Misogyny, Buddhism, and International Women’s Day

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:

JA61 Brahmin(=) teaches boy the evils of women: boy cares for brahmin’s aged mother until she propositions him and attacks her son.

JA62 King(=) 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!

JA63 Hermit(=) 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(=) exlains that women are meek when they are in the wrong, but otherwise insubordinate.

JA65 Brahmin’s wife is unfaithful. His teacher(=) 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.

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About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
This entry was posted in Academia, Buddhism, Buddhist texts, gender, Jataka. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Misogyny, Buddhism, and International Women’s Day

  1. Thank you for posting this! I’ve been following your tweets with interest.

    For one of my grad school courses I wrote a short paper on the portrayal of women in the Jataka tales, focusing on the two related tales with the character of Cincanamavika. The “present-day” tale – I don’t remember the number – is a bit more subtle in its misogyny at the start, but towards the end, and in the related, “past-life” tale, it’s along the lines of the tales you’re talking about here. Now I’m curious if Cinca’s tale(s) are among the ones that originated outside of the Buddhist tradition and became incorporated later.

    • Thanks for your comment Claire! Your paper sounds interesting. I too have written about women in the jātakas (see under the Publications tab) though I have not looked into the stories you mention. As far as I know there is no evidence that the Cincamanavika stories began life outside the tradition – indeed, I did not want to imply that all the misogyny is non-Buddhist, as there is plenty of it across early Buddhist texts. I suppose the important thing is to remember that there are multiple perspectives and voices about women in the early texts, and it does no good to only listen to the ones we like the sound of!

  2. Hi Naomi,

    Thanks for this post! I teach Religious Studies to HS students in the US, and we have been looking some at Sid Brown’s book, “Journey of One Buddhist Nun.” In terms of older sources, we’ve also looked at the so-called Eight Heavy Rules and the Mahapajapati story that surrounds them. Do you ever study these with your students? If so, how do you help them to make sense of them?

    (We also talk about ideas in the tradition that do not discriminate against women, including the Buddha’s concession to Ananda that women could attain liberation. I do want them to see that the tradition has many voices, not just one, but it can be hard for them to look past these statements from the founder.)

    Best,
    Andy

    • Thanks for your comment Andy! Ah yes, I often do a class on the history of the nuns order, looking at the apparent reluctance of the Buddha and the eight extra rules, as well as the declaration that women can become awakened. One of the things I have found useful is to discuss the difference between social limitations and soteriological limitations. In other words, do the extra rules prevent the nuns from achieving the same soteriological goals as the monks? The links between these two domains are rather intriguing of course, for example the social limitations placed on the nuns’ order arguably led to its demise, since it could not access the same support as the community of monks. Also, the obvious social limitations of women of the time were easily explained using the idea of bad karma leading to female birth, and from that it is not a big step to the further idea that women are not capable of the same soteriological developments as men, because of their karmic load. In other words, the position of women in society of the time naturally affects the way they were included into the Buddhist path. I also find Sponberg’s four categories of early Buddhist attitudes to women helpful (in his contribution to Cabezon’s Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender) and quite accessible for undergraduates – it helps them to realise that there are many voices preserved in the early tradition. All the best, Naomi

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