Female teachers or teacher’s wives?

In SN 35.133 Verahaccāni we find a brahmin teacher who encounters the Dhamma. Not unusual in itself, except she’s a woman. While the later brahmanical ideology excluded women from teaching (at least in the law books of the men), this was not the case in the Buddha’s time, as is amply shown in the Upanishads.

The translation is tricky, because it refers to her in two different ways.

We first hear of her through the mention of “a boy who was a student of the brahmin lady of the Verahaccāni clan”. This is entirely explicit, he is clearly her student (antevāsī).

Later, she is referred to as ācariyabhariyāya verahaccānigottāya brāhmaṇiyā. The most obvious translation of this would be, “my teacher’s wife, the brahmin lady of the Verahaccāni clan”. And that is how I have translated it so far.

Yet the context supports the idea that it refers to her as the teacher, not as the teacher’s wife. So there is some tension there.

Critical Pali Dictionary, Ven Bodhi, and Cone’s Dictionary of Pali all adopt a “normalized” reading, assuming that the passage is coherent. They therefore say that ācariyabhariyā in this context means “female teacher” (Bodhi has “our revered teacher”). As a rule, I tend to normalize passages less than Ven Bodhi; if the text appears incoherent I let the translation remain so. Obviously this is not an absolute, but it is why I did not reconcile these two senses here.

Now, there are two problems here. The first is, I am unable to find any contextual support for the idea that ācariyabhariyā means “teacher’s wife”. The compound obviously reads this, but in context the meaning is unestablished. The only context that implies a particular meaning is our current one. This suggests that we might eliminate the reading “teacher’s wife” altogether.

Some support for this is offered by the only regular passage that includes this term.

Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, ime dve sukkā dhammā lokaṁ pālenti tasmā paññāyati mātāti vā mātucchāti vā mātulānīti vā ācariyabhariyāti vā garūnaṁ dārāti vāti.
But because the two bright things protect the world, there is recognition of the status of mother, aunts, and wives and partners of teachers and respected people.

Given that each item in the list is different, perhaps I have been mistaken in treating ācariyabhariyā and garūnaṁ dārā as synonyms. Perhaps it means “female teachers and wives of teachers”. This is not clear contextual support, but it seems at least as plausible as two different terms for “teacher’s wives”.

The problem with this is: how do we construe the actual word? Ācariyabhariyā seems pretty definitive. Are we to simply ignore the fact that it actually says “wife” right there? I’m not aware of any passage that supports another sense.

FWIW Sanskrit has ācāryajāyā and gurudāra, among other terms in this sense. So clearly the notion that a “teacher’s wife” was someone of note is a prevalent idea.

An understanding that would make sense of this is if she was the widow of a teacher who took over her husband’s work after he died. That way she would be both the teacher and the teacher’s wife. But that seems overly specific for what appears to be quite a general term.

Perhaps we should after all set aside qualms about the literal meaning and translate as “female teachers” everywhere.


In some asian culture, there is no significant distinction between teacher’s wife and female teacher. The Master’s wife is also my master.

In Chinese, we call Master Shifu (師父), that Fu has the meaning of father. So it is Master-Father.
if Master has wife, she is called Shimu 師母 - Master-Mother. Sometimes there is no difference in respect toward Shifu and Shimu, sometimes there is. Sometimes, Shimu also teach the students.
This is not strict, because a female may also be called Shifu.

In many ancient culture, when one apprentice under a Master and live with him, the Master become a father figure. And automatically Master’s wife become mother figure. And it may happen that teacher’s wife also fulfill the role of female teacher.

I hope this help


This is much more sensible in my opinion and more in keeping with the way the suttas usually compile lists like this.


SA 253


一時,尊者優陀夷往拘 薩羅國人間遊行,至拘磐茶聚落,到毘紐 迦旃延氏婆羅門尼菴羅園中住。

時,毘紐迦 旃延氏婆羅門尼有諸年少弟子,遊行採 樵,至菴羅園中,見尊者優陀夷坐一樹下, 容貌端正,諸根寂靜,心意安諦,成就第一調 伏。見已,往詣其所,共相問訊已,退坐一面。 時,優陀夷為諸年少種種說法,勸勵已,默然 而住,彼諸年少聞尊者優陀夷所說,歡喜隨 喜,從坐起去。

時,諸年少擔持束薪,還至毘 紐迦旃延氏婆羅門尼所,置薪束於地,詣毘 紐迦旃延氏婆羅門尼所,白言:「我和上尼, 當知菴羅園中有沙門優陀夷,姓瞿曇氏, 依於彼住,極善說法。」

毘紐迦旃延氏婆羅門 尼語諸年少言:「汝可往請沙門優陀夷瞿 曇氏,明日於此飯食。」

時,諸年少弟子受毘 紐迦旃延氏婆羅門尼教已,往詣尊者優陀 夷所,白優陀夷言:「尊者當知,我和上毘 紐迦旃延氏婆羅門尼請尊者優陀夷明旦 飯食。」


The text has two parallels in Sanskrit and Chinese. The Sanskrit parallel is a fragment that’s missing the beginning of the sutta, so isn’t helpful. But the Chinese is complete, and the students refer to the brahmin lady as their teacher, not the teacher’s wife.


Thanks for this. I did suspect that it was something like this, it’s probably a blending of ideas.

Thank you.

Again, thank you. I wonder if there are translations of parallel passages that refer to the ācariyabhariyā.


如是我聞:Thus have I heard.

一時,尊者優陀夷往拘 薩羅國人間遊行,至拘磐茶聚落,到毘紐 迦旃延氏婆羅門尼菴羅園中住。
At one time, the venerable Udayi was wandering among the people of Kosala and came to the village Kāmaṇḍā (or some similar name), where he stayed in the brahmin lady Veṇukātyāyanasagotrī’s mango grove.

時,毘紐迦 旃延氏婆羅門尼有諸年少弟子,遊行採 樵,至菴羅園中,見尊者優陀夷坐一樹下, 容貌端正,諸根寂靜,心意安諦,成就第一調 伏。見已,往詣其所,共相問訊已,退坐一面。 時,優陀夷為諸年少種種說法,勸勵已,默然 而住,彼諸年少聞尊者優陀夷所說,歡喜隨 喜,從坐起去。

Then the young students of the brahmin lady Veṇukātyāyanasagotrī were wandering around collecting firewood and came to the mango grove. They see the venerable Udayi sitting under a tree and he looks inspiring, so they approach him and he teaches them dhamma.

時,諸年少擔持束薪,還至毘 紐迦旃延氏婆羅門尼所,置薪束於地,詣毘 紐迦旃延氏婆羅門尼所,白言:「我和上尼, 當知菴羅園中有沙門優陀夷,姓瞿曇氏, 依於彼住,極善說法。」

The youths pick up their bundles of firewood, return to the brahmin lady and tell her:Our teacher, you should know that there’s the recluse Udayi in the mango grove. …”

毘紐迦旃延氏婆羅門 尼語諸年少言:「汝可往請沙門優陀夷瞿 曇氏,明日於此飯食。」
The brahmin lady V. tells the youths: “Go and invite him for tomorrow’s meal.”

時,諸年少弟子受毘 紐迦旃延氏婆羅門尼教已,往詣尊者優陀 夷所,白優陀夷言:「尊者當知,我和上毘 紐迦旃延氏婆羅門尼請尊者優陀夷明旦 飯食。」
When the young students had received the instruction of the brahmin lady V. they went to the ven. Udayi and said to him: “The venerable should know that our teacher, the brahmin lady V. invites the venerable Udayi for tomorrow’s meal.”

Udayi accepts the invitation in silence.

我和上尼 “our teacher” is the same word that is used in the vinaya to translate pavattinī / female upajjhāya.

Apart from the sutta above, I’ve also found three other occurrences of ācariyabhariyā in the Pali canon: Iti 42, AN 2.9, and DN 26.

Iti 42 has no Chinese parallel.
AN 2.9 has three Chinese parallels: EA2 40, EA 18.1, and SA 1243, but unfortunately, they are somewhat different and the lists mention people of all genders (parents, siblings, wives and children, teachers, kings etc.). Teachers are mentioned, but not “teacher’s wives”.
DN 26 has two Chinese parallels: DN 6 and MN 70 but both are too different. (MN 70 has an English translation, if anyone is interested).


Thanks so much for this, it’s really helpful.


I’m glad it helped. I got so immersed in the research that I missed dana time… :sweat_smile:


Nooooooooo! :scream:


Bhante, have you made a decision on this?

I get what you are saying, but in some way, your translation is the normalized version, not bhikkhu Bodhi’s. Having her be a woman who is teaching male students about brahminical texts is much more unusual that having her be a teacher’s wife.

Well, normalize schormalize. What I meant is that they reconciled the two passages to have an obviously harmonious meaning. I guess you’d say that’s linguistic normalizing. What you’re talking about is a broader cultural normalizing.

But no, I haven’t come to any conclusion. TBH, I haven’t yet seen a good argument for how exactly the word ācariyabhariyā can mean “female teacher”. Even if the Chinese have this meaning, they may have had a different original. I’m not saying that this reading is wrong, I just haven’t seen a convincing argument.

There’s also some possibility that in certain corners of the Pali canon, especially AN, a misogynist streak was making itself felt in ways unlike other canons. This could be an example of that. Let’s say this is right, purely for the sake of argument. I’m not saying this is likely, just following the implications. The text originally referred to a female teacher, and this is accurately represented by the Chinese texts. The Pali redactors were confused and used the more familiar term ācariyabhariyā thinking that she must have been the teacher’s wife. If that were so, it would be doubly important that I translate it as “teacher’s wife” so as to accurately represent the genuine situation of the Pali text. My aim isn’t to reconstruct an original, but to convey what is there.

To restate: I find little reason to believe that there are two distinct meanings for ācariyabhariyā. I’ll probably end up translating it consistently throughout. At the moment I’m tending towards “teacher’s wife”, but would be happy to use “female teacher” if I could see a linguistic justification for doing so.

Ven @Dhammanando do you have any thoughts on this? Is there a way that ācariyabhariyā could be grammatically construed in the sense of “respected female teacher”?


Although much later than the Pali, the Sanskrit occurrences of ācāryabhāryā- which I’ve looked at all seem to mean ‘teacher’s wife’ (e.g. Sītā-devī is referred to as advaitācāryabhāryā ‘the teacher Advaita’s wife’ in Caitanya Caritāmṛta).

There are also numerous BV compounds with bhārya-/bhāryā- meaning ‘wife’ as the second term (e.g. pācikā-bhārya- ‘one who has a cook for a wife’ etc. See Wackernagel’s Altindische Grammatik, II.1 p.51 for further examples).

By contrast, I can’t think of any corroborating evidence for a translation ‘respected female teacher’ in Sanskrit.

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I don’t know how it’s arrived at grammatically, but Edgerton’s Buddhist Sanskrit dictionary does give gurubhāryā as a synonym for upādhyāyikā.


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If correct, that’s very interesting. It would be worth looking up the references.
In non-Buddhist Skt., gurubhāryā- straightforwardly means ‘teacher’s wife’.


Thank you, that’s useful.

Also useful. Edgerton is referring to a bhiksuni-karmavaca, where the sense of upādhyāyikā must obviously be “female teacher”. The source he gives for equating it with gurubhāryā is R. Schmidt’s Sanskrit Worterbuch: Nachtrage, which has been helpfully digitized by the fine folks at GRETIL here:

That gives us the reference S II, 16, 2; 62, 7, but I don’t know what that means. Fortunately there is a scanned copy which identifies the edition here:

So it seems the reference is to Somadevasūri’s Yaśastilakam, ed. Kāvyamālā Nr. 70.

Never heard of it! But Worldcat describes it as a 10th century Jaina work in mixed prose and verse, available with Hindi translation. Wisdom library says:

an extensive work in eight Aśvāsas, composed in the reign of the Raṣṭrakūṭa king Kṛṣṇa, under the patronage of his deudatory, son of the Calukya Arikesarin III. It relates the legend of Yaśodhara, king of Avantī, the machinations of his wife, his death and repeated rebirths and final conversion to the Jain faith

Well, sounds like a fun read! Apparently the style is especially fruitful for lexicographers, as it was deliberately written to revitalize many obscure or lost words. Imagine writing Sanskrit and thinking, “You know what? What we need is more old and obscure words!” I like this guy already. But I can’t find it online anywhere, so that’s a dead end. does have gurubhāryā in the sense of “teacher’s wife”, i.e gurudāra. doesn’t give the form upādhyāyikā. But similar forms like upādhyāyānī or upādhyāyī are given as both “female teacher” and “wife of a teacher”.

Note that acc. to MW both these senses are explained by Katyayana quoting from Panini. So we can conclude:

  • they’re clearly contemporaneous
  • they are applicable to the Buddha’s era
  • the sense “female teacher” was apparently considered unproblematic by the brahmins of the time. (We’d have to look more closely at the context to be sure of this.)

So that’s all a bit long and complicated, so let me sum up:

  • terms based on upādhyay- have been used in the senses of “female teacher” and “teacher’s wife” from an early time. Such forms, it should be noted, are readily understandable grammatically.
  • there’s a variety of terms of the form teacher-wife (eg. gurubhāryā, ācāryabhāryā, etc.)
  • there’s no direct evidence for them being used in the sense “female teacher”, leaving aside the sutta contexts already discussed above.
  • Such forms are not readily understandable grammatically, but might have arisen as a cultural idea: female teachers may have often been the wives of prominent brahmins, so the term became conventionally established. It seems like a stretch tho, I’m not aware of any actual evidence for this.

If it’s helpful at all, though it probably derives from the Chinese terminology, we address nuns in Vietnamese as “Sư Cô”.

“Sư” means teacher or master, and in isolation is how you’d address a male teacher.

“Cô” is a pronoun for a young married woman.

In context, while I think some might look at the two phonemes and make the case for “teacher” and “wife”, it’s readily understood to us as “female master.”

But since it almost definitely derives from the Chinese terminology, not sure if it adds anything extra to the discussion, other than another point of evidence that the northern transmission accepts it “female teacher.”