Satha-Anand’s explanation of apparently misogynist Buddhist texts as really anti-sexuality, not anti-woman

Core Buddhist texts, written as they were more than two millennia ago, tend to carry patriarchal social overtones.  Indeed, in many passages in the Tripitaka (especially in the Jatakas) the Buddha admonishes his disciples for their interactions with women.  But as Satha-Anand takes pains to explain, the real issue countered by the Buddha is sexuality and sexual expression, and not women per se.  That his pupils were largely male (as were the conservative norms of the social milieu) his discourses tended to address their concerns and challenges in their spiritual pursuits.  The fact that the Buddha eventually instituted the Bhikkhuni Sangha (a community of female monks) on par with the Bhikkhu monastic order is a reflection of his equal treatment of the genders.

There are passages in the Jatakas where women are treated in disparaging tones.  In one of the tales, “women are compared with lions who eat flesh and blood, animals that take pleasure in hurting and killing for food.  At another place, women are condemned to death, as they do not act loyally…Further, one can even argue that the act of equating sex with women is itself misogynist.” (Satha-Anand, p.115) But as Satha-Anand rightly observes elsewhere in the article, having derived its theological roots from Hinduism, Buddhist rhetoric contains elements of the ‘religio-cultural milieu’ from which it emerged.  And patriarchal Hinduism is that milieu.

We learn of Buddhism’s equitable view of the sexes from its doctrine of spiritual attainment.  The Buddha “confirms women’s potential for enlightenment (and there is the bhikkhunis’ testimony of actual attainment of the Buddhist truth), it follows that sexual attachment, not women, is the ultimate problem.” (Satha-Anand, p.116)  The Buddha was initially reluctant to ordain female monks (bhikkhunis), perhaps on grounds that it would distract the ordained bhikkhus.  But that he eventually permitted their inclusion into the religious order stands testimony to the respect for women’s religious rights.

On the other hand, when one looks at the stringent lifestyle rules imposed on the bhikkhunis, claims of misogyny gathers some credibility.  For example, among the eight strict rules laid down by the Buddha, three of them hint at gender disparity.  They are: “1.nuns, no matter how long they have been ordained, has to show proper respect to monks; 2. Female ordinations need the presence of monks as well as nuns, but not vice versa; and 3. Monks can teach nuns, but not vice versa”. (Satha-Anand, p.119) On top of this other privileges are accorded to male monks while deprived to female monks. The clauses under which female monks can be expelled from the monastic order is also more elaborate compared to the rules applicable to male monks.

While author Satha-anand admits to the infiltration of patriarchal lay-society arrangements within the monastic order, he sees it as an aberration in an otherwise fair philosophical doctrine.  This is most prominent in the verses of seventy-three bhikkhunis found in the Therigatha.  These verses show “their liberation from household chores, attachment to youth and beauty, attachment to their former lovers or family members, and rebirths.” (Satha-Anand, p.120)  Moreover, the bhikkhunis come from diverse domestic backgrounds: some were former householders, some former courtesans, and even a former royal consort.

Hence, I largely agree with Satha-Anand’s assertion that apparently misogynist Buddhist texts are essentially anti-sexuality and not anti-woman.  Instances of contrary evidence, such as those pointed to above, can be seen as the inevitable extraneous influence of patriarchal social norms into the religious order.  But as times changed, the most fundamental of those regulations underwent change as well.  One can also see strong analogies with the Christian tradition, where the papacy and its order is entirely comprised of men.  In Hindu theology too, menstruating women are not admitted inside the sanctum sanctorum of the deity because they are thought to be polluted.  And these apparently sexist rules continue to be valid even today.

Works Cited:

Suwanna Satha-Anand, Buddhism on Sexuality and Enlightenment, Chapter 8, p.113-124.