Women in Early Indian Buddhism

Lead Research Organisation: York St John University
Department Name: Fac of Education and Theology


The aim of the volumes is to present the life accounts of women told in the texts of early Buddhism. The first volume will be about seven women - Dhammadinnaa, Pa.taacaaraa, Uppalava.n.naa, Visaakhaa, Bhaddaa Ku.n.dalakesaa, Khemaa and Kisaagotamii. The chapters dedicated to each woman will begin with a discussion of the textual sources which may, for example, recount the life story of the woman, include verses attributed to her or include her in lists of distinguished bhikkhuniis (nuns) or laywomen. Some of the primary sources I will make use of will be Paali canonical literature such as the Therii-Apadaanas, the bhikkhuniisa.myutta section of the Sa.myutta Nikaaya, the lists of distinguished women in the A.nguttara Nikaaya and the Theriigaathaa. I will also make use of the sections for bhikkhuniis in the Paali Vinaya, the fragments of the bhik.su.nii section of the Muulasarvaastivaada Vinaya and the bhik.su.nii Vinaya of the Mahaasa.mghikaa-Lokottaravaadins. I will draw on commentarial literature such as the Paramatthadiipanii VI: Theriigaathaa-a.t.thakathaa, the sections in the Manorathapuura.nii which contains stories of women, and other commentarial literature such as the commentary and sub-commentary of the Sa.myutta Nikaaya, the Vimaanavatthu and Petavatthu commentaries and the Dhammapada.t.thakathaa. I will also utilize non-canonical works such as the Avadaana'sataka and Divyaavadaana. Further to the textual sources, I will have recourse to archaeological and epigraphic evidence from ancient India, in which can be found, for example, attestation of women who were involved in the transmission of the teachings; roles similar to one ascribed, in the texts, to Pa.taacaaraa. Following the section in each chapter on sources, I will tell a version of the life story of each woman as much as can be constructed from the sources. As an example of the story arc of one of the women, the most common version of the story of Bhaddaa Ku.n.dalakesaa is as follows: Following several births she was finally born during the time of Gotama Buddha. One day, she saw one of the city thieves being led away to be executed. She immediately became infatuated with him and declared that she must have him. Her parents arranged for the thief to be freed to enable this union. After a few days with Bhaddaa, the thief began to plot to steal from her. She became aware of his plan to rob her and instead outwitted him and threw him off a cliff, in some accounts to save herself from being murdered. Following this act, she knew she could not return home, so went forth as a Jain. She learned their doctrines and more, wandering from place to place, engaging with wise men and learning what they had to teach. She became so knowledgeable and skilled in debate that no-one could match her. Finally, she met her match in Saariputta, one of the Buddha's chief disciples, and was converted. She took ordination as a follower of the Buddha and attained the status of an accomplished practitioner. Following the outline of the story in each chapter, I will discuss the variations to the story. For example, in the case of Bhaddaa Ku.n.dalakesaa's story, a very different account of her conversion from Jainism to Buddhism is told in her Therii-Apadaana. Following the discussion of variations to the story, I will explore central issues raised by each story. In the case of Bhaddaa Ku.n.dalakesaa these might be: women choosing their own marriage partners, murder (in self defence), female intelligence and conversion.

Planned Impact

As the AHRC notes in its highlighting of 'Translating Cultures' as an important area of study, there is a 'need for diverse cultures to understand and communicate' and it is of primary importance in relation to societies, cultures and communities of the past and present to ensure 'that languages, values, beliefs, histories and narratives can be mutually shared and comprehended' (http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/FundingOpportunities/Pages/translatingcultures.aspx). The aim of the proposed volume is to do just that. Both in modern Buddhist studies scholarship and amongst modern practitioners in Asia and the West, there has long been a misperception that women in early Indian Buddhism were largely considered inferior and treated accordingly. In my work, I have continually challenged such assumptions. There are many texts detailing named women from early Buddhism in India and, as I have said in previous publications, the simple fact of the existence of so much detailed information on women from an ancient community should in itself speak volumes. Early Indian Buddhism has left to posterity more on women than most other contemporaneous religious communities or ancient civilizations, with only a few notable exceptions, such as the ancient Egyptians. Recasting early Indian Buddhist attitudes to women in this way has a potentially enormous impact on how Buddhist women are treated today. Within certain Buddhist traditions that have continued to the present day women have, for centuries, been denied the option of taking ordination, even though in the early days of the tradition in India women were ordained alongside men. Women who wish to commit their lives to the practice of Buddhism in Southeast Asia are forced to live in imitation of monastic life, not being able to take full ordination. Although these women shave their heads and wear robes, they are not legally recognized as nuns and therefore do not attract the financial support from the government or the lay support that the monks enjoy. Often these women must live impoverished lives in order to practice the teachings and path laid out by the Buddha. Much of this discrimination against women in Theravaada Buddhist traditions comes about from a notion of female inferiority that has permeated the institutions of the Buddhist religion in Southeast Asia, and the same discrimination has been transported to the UK in the setting up of Buddhist organizations in the West. Scholarship on early Indian Buddhism that reconstructs our understanding of women's place in early Buddhism has the potential to challenge assumptions that suggest that the historical Buddha considered women as inferior. My work to date has attracted enquiries from and correspondences with Buddhist monks and nuns around the world, some of whom contact me in order to thank me for my 'reconstruction' of the place of women in early Buddhism. Such correspondences to date have been from the few Buddhist monks and nuns around the world who have enough academic inclination to seek out and read academic articles published in European and North American journals. The production of books on the subject, published by an international publisher, would provide the opportunity for a broader readership and broader dissemination of the research findings.


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Description Significant new knowledge:

My research reassesses textual portrayals of women in early Indian Buddhism. Whilst past research has been conducted on this topic, the new knowledge I offer is based on a new perspective gained from reassessment. One example of a key finding is detailed below.

Historically, in the scholarly study of women in early Indian Buddhism, the texts have been presented as portraying women and their bodies as a 'problem' for monks/men who wish to follow the Buddhist path. Reading the texts in this way, women are the 'problem' because they are sexually attractive/enticing to men. However, a closer reading of the texts reveals that it is not women per se who are being cast as the problem, but rather the adorned and ornamented body. In the ancient Indian milieu, adornment and ornamentation of the body was both a male and female preserve, as identified by several scholars (see for example, Vidya Dehajia's book on Indian art entitled 'The Body Adorned' (2009) or Daud Ali's 'Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India' (2004) ). Daud Ali focuses on the Gupta court, so a time period later than that of the texts I study. He argues that ornamentation is the defining principle of beauty and the early medieval Indian aesthetic. Applying this to the texts I work on, I show that in the majority of cases when women's bodies are referred to, it is the adorned and ornamented body that is the subject of the discourse. If the adorned and ornamented body is the problem, it is not women per se but rather sexual desire and any resulting sexual activity that is being conceptualised as the difficulty. This point is doctrinally endorsed, as the Buddhist path is a path that leads away from desire and indulgence in sensual pleasures.

New resources identified/ New research questions:

In researching for the project, I discovered two sets of underused sources: - the South Asian epigraphic record and commentaries on Buddhist texts. Each has been taken into consideration to some extent in past scholarship on women in early Indian Buddhism, but there has been no systematic, detailed study of each in relation to the question of sex and gender in early Indian Buddhism. Identifying these underused resources has promoted me to ask new research questions, and defined the trajectories for my next research projects. My next projects will be an edited volume entitled 'Interpreting Buddhist Canons: Commentators and their commentaries' and a monograph entitled 'Women in Early Buddhist Inscriptions'. The edited volume will be another major international collaboration, including commentaries from a variety of regions and historical periods and in a variety of languages. The monograph will involve fieldtrips to South Asia to photograph inscriptions and produce site maps. The photographs and site maps, plus a computer-generated 3D virtual tour of a Buddhist site will form the basis of a touring museum and gallery exhibition, created to bring about wider audiences into contact with research on ancient South Asia.
Exploitation Route My reassessment of the position of women in early Indian Buddhism, the time of the historical Buddha, has implications for and impact on the place of nuns and women in modern Buddhist communities. In some modern Buddhist traditions nuns either have lower status than monks or full ordination is denied women. In showing that at the time of the historical Buddha women were treated positively, this provides an historical foundation for modern efforts to lobby for improved conditions for Buddhist women. On the basis of this research, I was invited to give a public address for the 3rd International Bhikkhuni (Buddhist nuns) Day, 2013, and I was also happy to offer an unpublished draft of my monograph to a volunteer helper, who used it as a basis for her PowerPoint presentation and talk for the event to celebrate lives of past Buddhist nuns. The theme for International Bhikkhuni Day, 2013 was inspired by my monograph on lives of early Buddhist nuns.

As noted above and elsewhere in this Outcomes Report, taking the research forward I am interested in ways to bring ancient India/South Asia alive for modern audiences, through engagement with other parts of the public sector.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Enhancing quality of life: My work on women in early Indian Buddhism presents attitudes to and portrayals of women and nuns from the period in a more positive light than prior research. Therefore, my work can provide historical foundations upon which to lobby for improved conditions for Buddhist women today. An example of this can be seen in a recent co-authored article entitled 'Bhikkhave and Bhikkhu as Gender-inclusive Language in Early Buddhist Texts' (see publications list, co-authored with Bhikkhu Analayo, University of Hamburg). One of the key arguments in this article is as follows: In early Buddhist canonical texts the vocative address to monks (bhikkhave) is replete. That is to say, most of the expositions of teachings in the canons appear to be addressed exclusively to monks, as they begin 'bhikkhave', which translated literally means "O Monks". In the article, we present evidence for - what we call - an idiomatic plural vocative in Sanskrit and Pali. We provide examples of this, for instance, a group of three monks being addressed with a plural vocative of the name of one of them - Anuruddha - such that effectively they are collectively addressed as "Anuruddhas" even those the other two have their own personal names. The examples in the article demonstrate that bhikkhave is an idiomatic plural vocative that is intended to mean "Monks, Nuns and all present". The literal rendering of a vocative of just the first member/members of a group should be understood to be inclusive - the intent is to include all other members. The article clears up a debated point, as to why the Buddhist canons appear to be addressed only to monks, and demonstrates that, at the time of the Buddha, nuns were not excluded from the audience. Such knowledge can impact on lobbying for the improved conditions for and promoting respect for Buddhist nuns in the modern world. Increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy: Building on the research done for this project, one of my next projects will result in a touring museum and galley exhibition of photographs, site maps and a virtual tour of an ancient Buddhist site. Many museums in the UK that have collections of artefacts from ancient worlds or ancient civilizations only include contents from Greece, Rome or Egypt. For example, in exiting the elevator of Leeds City Museum to enter their Ancient Worlds collection, museum-goers are presented with an apology that the collections on this floor do not incorporate all societies and cultures of the world. My touring exhibition will heighten awareness of the ancient world of South Asia, and in engaging with other sections of the public sector in the UK, I aim to begin dialogue that can result in new/permanent collections that acknowledge the existence of and contain artefacts from the ancient worlds of South Asia. Fostering global economic performance: As part of the touring exhibition, I am seeking funding for administrative assistance to organize a week long (arts) festival. The event will be called 'Celebrating Women in South Asia: An Arts Festival Plus+'. The festival will run concurrent with the exhibition, and be a week of arts events, academic papers and public lectures. The theme will be women, so for instance, the event might host a female visual artist from India, to present and discuss her work, involve dance and performance pieces that address gender issues, have poetry readings on the subject of sex and gender, or by female poets from South Asia. As well as this, academics from around the world will be invited to give a series of public lectures and academic papers on the history of women in South Asia during the course of the week.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description PhD Scholarship
Amount £73,500 (GBP)
Organisation York St John University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 09/2017
Description Research Funding
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation York St John University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2014 
End 09/2014
Description Students as Researchers
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation York St John University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2014 
End 07/2014