The Therīgāthā is a rich, striking work, well deserving of feminist readings. As a very early work recording the voices of remarkable women, its message is distinctive and relevant. It is tempting to think that feminist readings are merely wishful thinking, the imposition of modern perspectives on ancient texts. Sometimes, it is true, authors might be tempted to modernize or interpret the text to bring such aspects to the fore. But care must be taken, for the messages are already there in the text, if we are willing to listen closely enough; and we may end up obscuring more than we reveal.
Like all Pali verse, translation is a thorny problem. The Pali itself is often difficult, obscure, and ambiguous; K.R. Norman’s voluminous textual notes are a sufficient witness to this. Rendering into English is even more tricky; a literal reading often goes beyond being merely clumsy and prosaic and loses the sense entirely; while the inclination towards a freer reading easily results in something that misses important dimensions of the text.
In Thig 5.2, we have some verses attributed to a nun called Vimalā, who recounts her former life as a courtesan. The verses are vivid and incisive, but pose a range of difficult problems. Here I’d like to focus on just one line.
Vimalā speaks of how, in the brothel, she would strip, teasing and laughing. On one line she says this:
akāsiṃ vividhaṃ māyaṃ,
Linguistically this is straightforward:
I created an intricate illusion
Māyā is used in several different ways in the suttas, in the sense of “illusion”, but also “magic trick”. Here, the sense, obviously, is that she created a delusory artifice to fool her clients. She was the maker of the magic, the one behind the screen. Now that she is a nun and sees the Dhamma, she realizes that all of reality is the same, an illusion that beguiles fools. Thus her own agency, her performance, primed her to realize the nature of the truth.
Norman misses all this when he translates:
I did various sorts of conjuring
Let me confess: I have never been inside a brothel. But I imagine that what goes on has little to do with card tricks. Norman’s rather naive translation ignores the context, and in the process, obscures the teaching potential of the verse.
Susan Murcott’s free rendering takes another path. She translates this line as:
I was the woman of their dreams.
Now, māyā is “illusion”, not “dream”, but that’s a fair use of poetic licence. More significant is the shift of verb: Vimalā no longer “does”, she “is”. It is the men who dream; she just makes a cameo.
There is a long history of gendered representations that assign agency to men and being to women. Men are those who do, who make, who build. Women are those who are, who exist only passively. And in Murcott’s rendering, Vimalā’s agency has been taken from her. She is no longer a skilled performer, weaving intricate illusions to beguile the foolish: she is the object of their desires.
This does violence to the grammar of the Pali, which clearly locates Vimalā as the agent. She is speaking of her deeds, acknowledging the work and dedication it took for her to create the illusion, while at the same time recognizing that her efforts ultimately served only to perpetuate delusion and suffering. Thus she offers a distinctively feminine perspective on the creation and manipulation of desire, something that is so often seen from the man’s side.