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.