1. Theri – gatha
1.1. The role of women in the early Buddhism has been a fascinating subject for study. There are several dimensions to the issue , such as the position accorded to women in the religious and secular life of ancient India before and after the advent of the Buddha; the influence exerted by the personality of the Buddha and his teachings on the lives of individual women and their families; the role and the significance of the Bhikkhuni sanghas (the order of the Buddhist nuns) in the lives of the women and of the society at large; and , the phasing out and eventual disappearance of the Bhikkhuni order.
1.2. Perhaps the best way to begin is to read the life-events and stories of women who joined the Bhikkhuni sanghas; and also of the lay-women- disciples of the Buddha. The portions of the Pali Canon known as the Vinaya-pitaka (comprising the rules of conduct for monastic discipline) and the Sutta-pitaka (mainly a collection of discourses delivered by the Buddha and his disciples) contain a wealth of interesting information. The ardor and the liveliness of those early nuns have come down to us mainly through a set of verses grouped under the title Theri -gatha (the songs of the elder nuns), unique in any literature, composed by seventy-three elderly nuns towards the end of their lives.
Then there is the Bhikkhuni-samyutta, a part of the Samyutta-nikaya, which contains another collection of thirty-seven verses, mixed with prose, ascribed to ten of these Women-Elders (Theris).
And, there are short biographies, in verses (the Apadana) of forty-three nuns who were also the contemporaries of the Buddha. These are included in the Khuddaka Nikāya of the Sutta Piṭaka (Basket of Discourse) of the Pāli canon.
1.3. The Therigatha, the ninth book of the Khuddaka Nikaya (minor texts), consists of 73 poems- 522 stanzas in all – in which the early nuns (bhikkhunis) recount their struggles and accomplishments along the road to salvation.
These stories in verses are truly remarkable for their candor, eloquence and sensitivity. They reveal the deeply human side of those extraordinary women, who were not scarred by bitterness, disgust or hatred. Their stories, on the other hand , are marked by their compassion and an honest attempt to understand life , even while placed in its very cauldron. Apart from narrating their individual experiences, they throw light on the condition of the women in the Buddha–period. They are also of great interest because they depict the family and social life; practices and values of those times.
1.4. The Theri-gatha consists some of the best known names in early Buddhism. They include Prajapati Gotami, the foster mother of the Buddha and who was also the first Bhikkhuni; then there was Uppalavanna and Khema, regarded as “foremost of the Bhikkhunis”. Kisagotami and Patacara, too figure in the best known stories of early Buddhism.
Then taking a lamp, I entered the hut, checked the bedding, sat down on the bed. And taking a pin, I pulled out the wick: Like the flame’s unbinding was the liberation of awareness –Patachara (Thig 112-116)
Pulling out- completely out – the arrow so hard to see, embedded in my heart, he expelled from me – overcome with grief – the grief over my son. Today- with arrow removed, without hunger, entirely Unbound- to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha I go, for refuge to the Sage. Patachara (Thig 127-132 )
1.5. The members of the order came from all walks of life attracted by the simple beauty of the Buddha’s teaching and the freedom which the new Order offered. Some were former courtesans like Ambapali and Vimala; and there were those that came from royal lineage like Sumeda and Sela. A large number came from merchant families like Bhadda Kundalkesa, Sujata, and Anopama. There were also some distinguished exponents of the Dhamma like Dhammadinna . Many others were of humbler origins like Punnika the slave girl, or Chanda the daughter of a poor Brahmin. Apart from these Theris and Arahants there were many women who cherished the Buddha’s teaching. They were the upasikas and savikas, students and attendants of the Buddha and the Sangha. Their names too are recorded in Buddhist legends and their piety is well known. The actual numbers of Theris and other women of the Sangha are not clearly known. But, their numbers must have been quite considerable. It is said ; Theri Patacara alone had as many as 500 followers.
1.6. These nuns and the lay-devotees, as Ms. Isaline Horner remarks :
“by their response to the majesty of the Buddha’s Teaching, made an imponderable contribution to the strength, vitality, expansion, and longevity of the Buddhism. It is as well to survey again from time to time the lives of these ardent contemporaries of the Buddha. Indeed the Buddhist world owes them a large debt of gratitude”.
1.7. In the subsequent posts, I propose to narrate some stories that not merely make an interesting reading but also throw up a few lively issues for debate. Before we go the first story in the series, let’s, briefly, talk about some of the general issues relating to treatment of women; their position in the Sangha and in the then society.
2. Women in the pre-Buddha period
2.1. While discussing the position of women during the pre-Buddha period there appears to be a tendency among some to over-estimate the amount of ignominy, of obedience and subservience to men; and their exclusion from certain worldly occupations or religious education or observances. Much of those accusations are unfounded. For instance, I came across writing which said: ” It (Buddhism) put an end to child marriage, dowry and sati. Women were free from bondage and an era of equality was created”. But the fact is that the practices such as sati and child-marriage cropped up, like weeds, in the Indian society about 1,500 years after the Buddha; and the women were never in bondage during the pre-Buddha period. As regards the equality or the equal status accorded to women, sadly, that ideal state was not fully realized either during or after the life of the Buddha.
2.2. We have to be on our guard against such statements. Women have always been central to life in the Indian society. Even during the pre-Buddha period, the women were never debarred from education or from taking part in philosophical debates. In fact, women’s participation in academia was one of the positive features of those times.
2.3. Stephanie Jamison in her book Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India (1996), while outlining the position of women in ancient India, writes:
“she plays a crucial role in knitting together her community. By producing sons, she insures the linkage of generations and the continued veneration of the ancestors. By dispensing food and hospitality, she forges harmonious links between different segments of secular Aryan society. By her role in the srauta ritual (and by making such ritual possible), she links gods and men and allows the religious life of the community to proceed” (p. 254).
2.4. That might read a bit too rosy; but the point is that the woman functioned as a central figure in the rituals, hospitality and family life. She was respected and had a place of honor in the home. The Vedic rituals were centered on the home; and the lady of the house was in charge. The difficulties the women of that era had to face and overcome were no more than normal for women in any time or country. As regards religion, women have always been the main stay or upholders and supporters of a religion or faith or movement. That certainly was the case with Buddhism too when it was at its beginnings.
3. The Sangha
3.1. The Sangha commonly meant the society of ordained monks or nuns who formally undertook to follow the rules of conduct prescribed by the Vinaya*; but in its larger sense it encompassed all those who “entered the stream”, be they monk or lay. The Sangha which came into being a few months after Samana Gotama emerged as the Enlightened One, the Buddha, was not a religious organization in its initial stages; but; it was a movement that brought together those who keenly sought freedom from all ills, present and future. It was a unique establishment, in a number of ways.
Until then, the ascetics were individual wanderers not belonging to an organized group; and, the Sangha was the first instance of a body of men, not discharging a priestly function, accepting a common code of conduct and discipline for seeking a way of release. Yet, the Sangha was not a social group the objectives of which could be achieved by team effort .The teaching of the Buddha was essentially for the individual; and each seeker had to be guided his own experience and work out his own salvation.
[* Unlike in other religions, where a Prophet or a leader handed-down a set of commandments, in Buddhism the code of conduct (Vinaya) was evolved over a period of time as a response to needs and challenges faced by the monks/nuns and the lay of those times. How the rules of conduct were evolved have been chronicled. Because of that, the origin and the rationale of the Buddhist practices could be explained to learners.]
3.2. The Buddha’s offer to mankind was the possibility of leading a more sensible life. And, that life was characterized by essential freedom; freedom implied the rejection of all barriers; and, affection and attachment verily are the strongest barriers. The aim was to surpass all limitations.
For the Buddha, life was more important than intellect. Freedom from attachments was superior to all dogmas and discussions. His approach to life was practical and emphasized on the quality of life. And, above all he preached, as only he could, by precept as by example.
3.3. With the advent of the Buddha and his message, the traditional structure and functions of the society underwent some modifications. The relations between the individual and the family; the individual and the society were re-aligned. As the new-teaching spread to distant areas rapidly gaining increased number of followers, it brought in its wake perceptible social changes. The men, women and the society were each, in some way or other, touched by that change.
4. The Women
4.1. The extension of the monastic Order to women was truly revolutionary; it had no precedent. The Buddha acceded to its formation, rather reluctantly . His foster mother Prajapathi Gothami pressed for it persistently and made it difficult for the Buddha to refuse her demand.
Prajapathi Gothami was the first to be ordained as a Bikkhuni of the Sangha. She was followed by many other women who shared her aspiration and who too opted for spiritual endeavor as a positive vocation. They perhaps found in the Bhikkhuni order a freedom that they could not find in the secular life.
I‘ve been mother and son before; And father, brother – grandmother too. Not understanding what was real, I flowed-on without finding peace.
But now I’ve seen the Blessed One! This is my last compounded form. The on-flowing of birth has expired. There’s no more re-becoming now.
Surely for the good of so many Did Maya give birth to Gotama, Who bursts asunder the mass of pain Of those stricken by sickness and death – Prajapathi Gothami (Thig 157-162)
4.2. The Buddha’s message emphasized freedom from sorrow: “As this great ocean has but one taste, that of salt, so has this Dhamma but one taste, that of freedom”. That and the secure ambiance the Sangha provided for the Bikkhunis , brought about astounding changes in the attitudes of a large number of women. It also modified their perceptions of life and their position within that.
4.3. Life under the Vinaya was one of both active and contemplative discipline. The emancipation won implied ‘space’– aksha or avakasha – opportunity for developing, regulating, and concentrating both thought and deed. Under its regime a Bhikkhuni came under the tutelage of some Theri. She led a simple life, and discharged the ministering duties of a novice. And by prescribed exercises and daily lessons she worked out for herself, her own salvation, qualifying to become a teacher and leader in her turn.
She need not had to forget what she had left behind and escaped from. She need not had to turn and mark those past struggles; but, as her insight grew she learnt to put the past experiences in a context and understand the working of the law of Kamma (karma), the conservation of the effect of action. The vision might have its terrors, but it was all part of her process towards an end — an end which meant: peace whose names are also Rapture, Power, Clear sight and Love: for these are parts of Peace.
Thus, her perception of life too changed. The life jivita was not viewed as an interval between two extremities, but as a continuum propelled by causes and effects (karma) spread over several jivitas. The misery can be put to an end when that cycle ceases forever. Thus, one could always look forward with hope.
4.4. What the Sangha did, in effect, was that it provided the women an opportunity, a vision, and the freedom to pursue a way of life that promised to lead them away from the angst and sorrows of their existence; and even direct them towards the peace and bliss of nibbana, the ultimate freedom.
Even in case one discounts its spiritual objectives and aspirations, the Sangha did act as a useful and an effective safety-net in the society. I wish the institution of Sangha continued to this day, in one form or other.
4.5. That vision soon became the aspiration of even the unmarried women who might otherwise have continued living an unabused, contented and adequately busy life caring for their parents, younger brothers and sisters. The Sangha showed such women an escape from crushing sorrows, disappointments or ceaseless round of menial tasks. Subha the unwed daughter of the goldsmith said it all, as she entered the Order of Buddhist nuns “All worldly pleasures irk me sore, silver and gold lead neither to peace nor to enlightenment”.
4.6. A number of married women too discovered that they could go to the Order of Nuns if they found the nagging worries, the disappointments, the betrayals and the pain of domestic life were mounting on them; and the life in those conditions was becoming unbearable. Suffering in lonely silence and enduring pain without a hope, they found, was no longer their inevitable lot in life.
4.7. In the stories narrated by the Theris , you will come across many who left behind a home and husband and went into the world searching for freedom and a meaning to life. There are also cases where the woman was turned out of her house by her husband who took on another wife. It is said that a woman endowed with five virtues: beauty , wealth, relations (from her parents’ side), a son, and chaste conduct (shila) could dwell with confidence as the lady of the house, get the better of her husband and keep him under her thumb (S iv 246). But, if she lacked those virtues, she ran the risk of being driven out of her house (S iv 248). The instances where the husband deserted his wife or threw her out of the house were not rare. On the expulsion of the wife, the husband then usually took another wife.
[There was perhaps no formal process put in place for decreeing a divorce. The separated couples just parted their ways, each seeking his/her happiness elsewhere. Yet, the matters like inheritance of property, etc. were regulated by social processes, and the individuals were free to sort out the arrangements; and the wives were usually allowed considerable liberty.]
4.8. The woman too could likewise leave her husband and remarry; and no stigma was attached to her. In most cases parents took initiative to find a new husband for such a daughter . There is the strange case of Isidasi who married four husbands one after another; and for some reason not one of her husbands could live with her happily, though she was endowed with virtues and she did everything she could to keep each of them happy.
4.9. However, the woman who remarried had to contend with another irksome problem: the co-wife, one who might already be installed in her new husband’s house. The hapless Isidasi had such an unenviable experience in her fourth marriage. Both the wives suffered.
…Another wife he had,
A virtuous dame of parts and repute,
Enamored of her mate,
And thus I brought
Discard and enmity within that house. (Thig.446 )
Kisagotami too had to endure such sorrow:
Woeful is woman’s lot, hath he declared,
Woeful when sharing home with hostile wives,
Woeful when giving birth in bitter pain,
Some seeking death or a breach – birth they suffer twice,
Piercing the throat, the delicate poison take (Thig.216-7)
The rejection and disparagement of wives; the domestic drudgery finds a pithy expression in the verse of the nun Mutta:
O free indeed, O gloriously free
Am I in freedom from three crooked things..!
From quern, from mortar and my crooked lord.
Then she rejoiced, saying
Free am I from birth and dying.
Becomings’s cord removed.
That which leads to renewed existence
Has been rooted out. (Thig.11)
4.10. But the risk of marriage had to be run, and it was still the most normal career open to a young woman. It was said: “A woman’s goal is a man, her ambition is for adornment, her resolve is for a child, her desire is to be without a rival, and her fulfillment is authority” (A iii 363).
4.11. There were, of course, many women who longed to be free but repressed their longing to ‘go forth,’ for many years, until the duties that kept them at home were resolved. To these women, the late-won liberty came as retreat of peace. A poem is attributed to the Master himself welcoming a tired old woman:
Happily rest, thou venerable dame..!
Rest thee, wrapt in the robe thyself hast made.
Stilled are the passions that have raged within.
Cool art thou now, knowing Nibbana’s peace. (Saŋyutta Nikaya, i. 68-70)
4.12. A certain Theri commonly known as Sumangala’s mother entered the Sangha, late in her life. One day while she was reflecting on her past, she was overwhelmed by the sufferings she endured in life, and was much affected. It is said; that insight quickened her understanding of the form and the meaning of Dhamma.
O woman well set free..! How free am I,
How thoroughly free from kitchen drudgery!
I stained and squalid among my cooking-pots
My brutal husband ranked as even less
Than the sunshades he sits and weaves always.
Purged now of all my former lust and hate,
I dwell, musing at ease beneath the shade
Of spreading boughs–O, but ’tis well with me..! (Thgi 23 , 24 )
4.13. Not all couples figuring in the Theri-gatha had a miserable married life. The Pali canon mentions a number of devoted couples, such as Queen Mallika and King Pasenadi; Nakulamata and Nakulapita; and, Dhammadinna and Visakha. The wife here is described as the “comrade supreme” (S i 37).
Nakulamata and Nakulapita were considered by the Buddha to be the most eminent among his lay-disciples for their close companionship and mutual regard (A i 26).There is a poignant verse of how Nakulamata comforted her husband when he was dangerously ill and was worrying about the future of his wife and children should he die. “Do not fret,” She said, “I am deft at spinning cotton and carding wool and so would be able, were you to die, to support the children and run the household. Nor would I go to another man. Even greater than when you were alive would be my desire to see the Bhagavan and the Order of monks. As long as the Bhagavan has female disciples, clad in white, I shall be one of them, fulfilling the precepts of ethical behavior, and gaining inward tranquillity of mind. I shall live confident, without doubt or questioning, following the Teacher’s instruction. So do not die, householder, while you are fretting, for so to die is anguish” (A iii 295ff).
4.14. The Buddha too dealt with worldly aspects of living and happy married life. In the Sigalovada Sutta , he talked about the duties of husband and wife towards one another. A lot of what he said is eminently sensible.
Husbands should respect their wives; and comply as far as possible with their requests. They should not commit adultery. They should give their wives full charge of the home; and supply them with fine clothes and jewelry as far as their means permit. Wives should be thorough in their duties, gentle and kind to the whole household, chaste, and careful in housekeeping, and should carry out their work with skill and enthusiasm.
He asked one to consider the other as the best friend. He emphasized the principle of reciprocity; just as the wife had to perform her duties towards the husband, so should the husband perform his duties. He asked man and wife not to compete with one another , but to pull together just as a pair of horses pulls a chariot. The Sigalovada Sutta presupposes a monogamous system, but the Buddha preferred not to be assertive on it.
4.15. One of the verses in Theri-gatha describes how an understanding couple could bring prosperity to their family:
“All families that have attained great possessions have done so for one or other of the following reasons: they search for what is lost; repair what is dilapidated; eat and drink in moderation; and place in authority, a virtuous woman or man” (A ii 249; AN 4.255).
4.16. There were a few instances where the couple in a happy marriage, both decided to go forth into homelessness. Theri-gatha (Thag 1051ff ) lovingly describes how Bhadda Kapalini and her husband Kassapa helped one another to put on the yellow robes of a recluse, to shave off the hair and sling the begging-bowl from their shoulders.Then they set out together, but only to part quite soon lest people should say that even in their new state they could not do without one another.
4.17. Another was the case of Dhammadinna though happily married to Visakha, a rich merchant of Rajagaha; she sought his consent to go forth into homelessness because she felt her spiritual hunger was stronger than the earthly ties.Visakha at once sent her to the Bhikkuni Sangha in a golden palanquin , although he had no desire to enter the Sangha and become a monk. In due course, Dhammadinna gained fame as an eminent preacher; and the Buddha considered her as the foremost among the nuns who could preach. Interestingly, years later Visakha, as a lay devotee, sat at the feet of Theri Dhammadinna to receive a discourse from her [Culavedalla Sutta (MN 44)].
4.18. There were a few former courtesans like Ambapali and Vimala, among the order of Bhikkhunis. They too found peace and fulfilment.
Today, wrapped in a double cloak, my head shaven, having wandered for alms, I sit at the foot of a tree and attain the state of no-thought. All ties – human and divine – have been cut. Having cast off all effluents, cooled am I, unbound.- Said Vimala (Thig 76 )
The Buddha’s attitude towards the courtesans was rather interesting. He never rebuked or looked down upon them. Instead, he tried to help them by reminding them of the impermanence of all conditioned things, including their physical beauty and attraction. The Order of Nuns was as open to them as it was to any other women who qualified for the ordination.
4.19. Daughters born to courtesans or former courtesans do not appear to have been regarded as a disaster. There is a mention of two such daughters who followed the same calling as their mothers for some time and later became nuns (Thig 39; SnA 244).
4.20 . The courtesan Ambapali who gained fame as one of the most loyal and generous supporters of Buddhist monks and another lady known as Abhaya’s mother each had a son who became a monk. When this latter lady heard her son preach, she left the world and entered the Buddhist Order of nuns.
5. The Men
5.1. The establishment of the Sangha impacted the lives of men too. In those days , it was not unusual for the elderly to retreat into the forest after fulfilling their duties, leaving the household under the care of the wife. The women of that era must have ordinarily been prepared for such an eventuality. But, with the coming of Buddhism and the Sangha, the men were no longer under obligation to wait till the age of “retirement”. A boy of fifteen could leave his home and go into monastic homelessness as a novice; and he could be fully ordained while he was in his twenties. The boy was required to obtain the consent of his parents before he was ordained. In most cases the consent was extracted from reluctant parents.
5.2. In a way of speaking, the establishment of the Order of monks might be regarded as a new threat to the happiness of women. For now, there was nothing to stop their sons and husbands from taking up the “religious life” while they were still quite young.
5.3. Capa, the daughter of a trapper, was about to lose her husband Upaka to the Sangha. She hoped that her new born son would save her from desertion by her husband . But; neither Cupa’s five-virtues nor her pleading could stop Upaka from leaving his home. She cried out in anguish:
And this child blossom, O my husband, see
Thy gift to me—now surely thou wilt not
Forsake her who hath borne a son to thee? (Thig.300)
Some of the women placed in similar circumstances sought consolation ,saying:
” So great a mystery is the little life, both as to its coming and its going, that it never was yours–your property–to have or to mourn over. The great laws of the universe are not worked by you. Be quiet...”.
“ No trouble hath overtaken you, save such as hath already overtaken you many and many a time in the infinite number of your past spans of life. Why, then, fall ever back on these hapless tears that never have availed aught? ” (Thgi 37 Ubbri)
5.4. Then, there were the uncomfortable questions of funeral obsequies and the periodic rites of the ancestors (Shraddha ceremonies) that had to be performed by the son. Only a son could perform those rituals which were believed to be essential for bestowing peace and serenity on the pitris, the departed ancestors.
But, in the changed context, the aged parents had to learn to cope with the reminder of their life without sons at home. And, they could no longer hope to be looked after by their son either.
Added to that, the old folks often had to take care of their grand children, left behind by their parents who went into the Sangha. Because, in many cases, when the husband left home for the Sangha, the wife emulated him and she too became a Bhikkhuni.
6. The Society
6.1. The message of the Buddha was essentially addressed to the individual in his quest for freedom. The Buddha did not set out to be a social reformer . He was a preacher who guided to “the road leading to the suppression of sorrow.”
6.2. The Pali texts hint that in the early years of his ministry the Buddha had been accused of being a snatcher of sons, a breaker of homes, one who turned wives into widows and rendered the mothers childless (pubbajatha).The allusion was to his call for “ home-leaving”. His early followers indeed were social run-aways; they wandered about without a care or dwelt in forests learning “to bend their minds towards emancipation”. They were, in the Master’s own words, like uprooted palm trees.
6.3. As the Buddha’s message and the Sangha captured the imagination of the populace more young and able bodied persons left their homes and lands. The trade and agriculture, in particular, and the economy in general did suffer. As the number of monks increased, more monasteries had to be built and more number of monks had to be provided with food, clothing and health care. Over a period, the living conditions and the health care arrangements in the Sangha improved considerably. A stage was reached when the poor and the feeble found that it made more sense to live in the Sangha than try hard to eke out a meager living. Many poor people, afflicted with disease and unable to pay for treatment, joined the Order in order to avail free medical facilities.
6.4. The Buddha in consultation with his physician Jivaka had to put in place a sort of screening process to keep out the non-genuine entrants to the Sangha, as he thought the Sangha was being misused. As a result, it was decided that men afflicted with certain diseases be refused entry into the Order. The diseases prevalent in Magadha of those times included: leprosy, boils, dry leprosy, consumption, and fits (Vin.i.71ff). Later, cripples and homosexual were also kept out of the Order. (Vinaya, Vol. 4, pp. 141-142).
[ As regards the life of monks/Nuns in a Buddhist community , during the later times, Prof A L Basham writes (The Wonder That Was India)
While the Buddhist monk resembled his Christian counterpart in his vows of chastity and poverty, he took no vow of obedience. Each novice or junior monk had his preceptor, and was expected to treat him with great respect, but the monk was essentially a free member of a community of free men. There was no central authority to regulate the many monasteries and enforce uniformity; each was a law unto itself, guided only by the precepts of the Master as it had received them, and as it interpreted them. The constitution of the monastery had elements of democracy about it. The chief monk, or abbot, was not appointed from above or nominated by his predecessor, but held office by the suffrage of all the monks in the monastic parish. The day-to-day business of the monastery was managed by a committee of elder monks, and important decisions, such a9 the admission or expulsion of members, could only be made by the committee and not by the chief. Important business was discussed at meetings of the whole monastery in chapter.
The daily life of the monk was chiefly spent in study and religious exercises, but he was expected to take his share in the work of the monastery, cleaning his cell, and sweeping the courtyard and the monastic buildings, while the elder monks devoted much of their time to teaching the novices. Among the most important of the monk’s spiritual exercises were the Four Sublime Moods (Brahma-vihara), in which, sitting quietly cross-legged, he endeavored to fill his mind with the four cardinal virtues of Buddhism—love, pity, joy, and serenity—and to consider all living beings in the light of these virtues. A fifth mood was that of impurity, in which he considered all the vileness and horror of the world and of the life of the flesh. For those more advanced in sanctity there were more advanced meditations, which brought the monk very near to the realization of Nirvana.
He was taught to train himself to be continually aware of what he was doing, observing himself, as it were, all the time. Every act must be fully conscious, and distraction, carelessness, and lack of consideration were serious faults. When he ate, the monk should be aware of the nature of the act, its purpose, and the transience of the body which he fed, and similarly with every act throughout the day. No doubt few but the most advanced monks were able to keep up this state of “Right Recollection” continuously.]
7. The question of gender equality
7.1. The attitude of the Buddha towards women was an enlightened one. His utterances on such issues as the girl child, the conduct of a newly married girl, setting up of the Order of Nuns etc have however to be viewed in the context of his times.
7.2. At the time the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the Order of Nuns, was established as demanded by Prajapati Gotamai, she had to agree to obey eight special rules (garudhamma) before she was ordained; and those rules were later incorporated into the Bhikkhuni Vinaya.
” If, Ananda, women had not received permission to go out from the household life and enter the homeless state, under the doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Tathagata, then would the pure religion, Ananda, have lasted long, the good law would have stood fast for a thousand years. But since, Ananda, women have now received that permission, the pure religion, Ananda, will not now last long, the good law will now stand fast for only five hundred years…”
The Buddha then goes on to illustrate his point by a series of similes. And he ends his statement saying:
“And just, Ananda, as a man would in anticipation build an embankment to a great reservoir, beyond which the water should not overpass ; just even so, Ananda, have I in anticipation laid down eight chief rules (atth-agaru-dhamma) for the bhikkhunis, their lifelong not to be overpassed” .(Cullavagga, X.l ,6. ).
However, some believe that this statement was attributed to the Buddha at a much later date
Sace, Ananda, nalabhissa matujamo Tathagaatappavedite, dhammavinage agarasma anagariyam pabbajja, ciratthitikam, Ananda, brahmacariyam abhavissa, vassasahassam saddhammo tittheyya. Yato ca kho Ananda, matugamo………. pabbajjito, na dani brahmacariyam cirtthilikam, Ananda, bhavissati. Pavceva dani, Ananda, vassasatani saddhammo, thassati. (CV, NE, p.377.)
Many fears and apprehensions of the Buddha sadly came true. The tenor of the rules indicates that the Bhikkhunis in general were placed next to the Bhikkhus (monks). It was explained that some of the rules were meant for the protection of the nuns, while a few others were merely a matter of protocol.
[ Prof. A L Basham writes : Though strict rules were laid down for preserving the respectability of the two branches of the Order- Monks and Nuns – which often dwelt in adjoining establishments, accusations of immorality were sometimes leveled against them by their religious opponents; and, these accusations may have had some foundation. During the much later period, the sexual activity of Tantric Buddhism, of course, did not constitute a breach of the vows, when performed in accordance with the rites of the sect.]
For instance, one rule prescribed that Bhikkhunis could not observe the annual retreat (vassa) in a district where there were no Bhikkhus; this was meant to ensure safety of nuns living in isolated areas. Another rule laid down “Bhikkhus were always to have precedence over Bhikkhunis in matters of salutation, etc. irrespective of any other consideration”; “Bhikkhus can officially admonish Bhikkhunis, but not the other way.” It is likely the senior nuns found the protocol rather irksome. [The Bhikkhuni Patimokkha contains 311 rules for conduct of the nuns.]
7.3. Women were important to the Order. They are mentioned in almost every Pali Canon; and even in the Thera-gatha the anthology of verses attributed to the elder monks (verse 1257). But, women and the discourses delivered to them are not central to the Canon. Those discourses are scattered through the Vinaya and Nikaya texts; and have to be picked and collated in order to gain a reliable picture of women’s position, particularly that of the lay-women, in the Order.
7.4. The sexes were not segregated in the Sangha, and though naturally nuns had their quarters apart from those of the monks. The nuns wore yellow robes and shaved their heads like the monks; and , their discipline was very similar . The nuns carried out their official acts, such as ordination, in conjunction with an Order of monks. The monks and nuns participated in debates; and nuns were respected for their learning and spiritual attainments. The nuns freely moved around the town seeking alms and dispensing Dhamma. “With shaven head, wrapped in their robe the Sister was free to come and go, to dive alone into the depths of the wood, or climb aloft. “
Another interesting feature was that, unlike in other religions, The Buddhist Order of Nuns did not place a premium on the state of virginity of the women entering the Sangha. A vast number of its inmates had been mothers and wives; and, a few had been courtesans. The Master himself was once a husband and father. This again was an assertion of the Buddha-faith that the road to enlightenment is not blocked by the state of the body and its condition.
7.5. But, the more important aspect was that, the women were not discriminated against in doctrinal matters. The Dhamma preached by the Buddha was addressed to one and all; and had no gender preferences. The Buddha’s path could be practiced by anyone, male or female. The travails of life and the difficulties in the pursuit of the path were regarded the same for men and women alike.
The female disciples of the Buddha who had grasped the true essence of the Dhamma were clear in their mind; and had realized that Dhamma was beyond all distinctions and free of the gender as well.
7.6. The Sanyutta Nikaya text contains an interesting repartee that takes place between Mara the tempter and the Theri Soma. Mara taunts Soma saying she is laboring hard but in vain, because no woman can reach “the high ground of the wise”. He said mockingly, a woman has only the “two-finger knowledge (dva-angula-panna)”, an allusion to cooking where the woman tests the consistency of the cooked rice by pressing it between her fingers. Soma shoots back, saying:
What can that signify to one in whom
Insight doth truly comprehend the Norm?
To one for whom the question doth arise:
Am I a woman in such matters, or
Am I a, man? or what not am I, then?–
To such an one is Mara fit to talk..!
Soma here is asserting the irrelevance of the “female condition” (itti-bhavo or Sthree bhava) in the spiritual path. She asks Mara to get lost.
With pleasures overcome everywhere
And the mass of ignorance torn away
Know this, 0 Defiled One,
Driven out art thou at last!
Thus in the samsaric sense there is no male or female, but only a single karmic stream.
7.7. The position of women in hierarchy of the Order could be seen as one relating to protocol rather than to spiritual progress. Assuming there was no Bhikkhuni order, there still was ample scope for women participation in Dhamma work. Even otherwise, the Buddha had not said that enlightenment could come only from formal adherence to a monastic order. Men and women either inside or outside the Order could attain enlightenment. The Buddha reiterated that position:
This is the only vehicle
Be it a woman or be it a man
The one who takes this vehicle
Can reach the peace of Nibbana (Sam.Nik., 1, 5, 6)
That was demonstrated by the Theri Bhadda Kapilan who associated herself in spiritual attainments with the learned Maha Kassapa who later succeeded the Master as the Head of the Sangha.
She too, Bhadda the Kapilan–thrice-wise
And victor over death and birth is she–
Bears to this end her last incarnate frame,
For she hath conquered Mara and his host.
We both have seen both he and I, the woe
And pity of the world, and have gone forth.
We both are Arahants with selves well tamed.
Cool are we both, ours is Nibbana now..! (Thgi 37:65, 66)
Theri Sundari went even further and related herself to the Master: “Thou art Buddha..! Thou art Master..! And thine. Thy daughter am I, Issue of thy mouth.”
7.8. It is said, the Buddha in his last days desired to see some modifications made to the Vinaya practices. Some scholars surmise those modifications most likely had to do with the position of women in the Order. That question is now purely academic since the Bikkhuni Sanghas have virtually disappeared in India and Sri Lanka. But the mere absence of the Bhikkhuni order does not in any manner affect a woman ardently seeking enlightenment.
8. At the end
As Isaline Horner said:
“in the Buddha’s time women were not despised and looked down on but, on the contrary, were respected and had a place of honor in the home. The difficulties they had to face and overcome were no more than normal for women in any time or country, even if their life was, at the worldly level, more restricted than it has come to be in the last decades as women go in more and more for public work and hold professional posts. At the higher, more spiritual level however, they had the great advantage and great joy of entering the Order of Nuns either because they wanted to get free of worldly sufferings or, more positively, and above everything else, because they wanted to find the way to the peace and bliss of Nibbana, all their former craving for sense-pleasures rooted out, tranquil and cool.
We live in a Buddha-era that is at a time when the Teachings of the Buddha are still remembered and are of significance. This alone would make it incumbent on us to put into practice his message of Peace, inner and outer, as faithfully as we can.”
9. With this as the backdrop, I would be posting, in the subsequent articles, the narrations or , call it , stories of a few women of that era, such as Isidasi, Bhadda Kundalakesa, Visakha , Mallika the Queen , Patachara and a few others, if possible .At the end of each story, I would like to put down a few issues emerging out of it.
In the next article let’s read the story of the much married Isidasi.
Abbreviations: A, AN = Anguttara Nikaya; D, DN = Digha Nikaya; Ja = Jataka; M, MN = Majjhima Nikaya; MA = Majjhima Atthakatha (commentary to the Majjhima Nikaya); S, SN = Samyutta Nikaya; Thag = Theragatha; Thig = Therigatha.
The story of much married Isidasi
References and sources
Buddhist women by Dr. Bimala Churn Law
Buddhist Women at the Time of the Buddha by Hellmuth Hecker
Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India.
By: Stephanie Jamison
The Place of Women in Buddhism by Swarna de Silva
Women in Early Buddhist Literature by I.B. Horner
Psalms of the early Buddhists- i.–psalms of the sisters by
Mrs. Rhys Davids,
The Bhikkhuni Patimokkha containing 311 rules for conduct of the nuns
Pictures are from Internet