The status of women from the Buddhist perspective

by A.G.S.Kariyawasam

"There is no worse evil than a spoilt bad woman and no better blessing than an unspoilt good woman." - Buddha

Woman's role as mother is highly valued in Buddhism by designating her as 'the society of mothers' (matugama). Her role as wife is equally valued for the Buddha has said that a man's best friend is his wife. (bhariya ti parama sakha:) Samyutta N.i, 37;pts).

March 8 every year marks the International Women's Day which is meant to obtain the rights due to women. This monograph intends to discuss this problem briefly from the Buddhist perspective.

Pasenadi, the king of Kosala, was a faithful follower of the Buddha and was in the habit of visiting and seeking his guidance when confronted with problems, both personal and public. Once, during the course of such an encounter, news was brought to him that his chief Queen Mallika had borne him a daughter.

On receipt of this news the king became distraught, his face falling with a grief-stricken and disconsolate look.

He began to think that he had elevated Mallika from a poor family to the status of his chief Queen so that she would bear him a son and thereby would have won great honour: but now, as she has borne him a daughter, she has lost that opportunity.

Noticing the king's sadness and disappointment, the Buddha addressed Pasenadi with the following words which words, in reality marked the beginning of a new chapter for womankind in general and for the Indian women in particular:

"A woman, O king, may prove

Even better than a man:

She, becoming wise and virtuous,

A faithful wife devoted to the in-laws,

May give birth to a son

Who may become a hero, ruler of the land:

The son of such a blessed woman

May even rule a wide realm" - (Samyutta Nikaya, i, P.86, PTS)

A proper evaluation of these words of the Buddha is not possible without first bringing into focus the position of women in India in the 6th century B.C. during the Buddha's day.

By this time the view had gained ground quite strongly and extensively too that the woman was far inferior to man in contrast to the preceding vedic period when life was simple with the woman enjoying a normal independent life.

It was with the gradual ascendancy of the Brahmanic class with their rigid caste-system that Indian society underwent a dramatic change with the social status of the woman dropping to zero level, when the brahmins had reduced her to the position of the Sudras or suffering class.

Being regarded as unclean, she became reduced to a servile and an abject position thereby being deprived of her right to education to follow her religion, to obtain justice, to inheritance of property etc. To the brahmins she had become an object of pleasure and of service only, with this attitude being amply supported by the brahmanic legal authority known as Manu.

Consequently the birth of a girl in a family was regarded as a disappointing event, ominous and calamitous. The religious tenet that had gained ground that a father could obtain heavenly birth only if he had a son who could perform the ceremony of offering to the Manes, the sraddha-puja, added insult to injury. These super-men were blind to the fact that even a son had to be borne, bred and nourished by a woman in her vital capacity as the mother! The absence of a son meant that the father would be thrown out of heaven! Thus was Pasenadi's lament.

Even matrimony had become a bond of slavery for a woman as she would become fully fettered and tethered to a man as an attendant and a survitor, this undemocratic wifely fidelity being pursued even upto the husband's funeral pyre. And it had been further laid down, also as a religious tenet, that it was only through such unqualified submission to her husband only that a woman could obtain a passport to heaven (patim susruyate yena - tena svarge mahiyate Manu: V, 153).

It was in such a background that Gautama Buddha appeared with His message of liberation for women.

His portrait in this Indian social background, dominated by Brahmanic hegemony, appears as that of a rebel and a social reformer.

Among many contemporary social issues the restoration of due place to women in society ranked quite significant in the Buddha's programme. It is in this context that the Buddha's words to king Pasenadi quoted earlier assume their true worth.

Those were the words of a rebel against undue authority, words of a reformist seeking to redeem woman from her slavery.

It was with remarkable courage and vision that the Buddha championed the cause of woman against the injustice that had been perpetrated on her in the then society, seeking to bring equality between man and woman who constitute two complementary units of a single whole.

In direct contrast to the brahmanic way of confining the woman to the position of a full-time servant, the Buddha opened the doors of freedom to her as He has specifically laid down in His celebrated address to Sigala, the Sigalovada Sutta. In very simple terms here He shows, in the true spirit of a democrat, how man and woman should live in holy matrimony together as partners on par with each other.

He lays down the mutual duties, bounden on both partners, with equal validity and force for both.

Here the husband is advised to base his conduct towards the wife on five main tenets, which are being courteous to her, not despising her, not betraying her faith in him, handing over the household authority to her and providing her with clothes, jewellery and ornaments. Reciprocally, the wife too has to base her conduct towards him on the following main tenets: performing her duties efficiently, being hospitable to relatives and attendants, not betraying his faith in her, protecting his earnings and being skilled and industrious in discharging her duties.

The woman's being a member of the "weaker sex" entitles her to man's protective coverage and related niceties of behaviour which are collectively referred to as 'chivalry'. This virtue seems to be slowly disappearing from the modern social scene perhaps as an unwelcome outfall of the women's liberation movements, most of which are on a wrong course because they have forgotten the very significant point regarding the biological unity of man and woman after the nature's own system.

This implies that a woman cannot achieve freedom from male "chauvinism" or "domination" through a process of isolation form the male because the two are complementary to each other.

When one of the two halves (wife as the better half) moves away from its natural and complementary companion, how can that lead to freedom? It can only lead to further confusion and isolation as has been happening today. Mutual understanding and confidence built on a successful matrimonial partnership would be the most successful path of the gender problem.

The Buddha's Sigala discourse offers a comprehensive recipe for this.

The implication of a certain degree of 'superiority' is man's masculinity is a nature's way which has to be accepted without cause for prejudice to either sex. The symbolical stories of genesis of the world, both from East and West maintain that it was the male that appeared first on earth.

Thus Eve followed Adam and the Buddhist story of genesis in the Agganna Sutta of the Digha Nikaya also maintain the same position. Buddhism also maintains that only a male can become a Buddha. All this without any prejudice to woman.

What has been said so far does not preclude the fact that the woman is heir to certain frailties and failings. Here Buddhism is severely demanding in the field of woman's virtue. Buddha has said in the Dhammapada (stz. 242) that "mis-conduct is the worst taint for a woman" (malitthiya duccaritam). The value of this for a woman may be summed up by saying that "there is no worse evil than a spoilt bad woman and no better blessing than an unspoilt good woman."

Woman's role as mother is highly valued in Buddhism by designating her as 'the society of mothers' (matugama). Her role as wife is equally valued for the Buddha has said that a man's best friend is his wife bhariya ti parama sakha:) Samyutta N.i, 37;pts).

Many a great man has had a woman as his inspirer.

Men whose lives were ruined through women also are many.

All told, virtue claims the highest premium for a woman.

Let the woman's decorative value also be recorded here.

Finally, women who have no inclination for matrimonial responsibilities have the monastic life of bhikkhunis open to them in which field there has been a galaxy of prominent personalities from Mahaprajapati onwards the fascinating Therigathas speak for them.

@ WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka -