What Was Buddha’s Issue with Sex and Women?

So naked, young women are shameful and go to Hell?

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].


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  1. Reblogged this on Pass the Flaming Sword and commented:
    Even those men who are famous for their wisdom, compassion, mercy toward all beings…well, their wisdom and compassion never quite extended to women, it seems. The Buddha was no exception, and again we see the theme of men vilifying women’s bodies and women as a whole for the sexual arousal they cause in men. Unresolved issues with their own morality and sexuality are projected onto us. These men need to dehumanize us in hopes of retaining and regaining control, and demonize us in hopes of washing their own souls clean.

    But it is not only their own sexuality that men fear and that leads them to demonize us. It is also female sexuality that is deemed so very threatening as to be equated with the essence of evil itself.

  2. There is no bowing to each other in monastic rules for nuns or monks , at least nothing is written about it . Buddhism was wiped out from India 600 years ago , so there is very little we can say how was the atmosphere in which it was practiced from time of Buddha to its decline and disappearance from India. Most comments are made by jealous Brahmins of the past or someone like Shankaracharya , who rather adopted some of the Buddhist philosophy in order to overcome remains of what was left of Buddhism in India . In India’s present situation with population over one billion , one could wonder when it will end as there is limit to natural resources or even clean drinking water

    • Sonam, Yes, during Buddha’s own time the attacks on him by Vedic upper caste groups, specially Brahmins was vicious because he took away their followings, and became the most popular religion of his time by being inclusive of the lowest castes. But there is no disputing on his views on women. It was definitely an issue in his own time that his followers debated a lot. Ananda confronted him on it many time. And nuns were required to toe the line. And it continues to be discussed in Buddhist circles even today, and the Dalai Lama who earlier wouldn’t meet female journalists has over the years turned his opinion around, such that he agrees that the next Dalai Lama could be a woman 🙂 That what all schools of philosophy ought to be — free flowing and open to discussion and change. As for birth control, yes India needs it. But we have condoms, pills etc. That’s not why we are overpopulated. It’s because men in India think its manly to have many ‘sons’ — whether or not they can provide for them! My suggestion for population control: target the men with the slogan “You spray, you pay. And if you can’t, then keep it zipped up!”

  3. Rita .One has to understand how Buddhas work in order to understand story of Ananda . It was expected from Buddhas students to make considerable effort before he gave any teaching or agreed to any thing .
    At the time of Buddha many monks were ascetics , a path which is very difficult to follow by most women. Buddhism should not be used to some kind of social uprising as you suggest in your blog. If one is not working in taming once mind it is not Buddhism. For the most people in India misunderstand Buddhist teachings at present. At some point of history , up to 80% of Northern India were Buddhist , but as with all religions if not practiced correctly did vanished from India. Dalai Lama’s statements are sometimes amusing 🙂 I would rather focus on non monastic Buddhism , then we don’t need to even address gender issues. India is overpopulated , it is the main problem . It is ingrown in most Indian women mind to have children of her own , so one can’t only blame the male population for the problem.

    • The problem with ALL organized religion, the dominant ones, is they were made by MEN for MEN. And that is they didn’t count WOMEN as human. Women in Christianity, Judaism and even Islam have been challenging the basic tenets and practices of their faiths. And it is time women in Hinduism, Buddhism started doing the same!

      • @Rita It may be that Buddha disapproved of women because he knew the inability of men to resist the temptation if women would be around.Hence he might have dismissed them on the pretext of being dumb.

      • Swati — It is the same thing that men do even now though right? Blame the women! And then like I discuss in the excerpt he treated women so badly even after he finally let them into the order. It’s misogyny alright. And pity — because he was a revolutionary in other ways. He fought the caste and class hierarchy. Why not the gender hierarchy?

  1. Did You Know Buddha Led a Revolt for Justice and Equality? « REVOLUTIONS IN MY SPACE: A BLOG BY RITA BANERJI

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