Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Prevention Of Violence Against Women:A Buddhist Perspective

Prevention Of Violence Against Women:
A Buddhist Perspective


The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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Prevention Of Violence Against Women: A Buddhist Perspective

Violence against Women is common in most of the societies across the world. Though this is a frequent occurrence, but it is often regarded as mundane in our daily life and set aside as obscured and neglected phenomenon. Many women are subjected to physical or mental violence at different part of their lives and they often suffer in isolation and in silence in their domestic or occupational environment. Only a few episodes of severe and unusual violence are brought before public attention.

However, in recent times, an increasing amount of research is beginning to offer a global overview of the extent of Violence against Women. Some of the most common and most severe forms of Violence against Women are intimate partner violence; sexual abuse by non-intimate partners; unlawful trafficking of women, forced prostitution, exploitation of labor and debt bondage of women and girls; physical and sexual violence against prostitutes; sex selective abortion, female feticide and infanticide, and the deliberate neglect of girls; and rape in war and disturbed border areas. There are many potential perpetrators, including spouses and partners, parents, other family members, neighbors, and men in positions of power or influence. Most forms of violence are not sporadic incidents but are ongoing, and can even continue for decades. Because of fear and social stigma, violence is most often universally under-reported. The tip of the iceberg represents the prevalence of such violence in the society. This also suggests that in the submerged portion of the iceberg, millions of women are experiencing violence or living with its consequences in this world.

A number of books have been written on the changing status of women in Hindu and Islamic societies in the recent past. But a very little interest has been shown by the researchers with regard to women in Buddhism. However, a book published during 1930 entitled, “Women under Primitive Buddhism” by the renowned Pali scholar Miss I.B. Horner provide an important insight on Buddhist Attitude towards Women. Today, when the role of Women in Society and their sufferings are issues of worldwide interest, it is important that we also focus our attention towards Buddhist perspective and find rational solution to prevent Violence against Women from the Buddhist practices and moral ethics.

Buddhist Attitude towards Women
Researchers are often keen to know whether the position of women in Buddhist societies was better than that in non-Buddhist societies of Asia. So, it is interesting to study the Buddhist attitude towards women and how it differs from that of other religions. From the evidence of the Rigveda, the earliest literature of the Indo-Aryans, that woman held an honorable place in early Indian society. There were a few Rigvedic hymns composed by women. Women had access to the highest knowledge and could participate in all religious ceremonies. In domestic life too she was respected and there was no suggestion of seclusion of women and child marriage.

At a later stage, when the priestly Brahmans dominated the Indian society, religion lost its spontaneity and became a mass of ritual. From this time onwards, we observe a downward trend in the position accorded to women. The most relentless of the Brahman law-givers was Manu whose Code of Laws is the most anti-feminist literature one could find. At the outset Manu deprived woman of her religious rights and spiritual life. "Sudras, slaves and women" were prohibited from reading the Vedas. A woman could not attain heaven through any merit of her own. She could not worship or perform a sacrifice by herself. She could reach heaven only through implicit obedience to her husband, be he debauched or devoid of all virtues. Having thus denied her any kind of spiritual and intellectual nourishment, Manu elaborated the myth that all women were sinful and prone to evil. She should therefore be kept under constant vigilance. The best way to do this was to keep her occupied in the tasks of motherhood and domestic duties so that she has no time for mischief. Despite this denigration there was always in Indian thought an idealization of motherhood and a glorification of the feminine concept. But in actual practice, it could be said by and large, Manu's reputed Code of Laws did influence social attitudes towards women, at least in the higher realms of the society.

It is against this background that one has to view the impact of Buddhism in the 5th century B.C. It is not suggested that the Buddha inaugurated a campaign for the liberation of Indian womanhood. But he did succeed in creating a minor stir against Brahman dogma and superstition. He condemned the caste structure dominated by the Brahman, excessive ritualism and sacrifice. He denied the existence of a Godhead and emphasized emancipation by individual effort. The basic doctrine of Buddhism, salvation by one's own effort, put forward the spiritual equality of all beings irrespective of gender. This was to mitigate the exclusive supremacy of the male. It needed a man of considerable courage and a rebellious spirit to pronounce a way of life that placed woman on a level of near equality to man. The Buddha saw the spiritual potential of both men and women and founded the Order of Bhikkhunis or Nuns, one of the earliest organizations for women. The Sasana consisted of the Bhikkhus (Monks), Bhikkhunis (Nuns), laymen and laywomen so that the women were not left out of any sphere of religious activity. The highest spiritual states were within the reach of both men and women and the latter needed no masculine assistance or priestly intermediary to achieve them. In this context, the scholar I.B. Horner also concluded that Buddhism accorded to women a position approximating to equality.

In domestic life also, one notices a change of attitude during the Buddhist times in India. In all patriarchal societies the desire for male offspring is very strong for the continuance of the patrilineage and, in the case of Hindus, for the due performance of funeral rites. It was a rule that only a son could carry out the funeral rites of his father and thus ensure future happiness of the deceased. This was so crucial to the Hindu that the law allowed a sonless wife to be superseded by a second or a third one or even turned out of the house. It was believed that "through a son one conquers the world and though a son's son one attains immortality." As a result of this belief the birth of a daughter was the cause for lamentation.

According to Buddhism, the future happiness does not depend on funeral rites but on the own actions (Kamma) of the deceased. The Buddhist funeral ceremony is a very simple one which could be performed by the widow, daughter or any one on the spot and the presence of a son is not compulsory. There is no ritual or ceremonial need for a son and the birth of a daughter need not be a cause for grief. It is well known that the Buddha consoled King Pasenadi who came to him grieving that his queen, Mallika, had given birth to a daughter. The Buddha explained to the King that there is no need to grieve for a female offspring, since she might prove even nobler than a male. This was a revolutionary statement for his time. Despite the spiritual quality of the sexes and the fact that a son is not an absolute necessity in securing happiness in the after life, yet even in some Buddhist societies there is a preference for male offspring even today due to the obsession on ideology of male superiority.

Marriage and family are basic institutions in all societies and the position of woman in a particular society is influenced by the status she holds within these institutions. In Buddhism, unlike Christianity and Hinduism, marriage is not a sacrament. It is purely a secular social affair and the monks do not actively participate in it. As a gesture of honor, sometimes the monks are also invited to partake of alms during a marriage ceremony and they in turn bless the couple. Although there are no vows or rituals involved in the event of a marriage, the Buddha has laid down in the Sigalovada Sutta the duties of a husband and wife. According to this sutta, a husband has to perform five essential duties towards his wife, who is considered to be his Western quarter. These are gestures of respect, courtesy, faithfulness, handing over authority of household to her and providing her with ornaments. The essential five duties of a wife towards her husband are to love him, show warm hospitality, remain faithful, take care of the goods that he brings and skill and industry in discharging all business.

We can clearly understand that the Buddha's injunctions are bilateral and devoid of any gender bias. He had preached that the marital relationship is a reciprocal one with mutual rights and obligations. This was a momentous departure from the ideas prevailing during at the time in other religions. According to the injunctions of the Buddha given in the Sigalovada Sutta, which deals with domestic duties, every relationship was a reciprocal one whether it is between husband and wife, parent and child, or master and servant. Thus, according to Buddhism, marriage is a contract between equals.

In Buddhism, death is considered a natural and inevitable end. As a result, a woman should not be subjected to any moral degradation on account of her widowhood and her social status should not be altered in any way. In Buddhist societies a women was never encouraged to advertise her widowhood by shaving her head and relinquishing her ornaments. She was also not forced to fast on specific days and sleep on hard floors as self-mortification had no place in Buddhism. A widow was always allowed to attend all religious and social ceremonies and auspicious events. Above all, there was no religious barrier towards widow remarriage. Women whose marriages break up were free to remarry with no stigma attached and instances of remarriage of rejected wives were also inscribed in Buddhist literature. Even the Lakrajalosirita, which gives an orthodox Buddhist view, permits the remarriage of women after separation from their spouses. It was common even in the highest realms of society.

A free and liberal attitude towards women certainly had its impact on the behavior of both men and women in Buddhist societies. The celibate monks and nuns had separate quarters, yet the cloister was not cut off from the rest of the world. It is recorded that the Buddha had long conversations with his female disciples. The devout benefactress Visakha visited the monastery frequently decked in all her finery, and accompanied by a maid servant, she attended to the needs of the monks. Her clothes and ornaments were the talk of the town, yet neither the Buddha nor the monks dissuaded her from wearing them. It was after she developed in insight and asceticism that she voluntarily relinquished her ornaments.
Though the Buddha had expressed an unbiased and open view towards welfare of women in the society, but his attitude towards women was not radically different from that of his contemporaries. The Buddha frequently cautioned monks to be on their guard when dealing with women lest they could be driven away by obsession and lust. For male devotees pursuing the religious life, women were seen as objects of temptation and snare. In this context, it should be noted that, similar warnings were also given to women about the dangers of men by the Buddha.

However, the secular nature of the marriage contract, the facility to divorce, the right to remarry, the desegregation of the sexes and above everything, the right to inherit father’s or husband’s properties, the right to own and dispose of property without any hindrance from the husband, had collectively and significantly contributed towards lifting the moral and social status of women in Buddhist societies.

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