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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul 2015 - Jan 2016



Buddhism and Women

Dr. Abhilasha

Associate Professor, Department of English and Foreign Languages, Indira Gandhi National Tribal University, Amarkantak

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in his speech to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia said that, “Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified. The belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman…or parents who decide to abort a female embryo.”
It is not only Mr. Carter who sees religion as one of the basic causes of the violation of women’s rights but there are other stalwarts like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who believe the same. Perhaps that is why Nelson Mandela established a small council of retired leaders called “The Elders” to address the role of religion in oppressing women. The motto of “The Elders” is to call upon religious leaders to change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions, for, they agree that religions can be manipulated to subjugate women. Religious leaders sanctified existing social structures, instead of moving ahead with the progress of civilization. But there is a glimmer of hope that reminds us that while religion is part of a problem it can also be part of the solution. The Dalai Lama has taken the step and calls himself a feminist. 
And an old priest said, Speak to us of Religion.
And he said:
Is not religion all deeds and all reflection…
Your daily life is your temple and your religion…
(Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet, 90-91. Jaico Publishing House, 2003.)
‘Now it is not thus, Ananda, …      the brother or the sister, the devout man or the devout woman, who continually fulfills all the greater and the lesser duties, who is correct in life, walking according to the precepts , it is he who rightly honours, reverences, venerates, holds sacred and reveres the Tathagata with the worthiest homage…’ ( Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Ch. 5, 6)
The term ‘religion’ is derived from the Latin word ‘religare’ means ‘to bind together’ and work together for the goodness of humankind.
Today, when the role of Women in Society is an issue of worldwide interest it is opportune that we should pause to look at it from a Buddhist perspective. In the recent past, a number of books have been written on the changing status of women in Hindu and Islamic societies, but with regard to women in Buddhism, ever since the distinguished Pali scholar, Miss I.B. Horner, wrote her book on Women under Primitive Buddhism, as far back as 1930, very little interest has been taken in the subject. (c.f. Dr. L.S.Devraja)
“Gautama Buddha was a product of the World-old Religion of the Vedas (the Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism proper), and the religion which he is supposed to have given to the world was not any new religion as it is sometimes wrongly maintained to be, but only a reformation of the extravagances and corruption which had crept into the existing system of the World-old Religion of that time”. (c.f. The Buddha Mimansa, ch. 1, 7).
At the dawn of India’s history, in the Rig Vedic Age, women in India enjoyed an exceptionally high status. They had complete equality in all respects. The birth of a daughter was no doubt not as welcome as the birth of a son, but there is no evidence to show that girls were exposed as unwanted babies. They received education like boys and went through the brahmacarya discipline; the Atharva-Veda observes how a bride had no chance of a good match, if she had not been educated as a brahmacarini. The custom of the upnayana of girls prevailed down to the sutra period, though it had then become a mere formality in the case of the majority. Women studied the Vedic literature like men. In one of the hymns of the Rig Veda, the marriage of Surya, the daughter of Sun, is described. It is a remarkable hymn and can be regarded as the earliest expression of human thought concerning marriage viewed as a sacrament and a willing union of two loving hearts. This hymn shows how at that time woman was not only her husband’s lifelong companion in weal and woe, but the mistress of his household and a real partner in all his activities, including religious sacrifices.
In the marriage hymn (RV 10.85.26), the wife "should address the assembly as a commander."
A Rig Veda hymn says:
Rig Veda, Book 10. HYMN CLIX. Saci Paulomi.
—I am the banner and the head, a mighty arbitress am I: I am victorious, and my Lord shall be submissive to my will. (http:/ 08033.htm. Retrived 11 May 2011)
The main Indian religion during the Buddha’s time was designated as “Brahmanism” and was distinguished as Hinduism as a post Buddhist development. The position of woman under Hinduism was well described in the Manusmriti which is a work of the Dharma Sastra literature of India. The “Laws of the Manu”(V, 147-8) Tr. By G. Buchler SBE. Vol.XIV, describes the duties of woman as follows:
“By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her father. In youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman never be independent.”
“No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by woman (apart from their husbands). If a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven” (Ch. V. 155) 
The social attitude towards women in pre-Buddhist days can be traced from the early Vedic literature, such as the Rigveda. There is evidence indicating the honor and respect which women received in their homes. In the realm of religion, too, they had access to the highest knowledge of the Absolute or Brahma. However, such a liberal attitude towards women changed with the course of time, under the influence and dominance of the priestly caste with their priestcrafts, animal sacrifices, and other ritualistic practices. New interpretations were given to the scriptures. Women came to be considered as greatly inferior to men - both physically and mentally.
It is against this background that one has to view the impact of Buddhism in the 5th century B.C. It is not suggested that the Buddha inaugurated a campaign for the liberation of Indian womanhood. But he did succeed in creating a minor stir against Brahman dogma and superstition. Though Buddha never condemned the caste structure dominated by the Brahman, he never believed in untouchability as well. He permitted his followers to take food from all givers irrespective of their castes. “Although he did not wish to abolish caste as a social institution still he disregarded the exclusiveness of the priests and addressed himself to all classes, and hence Buddhism was a reaction against Brahmanism…” ( c.f. Buddha Mimansa. Reed Elizabeth A. Reed Primitive Buddhism, 25). He condemned excessive ritualism and sacrifice. He denied the existence of a Godhead and emphasized emancipation by individual effort. “Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Hold as a refuge to the truth. Look not for refuge to anyone beside yourselves”. (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Ch. 2, 33). The basic doctrine of Buddhism, salvation by one's own effort, presupposes the spiritual equality of all beings, male and female and is against the exclusive supremacy of the male. It needed a man of considerable courage and a rebellious spirit to pronounce a way of life that placed woman on a level of near equality to man.
Once in a while even in this period we find thinkers who did not share these views about women’s status but they were exceptions. For instance, Varahamihira in Brihat Samhita says:
“Tell me the truth, what fault is there in women that is not committed by men? Men have traduced women as being impudent (or men have outdone women in impudence). They are indeed superior to men in respect of merit (Adh.LXXIV.SL.6).
“The moon gave them (women) purity (cleanliness); Gandharva, culture and sweet speech; the fire the capacity to eat all sorts of food. Hence women are llike pure gold”    [Adh.LXXIV.SL.7).
But it is to be noted that Manu Smriti was not written in Vedic period but rather after the breakdown of the Maurya and Sunga empires. Critics find contradictions in concept, especially when the scriptures try to state the position of women in society.
Certain verses of Manu Smriti (e.g. III-55, 56, 57, 59, 62) glorify the position of women, while other verses (e.g. IX-3, 17) seem to attack the position and freedom women have.
“A family where women remain unhappy due to misdeeds of their men is bound to be destroyed. And a family where women are always happy is bound to prosper forever” (III-57).
“A family where women feel insulted or discriminated against and curse their menfolk, is destroyed in same manner as poison kills all those who eat it” (III-58).
“Women give birth to next generation. They enlighten the home. They bring fortune and bliss. Hence women are synonymous to Prosperity” (IX-26).
“Women should be provided autonomy in managing the finance, hygiene, spiritual and religious activities, nutrition and overall management of home” (IX-11).
This shloka clearly puts at naught the false claim that women do not have right to conduct religious rituals of Vedas.
Certain interpretations of verses IX-18 claim that it discourages women from reading Vedic scriptures. But verse II-240, however, allows women to read Vedic scriptures. Similar contradictory phrases are encountered in relation to child marriage in verses IX-94 and IX-90.
It is also doubtful that the scriptures were written by a single person. Some scriptures in the Smriti are so contradictory that the founder of Arya Samaj, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, a noteworthy nineteenth-century campaigner for women’s rights, cites Manu’s laws hundreds of times in his writings. In his opinion, verses highly critical of women and the lower classes (sudras) are not Vedic at all but interpolations introduced later by the corrupted Brahminical classes. Another scholar, Dr. Surendra Kumar, claims that out of a total 2,685 verses in the current Manu Smriti, only1,214 are authentic or can be confirmed by the Vedas; the other 1,471 are purported to be interpolations.
The present paper is concerned with an attempt to find out the truth of the time of Buddha and his stand as far as woman is concerned.
Women in Buddhism
The Buddhist attitude to woman’s social role can be viewed in the context of Indian society of two and half millenniums ago. In any society where male plays the dominant role, the female is given a subordinate position. Victory in battle and heroic sons to fight enemies, were two of the aspirations of the ancient Indo-Aryans. By begetting sons only both of these wishes could be fulfilled. Because of this reason, in primitive societies female children were killed as soon as they were born. Although we do not know whether new born girls were killed in the Vedic age, we have a reference in the Taitteriya Samhita to the effect that the birth of a boy was celebrated joyously rather than a girl’s birth.
Whatever be the social position of woman in the early Vedic age, with the passage of time, noticeably, her social position has deteriorated due to the intrusion of Brahmanic influence.
The Buddha created a revolution of thought in all these matters. He did not at all seek to make limited laws or to prescribe codes of behavior, only suitable to one society. He looked deeper into the nature of man. He asked, “What is true nobility”? He asked, “What is true religious duty in society and in marriage?” He taught clearly that the virtue of a woman and the virtue of a man were not different in nobility and reward. Each member of a society has a part to play. The nobility of the part played is measured by the player’s avoiding harm to others; not stealing; not committing adultery; not lying; these ethical qualities are nobility. In his Three Pitakas (Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma) and Four Noble Truths of life he has explicated the timeless truths of creation.  
The Buddhist view of woman being quite contrary to the Hindu view of woman with its later developments, describes the role of woman in relation to man and society taking her position into account as a social being. Sociologically, her status as wife as well as mother and housewife, has been redefined by the Buddha, against the humiliating social condition ascribed to her by traditional Indian society. The Buddha’s approach is reformative, nevertheless, can be considered revolutionary in the context of the contemporary social setting.
Buddhism is not a religion which encourages war and violence. Therefore, there is no specific demand in Buddhism to have sons to fight enemies. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism does not advocate the religious rites of transferring merits to departed fathers only by sons. Buddhism does not uphold any kind of theory of creation as found in the Book of Genesis of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the effect that God having created man first in his own image, created woman as a secondary act of the process of creation. Unlike Judaism, Buddhism has no kind of prayer, rite or ritual to perform or to thank any divine agent or to one’s own providence for the act of being born a male, not being a female. A daily prayer expected to be sung by an Orthodox Jew is: “Blessed art thou, oh Lord our God, king of the Universe, that I was not born as a gentile. Blessed art thou, oh Lord our God, king of the Universe, that I was not born as a slave. Blessed art thou, oh Lord our God, king of the Universe, that I was not born as a woman” (Ian Robertson, 320-1).
In some cultures the supposed inferiority ascribed to woman was perpetrated as a divine plan. During the time of the Buddha, in India too, woman was considered inferior to man in several respects, but Buddhism rejecting this view has emphasized the fact that the intelligence quotient of a person does not depend upon divine intervention or biological factors such as cranium size or the brain structure. What we see is Buddhism, accepting in principle woman’s ability to attain the highest religious goal, opening the door of the dispensation to them. As recorded in the Cullavagga, the order of nuns was established on the equality of woman’s status for the realization of the highest ideal state (babbho ananda matugamo…pabbajitva sotapattiphalam va…arahattaphalam vasacchikatum). The ordination of women is not a sacrament in Buddhism. The Buddha did not reject the plea of Mahapajapati Gotami and later the request of Ananda outright. As it seems, He dissuaded them for practical reasons: of social environment, problems of accommodation, protection and the like. What is significant is that, after the humble submission of Ananda, the Buddha put her on par with man affirming her equal intellectual capacity and religious rights.
The widespread Indian belief of her comparative inferiority has been put into the mouth of Mara, where Mara is said to have expressed thus in front of Soma Theri: “It is not possible for a woman with her two-inch-deep wisdom to attain the highest, which is attain by the sages.” She retorts: “When the mind is well concentrated and wisdom is not failing in seeing the right, the fact of being a woman makes no difference”.
The Role of Woman as Wife
We cannot imagine a human society consisting only of men or only of women either. Presumably, a man becomes a husband and a woman becomes a wife in forming the family unit. What then are the disciplines and commitments which a husband undertakes? And what are those of a wife? The Buddha says, “Young householder, in five ways should a husband minister to his wife as the Western Quarters: (1) by honour, (2) by respect, (3) by faithfulness, (4) by handing over authority to her, (5) by giving her ornaments.
Obviously, it is because of this reason that Buddhism uses the term matugama to denote woman-folk. The term, however, though rendered into English idiom as woman-folk, actually means ‘mother-folk’. Moreover, with a deep sense of sympathy, the mental and physical suffering or the woes particular to women (avenikani dukkhani) apart from a man, are listed in the canon:

  1. A woman at a tender age has to leave her relatives behind and go to live in    her husband’s house
  2. She is destined to undergo the pains of periodical menstruation
  3. She has to bear the burden of pregnancy
  4. She experiences labour pains at delivery
  5. She has to wait upon a man (whether she likes or not).

No Double Standard of Chastity
In some of the cultures of the world, there was and is still a double standard of chastity for husband and wife. Social history records how for generations women in North African tribes have been subjected to a barbaric operation to remove their clitoris with the belief of reducing their sex urge to make them chaste. And also in medieval Europe how wives were kept under lock and key with chastity belts to ensure their chastity in the absence of their husbands. These beliefs seem to have evolved on the supposed superiority of man at creation and his absolute sexual power over woman. Therefore, Marxism went to the extent of saying that the first class struggle in the world began with the subjugation of woman by man. Hindu law ascribing a subordinate position to woman at Brahma’s creation, introduced a double standard of morality; for that matter, laid down a double standard of chastity for husband and wife. For it is stated in the Manusmrti: “Although the husband is immoral, lustful in behavior and devoid of good qualities, the wife should wait on him, always regarding him highly as a god”. (Manusmrti 5. 154.)
On the contrary, the abstinence from sexual misconduct (kamesu micchacara veramani) in the fundamental five precepts of laity is for both men and women. As Buddhism does not advocate a double standard of chastity, both husband and wife are instructed to be moral. It is mentioned in the advice to Sigala that husband and wife should be faithful to each other. As the wife is the best friend of the husband (bhariya’va parama sakha), they together have to work with mutual understanding and friendship.
Since we have references to co-wives, polygamy seems to have been practiced to a certain extent. In the Therigatha, we see how acute was the problem. The nun Uppalavanna recollects how both mother and daughter had to live as co-wives of a husband:
“In enmity we lived, bound to one man,
Mother and daughter both as rival wives!
O what a woeful plight I found, was ours,
Unnatural offence! My hair stood up.”  (Therigatha 224)  
Perhaps Kisagotami is very expressive in giving vent to her feelings:
“Woeful is woman’s lot! Hath he declared,
Tamer and Driver of the hearts of the men:
Woeful when giving birth in bitter pain,
Some seeking death, or e’er they suffer twice,
Piercing the throat; the delicate poison take.
Woo too when mother-murderingembryo
Comes not to birth, and both alike find death.”                                                                                                  Therigatha 216,217 (c. f. Encyclopedia of Buddhism Vol. 4.)
Moving from the sphere of philosophy to domestic life one notices a change of attitude when we come to Buddhist times. In all patriarchal societies the desire for male offspring is very strong for the continuance of the patrilineage and, in the case of Hindus, for the due performance of funeral rites. For only a son could carry out the funeral rites of his father and thus ensure future happiness of the deceased. This was so crucial to the Hindu that the law allowed a sonless wife to be superseded by a second or a third one or even turned out of the house. In Buddhism future happiness does not depend on funeral rites but on the actions of the deceased. The Buddhist funeral ceremony is a very simple one which could be performed by the widow, daughter or any one on the spot and the presence of a son is not compulsory. There is no ritual or ceremonial need for a son and the birth of a daughter need not be a cause for grief. It is well known that the Buddha consoled king Pasenadi who came to him grieving that his queen, Mallika, had given birth to a daughter. "A female offspring, O king, may prove even nobler than a male..."( c.f. I.B. Horner)  a revolutionary statement for his time. Despite the spiritual quality of the sexes and the fact that a son is not an absolute necessity in securing happiness in the after life, yet even in Buddhist societies there is a preference for male offspring even today, so potent is the ideology of male superiority.
Marriage and family are basic institutions in all societies whether primitive or modern and the position of woman in a particular society is influenced by and expressed in the status she holds within these institutions. Has she got the same rights as her husband to dissolve the marriage bond? Has she the right to remarry or is this a man's privilege? The answers to these questions will undoubtedly determine the position accorded to women in any society. Let us examine the Buddhist attitude to the question. In Buddhism, unlike Christianity and Hinduism, marriage is not a sacrament. It is purely a secular affair and the monks do not participate in it. In Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma there is a good deal of ceremony, feasting and merry-making connected with the event but these are not of a religious nature. Sometimes monks are invited to partake of alms and they in turn bless the couple. Although there are no vows or rituals involved in the event of a marriage, the Buddha has laid down in the Sigalovada Sutta the duties of a husband and wife:
“In five ways should a wife as Western quarter, be ministered to by her husband: by respect, by courtesy, by faithfulness, by handing over authority to her, by providing her with ornaments. In these five ways does the wife minister to by her husband as the Western quarter, love him: her duties are well-performed by hospitality to kin of both, by faithfulness, by watching over the goods he brings and by skill and industry in discharging all business (Rhys Davids)”.
The significant point here is that the Buddha's injunctions are bilateral; the marital relationship is a reciprocal one with mutual rights and obligations. This was a momentous departure from ideas prevailing at the time. For instance Manu says, “Offspring, the due performance of happiness and heavenly bliss for one's ancestors and oneself depends on one's wife alone” (Ch. IX, 28). Ideally, therefore, among Buddhists, marriage is a contract between equals.
But even Buddhism could not escape the sanctioned belief that one is reborn a woman because of one's bad Karma. It is not unusual in Sri Lanka for women, after doing a meritorious deed, to aspire to be redeemed from womanhood and be reborn as a man in future. Despite the remarkable degree of sexual equality in Burman society, all women recite as a part of their Buddhist devotions the following prayer: “I pray that I may be reborn as a male in a future existence.” (Sprio).  In Thailand in 1399 A.D., the Queen Mother founded a monastery and commemorated the event in an inscription in which she requested, “By the power of my merit, may I be reborn as a male...” (C.J. Reynolds).
In Buddhism death is considered a natural and inevitable end. As a result a woman suffers no moral degradation on account of her widowhood. Her social status is not altered in any way. In Buddhist societies she does not have to advertise her widowhood by shaving her head and relinquishing her ornaments. She is not forced to fast on specific days and sleep on hard floors for self-mortification has no place in Buddhism. Nor does she have to absent herself from ceremonies and auspicious events.
It is clear, therefore, that Buddhism has saved the daughter from indignity, elevated the wife to a position approximating to equality and retrieved the widow from abject misery.
In the field of religious practices, the position once enjoyed by women was denied to them. A woman was believed unable to go to heaven through her own merits. She could not worship by herself, and it was believed that she could only reach heaven through unquestioning obedience to her husband, even if he happened to be a wicked person. The food left over by her husband was often the food for the woman.
It was in the midst of such extreme social discrimination and degrading attitudes towards women that the Buddha made his appearance in India. His teachings on the real nature of life and death - about karma and samsaric wanderings, gave rise to considerable changes in the social attitudes towards women in his days.
According to what the Buddha taught about the Law of Karma, one is responsible for one's own action and its consequence. The well-being of a father or grandfather does not depend upon the action of the son or grandson. They were responsible for their own actions. Such enlightened teachings helped to correct the views of many people and naturally reduced the anxiety of women w.
The teachings of the Buddha had done a great deal to extinguish many superstitious beliefs and meaningless rites and rituals, including animal sacrifices, from the minds of many people. When the true nature of life and death and the natural phenomena governing the universe were revealed to them, wisdom and understanding arose. This in turn helped to arrest and correct the prevailing social injustices and prejudices that were rampant against women in the days of the Buddha, thus enabling women to lead their own way of life.
The Anguttara Nikaya contained some valuable advice which the Buddha gave to young girls prior to their marriage. Realizing that there were bound to be difficulties with the new in-laws, the girls were enjoined to give every respect to their mothers-in-law  and  fathers-in-law, serving them lovingly as they would their own parents. They were requested to honor and respect their husband's relatives and friends, thus creating a congenial and happy atmosphere in their new homes. They were also advised to study and understand their husband's nature, ascertain their activities, character and temperament, and to be useful and co-operative at all times in their new homes. They should be polite, kind and watchful in their relationship with the servants and should safe-guard their husband's earnings and see to it that all household expenditures were properly regularized. Such advice given by the Buddha more than twenty-five centuries ago, is still valuable today.
The handicaps and drawbacks under which women had to undergo in life were also clearly indicated. The suffering and agony to be borne by a woman in leaving her family after her marriage, and the difficulties and problems she had to encounter in trying to accommodate herself in a new environment, were the trials and tribulations she had to bear. In addition to these problems, women were also subjected to physiological pains and sufferings during their menstrual periods, pregnancy and child-birth. These are natural phenomena depicting the differential situations and circumstances prevailing between men and women.
Buddhism never shared the Brahmin's view that a son was essential for the father's passage to heaven. Daughters became quite as good as sons and marriage was no longer a compulsory necessity. Women under Buddhism had the liberty to lead an independent life and go about their own business.
However the admission of women into the Order was a step too advanced for the period and became short-lived. Whenever an innovation or improvement was in advance of the thinking and development of a people during a particular era, the people were unable to adapt themselves to the improved conditions and tended to regress back to the society  that they were used to. They failed to master the situation. Hostile propaganda by the Brahmins, who found their caste system undermined and privileges giving way, was also a factor that caused the decline of the Order.



Works Cited
Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet, 90-91. Jaico Publishing House, 2003.
http:/ 08033.htm. Retrived 11 May 2011
Religious Definition” 2014.05.
Rig Veda. <http:/ 08033.htm>. Retrived 11  May 2011.
Varahamihira’s Brihat Samhita Translated by Panditabhusana V. Subrahmanya Sastri]
Pruthi, R.K., Ram S., Chaturvedi, Archana. Encyclopedia of Buddhism Vol. 4.
Quoted by I.B. Horner in Women in Early Buddhist Literature, The Wheel Publication, No. 30 (Colombo 1961),  8-9.
Dialogues of the Buddha, trans. C.A.F Rhys Davids, part III, 181-182.
Quoted by Melford E. Sprio in  Kinship and Marriage in Burma: A cultural and Psychodynamic Analysis (London 1977), 260.
Quoted by C.J. Reynolds in “A Nineteenth Century Thai Buddhist Defence of Polygamy and some Remarks on the Social History of Women in Thailand”. 22-26 August 1977,3.
Maitreya, Yogiraja’s Desciple. The Buddha-Mimansa ORThe Buddha and His  Relation to the Religion of the Vedas. Pilgrims Book Pvt. Ltd. Delhi, 1999.
Reed, Elizabeth A. Primitive Buddhism 25.