The Religious Position of Women and Men in Buddhist Countries: Sri Lanka

The position accorded to women in all spheres of activity has been a subject of considerable interest in recent decades. Significant changes in the role played by women in social, economic, and even political life transcend the position accorded to women in many religious traditions of the world. The social freedom enjoyed by women and their equality of status in Buddhist societies had evoked many Western observers to distinguish them from those of the Middle East, the Far East, and Europe, where other religions of the world are practiced. In this perspective, it is imperative to consider the place accorded to women in Buddhism, though very few countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc., are following Buddhist tenets of social practices, and analyzing its influence in these countries will be significant in the changing world social scenario.

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With women’s emancipation and increased pressure from feminist activists, the universal ideology of masculine superiority is being challenged everywhere. Segregation of sexes has been prevalent in varying degrees among major world religions, whether it is based on Confucian code, Strictures of Manu, or Words of the Prophet. In the international social set up the Confucian code lays down detailed rules on how men and women should behave in each other’s presence. The Hindu Religion adopts the Code of Law of Manu, most anti-feminist literature that forbade women’s religious rights and spiritual life. In Islamic society, sexual segregation pervades all aspects of life. Whereas, social scientists observe that women in Buddhist society enjoyed freedom from its very inception, and the Buddhist principles will be more relevant today.

Indian society, around the 5th century B.C, in which Buddhism developed, did not differ from that in other places, and women were accorded inferior position. “The primordial principle in the Vedic-Upanishadic philosophy, which was dominant in the Buddha’s time, was the male-principle, and this provided justification for the exclusion of women generally from social and spiritual activity” (Silva, 1994). Many other religions accord different positions to men than women, but the part played by women in the early history of Buddhism, notably during Buddha’s own time, could be considered as an indicator of the place accorded to women in Buddhism. The attitude of Buddha to the role of women was an enlightened one, as the Buddhist teaching is referred to as the one that could lead all beings to liberation. What Buddha discovered was a universal law, which existed independently, where male or female can discover it by following the directions of the Buddha. The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth also asserts that gender can change over successive transmigrations, as the ‘Dhamma’ for the most part ignores the sexual identity of persons. Thus, the spiritual ability of women to achieve Nirvana had been identified by Lord Buddha after considering women’s spiritual and social status.

While reflecting on the issue related to the place accorded to women in Buddhism, it will be appropriate to consider Sanghamitta Day celebrated by Sri Lanka Buddhists. It marks the anniversary of the arrival of the Bhikkhuni (Nun) Sanghamitta, daughter of Emperor Asoka of ancient India, in Sri Lanka to establish the Buddhist Bhikkhuni Order. In the time of Lord, Buddha women had inferior status, yet he established the Bhikkhuni-Sangha, a female group, counterpart to the male Sangha. Though the Bhikkhuni order bought by Sanghamitta proved to be capable, it did not survive in Sri Lanka due to war-related disasters in the Indian subcontinent.

Along with the spiritual freedom of women, an inquiry into the social setup of Sri Lanka and the status of women will be helpful in understanding the influence of Buddhism on women’s liberation. The comments made by many European observers, who had witnessed the plight of women in Europe and Hindu and Islamic societies of India during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, on the women of Sri Lanka show that women of Sri Lanka, predominantly Buddhist, enjoyed equal status than their counterparts hailing from another religious background. A better example of women’s emancipation may be seen from the following accounts of Hugh Boyd, who came as an envoy to the Kandyan Court in 1782.

The Cingalese women exhibit a striking contrast to those of all other Oriental Nations in some of the most prominent and distinctive features of the character. Instead of that lazy apathy, insipid modesty, and sour austerity, which have characterized the sex throughout the Asiatic world, in every period of its history, in this island, they possess that active sensibility, winning bashfulness and amicable ease, for which the women of modern Europe are peculiarly famed. … The Cingalese neither keep their woman in confinement nor impose on them any humiliating restraints (Mrs. Dewaraja, 1981).

The social condition prevailing in the Sri Lankan island is obtained from the accounts of European navigators and colonizers. By linking circumstantial and historical evidence, we may construe that the liberal attitude towards women in Sri Lanka is a trend that has continued from the remote past. Thailand and Burma [Myanmar] also inherited similar social cultures, most probably with the Buddhist influence. According to Sir Charles Bell, British Political Representative in Tibet, Bhutan, and Sikkim, in 1928 women were not kept in seclusion, were accustomed to mix with the other sex throughout their lives, and “the solid fact remains that in Buddhist countries women hold a remarkably good position. Burma, Ceylon and Tibet exhibit the same picture.” (Mrs. Dewaraja, 1981).

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It is also worth noting that unlike Christianity and Hinduism, marriage is not a sacrament in Buddhism. The ‘Sigalovada Sutta’ by Buddha prescribes duties of husband and wife, and Sinhala laws are equally applicable and binding to both husband and wife. It is also worth noting that prior to European occupation, both sexes in Sri Lanka had equal facilities for divorce, and there was no religious barrier for remarriage of widows and divorcees. All early Buddhist literatures suggest that free mixing of the sexes, even between monks and nuns, and exchange of ideas was not prohibited. Perhaps, this free and liberal attitude certainly had its impact on the behaviour of both men and women in Buddhist societies.

In analysing the problem of male/female relationships and their consequent conflicts, it is found that biological difference, social value and conditions, and the spiritual and mental aspects are major contributors. As nature and social conditions are correlated, women’s biological nature put them socially disadvantaged in every social activity. Because of the biological predestination, and they are easy targets of attack, it is more difficult for women than men to live a socially independent life. It may be seen that in most typically Buddhist countries, like Myanmar, Thailand, or Sri Lanka, social problems are far from being solved at present. However, we could conclude that the secular nature of the marriage contract, the facility of divorce, the right to remarry, the desegregation of the sexes, and above all, the right to inherit property have all contributed to the mitigation of women lot in Buddhist societies.

From the Buddhist point of view women’s rights movement has to be looked from women’s social and biological conditions realistically. If society is less violent women’s status will be better and make their ascetic life easier. We still rely on dominance and aggression to solve problems, which ironically shows that humans have not made much progress in adopting virtuous means for pursuing their goals. Integrating the Buddhist value of not letting ourselves being dominated by emotions, and movement based on compassion for men should be crucial in women’s rights movements to have a better life together.


Mrs. Dewaraja, L. S Dr. (1981).The Position of Women in Buddhism, Wheel Publication No. 280, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Web.

Silva, Swarna De. (1994).The Place of Women in Buddhism, Web.

Ekachai, Santisuda. (2001) Where women stand, Bhikku Prayudh Payutto. Bangkok Post: Thailand. Dharma Web.

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