The meaning of paṇḍaka in light of the Vedic and Jain scriptures


Recently I met Venerable @Akaliko in New York. He asked me my opinion regarding the translation of the word paṇḍaka, which will be used by Ajahn @Brahmali in his translation of the Vinaya. From our discussion I realized I did not have enough background knowledge to make a justified suggestion as to the most appropriate translation and that my earlier stance on the matter might have been a bit too easily accepted from other authors1, who base their conclusions on meanings ascribed to the term in later commentaries.

These commentaries were laid down at a much later date in a vastly different social environment than that when the Vinaya was written and they would logically classify individuals based on their own circumstances at that time.

So I decided to do a little bit more research into the term and focus my research in three areas:

  1. When was the term paṇḍaka inserted into the texts.
  2. What was the social environment like at that time and how was gender viewed based on the Vedic and Jain scriptures.

I thank Venerable Akaliko for the useful remarks and feedback for this article.

The Paṇḍaka in Pāli Early Buddhist texts

According to the PTS dictionary, a paṇḍaka is a eunuch and according to all sources, this is indeed the most literal translation, derived from the Sanskrit paṇḍa, paṇḍah or paṇḍaka and also used in other languages like Prakrit and is possibly a loanword from Dravidian1. However, it seems that the actual meaning of the word is broader and all scholars are in agreement that there is a second meaning to the word. There are for instance also itthipaṇḍaka (female paṇḍaka) mentioned in the Vinaya (Bhikkhunikkhandhaka and Bhikkhu Saṅghādisesa 3 and 5) and this could not mean a ‘eunuch’.

The word is not found in any of the early Buddhist Suttas, nor does it appear in the pātimokkhas, the lists of rules for monastics. Next to the pāli Vinaya, it appears twice in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, but both of these only have parallels to the Vinaya or later texts. Other words that appear in the texts are ubhatovyañjanaka (hermaphrodite, a word that appears often in the Vinaya in the same context as paṇḍaka i.e. they are not allowed to ordain), napuṃsaka (lit. non-male) and vassavara (vara means a social class), but again, these words do not appear in the early suttas but appear in the Vedic or Jain texts 2. The word paṇḍaka also appears in the Sanskrit Divyāvadānam and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Khandhaka. I will come back to the meaning of the word napuṃsaka later in relation to the scriptures from other religions. Other scholars have written in detail about the appearance of these words in the Vinaya and later texts so I will not do that here13. It is just interesting to note that those seen as inter-sex ubhatovyañjanaka are apparentely not synomymous with paṇḍaka, at least not at the time that the Vinaya was laid down.

When we look at the textual evolution of the Vinaya, it seems likely that the Vinaya as we have it today is a product of the Second Council8 (ca. 70 years after the Buddha’s death). This suggests that the Vinaya texts of the Theravada school, as well as all other schools, were added well after the Buddha’s passing. This in contrast of the Suttas, which have seen a more moderate editorial involvement and seem to stem more directly from the Buddha. Considering that we do not see the word paṇḍaka appear in any of the early suttas, it is therefore safe to conclude that it is a later addition. Most notably, according to these texts, the paṇḍaka is not allowed to ordain. It would seem that this addition to the rules barring individuals from ordination has come about in a period after the Buddha’s death when greater patriarchal control was established, that has also affected the Bhikkhunī order8. It is also to be recognized that in the time after the Buddha’s passing, northern India saw some major changes in it’s political and social structure, which might have contributed to this movement towards more discrimination towards women and gender non-conforming individuals.

So we have to look at the other texts of pre- and post-Buddhist times to find out the position and status of gender non-conforming people, etc. at the time of the Buddha and thereafter, and especially at the scriptures of two groups that existed prior to the Buddha’s awakening and teaching; the Brahmins (and their Vedas) and the Jains. We know that the Buddha had in-depth knowledge of these teachings and the social structure described therein as was accepted at that time.

The Vedas

Broadly speaking the Vedic literature (Aparavidya) can be categorised as the Vedas and the Vedangas. The Vedas are considered to be the oldest literary records of the world and is generally regarded as the period 1500 BC to 500 BC. The four types of Vedas are Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda3.

In the Vedic literature the gender of the human being is divided into three categories according to prakriti or nature. They are pums-prakriti or male, stri-prakriti or female, and tritiya-prakriti or the third sex (Svetasvatara Upanisad)3 4. Third sex people are also classified under a larger social category known as the neutral gender or napuṃsaka, which basically means ‘not engaged in procreation’. Napuṃsaka are divided into five different categories, they are: children, the elderly, the impotent, the celibate, and the third sex. They were all considered to be sexually neutral by Vedic definition and were protected and believed to bring good luck and prosperity.

This non reproductive category played an integral role in the balance of human society and nature. Vedic literature underlined that everything in nature in corporate and has a purpose, role, value and reason for existence. In Vedic society each individual was considered to be an integral part of the whole society. In Vedic period third-gender citizens were not denied their basic rights. They had permission to keep their own societies and live together within marriage and engage in all means of livelihood with dignity. They were mostly invited to attend special occasions such as birth, marriage, and other religious ceremonies as their presence considered to be auspicious and good luck. Citizens of the third sex were given their own particular status in Vedic society. The Vedic literature indicates that there were no specific Vedic law which penalizes third gender people for their characteristic behaviour3.

The Vedic texts go into detail to describe the biological origin and astrology of third-sex individuals and all it’s variations3 4.

Indian linguist Patanjali’s work on Sanskrit grammar, the Mahabhaya (200 BC), states that Sanskrit’s three grammatical genders are derived from three natural genders. The earliest Tamil grammar, the Tolkappiyam (3rd century BC) also refers to hermaphrodites as a third “neuter” gender 4.

The class of transvestite singers, dancers and prostitutes known as ‘hijras’ are the contemporary representatives of the third sex of earlier times 9.

Another word that surfaces in the vedas is klība, the sexually defective man, who is defined as a man who is unable to procreate6.

The Jain Scriptures

According to the Tattvārtha-sūtra, all beings, with the exception of infernal beings, one-sensed beings and gods, possess one of three genders: female, male or third sex (napuṃsaka). These genders are produced by a specific ‘body-making karma’ that is attached to the soul of the being. According to the Jain scriptures, all beings are able to achieve spiritual liberation regardless of gender5.

The role of women in the Jain order has however been hotly debated and given that the Jains were investigating whether or not women could become mendicants, they were simultaniously concerned about what it meant to be a man, woman, or something else. It is for this reason that Jain literature constitutes perhaps the single richest source of knowledge of the third sex, as well as for speculations on sex and gender, to be found in India from the ancient to medieval periods6. For a detailed analysis of the Jain view on gender see Zwilling & Sweet “Like a City Ablaze” The Third Sex and the Creation of Sexuality in Jain Religious Literature.

The early Jain texts excluded paṇḍaka (as in the meaning of ‘eunuch’) from ordination because these are naked ascetics and a eunuch would no doubt stand out without clothing6. It is not unlikely that this was later adopted into the Buddhist Vinaya, so then a translation of the earliest meaning of ‘eunuch’ would indeed be what was meant by the compilers of this text. We have already established that this was not the Buddha himself and that this was included into the texts after the Buddha’s death. It would also seem logical from that perspective: the Buddha would see no need to exclude eunuchs from the order as the Buddhist monks were fully dressed.

But during the development of the Jain order, the terms became more confused. Although the Jain accepted the notion of the third gender from the existing Vedic culture, they had lenghty debates as to what this would mean. This discussion was fuelled by the fact that these were naked ascetics. The Jain radically rejected the Brahmanical idea of gender as indicated by the presence or absence of certain primary and secondary characteristics and instead revalorized the term veda, which refers to both biological sex and sexual feelings. What became important to the Jains was less the features or markers of gender, but rather the sexual behavior itself. This idea developed and by the fifth century, the Jains distinquished between biological sex and psychological gender and sexuality and each individual could have a different combination of each5.

It is also interesting to note that in the later Jain texts, napuṃsaka, in the meaning of the ‘third sex’, were said to have a libido higher than any man or woman. The simile given is that of the veda of women is compared to a dung fire, the veda of men to a forest fire and the veda of third-sex people as 'a city ablaze’6. The napuṃsaka were also seen as a threat to the celibate monks, just like women.

In the early Jain scriptures, we see 3 classes of people who are not allowed to ordain, the paṇḍaka (in the meaning of ‘eunuch’), klība and vyādhita (ill person). In the later scriptures (Sthananga Sutra ca. 200 BC) there are more classes of persons barred from ordination6 10, but with the word paṇḍaka replaced by napuṃsaka. As it was no longer possible to determine this by seeing the person’s body, the candidate for ordination had to be questioned to determine if they were a ‘third-sex’ person or not. However, in the course of time, the ban against ordination of all third-sex persons was ameliorated to a very large extent. First, exceptions were made on an individual basis, later certain typs of third-sex people were considered fit for ordination, like for instance homosexuals.

The third sex, napuṃsakas, were an important consideration because there was a social stigma attached to them, especially when such people would ordain as monks in the Jain order. As Zwilling and Sweet6 explain, the fear was that the broader public would assume things wrongly of Jain mendicants if the napuṃsakas were ordained as monks or even if mendicants accepted alms from them. Thus, another reason why it was important to determine who was a part of the third sex was to enforce monastic conduct and public opinion.

Parallels between Buddhist and Jain scriptures

Summary of the various terms and their usage over time6:

Vedic (ca. 1500–600 BC) and early Jain scriptures:
paṇḍaka eunuch, impotent
tritiya-prakriti ‘third gender’ i.e. people who are eunuch, inter-sex or otherwise have different physical characteristics.
napuṃsaka persons not engaged in procreation, including third-gender people.

Jain scriptures (ca. 600–300 BC):
paṇḍaka eunuch
napuṃsaka ‘third gender’ i.e. people who are eunuch, inter-sex or otherwise have different physical characteristics.

Jain scriptures (ca. 300 BC–500 CE) :
napuṃsaka ‘third gender’ i.e. people who have either physical or psychological characteristics that would make them gender non-conforming. Later also said to have a much higher libido than others. The term paṇḍaka seems to have become synomymous with this.

There are many parallels to be found between the use of the term paṇḍaka in the Vinaya and subsequent commentaries and the term napuṃsaka used by the Jains. Over time however we see a shift in meaning and the terms seem to get blurred. The first shift is that the term napuṃsaka became to mean mainly those who were not gender-conform like inter-sex people and eunuchs. The Jains radically broke with the Vedic tradition and started defining napuṃsaka as all those who with different sexual feelings and behaviors like homosexuals.

In the early Jain scriptures, we see 3 classes of people who are not allowed to ordain of which the paṇḍaka (eunuch) is one while in the later scriptures (ca. 200 BC) there are more classes of persons barred from ordination, but with the word paṇḍaka replaced by napuṃsaka. With the new Jain idea that a napuṃsaka was no longer defined by physical appearance, it became necessary to question candidates for ordination. We see a similar trend in Buddhist scriptures; according to the PTS dictionary, the term paṇḍaka is indeed a eunuch and is not allowed to ordain according to the Vinaya. However, from various further references in the Commentaries, it is clear that the term paṇḍaka over time starts to refer to other gender non-conforming people, who would be referred to as napuṃsaka by the Jains. Also, as with the Jains, questioning of the candidate became necessary to determine suitability for ordination.

The Jain, in later scriptures, saw the napuṃsaka as having excessive libidinousness and a threat to the celibate life of monastics. We also see this in the development of the Buddhist texts as noted at the start of this article, many scholars believe that the term paṇḍaka has to do with individuals with a high libido and therefore unfit for ordination in a celibate order.

Another parallel development that we can see in the Jain texts is that in the course of time, the ban against ordination of third-sex persons became more relaxed and certain types were again accepted. The same we see in later Pali commentaries where certain types of paṇḍaka were no longer excluded from ordination1 7 11.


It is clear from the Brahmanical and Jain scriptures that three genders were recognized in (pre-)Buddhist times and these were an integral and accepted part of society. There are many similarities and parallels to be drawn between the developments in the Jain and Buddhist monastic orders. The most notable difference between the two orders was the fact that Jain monastics, at least in the beginning, did not wear any clothes and therefore gender, especially the physical aspects thereof and the public opinion were of major concerns.

It seems however that with the growth of the monastic order among the Jains (and probably also among the Buddhist mendicants, especially after the Buddha passed away and the order found itself without leadership), fears started arising as to the livelyhood of the order if the third-sex individuals were allowed to ordain. A similar development we have seen in the discussion on the place of Bhikkhunis after the parinibbāna of the Buddha. Just like the Jains were discussing the role of women, as as a consequence also the role of the third gender people, as mendicants in the Sangha, a parallel development happened within Buddhist circles.

To come back to the initial question as to what the best translation is for the word paṇḍaka, there are then various possibilites based on the above discussion.

  1. eunuch
  2. third gender
  3. sexually lustful person

As Kelvin Wong point out: "Unless we have done a thorough study of India sexual behaviours and attitudes during the Buddha’s time, it will be quite difficult to ascertain what the term paṇḍaka really meant."11 With the above discussion I have tried to make a start of such a study to show that the term has shifted in meaning over time and considering the redactional processes that the Vinaya might have been subjected to, the term might have been used with different meanings in different contexts.

If we go from the premise that Bhikkhu @Sujato’s stance on the Vinaya8 is correct and that the Vinaya as we have it today is a product stemming from the Second Council and that the word paṇḍaka was inserted at this time, we have to take into consideration that the Jain understanding of this word at that time was ‘eunuch’, while they had a different word napuṃsaka for the group of ‘third sex’ persons, at that time only denoting those with physical characteristics that made them not conform. Also at that time, the Jain scriptures only barred a paṇḍaka from ordination and not a napuṃsaka. It seems not unlikely that due to the pressures of public opinion, the Jain ideas of keeping paṇḍaka from ordaining were adopted into the Vinaya. However, if we use the translation ‘eunuch’ we are left with the dilemma on how to translate a itthipaṇḍaka.

If we would use the term ‘third gender’ as in the meaning ascribed to it by the Brahmanical and Jain cultures at the time of the Buddha, we would effectively put the terms paṇḍaka and napuṃsaka as synomyms. Although it appears that these terms became indeed used as synomymous over time, based on the above analysis, I do not believe they were in the time of the Buddha or at least up to the Second Council. We would also be left with the problem that inter-sex people are denoted with a different word (ubhatovyañjanaka) in the Vinaya. Moreover, Pārājika 1 tells the story of a monk who changes sex, so clearly a transgender by our standards, but he is simply admitted into the Bhikkhunī order and not seen as a paṇḍaka. Considering the appearence of the term itthipaṇḍaka in the texts and other references where it seems that a paṇḍaka is a not a eunuch, it is not unlikely that later editorial changes to the Vinaya have also brought in the term in the meaning it had then, namely of a ‘third gender’.

I feel it is incorrect to use the translation that is proposed by various authors1 11 i.e. that of a person with strong lustful behavior as this seems to be a much later understanding of the terms. Such a translation would be suitable for some of the commentaries but not the Vinaya. This translation also seems to be incorrect if we look at all the references in the Vinaya showing libidinous activity describing heterosexual acts (see f.i. Pārājika 1). But the perpetrators of those acts are not classified as paṇḍakas so the word clearly has a different meaning there.

The implications of a translation

In choosing a translation it is important to note that we are dealing here with historical facts and developments and not spiritual truths. As with everything pertaining to the Dhamma-Vinaya, we have to look at the underlying meanings and intentions so as to separate the Buddha’s teachings from later developments and historical and socio-cultural context and therefore discussions like the above are of paramount importance.

We now live in a vastly different socio-cultural society where gender norms are very different and also public opinion on these matters is shifting. But we still use the Vinaya as our focus and guidelines for practice and how we interpret the Vinaya can impact the lives of certain groups of people in a real sense. There is no reason why gender non-conform people should not ordain nowadays and I have stated my reasons thereof in my article ‘Changing Gender, Changing Buddhists’.

Because of the danger of a too literal reading of the Vinaya, I feel that any translation of the word paṇḍaka is problematic, not in the least because the meaning of the word has shifted over time, therewith making a single english translation difficult.

If we translate it as ‘eunuch’, we would exclude eunuchs from ordination. In the time that the ban on ordination of eunuchs for Jain monks i.e. naked ascetics, was laid down, it was out of a concern that the physical defects of such a person were very visible and would no doubt have an influence on public perception. This is not a concern we need to worry about in our modern day and I see no reason why eunuchs should be excluded.

The translation of ‘third gender’ is problematic because it would exclude all those with different physical appearance from ordination, it being inter-sex persons, transpersons, eunuchs, etc. as well as possibly transvestites and others who have what the Vedic texts call ‘secondary characteristics’ of another gender than their birth-sex. Again, I see no reason why such persons would not be able to practice the Buddha’s teachings and therefore ordain in our modern day and age where public perception is vastly different.

The last proposed translation of people with excessive libidinousness would only be helpful in today’s society if this is linked to cis-gendered people as well. However, I feel that considering the historical evidence from the Jain texts, there is a danger that in practice such a translation will be linked exclusively to gender non-conforming people. I feel that such discriminatory views should be quashed as this view by the Jains is no doubt a perpetuation of the idea that sex for third-sex people is somehow unnatural and such a view is very harmful.

So considering the ambiguities and shifting meanings of the term paṇḍaka and the serious implications that any single translation thereof can bring for future candidates seeking ordination, I would prefer to leave the term untranslated.


  1. Bomhard, Allan R., The Two Meanings of the Pāḷi Term paṇḍaka
    Florence SC, 2016
    (PDF) The Two Meanings of the Pali Term "pandaka" (written in 2012; revised November 2016) | Allan Bomhard -
    Bomhard - The Two Meanings of the Pali Term "pandaka" (2016) : Allan R. Bomhard : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

  2. Wisdom Library:
    Napumsaka, Napuṃsaka, Nāpuṃsaka: 10 definitions

  3. Vasumathi, Dr. T & Geethanjali, M., Transgender Identity As Hidden in Vedic Literature And Society
    International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention (IJHSSI)
    ISSN (Online): 2319 – 7722, ISSN (Print): 2319 – 7714, Volume 7 Issue 01, January. 2018, PP.62-65

  4. Michelraj, M., Historical Evolution of Transgender Community in India
    Asian Review of Social Sciences, 2015

  5. Sexual differences in Jainism

  6. Zwilling, Leonard and Sweet, Michael J., “Like a City Ablaze” The Third Sex and the Creation of Sexuality in Jain Religious Literature
    Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 6, 1196, no. 3, pp. 359-384
    (PDF) "Like a City Ablaze": The Third Sex and the Creation of Sexuality in Jain Religious Literature | Michael Sweet -

  7. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, The Buddhist Monastic Code II
    Second edition 1996. Valley Center, CA: Mettā Forest Monastery.

  8. Sujato Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies
    Santipada, 2007

  9. Nanda, Serena, Neither Man nor Woman, The Hijras of India
    John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York
    Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999

    Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute, vol. 16, no. 1/4, 1954, pp. 140.

  11. Wong, Kelvin, Homosexuality and the original meaning of Pandaka
    Singapore, August 3, 2005

  12. Nissarano, Ajahn, On Pandakas


Ayya, thanks so much for this essay. You have brought out many of the complexities, and I must say that I am leaning towards agreeing with you: much as I wish we could translate every term, the idea of the pandaka seems so complex and irresolvable that no translation offered so far seems acceptable.

I have not researched this area in detail, so I welcome your contribution. If we are to improve things, we must start by clarifying our information. May I offer a few suggestions, in the hope of strengthening your argument?

When I read it, the main red flag was the discussion of Vedic literature. It is unfortunately the norm that in emic (i.e. “in-house”) discussions of bramanical literature that any historical perspective is erased. And this is certainly the case in the “Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava” link that you used. It’s a shame, because they have a lot of great information there, but we need to be careful about how it is read historically.

While they refer to literature as “vedic”, this is confusing. In fact they do not refer to Vedas at all, but to the late brahmanical literature. This is comparable to the Pali commentaries. The only text mentioned on that page that is roughly contemporary with the Buddha is the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad:

The reference there is to this verse at 5.10. It is discussing the form that God takes, emphasizing that they are not limited to worldly categories and ideas.

naiva strī na pumān eṣa na caivāyaṃ napuṃsakaḥ
Not woman nor man, that one is not even genderless
yad yac charīram ādatte tena tena sa yujyate
They are bound to whatever body they assume.

It’s clearly a significant reference, but we cannot assume anything much from this, beyond the fact that a third gender was recognized.

The Atharvaveda is also an early text, being mentioned in the Pali. You refer to the occurrence of baṇḍa at AV 7.65.3. It also occurs at AV 12.4.3. However, neither passage appears to have anything to do with gender, and the term is translated in both cases as “cripple, lame”. So I’m not convinced this has anything to do with the pandaka. The commentarial gloss you quote, nirvīrya, literally means “powerless”. Perhaps it does have the sense of “impotent”, but I can’t see anything in the passage to justify this.

More relevant is AV 8.6.16. Here the context is a set of charms or spells intended to exorcise demons who are possessing or afflicting women. And crikey, are those demans super-creepy! “Sniffer, and Feeler, him who eats raw flesh, and him who licks his lips,” Eewgh!

The term pandaka (spelled paṇḍaga) is a descriptor of some such demons.

paryastākṣā apracaṅkaśā astraiṇāḥ santu paṇḍagāḥ
Sightless and with distorted eyes, impotent, woman-less be they.

Note the close connection here between pandaka and “not-woman” (astraiṇāḥ), reinforcing the connection between pandaka and napumsaka. To be clear, pandaka is not a kind of demon: it is a term used to describe a demon. So clearly it had a horrifying, unnatural, or deformed sense to it.

Note that there is no question of the pandaka here being defined by desire: it is clearly some kind of physically disturbing feature.


Thank you so much for your feedback.
Please note that the main Vedic references I used are Michelraj and Vasumathi & Geethanjali and not the “Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava”. I included that reference for completeness as it is also referenced in Vasumathi & Geethanjali, indeed quoting the Svetasvatara Upanisad.
Also Zwilling and Sweet mention the tritiya prakriti as the “third sex”, which became synonymous to napumsaka. Zwilling and Sweet mention further references for this so it is probably worth looking into that.

The latest news is that Gretil is changing their database to use segmentation for all Sanskrit texts. When this is done, we are developing a sanskrit <-> pali neuronal network that can compare pali and sanskrit texts on segment basis, including the Vedas and the Jaina texts. This will no doubt give a very good resource for further studies.

The reference to AV7.65.3 comes from Zwilling & Sweet. I already found the reference slightly problematic but included it for completeness. They basically mention that a possible ethymology might come from the idea that pandakas were impotent, which was associated with transvestism. But I must admit this is a rather far-fetched conclusion.

The reference to paṇḍagāḥ is interesting and warrants looking into more. It could mean something like a pandaka as somebody being possessed by a demon … ?? But even if so, I think the actual meaning of the word has then strayed from it’s ethymological roots; all sources I consulted are consistent in mentioning that a pandaka is a eunuch in the early Jain scriptures and is excluded from ordination because these are naked ascetics and they were worried about the public perception.


I don’t know in which contexts this appears—but can it refer to a woman with mutilated genitals, like female circumcision?


Thanks so much for this, Ayya. It’s very useful in my deliberations on how to translate paṇḍaka. I have struggled with this term for years, but finally I think I am seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Recently I have been rendering it as “sexual non-conformist”, and prior to that as “sexual eccentric”. But neither is really satisfactory.

In my opinion, the most interesting facts that you have unearthed concern the early usage, both in the Brahmanical literature but especially in the early Jain literature, of paṇḍaka in the meaning of “eunuch”. This must be, as you suggest, the best evidence we have for the meaning of paṇḍaka in the Vinaya Piṭaka. The commentaries are likely to reflect a later development in the term, thus their much broader definition, which includes a variety of non-standard gender types and sexual practices. This commentarial usage is akin to the broader definition of paṇḍaka in later Jain literature. Based on this, I am now feeling quite confident that “eunuch” is as close to the meaning of paṇḍaka as we are likely to get for the Vinaya corpus.

You are right that this leaves out itthipaṇḍaka. This term, however, is marginal in the Vinaya. It is only found six times in the entire piṭaka, all of which are likely to be late, even by Vinaya standards. This suggests, I think, that this term reflects a developed usage of paṇḍaka, otherwise it is hard to account for the term, since “female eunuch” is rather strange. (In a modern context “female eunuch” might refer to a woman who has had her ovaries removed, but in the ancient Indian context the term does not really make sense.)

Moreover, none of the contexts in which the term is used seems important, with the possible exception of its usage in conjunction with the bhikkhunī ordination ceremony. But even here the word is surrounded by other terms that are clearly late, suggesting that none of them is a binding ordination qualification, since it is almost inconceivable that they stems from the Buddha. Because of the marginal importance of the term, I am tempted to simply translate it as “female eunuch” and then add a note to explain the uncertainties involved. Either that or leave it untranslated. In either case “eunuch” will work for paṇḍaka.

It is also true, as you say Ayya, that this might seem to bar eunuchs from ordination, which seems unfair. But I think we should translate on the basis of the meaning of the text, not on the basis of what is fair from a modern standpoint. It is rather one of your other points which matters in this context, namely that the term paṇḍaka seems to be quite late, that is, probably from after the time of the Buddha. If we are satisfied with this, then I think we are justified in setting this regulation aside, regardless of the actual meaning of the word.

So this is my intention at the moment:

paṇḍaka > eunuch
itthipaṇḍaka > female eunuch (alternatively to leave it untranslated)

I will not make these changes quite yet, in case you wish to provide further feedback.

Once again, thanks so much for this. I believe I have finally found a satisfactory solution to a longstanding problem. :grinning:


Thank you Ajahn @Brahmali for your reply and indeed you summarize my point exactly in this passage.

Again, I tend to agree that this is a later development. But I would like to venture an alternative translation as “female eunuch” does not make any sense.
The Mahābhāsya 4.1.3 (ca. 300 BC) states:

There seems to have been an ongoing discussion as to what is gender, sex and sexual orientation at this time with different viewpoints in different camps. Zwilling & Sweet6 mention:

There follows a very lengthy discussion on this topic but the early ideas seem to focus around those who are biologically male but somehow deformed or behave in an effeminate way.

The present day Hijra in India are often voluntarily castrated and wear feminine clothing. They are officially recognized as a third gender in India and form a bit of a sub-culture within the Indian LGBTIQ community. They are mostly eunuchs (the word Hijra means something like ‘eunuch’ in Urdu), just look like women.

I would therefore suggest that the term itthipaṇḍaka is translated as “effeminate eunuch”. This would also fit within the Bhikkhunī ordination procedure where you are asked: “Are you not an itthipaṇḍaka?”. If it is not possible to see if somebody is a eunuch from the outside because they are behaving in a feminine way, it became necessary to ask such a question. Like you mention, it is a later development but it seems like a likely translation.

I agree with your point from an academic point of view and I understand that that is the standpoint you have to take when translating these texts.
The only misgiving I have here is that in my experience the Vinaya is often taken very literal within the Sangha and in practice such regulations are not set aside.

Bhante @Sujato: I have made a few minor changes to the text for now, but with the footnote that more research is needed into the Vedic texts. The term paṇḍaga only appears once in a hymn in the Atharvaveda which is not much to go on so more research is needed there and I will do so when I have some time.


I agree that this is what often happens. And do you think that would be better if the term remains untranslated?


Hmm … An “effeminate eunuch” suggests a castrated male who behaves like a woman. But could not an itthipaṇḍaka be someone who is anatomically female? There is so little information on these people that I am not sure it is a good idea to limit the meaning in this way. I am thinking of using “female paṇḍaka” and then adding a short note.


Just a minor text critical question: does anyone know if this spelling (as opposed to ֯ paṇḍikā-)is actually transmitted in any of the good mss.?


@Vimala, I have done a little bit more research. There is only one definition of the itthipaṇḍaka in the commentaries. At Sp.1.285 (reference is to the paragraph numbers of the VRI version) we have:

Itthipaṇḍakāti animittāva vuccati
“It is just a woman without genitals who is called an itthipaṇḍakā.”

This would mean that the animittā woman and the itthipaṇḍakā are the same. This seems strange because in the bhikkhunī ordination ceremony a woman is asked for both of these “conditions”. If they are the same, then one of the questions is redundant.

On the other hand, this is the only information we have to go on. Perhaps the two words refer to slightly different but closely related conditions. If so, perhaps it would be acceptable to translate itthipaṇḍakā as “a woman who lacks sexual organs”. (For animittā I have “a woman who lacks genitals”.)

Do you have any comment on this?


Dear Ajahn @Brahmali,
This is very interesting. Of course this is from the commentaries and therefore a late reference. It would at least show what they felt that the term meant at that time. And it is indeed possible. I can however not find any evidence of anything similar in the history of the Jain.

I based my argument entirely on the references in Zwilling & Sweet, who mention in regards to the late Śvētāmbara scripture knows as the Bhāgavati:

Thus far, napuṃsaka has referred only to the class of feminized males who were indentified by their cross dressing, feminine behavior, and sexual object choice.

Here (in the Bhāgavati) we find what is apparently a fourth sex added to the customary triad, that is, the puruṣanapuṃsaka (male-napuṃsaka) …

… The masculine napuṃsaka differs from his effeminate counterpart in more than mere appearance and behavior, but in sexual practice as well. … the sexual role of the effeminate napuṃsaka is portrayed in the canonical literature as the receptor of sexual intercourse. On the other hand, the masculine napuṃsaka is both active and passive.

So the picture I get from this is that the term paṇḍaka was used in the lists of persons not to be ordained for both Jain monks and nuns until ca. 200 BC. Then the lists were extended with more classes of persons and the term paṇḍaka was replaced by napuṃsaka for both the monks and the nuns.

At that time the napuṃsaka was seen as a “class of feminized males who were indentified by their cross dressing, feminine behavior, and sexual object choice”, but many of them will no doubt also have been eunuchs and this was possibly seen as synomymous. In any case, they were not allowed to ordain either as Jain monks nor as nuns. I can well imagine that feeling more female, some would have tried to ordain as nuns, just like the video that was posted here: Bhikkhuni short film. (This video btw is based on a true story of a transwoman who tried to ordain as a Bhikkhunī).

However, there were many disputes and conundrums regarding this which at least in part let to the schism in the Jain order around 500 CE.

It was not until much later that biological females were also recognized as possible napuṃsaka, at least not until the early centuries of our era.

I think one reason why women were not mentioned in this context is that for many centuries there were disagreements between the two fractions of Jains regarding the ordination of women and their capacity to attain spiritual liberation. This led to a whole discussion in which also other groups, like the “third gender” came into question. The argument centered around the idea that women cannot go naked and can therefore not attain full liberation. Whether or not a woman had no or mutilated genitals did not matter in that.


Thanks, Ayya, for taking the time to do all this research. I think I am content with my choice of translation, at least for now. Even if you don’t agree with my final choice, hopefully you will agree that it is much better than what I had before.


Of course the term will always be rather vague as we do not know under which circumstances it was inserted. Moreover, there seem to have been various groups with different ideas at that time too, so it is difficult to pin down the original intention of the term.

I do agree that the translation you use now is better than it was before. I’m glad I have been able to contribute a little to your translations!

When I have some time and we have the Gretil database in a better markup format, I want to do a complete search of the Vedic and Jain texts to see if the term itthipaṇḍakā is mentioned anywhere at all and see if that throws any light on the matter.


Hi Ven, thank you for this essay, it’s wonderful! :smiling_face_with_three_hearts: (Also I miss you and hope you’re doing well.)

Something that always occurs to me when reading about Paṇḍakas is the tremendous amount of anxiety located not only in the translation of the term, but also in the characterizing of gender-nonconforming individuals. It seems clear that there was shift in the evaluation and inclusivity of such people, as the third-gender gradually became more at odds with Buddhist culture and practice. I would guess that the discomfort arose at a similar time as the discomfort surrounding women and the vileness/impurity of their bodies; i.e. there is some change in which the physical difference of individuals starts to outway their karmic and spiritual potential.

I also think this is one reason why the translation of such terms remains problematic, in that the terms come to be used in a way that purposefully highlight sexual and physical difference - they are purposefully repellent (and dare I say, ostracizing). Anyhoo, these are just some midday rambles.

P.S. The picture of the Hijra in India is so beautiful it makes me want to cry. :sob:
P.P.S. Bhante @sujato, when you come to Europe at the end of the year can you please come to the UK? Thanks. :grin:


This is Bhante’s travel plan; unfortunately the UK is not on the map. :cry:


According to Vedic scriptures, there is pums-prakriti (men), striy-prakriti (women), and tritiya-prakriti (third sex/gendered) which included the napumsaka (homosexual men) and nastriya or svairini (homosexual women).

Kama Sutra states in one of its chapters, that there are two types of males who are napumsaka: those that were effeminate, and those who were more masculine. And it says as well that sometimes two would get together and form a bond (parigraha).

“A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal, a third-sex child ( napumsa ) or boy and girl twins are produced; if either are weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception results.”
( Manusmriti 3.49)

“Those who like men but dissimulate the fact maintain a manly appearance and earn their living as barbers or masseurs.”
( Kama Sutra 2.9.6)

Other associated words :

Mukhabhaga(who suffers her mouth to be used as vulva)
Namard & napunsaka could mean sexually dysfunctional , impotent and homosexual .
Kinnara (bad or deformed man)
Napumsaka linga ie gender less
Tritiya prakriti i.e. third gender or including homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersexuals.

Other definition .
Kleba (Cross-Dresser)
Pandaka (Feminine Men)
Napunsaka (Men who don’t engage in sex with women/can’t procreate)
Shandha (Non-Males)
Ardhanarishwara (Partly Male and Female)


Absolutely and I think we have to keep being aware that this often just reflects how things were in history and that we should not blindly adopt such attitudes in our Buddhist community today. Like with everything, to apply wisdom and understanding and above all, compassion.

It would be interesting to do a full study on this topic at some point. I think the attitude to women within the Jain order also had a large influence on Buddhism after the passing away of the Buddha. Maybe we can do it together sometime :slight_smile:

Thank you for your references to the Kama Sutra. As it is a later text I did not include it in this essay but I’m well aware of the references there. Like I said above, it would be interesting to do a full study at some point and also include this.


Dear Ayya @vimala , thank you for the extensive research and the article, this is very interesting and helpful information!

However I would like to disagree on some of the conclusions and on Bhante @brahmali’s current choice of translation.

The major inconsistency I see is that, as far as I understand, you take the premise that the word paṇḍaka, and thus the rules concerning it, were not from the Buddha’s time but were added later – but then choose to translate it with the meaning it supposedly had at the Buddha’s time, and not at the time when the rules concerning paṇḍaka were actually laid down.

I see that as problematic because it translates a word used in a specific context outside of it’s actual context, which renders it again incompatible with the precise context in the vinaya.

So for example, Ayya @vimala, you showed with regard to the Jain references, that they suggest the word paṇḍaka or napuṃsaka to describe people who are sexually non-conform – psychologically and/or biologically – and who display/act out excessive libido, or at least are perceived/prejudiced in such a way by popular culture. - Without the need to define a time for when the vinaya piṭaka was laid down, this is exactly the context in which we see the word paṇḍaka used in the vinaya (and suttas). For example, the origin story to why paṇḍakas are excluded from ordination (Kd 1.61.1) tells about a paṇḍaka who went around in the monastery and asked monks to “commit an offence with [him]”. To see this paṇḍaka simply as a eunuch doesn’t seem very reasonable, it is obviously his specific outward sexual desires and how they create trouble for other monks (and for himself as a celibate monk) that are the problem, not whether he has or hasn’t got testicles. In the story he goes to different groups after being turned down repeatedly in a rather unfriendly way and only a group of low caste monks finally consented to his request, suggesting that paṇḍakas were seen as impure and higher caste people didn’t want to have to do with them. When the matter becomes public, people criticize it in the following way:

“These recluses, sons of the Sakyans, are [paṇḍakas], and those of them who are not [paṇḍakas], they too commit offences with [paṇḍakas]. Thus they are one and all unchaste.” (transl. by I.B. Horner)

-> again, the main problem with the paṇḍaka is that he is sexually unrestrained and abnormal and that there is a social stigma seeing paṇḍakas as having such characteristics and as being impure for those reasons.

As far as public opinion goes, AN 5.102 states:

“Mendicants, even if a monk is of impeccable character, he might be suspected and distrusted as a ‘bad monk’ for five reasons.
What five? It’s when a monk frequently collects alms from prostitutes, widows, voluptuous girls, [paṇḍakas], or nuns.” (transl. by Ven. Sujato, he chose ‘eunuchs’)

→ if we assume paṇḍaka should fit into this list, then all five of these are popularly seen as possibly more willing or more likely to get intimate with a monk than, say, a married woman. And so it is again not reasonable to translate paṇḍaka as eunuch here, because why would a eunuch be seen as having a high libido? I think rather to the contrary!

I believe with the above, the problems concerning admission of paṇḍaka into the order have been shown, and I think that it is fairly obvious in the face of all the evidence from the theravāda vinaya as well as from the Jain and Vedic references provided by Ayya @Vimala, that the term paṇḍaka in the vinaya refers to males who are sexually non-conform and unrestrained in that. That is more precisely: excessively effeminate non-cis biological males of the unrestrained type. (of course, the commentaries go into more types of paṇḍaka that are not precisely covered by this, but as far as I understood you didn’t want to go into the commentarial exegesis of paṇḍaka, right?).

The itthipaṇḍaka would then be fairly easy to define, and would also actually make sense and be reasonable in the face of the rules: an excessively masculine non-cis biological female, in her sexual behaviour/signals unrestrained.

I don’t see how one could reasonably advocate for the inclusion of so-defined people into the saṅgha, since a rule to the extent of not granting them admission fulfils all the possible reasons the Buddha mentioned for the laying down of a rule.

Public opinion and the protection of monks, or their celibacy (and as a result of course the long-lasting of the sāsana) might be the main points.

Since social attitudes towards LGBQT people are still far from being neutral or positive, whether in the West or the East, whether in the cities or (especially) in the counrtyside of both West and East, I believe that this rule is still contemporary, in regard to the problematic aspect of social stigma and popular prejudices or suspicions.

(But let me make one thing clear at this point, in case it hasn’t been: As far as I understand and tried to define paṇḍaka, it would not include homo- or bi- or queer who are not outwardly obviously gay, etc… it is a question of acting out vs. controlling lust in general, not of who lust is directed towards)

As for the problem within the saṅgha, it is also just as contemporary. Ayya Vimala suggested that if paṇḍaka were characterized by excessive libidinousness, it would also have to be linked to cis-gendered people, but I don’t quite agree: the situation for cis-gender people is significantly different in the saṅgha: horny males will just be around males, whereas a horny paṇḍaka will be living closely (as close as arms-reach, at least fortnightly) with his object of desire → a more fuelling and more dangerous situation!

For a conclusion of this comment let me come back to the beginning of my response: If we assume that paṇḍaka were inserted into the vinaya at a later time, we should translate it in accordance with the meaning it had at that time. And the vinaya itself does quite clearly state the context in which it uses the term paṇḍaka. If we don’t like a rule, that is fine. But we should for that reason not change the content of the Theravāda vinaya!

Let’s take for example hermaphrodites: they aren’t included under paṇḍaka, because they have their own separate rule that excludes them from ordination and expells them if they are already ordained. One might think that it is unfair and sad to exclude them from the possibility of ordaining in the saṅgha - and I would totally agree – but we won’t for that reason rewrite that rule in the vinaya piṭaka according to our feelings or in accordance with what seems fair in a particular culture at a particular time, would we?!

After all the Theravāda vinaya is what it is: it’s the vinaya of the Theravāda school and as far as I understand we all agree that it does not precisely correspond with the vinaya that was practiced during the Buddha’s lifetime and that was laid down by him.

Nobody is forced to identify with Thervāda, and so we can still live with faith in the Buddha and in what we understand as vinaya , regardless of what is written in the theravāda vinaya piṭaka.

And if we don’t like Theravāda opinions, we can always propagate our own opinions, without needing to change theravāda for that matter, but that’s just my opinion… :blush:

Thank you for bearing with my long comment and I would appreciate your replies :slight_smile: :pray:

oh and I almost forgot: Venerable @Brahmali my concrete suggestion for your translation would be to use something like the combination of the two options you had before:

"licentious sexual non-conformist" ?!?


The time period we are talking about is not very precise. I agree with Ayya @Vimala that the word paṇḍaka may only have appeared after the Buddha’s death. But even if this is correct - and it is by no means certain - it would have entered the EBTs at an early stage, and almost certainly in the pre-Asokan period. This is so because the term is quite firmly embedded in the Vinaya - albeit not in its earliest layers, such as the bhikkhu-pātimokkha - and as far as I know it is attested in all schools. So if the term was introduced into the EBTs after the Buddha, it is likely to have happened within a century at the latest.

This needs to be compared to the dates of the Brahmanical and Jaina scriptures. These dates are even more difficult to pinpoint. The dates suggested by Ayya Vimala are rough estimates at best and we are probably dealing with margins of error of plus/minus 2 centuries, perhaps more. Given the uncertainty, I think it is quite reasonable to argue that the earliest usage of the term paṇḍaka among the Jains is likely to be the same as the earliest usage in Pali and other Buddhist text.

I see this is the best evidence we have. And I don’t believe the rest of the evidence from the EBTs is incompatible with this. Let’s have a look at some of the examples you bring up.

An important point with this passage is that the paṇḍaka asks the monks, etc, to defile him (maṃ … dūsetha). The implication of this is that he was the passive partner in the sexual act. This fits well with identifying them as eunuchs, who may have had difficulties taking the “active” role. They may have had sexual desires, but only limited ways in how to express them physically.

It is true that the paṇḍakas are depicted as somewhat promiscuous, but this too can be understood as a consequence of being eunuchs. A eunuch is unlikely to have been a suitable partner for marriage and so they would have sought outlet for their desires mostly among others who were not living in committed relationships. Ascetics, samaṇas - some of who were not celibate - would have been an obvious such group. I don’t think eunuchs propositioning monastics is as strange as it may at first seem.

Absolutely. We should translate what is there, to the best of our ability.

As you have probably gathered from my argument above, I am still happy with my choice of eunuch.


The surely unfair characterisation of paṇḍakas as purely lustful, libidinous and sexually promiscuous seems to stem from a historical bias, and in Buddhism, principly from the origin rule. I say ‘unfair’, because it is a correlation that doesn’t seem to apply to the way we think about the many lustful, libidinous, sexually permissive cis-het monks (and women monastics too) that we meet in plenty of other rule origin stories. There are monks consorting with monkeys, having sexual relations with corpses (or bits thereof), nuns and monks engaging in mutual masturbation and so many more things that would make even Caligula blush. However, this excessive lust is never used to reduce cis-het people to a lustful stereotype, which is what has happened to the paṇḍakas. Nor is this inherent straight lustiness perceived as a barrier to ordination. Why was there this double standard when it came to paṇḍakas and why does this type of one sided focus continue to occur today to effeminate men, gays, bis or trans people?

So, as has been pointed out above, it probably has more to do with something bodily, rather than behaviour. Sure, eunuchs may have also been sexually active, perceived of as a low caste, or acted as sex workers, but none of these things were regarded as barriers for men or women to become monastics.
The way paṇḍakas’ sexuality has become a singular focus as somehow abberent, mirrors the way that queer sexuality was historically regarded as unnatural, wanton, promiscuous - becoming an obsessive focus on a single aspect of a person’s life, rather than the whole person. This focus occurs and continues to occur, despite many straight people throughout history engaging in the same sort or practices and with just as much frequency. However, for some reason straight sexuality did not suffer the same prejudice as queer, and was even celebrated for its excesses.

This unfair, demonizing characterisation is demonstrated by the choice of words people persist in using to describe paṇḍakas, whilst admitting we don’t really know what they are. Fear of the unknown perhaps? You say that a paṇḍakas in a monastery is “dangerous”, while cis-het males are just plain old “horny”. And this assertion that

seems somewhat poorly thought out - horny cis-males include straight men, plus gay men, and bi men, and those who aren’t sure. There are these types of men (horny or not) in almost every monastery. They are around each other all the time, but because they are ordained, they are restrained by the rules (which include oral and anal sex, i.e, gaysex.) or like their straight counterparts who break the rules, are disrobed . Yet, same-sex attracted people were allowed to ordain. No matter what sex-life they may have had before, it ceased to matter.

Given this, it really is unfair that people have come to view the paṇḍakas in such a one-dimensional way. They are people who can have an interest in the path just like anyone. Although the paṇḍakas may have been distinguished due to caste or castration, I cannot see any reason for paṇḍakas being singled out for their sexual behaviour as somehow more abhorrent than anyone elses, except perhaps for a historical bias that we might do better to not repeat.

Speaking of mistakes better left unrepeated, the blog referenced by @Dhammosadha here is quite disturbing for its anti-Semitic, white-supremacist, and "political correctness gone mad"bandwagon vibe. Plus, it contains avowed deeply misogynistic viewpoints (women’s suffrage was a mistake, for example)…and if people want to read about paṇḍakas there are many other, much better, less harrowing sources… I really wish I hadn’t clicked on that. yuk :tired_face: