Book review: Women in Buddhism

by PREMA NANDAKUMAR, The Hindu, July 8, 2008

Kolkatta, India -- Perhaps there was a time long, long ago when all the songs in Theri Gatha were known to the Tamil people.

The land might have drawn comfort and inspiration from women renunciants like Sundari and Chela to produce a sublime epic like Manimekalaiyin Turavu (The Renunciation of Manimekalai). However, though we hail Sathanar’s epic, Theri Gatha, which forms part of the Pali canon, remains a closed book for the contemporary Tamil reader.

A. Mangai has done well to present them in a free translation (with helpful introductory notes), by relying mainly on the English version from Pali by Ms. T.W. Rhys Davids. Mangai’s own Tamil study has done the rest in making a comprehensible recording of the voice of women renunciants who lived 18 centuries ago.

She is right in pleading for space to seek feminist thought in Buddhism instead of reading it only as an alternate religion.

Spirit of democracy

Uma Chakravarti’s critical introduction has subtle reflections on patriarchy. How come the Buddha is eulogised for his act of betraying a wife’s trust? But then, in a society where men do not inform their legally wedded wives of their liaisons and even publicly boast about the chicanery, the Buddha’s going away without telling Yashodhara might have been considered a lesser evil as he renounced material comforts too.

It was only when the Sakyans and Koliyas had a bitter war over building a dam across the River Rohini that Mahaprajapati Gautami compelled the Buddha to allow an order of nuns. She had noticed a real social problem of aimlessness with an increasing number of war-widows, women whose husbands had become monks, and ladies ill-treated by a patriarchal society. Life in a nunnery could help them focus on spiritual enlightenment.

The Buddha imposed “eight disabilities” on the nuns, but the women took up the challenge and succeeded in a remarkable way. Housewife or courtesan, they found a cherished place in the democracy of Nibbana.

Each came up by individual penance and occasionally recorded her feelings. There is spirit in Muddha engaged in domestic drudgery but has her mind established in Nibbana; courage in Sala and Abhaya who reject lust; hope for humanity when a slave-girl Punnika becomes a spiritual instructor; physical daring in Kundalakesa who kills Sadhuka; absolute fearlessness in Subha who plucks out her own eyes; Kissa Gautami, Khema, Vimala, Mahaprajapati Gautami herself: heroines all! There are even Theris who are anonymous.

Mangai’s Theri Gathai also brings the message that Tamil literature is getting back into translation mode; a sure sign of its enrichment in this century.

THERI GATHA - Pauththa Pikkunikalin Padalkal: (Tamil) A. Mangai; Sandhya Publications, Flat A, Nutech Vaibhav, 57-53rd Street, Ashok Nagar, Chennai-600083. Rs. 100.