In my critique of Weingast’s First Free Women I noted that he referred to the nun Bhaddā Kāpilānī as “red hair” and called it inexplicable. I gave it as an example of the racial erasure found in the book.
It turns out, as user @Nessie let me know, that this has a history, and is not as inexplicable as all that. I apologize for saying this, I should have done my homework better. However, while it is explicable, it’s still not correct, as I will show.
There’s a tradition in German translations of referring to Kāpilānī as a “blonde” or “redhead”. It seems to have started in Neumann’s old translation:
He gives the note:
Die blonde (*) Bhaddā
(*) kapilāni, rötlich goldblond.
Neumann was a well-loved early translator, heavily influenced by the German Romantic tradition, whose translations are more appreciated for their appealing style than their accuracy. Of course, he was working at a much earlier time, when knowledge of Pali was less well established. Still, his work has been often criticized by later and more rigorous translators.
This is continued in the more recent translation by Sass, who translates her name as “die glückliche Rote” (“The Lucky Red”).
This establishes that the idea of “red” or “blonde” hair was attributed to Bhaddā Kāpilānī by a series of translators in German. Others may have done the same.
Obviously Indian women have black hair, so the question arises as to where they got this idea from? There is no suggestion in any of the texts or commentaries to support it.
I can’t be sure of the dictionaries or sources the German translators were using. But a survey of the English dictionary is enlightening.
The old PTS dictionary calls her the “lady of the Kapila clan”. This is a normal usage in Pali, and is surely correct. It is attested as early as the Theri Apadana, which says she was the daughter of the brahmin Kapila.
Now, in the PTS dictionary kapila is said to mean “brown, tawny, reddish, of hair & beard”. Apparently it’s related to the word for “monkey” (kapi). This sense is found in a commentary to the late canonical text Vimānavatthu. So we’re getting closer to understanding, but still: why did they even have a word for red hair?
Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pali is more helpful. Yes, kapila is used in reference to the red hair … of a yakkha! Clearly the word was chosen specifically to emphasize the unnatural and terrifying appearance of a yakkha. Sorry, gingers! Was it the case that warring clans of Scots highlanders had made their way to India to terrify the locals with their hair and kilts? It seems unlikely! Probably just the imagination of the writers.
So to conclude.
- kapila is used in one commentary to describe the unnatural red color of a yakkha’s hair.
- Bhaddā uses the patronymic Kāpilānī (because Bhaddā is a common name).
- some German translators have mistakenly taken her name as a description of her hair color.
As a white man, I have to constantly remind myself of my privilege and perspective, and try to not let it influence my work. So when I see a series of white men all choosing to attribute an unnatural racial attribute to Bhaddā, and moreover one that draws attention to her appearance, it stands out. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I try to guard against. When someone claims to be “inspired” by the text, it’s important to notice exactly what they are inspired by. We’ve come too far in our understanding of how sexism and racism work to just let it just continue unchallenged.