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Woman and Society from the Buddhist Point of View
Dr. Nandasena Ratnapala

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 extent eroded.

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 (bhikkhunis).

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 public response.

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. 25-26).

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.)

Dhirasekera, Jothiya, "Women and the Religious Order of the Buddha," Sambhaasaa, 277-301.

Horner, I. B. Women under Primitive Buddhism, London: 1930

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.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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