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The Position of Women in Buddhism

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To be born means, to be born as a male or female. Gender difference is common to all beings of nature. Though such is nature, history shows that the position of women has fluctuated from culture to culture and from era to era. It has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt both scientifically and medically that intellectually, spiritually and aesthetically men and women are equal. The continuity of the human species is ensured through procreation. The bulk of the burdens, sacrifices and responsibilities for procreation are being borne by the female of the species. Hence, there is no reason why a woman should be held inferior to man. This also shows that women are made of much sterner stuff than men.  

Status of women in pre-Buddhist India

In the pre-Buddhist India, the position of women varied from time to time depending on changes in religious ideologies. In Vedic India women held an honourable position in society. According to the Rigveda women had access to the highest knowledge. They also had the freedom to participate in religious ceremonies. In domestic life there was no seclusion of the sexes and women were well respected. There is no evidence of child marriages. However, during the Brahmin period women suffered greatly. For that matter they were classed together with the Sudras said to be the lowest caste of untouchables as well as the dogs and the crows. In fact, Manu’s code of law the most relentless of the Brahmin law givers contains the most anti-feminist diatribes. Manu deprived women of their religious rights and spiritual life. Sudras, slaves and women were prohibited from reading the Vedas.Women could not attain heaven through any merit of their own. Manu elaborated the myth that all women were sinful and prone to evil. According to the code of Manu women do not need to perform any sacrifices or religious rites or observances on their own. Obedience to the husband alone would exalt the woman to heaven. This Brahmin superiority and monopoly was challenged by the Upanishads which questioned the very core of the Brahmin ritual system. But the Upanishads were not powerful enough to completely change the attitudes moulded through a long period of Brahmin supremacy.  
 In certain primitive societies in India, Africa and America wives were regarded as the personal property of their husbands; hence the custom of slaying, sacrificing or burying women alive to accompany their deceased husbands along with their belongings. The best known example is the Sathi pooja or self immolation of high caste Hindu widows; a savage crime which continued until early British times In India. In all patriarchal societies the desire for a male offspring is very strong for the continuance of patrilineage. In the case of Hindus a son was necessary for the due performance of funeral rites as only a son could carry out the funeral rites of his father and thus ensure the future happiness of the deceased. The laws of Manu inflicted domestic subservience to women. The road to heaven was barred to her. Matrimony and obedience to the husband were the only means available for a woman to reach heaven. It was also widely believed that women were intellectually inferior to men and hence had no capacity to reach higher spiritual attainments. Further more, the birth of a daughter was regarded as a calamity by the people of 
ancient India.

Arrival of Buddhism and emancipation of women

The arrival of Buddhism in the 5th century BC, created a minor stir against Brahmin dogma and superstition. Buddhism rejected the caste structure, excessive ritualism and sacrifice.The basic doctrine of Buddhism which is salvation by one’s own effort; presupposes the spiritual equality of all beings both male and female. The Buddha saw the spiritual potential of both men and women and founded after lot of hesitation the order of Bhikkhunis or Nuns; one of the earliest organizations for women in the ancient world. The Buddha Sasana consisted of Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis or laymen and laywomen, so that women were not left out of any sphere of religious activity. Thus, Buddhism accorded to women a position of absolute equality. In early Buddhist literature, one sees an intermingling of the genders.  
During the time of the Buddha, there was in Indian society the widespread belief that woman was inferior to man. The Buddha while granting equality of status to women pointed out that women had an important and dignified role to play in society. He has defined the role of woman in society with great insight, fitting her harmoniously into the social fabric. Also, the Buddha hailed the woman as a lovable member of the household, held in esteem by numerous inter relationships and respected above all as the mother of worthy children. He stressed that sex did not matter and that in character and in her role in society, she may even rival men. The Buddha raised the status of women and made them realize their importance in society. He did not humiliate women but only regarded them as somewhat physically weak by nature. He saw the innate good of both men and women and assigned to them their due place in his teaching. The Pali term used to denote women is “Matugama” which means mother folk. The mother holds an honourable position in Buddhism. So doesw the wife. She is regarded as the best friend or “Paramaskha” of the husband.   
 The hostile and antagonistic attitude to women both in religion and in society which was widespread at the time was roundly criticized and challenged by the Buddha on numerous occasions, In the Kosala Samyutta the Buddha contradicts the belief of the Brahmans that the birth of a daughter was not as much a cause of joy as that of a son. The Buddha pointed out clearly that the woman had a dignified and prominent role to play in the family and in the society. In the “Samyutta Nikaya” the Buddha had said that the woman is the commodity supreme because she is an indispensable utility as Bodhisatvas and world rulers take birth through her. Early Buddhist literature is full of stories pertaining to the women across the board from royalty to commoner who became Bhikkhunis by sheer conviction and attained Arahantship such as Mahaprajapati Gotami, Visakha, Khema, Uppalavanna and hundreds of such others. Just as Arahants Sariputta and Moggllana were made the two chief disciples in the order of Bhikkhus,Arahants Khema and Uppalavanna were made the two chief female disciples of the order of Bhikkhunis. During the Buddhist period in India there were many women who were distinguished for their learning. Theri Sagamitta sister of Arhant MahindaThera had mastered the Vinaya Pitaka. It is said that she taught the Vinaya Pitaka, the five collections of the Sutta Pitaka and the seven treatises of the Abhidhamma. Among the Bhikkhunis, who came to Anuradhapura and taught the Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma were Anjali, Uttara, Sapatta, Channa, Revati, Angamitta and many others. It is evident that the Buddhist doctrine had imbibed a marvellous impact on many women, who were moved by the power of the Dhamma and renounced the world to lead a pious life.   

Women’s position in Buddhist societies

Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka at a time when both men and women in India were actively involved in its practice. In Sri Lanka too Buddhism evoked considerable interest irrespective of gender. This fact is clearly evident from the cave grants and the Pali chronicles. From the very inception of Buddhism in Sri Lanka both men and women were ordained as monks and nuns respectively.It is well known that the highest in the land together with their near and dear ones opted for ordination. Theri Sangamitta arrived in Sri Lanka accompanied by ten Bhikkhunis and they set in motion a succession of Vinaya teachers. Chinese chronicles have recorded visits of Sinhalese Bhikkhunis to Nanking in the 5th century AD followed by the establishment of the Bhikkhuni order in China. Historical records in Sri Lanka have clearly established that there were flourishing Bhikkhuni Vihares belonging to the Mahavihara, Jetavana and Abhayagiri sects up to the 10th century AD. The Chola occupation of Sri Lanka in the 11th and 12th centuries caused widespread damage and destruction to the Buddhist monasteries and institutions which resulted in the disappearance of both the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sasanas from the country. Fortunately for the monks some Sinhala Bhikkhus who had taken refuge in Burma were brought back by King Vijayabahu and the Bhikkhu order was restored. Unfortunately the Bhikkhuni order had perished for good and to this day it remains in 
total disarray.   
 In Sri Lanka their is ample historical evidence to establish the participation of women in all religious observances and activities from the very inception of Buddhism without any let or hindrance. Several rulers honoured their mothers and wives by naming temples and monasteries after them. The naming of temples and monasteries after females seemingly did not bother the resident monks. Also, up to medieval times there were no restrictions on female employment in monasteries, a practice which is quite unacceptable today. In Sri Lanka there were no religious taboos with respect to women. It is abundantly clear that women did not lead cloistered lives. While the women of the upper classes took part both in politics and religion; all women rich or poor took part in religion freely and devoutly. In Buddhism death is considered to be a natural and inevitable end. As a result woman suffers no moral degradation on account of her widowhood. In Buddhist societies a widow was not called upon to advertise her widowhood by shaving her head and relinquishing her ornaments nor was she required to undergo self mortification or pay any penances. Above all there was no barrier to her remarriage. Also, they had the right to remarry after divorce. It is therefore clearly evident that Buddhism saved women from suffering various indignities, granted them near equality with men and retrieved the widow from abject misery. More important than the equality of status that the women in Buddhist societies enjoyed was the non segregation of the sexes. Segregation of the sexes in many non Buddhist societies has resulted in the seclusion and confinement of women behind veils and walls.  
 The Buddhist injunctions on the marital relationship is reciprocal containing mutual rights and obligations. Among Buddhists, marriage is a contract between equals. However, in Buddhist societies including Sri Lanka, there is a façade of husband domination. On the subject of terminating a marriage contract it is seen that in most cultures the woman is irretrievably bound by the chains of matrimony while the man can shed his shackles easily. In Buddhism marriage received no religious sanction and in the absence of a Buddhist legal code like the laws of Manu of the Hindus or the Sharia law of the Muslims, the dissolution of the marriage contract was settled by the individuals concerned or their families. Down the ages women in Buddhist societies have enjoyed equal status as Buddhism does not consider women to be inferior to men. In fact the husband is admonished to consider the wife a friend, a companion 
and a partner. 
The present day liberal attitude towards women in Sri Lanka is a trend that has continued from the remote past obviously under Buddhist influence. The position of women in many Buddhist countries especially in Thailand and Myanmar has been as favourable as in Sri Lanka. This is in direct contrast to the position of women in several non Buddhist societies as evinced by the veiled women of Islamic societies, the zenanas where high class Indian ladies lived in seclusion, the harems of imperial China in which thousands of concubines lived guarded by eunuchs and the devadasis of India who in the name of God were forced into a life of prostitution. Thus compared with the neighbouring Hindu, Confucian and Islamic societies women in Buddhist societies have enjoyed a much higher degree of freedom, independence and more often than not even equality 
of status.    

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  • Farook Hamid Thursday, 04 May 2017 08:57 AM

    You are right Buddhism teaches all Buddhist women should be equal to men and have all the freedom to think do what man can do what they want like in America. Even Buddhist Japan also like America.


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