Were there women soldiers at the time of the Buddha?

While on a wild goose chase to attribute a quote of Megasthenes regarding women in Ancient India (more on that another time) I came across this interesting PhD Post-colonial Amazons- Female Masculinity and Courage in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit Literature. Chapter 6 is what struck my interest. You can read most of it on Google Books.

In it there is evidence both from Megasthenes (Greek) and Arthashastra (indian) sources that the inner area of the king’s palace was guarded by women, as part of the harem.

Here are a few quotes:

Greeks who came into contact with the ancient courts of India and Persia commented not only on the seclusion of women in harems but also on yet another custom that would seem strange to Greek ears: female bodyguards and hunting companions of kings.1 At the turn of the fourth to third century BCE, a Greek ambassador named Megasthenes was sent by Seleucus I Nicator to visit the court of his rival, the great Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya. Megasthenes recorded what he saw in his Indica, preserved today only in fragments. In particular, he noted that the Indian monarch was surrounded by armed women who served as his intimate hunting companions:

Penrose quoting from an account from Megasthene

The care of the king’s body is committed to women who have been purchased from their fathers; outside the gates are male bodyguards and the remaining army. A woman who kills the drunken king holds a position of honor and consorts with his successor. Their children succeed him. The king does not sleep during the day, and at night he is forced to change beds periodically on account of the plots [against him] . . .
A third [type of outing] is a Bacchic hunt, with a circle of women surrounding [the king], and outside of them a circle of [male] spear-bearers. The road is roped off and any man who passes inside to the women is killed. The drumbeaters and bell carriers advance [first]. The king hunts in enclosed areas shooting arrows from a platform (two or three armed women stand beside him), and he also hunts in open hunting grounds from an elephant; the women [also] hunt, some from chariots, some on horses, and some on elephants and, as when they join a military expedition, they practice with all types of arms. (FGrHist 715 F 32)

Bolding is mine.

I put this all aside. After all, how come my friends and teachers hadn’t known this? I checked Bhante @Sujato’s notes for DN2 regarding the women riding elephants and just couldn’t agree with his reasoning, that the king would bring women as they were ḷess threatening to the nervous king. DN2.10.1 state(d)

Kings had extensive harems, but the phrasing here does not specify that these were Ajātasattu’s wives. They may have simply been women of the palace. It seems the all-female retinue was chosen as it was less threatening to the king.

In the past I had assumed these women were there as a form of status symbol. But why would Ajātasāttu take a whole lot of women with him to show off to the Buddha when he was anticipating an assassination plot? So the other day I flagged this with Bhante. He agreed that I might be onto something and asked me to share this information.

A lot of the sources in Penrose’s material on Buddhism are a bit weird. However, the stuff from Megasthenes and Arthasastra seem to stand.

For me at least, this raise a bigger question about some of the narrative around the ladies of the court at the time of the Buddha. The stories of the women being more refined than male candidates, and needing extra rules and protection seems to have a bit less credibility.

Bonus material: A similar practice seems to have existed in Benin until the French invaded. Check out this entertaining queer history podcast on the Agojje, where they drop the casual ‘oh of course, this also happened in India’!


Thanks so much for sharing, Ayya. As I mentioned in email, this has convinced me that in DN 2 the women surrounding Ajātasattu were indeed likely to be bodyguards. Moreover, it seems DN 2 may be the earliest evidence for this practice.

It would certainly be interesting to review the suttas and Vinaya in this light and see if any other passages might be relevant.

As I also mentioned, I found the standard of Buddhist scholarship in Penrose’s book lamentable. He says, for example, that the Buddhist taught his first sermon on the four noble truths at Bodhgaya. He uses secondary sources, citing views from American scholars with no apparent awareness of the early Buddhist texts at all. In this he follows other cross-disciplinary scholars—Thomas McEvilley and George Halkias come to mind—whose work is diminished by a lack of familiarity with fundamental source material.

I don’t think this undermines his main thesis, but it certainly doesn’t help.


The quote I’ve been trying to source is related to this claim

Megasthenes who visited India during the Chandragupta era, was impressed to see the safety of women in Indian society. Women could move out in night without fear. Women in India were safer than in Greece and west.

From this article on dress in the Chandragupta era.

I’ve read 2/3 of Richard Stoneman’s Megasthenes’ Indica but so far nothing stands out as backing this claim.

If anyone has any ideas, I’m all ears. This claim leapt out at me as being very different from what we are told in the bhikkhuni vinaya.

Either way I’m finding it very interesting to read Indica and to overlay it with what I know from the Buddhist texts. There’s certainly a lot of geography in there.


…what we are told where in the bhikkhuni vinaya?

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