Did the Buddha’s time see a temporary rise in the status of women and girls?

Did the Buddhist Epoch see a temporary rise in the status of women and girls?

I’ve seen several unreferenced claims such as the one below, arguing this was the case, including one mentioning megasthenes which I can’t find the source for. Contrarily, people also like to claim that women were in greater danger than today. I can’t find much evidence either way. I’d love to know what evidence we have.

The Vedic and the Buddhist epochs are marked by a striking difference in the position of women as daughters. In the earlier days, until they were married, daughters were apt to be regarded as unwelcome burdens, and the birth of a girl-child was looked upon as an almost unmitigated curse or catastrophe.1 But at the time of the rise of Buddhism and during its early days, the status of unmarried women was higher than it had ever been in India before—-and, we may add, than it has been since.

I.B.Horner laywomen and almswomen


Crime records are notoriously unreliable in India even today let alone over two thousand years ago! :sweat_smile: I suspect that this is basically unanswerable. Usually the citation I see for this claim is the number of stories of violence in the Pāli Canon, but taking that as a cue to how common such occurrences were is a bit problematic…

The story of Kāḷī comes to mind for example. Yes it’s a story about a landed lady beating her maid. But the maid doesn’t just take it but instead tells the townsfolk, “Look at what the kind lady did to me!” That suggests at least some degree of dignity and an expectation of physical safety even for a “slave girl” which is a good sign. But, again, not exactly statistics. :person_shrugging:


But Horner’s claim isn’t unreferenced, at least not in the first edition of Women under Primitive Buddhism.

The two citations in the first footnote are in support of Horner’s claim as to how baneful a woman’s lot was in pre-Buddhist times. The first is the 14-page entry for the words pati and patnī (“husband and wife”) in volume I of MacDonell and Keith’s Vedic Index of Names and Subjects.

The second is from the section headed Die Tochter ist ein Jammer (“The Daughter is a Source of Misery”) in Winternitz’s 1920 Die Frau in den Indischen Religionen. As this seems not to be available at Internet Archive, I attach the relevant pages in the file below.

Tochter.pdf (1.1 MB)

Then the second footnote, in support of Horner’s claim that matters improved in post-Buddhist times, is a citation from a very technical legal discussion of the word putra in Nandapaṇḍita’s Dattakamīmāṃsā.

I’ve no idea whether it did or not, but I think the claim that it did needs stronger evidence than just a single citation from a 16th century dharmaśāstra.


Indeed, and I think the available evidence is far too thin. And that is of course part of the problem. The old texts are by and large not that interested in women’s lives.

What we can say, however, is that some of the truisms often cited about women at the time are not so true. Many people say, for example, that the Buddhists were the first to start an order of nuns, but it seems that there were several orders already in existence; in fact it seems mainstream. Likewise, it is often said that women were excluded from brahmanical learning, but the Brihadaranyaka has several examples of women engaging in high-level philosophical conversations, while at the same time justifying rape in marriage.

Things are more complicated than we think.


You can read about status of women in rigveda at next article https://www.ijhssi.org/papers/vol10(4)/Ser-1/B1004010812.pdf

Thank you for this topic. I’m one who was under the assumption that things had improved for women and girls worldwide. After researching for current trends, mostly UN reports, there is a disturbing amount of violence worldwide against women and girls today. This is just violence: rape, murder, acid attacks, domestic abuse, genital mutilation… to say nothing of a lack of opportunity and health care access (which is obvious without any special research) . If things have improved, it must have been dismal for women and girls 2600 or so years ago.

Thank you for the excerpt Venerable. I can’t stomach the brutality inflicted on slaves in American history. (trigger warning) Just one I’d read about: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/08/29/a-surgeon-experimented-on-slave-women-without-anesthesia-now-his-statues-are-under-attack/ Maybe it is the same hatred, greed, and ignorance all this time.

It’s a hard thing to say, isn’t it.

I was brought up in the 70s and 80s. Nowadays I hear people excusing bad behavior by saying, “that’s how it was back then”. And obviously in some ways there is truth to that. But I’d have to say, I had zero personal exposure to the kinds of outright misogyny and vile hatred and abuse of women that has become a normal part of internet discourse today. Maybe I had a sheltered existence.

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:pray:t2: :pray:t2: Venerable, agreed. Guilty of a definite sheltered existence here. Maybe it’s privilege but I never lacked parental love and never have - as of yet - experienced violence. Which says nothing about others. Really educational, this thread. :pray:t2: :pray:t2:

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