Celestial maidens have nothing to be ashamed about

In MN 37, Sakka shows Moggallāna around his lovely Palace of Victory, apparently trying to distract him from the fact that Sakka forgot the Buddha’s teaching.

When they see him coming the celestial maidens (paricārikā) each go to their own rooms. The translations are unanimous in describing their flustered state.

  • Chalmers: Sakka’s handmaidens fled in fear and shame
  • Horner: shrinking and shy
  • Uppalavanna: with remorse and shame
  • Ñāṇamoḷi: conscience-stricken and ashamed
  • Bodhi: embarrassed and ashamed

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these translations are all sexist as hell. The only person in the dialogue who has reason to be ashamed is Sakka, who not only forgot the teaching, but who deliberately tried to avoid being reminded of the fact. Yet somehow the girls, having done precisely nothing wrong, are the shamed ones, not the patriarch. Sound familiar?

The Pali is ottappamānā hirīyamānā. Ottappa and hiri are some of the best known and most universally praised virtues in Buddhism. I usually translate them as “prudence” and “conscience”. They are said to be the bright things that protect the world (lokapāla) (AN 2.9). They appear in countless discourses as fundamental virtues that underlie ethical behavior and the spiritual path in general, and their absence is a sure sign of spiritual and moral decline.

The maidens are said to possess these cardinal virtues, yet the translations implicitly slut-shame them, making it appear as if they have something to hide. Here is the correct translation:

When they saw Moggallāna coming off in the distance, Sakka’s maidens, being prudent and discreet, each went to her own room.

Here we could use “conscientious” for hiri, but “discreet” works better, I think.


when i read the english version of the suttas before, years ago, my impression was just of girls being ashamed of an unannounced visitor, not wearing something formal to greet a distinguished visitor, hair and makeup not done, etc. So they run back to their rooms to change.

can ottappamānā hirīyamānā “shame” be in reference to my example, or does it have to be to some strong moral failing?

It is a common thing in Sri Lankan villages, for girls to go to their rooms when a stranger / visitor come to their house. It is a sign of restrain from girls and is expected as a sign of well brought up by the parents.
They will come and speak to the visitor only on invitation.


I was just wondering why it was the maidens had to retreat. My assumption was always that they were scantily clad in some kind of Princess Leia/Jabba the Hutt situation!


That was my impression too, Cara. Sakka is the king of a sense-sphere heaven after all… :heart_eyes:


edit: let me add that I meant the “scantily clad” part of your post, not the Jabba the Hutt scenario


It sounds like this is exactly what’s happening here, too.

And who exactly is Jabba the Hut in this scenario, I wonder?

Well it ain’t Ven Mahamoggallana!! :speak_no_evil:

If it is that they are hiding, waiting to be invited… Isn’t that still a little sexist? I guess it’s still an upgrade from sexist-as-hell to just normal-sexist?
Or is this just a story, not a guide as to how Buddhist maidens should behave? :laughing:

Well, whether the custom is sexist is one thing, and whether the text endorses the custom is another. We can’t change that. But what I was concerned about as translator was accurately representing the text, and that is something we can change.

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Is it possible that the sexism is not on the part of the translators, but that these translators are only more or less accurately rendering an account that reveals something of the sexist attitudes and patriarchal practices that prevailed at the time of the creation or recension of MN37, especially among elite royals?

Sakka is a supremely powerful royal who apparently has many women serving as maidservants, and under his protection in his palatial household. Indeed, these women maidservants are probably attached to his harem. (See Kautiliya’s Arthsastra for more on the harem and it organization. http://www.lib.cmb.ac.lk/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Arthashastra_of_Chanakya_-_English.pdf )

Wouldn’t it have been understood as normal and appropriately modest for women in such a situation - who live in apartments surrounding the king’s bedchamber - to avoid being seen by male strangers entering the household? We might think it is sexist to hold that for a king’s maidservants to allow themselves to be seen by other, visiting males is an instance of saucy and blameworthy immodesty. But would people in the time of this sutta have had the same attitude?

But of course, as Cara says, the text might be discreetly conveying to us that there is more going on here to explain the embarrassed scurrying about. What exactly is Sakka’s relationship with the maidservants? Here’s one account of the role of a paricārikā:


At the very least we can assume the the paricārikās are “carrying the umbrella, spreading the bed, massaging, anointing pastes and unguents, decorating with ornaments, and so on.” But of course, one doesn’t have to be indecent-minded to understand that, throughout history, these setups often included formal or informal concubinage as well.

MN 37 is about greed for sensual pleasures. Early on in it, Sakka says:

“Just now,” replied Śakra the chief of gods, “I am extremely busy with heavenly affairs. I have both personal things to do and also things concerning the gods. I have forgotten what I was taught."

A likely story! “Things concerning the gods” … Bah!

The line abut “forgetting what I was taught” reminds one of the passage in the Tissa Metteya Sutta in the Atthakavagga: “For one attached to sexual intercourse, the teaching is forgotten.”

Sakka has forgotten the teachings because he is indolently cavorting with lovelies amidst his palatial splendor. Maybe the cavorting doesn’t go beyond massaging and anointing; maybe it does. But in either case, it’s not something that an esteemed ascetic like Moggalana would approve of, and his host and his host’s maidservants know that.


In every single context, without exception, hiri and otappa are presented as being positive, praiseworthy qualities, essential for moral development. Yet in this case the translators presented it as if the maidens are ashamed, as if they have done something wrong. There are perfectly good words for this in Pali (kukkucca, maṅkubhūta, etc.) They are not found in the text.

There was no “embarrassed scurrying about”. That is something the translators invented. The text says, simply and solely, that being discreet and prudent, the maidens went to their rooms.

The translations are sexist because they pass an implied negative moral judgement on women, when the text itself unequivocally states that they possess positive moral virtues.


Ah yes. Excellent explanations. Thank you!


i was just thinking of another common passage where “hiri” appears, where the translation i learned used “shame”.

contemplating the purpose of robes, … for covering parts that cause shame.

patisankha yoniso civaram patisevami,
yava deva sitassa patighataya…
yava deva hiri kopina patichaadanatam

I guess “covering parts that require discretion” or “require conscientousness” works in this context too.

I’m just finding it hard to believe those previous translators were deliberately being sexist, at least one of them being a woman herself. In any case, glad you found a more satisfying translation Bhante.

What is a moral situation is determined by culture, sometimes. The celestial maidens are said to have felt like a ‘daughter-in-law towards her father-in-law’ upon seeing Venerable Moggallana.

This seems to be an issue of good manners rather than a moral issue. Manners are part of the Vinaya as well if I am not mistaken - and being culturally determined it would be understandable that the celestial maidens would feel emotions akin to that of a moral act because the appropriate decorum and respect for a monk would be strongly ingrained in their cultures.

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Ah, but many women can be or are sexist, whether they realize it or not and whether it’s intentional or not. And this is a significant problem because it can reinforce unacceptable behavior because “Well, these women said it was okay/did nothing”.

I see that the translation re: the social and cultural customs makes much more sense given the explanations.

Yes, and sexism is, by and large, not something you deliberately set out to be. It informs and shapes your decisions behind your back, and when it’s pointed out, you get defensive, “I didn’t mean it that way!” That’s how discrimination works.


I didn’t mean to cause any discord with my comments, but I am genuinely puzzled about the interpretation of this sutta and the situation it depicts.

Some translate hiri as “shame.” I don’t know whether that is accurate or not, but that translation is not inconsistent with the further idea that hiri is a virtue and one of the guardians of the world, since it is surely a virtue to be ashamed of one’s unwholesome acts, as opposed to being shameless about them. So just because the sutta says that the paricārikā displayed the virtue of hiri doesn’t mean that they had not also done something to be ashamed of. That issue seems like a red herring.

According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, Buddhaghosa explained the difference between hiri and ottappa “with the simile of an iron rod smeared with excrement at one end and heated to a glow at the other end: hiri is like one’s disgust at grabbing the rod in the place where it is smeared with excrement, ottappa is like one’s fear of grabbing it in the place where it is red hot.”


But how is the sutta to be interpreted overall? One substantive question is whether the paricārikā are to be understood as having done something unwholesome, something that might cause feelings of shame in the presence of a holy ascetic. I suppose we have a hermeneutic circle here, because whether or not we interpret the sutta as insinuating they have probably done something shame-worthy depends on whether or not hiri can be translated as shame in the first place.

On the other hand, Bhante Sujato’s more benign reading is borne out if we take hiri just to be conscientiousness or modesty, and that reading also does seem to have some support from the passage Mat cites about the analogy to daughters-in-law and fathers-in-law. These are perhaps just well-behaved maidens behaving with appropriate (by 500 BCE India standards) modesty or conscientiousness, not with a sense of (moral) shame.

One thing we definitely can say is that Sakka comes in for criticism in the sutta, since Moggallana says he is living negligently, or with too much indolence, and we are told he has forgotten the teachings. That doesn’t entail that some or all of Sakka’s maidservants are also living negligently or wholesomely. It could just mean he is surrounded by sumptuous sensory pleasures and over-indulging in some of them, and that the maidservants are entirely blameless. But it seems to me that is at least not completely clear.

I’m a little puzzled about the relevance of the contemporary, third way feminist critique of “slut-shaming”. That would be a good criticism if the translators were in some way blaming the women for sexual impropriety while leaving the male characters blameless. But I don’t see any effort on the translations I have looked at to obscure Sakka’s luxurious and unwholesome indulgence in sensual pleasure. Surely, the suttas on the whole inveigh against sexual immorality and excess among both men and women.

On the other hand, we have to say that the situation described in this sutta is inherently sexist and patriarchal, since it involves a very powerful male living in a pleasure palace stocked with female body servants that are his reward for having won a battle. So maybe, whether or not the maidservants are engaged in sexual activity with Sakka, we should feel uncomfortable about attributing any unwholesome intentions to them, since they have little choice in the matter. But that leaves open the question of how this 2500 year old sutta views them.

This is misinterpreting how the word “shame” is meant when it is used as a translation for hiri. Hiri is used solely in the sense of a wholesome inner quality that protects one from doing things that are unwholesome. Perhaps this was how the word “shame” was used in the past, but it certainly isn’t any more. Which is why I translate it as “conscience”, not “shame”.

There is nothing in the concept of hiri or otappa that suggests that the person who possesses them has done anything wrong or anything to be ashamed of. In fact, they mean the exact opposite. As I have repeatedly stated, they refer unambiguously to positive moral virtues which stop you from doing anything wrong.

Let us recap. These are women who, in their past lives, were among the few people who lived lives of virtue and decency. They were kind, generous, and moral people. As a result of this good karma, they were reborn in a realm where they could enjoy happiness and pleasure, as a righteous and legitimate reward for their exceptional good conduct. While living in that realm, they are explicitly stated to possess the foundations of moral conduct, the inner virtues of hiri and otappa that are the guardians of the world.

There is no statement or even hint anywhere in the text that they have done anything to be ashamed of. Yet modern translations repeatedly frame the passage in a way that implies that they do have something to be ashamed of. The fact that this conversation is still happening shows how deeply these misconceptions are ingrained. The translations are wrong, and should be corrected.


Just a postscript on the use of the word shame. In modern dictionaries I can only find it in a negative sense, such as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” This is not what hiri means.

However in a Middle English dictionary, as well as these senses, we also find:

Regard for propriety or decency; modesty; shyness, bashfulness

It seems that earlier generations of translators were drawing on this archaic sense for hiri.


Well, I’m totally befuddled now. :slight_smile: Over the past couple of days I’ve been looking in my various books, and online, for explanations of hiri and ottappa, and have found such a bewilderingly inconsistent collection of accounts that I am at a loss.

So then, Bhante, would you say that Buddhaghosa’s explanation of the two concepts is just wrong? His explanation seems to be that ottappa is a future-directed state of fear or trepidation that prevents one from doing something one shouldn’t do, but that hiri is a state of disgust about something one has come into contact with in the present.

Is the person who possesses hiri the opposite of the person who is ahirika? I thought that in his talk with Rahula, the Buddha criticizes the person who feels no shame over having told a deliberate lie. That would seem to imply that it is a good thing to feel such shame when one has told a deliberate lie. Of course, there is also anticipatory shame. If one has the kind of moral cultivation that makes one feel shame when one succumbs to wrongdoing, one will also likely feel an inhibitory “pre-shame” so to speak when one even contemplates the possibility of that kind of wrong-doing in the future. But these two kinds of responses seem to go hand in hand.

Hasn’t Sakka also lived very good past lives, which is why he has been reborn as Sakka? And yet, clearly in this case he is not immune to unwholesome behavior, which is why he needs a visit from his companion in the holy life. Couldn’t these celestial maidens be in the same situation?

Again, to be ashamed of one’s actual wrongdoing seems like a positive moral virtue. So I don’t understand that part of the argument that says that because these are positive moral virtues, they must be concerned entirely with the prevention of future wrongdoing, and their presence indicates that no wrongdoing has occurred.

This is what I have experienced in similar conversations on this forum. ‘Ifs’ and ‘buts’ only demonstrate an inability to see and/or accept defilement which, in a Buddhist context, is ironic. Frank and fearless assessment of these texts are crucial to learning. Calling out that which is contrary to the development of wholesome states is a duty. Excusing sexism only perpetuates it. To say to our ‘forefathers’ sometimes got it wrong is a sign of maturity, not disrespect. We all make mistakes.