At a time in
which the status of women was regarded as an inferior one to that of man, the Buddha
preached a different doctrine. In the society where the birth of a daughter was regarded
as an evil, the Buddha stated:
"A woman child, 0 Lord of men, may prove even a
better offspring than a male, for she may grow up wise and virtuous, her husband's mother
reverencing, true with the boy that she may bear do great, deeds and rule great
realms, yea, such a son or noble wife becomes his country's guide" (KS I. iii).
This was said to king Kosala who was apparently
disappointed at the news that his queen had given birth to a girl. In Buddhist thought and
practice, the woman is not regarded so much as part of her husband, so completely his
possession. Buddhism freed the woman from the status of a chattel to an independent
existence of her own. "With the growth of Buddhism, woman as spinster, wife and
widow, with rights and duties not limited to child-bearing, became an integrated part of
society" (Horner, 1930, 3).
Motherhood is an essential characteristic of all females.
The potential of motherhood exists in all women. The young are future mothers; adults are
mothers already and the old had given birth to children in the past. Even though a woman
may not have given birth to a child, she still is regarded as a potential mother. Thus,
on this account alone women demand the respect and regard of the society. The respect
accorded to women in Buddhist society and the special status accorded to women with
children and pregnant women explains this attitude.
According to the Buddha, women are capable of attaining
spiritual goals as well as men. The Buddha answers Ananda when questioned about women in
the following manner:
"Are the Buddhas born in the world for the benefit of
men? Assuredly it is for the benefit of females as well. When 1 delivered the Tiro
Kudha-sutra, many women entered the Path as did also many devas when I delivered the
abhidhamma in Tantisa, have not Visakha and many other upasikawas entered the Paths? The
entrance is open for women as well as men" (Rhys Davids' The Psalms of the Early
Buddhists, XXV, Intro.).
A woman said to have used thus when her husband joined the
Order of Buddhist monks: "the Buddha could not have born for the benefit of men but
for women as well" (A A I. 176).
Gathering the fruits from the Buddha's teachings was
possible both for men and women. Final liberation was not the prerogative of any sex. And
be it woman, be it man for whom such chariot doth wait, by that same car into Nirvana's
presence shall they come (S, I, 5; M.I, 165). Soma, a female disciple who had entered the
Order of female monks was once dissuaded by Mara, the evil one who addressed her
contemptuously belittling her spiritual abilities:
"No woman," Mara says, "with the two-finger
wisdom which is hers, could ever hope to reach those heights which are attained only by
sages." (S. I. 129)
The female monk, Soma replies, "when one's mind is
well concentrated and wisdom never fails, does the fact of being a woman make any
difference?" Mara's words undoubtedly echoes the beliefs of the day according to
which the women were considered outside the pale of intellectual development.
Although the Indian society of the day preferred the male
issue to female issues, in Buddhist suttas a child is referred to without specifying the
sex (S.I. 232). In this instance, the Pali word "puttamaa" (children) is
intentionally used. Buddhist teachers did not lay down the rule that sons are essential
for their father's safe transition to heaven after death as in the case of brahmins.
Adoption of daughters is found in Buddhist literature. Such young women were treated as
one's now daughters: "hitherto you have been daughter of the great merchant
Bhaddhvattiya; but from this day forth you shall be my very own daughter."
A woman reaches her full potential in marriage, and in
becoming a mother. In the Indian society of the day, an unmarried woman was regarded as
inferior. A Buddhist text of a later date (Mil. 221) states: "there are 0 King, ten
sorts of individuals who are despised and condemned in the world, thought shameful, looked
down upon, held blameworthy, and what are the ten-a woman without a husband."
But the spirit of Buddhism was against such an attitude.
Unmarried women under Buddhist influence could go unabused, contended, adequately occupied
at home, caring for their parents and younger brothers and sisters" (Homer 1930, 24).
The establishment of the order for female monks enhanced the position of women,
particularly that of unmarried girls. The possibility of gaining the admission to the
Order enabled such women to embark upon a new career.
Women appeared to have got married round about the age of
sixteen and twenty. It invariably indicates that child-marriage prevalent in the society
of the day was not encouraged in Buddhist practice. With the increasing independence
attained by women under Buddhism, even the father's traditional role of selecting his
daughter's husband, irrespective of the daughter's preferences was to a considerable
One interesting point to ponder here is the Buddhist
practice of bestowing wedding-portions on the daughter at the time of marriage. This
wedding-portion is the inalienable property of the woman and was never considered as a
dowry or bride-price and could never be alienated. The wedding-portion was given as a
support which the woman could master in any time she deems it useful. This fact is
attested in instances where married women desiring to enter the female community of monks
handed over their wealth to the husbands (Therigatha Commentary XXXVII). The fact shows
that women although married, were the owners of their own property-the wedding-portion
being a vital and integral part of it.
The equality of the sexes as accepted and encouraged by
Buddhism is seen when one considers the spiritual levels attained by women in Buddhism.
Those levels are not second to those achieved by men. At the time when Maha Pajapati
Gotami was about to pass away, Buddha addresses her, now a female "monk" of
great distinction in the following words:
"0 Gotami, perform a miracle in order to dispel the
wrong views of those foolish men who are in doubt with regard to the spiritual attainments
of women" (quoted by Dhirasekera, Sambhaasaa, 1991, 299). Buddha's words stand as
evidence to his treatment of women as equal to men. The Buddha pointed out clearly that
women had a dignified and an important part to play in society, and he defined it with
great insight, fitting her harmoniously into the social fabric. She is a lovable member of
the household, held in place by numerous relationships, and respected above all, as the
mother of worthy sons. The sex did not matter, he argued, and added that in character and
in her role in society she may even rival man" (Dhirasekera, Sambhaasaa, 1991, 297).
In family love between the husband and wife, it was
regarded as the pivotal point in home-life. The husband and the wife have to be faithful
to each other. A set of reciprocal duties devolved on the role of both husband and wife.
The husband has to trust his wife and make her the "lord" in the house. The wife
in turn has to manage the affairs of the house in a responsible way. Socialising
children is one important aspect of her duties. The wife is thus the husband's best
friend. "She of Lord, who stands in fear is no true wife." 'The highest gift a
man on earth could gain is a good wife."
A woman's sex role is emphasised in her relation to the
husband. "All these five-fold pleasures of the senses which gratify the mind are
centered in the feminine form" (A III. 69). The obligation as to the sex functions
lie equally on husband as well as on the wife. This is the reason why celibacy is
appreciated both in men and women before marriage, and after marriage faithfulness to each
other is considered as a cardinal virtue that should not be violated. This faithfulness is
not one-sided with its burden laid only on women. The man should satisfy himself sexually
by associating his wife only, and not other women; and vice versa. The wife should see
that this highest sexual satisfaction is given to the husband as part of her
responsibility. A husband who being not satisfied with his wife becomes unfaithful to his
own wife and seeks other women will ruin himself and also the family.
The position of widows in the society of the day was a sad
one. The Buddhist teachings do not leave any room for widows to be abused or humiliated or
even to be taken as a sign or symbol of ill women. The restriction of the widows by loss
of privileges such as the right to inherit property and manage it, take part in domestic
festivals etc. were not encouraged in Buddhist practice. Widows according to Buddhist
thinking could remarry, and if they so desire, enter the religious Order as female monks
In Buddhist literature, one comes across women who by
means of their intellectual and spiritual powers attained the ultimate liberation. Maha
Pajapati Gotami, Yasodhara, Utpalavannaa, Kisaagotami and Pa.taacaaraa are a few such
noble female characters. They were intellectually and spiritually developed women, equal
in all their attainments or accomplishments to men of highest attainments.
Some women disciples were recognised as those foremost in
certain areas of development in the same way as monks were thus recognised. Dhammadinna, a
female (bhikkhuni) 'monk' was regarded as the foremost in wisdom and the ability to
preach. Bhaddakapila was the foremost in remembering past lives. Kundalakesi, foremost in
swift intuition, Sukula in celestial eye and Sona in exercising strenuous will etc.
Horner (1930, 82) brilliantly sums up the position of
women in Buddhist thought in the following memorable lines: "in view of the available
evidence, it may be concurred that the position of women in Buddhist India was more
enviable and more honourable that it had been in pre-Buddhist days. Daughters and widows
were no longer regarded with such undisguided despair and on the contrary, both they and
wives commanded more respect and ranked as individuals. They enjoyed more independence and
a wider liberty to guide and follow their own lives."
'Slaves' or bonded-servants were not an unfamiliar
phenomena in the Indian society of the Buddha's day. They were obviously a part of the
household property of the well-to-do. Buddhism did not encourage slavery and offered
freedom to slave women. Once such slave women, by name Khujjuttaraa (DhA. Verses 21-23)
not only became emancipated when converted to Buddhism, but also was elevated to a higher
spiritual status by her employer-queen Saamaawathi.
The Buddha admitted courtesans to the female Order of
bhikkhunis as its members. Padumaawati, Addhakaasi and Ambapaali are well-known similar
examples. These courtesans were wealthy. A description of a brothel owned by one Kaali
(DhA. Verse 3) says that: "in that house of ill-fame, the fashion was this-out of
every thousand pieces of money received, five hundred were for the women. Five hundred
were the price of the clothes, perfumes and garlands. The men who visited that house
received garments to clothe themselves in, and stayed the nights there; then on the next
day they put off the garments they had received; and put on those they had brought and
went their way (cf, J. 318, 481).
A laywoman fulfilling her dual role as wife and mother is
expected to perfect eight duties and abilities in order to make the best of those two
roles. They are:
(1) organise the work of the household with efficiency,
(2) treat her servants with concern,
(3) strive to please her husband,
(4) take good care of what he earns,
(5) possess religious devotion,
(6) be virtuous in conduct,
(7) be kind and
(8) be liberal (A. IV. 271).
The question had been asked that, if women were considered
as equal to men, why did the Buddha purposely delay the grant of permission for women to
form the Order of bhikkhunis? In order to understand this fact, one should first keep in
mind the prevalent attitude towards women in the society of the Buddha's day.
According to Manu (IX, 2), it is stated that: "day
and night, women must be kept in dependence by the males of their (families); and if they
attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one's control. Her father
protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth, and sons protect her in old
age; a woman is never for independence."
The public opinion in the society of the Buddha's day was
heavily influenced by ideas of this kind. Buddha was a pragmatic who, before he
initiated any step for reform, paid special attention to public opinion. An example is
seen in the disciplinary laws enacted by him, most of which came to be promulgated,
motivated and sustained by public opinion. When women requested admission to a bhikkhuni
Order, Buddha probably thought of the people's negative attitudes to such an innovation.
What would be the best way to change such attitudes in order to facilitate such a step?
When one thinks of the Buddhist Order of bhikkhus (monks)
and bhikkhunis (female monks) whose existence depended on the laity, the upaasakas and
upaasikis, this pre-occupation of the Buddha with the possible response of society is
understandable. Without the support of the laity, the Buddhist Order of bhikkhus and
bhikkhunis cannot function.
When the Buddha's own foster-mother and his wife, during
his layman days, with a group of noble Saakyan ladies came to him asking for permission to
establish the Order of bhikkhunis, the Buddha did not acquiesce in it at once. The ladies
then began a long march through cities and villages. They were seen by thousands of people
and the sight itself was sufficient for the people's hearts to melt. "Isn't this the
lady who looked after the young prince, Siddhaarta when his mother died. She brought him
up like her own son. Isn't this Yasodharaa, prince Siddhaarta's wife? These noble women
suffer heavily in not being admitted to the Order of bhikkhunis. Why don't the Buddha
admit them creating a bhikkhuni Order?"
When Ananda the disciple of the Buddha inquired whether
women are not capable of attaining the highest spiritual status as men-folk, the Buddha
replied that women are capable of achieving such statuses as well as men (A IV, 278; Vin.
11, 284). Buddha's initial reluctance appears to be based on creating the right atmosphere
before such a step was taken. He is said to have put his foster-mother off three times
asking her not be interested in the entry of women into my Order.
The attitude of the public was measured by the Buddha, and
this was reflected in some monastic laws effected by him. (Ratnapala 1992) When
disciplinary acts such as the act of information carried out against Devadatta was
effected, a group of monks headed by two foremost disciples of the Buddha, S1riputta and
Moggalana was sent to Rajagaha in order to apprise the people of the act, i.e. to educate
the people and thereby allow a favourable public opinion to arise without which the above
act could not be put into practice (BD. V. 264-6). In the case of the young woman Sundari
who was murdered by the enemies of the Order, the Buddha taught the monks how to utilise
public opinion by making the truth available to them. The Buddha's intentional stay in the
Paarileyya forest (Vin. I.352-66) was again done in order to allow public opinion to
formulate against the two factions of monks intent on quarrelling, and who did not listen
to the Buddha's advice.
Once the public opinion was made favourable by the Sakyan
ladies' long march, the Buddha found a good opportunity to allow women to be admitted to
the Order. This sociological consideration cannot be easily forgotten in understanding the
Buddha's motive when he refused admission of women on three occasions. He knew how his
refusal would fortify the Sakyan ladies' determination to undertake the long march and how
such a march would have its impact on the people's mind giving rise to a very positive
The other reason for this reluctance was concerned with
monastic organisation as a whole; "the considerations which seem to have weighed
heavy in the mind of the Buddha regarding the admission of women into the Order are
concerned more with the wider problem of the monastic organisation as a whole. He would
have been undoubtedly most adverse to stand in the way of the personal liberty of women.
But in the interest of the collective good of the institution of brahmachariya, which was
the core of the religion, women had to make certain sacrifices, surrendering at times even
what might appear to have been their legitimate lights. This is evident front the eight
conditions (A.t.thagarudhamma) under which the Buddha granted them permission to enter the
Order, (Dhirasekera, Sambhaasaa, 191, 301).
Looking at the problem from different angles, various
plausible explanations of Buddha's unwillingness to initiate a bhikkhuni' Order could be
given. The immediate objection was possibly Mahapajapati herself. Since she used to live a
luxurious life of the palace and had never been acquainted with the experience of
hardship, it was almost unimaginable to see the queen going from house to house begging
for meals. It might be out of pity and compassion that the Buddha refused her request to
join the Order because he could not bring himself to the point of letting her undergo such
a hard and strenuous life in the wilderness" (Kabil Singh. 1983, 24).
Among other reasons given in this context, there are
considerations such as the safety of women. To allow women to spend homeless lives
required a great many precautions and protections. Women, being thought of as the desirous
sex, invited many dangers. The Buddha was highly concerned about this fact (op. cit.
Women were considered as the centre of household life. If
permission was given for them to enter the Order and very many opted to do so, it would
end in a number of serious problems. The home would lose its main foundation and moreover
even the community of monks would lose the support of lay households which would not have
women in them to carry on acts of supporting the Sangha by providing them with food etc.
All these arguments clearly point out that the Buddha's
reluctance to admit women to the Order was not based on any inferiority concept about
women. Buddhism placed the mother and father in the same position by comparing them to
gods. Perhaps the elevation of the mother to the status of a Buddha living in one's own
house as found in certain Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka points out the respect and
regard paid to the women-folk known popularly as the "mother sex."
(References to the Pali and their translations are to the
Pali Text Society standard edition.)
"Women and the Religious Order of the Buddha," Sambhaasaa, 277-301.
Horner, I. B. Women under Primitive Buddhism, London:
Ratnapala, Nandasena, "Buddhist Jurisprudence"
article in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Colombo: 1992.
Singh, Kabil, Bhikkhu Paatimokkha, Varanasi, 1983.
Special thanks to
Phramaha Somnuek Saksree fortranscription of this article.