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Volume: III, Issue: I, January-June 2012



This paper explores the historical circumstances which gave birth to  the Bhikṣuṇī Sagha and tries to throw significant light on the gendered dimension of this establishment. Buddha, acquainted with the traditional view about the nature of women and aware of the character of the nuns in the Jaina and Ājivika sects, showed reluctance towards women joining Sagha as the nuns. Under pressure he allowed women to be admitted in the Order but prescribed eight strict rules which advocated and established the superiority of the monks as male members. But later on the contact with the foreigners, the Indo-Greeks, Shakas and Kushanas, seems to have brought change in the attitudinal behaviour in the Buddhist culture and society towards nuns.

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The institution of Nuns (the Bhikuṇīs, also called Śramaikā, Pavajitikā or Antevāsinī) living on alms-begging supposed to leading a religious life, existed in the Jaina and Ājīvika sects much before the rise of Buddhism [Jain, 1992:21-22; 26-27; Basham 1966:106-07, 243]. The Brahmaṇical religion also allowed asceticism to an extent [Bihadārayaka Upaniad 4.4; Rāmāyaa 2.29.13; 3.73.26; 3.74.7,3.74.10]. But it was the path of the Buddha which attracted a large number of women, young and old, to join the new order. It created a passion for release (moka/nirvāṇa) and provided atmosphere for the womenfolk to assert their Will, like men, for opting rigorous life of celibacy [Horner 1975]. The establishment of the Bhikṣuṇī Sagha by the Buddha was a long step from individual asceticism to communal asceticism. Thus Buddhism promoted the cause of the rights of women [Horner 1975: 1ff] although one had to obtain permission from one’s family for joining the Buddhist order as the nun. The present paper discusses, in brief, the position of the Buddhist nuns in real life and attitudinal changes in male-dominated Buddhist culture and society between 600 B.C. to 300 A.D.


Buddha had advocated his middle path for all as a means to salvation. He had all praise for household women [Horner 1975:35]. He even thought that a female-child may prove even better offspring than a male [Sayutta Nikāya III .2.6]. But he was against women’s freedom, like the Brahmanical counterpart, considering their peculiar nature. He firmly believed that a woman could not hope to attain the Buddhahood. He explicitly said that a woman will not become an Arhat, absolutely holy and perfectly enlightened [Aguttara Nikāya, III. 2.6].

Actually Buddha had seen the life of the nuns in the Jaina and Ājīvika sects and was well aware of the attitude of the contemporary society towards them [Basham 1966:106-07,243]. Even Jainism thought women as the root of all evils. They were accepted as the destroyer of the celibacy of monks [Dube 1988:46-48] without blaming their counterparts. In the opinion of Coomaraswamy (1956:154) “We must understand that the Early Buddhist want of sympathy with women is not a unique phenomenon, but rather one that is typical of monastic sentiment all the world over. It is based on fear. For of all the snares of senses which ignorance sets before the unwary, the most insidious, the most dangerous, the most attractive, is women”. Due to these reasons Buddha was against women joining the order as nuns, as he was afraid of contortion in the religious order. When pressed by his most trusted disciple Ānanda time and again he allowed his stepmother Mahāprajāpati Gautamī and 500 other ladies to join the Sagha [Culla Vagga X 1.4; Horner 1975:120]. But he laid down eight strict rules (garudharmas) to be followed by the nuns [Horner 1975:121]. These included (i) a nun had to salute all the monks, young and old alike; (ii) she would not spend rainy- season in the area where monks were not living; (iii) she would ask for date of uposatha  (Confession ceremony) after every half-month; (iv) she would admit her fault before both the Sagha. (v) if guilty of a fault she would have to undergo the manatta discipline; (vi) She would be allowed upasampadā initiation after waiting for two years; (vii) She would not on any pretext revile or abuse a monk and (viii) hence forth official admonition of nuns by, monks is not forbidden. Rules were never to be transgressed. These rules, however, breathed with innate superiority of the male in the Buddhist Samgha. Later on, Mahāprajāpati, when asked through Ānanda about the observance of rules of seniority according to their status and not according to their sex, the latter was rebuffed by the master [Horner 1975:121]. 

Women joined the Buddhist Sagha as the nuns due to various reasons and compulsions enumerated in the early Pali literature specially the Therīgāthā  [Horner 1975:174]. These included the death of child, death of husband, husband joining the Sagha, ill-treatment in the family and by other persons, other members of a family becoming monks, failure of ones love affair, marriage with a deformed husband etc. In a few cases extreme beauty of a young woman resulted in her becoming a Buddhist nun. Many women joined the Sagha as nuns on being influenced by the discourses from the Buddha or Buddhist monks and nuns. These nuns who had desire and devotion to spiritual life proved an asset and helped greatly to popularise Buddhist tenets. The Therīgāthā contains 73 verses of which 71 were composed by the Bhikshunis. These verses reflect the intense joy of each women, speak about their spiritual sojourn and appear as an epitome of the thankfulness to the preachings of the Buddha. Evidently many of the Bhikuṇīs had transcended the self and conquered ego, lust and sex. They led a life of compassion and eternal peace [Basham 1966:179 , 458].

The life of the Buddhist nuns in the Order was rigorous and of severe type (Basham 1966: 243). A nun had to live with poverty, chastity and obedience. There were rules for collecting food in alms, putting on robe and even bathing. They were not allowed to avail hospitality from monks. In the matters of writing and learning also there were certain rules. She had to severe the customary conjugal and parental relationships. Economic activity of every type was prohibited. In summary, she had to develop a negative attitude in life. All women admitted to the Order were not ascetic by nature and hence in many cases they were quite unfit to lead a monastic life. We have the evidence of complaint made by the laity (upāsakas) that the nuns were behaving like the women of the world, enjoyers of the senses (gihikāmabhoginiyo), and not like true alms people. There were instances of babies being born of Budhist nuns [Vinaya IV; Horner 1975: 343]. Nuns used to enjoy bath in the deep water in naked form like ordinary women (Horner 1975:230). Once they were bathing at a place where the courtesans used to bath. They remarked that the nuns were like the women of the world. On another occasion they mocked and tempted them to enjoy the pleasures of the senses, and  join the holy life in the old age [Horner 1975:231]. Buddha forbade them to avoid bath used by courtesan and advised to use common bathing places [Horner 1975:231]. In doing so also men of abandoned life has violated them [Horner 1975:231.  On being reported by laity the nuns were forbidden to bathe at the bathing places also used by men. The monks and others also saw a worldly women in the nun. On one occasion  when a nun was not wearing a bodice (sakacchikā) the wind caught her cloth and blew it over her head [Horner 1975: 224; Singh 1986]. Some men saw and shouted after her “Lovely is the waist of lady”. Afterwards a rule was made as a safeguard in the future [Horner 1975:224].

The life of the Buddhist nuns in general, excepting those of a few, was lamentable. Horner has rightly remarked that “a low state of culture and primitive mental development are often revealed by the words and conduct of the almswomen as dominant elements. There are records of frequent attempts to evade the rules; of many squabbles over trifles; of a good deal of self-seeking and lack of mutual help; of slackness; greediness; irregular behaviour. Although many of the details of their life appear frankly lewd and disgusting to us, they are often written down with an engaging intimacy and naivete. Many appear childish and pitiable. All shows us women who knew not what they were missing” [Horner 1975: 243]


The monks and nuns of the Buddhist order seem to have indulged in extra-religious activities even during the time of the Buddha. After his death it took a serious turn resulting in the development of several sub-sects. Time and again attempts were made to divide the Buddhist Saṁgha. The Mauryan king Ashoka had proclaimed penalties for creating schism in the Samgha and had warned monks and nuns to make them wear white garments and force to take up abode in a place other than monastery [Bhandarkar 1955:83:240-43]. Interestingly enough, a sort of soft attitude developed towards Buddhist nuns from the post-Mauryan period. The Milindapañho [IV, 1.28], which records a dialogue between the Indo-Greek king Menander and the Buddhist monk Nāgasena of Sākala, refers that nuns cannot create schism in the Saṁgha, but only a monk. It may be noted here that by this time foreigners had began to join the Buddhist Saṁgha. Their ladies were patronizing the Buddhist order with great zeal hence this type of assertion seems to have been given in the text.


A great change occurred in the life of the Buddhist nuns during early centuries of the Christian era. Under the patronage of the Kushana king Kanishka the Buddhist religion was made broad-based. It came to be styled as Mahāyāna, the great vehicle. In Mahāyāna, the nirvāṇa was not the annihilation of life but its enlightenment. It was not nullification of human passions and aspirations, but their purification and ennoblement. Its enlarged scope led to sympathy for all life-men, women, animals and birds [Kern 1992:167; Basham 1966:270]. The king, his officials and family members became admirers of new religion. The women of the Kushanas enjoyed full freedom and moved in accordance with their sweet-will without any restriction. This type of new environment further influenced the psyche and ideology of the Buddhists [Mukherjee 1988:373]. As the inscriptional evidence shows the number of monks and nuns in the monasteries at Mathura greatly increased which included monks and nuns of Indian and foreign origin [Shukla 1993].  The names of many Buddhist nuns Naśāpriyā of Iran, Buddhadevā, Puṣyahastinī, Buddhamitrā, Khudā, Dinnā and Dhanavatī, the daughter of nun Buddhamitrā’s sister, and their female students are known to us. The all craved for name and fame rather than the cessation of their desires [Shukla 1993:22]. It is in this atmosphere that the railings of the Buddhists stūpas erected at Mathura (U.P.) and Sanghol (Punjab) were embellished with the Kāmuka female figures reflecting the idiosyncrasy of the Kushanas [Shukla 1993:19ff]. We know that the existence of separate monasteries for the nuns but there is also evidence of monks and nuns living together. Monk Bala, who dedicated Buddha image at Sarnatha, was proud of his nun-student Buddhamitrā well versed in the tripakas [Ep.Ind. VIII, 173, 181-82]. Balanandī was elevated to the position of the headship of a monastery (vihārasvāminī) [CII, III, 263]. Buddharakṣitā is referred to as the incharge of new construct (navakammaka) ( List of Brahmi Inscriptions 1250). Amarvati  inscription refers to a nun as instructress (upādhyāyinī) [List of Brahmi inscription 1286]. The Buddhist nuns of this period were rich enough to purchase and dedicate Buddhist images, pillars, etc. to various monasteries. During this period we do not hear of injunctions on their day to day life. Their life appears to be running smoothly. No inhibition of any kind existed in their thought. The Buddhist attitude towards women in general and nuns in particular had completely been transformed under Mahayanism [Shukla 1993:22-23]. They were no more regarded an obstacle in the spheres of spiritual life. In the Buddha-Charit [IX.10] Aśvaghoṣa advocated that the nirvāṇa could be attained even by house-holder (prāpto grihastairapi mokamārga).


To sum up, Buddha, acquainted with the traditional view about the nature of women and aware of the character of the nuns in the Jaina and Ājivika sects, showed reluctance towards women joining Sagha as the nuns. Under pressure he allowed women to be admitted in the Order but prescribed eight strict rules which advocated and established the superiority of the monks as male members. Buddhist teachings provided an atmosphere where women could assert their will to decide for themselves. They became aware of their rights. Nuns were allowed to lead a life of poverty, strict discipline and complete obedience. They were forced to inculcate discipline in life. Only a few women as nuns could excel in the journey towards dhamma. But other nuns, who had joined instantaneously behaved like worldly women. This created problems and strict rules were framed one after another to discipline them. This position continued up to the Mauryan times. But later on the contact with the foreigners, the Indo-Greeks, Shakas and Kushanas, seems to have brought change in the attitudinal behaviour in the Buddhist culture and society towards nuns. The age of the Kushanas saw the rise of Mahāyānism which laid emphasis not on the nullification of human passions and desires but their purification and ennoblement. There were no restrictions on the meeting of monks and nuns as they lived together although there existed separate nunneries. The nuns were rich enough to donate and dedicate images for their monk teachers and also for the well-being and puya of the parents. The nuns appear to have enjoyed materialistic life and felt proud of associating themselves with their monk teachers, students and parents. Many of them were well- versed in the tripiakas.



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