Lokānanda Bhikkhu: Buddhism was founded by Sakyamuni Buddha, about 600 BCE. His teaching was aimed, from the very beginning of the mission, towards the welfare of every living being both male and female, without exception. Yet, at the very beginning, his monastic order (Samgha) was organized with male participants only. It was, indeed, due to the influence of the contemporary Indian society from which the Buddha himself came, that he had to organize the monastic order with the male participants alone excluding the females, who were not given equal right in the prevailing social system. One should bear in mind that the Buddha was challenging the Brahmanical social system of the time. He did not want to change the current social taboos immediately without further necessary observation. He certainly needed time to introduce his reformative social philosophy to ultra conservative Indian society. In the Brahmanical tradition, social as well as religious conditions and day to day affairs were regulated by the Manusmriti, (Law of Manu), and the ‘constitution of the Brahmanic society’. The Law of Manu is a composition of the Brahmanic lawgiver, Manu, who is said to have lived about 800 BCE. He is also a personification of the God Brahma himself, creator of the universe. Therefore, whatever law is given is from the God himself. Nevertheless, the Buddha’s criticism of the Brahmanical tradition made Buddhism vulnerable. As a result Buddhism was forced from India by its Brahmanical rivals. Buddha’s teaching was so catholic and democratic that people, from the top to bottom, from slave to king, showed kin interest in it. In his rival society the Buddha did not hesitate to accept women, was a great challenge to Brahmanical orthodoxy.
The Buddha could not keep females out of the order too long, since that would be contrary to his own teaching. Therefore, on a later date with the ordination of his stepmother, MahāpajāpatiGotamī, the Buddha organized a nun’s order (bhikkhuni Samgha), subsequently opening the door of final liberation for women as well.
However, my aim of this short paperis to give a concise outline of the position of women in Brahmanism and Buddhism as depicted in certain canonical as well as non-canonical texts of both traditions. It is geographically such a vast area and historically as so diverse that it is impossible for us to encapsulize all the issues in a short paper such as this. This paper therefore, will concentrate on childhood, marriage, career, widowhood, and religious life of women in the context of female institutions of both traditions. I will also use ancient Indian literature which reflects the condition of woman in ancient India; and compare this material with our area of survey. Since the literature dealing with Indian social conditions (and women’s position as well) is so vast, we would use only a few works, viz., the Manusmiti, (or Laws of Manu), Buddhist Nikāya as well as Buddhist Sanskrit literatures. Here we have chosen the Indian Brahmanical tradition as our main field of study and comparison, since Buddhism stood against the social conditions of Brahmanical tradition. We also would give some critical thought to certain statements of the Pali tradition which reflect anti-female attitudes. We will look at some modern works as well. This paper is based on the personal observation of the contemporary women’s movement in the West, and study of the relevant Buddhist literature and modern scholarship.
Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is the cessation of suffering (dukkhanirodha), which meant an ultimate freedom from suffering not only in this present life alone, but for all future births—a total ‘blowing out like a lamp’ and since the Buddha’s teaching was aimed towards the cessation of the suffering, his emphasis was in leading one’s life according to the Middle Path (majjhimapaṭipadā) avoiding both edges, self-mortification (Attakilamatānuyoga) and sensual pleasure (kāmesukāmasukhallikānuyoga), which virtually led one to discipline oneself through meditation. That is one of the reasons why Buddhist literature does not cover every aspect of the secular life of a person in detail. However, if we study the Buddhist texts carefully along with their commentaries, we would be able to find a solution to virtually any problem. This assumption lies behind the present study.
The appearance of Buddhism in conservative Indian society in 600 BCE was not only a turning point in historical terms, also a very important landmark in the history of the women’s liberation movement from the standpoint of contemporary feminist thought. Women at that time were either housewives or mothers, and they had no opportunity to achieve either Nirvana or spiritual freedom in terms of the cessation of suffering, or material freedom in terms of the householder’s life. This was the case regardless of a woman’s position in society.
The Buddha’s was a teaching for everyone, – beyond the criteria of race, color, creed or gender-, who couldcome to live according to the Four Noble Truths (cattāriariyasaccāni). The Buddha personally was happy in teaching to a woman or a group of women; and it was not long before women requested the Buddha to ordain them into the fold of the Saṁgha as Bhikkhuni. It seems the Buddha, as some of the early Buddhist Texts indicate, was reluctant to accept them immediately. Here the Buddha’s reluctance reflects nothing more than his patience and his observation of Indian society, since he was not sure how the masses would react to his challenge. However, since there were female participants in other Indian religious systems, it is possible that such a factor might have encouraged the Buddha to open the door of monastic order for women, yet, understandably under certain unfavorable conditions. Thus an early Buddhist (vinaya) text states:
“Ananda, if women had not been permitted to go forth the from the home unto the homeless life under the Norm-Discipline set forth by the Tathagata, then would the religious life last long, the Good Norm would last, Ananda, a thousand years. But now, Ananda, since women have been permitted to go forth from the home unto the homeless life… not for long will the righteous life prevail; only for five hundred years, Ananda, will the Good Norm stand fast.
Just as, Ananda, whatsoever families have many women and fewmen are easily molested by robbers and pot-thieves, even so, Ananda, under whatsoever Norm-Discipline womenfolk get permission to wander forth from the home into the homeless life, not for long does that righteous life prevail .
However, the authenticity of such a statement of the Buddha requires critical examination on the ground of the cohesiveness of the teachings and the history of Buddhism. Buddhism has survived Two Thousand Six Hundred years by now, so the above mentioned quotation, it seems, does not fit with the historicity of Buddhism. On the other hand, if the Buddha’s prediction, of Buddhism’s surviving Five Hundred years after the women was admitted to the Saṁgha, was to fulfillby now,Buddhism would have disappeared a few centuries ago. Contrarily, Buddhism is spreading geographically more and gradually among the intellectuals. Buddhist texts survived for many centuries orally until they were collected and canonized in the early Christian era, and it is possible that, critically speaking, certain chauvinistic males who undertook the duty of canonizing them might have integrated such anti-feminist statements into the texts. The monks, we must bear in mind, often came from the higher classes of Indian society, which denied most rights to women, including the participation in religious rites and rituals . Their background conditions were too strong. Thus Richard Fick observes that the class-conscious Buddhist monks not only knew very well the Brahmanical theory of caste system,
“but (it) was so strongly imbedded in their consciousness, that they could not free themselves from it, although in all probability, they were quite convinced of its incongruence with the real world as well as of the worthlessness of the caste ”.
A recent study on this area by Uma Chakravarty shows that among the 101 direct disciples of the Buddha, there were 39 members from Brahmanic background, 23 from Kṣatriya, 23 from Vaiṣya, 8 from Sudra and 8 from other social backgrounds . The Pali canon were written down on palm leaves, students learnt them by heart, prepared commentaries of them, made marginal notes on them which, it is possible that later on a disciple inserted such a marginal comment into the main canon,it is a pure speculation here; and above mentioned quotation could be one of those marginal notes. Therefore, which part of this statement was Buddha’s own and which part was inserted by monks to a later date, is hard to determine.
However, because of certain hardships like childbirth, and menstruation prevalent to physical conditions, which were consideredlessadvantageous than man (which presumably madethem likely unqualified for the strict monastic life). Nevertheless, these physical conditions were, perhaps, limited to certain women only, such as, mothers of new-born children, a state which would prevent them from pursuing rigorous monastic practice. It is also a reflection of an Indian social taboo which Buddha did not wish to change immediately, since he tolerated social customs not harmful to any individual. This is also due to the fact that women were not allowed to travel (even as a wandering nun) alone in ancient Indian society. Therefore, it is understandable that the Buddha was worried for their physical safety. On the other hand, it is also due to the fact that very few women during the time of the Buddha had received any formal or informal educational training; and it was generally an accepted taboo that women could never achieve supreme knowledge (Bodhiñāna). Such a prejudice continued for generations or even increased after the passing away of the Buddha. The Therīgāthā indicates clearly that any woman could attain Arhathood or supreme knowledge if she were to remain firm in her practice and discipline. A nun by the name of Somā, for example, a direct disciple of the Buddha, gained higher knowledge claiming that her ‘True Being’ transcends indeed gender difference, and her understanding of the Teaching went beyond any division in nature. Thus the Therīgāthā runs:
“…Then Mara, the Evil One, desiring to arouse fear, wavering, and dread in her, desiring to make her desist from concentration thought, went up to her, and addressed her in a verse;
‘That vantage-ground the sages may attain is hard to reach.
With her two-finger consciousness that is no woman competent to gain!’
Then Soma thought… ‘Sure’ tis Mara!’ … and replied with verse:
‘What should the woman’s nature do to them
Whose hearts are firmly set, who ever move
With growing knowledge onward in the Path?
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 these matters, or Am I a man, or what not am I, then?
To such an one is Mara fit to talk !”
The Buddha himself said, while answering a question as to whether or not woman could attain Arhathood, that it is quite possible as long as she strives with the discipline. Such a statement indicates that the Buddha saw no inferiority in women. Thus the dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple Ven. Ānanda runs:
“Now, Lord, are women… able to realize the fruit of… perfection?
-To be Continue…
- Writer: Lokānanda Bhikkhu; Department of Religious Studies, University of the West, Rosemead, CA 91770.