I recently wrote a post about translations can be sexist, embodying unconscious gendered assumptions. That case was unusual in that the language of the text itself was quite clear. More typically, what happens is that there are places in the text that are dark and ambiguous, and such places invite the translator to illuminate them with their own unconscious assumptions. In such cases it is much less easy to establish a correct reading based on linguistics alone, and we need a sensitive understanding of how such biases tend to play out.
On such passage occurs in the memorable description of motherhood in MN 38 Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya. There, the process of conception, pregnancy, birth, and growth of a child is taught to illustrate dependent origination. The passage includes a unique description of a mother’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth.
All four of the translations I have seen (Chalmers, Horner, Nyanamoli/Bodhi, and Thanissaro) describe the mother’s emotional state as great “anxiety” both during the pregnancy and in childbirth.
Now, of course, the context is about how rebirth is suffering. So to acknowledge this is hardly anything new. At the same time, though, it is a rather striking and memorable description. I mean, surely a mother-to-be actually experiences a whole range of emotions—joy, love, terror, depression, boredom—and is it not reductive to only pick on anxiety? Still, maybe it’s just a point of emphasis.
Anyway, when reading the suttas, even as a Pali scholar, in the back of my mind I have a memory of various translations, so I thought I knew what to expect here. So I was surprised to that that we don’t actually have one of the normal Pali words for anxiety (paritassanā, for example). Rather, the text has saṁsaya, which means “doubt”. So at the very least there is a case to be made for how we get from “doubt” to “anxiety”.
Doubt is one of those terms that can have an inner and outer aspect. In this, it is much like kāma, which as is well known refers both to the inner sensual desire and the things for which one desires. So while doubt is normally presented as a negative quality, the Buddha does acknowledge that doubt is sometimes a normal and healthy response to a dubious situation. Such a case is found in the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65), when the people of Kalama ask:
‘I wonder who of these respected ascetics and brahmins speaks the truth, and who speaks falsehood?’”
“Alañhi vo, kālāmā, kaṅkhituṃ alaṃ vicikicchituṃ
“It is enough, Kālāmas, for you to be doubting and uncertain.
Kaṅkhanīyeva pana vo ṭhāne vicikicchā uppannā.
Your doubt has come up about an uncertain matter.
In our current passage, rendering saṁsaya as “anxiety” shifts the attention unambiguously to the mother’s emotional response. Moreover, it casts that response in a clearly negative light.
This is, of course, the normal situation for women in andocentric texts. In so far as women have an inner life at all, it is characterized by excessive, dysfunctional emotionality. Understanding this, we should be alert to such depictions and interrogate them when they appear.
The commentary to this text says this.
Saṃsayenāti “arogo nu kho bhavissāmi ahaṃ vā, putto vā me”ti evaṃ mahantena jīvitasaṃsayena
“With saṁsaya means: Thinking, “Will my child and I be safe?” that’s how she is with great jīvitasaṁsaya.
The curious thing here is that the text does not mention the inner emotional quality of doubt at all. Rather than providing glosses for “doubt”, it focuses on the external circumstances. The mother is reflecting on the risks she is facing for herself and her child. It is a cognitive response, not an emotional one. Now, obviously, anxiety is one possible and understandable kind of emotional response to those circumstances. But the commentary does not say so explicitly—and it is the job of the commentary to say things explicitly.
I have left the term jīvitasaṁsaya untranslated. It doesn’t, so far as I know, appear elsewhere in Pali. However the Sanskrit dictionary says jīvitasaṃśaya means “risk or danger of life”. It gives the same meaning to the similar construction prāṇasaṃśaya, and gives “difficulty, danger, risk” as one of the basic meanings of saṃśaya. These senses are not acknowledged in the PTS Pali dictionary.
There are those who accuse me of being biased against the commentaries, because I have pointed out sexist passages in them. I’m not. I’m biased against bias. If I see sexism in the commentaries or anywhere else, I’ll call it out. But in this case, it seems to me that the commentary’s reading is well considered.
Rather than reading this text as a comment on a mother’s emotional state, “with great anxiety”, it is talking about how in pregnancy and childbirth she and the child are “at great risk”.
Especially in pre-modern times (but all too often still), risk is a much more universal aspect of motherhood, as compared to emotional responses, which vary continually. Pregnancy was often a death sentence. The mother is quite aware of this. She understands the risks and accepts the responsibility.
The Metta Sutta depicts a mother protecting her child with her life. This is an example of great love, not of great anxiety. But in MN 38, as previously understood, joy and love have disappeared from her experience.
Anxiety is a normal emotion. But great, persistent, and crippling anxiety is a pathology, one that, tragically, some mothers go through. To acknowledge and empathize with this experience is one thing. But to pathologize the normal emotions of motherhood is quite another.
Mothers are no fools. They understand the risks. That they succeed so often in something so dangerous is not an emotional flaw, it is love and courage.