HerStory: The Women Who Walked In The Shadow Of Buddhism

HerStory: The Women Who Walked In The Shadow Of Buddhism

There are stories of women who gave up their lives of luxury to follow Buddha's teachings, of women who did not marry but chose to continue their education, who found solace in Buddhist doctrine

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Tuesday, April 09, 2024, 08:46 PM IST
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Representative Image | Pixabay

The talk #BuddhasDaughters — Women in Buddhism by Dr Radha Kumar, organised by Khaki Tours, became the springboard for a fascinating search on the subject of the condition of women in the time of Gautama Buddha, and later, under the influence of Buddhism.

Dr Kumar is Associate Professor in the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, and she laid out in a brief and precise manner, the socio-economic background of the era, the teachings of Lord Buddha, and the formation of the Sanghas that include both Bhikkus and Bhikkhunis (male and female monks), the upasaks and upasikas (male and female devotees), and the women who defied social norms of the time to follow Lord Buddha’s philosophy.

There is a treasure trove of literary, artistic and archaeological sources that are a documentation of the era available to scholars and researchers. In the slide Society And Women, Dr Kumar lists five names – Mayadevi, Mahapajapati Gotami, Yashodhara, Kisa Gotami and Sujata Senani.

Mayadevi or Mahamaya, was the birth mother of Gautama Buddha, who died soon after he was born. He was raised by her sister, Mahapajapati Gotami, who was also the first woman to be ordained into the Sangha. When she first asked to be ordained, Buddha refused. She then cut off her hair, wore yellow robes and marched with 500 women to Vesali on foot to request again to be included into the Sangha. Ananda, one of Buddha’s chief disciples interceded on her behalf.

According to information on the web, he asked Buddha, “Lord, are women capable of realising the various stages of sainthood as nuns?”

"They are, Ananda," said Buddha.

"If that is so, Lord, then it would be good if women could be ordained as nuns," said Ananda.

"If, Ananda, Maha Pajapati Gotami would accept the Eight Conditions it would be regarded that she has been ordained already as a nun."

Gotami agreed to accept the Eight Garudhammas and was accepted as the first bhikkhuni. By today’s standards the eight rules seem skewed against women — the first one, for instance, states. “A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day.” However, for those times, the freedom and spiritual choices offered to women must have been extraordinary.

The third woman is Yashodhara, the wife of Prince Siddhartha, who left home to attain enlightenment. She gave birth to their only child, Rahula and on the night of his birth, the prince left the palace, leaving his wife grief-stricken. The Wiki on Yashodhara mentions a poem by the famous Hindi poet Maithili Sharan Gupt, in a translation by Gurmeet Kaur, in which he puts words to the abandoned wife’s anguish.

Oh dear, if he would have told me,

Would he still have found me a roadblock?

He gave me lot of respect,

But did he recognise my existence in true sense?

I recognised him,

If he had this thought in his heart

Oh dear, if he would have told me.

Dr Kumar calls her “strong and stoic”— she led a simple life and refused other proposals of marriage. When the Buddha visited Kapilavastu after enlightenment, Yashodhara did not go to see him, but sent Rahula to go to his father and ask for his inheritance. She said, "Surely if I have gained any virtue at all the Lord will come to my presence." Buddha did come to see her — and a mural at Ajanta Caves has represented this scene. Later, Rahula became a monk and Yashodhara entered the Sangha too as a nun, along with the 500 women who had followed Mahapajapati Gotami and later became an arahat (one who attains nirvana).

Kisa Gotami’s story is well known in Buddhist literature. She was the wife of a wealthy man, and after losing her only child she was almost crazed with grief. She was advised by a well-wisher to go meet Lord Buddha. He told her that her child could be brought back to life if she could bring him mustard seeds from a home where nobody had died. After going from home to home in desperate hope, she realised that every family has lost a member and suffered from the loss. She returned to become a disciple of the Buddha, and eventually became an arahat.

Sujata Senani was Lord Buddha’s first female lay disciple and the story goes that she used to go to a particular banyan tree to offer payasam (a rice milk sweet) to pray for a husband and son and her wish was granted, One day she was told that a man was sitting under the tree and she believed the tree to which she had been making offerings had somehow turned human. Sujata brought payasam in a golden bowl to offer to the man who was meditating, and looked emaciated after six years of strict asceticism. He accepted the sweet, then bathed in the river, and threw the golden bowl saying that if he were to get enlightened the bowl would go upstream and if not , it would go downstream. The bowl went upstream, and Lord Buddha was on the way to attaining enlightenment.

There are stories of women who gave up their lives of luxury to follow Buddha's teachings, of women who did not marry but chose to continue their education, women who supported the Buddhist Sanghas, of courtesans like Vimala and Sirima, who found solace in Buddhist doctrine. The most well known story is that of Amrapali (or Ambapali), who invited Buddha for a meal and also donated her mango grove to the Sangha. After hearing Buddha’s teachings she renounced everything and became a bhikkhuni. (The 1966 film starred Vyjayanthimala in the role).

Dr Kumar’s talk was just the nudge needed to start looking into the stories behind names like Vasundhara, Roopananda, Uppalavanna, Patisambhidapattacira, Visakha, Suppiya, Dhammadina, Sumedha, Subhateri. Buddhist literature, not just from India, but countries where Buddhism spread, is full of legends, complicated tales of reincarnation and connections, enlightenment and renunciation. There are several books and documents, carefully preserved palm leaf chronicles and stone edicts.

When King Pasenadi Kosala, a devotee of Buddha, expressed displeasure at the birth of a daughter, Lord Buddha told him that Buddhism does not consider a daughter a misfortune, because men and women can be equally useful to society. Women may not have been considered equal to men in society of the time, or even in the Buddhist Sanghas, but Buddhism was the first religious sect to establish a sangha for bhikkhunis. Just having a spiritual path open up to them in a deeply patriarchal society must have been liberating for women.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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