These women, even when grieving over a lost child or chronicling a failed marriage, do not see themselves as victims. Instead, they turn their tragedies into steps toward spiritual understanding and freedom. Vasetthi, for example, was so tormented over the loss of her son that she:. Many issues tackled by these women are as vital today as they were twenty-five hundred years ago. Women speak of growing old, of depression, motherhood, childlessness and menopause, of temptation and of loss. They reject materialism and celebrate friendship and community.
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Aparna Sanyal is a National Award-winning non-fiction film-maker. It is believed that Buddha Purnima marks the full-moon summer night that saw the birth of a boy who would go on to teach the world about finding happiness by understanding the true nature of life. Central to Buddhist thought are ruminations on suffering brought on by sickness, old age, disappointment and death.
The Buddha believed that everyone was capable of enlightenment, and yet his reluctance to include women in the sangha is well-known.
We look at some of these themes through the Therigatha , a collection of poems by Buddhist nuns written over a period of over years.
A spiritual quest to understand suffering—ageing, sickness and death—marked the beginning of a philosophical tradition that continues to influence people more than years later. Siddhartha, who the world would go on to know as Gautama Buddha, was born on a full-moon night. His astrological charts predicted fame—either by becoming a great king or a great monk.
His worried father, the head of the Shakya clan, filled his life with luxuries and merriment, hoping to keep him away from despair and darkness that could trigger a turn to asceticism.
That we today celebrate the full-moon night of the summer month of Baisakh as Buddha Purnima, indicates the sad defeat of a father against the destiny his son decided for himself. Three instances of witnessing sickness, old age and death spurred Siddhartha to join an established philosophical tradition in the ancient Indian sub-continent—to set out on personal journeys to seek answers to the only question that seemed to matter: the ultimate truth of reality.
The Buddhist canon contains many references to the ways in which the Buddha, or those around him, exemplified the Buddhist approach to suffering. Some of the best-known stories involve women in various roles, and come from what is believed to be a book written by the first Buddhist women. The poems are renditions of stories, situations and emotions that seem remarkably extant. Depression, loss, marriage, motherhood, betrayal, menopause and death—all feature as causes of suffering, which are then overcome through Buddhist teachings.
Also See Buddhist Caves of Ellora. One of the first poems in the book is by the first Buddhist nun, Pajapati Gotami. Years later, a much older Pajapati who, by then, had no worldly obligations, fought her way into being accepted in the sangha community of monks as a nun. With her were hundreds of women who had lost their families—first in wars, and then to Buddhism, when the men renounced war and became monks. Her reluctant foster son allowed her to practice the Buddhist dharma as a nun, provided that Pajapati and her band of women accepted eight conditions that firmly placed the nuns below the rank of monks.
It is interesting to note that while the Buddha agreed that women were as worthy as men when it came to achieving the ultimate state of enlightenment, yet, perhaps given the societal realities of the time, he was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of nuns being given authority equal to that of monks. However, Pajapati was a formidable woman and with time, questioned some of the conditions she had previously agreed to.
The challenge, unfortunately for her, did not move the Tathagata another name for the Buddha , and the inferior status accorded to women in the sangha continued. Later, Pajapati gained enlightenment, becoming the first Buddhist woman to do so. At the old age of , as she lay dying, she sent out a request to the Buddha—she wanted to see him before passing away.
And so, in her death, the first female dharma follower helped bring about some change—as the rule then stood altered. The story goes that just before her death, the Buddha requested her to perform miracles—to convince other men that women could indeed achieve nirvana. In a verse in the Therigatha , Pajapati speaks of her sister Maya as being, in a way, responsible for suffering being removed from the lives of people:.
Of those struck by sickness and death. Eventually, someone asked her to meet the Buddha. The Buddha greeted her with great kindness, and asked her to bring him one mustard seed from a house that had not seen death. Upon her doing so, he promised, he would bring her child back to life. The Buddhist canon contains many references to the ways in which the Buddha or those around him exemplified the Buddhist approach to suffering In pic: Mahapratiharya mural at the Ajanta Caves , Courtesy: Sahapedia.
However, Kisa was unable to find such a mustard seed, because there was no house that had not experienced death. Through this process, Kisa came to terms with the omnipresence of death; and understood that life and death are one cycle, and one cannot come without the other. Kisa finally buried her son, became a bhikkuni female monastic , and joined the dharma.
In the Therigatha , she says:. This article was also published on Scroll. Understanding Buddhism Through the Therigatha. Knowledge Traditions Literature and Languages. More from Sahapedia. Literature and Languages. Knowledge Traditions Practices and Rituals. Craft of Poetry and Art of Translation: K. Literature and Languages People. Making of a Poet: K. Satchidanandan in…. Infinite Wisdom: The Buddhas of Ananda. Visual and Material Arts Built Spaces.
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The poems date from a three hundred year period, with some dated as early as the late 6th century BCE. It consists of 73 poems organized into 16 chapters. It is the companion text to the Theragatha , verses attributed to senior monks. It is the earliest known collection of women's literature composed in India. The poems in Therigatha were composed orally in the Magadhi language and were passed on orally until about 80 B. Despite small size, the Therigatha is a very significant document in the study of early Buddhism as well as the earliest-known collection of women's literature.
The Murty Classical Library of India is a new multi-volume series of translations of the great literary works of India. The poems contain a wealth of historical detail of the lives of women from a period when we have few other sources. To Buddhists, these verses are significant because they are the inspired utterances of enlightened women. Given contemporary debates over the position of women in Buddhism, these poems are especially relevant today. The verses show ordained, awakened women, teaching other women and leading them to insight.
The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha
The Therigatha, the ninth book of the Khuddaka Nikaya , consists of 73 poems — stanzas in all — in which the early nuns bhikkhunis recount their struggles and accomplishments along the road to arahantship. Their stories are told with often heart-breaking honesty and beauty, revealing the deeply human side of these extraordinary women, and thus serve as inspiring reminders of our own potential to follow in their footsteps. It is also available to read online and in various ebook formats at dhammatalks. Rhys Davids and K.
In the works monks speak of their inner experiences and of nature, and some nuns tell of their daily lives. The songs of the monks are said to have been composed when their authors experienced the bliss of enlightenment. Within the collection about 30 different meters can be distinguished, attesting to the prosodic variety of Buddhist lyrics. Info Print Cite. Submit Feedback.