The origin of TheravadaBuddhism is traced back in 3rd century BC, and its name is derivedfrom “Sthaviravada”, a term which no longer exists and is unknown. The meaningof the name “Theravada” is teaching of the elders, and it is the major type of Buddhismin Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand.
The Theravada religion has spreadall over the world, and now has approximately 100 million members around theglobe. Buddhism has set out duties for each gender. According to Theravada, allleaders and teachers must be men, and the women occupy the lower ranks. Therehas been tension amongst Buddhists in Western and Asian regions because thewest advocates for gender equality due to their liberal approach to things, andbeing highly educated. Historically, Buddhist women’syouth comprised of serving and following the orders of their parents. They alsohad to respect their husbands after getting married, and their grown childrentoo. Parents chose the spouses of the Theravada Buddhist women, and they wereviewed mainly as facilitators in the society and religion.
This essay aims atdescribing the role of women in Theravada Buddhism. The Role of Women in Theravada BuddhismBuddhist women derive theirrespect from being good mothers. Their role is to protect the rest of thepeople in the community in terms of care and support. The Buddhists believethat good relationships amongst a mother and a son is essential inspirituality. Mothers bless their sons as they start their journey of a careerand other vital stages of life. These blessings are considered so special thatwithout them, one believes that their career will not be successful (Andaya,2002). This belief has been a major role of Theravada women which has beenpassed from one generation to another. Appleton (2011) describes howwomen cannot become Bodhisattva because of the rules set by the religion.
Womenare considered to have some spiritual shortcomings, therefore, cannot achievethe highest ranks of the faith. These beliefs make women inferior to men andmake their roles revolve around facilitating and preparing men to be the bestthey can. Theravada women were seen as spiritually inferior, but they weregiven a ritual which made them feel appreciated known as upisiki. Upisikiritual recognized women for their role of nurturing and mothering in society (Andaya, 2002). However, these roles have been changing with time. In 1000CE, Sri Lankan monks began the process of guiding the people to be moreinvolved in the Buddhist community. The women who had been ignoredfor a long time got the privilege to become direct members of Buddhism whenthey started being allowed to give offerings to the monks.
They were also able tobecome nuns, or be promoted with upisiki after reading new literature/texts.One primary benefit of these teachings was the Sinhalese princess calledVatasiki (Appleton, 2011) who became the first nun. Nuns had a higher rank and could mediate for theother people. The Theravada Buddhist believe that those who devote themselveswholly to serve, like nuns and monks, will achieve great rewards. Women areconsidered as a sign of multiplication or increase. Therefore, during offeringtimes, involving women would be a great success because women were consideredto make the offering merit, bring about higher rebirth, and success in thecommunity (Andaya, 2002). In Theravada, especially innorthern Thailand, communal feasting is a significant occasion. Monks mustaccept any food prepared by the devotees (Andaya, 2002).
Womenhave a role in cooking for the monks. Any woman can devote herself to make thefood while males are not involved in cooking. It is a type of merit-making forwomen because they show how responsible they are in taking care of others inthe community. Women are the ones to feed the monks through the Dina ordevotion. Giving food to the monks was believed to be placing it in front ofthe lordship (Andaya, 2002).
The women who did thatwere highly praised and highly regarded by everyone in society. They believedin doing so, so their lives would be favored and blessed by the Buddha. Another role of the Theravadawomen was providing the monks with clothes. In the past, the clothes were madeby local women.
Weaving in Southeast Asia was very common, and women have beenweaving for the past 2,500 years (Appleton, 2011). They would weave the clothes and present them to themonks. Clothes could also be offered during life-cycle rituals such as the Dina.Offering a pillow, cushion or a cloth during these ceremonies indicated thatone had given an extension of themselves to the lord (Ratanakul, 2007). If a woman gave a very highly valuedgift, her name would be recorded for posterity and she would be remembered inthe future.
Cloth production was considered a form of social bond strengtheningduring the rituals because some clothes portrayed certain symbols. Forinstance, when a new monk was visiting, veils of colors would be laid on theroad to show respect. Women would kneel and spread silk sashes on which themonks would step on as they were being welcomed (Ratanakul, 2007). These actions were believed to bring together thecommunity and make society look a lot better and holier.
Therefore, women were thefacilitators of unity amongst different people in the community. During the visikhi ceremony,which took place at the end of every rainy season, women had a role to givekathina robes to the monks (Andaya, 2002). The visikhi ceremony was a very important occasion for women because itwas a time for merit-making. Giving out a robe in this celebration would earn awoman a lot of respect in the community and many blessings in terms of childrenand grandchildren. The kathin ceremony was considered as an event thatsymbolized monks’ return to lay life (Andaya, 2002). During the kathin festival, there was time for monksto take robes and those involved were the close female relatives, usually themother.
When a mother learned that their son was interested in going back tolay life, she would spend the whole night weaving a robe for him (Ratanakul,2007). Some women came together as a group toweave robes a few days before to the kathin ceremony to offer them to themonks. It was believed that the unity in weaving one robe would mean that everyperson involved would be magnified and receive a merit. They also believed thatthey would become famous and rich in the future (Andaya, 2002). Motherhood was highly respectedin the Theravada Buddhism.
The metaphor of nurturing was prevalent in thereligion and mothers were considered as a source of protection. When a personwanted to go to a Buddha, they would go saying that they are going to theirimmortal noble mother (Andaya, 2002).Motherhood was considered as a signal of security in the community. If ason-mother relationship is good, it was believed that their son would besuccessful in their spiritual life. Therefore, Theravada mothers had a role inacting as symbols of protection. According to Andaya (2002), when a young boy was starting his career as aBodhisattva, he had to be blessed by his mother. Even until now, mothers areconsidered as the Buddha of the home by their sons. The mother of a Bodhisattva isa big player in his spiritual journey.
She brings forth the first arousingthought in the Bodhisattvas which guides and directs his steps into Buddhahood.It is very essential for Bodhisattvas to show respect and appreciation towardstheir mother because the mother acts as their pillar (Andaya,2002).Mothers must be shown a lot ofrespect because of the selfless care they show when nurturing children. It is ahuge sin not to respect a mother in Theravada Buddhism (Seeger,2009). The story of Angulimia exists, who isdescribed as a murderer and a robber, that gives warning to everybody torespect their mothers. Angulimia wanted to kill his mother but was converted bythe Buddha. If he had killed his mother, he would never have peace in his life (Seeger,2009).
Phra Malai who is a Theravada legendwarns people that mistreating a mother is equivalent to abusing a monk. Peoplewho mistreat their mothers are said to be punished the most and will be reborn ina worse form. These warnings show how mothers must be respected because oftheir caring nature. Women are held in high esteem, especially mothers (Seeger,2009). Theravada Buddhists believethat after a baby is born, the love of the mother converts the blood in herbreasts into milk, which feeds the baby (Ratanakul, 2007).
They link the physical nourishment to spiritualstrength hence show the importance of women in their religion. GotamMahipajipat is a woman in Pali who took care of the Buddha when his motherdied. Gotam who was also the initiator of the Buddhist order of nuns isdepicted as a mother of Buddha and a female Buddha. Because she nourished theBuddha physically and made him healthy spiritually, she is very highlyrespected. Theravada Buddhists linked physical nourishment to spiritualnourishment (Ratanakul, 2007).
A Buddhaacts as a mother to his followers. He treats them compassionately and in a kindmanner. Although a baby may show temper tantrums by abusing, hitting orcomplaining about a mother, she acts calmly and comforts the baby. They areexpected to be as a mother to their followers, hence, affirming the respectheld by mothers in the Theravada Buddhism (Andaya, 2002). Buddhist rulers should portraymother-like characteristics to succeed in their rule. They must becompassionate and kind to their followers (Andaya, 2002).
Moreover, they should show parental care andmaternal love to everyone. King Kyanzittha, once a king of Burma, promised hispeople that he would treat them like his children and he will feed them, and makethem feel like a child in its mother’s bosom. Buddha scriptures also depictwomen as an essential caregiver without which the world cannot progress (Ratanakul,2007). Women are said to be the future becausethey are fruitful. These characteristics portray the role of women in thesociety. Women are the source of compassion and kindness in the Theravadareligion. Several sources have shown thatfemales are very good at communicating with the supernatural world (Andaya,2002).
Royal women, for instance, would beinvolved in some major affairs during the rule of their sons or husbands. Agood example is in Sukhothai where the Queen Mother together with her soncampaigned to get back their land, which was grabbed by Ayutthaya. The queenmother would guide her son no matter how old the son grew, about how to rule (Seeger,2009).
The queen mother helped her son take backtheir territory and together they were able to destroy the enemy. Therefore,women, especially the old ones in the Theravada religion are considered aseffective communicators with superpowers. Some people even believe that thequeens possess special powers that guide and protect them (Andaya, 2002). A long time ago some women wereordained to become nuns in the Theravada communities. Some of their rolesincluded teaching, meditating and performing rituals.
Most of them were oldwomen who were highly regarded in the society and very educated (Andaya,2002). Moreover, widows were most preferred tobe nuns. A Sri Lankan monk who visited the Theravada nuns was amazed by theknowledge that the nuns possessed. However, in the beginning of the twentiethcentury, these roles were abolished. Although some people were in support ofthe idea of having female nuns in Theravada religion (Appleton, 2011). Women were considered to beweak in the Theravada society because being born a woman showed inadequacy. Theywere able to make a niche for themselves and support the Theravada religion (Andaya,2002). Women were highly appreciated if theyserved monks.
Some would be elevated to higher social leadership posts aftergifting the leaders. For instance, Sujiti who was a chief’s daughter, thatbecame the first lay disciple after offering the Buddha who was fasting, somerice (Andaya, 2002). Women were service peoplein the society who held things together. They were expected to support men,especially during ceremonies, were things like cooking had to be done. ConclusionAlthough the Theravada womenhave missed out on many leadership posts in the religion, they have beenoffered many opportunities that make them a part of Buddhism. Some activitiessuch as making clothes and cooking are considered feminine and give the femalesa chance to participate. Long ago it was something that made them feel appreciatedand wanted.
The activities were translated into offering to the supreme powersthrough which women would be rewarded and blessed. Motherhood was held and isstill held with high respect in the Theravada religion. Their culture whichstipulates that mothers should be respected and obeyed has made women becomerespectable people in the society.
Mothers are also celebrated fortheir selflessness hence act as a guide for their sons who are growing. Themother-son relationship is very vital in Theravada religion because they believethat if the mother relates well to the son, he will succeed. Although women donot hold prestigious posts in the religion, they have been given some vitalroles which make them a part of the religion. In today’s world striving towardsgender equality, you see the traditional Theravada evolving and including theconcept of women being equal to men.
However, tension amongst Buddhists inWestern and Asian regions still exists because of the disagreement to change traditionalbeliefs and a disapproval of evolvement.