In the Buddha’s time what role did women play in Buddhism?
I have already given you the picture of what the bhikkhunis did in the previous pages. Here I would like to mention the role of Visakha as a case study reflecting on the positive role of women in Buddhism during the Buddha’s time.
Visakha was born in a Buddhist family. As a child she used to follow her grandparents to listen to the teaching of the Buddha. She was married to an equally wealthy family. Not only was she herself interested in Buddhism, she was also successful to influence Singala, the millionaire who was her father-in-law to convert to Buddhism as well. Because of this, sometimes people addressed her as “Singalamata” or “mother of Singala” to honour her.
She had been so involved in Buddhist circle from childhood that she was known both to the Buddha and the Sanghas. Her role was not limited only to following the teaching of the Buddha but she also played a significant role of consultant as well as regular supporter. Furthermore, she was equally well versed both in the Dharma and Vinaya.
When she noticed that some monks were not behaving well she brought it to the Buddha’s attention and as a result rules were laid down at her request. Two Aniyata rules came into existence because of her suggestion. Bathrobes for the monks also became a monastic requirement as suggested by her.
In the role of a consultant to the Sangha, there was a case of pregnant bhikkhuni who was expelled by Ven Devadatta. But this bhikkhuni appealed to the Buddha and insisted upon her purity. The Buddha ordered the Sangha to reinvestigate and Visakha was invited to the newly appointed committee to give advice to the Sangha. Visakha came from a large family. She herself had many children and grand children, hence an experienced householder. Upon her investigation she found out that the bhikkhuni was pregnant before being ordained. When the purity of this bhikkhuni came to light, the Buddha allowed her to remain without having to disrobe and the baby was later adopted by the royal family.
Visakha played a very significant role as a lay female disciple; she indeed met the requirement of an established Buddhist who was responsible for propagating and establishing Buddhism in the early period.