Position of Women at the Time of the Buddha
In ancient India the position of women does not appear to have been a very happy one. Generally women seem to have been looked upon as being inferior to men. And, at times they were considered as being on the same level as the Sudras, the lowest of the four castes. Their freedom was extremely limited. The general view appears to be that they had to be under the care of parents in their childhood, under the protection of husbands in their youth; and in their old age they had to be under the control of their sons. Therefore, it was thought that they do not deserve any freedom. Their main role was considered to be that of housewives, managing the affairs in the house according to the wishes of their husbands.
Even as a wife the life of a woman was often miserable. This was specially so when she had the misfortune of being a co-wife. Jealousies and conflicts between co-wives were a common feature in ancient Indian society. The widow’s plight was still worse. Normally, a widow was not allowed to remarry. It is said that a widow had to kill herself by jumping into the funeral pyre of her husband.
Women did not have educational freedom. Education was not considered as being of any importance to women. Their religious freedom, too, was restricted. As they had only little freedom, their chances of performing meritorious religious rites, too, were very limited.
Generally a woman was considered a burden on the family because the males had to bear the responsibility of looking after her. Besides, she was incapable of performing religious rites for the well-being of the departed parents, and therefore, she was considered as being of little use. This is why the birth of a female child was considered as a sign of misfortune in a family. Parents prayed for the birth of sons, both to carry on the family name and traditions and also to perform the necessary religious rites for their benefit when they are dead and gone. How miserable the father felt at the birth of a daughter is seen from the event connected with King Pasenadi of Kosala. When this King 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.
Buddhism does not consider women as being inferior to men. Buddhism, while accepting the biological and physical differences between the two sexes, does consider men and women to be equally useful to the society. The Buddha emphasises the fruitful role the women can play and should play as a wife, a good mother in making the family life a success. In the family both husbands and wives are expected to share equal responsibility and discharge their duties with equal dedication. The husband is admonished to consider the wife a friend, a companion, a partner. In family affairs the wife was expected to be a substitute for the husband when the husband happened to be indisposed. In fact, a wife was expected even to acquaint herself with the trade, business or industries in which the husband engaged, so that she would be in a position to manage his affairs in his absence. This shows that in the Buddhist society the wife occupied an equal position with the husband.
The Buddha’s advice to the King Pasenadi of Kosala, who was a close devotee of his, clearly shows that Buddhism does not consider the birth of a daughter as a cause for worry and despair.
Buddhism does not restrict either the educational opportunities of women or their religious freedom. The Buddha unhesitatingly accepted that women are capable of realizing the Truth, just as men are. This is why he permitted the admission of women into the Order, though he was not in favour of it at the beginning because he thought their admission would create problems in the Sasana. Once women proved their capability of managing their affairs in the Order, the Buddha recognised their abilities and talents, and gave them responsible positions in the Bhikkhuni Sangha. The Buddhist texts record of eminent saintly Bhikkhunis, who were very learned and who were experts in preaching the Dhamma. Dhammadinna was one such Bhikkhuni, Khema and Uppalavanna are two others.
The Theri-gatha contains numerous stanzas that clearly express the feelings of joy experienced by saintly bhikkhunis at their ability to enter the Order and realize the Truth.