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Buddhism and Position of Women in the Society

Buddhism and Position of Women in the Society

Development of different religions and philosophies affected human society by implementing moral and ethical norms. These changes influenced social structure, including gender relationship. The example of such evolution was Buddhism that developed in India in the 4th century B.C. Hinduism that was the dominant religion defined a rigid society structure. The position of women was inferior to that of men. Caste restrictions aggravated the situation further. Buddhism has drastically changed the state of things. In spite of critical attitude to women and femininity, the role and significance of women in the Buddhist communities has gained greater importance. As compared with Hinduism, Buddhist doctrine was more progressive in its attitude to women and offered liberation to women of that time. The current paper will analyze the gender roles in Buddhism, attitude to femininity, and status of women in early Buddhist communities.

Pre-Buddhist Status of Women

In the time of Gautama Buddha, India was a developed agrarian society with a structured religious doctrine. Brahmanism, the variation of Hinduism prior to the advent of Buddhism, has restricted the female role to serving a man. Thus, the position of a woman was inferior, and subordinated to a man. A woman was not independent; she was a chattel, completely in possession of her husband. A woman could achieve some social position only in marriage and in a close connection with that of her husband. The male principle, practiced in accordance with Vedas-Upanishads, has justified exclusion of women from religious and social life. Women could not practice religious rites, preach or even study sacred texts. Manu, Hinduist sacred text, strictly defined the spiritual possibilities of woman: “Women do not need to perform any sacrifice or follow religious rites or observances on their own. Obedience to the husband alone would exalt the woman in heaven” (as cited in Barua 75). In sensual relations, women were also subordinated. Child marriages were a social norm. The arrival of Buddhism has changed the position drastically.

Place of Woman in the Buddhist Doctrine

Buddhism appeared in the time and area that needed changes in the social and religious life. Sponberg connects the emergence of factors, enabling the implementation of new philosophy, religion, and ethics with the movement of population to the eastern valley of the Gang River and emergence of cities (4-5). People living in marginal zones were more tolerant and less constricted by traditional religious norms. Their communities were more democratic than those in the central part of India were. Therefore, a new liberal and attractive religion that stressed personal efforts for salvation rooted in those lands. Respectively, women have played a more significant role than in traditional Brahman society.

Gautama Buddha always spoke about women with respect on condition they were pious. Although his doctrine contains certain restriction and biases concerning women and femininity, it leveled gender inequality as much as possible. If the Buddhist view on the women’s role may seem old-fashioned and surreptitiously sexist in the modern world, but it was revolutionary at the dawn of its history.

Buddhism induced great changes in the society and in the attitude of women, in particular. First, women received more rights, as well as social and financial protection. Young girls, widows, and unmarried women enjoyed more respect than ever before. In a well-known passage, Buddha admits that a girl child can be better than a boy child (Barua 75). Emancipation applied to slaves and also bonded servants; Buddhism released them from bondage. Buddhists did not approve of child marriages. Widows were allowed to remarry. Financial security was another progressive innovation concerning women. To marry daughters out, fathers gave them wedding-portion. Unlike dowry, it remained woman’s property after marriage, and she could take possession of the wedding-portion as she wished.

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Second, the spiritual life and salvation were not confined to men alone. Some years after establishing a male order of monks, Buddha has set up Bhikkhunis, the order of female monks. According to the legend, his stepmother and secular wife became the first nuns and female propagators of Buddhism (Barua 77). Thus, women received the possibility to study, practice, and preach the new religion. Becoming a Bhikkhuni ments not only resigning from family pleasures and duties; it was above all spiritual freedom and freedom of movement (Barua 78-79). The Buddhists have recognized and admitted the intellectual and spiritual potential of women to attain the level of arhat – individuals who reached complete liberation from suffering, in accordance with Buddha’s doctrine (Sponberg 6). The teacher had many followers among women; some of them equaled to or surpassed his male disciples in religious progress. Some of the most distinguished women, mentioned in the Buddhist texts, are Maha Pajapati Gotami, Kundalakesi, Yasodhara, Isidasi, Kisaagotami and Patacara (Barua 78).

Laywomen could also be blessed, but they had another path. A laywoman had to master her role as a wife and a mother. Performing the “eight classic duties” was the way to enlightenment for a common woman. Part of the duties that focused on the household and the family included organizing efficient functioning of the household, taking care of servants, pleasing the husband, and managing husband’s earnings. Duties, aimed at spiritual development, included religious devotion, practical virtue, kindness, and tolerance (Barua ). An unmarried woman could stay in the society and look after her parents and siblings or become a nun – both roads were equally respectable.

As in the traditional society, motherhood was a source of respect to women. However, Buddhism regarded any woman, even the one who did not have children, as a potential mother (Barua 76).

Ambivalent Attitude to Femininity

Despite emancipation and greater independence of women, Buddhism demonstrates an ambivalent attitude to them. The roots of this lie partly in the established social conveniences and practices of Brahmanism , and partly in the ascetic and monastic essence of Buddhism. Besides, in Gautama’s time, women enjoyed greater freedom, trust, and respect as independent individuals, than in later times (Sponberg 6). However, Sponberg singles out four distinct attitudes to women and femininity in Buddhism, namely soteriological inclusiveness, institutional androcentrism, ascetic misogyny, and soteriological androgyny (Sponberg 8-29).

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Soteriological inclusiveness has been partially explicated in the preceding part of the paper. As Buddha aimed his teaching at liberation of the whole humanity, his teaching embraces women as well. Therefore, neither sex nor caste, could hinder an individual on the way to enlightenment. Buddha does not foresee separate tools for liberation; both men and women have to follow the same path (Sponberg 9). Such an attitude logically springs from Buddha’s repudiation of self; thus, sex could not play any role in spiritual achievements. However, some doubts about the possibility of women to gain liberation lie not in their sex identification, but in constraints, connected with femininity. Child-bearing, as well as child-rearing, for example, imposes certain constraints on the active spiritual life and links a person to earthly concerns.

Institutional androcentrism developed after Buddha’s death; it lies in male prevalence and domination in institutional Buddhism. The dominance of men resulted from the need of internal authority and external social acceptability (Sponberg 13). While the male monk order of bhikkhuns already existed, it took three attempts before Gautama agreed to establish a female order of bhikkhinies. The possible reason was that people were not immediately ready to accept and tolerate female wanderers and preachers. Finally, the order of nuns became secondary to the order of monks (Sponberg 18).

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Ascetic misogyny was rooted in the monastic life and revealed itself in a highly negative response to femininity. The criticism of women, as the source of seduction is aggressively hostile. In Anguttara Nikaya, Buddha describes women as uncontrolled, envious, greedy, and weak in wisdom; that is the reason why they cannot “reach the essence of the deed” (cited in Sponberg 18-19). Bodily desires, aroused by women, can ruin men; they consider women susceptible to sensual temptation more than men due to their natural lack of self-control. Some texts aggressively point out that women actively seduce men to ruin their spiritual accomplishments. Additionally, the natural feminine function of child-bearing creates strong links to the mundane, which hinder the cause of liberation of Samsara and cause next lapse into rebirth.

Soteriological androgyny results from the idea of inferior female qualities. Buddha admits that women can reach liberation from desires and suffering. However, they need male nature to proceed to the highest stage. Only after rebirth in a male body with male gender qualities, the soul can obtain its absolute liberation (Sponberg 26).

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Buddhism was a great advance in the cause of emancipation and liberation of women, though it was not its primary aim. Women in Buddhist communities enjoyed greater independence, financial and social rights than their Hindu peers. Moreover, they received a possibility to lead a spiritual life and exercise religious practices. Despite the ambivalent attitude to feminine issues, women received authority even in religious matters. From the female standpoint, Buddhism offered liberation to women not only in the spiritual sense but also in the broadest range of everyday life aspects.