Feminist takes on the Therigatha?

I’m doing my introduction to the Therigatha, and I wanted to include a survey of a few feminist readings of the text. Any ideas?

FWIW, here is my take:

I think the feminist reaction against Buddhist body contemplation is in need of revisiting. Attitudes towards the body are complex and changing within feminist circles. Too often the demand to “reclaim” the feminine body and its sexuality leads, in a fairly straight line, to sexual subjugation and abuse at the hands of men on the one hand, and body-image distress among women on the other. Recent trends in feminist theory speak of “body neutrality” rather than “positivity”, a position that stands much closer to that of early Buddhism. If we, as Buddhist feminists, had a little less concern with current trends in theory, and a little more concern for what the early texts were actually saying, perhaps we might have contributed to the debate, rather than just holding its coattails. Buddhist texts have both positive and negative depictions of bodies, which is completely realistic: bodies are both beautiful and disgusting. To focus on one aspect or another is not to fix the essence of the body, but to counter imbalances and lead to a healthy and reasonable equanimity.


Therigatha Festival - YouTube

Maybe can revisit the videos here to get some ideas?


Hi Bhante, bearing in mind AN 4.49:

Perceiving impermanence as permanence,
suffering as happiness,
not-self as self,
and ugliness as beauty—
sentient beings are ruined by wrong view,
deranged, out of their mind.

It may be helpful to emphasize that ugliness/unattractive is discerned at the very foundation of the body, and that despite the factual beauty on that superficial level, the two aspects aren’t on equal footing. Many Thera/Therigāthā verses allude to this “body adorned with…”, which to me points to beauty being on the surface - factual there, but inherently undermined. There’s also the wood pile of AN 6.41, which seems to point at those many available layers to a given experience, but taking any given thing, there will always be those aspects that are more significant. Having said that, both beauty and ugly have a position, but rightly speaking (in the light of MN 10/DN 22), beauty is subject to serious limitations on account of what is unattractive/ugly/elemental/subject to destruction. In that way, beauty can’t extend beyond a certain point and to misconstrue that order is to pervert both and apply such limitations to the ugly, thus preserving and unlimited value of beauty, lust, sensuality, etc.

Not sure how well that would jive with anything coming from a feminist perspective, but regardless, the women in the Therigāthā have taken responsibility for that perversion of perception and set it rightly. That is powerful from whatever angle you look.

There’s just so many …

I assume you’re already aware of Wheels 349 and 436?


One interesting thing to note just from the structure and size of Therigatha vs Theragatha.

There’s 73 stories in Therigatha, and 264 stories in Theragatha.

Why? In feminism lens for gender equality, this is not gender equal.

Unless can it be the case that there’s less no. of nuns overall, thus given a certain percentage of people becoming arahants being roughly the same for both genders, there’s less female arahants compared to male arahants, and even less percentage (if we take them to be the same) of them made it into the gathas.

Could it be that the requirement for nuns to have one Bhikkuni to train one person at one time be a limiting factor to have the nuns no. to be less than monks’s no.?

Second issue is the verse stories:

Based on the Therīgāthā—navigation (suttacentral.net) numbering, see book of the elevens is Thig 10. There’s a lot of skipping. Up to Book of the Fourties is Thig 15. What happened to the missing books?

Why some books only got 1 story? Thig 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 Only got one story each.

To be fair Theragatha also has such one story per book also for some of the books.

So some stories are missing over time due to improper passing down? To what extend is this due to males being the ones passing it down?

How many stories are lost together with the lost of lineage of Bhikkuni Sangha in Theravada?

By the time Ven. Dhammapala wrote the commentary for the background stories of the verses, are the Bhikkuni order still surviving in Sri Lanka or India?

Right, although that’s still less unequal than the majority of suttas. It seems likely the bhikkhuni order was smaller. Worth nothing though, the Jains kept records of the size of their sangha, and there are more nuns than monks.

Well, “equality” means equality in treatment and opportunity, not in numbers per se, although typically equal opportunity would lead to more balance in numbers.

i don’t think so, it’s just an organizational matter. I mean there might be missing poems, but I wouldn’t conclude that from just what went where.

I mean it could be, but again, it seems unlikely to me. If we consider the origins of the Therigatha it must have been mostly spoken by and among the bhikkhunis. How did it make it into the Tipitaka? Did the bhikkhunis form it up into a “book” or did they just share them with the bhikkhus, who did the redaction? Hard to say. But I wouldn’t leap to conclusions. The simplest explanation is just that there were fewer nuns.

Yes, in both places. Flourishing, in fact.


I’m checking them now.

I came across this article by Vijitha Rajapakse, the author of Wh 436. It looks interesting, I wonder if anyone has access and can download it?



I have JSTOR access to view up to 100 articles, but I can’t download. Have you tried creating a JSTOR account and then logging in to view the link? I was able to view the article with no problems.

This might be it.


Hey thanks, that’s great. The internet can be wonderful when you have good friends! :pray:


Maybe Ayya Sudhamma @Charlotteannun would be a good person to ask. :anjal:


There is a chapter ‘Of Theras and Theris: Visions of Liberation in Early Buddhist Tradition’ in Kumkum Roy’s collection of essays The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power: Explorations in Early Indian History. I believe Uma Chakravarti has also written on the subject, but I can’t seem to find the references at the moment. There is likely to be more, as there is a pretty large body of literature on gender in early Indian history .

I hope that this helps


Here you go:
Of Theras and Theris.pdf (2.7 MB)

Thanks for the prod. I was able to find this introduction to the Therigatha in “Women Writing in India” by Susie Tharu and K Lalita published by The Feminist Press, CUNY 1991:


Though it’s very high level and likely not anything new to y’all.

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Great, thanks!

It’s a sad artifact of the internet age that I can easily turn up a review in Tricycle from 1992 but I can’t access the academic literature on the topic.

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Yes, it’s sad that material provided to academic publisher for free is very expensive to access for those without a University affiliation.


Just a quick PSA: If the author is still alive, they are often happy to give you a free pdf of the paper if you write to them directly.


I’m a woman and was a feminist. But I don’t think I am (a feminist) now.

Also, I’m a bit behind in my reading. So, I’m now aware of any feminist reaction against Buddhist body contemplation.

I wish I could contribute something worthwhile to this thread…

Anyway, here’s my two very humble cents. :grin:

Despite the fact that I called myself a feminist, I used to spend a lot of money on cosmetics and can now remember clearly the feelings and the drive to do so.

My current view is: whatever term is used or whatever attitude is encouraged to have in regards to our body simply paradoxically enhances the importance of its ‘appearance’.

I like the Buddha’s creation of monks’ robes. Non-descriptive. Serves the purpose. Full Stop.

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I think you have jstor covered? I have jstor access but also can’t download. But I would be willing to screenshot page by page for you if you need any specific articles.