Early Buddhist Perspective on Women and their Emancipation as Depicted in the Therigāthā

Rev. Ananda.U.


The society as depicted in Buddhism consists of four distinct divisions, namely monks, nuns, lay male devotees and lay female devotees. It is again subdivided into two main groups called clergy and laity. These groups are formed on the level of their dedication in attaining spiritual emancipation. According to early Buddhism, realization of emancipation is the sole goal of the clergy, for which the lay takes a longer time. Since laymen is saddled with diverse domestic and social commitments and responsibilities, it hampers their path to realize emancipation. The cardinal teaching of most Indian religions were focused on the emancipation of individuals. Though Buddhism forms an integral part of the Indian religious tradition, it emphasizes not only individual’s emancipation but also that of the clergy and the laity. Since the process of achieving emancipation is effectuated in a social context, a special responsibility is placed on the role of the individual in society. This role, as it appears in Buddhism, can be viewed from two different angles. When a woman with least social obligation and commitments enters the order, she is expected to concentrate exclusively on attaining her own emancipation. Yet the role of a lay women is of two-fold as she has to discharge her duties to her family and society. The Buddhist ideology concerning the woman is determined on the basis of her role and function in the family. Thus, two major stages of development relating to women can be identified in early Buddhism in contrast to those found in later Buddhism. The first section of this study examines the attitude towards women evident in early Buddhism.  The second section delves into how emancipation of women is depicted in Therigāta. The ultimate objective of the article is to delineate how helpful the teaching of the later Buddhism for women to seek their spiritual emancipation.              

Keywords: Therīgāta, women, emancipation, Buddhist perspective, social significance