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The first feminist radicals of South Asia who set women free

In Women’s History Month, we remember the early Buddhist nuns who recorded their experiences and the bold choices they made in 'The Therigatha’ poems

Buddhist nuns offer prayers at Bodh Gaya, Bihar.
Buddhist nuns offer prayers at Bodh Gaya, Bihar. (Getty Images)

According to the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, when the Buddha first established the monastic order, women had no place in it. But his foster-mother, who was also his stepmother and maternal aunt, Mahapajapati Gotami, a royal woman who had become a renunciant after becoming influenced by her son’s teachings, was having none of it. She walked to Vaishali where the Buddha was teaching, along with her 500 female followers, determined to persuade him to sanction the entry of women into his monastic order. She appealed to him three times to allow women to be initiated, but was denied each time.

The Anguttara-nikāya relates: “Then Mahapajapati Gotami stood outside the entrance, her bare feet soiled and her body covered with dust, tired and weeping with grief.” Moved by her determination, the Buddha’s disciple Ananda interceded on her behalf and it was then that the Buddha relented. This was arguably the first recorded account of a woman stepping across the domestic threshold and into the public space to make a political point.

South Asian history is replete with stories of women saints like those of the Bhakti tradition and after, such as Akka Mahadevi, Lal Ded, Andal or Meera. Each of them rejected domestic life and the institution of marriage to take to the streets in search of spiritual life. Ascetic women have been venerated as exceptions who went against the grain, even as the reproductive and sanskari duties of the fecund everywoman continue to be celebrated on a daily basis.

The Therigatha, a circa third century BC collection of verses, makes evident, however, that the first Buddhist women-monks were the foremothers of the later female ascetics of the subcontinent. The poems of the Therigatha reveal a community of women who sought to embrace an exceptional life, by rejecting the patriarchal social norms that had ruled every aspect of their life till the moment that they decided to “step out” and become renunciants.

The Therigatha is an anthology of verses by the theris—the senior ordained women of the Buddhist monastic order who were considered to be exceptionally spiritually accomplished and enlightened women. As scholar and Buddhist lay minister Nona Olivia writes in her article Women Buddhist Masters (International Journal Of Dharma Studies, 2017), the Buddha is said to have acknowledged a number of individuals in the monastic order who were peerless in their virtue, practice and discipline. Amongst these were 13 bhikkunis, or women ascetics, 11 of whom are writers of the verses collected in the Therigatha.

As the text’s translator, Charles Hallisey, a specialist in Buddhist literature, writes in the introduction to the text for the Harvard University’s Murty Classical Library of India, it is the first anthology of women’s literature in the world. He also says that these represent some of the first poetry to be composed in the subcontinent, certainly the first recorded poetry by women in India. Hallisey writes that the last of these poems were composed at the end of the third century BC, most likely in any number of ancient Indian vernaculars, and later translated to Pali, the language of the Theravada Buddhist texts.

Poems Of The First Buddhist Women: Translated by Charles Hallisey, Harvard University Press, 192 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
Poems Of The First Buddhist Women: Translated by Charles Hallisey, Harvard University Press, 192 pages, 399.

The verses of the Therigatha tell us that these remarkable ascetic women, on hearing the Buddha’s teachings, were so transformed that they sought a monastic existence. The verses often narrate the details of the women’s lives before they came into contact with the Buddha. Many of them, we learn, had started on a spiritual journey long before they encountered the Buddha, motivated at times by circumstances, and at others by genuine spiritual curiosity. The theri Mittakali writes: I went forth in confidence from home to homelessness/ I wandered about, looking for gain and recognition. Or take these lines by Bhadda: Once I wandered with hair cut off,/ Covered with dirt, wearing only one cloth…/ I went out from the day-shelter up Gijjhakuta mountain/ Where I saw the spotless Buddha honoured by his monks.

Verse after verse, from the shortest haiku-like compositions to the longest 40-stanza songs, repeat this narrative of women who chose to step away from their homes and families, shaved their heads, donned ascetic garb, and began to live in communes, “day-shelters”, on the streets, or sometimes even in the forests, wandering the streets for alms to live by.

The sheer literary merit of the Therigatha is certainly responsible for the way these verses have endured. But an equally vital reason, as Olivia puts it, is that a majority of the theris’ teachings were based on their “embodied experience as women in society”. In other words, life-stories and memoirs of women living in ancient times—women who lived comfortable lives, those who suffered abuse, others who had families, and those who lost loved ones—all of whom resolved to seek the “freedom” that an ascetic or monastic life offered, a treacherously difficult life, but one which is described by all of them as the only path they could imagine for themselves.

Indeed, these women were up against challenges that perhaps would be difficult for us to even imagine now. They lived in times where the prevalent cultural constraints only made place for subservient roles for women, and yet the Buddhist bhikkunis went up against those seemingly unassailable odds and transformed themselves and their lives irretrievably.

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And the idea of it being irretrievable is important. As historian and feminist scholar Vijaya Ramaswamy writes in her book Walking Naked: Women, Spirituality And Society in South India (1997), “female asceticism, unlike its male counterpart, was without exception, the path of no return”. Perhaps an empowering way to look at this is that women ascetics who opted out of society never chose to return to patriarchal societal norms anyway. One could even say that in the personas of these Buddhist women-saints and in their writings we can see the beginnings of female political agency in South Asia. Because surely, at a time when the only role a woman could play throughout her life was a reproductive or domestic one, to step out of the household, to surrender one’s family ties no matter how precious they were, to familiarise oneself with the alleys of one’s village and city, and to make a commune full of sister-women one’s home, all in order to seek a higher philosophical and spiritual truth, can only be described as a radically political act.

Perhaps the most vital ingredient of the Therigatha is the sense of freedom. This celebration of freedom figures repeatedly in the verses. Some of them resonate with us today in the context of the limited choices that women have access to. The theri Mutta writes: …I am quite free, well-free from three crooked things,/ mortar, pestle, and husband with his own crooked thing. Hallisey goes so far as to suggest, “The world of the ordained women in the Therigatha is one of sexual equality, in stark contrast to the social inequalities between men and women in lay life. It is a keen insistence on the possibility of freedom for women as well as for men.”

But who are these first women who dared to imagine such radical paths for themselves at a time when such departure from the norm was nothing short of a self-declaration of deviance? Let’s look a little more closely at three of them here.

Mahapajapati, first Buddhist nun and Buddha's stepmother ordains. Wat Olak Madu, Kedah, Malaysia.
Mahapajapati, first Buddhist nun and Buddha's stepmother ordains. Wat Olak Madu, Kedah, Malaysia. (Creative Commons)

The women who broke the shackles

Gotami was the sister of Maya, the Buddha’s mother, who died a few days after giving birth to him. She was also Maya’s co-wife, both of them having married the same Sakyan ruler. After her sister’s death, she nursed the Buddha and brought him up along with her own biological children. According to legends, Gotami shaved her head, donned the robes of a renunciant and followed the Buddha from Kapilavastu to Vaishali with a formidable following of Sakyan women.

Charles Hallisey writes, “…Mahapajapati Gotami was followed and surrounded by a great company of accomplished nuns, who were all elder and senior nuns, who were known to the king and who had been living the holy life for a long time.” As the leader of the bhikkuni sangha, Gotami ordained a number of women who joined the order. Her importance to the poets of the Therigatha is clear in the number of times that she is mentioned. The verses conjure a portrait of Gotami as a matriarch who broke with the shackles of domestic duties and took to living a monastic life with other women followers, away from the safety and security of her royal home. However, detractors might put Gotami’s actions down to the fact that she was after all the Buddha’s mother; it was understandable if she was influenced by him and his ideas.

Perhaps a fitting response to such detractors would be to talk of another bhikkuni called Dhammadinna. Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Analayo cites the Anguttara-nikaya in his various works to tell us more about Dhammadinna. It was her husband Visakha who first heard the Buddha preaching and decided to become a renunciant. When he asked his wife what she wanted to do, she responded that she too would like to be ordained. As it turned out, however, Visakha changed his mind and remained a layman. Dhammadinna, on the other hand, became an ordained nun. For the rest of her life, she lived with other nuns in the Buddhist sangha and became a master of meditation. She writes the following sublime lines in the Therigatha: She who has given rise to the wish for freedom/ and is set on it, shall be clear in mind./ One whose heart is not caught in the pleasures of the senses,/ one who is bound upstream, will be freed.

Prince Siddhartha with his maternal aunt Queen Mahapajapati Gotami
Prince Siddhartha with his maternal aunt Queen Mahapajapati Gotami (Creative Commons)

The theri whose story I found particularly engrossing, however, is Uppalavanna. In the Theravada tradition, she is described as a beautiful merchant’s daughter. So beautiful was she that a number of suitors made their feelings known once she was of age and her nervous father, not wanting to offend any one of them, asked her to become a renunciant. She readily agreed and went on to become an ascetic who was praised by the Buddha for her unparalleled psychic powers.

Once, when she was living in a hut in the forest, Uppalavanna was raped by a relative. Following this incident, the Buddha decreed that nuns would not live in the forest. Clearly, the impulse to circumscribe women’s movements to “protect” them from sexual violence is an ancient one. The Therigatha includes a verse by Uppalavanna where, on being threatened with rape, she remains unintimidated and retorts: Maybe I will just disappear/ or maybe I will get inside your belly,/ maybe I will stand between your eyebrows,/ but wherever it may be,/ you won’t see/ where I am standing.

Olivia even describes Uppalavanna’s psychic abilities as “powers beyond normal”. In one of the Therigatha verses, Uppalavanna writes with admirable self-assurance: With those powers, I produced from nothing/ a chariot with four horses.

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A lasting impression of these extraordinary women is their sisterhood. Many of the nuns were ordained by other nuns, such as Gotami or Patacara. In turn, they ordained others. As Hallisey writes, they were “…a collocation of smaller groups of women who [we]re bound together by shared experiences and relationships of care and intimacy with each other”.

A theri called Sona captures the essence of this fascinating tradition of pre-modern mentoring with the following lines: It was after I gave birth to ten sons with this body,/ when I was weak and old that I approached a nun./ She taught me the dhamma.

The narrative of being set free from domestic drudgery by a charismatic female ascetic repeats itself endlessly in the Therigatha. One of the longest poems in the Therigatha, composed by a theri called Isadasi, tells of her life of bondage and suffering till the nun called Jinadatta comes to her home: Then Jinadatta, wandering for food, came to Father’s house./ It was obvious that she was disciplined, learned and virtuous. Isadasi then leaves home, and, presumably under Jinadatta’s guidance, is ordained and joins the sangha.

Women setting each other free, so that they can go forth and set their own course—these first women saints mapped a trajectory that perhaps every woman in South Asia who has stepped out of home to live and work among other women has replicated. Therein lies the enduring power of the stories of these unforgettable foremothers.

Arpita Das runs the indie publishing house Yoda Press and writes on book culture and gender.

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