Function of Therā/Therīgāthā & Authorship

So I’ve been translating & reading about Therīgāthā extensively, and to an extent Therāgāthā. The matter of authorship comes up a lot, even for monks but especially for nuns, and I think I might have an answer to that based on the function they serve.

I’ve opened a random page in Therāgāthā just now, and the bottom of the poem describes “I’ve attained the goal”.

This is the main point of both these collections - inspirational utterances made celebrating arahantship.

Now this, along with the gāthā structure and dramatic pulse of the poems, presents an interesting challenge. Particularly as it concerns how renunciates are discouraged from talking about their attainments. Yet, here we have collections whose purpose is strictly explaining renunciates’ path to nibbāna!

In addition to that, both texts make abundance of references to teachings in a way pretty much only intelligible to insiders. Neither of texts delve much into practical doctrines (such stuff is usually found in Itivuttaka), and other poems like those in Dhammapada or Sutta Nipata serve a better exmaplary texts for the purposes of proclaiming the dhamma.

So, these couldn’t be rightly composed for the benefit of lay communities. Neither would the texts make sense to general public, nor could the monks shamelessly flaunt their attainments in a dramatic fashion.

This leaves us with only one reasonable option - that these verses were composed and shared by the renunciates, for the renunciates.

Imagine this, a group of nuns sitting together in the evening, consuling a recently ordained nun, who just lost her child.

“Go on, Ubhiri, tell us your song.”

So Ubhiri goes on to tell her song, consoling their newest friend. (Thig3.5)

Likewise, imagine a monk who’s overcome with sensual desires, unable to get a grip of himself. So Gotama comes up to him and sings his song to his brother (Thag2.9)

This idea came to me when I was considering Thig1.1, and reading Ven. @sujato’s notes, about how the poem is told from one friend to another. So, perhaps this was one of the stock poems that nuns told eachother to bed, especially during times of hardship.

Viewing both collections in this lens, it becomes obvious the matter of authorship. Both collections are deeply personal, delving into topics perhaps too sensitive for general audience, not only because sexual references but also with claims of attainments. They also make abundant references to teachings without having any pretense of being a guidebook.

Only in the confines of their seclusion could such utterances be made, and only for a specific purpose - to console a brother or sister in need. Some poems being amazing examples of literature, some being rather arid - all too personal a collection of renunciates’ most intimate details to celebrate with their trusted friends.

Now, I haven’t read in anywhere such a function of these poems, so I’m sharing this here for discussion, and perhaps to find academic research that supports (or challenges!) this view. :slight_smile:

Also, not all poems fit this, especially the lengthy ones. But those might’ve evolved as gāthā genre became a thing of its own.


That sounds about right, and I agree this is the major focus of these collections. Even things like we’ve been discussing, where they have doubts and struggles to overcome, this is really inspiring to fellow-practitioners, but not something you want to lead with in general teaching.

That’s one of the reasons why the Therigatha in particular deserves to be considered the primary resource for understanding the early bhikkhuni community, rather than being considered as a hanger-on to the Vinaya.


Could you get an idea about why Yasodhara Therigatha is missing?

No idea. Perhaps she wasn’t big on verses, perhaps her verses are lost (probably unlikely), perhaps she only used common verses and wasn’t interested in gāthā.

I have been studying metre a little bit recently and to compose (in an oral culture) a poem of that complexity you need skill and training. I imagine that the collection mainly involves disciples with a Brahminical background (or who had a Vedic training), which were familiair with the different kind of metres.


This might be of some interest. Of course, commentary is famously unreliable for the origin stories.

Still, it’s interesting that nearly half the monks are said to be brahmin, whereas for nuns this is only 1/4th. Perhaps one could explain this with relatively high born females to cultivate an interest in a form of art (poetry in this case).

But in an interesting tangent, I would expect prostitues to also have a bit of skill (Like Thig 5.2 Vimala) in meter as well, as part of their general skills and education (5 according to commentary, perhaps more though).


In the early texts she is not known by that name. See Rahulamātā

She does have verses in the Therī Appadāna


Is there also a more detailed version of this table with the specific gāthā listed? For example which were classified as poor/slaves?

Gawler_Thesis_Voices_of_Early_Buddhist_N.pdf (846.2 KB)

Ah nope. It’s from Meg Gawler’s excellent thesis though, which has some interesting stats like that.

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gosh that’s beautiful:

Transmigrating in existence,
if I have ever disturbed you,
I’m announcing it, Great Hero;
please forgive my imperfection.

My meeting with all the Buddhas,
the World-Lords, was well-seen by you;
my extensive service to them
was for the sake of you, Great Sage.

thank you for sharing this - i had never seen this before. very grateful.