The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition

The following talk was presented to the Spiritual Arts Growth and Enlightenment Society (S.A.G.E.S.), Jambudvipa, InWorldz on Sunday, March 9, 2014, and the Buddha Center, Buddhism sim, Second Life on Tuesday, March 11; Saturday, March 15, 2014; and Sunday, March 30, 2014.



The Traditional Indian View of Women in the Early and Late Vedic Period

Indus Valley Civilization

Aryan Incursion

Rigvedic Period

Later Vedic Period

Developments in 6th–5th Century BCE India

The View of Woman in the Shakti and Samana Countercultures




Evaluating the Buddha’s View Toward and Treatment of Women

The Sex Life of the Buddha

Negative Views of Women in the Pali Canon

Positive Views of Women in the Pali Canon


The View of Women in the Early Buddhist Councils

The First Buddhist Council

The View of Women in Buddhism Today


List of Works Consulted


In the middle of December 2012, a 23-year-old woman was attacked, gang raped, and beaten with an iron bar on a public bus in Delhi, India. She and her boyfriend were then pushed out of the bus into the street. Her boyfriend escaped with his life, but the woman died of massive internal injuries. This incident, which made the headlines worldwide, underlines a serious problem, not just in India, but also in all of Asia and, indeed, the whole world. It was not an isolated incident. A month later, another woman was raped in similar circumstances. Studies show that 25% of Asian men have committed at least one act of rape. In some Asian countries, the percentage is as high as 50%. In India, 53% of children have been sexually abused. Parents who do not wish to have female children routinely abort female fetuses, and it is common for female children to be intentionally malnourished and uneducated compared to boys. At the same time, Bollywood films fetishize sex in the most sensational and vulgar ways and portray women as sex objects.

The situation in Buddhist countries is better, but women are still often relegated to second-class status. The order of female monastics, the bhikkhunisangha, has died out in most Buddhist countries. This is due to the discriminatory rules that were imposed in ancient times to keep the nuns “in their place.” In Theravada countries, nuns, where they exist at all, are forced to comply with 311 monastic rules, compared to 227 for the monks.[1] A nun with 100 years’ seniority must defer to a monk of one days’ seniority. In Thailand, it is actually illegal for a woman to wear robes as a nun. Were she to do so, she would be charged with the crime of impersonating a monastic! Religious Buddhists accept this because they are taught that this is how the Buddha set it up.

In the West, an alarming number of Buddhist teachers, in different traditions, have been implicated in sex scandals of one sort or another. VisionTV has published an exposé of this subject entitled “In the Name of Enlightenment.” In Nepal, suicides of monks, disgraced for sexual infractions, are a common occurrence (personal communication).

In this talk, I will discuss the status of women in pre-Buddhist India as well as the India of the Buddha’s time in order to establish context. I will then critically evaluate the Buddha’s own sexuality and the attitudes to women and sexuality attributed to him in the Pali Canon, especially in the suttas. I will discuss the context in which the rules for monks and nuns were codified in the Vinaya during the First Buddhist Council and later, including the philosophical or “theological” implications of this discussion. Finally, I will conclude with a survey of the status of women in the Buddhist world today and consider the significance of this discussion for the Dharma Transmission to the West. Finally, we will observe two minutes of silence in memory of the women and children who have been sexually abused worldwide, and we will dedicate the merit of this talk to them. This talk will also be posted online, on my blog, with references and will be open for comment.

The Traditional Indian View of Women in the Early and Late Vedic Period

Indus Valley Civilization (3500–1300 BCE)

Ancient Indian civilization originated in the 4th millennium BCE. It extended from northeast Afghanistan in the west to Pakistan and north-west India in the east. It flourished until about 2000 BCE. At its peak, it included about five million people and is considered one of the three great civilizations of antiquity and the largest in extent (1.6 million km.2). Indus Valley seals have been discovered as far west as Sumer. This was a Bronze Age civilization that developed new techniques of handicraft and metallurgy, including copper, bronze, lead, and tin. It was a highly organized, mercantile society that included urban planning, baked brick houses, elaborate drainage systems, water supply systems, and large, non-residential building complexes. The Indus Valley civilization is also referred to as Harappan civilization, named after Harappa, the first site to be excavated in the 1920s. Over 2,600 archeological sites have been identified. Although the Indus script has yet to be deciphered, many scholars consider it to be related to Dravidian, an Indo-Aryan language the descendants of which are still spoken in southern India and elsewhere.

Not much is known about Harappan culture. It appears to have been a class-based society consisting of religious, merchant, and worker classes.  The recent discovery that men moved into their bride’s homes suggests a matrilineal influence and that women were powerful and perhaps even equal to men.  This is in striking contrast to other ancient civilizations, which were generally patriarchal and oppressed women. Clay figurines of goddesses have also been discovered. “The women portrayed on the seals are shown with elaborate coiffures, sporting heavy jewelry, suggesting that the Indus Valley people were an urbane people with cultivated tastes and a refined aesthetic sensibility” (Lal, 2013). Gupta (2002) says,

One of the most known figurines is perhaps the `dancing girl’ (in bronze) naked but for a necklace and a series of bangles almost covering one arm, her hair dressed in a complicated coiffure, standing in a provocative posture, with one arm on her hip and one lanky leg half bent.  This face has an air of lively pertness quite unlike anything in the work of other ancient civilizations.  Her thin boyish figure and those of the mother goddesses found here, indicate incidentally, that the ideas of female beauty among the Harappan people were very different from those of later India. … The Harappan people also made rough terracotta statuettes of women, usually naked, but with elaborate headdresses. These are certainly icons of the mother goddess and are so numerous that they seem to have been kept in nearly every home.  They are crudely fashioned so historians assume that the Goddess was not favoured by the upper classes who commanded the services of the best craftsmen, but that her effigies were mass-produced by humble potters to meet popular demand.

The Indus Valley civilization is generally regarded as having been relatively pacific.

Aryan Incursion (1500–1200 BCE)

The indigenous Indian society was disrupted after a period of internal decline, possibly related to environmental factors and resulting economic decline, due to a series of conflicts with patriarchal, militaristic tribes originating near the Black Sea, the so-called Aryans. This “invasion” is referred to in the Rigveda. The Dravidians were then pushed down into Southern India. It seems that these conflicts resulted in the progressive assimilation of the local Harappan culture, reviving the Indus Valley civilization that led to the Vedic period that became the basis of historical Indian civilization to the present day. The Aryans introduced the consumption of Soma, possibly ephedrine, a kind of amphetamine, possibly mixed with poppy and cannabis, to Indian religion. The inspiration of the Vedas themselves was attributed to Soma.[2]

Rigvedic Period (1500–1000 BCE)

The view that ancient Harappan culture conferred a special status on women is consistent with the scholarly consensus that the women of ancient India enjoyed a unique status very different from the misogyny that we find in India today. Gurholt (2004) suggests, “sexism and patriarchy are contrary to the fundamental teachings and beliefs of ancient Vedic and Buddhist philosophies.” Although she recognizes that Indus Valley civilization was probably also patriarchal, she specifically associates the qualities of patrilinealism, patrilocalism, and patriarchy with the Aryan incursion that promoted the institution of Brahmanism. She concludes, “The Indo-European Aryans contributed to and heightened the hierarchical, patriarchal, social structure of ancient India.” Nevertheless, during the early Vedic period women enjoyed many rights and privileges, including: participation in society, including tribal assembles and religious ceremonies; education; choosing one’s own husband; marrying more than one husband; voluntary remarriage of widows; divorce; and the pursuit of spiritual development, including the practice of asceticism. In addition, the practice of child marriage was unknown. Many of these rights and privileges are attested in the Vedic texts themselves, despite the fact that they were written by and for men. Even the rishis, the reputed divine seers (lit. “hearers”) who authored the Vedas, included women. “The Rig Veda mentions Romasha, Lopamudra, Apala, Kadru, Visvavara, Ghosha, Juhu, Vagambhrini, Paulomi, Yami, Indrani, Savitri, and Devajami. The Sama Veda adds Nodha, Akrishtabhasha, Sikatanivavari, and Gaupayana. In Mahabharata 12, on the other hand, there is the post-Vedic list of Marici, Atri, Angiras, Pulaha, Kratu, Pulastya and Vashista” (Wikipedia, 2014, March 13). In addition, Gurholt (2004) also cites Sulabha (Mahabharata), Maitreyi (Rigveda), and Gargi (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad).

Later Vedic Period (1000 BCE–500 BCE)

During the later Vedic period, the dominance of Brahmanism led to increasing patriarchy. Interestingly, the rise of Brahmanism corresponded to the replacement of the consumption of Soma by symbolic ritual enactment (the “fire sacrifice”), and finally the formula for Soma itself was forgotten. Female divinities were relegated to second-class status, and women progressively lost the rights and privileges they had previously enjoyed. An increasingly rigid gender hierarchy was enforced. Women were secluded and became less able to participate in society. Their role was confined to the household, where their exclusive duty was seen to be obedience to their husbands. Education and participation in the tribal assemblies was forbidden to them. They were not encouraged or allowed to pursue the spiritual life. This included studying the Vedas. Vedic study became the exclusive prerogative of male Brahman priests. Arranged marriages and child marriages were instituted. Women were not allowed to divorce their husbands or inherit their property; widows were not allowed to remarry. Female chastity came to be viewed as a valuable commodity, conferring social status on the family. Women were regarded as chattel, and they could be given away or loaned like any other property. The practice of sati, in which the widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, was celebrated as the supreme act of filial devotion, and veiling (purdah) was required. Women were equated with the sudra, the lowest caste of slaves or servants in the Brahmanic four-caste system.

These developments appear to correspond to a schism that occurred in Vedic society during this period. This schism was associated with two classes of Vedic deity, the asuras and the devas (a.k.a. suras). Originally the asuras (lit. “lord”) were a class of superior devas who inhabited the realm of the 33 gods (trayastrimsa) on top of Mount Meru. The names of many asuras refer to natural abstractions, rather as in Native American spiritualism, Indus Valley civilization, etc. A new cult of deva worship emerged during the late Vedic period that declared the asuras demonic and began to persecute the older group of asura worshippers. The new deva worshippers were authoritarian. They supported the superiority of the Brahmans, the caste system, and were they were misogynistic. The conflict between the asura and deva worshippers was mythologized. In the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent the deva worshippers achieved pre-eminence, whereas in the west the asura worshippers maintained their prestige, demonizing the devas in return. The latter became the foundation of Zoroastrianism in Iran, with the supreme god Ahura (Asura) Mazda, the god of Wisdom, at its head.

Developments in 6th–5th Century BCE India

By the time of the Buddha,[3] the traditional Brahmanic culture had become completely ossified and decadent. The Vedic beliefs were no longer relevant to the new iron-age society. Prosperity, money, and trading were increasing, greatly enhancing the social status of the merchant and worker classes, but social relativism was causing widespread social and spiritual questioning and discontent. This resulted in new philosophical movements and religious sects in the Middle Gangetic Plain. Interestingly, this is the same area where the Indus Valley civilization had flourished two millennia before. The more mystical teachings of the Upanishads were being popularized and becoming increasingly influential; criticism of the Brahman orthodoxy was growing. In northeast India, where the Buddha lived and Brahmanic influence was weakest, corrupt autocratic kingdoms and despotic autocracies vied for power with nascent quasi-republics and constitutional oligarchies. These were the sixteen great realms, the mahajanapadas, which flourished from 600 to 300 BCE, ranging from Kamboja in the north and west to Assaka in the south and Anga in the east. Wars and political assassinations were frequent occurrences. The Buddha lived to see to the genocide of his own clan, the Sakyans, by the Kosalan king, Virudhaka. The people were oppressed, subject to brigands who haunted the roads and the vast forests. They were often over-taxed by the state, which was desperate to maintain its hegemony in relation to the emerging mercantile class. On the other hand, workers were organizing themselves into trade guilds, arts and crafts were flourishing, work was becoming increasingly specialized, and knowledge was expanding. Others, essentially small farmers, became wealthy through land ownership. This turned the traditional caste system on its head. The position of women, especially widows, was untenable, and many women turned to prostitution in order to survive, since they were forbidden from inheriting the estates of their husbands. It is for this reason that the Buddhists tolerated prostitution, rejected by the Brahmans.

This period corresponds to a worldwide phenomenon that German philosopher Karl Jaspers has called the Axial Age (Achsenzeit), which he identifies with the period from 800 to 200 BCE. Revolutionary new ways of thinking developed more or less simultaneously in Persia, India, China, Greece, and Judea during this period, including the birth of rational philosophy itself. Eric Voegelin has called this period the Great Leap of Being. Interestingly, the midpoint of the Axial Age (500 BCE) is exactly the same distance from the advent of the Kali Yuga (3102 BCE) as 2100 CE. The 19th century began a period of science, exploration, invention, discovery, technology, and the beginning of industrialization and globalization. The year 2400, 300 years hence, corresponds to the full manifestation of Shambhala (2424 CE) according to the Kalachakra. One might argue that this latter period (1900–2400) represents the advent of a new Axial Age, and will be looked upon as such by humans of the future. Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil has suggested that the crucial transformational moment of the new age will occur in 2045. This is the year of the Singularity. This event will transform human society in qualitatively unpredictable ways because of the convergence of biology and technology. This is also fairly close to the end of the Mayan epoch in 2012 CE, which began in 3113 or 3114 BCE, only 11 or 12 years later than the advent of the Kali Yuga. The Buddha himself was born very close to the midpoint of the Axial Age (500 BCE). The great Tantric adept, Padmasambhava, who is credited with the conversion of Tibet to Vajrayana Buddhism, flourished during the late 8th century CE, at the midpoint of the interval from the advent of the Buddhist epoch (circa 400 BCE) to our own time (circa 2000 CE).

The View of Women in the Shakti, Samana, and Shaivite Countercultures


A famous motif found on a seal in the Mohenjo-Daro excavation of the Indus Valley civilization is a horned figure sitting cross-legged and surrounded by animals. This figure, called Pashupati (“Lord of the Animals”), has been identified with a precursor of the Indian god Shiva. Phallic symbols have also been found and identified as precursors of the Shivalingam. The significance of the possible evidence for a Shiva cult in the Indus Valley civilization, which also practised fertility rituals, is the association of Shiva, the male creative principle that dies and is reborn (phallic tumescence/detumescence) with Shakti, the universal goddess principle without which Shiva is literally impotent. The word Shakti literally means “power” or “energy.” Shakti is, therefore, the dynamic, creative aspect of existence. In the human being, this energy is equated with intelligence, compassion, and divine love.

Regardless of whether one accepts the identification of the horned figure of Mohenjo-Daro with Shiva and, by implication, Shiva’s consort, Shakti – although in view of the apparently female-positive character of the Indus Valley civilization, such an association is tempting – Shakti is mentioned a dozen times in the Rigveda, and goddess figures, many of whom are cognate with Shakti, another 40 times. Although modern Shaktism did not fully flower until circa 400 CE, its precursors clearly originate during the Vedic period and extend far back, even into the Late Stone Age (circa 20,000 BCE).


As we have already discussed, by the 5th and 6th centuries BCE the established Vedic Brahman orthodoxy of India was no longer able to satisfy the religious and spiritual needs of many people. There were widespread skepticism, longing, and discontent. In response to this social, political, and spiritual ferment new religious and philosophical movements appeared, defined, and organized themselves. They gained the respect and adherence of many people. By the time of the Buddha, this samana counterculture was already well established, especially in northeast India, where the Brahmanic orthodoxy was weakest. Materialist, hedonist, deterministic, and agnostic philosophies competed with Upanishadic Brahmanism and religious renunciants.  It was this last group that the Buddha joined when he chose to renounce the worldly life at the age of 29, shaving his head and adopting the ochre or saffron robe, entirely without reference to joining any particular organization or monastic institution (which did not yet exist).

The Pali word samana is very interesting. It is derived from the Sanskrit sram. Sram is a verb meaning ‘to heat, cook, ripen, mature, seethe, boil, subdue, make weary, overcome,’ and ‘conquer.’ The origin of the word is also conflated with sam, ‘to gather together’ or ‘integrate.’ Sram is the root of the English word ‘shaman,’ a spiritual practitioner who cultivates a state of transcendent ecstasy in which he experiences visions of other worlds, communicates with spiritual beings, and acquires psychic powers. Sam is the root of samadhi, ‘one-pointed concentration’ or ‘meditation.’ The PED says merely that a samana is a religious wanderer or recluse, but heat and light symbolism pervade the Pali Canon as well as clear references to altered states of consciousness and psychic powers or iddhis. The samana counterculture rejected the authority of Brahmanism and the Vedas, although many of the spiritual and religious concepts of the samanas were also prefigured in the Upanishads. It is important to note that the samana movement specifically rejected the authority of both the Brahman caste and the Vedic textual traditions, despite these similarities. Thus, the philosophy of the Buddha must be decisively distinguished from the so-called astika schools, which accepted Vedic authority. The latter became the well-known Samkhya, Yoga, and Vedanta philosophical schools of orthodox Hinduism, amongst others. This is an important point to remember in the context of the late Vedic attitude toward and treatment of women.

The samanas set out to discover the truth for themselves experientially. To this end, they adopted three fundamental practices: austerity, to purify karma; meditation, to cultivate mental concentration; and ‘view’ or philosophy, to cultivate wisdom or understanding – the same threefold division that we find in the Pali Canon. Jainism was already old when the Buddha appeared. It appears to have been founded in the 7th to 9th centuries BCE by Parsva. Thus, it was probably at least 400 years old at the time of the Buddha. Jainism may have been a non-Aryan remnant of the Indus Valley civilization, though scholars dispute this. There are many similarities between Buddhism and Jainism. Nevertheless, the Buddha also criticized Mahavira, the leader of Jainism about the same time as the Buddha, and distinguished himself from it as well.

Immediately following his renunciation the Buddha studied with two great philosophical teachers of the time, Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta. Alara Kalama was a proto-Samkhya meditation master in the astika tradition, under whom the Buddha achieved the realization of the realm of ‘Nothingness’ (akincannayatanupaga).  Udaka Ramaputta was a Jain meditation master (in the nastika tradition, therefore) under whom the Buddha achieved the realization of the realm of ‘Neither-perception nor-non-perception’ (nevasannanasannayatanupaga). Finally, the Buddha fell in with the Group of Five, led by Kondanna, the Brahman ascetic who had predicted at his birth that Gotama would become a World Teacher. The group of five had renounced the worldly life about the same time as the Buddha and practised extreme austerities, including mortification of the body, breath-control, mind-control, and extreme fasting, practising in cemeteries and elsewhere, similar to the Shaivites (see below). After failing to find what he sought with Kalama and Ramaputta, Gotama joined them in these practices, until he was on the verge of dying. Although many sources imply that Gotama practised with the group of five for six years, this is unlikely since he must have studied with Kalama and Ramaputta for at least some period first. If one assumes that he spent a year with each of these, then perhaps the Buddha practised with the group of five for three years, followed by a year alone. The Buddha’s practice of these austerities is vividly described in the Pali Canon. About the age of 35, on the very verge of death, Gotama accepted some rice pudding from a passing village girl, Sujata, at which point the Group of Five abandoned him as having reverted to the effeminate life of his youth. Gotama was on his own and had still not found what he sought.


Shaivism developed out of the Shwetashvetara Upanishad. This Upanishad is the earliest textual source for Shaivism, and may have been written down about 400 BCE, the year of the Buddha’s parinirvana. However, its origins are certainly significantly older. The practices of Shaivism  included extreme asceticism, self-purification, a cemetery cult of human bones, the practice of yoga based on the cross-legged posture, disrespect for caste, association with untouchables, renunciation of the householder life and procreation, a northern Indian provenance, rejection of Brahman superiority, and reverence for the female principle. Shaivism is based on the worship of the original divine principle in Indian mythology, Pashupati, which is widely regarded as a prototype of Shiva. Similarly, during his samana period Gotama practised extreme self-mortification; fasting; yoga, including breath control and mind control; and lived and slept in cemeteries. Similarly, in his later philosophy the Buddha rejects the caste system, admits women to the sangha in defiance of social norms, and references a return to primordial tradition of which the Brahmanic cult and even the Vedas themselves are degenerations. Richard Gombrich (“Who Was Angulimala?) has suggested that Angulimala (Angulimala Sutta) was a practitioner of just this type. This makes the Buddha’s acceptance of Angulimala as his personal attendant especially interesting.

Evaluating the Buddha’s View Toward and Treatment of Women

The Sex Life of the  Buddha

Unlike Yeshua, the Galilean bodhisattva of the Jews, who is portrayed in the canonical texts of Christianity as virtually sexless, the Buddha is portrayed, in the words of the title of the book by John Powers (2009), as “A Bull of  Man.” This is consistent with the Indian tradition of karma, in which a great man must have a great body. Thus, the Buddha was identified as a great man at his birth, by the appearance of certain physical signs, including long, slender fingers; soft, smooth, golden-coloured skin; a handsome, well-proportioned body, including beautiful thighs, strong torso, and erect posture; closely spaced, even white teeth; a strong jaw; long-eyelashes; black, curly hair; deep blue eyes; a large cranium; and a deep, resonant voice. These are amongst the 32 signs of a great man. This is the basis of the prediction made at the Buddha’s birth that he would become either a world ruler or a world teacher.

King Suddhodhana, anxious that his son should succeed him as the chief of the Shakyan clan, a small republic located between Kosala and Vajji, pampered him and plied him with every sort of pleasure. Gotama was so attracted to women that he actually lived in the women’s quarters in his teens and 20s, and was doubtless acquainted with sex. He married the princess Yasodhara at the age of 16, and had a son, Rahula, by her, purportedly at the age of 29. According to one story, Gotama renounced the world in reaction to the aftermath of a party in which the musicians, all female, were lying sleeping about the palace, in ungainly poses, snoring and exposing their breasts. It does not take much imagination to realize that Gotama was a rich playboy and probably sexually promiscuous as well, which may explain in part the severity of the renunciation that followed. For example, in To Magandiya (Magandiya Sutta) the Buddha says,

Magandiya, formerly when I lived the home life, I enjoyed myself, provided and endowed with the five cords of sensual pleasure; with forms cognizable by the eye … sounds cognizable by the ear … odours cognizable by the nose … flavours cognizable by the tongue … tangible cognisable by the body that are wished for, desired, agreeable, and likable, connected with sensual desire and provocative of lust. I had three palaces, one for the rainy season, one for the winter, and one for the summer. I lived in the rains’ palace for the four months of the rainy season, enjoying myself with musicians who were all female, and I did not go down to the lower palace.

Thus, as a suitable basis for his final renunciation and enlightenment, it was necessary for the Buddha to fulfil the life of the world completely. Remember that at this stage of his spiritual career Gotama was a bodhisattva in his last birth, mere years away from final enlightenment. This self-description does not sound like the ruminations of a misogynist or a neurotic either.

Negative Views of Women in the Pali Canon

The Pali suttas include many negative views of women, including the statement that a woman is incapable of attaining Buddhahood; that the female birth is karmically inferior because a woman is subject to five types of suffering to which a man is not subject, viz., being separated from her family, menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and being subservient to a man; that a wife is inferior to her husband and should be willing to obey him and even die rather than displease him in the slightest particular; and that a Buddhist nun (bhikkuni), no matter what her attainment or seniority, should be inferior to a monk (bhikkhu) of even a single day’s seniority. The Buddha describes sexual intercourse as “Dhamma’s opposite … the low, vulgar ideal that is impure and ends in ablution, that is done in secrecy by couples,” and states that it is better to insert one’s penis into the mouth of a “hideous venomous viper or cobra [or bed of red hot coals] than that it should enter a woman” (Suttavibhanga). With reference to woman’s capacity to elicit lust, the Buddha says that the female form is more seductive than any other object of sense and refers to women as “sharks” and “snares of Mara.” The female form is so irresistible, in fact, that the Buddha says mothers and sons will commit  incest and a man might even commit necrophilia, given the chance, for which reason a monk may not approach a woman even if she is dead (Anguttara-Nikaya). The Vinaya also includes cases of Buddhist monks engaging in these and other perverse erotic behaviours. The Buddha says that women are reborn with three qualities: miserliness, envy, and sensuality and lust, because of which most women are reborn in worlds of hellish suffering (Anguttara-Nikaya). Elsewhere he says that women are angry, envious, miserly, and unintelligent, and therefore incapable of participating in government, engaging in business, or travel away from home (Anguttara-Nikaya). He says that the ways of women are secretive, like Brahmans and heretics (those of perverse views).  Like black snakes, women are impure, foul-smelling, frightening, dangerous, and disloyal (Angttara-Nikaya). They are insatiable in respect of sexual intercourse and childbirth, even on their deathbed (Anguttara-Nikaya). The Buddha made it clear to Ananda that a monk should neither associate nor communicate with women if he can possibly avoid it, and that a monk who has sex with a woman will be subject to rebirth in a hellish world of suffering.  The Pali Canon portrays women as cunning liars, secretive, fond of intrigue, and unfaithful.

According to the Pali Canon, the original sangha of the Buddha was a sangha of men only. After the death of the his father, King Suddhodana, about seven or eight years following the Buddha’s enlightenment and the establishment of the sangha (perhaps ca. 440 BCE) the Buddha’s aunt and foster-mother, Maha Pajapti Gotami, resolves to be ordained, along with 500 women of the court. She approaches the Buddha when he is visiting Kapilavastu, for permission to join the sangha, but he refuses her request. Distraught, the women shave their heads and put on robes anyway, and follow the Buddha to Vesali, a distance of about 300 kms (186 miles). This must have taken them about two months, perhaps longer. Distraught and physically exhausted, she approaches Ananda, who is portrayed in the suttas as quite sympathetic to women in general, to intercede with the Buddha. Ananda approaches the Buddha on her behalf. Once again, the Buddha refuses. Ananda’s subsequent discussion with the Buddha is quite famous. He asks the Buddha whether, therefore, women are capable of attainment. The Buddha admits that they are capable of attaining arhantship, the same as men. The self-contradiction in the Buddha’s position thus exposed, the Buddha finally relents, acceding to Ananda’s request, but he declares that because of the ordination of women the longevity of the sangha will be halved, from one thousand to only five hundred years. Moreover, he imposes eight special rules on the bhikkhunisangha that permanently subordinates them to the bhikkhusangha. These are called the eight Garudhammas, viz.:

1) A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, and do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day.

2) A nun must not spend the rains in a residence where there are no monks.

3) Every half month a nun should desire two things from the Order of Monks: the asking as to the date of the Observance [uposatha] day, and the coming for the exhortation [bhikkhunovada].

4) After the three-month rainy season retreat a nun must ‘invite’ [pavarana] before both orders in respect of three matters, namely what was seen, what was heard, what was suspected.

5) A nun, offending against an important rule, must undergo manatta [discipline or penance] for half a month before both orders.

6) When, as a probationer, she has trained in the six rules [cha dhamma] for two years, she should seek higher ordination from both orders.

7) A monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun.

8) Admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden.

Over the course of time, these eight additional rules expanded to 311 rules for nuns, compared to 227 for monks. According to another computation, there are 110 extra rules for nuns. After a thousand years, the bhikkhunisangha died out in India and most other places. In Thailand, which follows the conservative Theravada tradition inherited from Sri Lanka, it is actually illegal for a woman to “impersonate” a monastic by putting on robes.[4]

There are many rules in the Buddhist Vinaya, the monastic rules applicable to monks, concerning women and nuns. A monk may not have sexual intercourse or lustful bodily contact with a woman, nor may he make lustful remarks to a woman, including asking her for sexual favours. He may not arrange for a date, affair, or marriage with a woman on behalf of another person. An unrelated nun may not wash a monk’s robes or give him robes as a gift. A nun may not wash, dye, or card raw wool for a monk. A monk may not lie down in the same building as a woman. He may not teach a woman more than five or six lines of dharma, unless another knowledgeable man is present. He may not exhort the nuns in the nuns’ quarters unless she is ill. He may not exhort the nuns for worldly gain in any case. He may not give an unrelated nun cloth for a robe, or sew it or have it sewn, unless it is given in exchange. A monk may not travel on the road with a nun, even between villages, unless it is by caravan and the road is unsafe, or travel with a nun by boat in any direction upstream or downstream other than directly crossing a river. He may not travel on a road with a woman in any case. He may not eat alms food obtained by the prompting of a nun. He may not sit alone with a nun. He may not accept food from an unrelated nun. The punishment for violating any of these rules ranges from expulsion from the order to verbal acknowledgement, depending on the severity of the offence.

Positive Views of Women in the Pali Canon

Despite the views summarized above, the Buddha also expresses many positive views concerning women in various places. Women figure prominently in both the suttas and the post-canonical commentaries (see Hellmuth Hecker, “Great Women Disciples of the Buddha,” chapter 7 of Nyanaponika and Hecker, 1997).  I have already mentioned the Buddha’s acknowledgement that women are capable of attaining arhantship. This is elaborated at great length in other suttas, where the Buddha goes to some length to describe all of the levels of attainment from faith follower to arhant, and emphasizes that many members of the sangha, including both men and women, have attained all of the various stages of spiritual development. Indeed, the Buddha implies that women must exist at all levels of spiritual development for the sangha to be complete. The Buddha criticizes the Brahman practice of arranged marriage and defends the right of women to marry freely for love. He explicitly identifies women’s rights as the fifth principle of a healthy and stable society, referring specifically to the Vajjians. When the married Bhagga householders Nakulapita and Nakulmata approach the Buddha and declare their love for each other, asking him whether they can ensure that they would be reborn together, rather than criticize them the Buddha praises the couple and declares that they can be reborn together as deva beings, a destination reserved for the most pious, if they observe the same faith, morality, generosity, and wisdom. The evidence of the Pali Canon, especially the Songs of the Wise Women (Therigatha), clearly shows that the early sangha included many women, both monastic and lay, many of whom were highly esteemed and spiritually advanced practitioners, even arhants, just as was the case during the early Vedic period. Some great women disciples of the Buddha included Visakha, the Buddha’s chief patroness; Mallika; Khema of great wisdom; Bhadda Kundalakesa, the debating ascetic; Kisagotami; Sona; Nanda, the Buddha’s half-sister; Queen Samavati, the embodiment of loving kindness; Patacara, preserver of the Vinaya; Ambapali, the generous courtesan; Sirima; Uttara; and Isidasi. This is perhaps the best evidence of all for the view that the Buddha made no distinction between women and men.[5]


In the introduction to his translation of the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya), Bhikhu Bodhi acknowledges that the positive and negative statements concerning women found throughout the Pali Canon are mutually self-contradictory. It is impossible to believe that the Buddha held all these views simultaneously. Bodhi also doubts the historicity of the famous dialogue in which Ananda convinces the Buddha to admit women to the sangha, citing “anachronisms hard to reconcile with other chronological information in the canon and commentaries.”  Scholars also doubt the antiquity of the garudhammas, one of which refers to probationary nuns, a category that did not exist when Mahapajapati was ordained. Consequently, it cannot be original. There is also reason to disbelieve the account of the admission of Mahapajapati to the sangha, since the Exposition of Offerings (Dakkhinavibhangha Sutta) in the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya) presents the Bhikkunisangha as already existing when Mahapajapati goes for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, without any suggestion that the Buddha opposed her admission. It appears, then, that this whole complex was invented to justify the garudhammas.

In defence of the Buddha’s purported reluctance to ordain women, apologists have cited possible concerns about social prejudice, including the Buddha’s realization that the sangha could not survive without popular support, and the safety of the nuns, who would be subjected not only to social scorn and even abuse, but also by the ravages of the environment at a time when the sangha had not yet established itself with parks and monasteries. By accepting women into the sangha, the Buddha was setting himself against the entire late Vedic tradition of the deva worshippers that was now universally accepted by the society of his time. It was unheard of for women to leave the household life and follow the path of a samana, much as it was in Hindu India until very recently. Although he was criticized for breaking up the family unit, and the sangha was not welcomed everywhere, it is a testament to the Buddha’s charisma and the respect in which he was held that there is not more indication of dissension in the Pali Canon than there is.

Thus, the Pali Canon itself forces us to make a judgment. Either we accept that the Buddha reluctantly admitted women to the sangha on what amounts to a technicality, but instituted rules to curtail and limit the damage resulting from this concession, or we take the view that the misogynistic passages are later additions that reflect the social prejudices of 5th century BCE India, especially male monastics, that we have seen began to supplant the older, more tolerant view of women during the late Vedic period. The latter view is consistent with the Buddha’s declaration that he considered the Brahmanism of his time to be a degenerate remnant of a primordial tradition that he sought to restore. With respect to the latter, it is interesting to note that the Buddha clearly opposed the caste system, arranged marriage, and authoritarianism, all things that appeared during the late Vedic period with the rise of the newer deva worshippers who cast down the asuras to the foot of Mount Meru. Psychologically, this sounds like a massive act of self-inflicted psychosocial repression. This makes one wonder if the older tradition to which the Buddha alludes was in fact that of the older system of asura worship, with which he was in secret sympathy, which also, like the Buddha, opposed the Vedas and the gods (devas), i.e., Aryanism, despite the reversal of terms that clearly predominates in the Pali Canon itself.

The View of Women in the Early Buddhist Councils

The First Buddhist Council

The First Buddhist Council was convened in the year following the Buddha’s passing on (parinirvana) about 400 BCE according to modern scholarship by King Ajatashatru, the king of Magadha in Rajgir, the capital, according to tradition. Although in his final instructions the Buddha had said that the sangha should have no leader after him, but should be led by the dharma alone, Mahakassapa, the Buddha’s foremost disciple in ascetic practices, assumed the leadership of the sangha after the Buddha’s death, and called the First Buddhist Council together in response to suggestions by the monk Subhadda that with the Buddha’s death the Vinaya rules of the order might be relaxed. Although this is presented in the Theravadin literature as a criticism, in fact according to the Great Passing (Mahanibbana Sutta), the Buddha had indicated that after his death the lesser and minor rules of the Vinaya might be abolished. Thus, Mahakassapa convened 500 arhants to consolidate the tradition of the dharma, including Ananda, who conveniently attained arhantship during the night before the council began to meet from July to the following January. Upali, the foremost disciple in keeping the precepts, began by reciting the rules of the Vinaya in their entirety, especially the parajika – the rules that entail mandatory and automatic expulsion from the sangha – i.e., sex, stealing, killing, and lying about one’s spiritual attainment. Ananda then recited the suttas.

Ananda had a hard time of it, however. He was severely criticized, presumably by Mahakassapa, for “convincing” the Buddha to ordain women. Many male arhants were extremely opposed to this, despite the clear fact that the Buddha had approved it. There was also the question of the minor and lesser rules of the Vinaya that the Buddha had said in his final instructions to Ananda might be abolished. Since it had not occurred to Ananda to ask the Buddha which rules he was referring to, the conservative Council decided to keep them all. The Council also decided to allow the ordination of women, subject to the eight garudhammas and expanded the rules to include an additional 110 rules for nuns, despite the fact that the Buddha had also declared that no new rules were to be made. It seems likely that the eight garudhammas were codified at this time, perhaps as a compromise between two competing factions.

The foregoing account creates serious “theological” issues for the Hinayana in general and the Theravada in particular, since all of the members of the First Buddhist Council are regarded as arhants. This problem came to a head a hundred years later during the Second Buddhist Council, during which the fallibility and imperfection of arhants became a bone of contention between two nascent Buddhist schools, the Mahasamghikas, who took the view that arhants are fallible, and the Sthaviras, who took the view that arhants are infallible. These differences were summarized in the Five Points of Mahadeva. The Mahasamghikas represented the majority view, and subsequently developed into the Mahayana, whereas the minority, the Sthaviras, subsequently developed into the Theravada. With respect to the present topic, it is clear that the First Buddhist Council endorsed a view of women and nuns that is fundamentally misogynistic, and the Pali Canon, which is the record of Buddhist teachings accepted by the Theravada, is explicitly so. As I have also shown, the First Buddhist Council overruled the Buddha’s own injunctions to not appoint a leader, to abolish the lesser and minor rules, and subsequent councils clearly also added rules and in particular rules designed to subordinate the nuns to the monks. That the attainments of arhantship and Buddhahood are different also seems to be supported by the canonical assertion, if we accept it, that women can become arhants but not Buddhas. The ten powers of an arhant also differ significantly from the ten powers of a Buddha according to the Pali texts. Per contra, if we accept the Hinayana/Theravada view that arhants are infallible, then we must accept Buddhist misogyny as a view. If we are not willing to accept the inferiority of women, we cannot in good conscience accept the lineage derived from the minority Sthavira position. Therefore, we cannot accept Hinayana or Theravada as the final summation of dharma. Since the Buddha indicated that in the absence of consensus we must accept majority rule, we are compelled to the alternative view as the correct dharmic view.

The View of Women in Buddhism Today

After the Buddha’s death about 400 BCE, Indian society continued to suppress women. Beginning in the fifth century CE, by the 11th century the practice of sati, or widow-burning, became the model of how a pious wife should respond to the death of her husband. The Muslim incursion into India (12th–16th centuries), which virtually wiped Buddhism out of India, including the bhikkunisangha, followed by the British conquest of India, beginning in the 17th century, further intensified the already deeply-rooted Indian misogyny. Meanwhile, the bhikkunisangha had virtually disappeared from India and Sri Lanka by the 11th century. Widely disparaged in Buddhist countries, and discriminated against where it did exist, the Bhikkunisangha only survived continuously in Eastern (Chinese) Buddhism, ironically in view of Confucian ideas of the subordination of women. Today efforts are underway in several countries to restore the bhikkunisangha, albeit based on the old model; the Dalai Lama has made similar efforts in northeast India. As a result, there are about 130,000 Buddhist nuns in the world today.

Socially, Buddhist women have fared better than Indian women, however. In general, Buddhist societies respect single women, including spinsters, divorced women, and widows. Laws concerning divorce and the division of property and children are fairly equal between husband and wife. Outside China, where Confucian notions predominate, women are fairly free, including in business, trade, and agriculture. Even in Eastern Buddhism, however, Zen/Ch’an Buddhism emphasizes sexual equality. Women may also be found exercising the professions of law and medicine, and have been politically influential.  Many Buddhist women enjoy sexual freedom, property rights, and self-determination. Women may also be influential in religious institutions. Mahayana tends to view men and women as equal whereas Theravada still sees the Bodhisattva path as suited only for rare and heroic men. Female spiritual figures are most widespread in Vajrayana (Tantra).


Indian culture differs from the other great originating cultures of humanity in that most cultures began with the patriarchal suppression of women, followed by their progressive emancipation, whereas Indian civilization began with women holding a position of unique power and privilege, followed by their progressive suppression commencing about 1100 BCE. This “transvaluation of all values” appears to have coincided with a social schism in which an original cult of asura worship, great cosmological abstractions associated with the powers of nature, was displaced by a new, aggressive cult of deva worship based on notions of patriarchal authority, the status quo, Brahmanic dominance, caste, and misogyny derived from the Aryan incursion. By the time of the Buddha, Vedic society was breaking down and a counterculture of wandering “shamans,” suggestive of the later Shakti and Shaiva cults that eventually developed into Tantra, had emerged. After studying meditative or cognitive (jhana) yoga with Brahman and Jain teachers in succession, the Buddha joined the samanas and became an extreme ascetic for a number of years, almost dying in the process, followed by his enlightenment experience. It is noteworthy that both the Shakti and Shaivite cults were not misogynistic in their attitudes to the female principle.

The conflicting attitudes toward men and women in Indian society appear in the Pali Canon in the conflicting attitudes to women attributed to the Buddha. However, it appears that the Buddha did not make a fundamental distinction between men and women, asserting that both men and women are equally capable of attainment, and freely teaching women and admitting them to the sangha on an equal basis, rather like Yeshua, the founder of Christianity, for which the latter was also severely criticized by the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem. If the Buddha did make a distinction between the orders of monks and nuns, it was to protect the nuns and appease social prejudice. This unpopularly tolerant attitude must have created a great deal of consternation amongst the more conservative male followers of the Buddha, but they appear to have largely avoided criticism out of respect for the Buddha. This changed after the Buddha’s death, when a major rift seems to have occurred during the First Buddhist Council, when the male monastics attacked Ananda for supporting the ordination of women. That they were not the only side of this debate is suggested by the fact that a compromise appears to have been reached in which the order of nuns was subordinated to the order of monks but allowed to exist. Otherwise, it seems likely that the nuns would have been suppressed altogether. The pious forgeries concerning Mahapajapati, Ananda’s subsequent debate with the Buddha, and the garudhamma were created to explain the final decision of the First Buddhist Council, which led ultimately to the disappearance of the bhikkunisangha. Moreover, the addition of numerous special rules for nuns, all with the purpose of subordinating the nuns to the monks, clearly violates the Buddha’s instructions not to add extra rules to the Vinaya. Over the following three centuries numerous misogynistic passages were introduced into the suttas, while the more favourable statements of the Buddha concerning women were also allowed to stand because they were too well established to be refuted, thus creating the somewhat bizarre self-contradictions that we find in the Pali texts today. Very likely, over the course of 300 years there were diverse currents and sub-currents of thought amongst the anonymous redactors of the Pali Canon itself, of which we know little or nothing. Meanwhile, Indian society continued in its misogynistic course, exacerbated by Muslim and British colonial influence. Thus, in contemporary Nepal, for example, we find a significantly more liberal society than India proper, since Nepal was never subjugated to Muslim and British influences. Buddhism itself split into two large movements, one aligned with the dominant conservative social attitude and one aligned with the more liberal attitude that, it appears, was actually advocated by the Buddha. Fortunately, for those of us who do not believe in the inferiority of women, the latter has become the majority view in the Buddhist world today.


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  1. In Tibet the numbers are 253 rules for monks and 263 for nuns. The latter is merely on paper, because I do not believe a bhikkhunisangha was ever established in Tibet. Tibetans follow the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya.
  2. Other candidates for ingredients of Soma include honey, Amanita muscaria (fly agaric), ephedra, poppy seeds or pollen, cannabis, psilocybin (Psilocybe cubensis), a fermented alcoholic drink, Syrian rue (Peganum harmala), rhubarb, ginseng, opium, wild chicory, and even ayahuasca!
  3. Although the conventional Western dates of the Buddha are still given as 563 – 483 BCE, an increasing number of scholars now believe that the Buddha was born in the first half of the 5th century BCE. Hajime Nakamura (2000) puts his death as recently as 383 BCE.
  4. Banning Ajahn Brahm’s speech on bhikkuni ordination from the 11th United Nations Day of Vesak 2014 is merely the most recent confirmation of the misogyny of Theravada Buddhists. See “Banning Ajahn Brahm’s speech on nuns was a spectacular own-goal.” Note that restoring bhikkuni ordination does not restore gender equity between men and women, since the Buddhist formula of ordination for bhikkunis is inherently and intentionally discriminatory.
  5. Although most suttas are addressed to bhikkus, there are also suttas spoken by or to bhikkunis, and the Therigatha is composed entirely of verses written by early bhikkunis. The first sutta attributed to a bhikkuni is the Culavedalla Sutta (MN 44), attributed to Dhammadinna, declared by the Buddha to be the nun foremost in expounding the dharma. In this sutta, she expounds the dharma concerning personality, personality view, the Noble Eightfold Path, concentration, formations, the attainment of cessation, feeling, underlying tendencies, and counterparts. In the Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta (MN 142), his aunt, Mahapajapati Gotami, presents the Buddha with robes that she made for him herself. And in the Nadakovada Sutta (MN 146), Mahapajapati Gotami asks the Buddha to teach the bhikkunis. The small number of “bhikkhuni suttas” contrasted with the frequent references to the bhikkunis throughout the Pali Canon suggests a deliberate suppression of suttas in which bhikkunis were featured prominently, presumably due to the obvious gender bias of the First Buddhist Council. The insights of these “wise women” have been lost forever.