. In-fact Author of Mahabaratha the great Veda Vyasa was not a Brahmin by birth.

    //They taught meditation rather than practicing the ritual-based practices of the Brahmins//
    Ritual-based is in itself a meditational practice similarly goes the oral recitation of vedas by brahmins, where the ultimate aim is to improve the concentration span by concentrating on single thing and ultimate goal is to attain moksha (liberation).

    //They would have considered themselves to be “shramanas,” or radical, forest-based religious seekers, rather than “brahmanas,” who were of course home-dwelling//
    There are people both brahmins/non-brahmins who transcend from the caste boundaries and transform into Rishi’s and Muni’s. All of them were forest based spiritual people. They believe in Renunciation as the best way to attain moksha. Forest-Based spiritual practices were not new to hinduism, where hundreds of Rishis were forest-based tapasya/tapas practitioners, where the tapas will be performed in forest to attain moksha.
    “By Truth can this Self be grasped, by Tapas, by Right Knowledge, and by a perpetually chaste life.” -Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.5-6, Adarva veda. written way back before buddha’s birth.

    //Of course now we might lump the shramana and brahmin traditions together under the heading “Hinduism,” but at the time of the Buddha that would have seemed absurd. It would like considering Islam and Christianity to be one religion.//
    This is fundamentally wrong comparison because Islam and Christianity suffers doctrinal conflict, because islam is an Exclusivist religion so is christianity.
    But in contrast all the Dharmic religions including Hinduism buddhism jainism and sikhism are not-exclusivistic religions rather Pluralistic in nature.
    And as i already explained, there was no unifying name as hinduism existed, but the very foundation of Dharma was shared in common among all the sects.

    //The Sakyans regarded their warrior caste as being socially superior to the Brahmin caste, while in other parts of the continent the Brahmins had the top spot//
    According to BhavadGita Hinduism comprises of Brahmna (intellectual), Sudhra(labour), Kshatriya(warrior) and Vaishya(business), where these classes are based on one’s skill set and not birth-based. Sakyans belong to Kshatriya class which is nothing but the warrior class. where Kshatriyas are more superior than brahmins politically because they are the stake holders of polity and defence of the country.

    And the important thing to note is the language of Sanskrit, which holds the authority of vedas shared in common with the era pre-buddhism and post-buddhism.
    I will list the philosophy shared across all these sects in ancient india.
    Ahimsa
    Dharma
    Karma (re-incaration implicit)
    Moksha

    And all these facts are sufficient enough to prove buddha’s hindu identity.

    1. I don’t have the time to address this in detail, Harish. I’ll just make one point, which is that I think you’re being reductionist. All religious traditions, anywhere in the world, claim to be about living by the truth (Dharma). So I guess that makes everyone Hindu? No, it just means that inquiring about the truth, os seeking the truth, or making claims about the truth, or saying how to live in accord with the truth, is what religion and philosophy is about.

      The Buddha was interested in the truth (Dharma). Brahmins were interested in the truth. The various kinds of samanas were interested in the truth. Materialists were interested in the truth. That doesn’t mean they all saw themselves as being part of the same religious tradition. Basically the whole thrust of your argument rests on this reductionist sleight-of-hand.

    1. Hi, Karma.

      No, “Buddha” is a title, meaning “awakened one.” His family name was Gautama. Later it was said that his personal name was “Siddhartha,” but we don’t know if that was actually the case. There’s no mention of a personal name in the early scriptures. He was born in Lumbini, in the Sakyan country (now Nepal). He became the Buddha in Bodh Gaya, and died in Kushinagar (modern Uttar Pradesh).

  3. I recently started reading “What Makes You Not a Buddhist,” by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, and though I am only up to page 7, the author has already made several references to the Buddha as a prince. I find it bizarre that a long-practicing Buddhist, and a lama at that, would perpetuate this misconception. Then again, since he’s a Tibetan Buddhist and not a Theravadan, maybe he’s merely repeating a doctrinal conviction that other Buddhists don’t share. Do you know anything about this, by chance?

    1. This doesn’t actually surprise me. As a Lama, he’ll be very familiar with the text he’s studied, which will be very traditional. But like most Buddhists, he probably won’t have much historical awareness of Buddhism, and so he’ll take his tradition at face value. I’ve come across Mahayana Buddhists, for example, who are adamant that the Buddha taught the Mahayana sutras, even though no historian could accept that to be the case.

  4. Hindus are interested in Buddha not because of his teachings but because to create a glorified image of Hinduism through perpetuation of relating Buddha to pantheons of Hindu Gods or traditions. In fact, Buddha was a strong critic of whole of So called Hinduism/Brahmanism. When Buddha outside of the Hindu fold cause trouble, Hindus devised a tricked adding him within the fold.

  5. A question: what is your best guess about Siddhartha’s level of familiarity with the Vedas and brahminical thought and practice, regardless of the fact that shramana practices prob. were more widespread in his area of origin?

    1. He spent a lot of time talking with Brahmins, and he has some wonderful lampoons of Brahminical beliefs. I’d say he was very familiar with those teachings indeed.

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