- Buddhist Women in India and
Pre-Colonial Sri Lanka
- Lorna DeWaraja
- [This article was originally published in the Buddhist
Women Across Cultures edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Delhi, Sri Satguru Publications,
- How should the womens nature hinder us?
- 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?
These words were uttered twenty-five
centuries ago by a Buddhist nun named Soma, when Mara, the "Evil One," Sneered
and jeered her while she was mediating: "How could you women with your
two-finger wisdom ever hope to attain a higher mental state which even the
sages find hard to reach?" There was a popular notion in India that, although women
cook rice daily throughout their lives, they can never learn how long it takes for the
rice to cook; they need to take some grains in a spoon and press them with two fingers to
test whether it is done. With her dignified retort to Maras abusive words, Soma
challenged the notion of womens inherent inferiority and their incapacity to attain
higher mental or spiritual states. Here we have an example of a woman who defied the
notion of sexual inequality 2,500 years before the, womens liberation movement
appeared in the West.
Sri Lanka attracted international
attention in 1960 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a woman, was elected the countrys
first woman prime minister. Sri Lankans, however, did not regard this as outrageous. It
was no revolutionary deviation from tradition for a woman to rise to a position of
importance and responsibility and no violation of social cultural norms for a woman to
step into the male-dominated world of politics.
Of course, it cannot be argued that in
Buddhist societies the position of women was equal to that of men, for the myth of male
superiority is universal. Nevertheless, it can be demonstrated that women in Buddhist
societies were relatively free from the extreme forms of discrimination and harassment
that were characteristic of other major Asian cultures. In the present work I will examine
the fundamental tenets of Buddhism to see whether there is a fundamental difference in
attitudes toward men and women. Then I will discuss how Buddhist ideology influenced the
position and status of women in India and Sri Lanka before the impact of the West was
Examining the position of women in
pre-Buddhist India on the basis of evidence in the earliest literature of the Indo-Aryans,
the .Rgveda, it is clear that women held an honorable place in early Indian society. Women
had access to the highest knowledge and could participate in all religious ceremonies.
There were also a few hymns composed by women. Later, when the priestly Brahmin caste
began to dominate society, it is apparent that religion lost its spontaneity and became a
complex system of rituals. At this point, a downward trend in the position of women began.
The most relentless of Brahmin law-givers
was Manu, considered the founder of social and moral order. From the outset, Manu deprived
women of their religious rights and access to the spiritual life. As with people born into
the lower castes, women were prohibited from reading the sacred texts, and could neither
worship nor perform sacrifices on their own. A woman could not attain heaven through any
merit of her own, but only through obedience to her husband. She was taught that a
husband, even one devoid of good qualities, should be worshipped incessantly as a god.
Despite this humiliating subordination of women in the religious domain, there was always
in India a parallel line of thought that glorified motherhood and idealized the concept of
the feminine. In actual practice, however, Manus Code of Laws adversely influenced
social attitudes toward women, especially in the higher rungs of society.
It is against this background that we must
view the emergence of Buddhism in northern India in the sixth century B.C.E. There are
records of long conversations the Buddha had with his female disciples. The devout
benefactress Visaakhaa frequented the monastery decked out in all her finery. Accompanied
by a maidservant, she attended to the needs of the celibate monks. The Buddha's liberal
attitude toward women has had a great impact on the behavior of both men and women in
Buddhist societies. This is not to suggest that the Buddha inaugurated a campaign for the
liberation of Indian womanhood, but he did create a minor stir by speaking out against
prevailing dogma and superstition. He condemned the caste structure dominated by Brahmins
and denounced excessive ritual and sacrifice. Denying the existence of a creator God, he
emphasized emancipation through individual effort.
The Buddhist doctrine of salvation through
an individuals own efforts presupposes the spiritual equality of all beings, male
and female. This assertion of womens spiritual equality, explicitly enunciated in
the texts has had a significant impact on social structures and how women are viewed in
the world. Women and men alike are able to attain the Buddhist goal by following the
prescribed path; no external assistance in the form of a priestly intermediary or
veneration of a husband is necessary. In domestic life in ancient India, religious
observances and sacrifices were performed jointly by husband and wife. In Buddhism,
however, all religious activities, whether meditation or worship, are acts of
self-discipline created by individuals, independent of one's partner or outside
In patriarchal societies, the desire for
male offspring for the continuation of the patrilineage is very strong. And in Indian
society, the importance attached to ritual led to an even stronger desire to beget sons,
for only a son could perform the funeral rites and thus ensure the future happiness of the
deceased. Indeed, a father was believed to achieve immortality through a son's
intercession. This custom was so widespread that a wife without sons could be legally
superseded by a second or even a third wife, or even be turned out of the house. By contrast, a Buddhist funeral ceremony is a very simple rite
that can be performed by the widow, the daughter, or anyone else. Future happiness does
not depend on funeral rites, but on an individual's actions while living
The birth of a daughter was a cause for
lamentation in society at that time, but the Buddha did not concur with this view. It is a
well known that when King Pasenadi of Kosala came grieving that his queen Mallika had
given birth to a daughter, the Buddha said: "A female offspring/ 0 king, may prove
even nobler than a male." Even today, the birth of
girl children may be mourned. A report prepared to mark South Asia's Year of the Girl
Child says that, although girls are born biologically stronger, three hundred thousand
more girls than boys die each year. Many are aborted after
sex detection tests. A study conducted in 1984 mentions that 7,999 of 8,000 aborted
fetuses tested at a Bombay clinic were female. Although it is rampant in India today, the
custom of female infanticide seems to have been extremely rare in Buddhist times.
In Buddhism, unlike in Christianity and
Hinduism, marriage is not a sacrament. It is a purely secular contract and Buddhist monks
do not participate in it. In Sri Lankan, Thai, and Burmese society, there is much ceremony
and merrymaking connected with weddings, but these are not of a religious nature.
Nevertheless, in the Sigaalovaada Sutta the Buddha gives advice of a very practical
nature to a young layman on how spouses should treat one another. The marital union is
approached in a spirit of warm fellowship and is not raised to an exalted spiritual level.
These instructions can be summarized as follows: 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, careful in housekeeping duties, and should carry
out their work with skill and enthusiasm.
The significant point is that the
Buddhas injunctions are applicable to both parties. The marital relationship is a
reciprocal one with mutual rights and obligations, which was a momentous departure from
ideas prevailing at his time. For instance, Manu says, "Offspring, the due
performance of religious rites, faithful service, highest conjugal happiness and heavenly
bliss for ones ancestors and oneself depend on ones wife alone." Similarly, Confucian codes detailed the duties of son to
father, wife to husband, and daughter-in-law to mother-in-law, but never vice versa. Wives had only duties and obligations, while husbands had only
rights and privileges. In the Buddhas injunctions, by contrast, domestic duties and
relationships were reciprocal, whether between husband and wife, parent and child, or
master and servant. Theoretically, therefore, a Buddhist marriage is a contract between
equals, even if social practice does not necessarily conform to the ideal.
European authors describing Buddhist
societies have commented favorably on the position of women. For instance, a British
visitor in the late eighteenth century says, "The Cingalese women are not merely the
slaves and mistresses but in many respects the companions and friends of their
.The Cingalese neither keep their women in confinement nor impose on them
any humiliating constraints." Commenting on the
situation in Burma in 1878, Lieutenant General Albert Fytche, wrote that "woman holds
among them a position of perfect freedom and independence. She is with them not a mere
slave of passion, but has equal rights and is the recognized and duly honored helpmate of
man, and in fact bears a more prominent share in the transactions of the more ordinary
affairs of life than is the case perhaps with any other people either eastern or
western." These and other references by European
writers to women in me Buddhist societies of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Sikkim, Bhutan,
and Tibet make it clear that, long before the impact of Westernization was felt, women
held an honorable place within the institution of marriage.
Marriage and family are basic to all
societies and the position of women in a given society is reflected in the status she
holds within these institutions. Marriage contracts, in particular -
whether a woman has the same rights as her husband to dissolve the marriage bond and to
remarry - are primary indicators of womens rights. In many Asian cultures, a woman
is irrevocably bound by the chains of matrimony, whereas a man can dissolve the contract
with ease. In Sri Lankan Buddhist society, however, marriages receive no religious
sanction and Sinhala law provides for the dissolution of marriage contracts and the
remarriage of both partners. This is indicated as early as 1769 in a document presenting
the orthodox and official view on the subject at the time. The Dutch, who were ruling the
maritime provinces of Sri Lanka, wished to codify the laws and customs of the island. The
Dutch Governor Iman Willem Faick (1765-83) sent a questionnaire to the eminent Buddhist
monks in Kandy and recorded their answers in a document called the Lakraja lo sirita. According to this document, both husband and wife are allowed
to initiate action for dissolving a marriage contract by proving the improper conduct of a
spouse before a court of law. After divorce, both husband and wife were free to remarry
and the wife was treated very liberally. There are records of the remarriage of many
divorced women, among the royalty, nobility, and common folk. Robert Knox, a British
sailor who was shipwrecked and spent nineteen years in the Kandyan kingdom, from 1660 to
1679, left a fascinating account of the socioeconomic conditions of the time. With regard
to marriage customs, he writes, "But if they chance to mislike one another and part
then she is fit for another man, being as they account never the worse for
In ancient India a widow was expected to
lead a life of strict celibacy and severe austerity upon the demise of her husband, for
she was thought to be bound to him beyond death. Furthermore, she lost her social and
religious status and was considered a most unfortunate person. In Buddhism, by contrast,
death is considered a natural and inevitable end for all beings. As a result, a woman
suffers no moral degradation on account of widowhood, nor is her social status altered in
any way. In Sri Lankan society, a widow does not have to proclaim her widowhood in any
tangible way, such as relinquishing her ornaments, shaving her head, or practicing
self-mortification, Robert Knox observes, "These women are of a very strong
courageous spirit, taking nothing very much to heart, mourning more for fashion than
affection, never overwhelmed neither with grief or love. And when their husbands are dead,
all they care is where to get others, which they cannot long be without." The remarriage of widows was prevalent even in the
royal family, with no stigma attached. As one example, when Vimala Dharma Suriya I
(1594-1605) of Kandy died, his successor Senarat (1605-1635) married his widow.
In many societies, wives are regarded as
the personal property of their husbands. The custom of slaying, sacrificing, or burying a
woman alive with her deceased husbands other possessions, has been found in lands as
far removed as Africa, America, and India. The best known example is the sati
ritual, self-immolation of high-caste Hindu widows, a custom unknown in the .Rgveda.
Although the custom was never widespread, isolated instances continue in India even today,
and it is questionable whether all cases are voluntary. The sati ritual is unknown
in Sri Lanka or any other Buddhist society.
The social freedom enjoyed by women in
Buddhist societies has evoked comment from many Western observers. Although women were not
equal in status, a complete lack of segregation of the sexes has distinguished Buddhist
societies from those of the Middle East, the Far East, and the Indian subcontinent, where
segregation has often lead to the seclusion and confinement of women behind walls and
veils. In contradistinction to the Confucian code, which sets forth detailed rules on
etiquette between women and men, early Buddhist literature describes the free
intermingling of the sexes. Even celibate monks and nuns mingled freely with the rest of
The free social intercourse between men
and women in Sri Lanka in the seventeenth century surprised Robert Knox: "The men are
not jealous of their wives for the greatest ladies of the land will frequently talk and
discourse with any men they please although their husbands be in presence." In 1928,
Sir Charles Bell, British political representative in Tibet, Bhutan, and Sikkim, wrote
about Tibetan women: "They are not kept in seclusion as are Indian women. Accustomed
to mix with the other sex throughout their lives they are at ease with men and can hold
their own as well as any women in the world." He continues, "And the solid fact
remains that in Buddhist countries women hold a remarkably good position, Burma, Ceylon
and Tibet exhibit the same picture."
Sa"ngha, or Order of Buddhist Nuns
There are certain sections of the Paali
canon that are devoted entirely to nuns. For instance, the Theriigaaathaa, or Psalms of
the Sisters, consisting entirely of verses attributed to seventy-three women who
became spiritually realized theriis (nun elders), is unique in any literature.
There is also the Apadana, or biographies in verse of forty nuns who were the
Buddhas contemporaries. During the life of the Buddha, his aunt and foster mother,
Mahaapajaapatii, was the leader of a movement clamoring for the admission of women to the
Sa"ngha. When the Buddha showed reluctance to allow this, Mahaapajaapatii and
hundreds of other women shaved their heads, donned the yellow robe like the monks, walked
barefoot to the monastery where the Buddha lived, and rallied outside. This constitutes
the first time in recorded history that women marched in procession demanding equal
AAnanda, the Buddhas faithful
disciple, seeing these aristocratic women with swollen, bleeding feet, pleaded on their
behalf. He approached the Buddha, asking whether women were as capable as men in leading a
life of contemplation and attaining the goal of final emancipation, or nibbaana.
The Buddha's reply was affirmative. If so, AAnanda argued, then it is proper that women be
allowed to leave the house-hold life, join the Sa"ngha, and strive toward their
salvation. Though the Buddha finally consented to the admission of women to the order, it
was on rather humiliating terms. The price of admission was their unequivocal acceptance
of eight rules (a.t.tha garudhamma), all of which upheld the superiority of the
The first rule is that, even if she has
been ordained for a century, a bhikkhunii, or fully ordained nun, must rise up from
her seat, greet respectfully, and salute a monk who had been ordained even that very day.
The implications of these rules are perfectly compatible with the assumptions of other
religions, namely, that all men, by virtue of their maleness, are spiritually superior to
all women. However, it has been argued that these discriminatory rules were intended, in
the context of the sixth century B.C.E., to maintain womens status in society within
the Sa"ngha and protect them from becoming completely dislocated from traditional
mores and behavior, In all probability, the real reason for the Buddhas reluctance
to found an order of nuns was his desire to retain the approval of the laity. No religious
or political leader, however broad his vision, can succeed if he forges far ahead of the
masses, completely ignoring public opinion. Though not entirely without precedent (since
the first order of nuns had already been established by the Jainas, a sect founded by the
Buddhas contemporary, Mahaaviira), the presence of single, independent women
following religious careers of their own was still a very daring innovation.
Once the doors were flung open, however,
there was an immediate impact, for women of all strata of society flocked to the cloister,
where they could follow a culturally accepted lifestyle free from irksome masculine
dominance. From many verses in the Theriigaathaa, it is clear how much the nuns
relished their newly found independence, released from the shackles of patriarchal society
and relieved from unpleasant domestic drudgery. For instance. Sister Mutta exulted,
- "0 free indeed 0 gloriously free am I,
- Free from three crooked things:
- From quern, from mortar, from my crooked lord!
- Ay, but I am free from rebirth and death
- And all that dragged me back is hurled away."
The Order of Nuns in
The order of nuns begun by Mahaapajaapatii
was introduced to Sri Lanka soon after the introduction of Buddhism. According to the Sri
Lankan chronicle, the Mahaava.msa, the famous Emperor A"soka of India sent his
daughter, the nun Sanghamitta, to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C.E. At the express
request of the king of Sri Lanka Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 B.C.E.), whose kinswoman Anula
wished to enter the order together with many women of the palace, Sanghamitta founded the
As is clear from literary and
archaeological evidence, women were the most enthusiastic supporters of the new faith from
its very inception. The first to attain spiritual fulfillment were also women. A large
number of inscriptions dating from the third to the first century B.C.E., written in the
early Brahmi script, testify to the patronage extended by women to Buddhism during the
early stages of its spread in Sri Lanka. Paranavitana writing in 1970 and basing his
conclusion on evidence from the inscriptions he examined, says that the names of 91 male
lay devotees (upaasaka) and 105 female lay devotees (upaasikaa) have been
preserved. However, there are only ten bkikkhuniis or nuns among them, as opposed
to nearly three hundred bhikkhus, or monks.
Compared with an abundance of
architectural remains from the monks monasteries at ancient sites in Sri Lanka,
there are few remains that can be identified as nunneries. This evidence indicates that
nuns were not as numerous as monks. Nevertheless, it can be proven that there were
learned, active, and adventurous women among them. The Diipava.msa, written in the
forth century C.E., is the first redaction in Paali verse of the historical and
ecclesiastical literature found in different monasteries in Sri Lanka in slightly varying
recensions. While the author of the Mahaava.msa is known to be a monk named
Mahaanaama, the author of the Diipava,msa, which predates it, is unknown. Chapter
18 of the DipoiwriSfl highlights the activities of the theriis, or nun elders, who
were the spiritual descendants of Mahaapajaapatii.
It is clear from the Diipava.msa
account that soon after its inception the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha spread throughout the
island. The order consisted of women of all ages and from all levels of society, and at
least those whose names are mentioned were well versed in the scriptures and imparted
their knowledge to others. There was a strong tradition of learning and teaching among the
nuns, and their forte was the study and exposition of the Vinaya, or rules of discipline.
In chapter 18 of the Diipava.msa,
in five places the nuns are described as learned in religious history. The numerous
references to theriis found in the Diipava.msa have led scholars to believe
that the work was written by nuns. The Mahaava.msa, which was written by a monk
over a century later, elaborates and expands on the information given in the Diipava.msa.
Other than the arrival of Sanghamitta, however, there is little information about nuns. It
is suspected that this may have been an attempt on the part of Mahaanaama to soft-pedal
the achievements of women.
The nineteenth-century antiquarian Hugh
Nevill draws attention to the "unique consequence given to nuns" in the Diipava.msa
and feels that it affords a clue as to the texts authorship. Malalasekere supports
the view that this chronicle was the work of the community of nuns and R. A. L. H.
Gunawardana concurs, based on the attitude adopted by the Diipava.msa toward the
past history of the Sa"ngha. If this is the case, Gunawardana concludes, "It
would appear that nuns not only excelled in their study of the Buddhist canon but were
also among the pioneers in historiography in the island." He adds, "The emphasis
laid in the chronicle on the intellectual accomplishments of nuns probably represents an
attempt to counter the tendency among some monks to underestimate their
Sri Lankan nuns seem to have emulated
their founder Sanghamitta when they led delegations to foreign lands to spread the faith
and establish the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha. The Chinese work Pi-chiu-ni-chuan, or The
Biographies of Nuns, written in the sixth century, mentions that in the years 429 and
432 C.E. two groups of nuns arrived in China from Sinhala in a foreign merchant vessel
belonging to a person named Nandi. They were housed in a nunnery in the Sung capital,
learned the Chinese language, and ordained three hundred Chinese nuns. Although this event
was considered important enough to be mentioned in Chinese histories, the Sri Lankan
records are strangely silent about the achievements of these courageous women who braved a
hazardous voyage across the seas to spread the order of nuns.
Another renowned nun who ventured abroad
was the Sinhala nun Candramaali, a scholar of the Tantric sect. Un-honored and unsung in
her motherland, she undertook the rigorous journey across the Himalayas to Tibet in the
eleventh century. From the Tibetan and Mongolian versions of the Tripi.taka, we learn that
Candramaali translated Buddhist Tantric texts in collaboration with a Tibetan monk named
Ye Ses. It is likely that she is the author of a text that bears her name, the "Srii
Surveying the position of women in India
in pre-Vedic times, it is apparent that women enjoyed religious freedoms that became
curtailed under Brahmin dominance. Subsequently, with the spread of Buddhism, there is
evidence of a positive correlation between Buddhist tenets of spiritual equality and
social freedoms for women, as evident in marriage and funeral customs. Although a
preference for male offspring in Buddhist societies is evident, sons are not indispensable
at funerals and extreme forms of discrimination are not found. Women had equal rights in
religious practice and could practice the life of a renunciant as a member of the
Likewise in precolonial Sri Lanka, whether
as wives, workers, widows, spinsters, or nuns, women were respected members of society and
performed duties other than childbearing. They participated in the main economic
activitypaddy cultureand were preeminent in religious activities, a feature
that is still evident today. Nuns not only led lives of seclusion, but as evident in
various texts in the Paali canon, also made significant contributions as scholars. They
excelled as teaches of religious doctrine and religious history and, as missionaries,
undertook long voyages over land and sea to spread their faith. Despite the loss of the
Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha, this tradition of independence has continued for more than two
thousand years, allowing women to play important roles in religion and government. In
recent times, also, it has helped Sri Lankan women face the challenges of modernization
without a violent disjunction from cultural norms.
 C. A. F. Rhys Davids, The Psalms of
the Sisters (London: Paali Text Society, 1980), p. 45.
 Laws of Manu. trans. Georg
Buhler, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 25 (Oxford, 1866), IX.10.
 Ibid., IX. 81.
 Quoted by I.B. Homer in Women in
Early Buddhist Literature, wheel Publication no. 30 (Colombo, 1961), pp. 8-9.
 Government of India, The Lesser
Child: The Girl in India, 1990.
 Laws of Manu, IX.28.
 The Sacred Books of China: The
Texts of Confucianism, trans. James Legge, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 28
(Oxford, 1879), p. 431.
 L. D. Campbell, The Miscellaneous
Works of Hugh Boyd, with an Account of His Life and Writings (London, 1800), pp. 54-6.
In 1782, Boyd was sent as an envoy to the Kandyan court by the British governor at Madras.
 Lt. General Albert Fytche, Burma
Past and Present, vol. 2 (London,1878).
 Bishop Edmund Fieris, ed. and trans.,
Lakraja lo Sirita (Colombo; Ceylon Historic Manuscripts Commission, 1769), pp.
10-11. An English translation appears in an appendix to Anthony Bertolaccis A
View of the Agricultural, Commercial and Financial Interests of Sri Lanka (London,
 Robert Knox, A Historical Relation
of Ceylon (Dehiwala: Tisara Frakasakaya, 1966), p. 149.