" Nibbana is a realisation about the frailty and transience of beauty, the body, and emotions like desire, grief, anger, and attachment to anything that binds one in this life. Nibbana thus means to 'blow out' all emotions that lead to desire and attachment." Snigdha Singh, pg no. 263, Of Thieves and Theris, Potters, and Pativratas, Essays on Early Indian Social History for Kumkum Roy, the book presented to Prof. Dr. Kumkum Roy, on her Felicitation on 9th November 2022.
In her scholarly and profoundly interesting article, Dr. Snigdha Singha goes on to explain how the Buddhist Theras and Theris, monks, and nuns were guided to achieve Nibbana by practicing detachment following certain teachings/notions around the body per se and especially that of women. This is described in the Theragatha and Therigatha, poems composed by the senior monks and nuns.
Before I quote from her essay any further, let me remind my readers that I was taught, that The Buddha himself wrote nothing. All texts are the interpretation of his teaching by His disciples and thus must be allowed the concession of 'as they heard, seen The Buddha speak or do'. It is quite possible that The Buddha said something in some context, but his disciple heard and interpreted otherwise. Leave that as it may, we readers of such texts must be allowed the freedom to introspect on the Buddha's words as interpreted/inferred by his disciples.
A few examples below should suffice:
" The Buddha says to Sundari - Nanda,
As with this body, so with thine, as with,
Thy beauty, so with this --- this shall it be
With this melodious, offensive shape,
Wherein the foolish only delight."
It is apparent from this verse that drawing attention to the body in Buddha's eyes was merely foolish, as this body does become a 'foul compound, diseased, Impure!' Hence, 'compel thy heart to contemplate'.
If the position is such that the body must be viewed as loathsome, for the mind to single-mindedly pursue the path of Nibbana, then, we can infer that this is a strategy used by the Buddha to prove that the body is transient/impermanent. So, for this life to be meaningful, only the permanent must be sought after, which is Nibbana.
In his discourse, the Buddha has used death and decay as a potent reason to seek a life above all changing matters. The problem arises when examples of decay are bodies of women and not men. The objectifying of women's bodies to drive home a point may cause a man to fight his desire for a woman, in search of that which never changes or decays, but the point remains that in both Theravada and Therivada poems the use of women's body as against the reference to men's bodies as also gross, bloating, changing and dying is never used in the same manner. Bringing our argument to a necessary query -
- these references make us wonder about the patriarchal nature of Buddha's teachings which must be investigated further. What is even more strange is both Theris and Theras indulge in degrading their bodies, men on women and women on themselves literally to escape the circle of death and birth by achieving Nibbana. My question is, why are the Theris not speaking the same way about male bodies as ugly, decomposing, deforming bodies which meet death as well, just as women do?
The point of introspection thus lies in this question -
- if Theragatha is a collection of poems written by male disciples of The Buddha, is the Therigatha in some way edited by Theras and is not totally poems written by Theris only? Is there a male point of view woven into the text?
The Buddha had only a male monastic order until under the request of his favorite disciple, Ananda, he admitted his foster mother Mahaprajapati Gomtami into the monastic order for females. And it continued after the Mahaparinirbanna of The Buddha. Even then, the female order came under the male order. It is only probable then, that the texts too could have been whetted out/ interpretations of the Theras which has made the patriarchal divide more prominent - the male body kept away from degenerative references, while the women have been exposed as the least desirable.
Psychologists use what is called Aversion Therapy to de-addict a person from a substance of abuse by making the person associate the substance of abuse with something unpleasant in thought and visually thus creating an aversion to the substance.
The Buddha is a Master Psychologist but could it be that so much of what is assigned to be his saying, might have been a Manusmriti authored by his Theras?
Snigdha Singh teaches history at Miranda House, University of Delhi. Her article titled Beauty, Body, and Desire Gendered Voices in Buddhist Monastic Tradition, Chapter 13 can be found in Of Thieves and Theris, Potters, and Pativratas, Essays on Early Indian Social History for Kumkum Roy,
Note: Views expressed in this article are entirely mine, Julia Dutta