It is International Women’s Day on Sunday, and we have marked it this week with a photograph of female staff and students at New College. But, ironically, this week I have also reached a little cluster of misogynous stories in my tweeting of jātaka tales from the big Pāli Jātaka book. It has got me thinking again about the problem of misogyny in early Buddhist sources.
The really problematic stories are numbers 61 to 65, as summarised on my twitter feed:
#Buddha) teaches boy the evils of women: boy cares for brahmin’s aged mother until she propositions him and attacks her son.
#Buddha) wins at dice through power of true verse re evils of women. Opponent tries to keep a girl pure so as to win, but cannot!
#Buddha) rescues girl. Girl seduces hermit. Girl taken by robbers and plans to kill hermit. Girl dies. Hermit a hermit again.
JA64 Brahmin’s wife is difficult. His teacher(=
#Buddha) exlains that women are meek when they are in the wrong, but otherwise insubordinate.
JA65 Brahmin’s wife is unfaithful. His teacher(=
#Buddha) explains that all women are like this, open to all, so he should not be upset.
These are rather troubling for their depiction of women as fickle-minded, unreasonable, manipulative, lustful and deceitful. As story number 62 would have us believe, there are simply no pure women, thus the following verse has sufficient truth value to ensure the king consistently wins at dice:
All rivers wind, all forests are made of wood. All women, given opportunity, do no good.
This little group of stories depict women as simply hindrances to men seeking to do the right thing.
However, we have to see these stories in a broader context. For a start, the mysogynous stories form part of a broader cluster about women, some of which paint a more positive portrait. JA 66, for example, tells of a hermit who accidentally sees the queen naked and becomes consumed by lust for her. The king gives the queen to the hermit as a wife, and she conspires to cure him of his lust by playing the part of a nagging wife. Here the stereotypical beliefs about women are present, but as stereotypes that can help a wise woman liberate a foolish man from his lust. And more broadly in the Jātaka book we find several positive female characters who exhibit such qualities as wisdom, honesty and generosity.
It is also important to see the Jātaka book itself in context. As a huge collection of narrative it contains a whole variety of tales illustrating a wide range of viewpoints. Many of the stories originated outside of the Buddhist tradition, in the wider Indian story pot, and were made jātakas by inclusion in the collection and the identification of a character with a past existence of the Buddha. It would be wrong to take the stories as representing the Buddhist view on women more generally.
That said, we cannot simply ignore the presence of misogyny in some early Buddhist sources. It is important to uncover it, expose it to the light, examine it, and see it for what it is – a product of human history, a history that has largely been dominated by male voices.