When I see an academic book that looks interesting and relevant, my general policy is to buy it and add it to a pile on my desk, ready to be read when I have a moment. The rule is that books have to be at least partly read before they are allowed onto the shelves. Of course, workloads being what they are, sometimes books stay on that desk pile for quite a long time, and the pile climbs ever higher and looks ever more daunting. In the summer I try to make a concerted effort to give these books some attention!
And so it was that this week I finally sat down to read Alice Collett’s 2014 edited collection for OUP, Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies.
The volume is a lovely little collection of studies of some neglected textual sources that provide new perspectives on the position of women in early Buddhism. Because of the authorship and provenance of Buddhist texts, women are too often presented as distractions or dangers to male practitioners (at best) or terrifying and voracious demonesses (at worst). But this volume provides evidence – including in texts likely authored by early Buddhist nuns – that the situation was actually much more interesting than this. From the relatively well known poems of early Buddhist nuns (in the Therīgāthā) to recent manuscript finds, the book covers a delightful range of sources, each one carefully assessed and explored.
Given my interest in jātaka and avadāna literature, it should be no surprise that I was particularly interested in Jonathan Walters’ chapter on the Apadāna and Karen Muldoon-Hules’ on the Avadānaśataka. Both chapters explore the theme of marriage. Muldoon-Hules investigates the presence of Brahmanical marriage rites in the Sanskrit Buddhist Avadānaśataka, while Walters argues that a focus on marriage in the past-life stories of nuns in the Apadāna is part of a strategy of re-writing women into the Buddhist past. In the two specific examples explored by Walters – the apadānas of Bhaddā-Kāpilāni and Yasodharā – the nuns’ stories reinsert these women into the narrative accounts of their husbands, suggesting that the women were not only partners in the men’s spiritual quest, but that the men could not have achieved what they did without their wives.
Sadly the volume does not contain any assessment of jātaka literature, perhaps because it is so vast and so often misogynous, though there are plenty of positive portrayals of women to be found in it too. Maybe writing something on the positive female figures of the jātakas is a job to add to my to-do list, which, incidentally, covers a whiteboard in my office. (Whichever way I face, I see either that big pile of books or that big wall of tasks! All in good time…)