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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, 2000]
How should the women’s 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?[1]

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 Mara’s abusive words, Soma challenged the notion of women’s 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, women’s liberation movement appeared in the West.

Sri Lanka attracted international attention in 1960 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a woman, was elected the country’s 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 felt.

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.[2] 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, Manu’s 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 individual’s own efforts presupposes the spiritual equality of all beings, male and female. This assertion of women’s 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 assistance.

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.[3] 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."[4] 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.[5] 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 Buddha’s 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 one’s ancestors and oneself depend on one’s wife alone."[6] 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.[7] Wives had only duties and obligations, while husbands had only rights and privileges. In the Buddha’s 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 husbands….The Cingalese neither keep their women in confinement nor impose on them any humiliating constraints."[8] 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."[9] 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 women’s 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.[10] 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 asunder… then she is fit for another man, being as they account never the worse for wearing"[11]

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."[12] 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 husband’s 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 society.

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."


The Bhikkhunii 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 Buddha’s 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 rights.

AAnanda, the Buddha’s 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 monks.

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 women’s 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 Buddha’s 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 Buddha’s 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, saying:

"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 Sri Lanka

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 Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha.

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 text’s 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 capabilities."

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 Candramaalaa-tantraajaa.

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 Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha.

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 activity—paddy culture—and 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.



[1] C. A. F. Rhys Davids, The Psalms of the Sisters (London: Paali Text Society, 1980), p. 45.

[2] Laws of Manu. trans. Georg Buhler, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 25 (Oxford, 1866), IX.10.

[3] Ibid., IX. 81.

[4] Quoted by I.B. Homer in Women in Early Buddhist Literature, wheel Publication no. 30 (Colombo, 1961), pp. 8-9.

[5] Government of India, The Lesser Child: The Girl in India, 1990.

[6] Laws of Manu, IX.28.

[7] The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism, trans. James Legge, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 28 (Oxford, 1879), p. 431.

[8] 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.

[9] Lt. General Albert Fytche, Burma Past and Present, vol. 2 (London,1878).

[10] 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 Bertolacci’s A View of the Agricultural, Commercial and Financial Interests of Sri Lanka (London, 1817).

[11] Robert Knox, A Historical Relation of Ceylon (Dehiwala: Tisara Frakasakaya, 1966), p. 149.

[12] Ibid.



Updated: 1-5-2001

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