Gender Equality in Buddhism: Institution of Bikkhuni Order | Daily News
Today is Unduvap Poya:

Gender Equality in Buddhism: Institution of Bikkhuni Order

Arrival of Sangamitta Theri

In the 2562nd year since the passing away of the Buddha, the Full Moon Poya of Unduvap falls today, the 22nd of December as the day for observance of traditional eight or ten precepts.

Unduvap Poya is of special significance because Sangamitta Theri’s arrival in the island bringing with her a Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi sapling. The daughter of Emperor Dharmasoka, instituted Bhikkhuni Sasana in the island. She was accompanied by Brahmins, Arahat Bhikkhunis, Kshatriya family members and ministers in King Dharmasoka. The two kings Devanampiyatissa and Dharmasoka, were long time friends though they had never met each other.

On Poson Full Moon Day, the Arahat Mahinda Thera brother of Sangamitta arrived in the island of Sri Lanka and established the Buddhism and founded the Sangha Sasana. This prompted an urge from the women-folk to enter the order. Queen Anula was foremost in this regard, with a large number of followers she gained intellectual attainments and pleaded Arahant to grant them ordination. As Mahinda Thera was not supposed to offer ordination to females in accordance with the Vinaya rules, hence, Mahinda thera appealed to the Emperor to request his daughter Sangamitta to come over accepting the assignment.

Sri Maha Bodhi sapling

Sangamitta Theri and her entourage left from the port of Tamralipti, the ship arriving at the port of Jambukola patuna in seven days for The King Devanampiyatissa to receive the party and the sapling with great honour. The Bo sapling which was in a golden casket and rituals were performed before it was brought to Anuradhapura.The sapling was planted with a magnificent ceremony in the Maha Megha Garden where it lasts for over 23 centuries receiving the adoration of millions of followers. Arahat Sangamitta their passed away while residing at an Upasikaramaya in Anuradhapura at the age of 79, for King Utthiya to perform last rites in close proximity to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.

Buddha treated women with kindness and civility and pointed out to them too, the path to harmony, purity and blessedness. Buddhism makes no distinction on gender in all matters. Women from all walks of life accepted the teachings and joined the order, Sangamitta theri did all in her power to raise female followers to higher levels of life. She worked with untiring devotion and fearless bravery for the moral, rational and pious upliftment of the womenfolk. The Chola invasion of Sri Lanka in the 11th century caused severe damage and destruction to monasteries which resulted in the disappearance of both the Sasanas from the island. some Sinhala monks took refuge in Burma and brought back assisted by King Vijayabahu and restored the Bhikkhu order. The Bikkhuni sasana was revived on 8th December, 1996 at the Mulagandhakuti premises, in Uttar Predesh, India when seven Dasa Sil Mathas from Sri Lanka were ordained as bikkunis, following the Cholian invaders destroyed it from the island’s soils. Bhikkhuni order that was established by Sangamitta lasted for over a 10 centuries.

Discrimination of Women

In ancient India women were treated as being inferior to men. There had been times they were measured on the same level as the so-called lowest of the four castes. Their liberty was extremely restricted under the view that they had to be below and under the guard of husbands. Therefore, it was thought that they do not deserve any freedom. The main role of women was considered to be that of housewives, attending to house chores as per the wishes of the husband.

Buddhism does not believe women as being inferior to men, but consider men and women to be equally useful to the society. The Buddha emphasised the productive role the women can occupy and should play as a wife. Buddhism encourage both husbands and wives to share equal responsibility and discharge their obligations with equal commitment. The husband is always cautioned to consider the wife a companion, a friend, and an equal in partnership, wife was anticipated to acquaint herself with the business or industries owned by the family, so that she could manage such affairs in husband’s absence. In a Buddhist society the wife occupied an equal place with the husband.

The liberal approach towards women in Sri Lanka is due a movement that has sustained from the distant past under Buddhist authority. The place of women in many countries like Myanmar and Thailand has been as favourable as here in Sri Lanka. The life of a woman was so miserable; had the disaster of being a co-wife which invariably led to conflicts and jealousies, which were a frequent feature in Indian society. A widow was not allowed to remarry, but had to commit suicide [sathi puuja] by leaping into dead husband’s funeral pyre. In some primitive territories in Africa, India, and America wives were looked upon as the private property of their husbands, encouraged the custom of sacrificing, slaying or even burying women alive to go with their departed husbands taking their belongings too. They did not have educational choice; even religious freedom was restricted. So much so the birth of a female baby was considered as a sign of bad luck in a family, it happened that when King Pasenadi of Kosala was informed that his queen gave birth to a daughter he came to the Buddha and lamented. The Buddha had to pacify him saying that good daughters are as good as good sons. Buddha said:

‘A female child, O Lord of men, may prove even a better offspring than a male. ,' – Buddha in Samyutta Nikaya

For she may grow up wise and virtuous her husband's mother reverencing, true wife, the boy that she may bear may do great deeds, and rule great realms, yes, such a son of noble wife becomes his country's guide

Buddha permitted women to demonstrate themselves and to prove that they too had the capability like men to attain the uppermost position in the spiritual way of life by attaining Arahanthood.

Women must be grateful to the Buddha for allowing them to practice the real religious way, and for giving such freedom for the first time in planet’s history.

Buddha Recognised Women’s Capabilities

Today it is common for many religious institutions to claim that they give equal rights to women. Look at the world around to see the place of women in societies. It seems that they are discriminated in various fields, they have no property rights and generally undergo abuse in many subtle forms. Even in the western world, women seeking the right to vote through organized protest had to fight very hard for their rights. According to Buddhism, it is not permissible to regard women as inferior. Buddha recognised their capabilities and capacities, and gave them responsible places in the Bhikkhuni Sangha. The Buddhist texts are full of eminent Bhikkhunis, who were very erudite and who were authorities in sermonising the Dhamma like in Khema, Dhammadinna and Uppalavanna to mention a few.

Those interested could refer to Theri-gatha which contains so many stanzas that clearly articulate the feelings of happiness experienced by pious bhikkhunis at their skill to realize the Truth. The Buddha was born as a woman on many of his previous births in Samsara and even as a woman he developed the noble character and wisdom in his path gaining enlightenment. Buddhism created a ‘conflict’ against superstitions and Brahmin doctrine rejecting the caste formation, and all forms of animal and human sacrifice. The fundamental theory of Dhamma is realisation by one’s own effort. Gender difference has no place in it. Dhamma emphasizes the spiritual equality both male and women.

May all beings be happy!

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