This is part II of my contribution to the Jaipur Literary Festival this year which focuses on Buddhism. You can read part I here. It’s another excerpt from the Buddhist period in my book Sex and Power (Sect II, pp.67-110). The central argument of my book is that the concepts of sexuality and sexual morality in any society keep changing over time. And it is the dominant forces–social, political, economic or religious–in any period of time that determine how that society views women, sex and sexual morality.
In the Buddhist period which stretches from about 500B.C. to 100A.D. Buddhism was one of the most powerful institutions, and the teachings of the Buddha impacted on social thinking at many levels. In the first excerpt from my book I talk about how it revolutionized the concept of class and caste based equality and social justice. But by the same token, I discovered that it also had a huge negative impact on social perceptions of gender, women and sex. To me Buddha’s unreserved misogyny and prejudice towards women in particular made no sense given his passion for social justice and equality. In my book I’ve contemplated on the reasons for this and do believe it may be personal and may have to do with his struggle or un-resovled issues with his own sexuality and sex-drive.
“According to the Buddha…the renunciation of sex, sensuality and a sensory existence [were necessary] … to free the body from rebirths [and to attain nirvana]. As Buddhism became institutionalized, it adopted the language of morality to ostracize [sex and sexuality]. Any activity that titillated the senses was ‘vulgar’ and ‘degrading’ and sex was viewed as malicious an act as killing and lying…Even nakedness… became a shameful, something it was not before.
“Buddha was [also] stubborn in his refusal to allow women into the order…He compared women to mildew and proclaimed that if women were admitted, the order will rot away much before its time. He reviled women as evil and lustful, [and said they were also]…too dim-witted and vain to access the knowledge required to attain nirvana. He preached that men ought to protect themselves from women, and regard them as dangerous entrapments and as enemies.
“Buddha finally made a concession to nuns being included in the order…[on the condition that] the position of nuns was always to be subordinate to that of the monks…When requested to allow monks and nuns to show each other courtesy according to seniority, regardless of gender, the Buddha flatly refused, and even added that if a monk bowed to a nun, it would count as an offense. “
What could possibly explain the Buddha’s antagonism towards women? After all, upon being persistently questioned by his faithful disciple Ananda,…the Buddha had acknowledged that women had the same capacity to attain nirvana as men did…Some have argued that the Buddha was actually trying to accommodate [the norms ] …of a terribly sexist society. The argument is not convincing because the Buddha openly flouted the caste-related conventions of his times, which undoubtedly upset quite a few social circles.” [Citing Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, Penguin Global, 2009, pp.67-110: The Buddhist Period].