‘Women brahmanical focus on rituals and sacrifices. Women

‘Women Emancipation
through Nikaya Teachings’

                                                                                                                           Abhishek Parashar

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Abstract

Women have faced discrimination in almost all
ancient societies. Her depiction as a temptress and non-trustworthy companion
is a feature common to all civilizations in Asia, Africa, Europe and Americas.
She was blamed as the source of all the sins of the world and mankind.

 In
early India too women faced obstacles prevalent in form of religious,
sacrificial and educational discrimination. This happened in later vedic
society as the priestly class gained influence in public life of commoners. The
Rig-vedic society was however egalitarian and women participation was
present in all spheres of public life. At the end of the later Vedic society,
Buddha arrived and gave teachings about real nature of life and death and hence
created conditions for change in social attitudes towards women in those days.

 Buddha’s focus on Law of Karma opened up new
avenues in sphere of public thought thereby realizing people that one is
responsible for his own action and its consequence rather than depending upon
action of son or grandson. This was a big help to women who were not able to
bear male child to perform rites of the ancestors.

 Buddha
gave advice to women on important matters like marriage, in-laws, wisdom,
character, family matters etc. Buddha was highly practical in these advices
while at the same time paved the way for emancipation of women by opening
hitherto ‘banned’ avenues for them. These advices are mentioned in Anguttara Nikaya
and Samyutta Nikaya.

 This
paper attempts to study these teachings of Buddha given to women in context of
their role in society at large, as well as with respect to discriminations
faced by them under priestly dominance.

Key Words: Discrimination,
Karma, social attitudes, Anguttara Nikaya and Samyutta Nikaya.               

Introduction

Buddhism as religion of peace and Buddha as
messenger of compassion or karuna are known throughout the world. Buddha
as a social reformer brought about major changes in Indian society during fifth
century BCE. At the end of later vedic period Buddha arrived on the Indian
scene not only as one of the pillars of srmana movement but also as emancipator
of the marginalized communities of that period including women. Buddha’s
spiritualism and ‘human centric’ philosophy was like a breath of fresh air in
the life of commoners disenchanted with brahmanical focus on rituals and
sacrifices.

 

 

Women in later vedic period

The position of women in ancient India can be
classified under two periods- Rig-vedic and later vedic. As
evident from literary sources of Rig-vedic period, women did not suffer
from social discrimination and participated in mainstream society without any
hindrances. Many Rig-vedic hymns have been composed by women sages and
few of them are highly revered even in modern India like Lopamudra, Gargi,
Maitreyi and Katyayeni. Apart from religious and educational participation
women enjoyed a respectable status in society as mother, wife, daughter and
sister. Rig-vedic society was egalitarian in nature with simple customs
and laws. But this gradually changed at the turn of new millennium in first
millennium BCE. This is the period regarded by scholars generally as the start
of later vedic period.

Many changes started to appear in Indian
society and one of the most important was one which corresponds to the growing
priestly dominance. This later vedic period was characterized by highly
hierarchical social order in which certain social groups were relegated to disadvantaged
positions. The severity of this relegation and associated handicaps grew more
and more as the time passed.

Women too found themselves in disadvantaged
position as her status deteriorated substantially in later vedic period.
They were started being looked as inferior to men. Her level was put on the
same level as that of sudras, the lowest of four varnas. Her
freedom was extremely limited as she was confined to four walls of household. The general view appears to be that she had to be
under the care of parents in her childhood, under the protection of husbands in
her youth; and in her old age, she had to be under the control of her sons. Therefore,
it was thought that she do not deserve any freedom. Her main role was considered
to be that of a housewife, managing the affairs in the house according to the
wishes of her husband. Hence, in later vedic period the position of
women does not appear to have been a very happy one. Generally the handicaps were in form of prohibiting
women equal rights as men in national life, societal sphere and at family
level. Women were denied religious, educational and sacrificial rights and were
merely seen as responsibilities of the male members of family.

Even as a wife, the life of
a woman was often miserable. Many a times she had the misfortune of being a
co-wife leading to jealousies and quarrels between co-wives in the household. At
times she became widow at a young age and was not allowed to remarry. Later on in
history started the inhuman ‘sati-pratha’ having sanctions from priests and
society. According to Dharma Shastra literature
position of women was severely disadvantaged. Manu Smriti describes the duties
of women as follows:

 “By a girl,
by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently,
even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her father. In
youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be
independent.”

“No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by
woman (apart from their husbands). If a wife obeys her husband, she will for
that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.”