By Ven. Lokānanda Bhikkhu.
Buddhism was founded by Sakyamuni Buddha, about 600 BCE. His teaching was aimed, from the very beginning of the mission, towards the welfare of every living being both male and female, without exception. Yet, at the very beginning, his monastic order (Samgha) was organized with male participants only. It was, indeed, due to the influence of the contemporary Indian society from which the Buddha himself came, that he had to organize the monastic order with the male participants alone excluding the females, who were not given equal right in the prevailing social system. One should bear in mind that the Buddha was challenging the Brahmanical social system of the time. He did not want to change the current social taboos immediately without further necessary observation. He certainly needed time to introduce his reformative social philosophy to ultra conservative Indian society. In the Brahmanical tradition, social as well as religious conditions and day to day affairs were regulated by the Manusmriti, (Law of Manu), and the ‘constitution of the Brahmanic society’. The Law of Manu is a composition of the Brahmanic lawgiver, Manu, who is said to have lived about 800 BCE. He is also a personification of the God Brahma himself, creator of the universe. Therefore, whatever law is given is from the God himself. Nevertheless, the Buddha’s criticism of the Brahmanical tradition made Buddhism vulnerable. As a result Buddhism was forced from India by its Brahmanical rivals. Buddha’s teaching was so catholic and democratic that people, from the top to bottom, from slave to king, showed kin interest in it. In his rival society the Buddha did not hesitate to accept women, was a great challenge to Brahmanical orthodoxy.
The Buddha could not keep females out of the order too long, since that would be contrary to his own teaching. Therefore, on a later date with the ordination of his stepmother, Mahāpajāpati Gotamī, the Buddha organized a nun’s order (bhikkhuni Samgha), subsequently opening the door of final liberation for women as well.
However, my aim of this short paper is to give a concise outline of the position of women in Brahmanism and Buddhism as depicted in certain canonical as well as non-canonical texts of both traditions. It is geographically such a vast area and historically as so diverse that it is impossible for us to encapsulize all the issues in a short paper such as this. This paper therefore, will concentrate on childhood, marriage, career, widowhood, and religious life of women in the context of female institutions of both traditions. I will also use ancient Indian literature which reflects the condition of woman in ancient India; and compare this material with our area of survey. Since the literature dealing with Indian social conditions (and women’s position as well) is so vast, we would use only a few works, viz., the Manusmiti, (or Laws of Manu), Buddhist Nikāya as well as Buddhist Sanskrit literatures. Here we have chosen the Indian Brahmanical tradition as our main field of study and comparison, since Buddhism stood against the social conditions of Brahmanical tradition. We also would give some critical thought to certain statements of the Pali tradition which reflect anti-female attitudes. We will look at some modern works as well. This paper is based on the personal observation of the contemporary women’s movement in the West, and study of the relevant Buddhist literature and modern scholarship.
Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is the cessation of suffering (dukkha nirodha), which meant an ultimate freedom from suffering not only in this present life alone, but for all future births—a total ‘blowing out like a lamp’ and since the Buddha’s teaching was aimed towards the cessation of the suffering, his emphasis was in leading one’s life according to the Middle Path (majjhima paṭipadā) avoiding both edges, self-mortification (Attakilamatānuyoga) and sensual pleasure (kāmesu kāma sukhallikānuyoga), which virtually led one to discipline oneself through meditation. That is one of the reasons why Buddhist literature does not cover every aspect of the secular life of a person in detail. However, if we study the Buddhist texts carefully along with their commentaries, we would be able to find a solution to virtually any problem. This assumption lies behind the present study.
The appearance of Buddhism in conservative Indian society in 600 BCE was not only a turning point in historical terms, also a very important landmark in the history of the women’s liberation movement from the standpoint of contemporary feminist thought. Women at that time were either housewives or mothers, and they had no opportunity to achieve either Nirvana or spiritual freedom in terms of the cessation of suffering, or material freedom in terms of the householder’s life. This was the case regardless of a woman’s position in society.
The Buddha’s was a teaching for everyone, – beyond the criteria of race, color, creed or gender-, who could come to live according to the Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni). The Buddha personally was happy in teaching to a woman or a group of women; and it was not long before women requested the Buddha to ordain them into the fold of the Saṁgha as Bhikkhuni. It seems the Buddha, as some of the early Buddhist Texts indicate, was reluctant to accept them immediately. Here the Buddha’s reluctance reflects nothing more than his patience and his observation of Indian society, since he was not sure how the masses would react to his challenge. However, since there were female participants in other Indian religious systems, it is possible that such a factor might have encouraged the Buddha to open the door of monastic order for women, yet, understandably under certain unfavorable conditions. Thus an early Buddhist (vinaya) text states:
“Ananda, if women had not been permitted to go forth the from the home unto the homeless life under the Norm-Discipline set forth by the Tathagata, then would the religious life last long, the Good Norm would last, Ananda, a thousand years. But now, Ananda, since women have been permitted to go forth from the home unto the homeless life… not for long will the righteous life prevail; only for five hundred years, Ananda, will the Good Norm stand fast.
Just as, Ananda, whatsoever families have many women and few men are easily molested by robbers and pot-thieves, even so, Ananda, under whatsoever Norm-Discipline womenfolk get permission to wander forth from the home into the homeless life, not for long does that righteous life prevail.
However, the authenticity of such a statement of the Buddha requires critical examination on the ground of the cohesiveness of the teachings and the history of Buddhism. Buddhism has survived Two Thousand Six Hundred years by now, so the above mentioned quotation, it seems, does not fit with the historicity of Buddhism. On the other hand, if the Buddha’s prediction, of Buddhism’s surviving Five Hundred years after the women was admitted to the Saṁgha, was to fulfill by now, Buddhism would have disappeared a few centuries ago. Contrarily, Buddhism is spreading geographically more and gradually among the intellectuals. Buddhist texts survived for many centuries orally until they were collected and canonized in the early Christian era, and it is possible that, critically speaking, certain chauvinistic males who undertook the duty of canonizing them might have integrated such anti-feminist statements into the texts. The monks, we must bear in mind, often came from the higher classes of Indian society, which denied most rights to women, including the participation in religious rites and rituals. Their background conditions were too strong. Thus Richard Fick observes that the class-conscious Buddhist monks not only knew very well the Brahmanical theory of caste system,
“but (it) was so strongly imbedded in their consciousness, that they could not free themselves from it, although in all probability, they were quite convinced of its incongruence with the real world as well as of the worthlessness of the caste”.
A recent study on this area by Uma Chakravarty shows that among the 101 direct disciples of the Buddha, there were 39 members from Brahmanic background, 23 from Kṣatriya, 23 from Vaiṣya, 8 from Sudra and 8 from other social backgrounds. The Pali canon were written down on palm leaves, students learnt them by heart, prepared commentaries of them, made marginal notes on them which, it is possible that later on a disciple inserted such a marginal comment into the main canon, it is a pure speculation here; and above mentioned quotation could be one of those marginal notes. Therefore, which part of this statement was Buddha’s own and which part was inserted by monks to a later date, is hard to determine.
However, because of certain hardships like childbirth, and menstruation prevalent to physical conditions, which were considered less advantageous than man (which presumably made them likely unqualified for the strict monastic life). Nevertheless, these physical conditions were, perhaps, limited to certain women only, such as, mothers of new-born children, a state which would prevent them from pursuing rigorous monastic practice. It is also a reflection of an Indian social taboo which Buddha did not wish to change immediately, since he tolerated social customs not harmful to any individual. This is also due to the fact that women were not allowed to travel (even as a wandering nun) alone in ancient Indian society. Therefore, it is understandable that the Buddha was worried for their physical safety. On the other hand, it is also due to the fact that very few women during the time of the Buddha had received any formal or informal educational training; and it was generally an accepted taboo that women could never achieve supreme knowledge (Bodhiñāna). Such a prejudice continued for generations or even increased after the passing away of the Buddha. The Therīgāthā indicates clearly that any woman could attain Arhathood or supreme knowledge if she were to remain firm in her practice and discipline. A nun by the name of Somā, for example, a direct disciple of the Buddha, gained higher knowledge claiming that her ‘True Being’ transcends indeed gender difference, and her understanding of the Teaching went beyond any division in nature. Thus the Therīgāthā runs:
“…Then Mara, the Evil One, desiring to arouse fear, wavering, and dread in her, desiring to make her desist from concentration thought, went up to her, and addressed her in a verse;
‘That vantage-ground the sages may attain is hard to reach.
With her two-finger consciousness that is no woman competent to gain!’
Then Soma thought… ‘Sure’ tis Mara!’ … and replied with verse:
‘What should the woman’s nature do to them
Whose hearts are firmly set, who ever move
With growing knowledge onward in the Path?
What can that signify to one in whom
Insight doth truly comprehend the Norm?
To one for whom the question doth arise:
Am I a woman in these matters, or Am I a man, or what not am I, then?
To such an one is Mara fit to talk!”
The Buddha himself said, while answering a question as to whether or not woman could attain Arhathood, that it is quite possible as long as she strives with the discipline. Such a statement indicates that the Buddha saw no inferiority in women. Thus the dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple Ven. Ānanda runs:
“Now, Lord, are women… able to realize the fruit of… perfection?
The Buddha replies:
Women, Ananda, having gone forth from home into homelessness in the dharma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, are able to realize the fruit of stream attainment or the fruit of one-returning or the fruit of non-returning pr perfection.
However, physical conditions may create difficulties in undertaking the wandering life, as indicated earlier. Because he believed that the women could attain Arhathood, the Buddha allowed women to become nuns (bhikkhuni). It is also important to note that the nuns not only were capable of attaining higher knowledge (Bodhi), but also sometimes were greater in number than their male counterparts. Thus Mrs. C. A.F. Rhys Davids observes:
“It is suggestive point that the percentage of Sisters’ Psalms, in which the goal achieved is envisaged as Emancipation, Liberty won-about 23 per cent- is considerably greater than the corresponding proportion in the Psalms by the Brethren (13 per cent).
Nevertheless, such a Bhikkhuni order which was democratically organized social institution virtually led women to the door of both spiritual as well as material freedom in India; and by allowing women into the monastic order the Buddha brought a firm confidence to the institution. As a result of the open-door policy of the order of Buddhist nuns, women came to join the Saṁgha from different areas of society. The Therīgāthā gives us stories of certain nuns: Khemā, who was a queen of the king Bimbisāra, joined the Saṁgha and was able to gain great wisdom; a Nandā, who was a Sakyan by birth, after joining the Saṁgha gained remarkable meditative power; and Ambapālī– a courtesan by profession, of Vesali; and Patācāra – a daughter of a wealthy parents who married a servant and later on became a widow. The last joined the Saṁgha and became chief among those very proficient in the discipline.
A Buddhist women’s life could be surveyed basically under five stages viz., childhood, marriage, career and religious life. A female child’s birth in Brahmanical society was not particularly welcomed, for a girl when grown up would leave the family and subsequently would bring no good result in terms of wealth or the security of aging parents. The Brahmanical Law-Giver sanctioned condemnation even if the wife gives birth to a daughter only. But Buddhist families were more accepting of a female child. In fact, no discrimination was made between a male or female child. The Sanyutta Nikāya, one of the early Buddhist Texts records that when the Queen Mallikā gave birth to a daughter, the king Pasenadī was rather broken-hearted reflecting the contemporary social taboo. Then the king went to see the Buddha and reported to him. The Buddha thus said:
“A woman child, O lord of man, may prove
Even a better offspring than a male.
For she may grow up wise and virtuous,
Her husband’s mother rev’rencing, true wife.
The boy that she may bear may do great deeds,
And rule great realm, yea, such a son
Off noble wife becomes his country’s guide’s.
There is in the Therīgāthā the case of the nun Ubbiri, whose motherly love for her daughter became a classic example for all mothers; and one Isidāsī.who was extremely beloved by her parents.
In Brahmanical society, a woman had limited freedom of marrying outside of her own class group. A high class man was prohibited from marrying a woman from a lower-class. In doing so he degraded not only himself, but also nine future generations! Thus the Law-giver sanctions:
“By marrying a low caste woman through the intoxication of desire (passion), a twice-born one degrades himself, with the nine generations of his progeny, to the status of a Sudra.”
Such a sanction does not end at that point, but enlarges the privileges for the upper class. Thus Law-Giver further sanctions:
“A Sudra woman is the wife of a Sudra; a Vaisya can marry a Sudra or a Vaisya wife, a Ksatriya can take a Sudra, a Vaisya or a Ksatriya wife; and a Brahman can marry a Sudra, Vaisya, Ksatriya or a Brahman wife.”
On the other hand, contrary to the Brahmanical tradition, a member from a Buddhist family was allowed to marry a girl or boy from any other class. Since there was no social stratification in Buddhism, an individual was given freedom to select his or her partner. Buddhist literature gives us sufficient evidence regarding the rejection of the Brahmanical class system not only in the case of matrimony, but in other spheres as well. One Patācāra, for example, who was born to a banker of Srāvasthi, married her childhood sweetheart, a member of a lower-class, a Dāsa (that is Sudra), against the wishes of her parents, who were from one of the upper classes. Even the King Pasenadī of Kosala, a devout follower of the Buddha, married a daughter of the garlandmaker Mallikā of Kosala.
Dowry and wedding arrangements did not preoccupy a Buddhist family. Various Jātaka stories also show that Buddhist laywomen were allowed to travel freely to listen to the preaching of the Buddha whereas the Brahman housewives would stay home under the guidance of the head of the family. Such a rapid change had its social effect on other areas such as marriage, which resulted in a more equal arrangement between the partners. Now a Buddhist wife could share the authority in choosing the family business or day to day affairs. When the Buddha ordained, for example, his biological child Rāhula- which was a matter of individual choice, people criticized the Buddha. Since his was a democratic institution, the Buddha later on had to agree with the criticism and sanction a policy of obtaining the permission of the parents before an ordination.
During the married life, however, a Buddhist family shared a quality of life built on mutual respect. So the Sigālovāda Sutta of Dīgha Nikāya states thus:
“In five ways should a wife… be ministered to by her husband:- by respect, by courtesy, by faithfulness, by handling over authority to her, by providing her with adornment… wife maintained to by hr husband… love him:- her duties are well performed, by hospitality to the kin of both, by faithfulness, by watching over the goods he brings, and by skill and industry in discharging all her business.”
Contrary to a Buddhist family, the rights of a woman or wife were denied in the Brahmanical family. Thus the Law-Giver states:
“Day and night women must be kept in dependence by makes (of) their (families), and, if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyment, they must be kept under one’s control.”
In the case of widowhood, a Buddhist wife was never required to, as was the case in the Brahmanical society, commit sati– a crucial custom in which a wife jumps over the cremation pyre of her late husband in order to follow the ideal of eternal wife, or renounce the householder’s life, but as a Buddhist woman she could remarry as she wished and raise a family again.
However, marriage and motherhood were no longer considered a barrier as they were in contemporary Brahmanical society. The Laws of Manu gives us quite a few examples of how women should be kept under the control of father, husband and child as they grow old. Thus Laws of Manu states:
“Her father protects (her) in childhood, her husband protect (her) in youth, and her sons protect (her) in old age; a woman is never fit for independence.”
Furthermore, the same Laws firmly denied a woman any undertaking of the religious practice or sacrifice. Thus the Manu states:
“For women no (sacramental) rite (is performed) with sacred texts, thus the law is settled; women (who are) destitute of strength and destitute of (the knowledge of) Vedic texts, (are as impure as) falsehood (itself), that is a fixed rule.”
However, in religious life, a Buddhist family life was based on the principles of Buddhist ethics. One was to observe the Five Precepts (pañcasīla), viz. abstaining from injuring any living being, stealing others’ things, sexual misconduct, telling lies and taking intoxicants. Beside these precepts, one was also supposed to perform meritorious deeds in order to secure a better life in future lives. Such deeds might include charity, meditation, etc. On the other hand, in monastic life, although the Buddha allowed women to become nuns, he placed them under eight additional restrictions. They are as below:-
Why such additional precepts were given to the nun is unclear and should be investigated. Here the commentarial tradition may be helpful. It seems that the extra precepts were for the betterment of the nuns as far as the contemporary Indian society was concerned. Thus Dr. Nalinaksa Dutta observes;
“The restrictions stated above were actually meant for the nuns under training, and could not have applied to a bhikkhuni who had attained one of the four fruits of sanctification. Celibacy, austerity and strict mental discipline wee the key notes of Buddhism”.
Nevertheless, one of the most frequently cited quotations of the Buddha regarding the monk’s relationship with women is:
(Elder Ānanda asked the Buddha)
“How are we to conduct ourselves, Lord, with regard to womankind?
As not seeing them, Ananda
But if we should see them, what are we to do?
No talking, Ananda
But if they should speak to us, Lord, what are we to do?
Keep awake, Ananda.”
Most women would hold that this quotation expresses the negative attitude of Buddhism towards women, but such a position misses the cohesiveness of the dialogue, the participants of the dialogue, as well as the principal purpose of the monastic life in Buddhism. It is also possible that such a statement, as mentioned earlier, was inserted by a monkish author into the canon. It is well known fact that when the Buddha engaged in dialogue he first observed the listener’s assembly, listerners’ background, intellectual capacity, social rank, wisdom and so forth, Here in this case the questioner was a monk, who was supposed to lead his life in celibacy. Also the teaching of the Buddha leads one towards detachment. A mendicant, whether ordained or not, was asked to meditate on the ugly side of the human body (known as the ‘asubha bhāvanā or asubha jhāna or concentration on the impurity of the body) in order to achieve detachment (virago) from worldly things. In this practice a mendicant concentrates on each part of his or her body; such as I have in this body kesā (hair or the head, lomā (beard, hair of the body, nakhā (nail), dantā (teeth), taco (skin) and so forth. (There are 32 parts in a human body according to Buddhist anatomy.). Therefore, when the Buddha asked Ven. Ānanda to ‘keep awake’, it meant that a monk should mindfully ‘speak’ or ‘see’ it as it is (yathābhūtañānadassana), as an object of impermanence (aniccatā), conflict (dukkhatā) and senselessness (anātattā) in nature.
There is some plausibility to the assertion that this dialogue between the Buddha and Ānanda was a later interpretation. In the Vinaya texts, especially in the Pātimokkha section, we read the Buddha recommended that the monks instruct the nuns (bhikkhuniovādo) on various occasions, one particular occasion being Uposatha. Also, most alms-giver at that time, as it is now, was women. In fact, this is still the case in all the Buddhist countries. If a monk was not to ‘speak’ or ‘see’ women, how could he instruct them or receive alms from them! Nevertheless, if you ‘speak’ or ‘see’, the Buddha suggested, ‘keep awake’ to the realization that this body is made up of those 32 impure elements. Therefore, the Buddha’s suggestion constitutes a form of meditation on the vanities of the world (nibbidhāya), and leads to absence of desire (virāgāya), cessation (nirodhāya), tranquility (upasamāya), understanding (sambodhāya) and finally towards deliverance (nibbānāya). On the other hand, if such a question had come from a nun, we can speculate that the Buddha might have replied in the same manner. If the questioner were a lay person, then Buddha’s reply would have been rather different, as in the case of the Sanyutta Nikāya. When the Queen Mallikā of Kosala gave birth to a girl, the King Pasenadi was upset and reported it to the Buddha, but Buddha’s response was an appropriate, worldly answer (as noted above).
Despite the charges of an anti-woman attitude in early Buddhism, it should be pointed out that the Buddha preached the ‘dharma’ (teaching) for the benefit of many, for the welfare of many, including female. Many of the Buddhist sutras indicate that the Buddha counted his assembly as fourfold; bhikkhum vā (monks), bhikkhuni vā (nuns) upāsakas vā (laymen) and upāsikā vā (laywomen). Such a scheme suggests that the Buddha did not discriminate between men and women. Thus I.B. Horner summarized the whole issue in a few lines:
“Summing them up: it is said that the seer won enlightenment for both almsmen and almswomen, laymen and laywomen, and taught the Dhamma equally to all four branches of the Congregation; that the virtues or bad behavior of the members of these four branches would have an analogous effect on the persistence or disappearance of Dharma, and would affect the Community for good or ill; that women may have the sane spiritual limitations or the same mystic power as men; that almswomen may grow and become as much as almsmen may; that Gotama would no die until he had gained wise and disciplined almsmen and almswomen, laymen and laywomen as his disciples; that women may conform to the same type as men in their relation to the Superman; and tat they may all be guarded and protected by a safety rune.”
The period 100 BC to 100 AD was crucial in the development of Buddhism. Many Sanskrit works were composed during this period. A separate synod was held, and the Tripitaka (the Buddhist canon) was either re-written in the Sanskrit or collected in a modified form. The Mahāyāna school of Buddhism was pursuing a democratic reform within the institution giving male and female an equal position not only in monasticism, but also in lay society. The male dominated Hīnayāna (or Theravāda) Saṁgha had to give up overall control. Buddhahood became more accessible to everyone, and every sentient being was granted a chance to be a Bodhisattva (a being whose very essence is enlightenment). Within the Hīnayāna the position of a Bodhisattva is reserved for one particular individual, a male, seeking Buddhahood. It is in this period that the ideal of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (the god of mercy) was developed. Buddhist missionaries carried this ideal to Central Asia, then to China and further East. However, by the six century the veneration of Avalokitesvara became popular, but in a different name and form as Kuan-yin, a female deity in China. It is also interesting that the ideal of Avalokitesvara itself is a religious syncreticism of Indian, Greek and Persian elements in which a mother figure is the pivot. A terra-cotta female figure found in the archaeological site of the Mohenjo-Daro in modern Pakistan indicates a popular female worshiping cultic practice in fertility. Mahāyāna Buddhism also considered the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra as the source of all energy; even Buddhahood (or the Ādibuddha) also originates from it. Prajñā, of course, is a feminine noun, and this is already highlighted in the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, is also the goddess ‘Tārā’– a female deity worshipped in Nepal, Bhutan, Sikim and Tibet.
When Mahāyāna Buddhism emerged in Nepal and Tibet the position of the women there also was upgraded. Mahāyāna Buddhism emphasized very much on the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra (the supreme wisdom) which became a female deity and was worshipped not only by the laypeople but also by the clerics. A statue of such a deity, Prajñāpāramitā, is seen on the alter of most Buddhist temple in Nepal, Tibet, as well as China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and many other countries where Mahāyāna Buddhism is found. In Tibet and Nepal, a number of feminine deities arose who became an integral part of the religious belief-system. The most famous besides the Prajñāpāramitā, and probably the most popular, is the goddess Tārā. She is considered to be the savior as well as mother of the universe. She protects and fulfills her followers’ spiritual destiny. The place of women in Mahāyāna Buddhism was, compared to the Theravāda school of Buddhism, more favorable; due to the fact that there was a growing democratic movement behind the institution opposing individualistic philosophy of Theravāda School.
And with the appearance of the Vajrayāna school of Buddhism, especially in Tibet and Nepal, the position of women became more important not only in the social level but in sacred affairs as well. A woman’s participation in religious practices was required for the attainment of the ultimate spiritual goal in Vajrayāna. The ‘Prajñā’ (wisdom) is symbolically a female figure, and the ‘Upāya’ (skilful means) that of a male. Therefore, the coming together of ‘Prajñā’ and ‘Upāya’ results in the realization of ‘Sunyatā’, the Supreme Knowledge. Thus bLama Anagarika Govinda summarizes:
“The becoming conscious of this sunyata… is prajna.. or highest knowledge. The realization of this highest knowledge in life is enlightenment (Bodhi…), i.e… if prajna (or sunyata), the passive, all-embracing female principle, from which everything proceeds and into which everything recedes, is united with the dynamic male principle of active universal love and compassion, which represents the means (upaya…) for the realization of prajna and sunyata, then perfect Buddhahood is attained…
The process of enlightenment is therefore represented by the most obvious, the most human and at the same times the most universal symbol imaginable: the union of male and female in the ecstasy of love, in which the active element (upaya) is represented as a male, the passive (prajna) by a female figure… in which the female aspect is represented as Sakti, i.e., the active principle, and the male aspect as Siva, the pure state of divine consciousness of ‘being’, i.e., the passive principle, or the ‘resting in its own nature’.
In Buddhist symbolism, the Knower (Buddha) becomes one with his knowledge (prajna), just as man and his wife become one in the embrace of love, and this becoming one is the highest indescribable happiness, mahasukha… The Dhyani Buddha (i.e., the ideal Buddhas visualized in meditation) and the Dhyani Bodhisattvas as embodiments of the active urge of enlightenment which finds its expression in upaya, the all-embracing love and compassion, are therefore represented in the embrace of their prajna, symbolized by a female deity, the embodiment of highest knowledge”.
Vajrayāna Buddhism was developed by, and was popular among, lower-class men and women of India, the victims of the unjust discrimination of the Brahmanical tradition. Because of the social injustice and discrimination these so-called lower class people- both male and female, had to find a place where they could practice religious rites and rituals; and Buddhism gave them a place which in turn resulted a separate school of philosophy as well as a religious sect.
We have seen the position of women both in Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions. We also have subjected some Buddhist textual statements which reflect an anti-female attitude to a critical examination in order to determine whether or not they could be attributed to the Buddha himself. We also have seen how the position of the women was upgraded within the Buddhist family; and later on how the image of the women was deified in Buddhist countries and worshipped not only by women or men alone but by monks as well. We can hardly avoid concluding that Buddhism accorded women a better position than any other Indian religious traditions. However, the final question presents itself: Is it possible for a woman (to be a) Buddha? Such a quest, as Diana Y. Paul pointed out,
“was raised only by Mahayana Buddhists particularly those who proclaimed one path to universal Buddhahood (ekayāna). For these Buddhists, all men and women equally had the nature of the Buddha.”
The answer awaits the appearance of a female Buddha in this saha world.
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Ven. Lokānanda Bhikkhu
Department of Religious Studies
University of the West
Rosemead, CA 9177