The Significance of “Therigathas” in the History of Women’s Writing

The Therigathas are essentially “Verses of The Elder Nuns”, a seminal part of Buddhist scripture composed by the first nuns who joined the Buddhist sanga or formal religious community. This is a collection of short poems composed and eloquently recited by the earliest members of the sanga. These poems are considered the earliest voices of women emancipation. In these poems, the nuns recount their struggles and accomplishments.One of the most important thing is the fact that there was no concept of social stigma in the sanga, a fact that surfaces in many of the poems.

The Therigathas document the lifestyles of women contemporaneous to when this was written. It narrates the stories that are set in the landscape of the social settings that fostered such living conditions. One of the most interesting things about The Therigathas is how it links spirituality with feminism. It aims to help achieve emancipation by getting rid of material bonds. This facet of Buddhist thinking is central to our understanding of these poems as historically, Buddhism has allowed women into its fold, assimilating the marginalized. Nuns take a strong stand for liberation as they speak from their personal experiences and attempt to internalize the spiritual experience.

The Therigathas is perhaps the earliest page in the history of feminist thinking.The works compiled in this collection explore a plethora of facets of the life of a woman, and the nuns who have composed these works show immense courage in telling their stories. These compositions tell the tale of women who have had to overcome the bonds of patriarchy as well as the materialistic bonds that tie them to the world. This work documents the lives and struggle of women in the past, telling a tale of struggle and consequent overcoming. As opposed to The Theragathas, which project a sense of disgust primarily for the body of the external, The Therigathas internalize that sense of disgust and strive to achieve liberation from the shackles of materialistic pleasures.

The Therigathas, while not confines to gynocentric concerns, has deeply feminist undertones. The nuns who tell these stories have had to cross socio-economic barriers to come to terms with the transcience of their bodies and attain salvation. In Sumangala’s Mother, this aspect of women’s life is highlighted. The very title shows that women lacked agency of their own and their identity was far too often an extension of that of the men around them. Her identity has been tied to her domestic roles.

The speaker in the text voices an angst that has permeated across generations of women who have been pushed into the fringes of the society and confined in their own homes. She tells a tale of domestic drudgery and the subsequent frustrations of women, a tale that is representative of the women of her times. She is finally able to break out of this endless cycle of domestic confinement and achieves her own identity in the sanga. She says, “So freed! So freed”, indicating the sense of liberation that she feels after having left her domestic life. Words like “freed” and “bliss” in this poem indicate a sense of emancipation that is felt by the nun. It is clear from the poem that her mind had always been detached from the family and the domestic life was not the one for which she was meant. She talks of cutting all the material ties that fetter her to the transience of this world. This was a radical thought in her time and to say so was akin to attainment of self-realization and a celebration of selfhood.

Another seminal poem in the Buddhist canon is “Vimala, the Former Courtesan”. She projects the sense of angst and misery that she used to live with as a courtesan. She “despised other women”, harbouring pride and inevitably, malice. Her life was filled with materialistic pleasures and she worshipped her own body, showing off her “ornaments”. The need to tell this story is an important factor in its inclusion in the canon, since this story shows that anyone could join the sanga, and that there was no concept of social stigma attached to them.

When appreciated in these respects, The Therigathas becomes a central work in the history of feminist writing, introducing ideas of emancipation and equality in a time when such ideas were thought not to exist. It explores the idea of liberation both from patriarchy as well as internal conflicts. There is little dissent over the idea of it being an authoritative text that documents the social conditions of those times, and yet it is grossly underrated.