Editor’s note: this is an extract from Chapter Three of the book “Buddhism, Human Rights and Social Renewal” by Nalin Swaris, which was published in 2000 by the Asian Human Rights Commission. Reporduced by Permission.
From scattered references in the Buddhist scriptures, one can infer that there was greater respect for the dignity of women in [the] republics [of the Middle Country] than in Brahmanised societies. The Brahmin scriptures encourage men to overpower and rape a woman if she does not freely yield to their sexual demands.
In contrast, an elder of the Licchavi-Vajjian federation complained that despite their displays of piety to the Buddha, young Licchavi men were an uncouth lot in the habit of physically harassing young women (Anguttara Nikāya III.75). This complaint would hardly have been made in a culture regarding women as inferior, as mere objects of lust. In the gaṇasanghas, following a matrifocal practice, a beautiful and gifted woman was chosen to symbolise the oneness of the clan. Called the gaṇika, in later periods this term took on the pejorative connotation of courtesan or whore.
In the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta the Buddha praises some customs held in high regard by the gaṇasanghas. This narrative begins with a declaration of war by King Ajatasattu of Magadha on the Vajjian federation. The King declares his determination to utterly crush and destroy this federation and sends his minister of war to interview the Buddha and gather information that may be useful for his military campaign. The Buddha pointedly rebuffs the minister and ignores the latter’s queries. What he does next indicates his concern for the survival of this federation in the face of the aggression planned against it by the power-hungry king. He turns to his companion and aide Ānanda and inquires whether the Vajji-Licchavi federation adheres to seven principles of good governance and ancient tradition. If they do, the Buddha declares, “they would prosper and not decline.” In the context of this text, the following criteria are noteworthy:
- As long as they hold and participate in regular meetings;
- As long as they meet in concord, conduct their affairs in concord and disperse in concord;
- As long as they adhere to their time-honoured traditions and retain their ancient institutions;
- As long as they honour, respect, revere and heed the advice of their elders; and
- As long as they do not abduct women and girls nor keep them captive.
The Buddha’s response to the King of Magadha’s intent to destroy the Vajjian federation was to openly state his concern for its continued welfare. Chafed by the Buddha’s rebuff, the royal advisor excused himself and left.
The Buddha specifically mentions respect for the dignity of women as a condition that will ensure a society’s moral and material welfare. This is of significance because the abduction of women was a common practice among warriors and is lauded in the Brahmin scriptures. When, for example, the already-married warrior hero of the Mahābhāratha, Ārjuna, shows an interest in the sister of his military advisor, the demigod Krishna, the latter urges him: “Abduct my sister, for women do not know what’s good for them.” The Brahmin scriptures contain numerous passages where the conquest of women by force is recommended and praised. A husband’s power over his wife, in Brahmin theory, is based on a primordial right of conquest.
By including respect for the freedom and dignity of women as one condition that would ensure the prosperity of the Vajjian federation and prevent its decline, the Buddha enunciated a criterion by which the level of civilisation in any society can be judged. Centuries later, Karl Marx expressed a similar point of view:
In the approach to woman as the spoil and handmaiden of communal lust is expressed the infinite degradation in which man exists for himself…From this relationship one can therefore judge humanity’s whole level of development (295).
From information in the Buddhist scriptures, it appears that the status of women in the kṣatriya federations of Northeast India was higher than in societies that had come under Brahmin influence and in the monarchical states of the period. It is therefore not surprising that a group of women from the Sakyan gaṇasangha, led by the Buddha’s own foster mother, organised themselves to demand that women be given the same right as men to renounce household life and form a sangha.
These assertive women no doubt based their demand on one of their time-honoured customs, praised by the Buddha, that women should not be kept by force in domestic captivity. At least in the matter of renouncing household life, adult women obtained the same right to self-determination as men. These mendicant disciples – the female bhikkhuṇi and male bhikkhu – are erroneously referred to as “world renouncers”. The Pali term for the act of renunciation is “going forth from the household to the homeless life”.
In the historical context, men and women were in fact renouncing the patriarchal household. It must also be borne in mind that a woman who entered a bhikkhuṇi sangha was not joining a cloistered order of nuns. They were enlisted to perform a public function: that of exemplifying and propagating the ideals of the Dhamma. These bhikkhuṇi sanghas were initially self-governing communes, led by a prestigious “elder sister”. Theravāda Buddhism has preserved the oldest known feminine ‘literature’ in history, the Therīgātha “Songs of Elder Sisters”. In this collection of liberation songs, women speak of perennial feminine sorrow, and how they broke through to freedom and happiness.
Even though the gaṇasanghas of Northeast India were ruthlessly destroyed by despotic kings, their ideals were preserved in the asocietal sanghas founded by leaders like the Buddha.