The Vasettha Sutra of the Sutta Nipata is one of the main discourses delivered by the Buddha on the subject of social differentiation and its adverse effects on human society in India during the sixth century B.C. From the beginning of the Aryan civilization social inequality appeared in the form of hereditary grouping with a strong religious basis denying the mobility of social classes, freedom of choice, human rights etc.
This social institution known as Varnadharma in terms of Hindu terminology was established at the beginning on the basis of division of labor. The Sanskrit compound, Varnadharma, is rendered as caste by sociologists. Caste is an endogamous group in which the membership is confined to those who are born of members of the group. General characteristics of a caste group are separation from other caste groups in the matters of connubial relations, contact, commensality, practice of religion etc.
During the course of time it became organized in a hierarchical form in which Brhmana priest was on the top of the society. The Ksatriya (the warrior) was ranked the second and the Vaisya (the merchant) was the third. The Sudra who was a non-Aryan was placed at the very bottom of the social ranking depriving of their basic human rights such as education, freedom, practice of religion, proper employment etc. Against this social background the teachings of the Vasettha Sutra were delivered by the Buddha.
As recorded in the Sutra, the Brahmana was the center of attention as he was on the top of the hierarchy. Two Brahmanas, Bharadvaja and Vasettha, maintained two different opinions regarding the factors that make one a Brahmana. Bharadvaja firmly held the view that one’s birth into a pure Brahmana family as the determining factor. Vasttha’s idea was that one’s behavior alone makes one a Brahmana. Both were unable to convince each other and decided to have a second opinion. Finally they considered the Buddha as the right person to consult on this subject. The Sutra was delivered to Bharadvaja and Vasettha. This unique discourse reflects the Buddha’s humanistic approach to the problem. The arguments in the Sutra are very close to biological principles as the Buddha explained the cases of different species of animals and plants in terms of their inborn characteristics (lingam jatimayam) and genus (jati). Buddhist position is that in terms of genus (jati) human beings are but one species and social inequality is not hereditary. One’s actions and behavior are the determining factors of inequality.