The story of Kisa Gotami, and women in early Buddhism

Generations of Unitarian Universalist children have learned the story of Kisa Gotami since it was first included in Sophia Fahs’s classic Sunday school text, From Long Ago and Many Lands. That book was published in 1948, and I included the story in an updated version of From Long Ago that we still use in Sunday school today.

But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with this story for its depiction of the state and status of women. Kisa Gotami’s story shows that the Buddha accepted that women were able to follow his path to liberation. At the end of the story, the Buddha ordained Kisa Gotami as a nun, and she “quickly attained arhantship,” and Buddha praised her accomplishments. (1)

But this does not mean that Buddha and the early Buddhists considered women to be the equals of men. Early Buddhism was part of a patriarchal society. Buddha did acknolwedge that women were able to follow the path to liberation (as Kisa Gotami does), but early Buddhist women also were required “to submit to the standards of male control.” (2)

And early Buddhist writings tend promote the following negative stereotypes of women:
“1. A woman is stupid; a beautiful woman has no brains.
2. A girl should be a devoted daughter, and agree to the arrangements made for her by her parents and inlaws.
3. A woman in only concerned with her body, her clothes, and her jewelry.
4. A woman is sensual and seductive, and should therefore be under male control.
5. Children and relatives are a central concern in a woman’s life. Female reproduction i painful and having children binds womend to the world of matter.
6. Women who are old are ugly and useless. A woman’s body is an example of impernance and decay.” (3)

The story of Kisa Gotami plays into these stereotypes, as does the poem attributed to her that is found in the Therigatha, a collection of early Buddhist poems supposedly written by women. Kisa Gotami’s poem in the Therigatha includes the following:

“Being a woman is suffering,
that has been shown by the Buddha,
the tamer of those to be tamed.

“Sharing a husband with another wife is suffering for some,
while for others, having a baby just once is more than enough suffering.

“Some women cut their throats,
others take poison,
some die in pregnancy,
and then both mother and child experience miseries.” (4)

This poem stereotypes women by saying that the suffering a woman feels is due to her reproductive biology and her social status — whereas, for example, her suffering is not due to her intellect. So we can admire the Buddha for going beyond some of the stereotypes about women that held sway in his time and in his land, when he acknowledged that women could follow his path of liberation. Yet we must also recognize that early Buddhism was run by men, and that the early buddhists (including the Buddha himself) were not able to let go of their negative stereotypes of women.

So I think I’m going to have to rewrite that lesson plan on Kisa Gotami to include some more pointed feminist critique of the story….

Notes:

(1) Rita M. Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1993), p. 53.

(2) Ria Kloppenberg, “Female Stereotypes in Early Buddhism: The Women of the Therigatha,” in Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions, ed. Ria Kloppenberg and Wouter J. Hanegraff, (Leiden, Netherlands, and New York: E. J. Brill, 1995), pp. 152.

(3) Kloppenberg, pp. 153-154.

(4) Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, trans. Charles Hallisey (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015), pp. 111 ff.

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