On crooked things. Oh, and sex

One of the most celebrated verses of the Therigatha sees the nun Muttā celebrate her freedom in decidedly feminist verses (Thig 1.11). They are usually translated something like this:

I’m freed, well-freed,
freed from the three crooked things:
the mortar, the pestle,
and my crooked husband.

There’s one little problem with this rendering. Here is a mortar and pestle:

Notice something? They’re not crooked! What’s going on here: was Muttā simply unable to choose an apt simile? Let us see!

Now, this verse echoes a much less-known verse by the monk Sumangala at Thag 1.43. there he speaks of three crooked things: sickles, ploughs, and hoes. Here’s what they look like.




They’re all crooked! So that settles that. Obviously the monk was able to use a metaphor in an appropriate way, but the nun wasn’t.

Or! Maybe she was doing something a little more subtle.Maybe she was making a sly remix of the original verses, using the metaphors to express a reality that would have been well understood by her fellow nuns.

My admittedly incomplete researches have not yet unearthed any discussion of this problem. But a solution is suggested in the commentary, which says that when grinding grain in the pestle with the mortar, one becomes bent over, so these things are called “crooked” because they make you crooked (khujjakaraṇahetutāya tadubhayaṃ ‘‘khujja’’nti vuttaṃ). The commentary says that, on the other hand, the husband was indeed humpbacked, and he may well have been. But that doesn’t necessarily exhaust the simile.

For the verse as a whole is, of course, about sex. The action of the mortar and pestle needs no explaining; it’s an obvious metaphor for sex. And that a women would be forced to be bent over for the sexual needs of her husband is a clever extension of the “crooked” metaphor. The act of sex, performed unwillingly as an obligation of marriage, is felt as demeaning and lessening, just another domestic grind.

In a literature as large and ancient as that of India, it is rare to find an idea or simile that is completely unique. Thus Monier-Williams tells a founding myth from the Mahabharata of the city known in Pali as Kaṇṇakujja and in Sanskrit as Kanyakubja:

The current etymology (kanyā-,“a girl”, shortened to kanya,and kubja, “round-shouldered or crooked”) refers to a legend in Rig Veda 1.32.11 [Note: I cannot find this], relating to the hundred daughters of Kuśanābha, the king of this city, who were all rendered crooked by Vāyu [the wind god] for non-compliance with his licentious desires.

The Hindu deity Kubjā, furthermore, is described in the Bhagavata Purana and elsewhere as a humpbacked women who meets Krishna and Balarama. When she gifts Krishna a medicine, he rewards her by straightening her “triple deformity” and revealing her in her true beauty. She immediately attempts to seduce Krishna, but is refused.

There is a pattern here, an allusive and allegorical one to be sure, about men and women, compliance and consent in sex, and the physical crookedness that makes the husband repulsive, or else, perhaps, makes the wife feel repulsive for complying.

I propose a rendering like this:

I’m freed, well-freed,
freed from the three things that bent me down:
the mortar, the pestle,
and my humpbacked husband.


Could the mortar and pestle just be a reference to the drudgery of domestic chores, with sex being the third domestic chore?

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Isn’t this a very Victorian notion of female sexuality? Women like sex too, and they probably liked it in India 2500 years ago.

For an enlightened nun, isn’t the obvious interpretation that she’s freed from her own sexual desires / sensual life (which included her husband)? In this light, I’ve always interpreted ‘crooked husband’ as referring to her husband’s (erect) penis :joy:

In all seriousness though, isn’t there today still a kind of basic sexist notion that women are passive objects acted upon, and men, who have all the agency, act upon objects?

In this rendition:

I’m freed, well-freed,
freed from the three things that bent me down:
the mortar, the pestle,
and my humpbacked husband.

The woman has no agency of her own, and her freedom comes from the cessation of outside forces acting upon her. Compare this to:

I’m freed, well-freed,
freed from the three things I used to (willingly) bend over for:
the mortar, the pestle,
and my horny husband.

Here, the woman has agency; she is a human being with the same desires for food and sex we are willing to ascribe to men, and she has been able to overcome this through her practice.

The verse also, IMO, takes on the deeper meaning of escaping one’s own sensual desire (mortar and pestle = food, horny husband = sex), instead of just escaping housework and a bad relationship, which isn’t really that deep when you think about it (IMO).


Perhaps it is we call in Sri Lanka “Miris (chille) Gala (stone)” as well.

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Someone would be quite crooked bending over to work with that.


Well, if this is about sex, that photo of the mortar and pestle has some explaining to do…


Well, sometimes. But the Thera/Therigatha are full of verses that express freedom from one’s own desires, and this verse sounds very different to that.

Not really, it’s hardly as if she’s delighting in domestic drudgery. In the parallel Theragatha verse, too, the point clearly is the escape from drudgery.

You’re right. But the verse is not making a general theory of sexual agency, but one woman’s experience of sexual drudgery—and that too is a part of the spectrum of sexual experience.

Having said all that, I appreciate the point; let me sit on it and see if it wants revising.

Sorry, I should have labelled it NSFW.


I’ve probably said this before, but can I just say that I’M SO EXCITED THAT YOU’RE TRANSLATING THE THERIGATHA THANK YOU. :clap::clap::clap:



(Discourse apparently doesn’t like responses in all caps. So now I am writing this to fool the bot. Humans still win!)


Bhante, if you google the ancient Indian mortar and pestle, the images don’t look as smooth as the one you have posted. :blush:

Can you share an example?

I could be wrong as I clicked most images and they seem to be from ancient native American time.

Yes, I also couldn’t find anything definitive.


It’s called grinding stone… mortar and pestle images are from native American civilization. Maybe an Indian can help us out here to find an image of an ancient North Indian mortar and pestle.




That’s made of metal, and ornamented, so I think would be pretty fancy stuff.

Wouldn’t a mortal and pestle in ancient India be larger than what we tend to think of now? It wouldn’t be just a small apparatus for grinding seeds and spices, but also used for making bread flour? Or is it possible that what the verse refers to the two parts of a butter churn, since ghee making was one of the most essential and laborious tasks for the ancient Indian housewife?


Looks like something from Siddhartha’s household. Quite fancy. :blush: thanks.


It is possible.


It may well have been. I’m not sure if we really have much information as to how it was used.

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