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.