Women in Buddhism – The Hindu

Scholars are now exploring Buddhist art and literature through the lens of gender and finding strands of misogyny

Scholars are now exploring Buddhist art and literature through the lens of gender and finding strands of misogyny

All religions emphasize respect for women. However, they all have rather patriarchal, if not downright misogynistic, histories, art, and laws. When pointed out, believers and followers tend to get defensive and insist it is not the fault of the original essence of the religion, but of the later interpreters. Such conversations have long been a part of Hindu, Islamic, and Christian studies, but only now are they emerging in Buddhist study.

Buddha’s mother

Buddhist imagery appears five centuries after the Buddha’s death. At the beginning, Buddha was represented symbolically. Then he was given a body. The only prominent woman in early Buddhist art is her mother. She is shown either conceiving it while dreaming of an elephant, or delivering it holding the branch of a tree, or being visited by her son in paradise after his Buddhahood. Relatively fewer images show his wife, whom he abandons, or even the milkmaid who feeds him. There are of course women in the crowd of people who adore him, and women who are part of Jataka stories.

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Tara, a powerful Buddhist goddess, only appears a thousand years after the Buddha, five centuries after the first Buddhist art. It is part of a new school known as Mahayana where Buddha is more of a deity than a teacher. Buddha is now linked with multiple forms of savior, the Bodhisattva. With Tara, the idea of ​​compassion ( Karuna) enters Buddhist thought. It’s more emotional now, and less intellectual. Tara is represented with a lotus flower. In China, images of a female Buddha appear: Kwan Yin. She grants wishes. She is kind and loving, like a mother.

About 1,500 years after the Buddha, a thousand years in Buddhist art, we find tantric ideas seeping into Buddhism, especially in Tibet and eastern India. Now we find Buddhist imagery explicitly showing sex and violence. Buddha and bodhisattva are shown having sex with female deities, who are sources of esoteric power and knowledge. This ritual sex is considered metaphorical. But still, this remains far from the monastic ideas of Buddha in 500 BCE. This is when we have images of fierce female forms, Dakinis and Yoginis, associated with terrifying forms of Buddha and Bodhisattvas, like Heruka. In principle, the smaller female form embodies wisdom ( pragnia) and the larger male form embodies compassion, but in art the two are rarely depicted as equals, such as the Shiva and Shakti halves of the Ardharnareshwar form. In Hindu tantric art we find Kali dominating Shiva and having an equal if not superior relationship with his male counterpart, the same is never indicated in the Yab-Yum (father-mother) artwork of the Tibetan Vajrayana .

Traditional attitudes

Among the literary texts are Therigatha, a first collection of verses composed by women. These include a woman who lost her child, a former sex worker, a wealthy woman who gave up her fortune, and even Buddha’s mother, whose grief makes Buddha realize the need to let women also renounce society and become nuns. It is one of the first Indian texts that gives voice to women, but it also reflects traditional attitudes towards them. That women were physically weak, intellectually inferior and very sensual, and therefore needed to be bound by marriage and motherhood.

The code of Buddhist monks, Vinaya, has more rules for women than for men, justified by the inherent inequality between male and female biology, which allows men to be more spiritual and women to be more carnal. . After an incident where women had sex with a monk while he slept under a tree, monks were advised to sleep indoors. Monks who voluntarily submitted to feminine charms were declared defeated ( parajita). In the tale of Sudinna, a young monk breaks his vows of celibacy after his aged parents beg him to give his wife, whom he had abandoned, a child so that his family line can continue. When this is revealed, the Buddha urges him thus: “It is better that you put your manhood in the mouth of a poisonous snake or a pit of burning coal rather than a woman.”

According to inscriptions, women of the Satavahana period, when Buddhist stupas were built in the Deccan, were the main donors and therefore may have softened attitudes towards women. But Jataka The tales, through which Buddhist ideas reached the common man, are full of stories that see women as temptations to be feared and admired only when they exercise sexual restraint. Takka Jataka tells the story of a woman who has sex with a man who saves her from drowning, and later with the thief who kidnaps her. Andabhuta Jataka tells the story of how a gambler wins the dice game with a mantra that derives its power from the infidelity of women. In Kunala Jataka, the bodhisattva himself, in the form of a cuckoo, tells eight stories of unfaithful, lustful and untrustworthy women. In Jatakas, Buddha takes 550 forms. Not one is that of a woman.

The Buddhist tradition is full of stories where nuns are warned that their greatest enemy is their body. And so we hear the story of a nun called Subha who plucks out his eye and gives it to the man who keeps praising him. In Japan, we hear of Ryonen, who burns her beautiful face, so that she is allowed to enter the monastic order. In China, Pure Land Buddhism speaks of the paradise of Sukhavati as a place where everyone has a male form and is born from a flower.

Seeds of patriarchy

When it comes to misogyny in India, we often point to the toxic masculinity celebrated on the big screen, or the chauvinistic tales of glamorized gods and heroes. in such epics Ramayana and mahabharata, or to Hindu art where Lakshmi is represented at the feet of Vishnu, for example. We rarely see monastic orders, which privilege male biology, as sowing the seeds of patriarchy. Many historians maintain that several Buddhist beliefs and practices were appropriated by Brahminical orders. However, the list of appropriate ideas never includes misogyny.

Academics have long nurtured the Orientalist image of Buddha as the source of all that is rational and liberal in India, positioned as a traditional counter to the casteist and materialist traditions of Hindu Brahmins. Only now are scholars exploring Buddhist art and literature through the lens of the genre and bringing to light things that have so far gone unnoticed.

Devdutt Pattanaik is the author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.