What do you think of the Eight Garudharmas?
When the Buddha finally allowed women to join the Order, he gave the Eight Garudharmas for them to follow. The Queen Maha Pajapati took these upon herself as a garland decorating her head. Nevertheless these Eight Garudharmas have been much criticised, assuming after all the Buddha was not free from Indian social conditions.
We need to take a close look at the Eight Garudharmas:
The Buddha actually prescribed the Eight Garudharmas for the bhikkhunis to follow so that they function as a protection for themselves. Looking at them superficially one may think that they are measures to control
women. To understand and appreciate Garudharma one needs to look at them within the given social and historical contexts.
Indian society has always been patriarchal. Men are always at the central points of thoughts and interests. Women were brought up within a cultural and social setting which placed them as subordinates. They are under the care of their parents when young, under protection of their husbands when married, and under protection of their sons in their advanced age (Manudharmasastra). Women are taken as dependent beings. They cannot be left alone so much so that women are not accustomed to making decisions on their own. Their lives completely depend on the guidance of male members of the families. Religious life is not to be mentioned. A woman can expect to have spiritual salvation only through devotion and service to her husband. She may make offerings as the other half of her husband, but independently she cannot perform any ritual. She is neither allowed to recite nor to read the Vedas as she is unclean, and vice versa, she is unclean because she cannot study the Vedas.
Social and religious conditions permit the only salvation for her through devotion to her husband. It also linked to her obligation of bearing sons to her family. It is believed that the son must perform the final rite to allow the access to heaven for his parents. In case a woman cannot bring forth a son to her husband’s family, her presence is indeed considered inauspicious.
Buddhism emerged from Indian soil full of these social values. One needs to be reminded that Buddhist monks in the early period were after all Indian men from different castes moulded with these social norms and values.
Women came to join the Order at least five years after the bhikkhu sangha was established. It is only natural and understandable that the Buddha would place the bhikkhuni Sangha in a subordinate position to the bhikkhu Sangha for the harmonious coexistence and for a functional purpose in order to establish a balanced foundation of administration. The bhikkhuni Sangha may be seen as a later arrival of younger sisters who must accept and pay respect to the bhikkhu Sangha, comparatively their elder brothers. The Buddha was well aware that with the admission of a large group of female followers he would need assistance from the bhikkhus to help him in the teaching and training of the newly ordained bhikkhunis. The easiest way to make their path smooth is to make them subordinate to the bhikkhu Sangha for functional benefit.
But as the story unfolds itself, we find that the bhikkhus still expected the bhikkhunis to perform household chores for them just the way they were familiar with when they were still in their households. The difference was that now instead of serving men at home, the nuns serve them in a monastic setting. If we look at the Eight Garudharmas negatively we will find that they become measures to support and affirm such values.
Again, further study shows that we cannot take the Eight Garudharmas as final authority without flexibility. I can quote an example of the first Garudharma which says that “a nun even ordained for 100 years must pay respect to a monk ordained that day.” Later there was a case of six monks who playfully lifted up their robes showing their thighs to attract the bhikkhunis’ attention. In this case, the Buddha instructed the bhikkhunis not to pay respect to these monks. This shows that any rule laid down by the Buddha always has a certain requirement to it. One should not stick to the rule without understanding the spirit of it.
I should also mention that the 6th Garudharma mentions that “a sikkhamana having completed the 2-year training, is to ask for higher ordination” is a later requirement. When the Buddha allowed Queen Maha Pajapati to join the Order, She was ordained as a bhikkhuni. Sikkhamana was not in existence at that time. What may be drawn from this seeming discrepancy is that the Garudharmas was introduced in a later period but placed at the conception of the bhikkhuni ordination to give emphasis to its authority as the recorder
might have thought this to be a good measure for the bhikkhu sangha to control the bhikkhuni Sangha.
More over the Eight Garudharmas may be found already in the Patimokkha itself.