INTERROGATING RELIGION AND GENDER; A STUDY OF BUDDHIST NUNS (BHIKKHUNIS)
Religion is a belief and practice that is regarded as spiritual and sacred in society. The word religion has been derived from the Latin word “religio”, which refers to ‘respect for what is sacred’ and “religare”, which means ‘to bind together’, as a sign of commitment. Religion is one of the social institutions that have been prominent throughout human history. Religion holds a distinctive place in this human society. It is a crucial part of the human society as it molds and shapes the individuals to live a respectful life in society, and there has never been any society without religion. It teaches to have faith in the divine power and is associated with beliefs and practices that give meaning to life and helps to understand the social environment of the world. Religion has the power to bind the person of a society together which helps to control its social functioning in a structured manner, as it provides them a sense of meaning and purpose to their life.
Religion is a set of beliefs where a person’s behavior is guided; norms are to be maintained according to the basic social needs and values of the society. It can also be seen in every culture, it can be defined as a value, belief, language, communication and practice which is shared in common by a group in a public way and this defines them as a collective. In every society there are religions and cultures that people believed to exist. There is no society without a religion that they believe in and no society where cultural values are not maintained. So, it is known there are different religions and each one of them has a symbol representation which differs from one religion to another, where individuals can recognize which religion they belong to and it is an attempt made to give meaning to life.
As we know that a society is not static, it is always under the process of social change and development. Society may be defined as a group of people who live in a definite territory and share common values and culture. In these societies religion plays a major role in this process of change as it guides the behavior of every individual. Therefore, religion is a social institution. It is an important institution of the society which declares a particular set of ethos as common values for the people and as a result these values are to be maintained for the social order to function in a smooth manner and bring social stability in the society. However, not all religions have the same sets of belief systems and in every society we see there are different people, who follow different kinds of religion, and these religions have different beliefs and practices in the social world. So, religion is known to be found in all human societies. There are different kinds of religion in every society and each religion has a certain perspective towards the gender role. it shows that each religion has their own opinion regarding the roles and responsibilities of men and women in every religious activity.
Gender is a social construct which authorizes roles of men and women in the society, depending on the religion which a person belongs to, and according to their gender they are assigned with a specific position and responsibility which should be taken into consideration. Therefore, every religion gives a certain position to people based on their gender representation. Although women are thought to be more religious than men, there are certain restrictions bestowed upon women ranking them inferior than men. Women are always ranked lower status than men, but the gap between men and women varies in different cultures and are seen changing with passing time. In every society women experience a glass ceiling. Loden (1978), it means there is an invisible barrier especially for women into their advancement in life. This tells us there are no societies where women are given the same opportunities as men do. Women are always restricted and given a secondary role to perform for the society.
The societies are mostly patriarchal in nature, male-dominated society and religion has played an important role to promote patriarchal, as a result women are being exploited by men and take them to be their subordinates. Many religions have their own way of worshipping and believe the existence of one God, where men view them to be powerful, strong willed and controlling in nature but women believed them to be kindhearted, loving, caring, comforting and forgiving. It is believed that god is powerful and strong so it should be male and women should be their helping hand as a subordinate. The religious practices show that male have more important and significant roles to perform whereas women are considered to be not respectful of religious practices in the holy places like temples. Though women are considered to be close to nature compared to men they are still being excluded from the religious roles. There are many religions that believe in equality between men and women and consider women to have an important religious role. However in the real world women are not treated equal to men, but women do have a role to play in many religious rituals though it is a subordinate role of men.
The Buddhist religion has a different perspective towards men and women, they do not consider women are inferior to men. Buddha believed that good daughters are equal to good sons. Buddhism has accepted the biological and physical difference of both the sexes and they are considering being equally useful towards the role of the society. Buddhism believes both men and women can perform religious rites and rituals and can have a role as a monk or a nun in the monasteries also known as Gompa. Therefore, this research work is conducted to acknowledge the socio religious position of women, specifically in Buddhism as a Buddhist nun also known as Bhikkhuni. The research will focus on the role and
responsibility of nuns and their anointed position in Buddhism. Buddhism is a religion according to the research which has given a designation to both men and women who are known as Buddhist nun and Bhikkhuni respectively.
History of Buddhism in India
Taranatha (1970) Buddhist treatise, the work towards the Indian studies and particularly on the Buddhist Studies, provides a clear picture of the lineages and development of Buddhism which shows the connection of faith with its guru and to be able to distinguish the real from the fake faith. It freely shows the historical views of previous times with relation to the socio-economic bias of past events and provides us the flaws in the current of historical literature. In addition, Tucci (1974) reviewed this work which was translated by Chimpa and Chattopadhyaya. He welcomed the attempt that some texts quoted by Taranatha are being added and it fails to justify the problems that they were dealing with. The work is limited but it will be a helpful source for those who are interested in Buddhism.
Raghuramaraju (2013) talks about the Buddhism in Indian philosophy, the Indian philosopher S. Radhakrishnan tries to take in Buddhism into Hinduism, it says Buddhism is not different from the tradition but it is a reformed and a new version of the same tradition, it’s original, modern and scientific. Thus, Buddhism brought a shift in philosophy. The Upanishads was a work done by many minds whereas on the other hand Buddhism was seen as a system of belief of a single individual, in simple words it is a return of Brahmanism with a new fundamental principle of its own. But still Radhakrishnan did appreciate
Buddha’s contribution towards the new religion and for him Buddha does not reject the caste outright but rejects the subsequent dishonest points of view. In contrast to him, B.R Ambedkar bolstered the radical difference between Buddhism and Hinduism. He entirely rejects the Vedas and Upanishads but accepts them with Buddhism and also the importance of the old system of Indian Philosophy- Sankhya.
Omvedt (2003) has done a detailed study on the development of Buddhism, and took Dr Ambedekar’s interpretation as the dimension of study towards Buddhism. The original data of the Buddhist religion and the recent texts of Buddhism gave account of social, political and philosophical aspects, through which it was possible to discuss all the important issues of current concern. The reconstruction of society with religion has shown the transformation of societies' cultural belief systems. The history of Buddhism, their way of teachings, civilization, how Buddhism was defeated in India, movements after Buddhism, Buddhist revival and colonial challenges gave rise to the modern age, the society that we live in. The great revolutionary leader like Ambedkar molded Buddha’s teaching and message to way of life into a manifesto towards the social-political revolution for the Dalits. Furthermore, there are still many struggles for hegemony in our country as it is a land of many competing religion systems. She also said India should actually be known as ‘Buddhist India’ and not as ‘Hindu India’.
Collin (1999) worked on studies of Buddhist Tradition, which focuses on the life pattern and beliefs system of Buddhist monks and nuns of early India and their participation on provinces of laity (ordinary people) and relic (historical objects). It tells us religion- Mahayana Buddhism as a movement which is devoted towards the previous monastic and meditative. Similarly, Donald Lopez also contributed towards the rise of Mahayana (major tradition of Buddhism). The work of Gregory Schopen, “Archaeology and Presuppositions in the study of Indian Buddhism”, it is said they have not acknowledged the evidence provided by archaeology. One of the texts which says “what a small, literate, almost exclusively male and certainly atypical professionalized subgroup wrote,” on the other hand archaeology says, what Buddhism was like-“what religious people of all segments of given community actually did and how they lived”. Hence, the methodology on reconstruction of religion with the help of archaeological and epigraphical findings are in question and some are denied. In contrast, Holt Clifford (1998) argues, the criticism is always changing its focus but his arguments on work are quite convincing therefore, the Buddhist studies should be revised. He warned the readers about the theoretical temperament where texts usually take over reality.
Furthermore, the practices of nuns and monks from “The Introduction of the Image Cult of Indian Buddhism” which provides the information regarding the involvement of monks and nuns in encouraged the making of images and it gives support for the criticism of Peter Brown’s on ‘two-tired” model of religion. The image of Indian Buddhist monks and nuns are now recognized and are emerging but they differ from the ideal concept of monks and nuns of the texts, now monks are very much involved in the religious giving and the practice of cult (devotion for object).
By Mallavi Tamang