Indian Buddhist Nuns Compile the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A group of Indian Buddhist nuns compiled the Therigatha, a collection of poems, some of which date back to the sixth century b.c.e.

Summary of Event

The Therigatha (Psalms of the Sisters, 1909-1913) is a collection of seventy-three poems composed by Buddhist nuns (bhikkhunis) in ancient India. Tradition maintains that the poems were originally chanted. The date and location of composition are not precisely known, and scholars cannot ascribe authorship to any single person. Nuns mentioned as authors include Subha, Canda, Patacara, Vasitthi, Vimala, Mutta, and Bhadda. Because some verses relate the stories of the early female followers of the Buddha and reflect a fairly independent religious experience for women, including wandering and alms-taking, scholars argue that some poems within the Therigatha may have emerged as early as the sixth century b.c.e. as oral narrative. Buddha Subha Canda Patacara Vasitthi Vimala Mutta Bhadda

The verses were first transcribed into the literary language of Pāli during the reign of King Vattagamani (r. c. 89-77 b.c.e.) in Sri Lanka. Around the sixth century c.e., the scholar Dhammapala wrote a commentary on the Therigatha, including narrative analysis and background information for the Buddhist women described in the Therigatha, adding to historical lore.

The Therigatha describes the experiences of Buddhist nuns, particularly female elders, in contrast to the Theragatha (c. first century b.c.e.; Psalms of the Brethen, 1909-1913), which relates the experiences of Buddhist monks. Both texts are part of the Pāli canon, considered sacred in Buddhism today. Some scholars have questioned women’s ability to compose the powerful text of the Therigatha, but Kathryn Blackstone’s linguistic comparison of the Therigatha and the Theragatha indicates that women authored the Therigatha. She argues that the text was written by women because the Therigatha employs gendered images and vocabulary throughout the text, relates personal suffering and familial relationships on a larger scale, and generally ignores frequent references to the Buddha. At the very least, it differs markedly from its companion text, the Theragatha, which centers on men’s lives.

The Therigatha contains powerful stories about women in ancient India. All the verses concern women who have reached liberation (arahanthood), the ultimate goal of Buddhism. After renouncing families, shaving their heads, and taking on ascetic robes, women searched for the path that would lead them away from the world of suffering. The poems of the Therigatha describe the struggles and success stories of the Buddhist nuns and therefore serve as a sort of manual for others seeking to do the same. In the text, women meditate, retreat to the forest, suffer homelessness, reject sensual pleasures, and even sit cross-legged for seven days. Familiar themes center around liberation from household oppression, including chores and cheating husbands, and conquering personal suffering such as the death of a child. Many of the poems end with tributes to relief from lifelong obsessions and misery and reflect a general happiness and contentment with liberation.

Although some scholars debate whether the women depicted in the Therigatha were historical rather than fictional figures, most scholars argue that there is little reason to doubt the text’s accuracy. Readers learn of Patacara, who taught thirty nuns; Vasitthi, who once was mad; Vimala,who worked as a prostitute; and perhaps most famously, Mutta, who exalted her liberation from “pestle, mortar, and crooked husband,” proclaiming “I am free.” All these women—even the courtesans, beggars, and madwomen—were capable of reaching arahanthood.

Significance

The Therigatha is considered the first anthology of women’s literature; among world religions, it is the only canonical text authored by women. Although the significance of women within ancient Buddhism has been sharply debated, and the Buddha seems to have reluctantly admitted women, the Therigatha reveals an active world of Buddhist nuns, greatly empowered by their faith. It offers telling portraits of women in ancient India, allowing readers a chance to understand this time period culturally and spiritually. Despite encountering struggles on a daily basis, these women found liberation in Buddhism and in their retreat from the world. The Therigatha thus retains special significance for scholars seeking to understand the past, and contemporary Buddhists, especially women, seeking liberation for themselves.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnes, Nancy. “The Nuns at the Stupa: Inscriptional Evidence for the Lives and Activities of Early Buddhist Nuns in India.” In Women’s Buddhism/Buddhism’s Women, edited by Ellison Banks Findly. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000. Useful insights for the life of a bhikkhuni in early Buddhism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blackstone, Kathryn R. Women in the Footsteps of the Buddha: Struggle for Liberation in the “Therigatha.” London: Curzon Press, 1998. A detailed and important linguistic analysis of the Therigatha and the Theragatha with far-reaching implications for gender studies. Index and extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lang, K. C. “Lord Death’s Snare: Gender-Related Imagery in the Theragatha and the Therigatha.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2, no. 2 (1986): 63-79. Argues that the poems of the male and female elders vary considerably in their attitudes toward the body.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murcott, Susan. The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the “Therigatha.” Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991. Interesting thematic analysis of the Therigatha with some primary text. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norman, K. R., trans. Elders’ Verses. 2 vols. London: Luzac, 1969-1971. Volume 2 contains an English translation of the Therigatha in prose form. Index, bibliography, and extensive notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pruitt, William, trans. The Commentary on the Verses of the Theris. Oxford, England: Pāli Text Society, 1999. English translation of Dhammapala’s commentary on the Therigatha. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rhys Davids, C. A. R., trans. Psalms of the Sisters. 1909-1913. Reprint. London: Luzac, 1964. English translation of the Therigatha in verse form. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rhys Davids, C. A. R., and K. R. Norman, trans. Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns. Oxford, England: Pāli Text Society, 1997. Provides both Rhys Davids’ and Norman’s translations of the Therigatha. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trainor, Kevin. “In the Eye of the Beholder: Nonattachment and the Body in Subha’s Verse (Therigatha 71).” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 61 (1993): 57-79. Specific analysis of one poem.
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