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Portraits of Buddhist Women. By Ranjini Obeyesekere. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. 231 pp.

This book is a translation of part of the Saddharmaratnavaliya (Jewel Garland of the True Doctrine; hereafter SR ), a thirteenth-century Sinhala translation of the Dhammapada (hereafter DA ), a fifth-century Buddhist text. Out of the entire collection of 360 stories contained in the SR, this book includes twenty-six that have women as central characters.

The author succeeds in part with her stated purpose to "illuminate the position of women in the early-medieval Buddhist worlds of India and Sri Lanka" as well as to "provide insights into shifting stances over time on issues of sexuality and gender" (p. 1), despite the lack of any necessary correlation between gender images and the actual status of women in a particular social location. As Obeyesekere points out, although the stories themselves are not focused on gender, their contexts in the "everyday world" of their fifth- and thirteenth-century authors do shed light on women's lives and social status. The stories she has selected for the volume portray women in a wide range of roles, including not only the ideal normative ones of wives and mothers, but also those of daughters, courtesans, servants, queens, nuns, and wandering ascetics.

Obeyesekere claims that the particularities in these narratives "reflect the status, intelligence, management, and organizational skills of women that were permitted full play in the social worlds to which they belonged" (p. 11). This claim is borne out by several passages in the text, such as the narrative of Kundalakesi, which has a deity state that "it is not men who always have the best stratagems . . . . [In] certain situations women too know what to do" (p. 120).

Furthermore, women's capabilities and talents are sometimes recognized by the men in the narratives. Visakha's grandfather chooses her to escort the Buddha and arrange accommodations for the enormous entourage that accompanied her betrothed. Samavati's adopted father, Ghosaka, unquestioningly accepts her advice on how to organize an alms-hall (to prevent quarreling) and how to deal with the King's (unreasonable) demands. After she has "shed the three evils of belief in self, doubts, and erroneous beliefs and practices," Khujjuttara preaches a sermon "exactly as the Buddha has done" (p. 63) and becomes the teacher of Samavati and her five hundred attendants.

However, Obeyesekere also notes the antifeminist elements that are sprinkled throughout the text. The statements in the narrative of Visakha that "women who run are most unattractive" and will meet with criticism and ridicule for having no feminine grace and acting in a manner not befitting for a woman (pp. 84-85) reveals how restrictive gender-role norms were in thirteenth-century Sri Lanka. A woman's body is described as a polluted lump of flesh in the Udeni cycle (a collection [End Page 289] of five related narratives); here the Buddha is said to describe woman's body as a "container with its nine orifices filled with feces and urine" that "I would be disgusted even to wipe my feet on . . . as I would on a door mat" (p. 12; see also p. 54). Comparisons to women are used to criticize men, as when King Udeni tells King Candapajjota's guards (after the latter king has locked up the former seemingly indefinitely after capturing him) that "Your kind does what even women would not do . . ." (p. 48). This comparison indicates that women are not honorable and trustworthy, but willing to impose extended and unnecessary suffering on their victims.

Other antifeminist elements in the SR include the backhanded compliment to Visakha that "though born a woman (and women are of limited vision), and though forced to associate with people who were of the right caste but held wrong beliefs, yet she herself did not lack vision" (pp. 14, 79). This sentiment about women in general is consistent with the widespread belief in popular Buddhism that men are more highly evolved on the cosmic chain than are women.

This view is illustrated in the narrative of Soreyya, who transforms from a male to a female form when he finds himself lusting after...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9472
Print ISSN
0882-0945
Pages
pp. 289-293
Launched on MUSE
2005-01-10
Open Access
No
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