Inclusive: Special Article: Vol. 1, Issue 13 - July, 2018

Re-presenting Images within the Household: A Study of the Buddhist Jᾱtakas, Therῑgᾱthᾱ and the Theragᾱthᾱ

Taniya Roy




Household as a space has been often focused in the Buddhist textual traditions. Utmost sufferings are considered to stem from the same. The Buddhist narratives do not directly condemn the worldly household as the source of all discontent. It adopts a pragmatic way of describing situations in the social sphere and the only solutions have been indicated as renouncing the world. In that juncture, the alternative situation has been exemplified in the creation of the Buddhist saṇgha as portrayed in the Therῑgᾱthᾱ and the Theragᾱthᾱ. An attempt has been made to locate the gender relations centering the early Buddhist traditions that consider the household as a repository of suffering. The Jᾱtakas, in each of the narratives portray the previous births of the Buddha. In many of the instances they effectively exhibit the intense hurdles of domesticity. Interestingly, in most of the narratives we come across the portrayal of the household as a womb of suffering. The only solutions could be found in renouncing the same. In that juncture the description of the possibility of an alternative situation exemplified by the saṇgha as portrayed in the Therῑgᾱthᾱand the Theragᾱthᾱ crops up.




The early Buddhist traditions consider the household as a source of all suffering. The Jᾱtakas, in each of the narratives portray the previous births of the Buddha. In many of the instances they effectively exhibit the intense hurdles of domesticity. Interestingly, in most of the narratives we come across the portrayal of the household in some form or the other. The Buddhist textual narrative does not directly condemn the worldly households as the womb of all discontent. It adopts a pragmatic way of describing situations in the social sphere. The only solutions could be found in renouncing the world. In that juncture the description of the possibility of an alternative situation exemplified by the saṇgha as portrayed in the Therῑgᾱthᾱ and the Theragᾱthᾱ crops up. Kumkum Roy, in the essay entitled ‘World within and worlds without: Representations of the saṇgha in popular traditions’, enlightens the reader about the world withim the Buddhist saṇgha.1

We learn about the Buddha’s reluctance in admitting women to the order. It was only with the initiative of his disciple Ᾱnanda that women were permitted by the Buddha to join the saṇgha, abiding by the gendered rules. My object here is to explore the images of domesticity and relations of hierarchy and dependence within the household. The household often becomes the spatial ground for social dyads bound through nuptial ties. So it becomes important to understand the paraphernalia of different households. Understanding the rituals and traditions might allow us to locate the social context of marriages and relations of hierarchy stemming from them. The entire discussion will develop under two broad themes: structural paradigm of the household and ‘beyond’ and relations of dependence and hierarchy within the household and beyond it.


Structural paradigm of the household and ‘beyond’

Marriage is the most significant ritual that initiates an individual into the life of a householder. Yet Buddhism with its emphasis on liberation as the most important factor represents the worldly ties in the household from a different position. The stories of the Buddha’s previous birth contain varied images of worldly existences. We come across different households that could be broadly categorized as elite households and that of the ordinary people. Through the representation of different rituals and traditions the extent of equity in gender roles within the household would be explicated. On the one hand the lay household could be seen gaining merit by generously supporting the Buddhist saṇgha. On the other hand, the description of the household as synonymous with all the complexities and miseries was common. This foregrounds the saṇgha as an alternative possibility sustained by the donations of the lay followers.

Gendered roles within the household

Here I would particularly scrutinize gender relations in nuptial ties in order to understand the foundation of social life within the household. Whether both the partners had an equal presence in every aspect of the household tradition requires investigation. The royal household features as the predominant model of the household in society. To begin with the rituals and traditions in the king’s home, I would focus on the ceremonies regarding child birth. The royal household of king Brahmadatta in Benaras in the story of the past of the Dummedha-Jātaka,2 has been described. The Bodhisatta was born to his queen consort. In the narrative the picture of the royal household unfolds before us. We see the royal rituals that surround a new birth in the household. The valorisation of the birth of a son is discernible through the customs practised at his birth. The story hints at the tradition of sending princes to Takkasilᾱ for learning the Vedas. In the other part of the story we see the Bodhisatta successfully abolish the practice of animal sacrifice in the city and amongst its people. The negotiation and transformation of the brahmanical traditions could be seen here. A passive presence of the queen mother and the juxtaposing of the local belief of worshipping a female spirit for offspring makes it all the more ironical. What is noteworthy is that the power and worship of tree goddess is also curtailed by the action of the Bodhisatta.

A parallel to the tradition in the royal household of sending their son to Gandhara, could be traced in a brᾱhmaṇa’s household of Takkasilᾱ. In the story of the past of the Asᾱtamanta- Jātaka,3 the Bodhisatta was born as a brᾱhmaṇa in the city of Takkasilᾱ. As he turned sixteen, he had two choices before him. Either he could retire into the forest to pursue Brahmᾱ and be a worshipper of the fire, or he could enjoy the life of a householder. He chose the joys of the home. Thus he was sent by his parents, to study under a renowned teacher. He paid the fees of a thousand pieces of money to the teacher and returned, after completing his education. But his parents wanted him to forsake the worldly life and worship the fire. His mother wanted to make him aware about the wicked nature of women. So she asked him to go back to his teacher and learn it. We see his teacher pointing at the wicked nature of his mother, and explaining the reality of womankind. The teacher used to take care of his ailing mother. He performed the household task of feeding and taking good care of her. However, as passion took possession of her, she didn’t hesitate to kill her son. This made the Bodhisatta awestruck about the ‘innate’ sin of womankind. With this knowledge, the Bodhisatta forsook the worldly life. Although the mother had an equal role like that of the father in deciding the life of their son, the notion about the degraded nature of womankind has been generalised. We see that the mother was keen to teach her son about the ‘innate’ nature of woman. What becomes apparent is the negotiation of different attitudes in the Buddhist narratives. At one level equal space was conceded to the woman in deciding the future of her son. On the other she could be seen delivering the misogynist idea to him about the universal evil nature of women. This would suggest that ideally women were expected to internalize and communicate ideas about women’s ‘true’ nature within the household.

The idea of the flamboyance of the royal household of Vesᾱlῑ is visible in the story of the past of the Ekapaṇṇa- Jātaka.4 The picture of immense prosperity is marked by the triple boundary wall that protected the city. Inside the city there were several kings ruling the kingdom. Several viceroys, generals and treasurers were among the important officials. There was a prince amongst the royal sons in the royal household who was very cruel. He used to punish people ruthlessly. Later his parents brought him to the Buddha. He taught him the value of kindness. The active presence of the couple in mending the evil traits in their son is notable. In the above story, the power play in the household is clear. The three layered wall is indicative of the prosperity of the household that required protection. Very significantly, the dependence of the royal couple on the Buddha is obvious. The active influence of the Buddha in the royal household is apparent. As in the examples discussed in previous chapters, Buddha’s intervention in restoring order within the household was crucial. Thus the household was not visualized as a self-sufficient unit. Another variant of the above theme is found in the verse of thera Kuma’s son.5 In the commentary, we can see the thera was born to the family of a householder. Here we learn the thera was named after his mother. Entering the order he started living in the hills after seeing the Master and after correcting his mental exercises he could attain arhantship. In his verse he spoke against the excess bodily needs exhibited by his fellowmen. He emphasised on right seeking and the right way of following the eight fold path. ‘ Sādhu sutaṃ sādhu caritakaṃ sādhu sadā aniketavihāroatthapucchanaṃ padakkhiṇakammaṃ etaṃ sāmaññamakiñcanassā 'ti.’6 The matrilineal identity of the thera is worth noticing in the midst of a society which advocated patriarchy to a great extent. This clearly indicates the heterogeneity in society. The thera’s abhorrence towards passion indicates the clear division of the social life of the householder and the asocial world of the bhikkhu.

Parenting a child by a widowed mother, surfaces in the instance of thera Kassapa.7 He was born in a brᾱhmaṇa’s household. He was brought up by his widowed mother. Once he heard the Master preach during his visit to the Jeta grove. Thereby, he recognized the futility of worldly life. He asked for his mother’s permission to renounce the world. Later he became anxious to join the Master in his religious tour of the countryside. Following his mother’s word to go where he would be free from ties, he entered the saṇgha and attained arhantship. This instance hints at the position of the widow in the social realm. She had quite an eminent place in her household. While many of the previous instances indicated the passive position of the wife in the family, the example of this widowed mother reveals a different picture. Beyond the conventional mother figure pursuing her son for a married life, the widowed mother is keen for the true liberation of her son.

A similar situation arises with the father deciding to send his daughter away from worldly life surfaces in the verse of therῑ Uppalavaṇṇᾱ.8 She donated great gifts to the Order and achieved the chief place amongst the bhikkhunῑs. In her next birth as a daughter of a treasurer, she was known for her physical grace. As she grew up, kings and common folk from all over the land wanted to marry her. Her father found it impossible to satisfy all. At this her father thought of inspiring her to renounce the world. He took her to the bhikkhunῑ quarter and got her ordained. Here we see a lot of negotiations between different households. She was born into a treasurer’s household and due to her beauty her hand was asked by the royal household and also commoners. Interestingly, her father chose to solve the problem by sending her to the alternative household of the saṇgha.

The idea of a separate women’s chamber in the king’s household is seen in the story of the present of the Mahᾱsᾱra- Jātaka.9 We come across the women’s chamber of the royal household of the King of Kosala. His queens lamented that they could never have the opportunity to go to the monastery at their will to meet the Great Buddha. They also described their existence in the palace as surviving in a box. However, they went together and told the king about their common wish. As the story progressed, we see that the king went to listen to the Buddha’s teachings. There he encountered a learned layman. He asked him to come to his royal harem and teach the truth to his wives. However, the man turned down his request and said that a layman should never go to teach in the king’s harem. He mentioned that it was only the prerogative of the Brethren. So the king asked his wives to choose a person from among the disciples of the Buddha, to teach them religion. There was a unanimous choice of the chief disciple Ᾱnanda. As the story progressed, we see that Ᾱnanda used to teach in the king’s harem with the permission of the Buddha. One day, the king discovered that his jewel was missing and he suspected everyone in the palace. Even his wives were not spared. However, with Ᾱnanda’s advice the king got back his stolen jewel. Everyone in the royal household remained grateful to him. In the narrative the picture of the king’s household opens several questions before us. We see that certain rules prevailed in the women’s quarter of the royal household. The queens had no right to visit the monastery. This leaves us interrogating the access to spaces in the Buddhist tradition. In another part of the story we could see that a learned lay man was not free to teach women in the harem. He said that was only the prerogative of the Buddha’s disciple. The juxtaposition of these situations is interesting in understanding the marginalised position of queens in the royal household. As the story ends, we see that the king on losing his jewel didn’t hesitate to suspect his queens.

The royal household as the chief almoners has been hinted in the commentary on the verse of thera Kuṇḍa-dhᾱna.10 He was born to a brᾱhmaṇa’s household. He was trained in the knowledge of the Vedas in his early years. Later in his youth, he heard the Master preach and joined the saṇgha. King Pasenadi became influenced by him and provided him with all necessities, so that he did not have to go begging for alms. However, it was the lay disciple Subhaddᾱ, the daughter of Anᾱtha-piṇḍika, who invited the Master and the brethren to dine at her place. Then the thera Kuṇḍa-dhᾱna revealed his power and attainments. He recited his verse addressing the brethren about the severing of fivefold bonds of worldly life. ‘ Pañca chinde pañca jahe pañca c’ uttari bhāvaye;pañcasaṅgātigo bhikkhu oghatiṇṇo 'ti vuccatīti.’11

In this commentary the juxtaposition of three different households has been done in an interesting way and the instances of negotiations between them are worth mentioning. Firstly, a brᾱhmaṇa after being endowed with knowledge of the Vedic corpus joined the Buddhist path on hearing the Master’s preaching. Secondly, the king’s household became his main support. The king wanted to provide him with all the necessities so that he did not have to go for collecting alms. Lastly, the daughter of an ordinary household could invite the Master and the brethren to her place. This stands in contrast to the stifling position of women in the royal household.

That the ‘harem quarrel’12 was a common feature of the royal household becomes evident in the story of the present of the Sujāta- Jātaka.13 The dispute between the king and queen Mallikᾱ was well known. The king was so enraged that he ignored her existence. The queen met the Master at Jetavana and told him about the wrath of the king. Then, the Master intervened to make peace between them. Next day he went to the palace for alms and asked the king about the queen. The king gave alms and told the Master that the queen was intoxicated with the pride of her position and was very arrogant. The Master immediately made the king realise that it was his decision to bestow power on her. So it would be wrong of him to blame her. The king agreed with the Master and lived happily with the queen.

The relationship of the royal household and the saṇgha becomes apparent here. The royal couple had a serious tiff. The queen found the last resort in the Master. Remarkably, the harem quarrel was solved with the intervention of the Master. Besides, the Master and the brethren were seen to be dependent on the alms of the royal household.

A similar instance of rivalry between queens in the royal household of king Brahmadatta surfaces in the story of the past of the Ayoghara- Jātaka.14 One of the king’s consorts was barren in her earlier birth and she prayed that she might devour the child of this woman. Each time the queen gave birth to a child the goblin would come and devour it. So the king decided to put a great guard once the queen became pregnant again. The goblin was unable to kill the child and thus the Bodhisatta was born to the queen. He grew up in the strict custody of an iron house. The Bodhisatta grew up there with wisdom. When he was sixteen years old, the king wanted to give him the responsibility of the kingdom. Accordingly, the city was decorated and the Bodhisatta came out of the iron confinement for the first time. He marvelled at the splendour of his father’s kingdom and wondered about his long confinement. After his procession in the city was over, he entered the royal household. The king was amazed seeing the physical beauty of his son. He asked his courtiers to adorn his son with jewels and sprinkle him with everything auspicious. However, we see that the Bodhisatta told his father that he did not have any interest in worldly life and wanted to renounce it. The king was surprised at this and asked the prince the reason. The Bodhisatta told him that he might be freed from the clutches of the goblin but not from the bondage of old age or death. So he asked for his father’s permission before embracing the life of asceticism. As the story ended we see the king followed his son and left the worldly life. Several aspects regarding the royal household open up in the above narrative. The conflict among co wives is apparent. The barren queen being jealous and devouring the children of another queen could be seen. The iron confinement for bringing up the prince is interesting. He received his education and wisdom inside it. Later we see that instead of becoming the future king, he decided to leave the confinement of the royal household for the life of asceticism.

The security of the queen in the king’s household can be questioned in the light of the story of the past of the Dhajaviheṭha- Jātaka.15 We see that the wizard could corrupt the chief queen of the king Brahmadatta by magic. Her handmaids were the witness. Later the matter was brought to the king’s knowledge. He immediately asked his men to find the wizard. They saw that the wizard remain in the guise of an ascetic during the daytime and misconducted at night. On hearing this, the king asked his men to banish all the ascetics and Brothers from his kingdom. However, we see that with the initiative of Sakka, the truth was revealed and the king called back all the true ascetics and Brothers to his kingdom. Once again he resumed the process of alms giving. We already read about the provision of a separate chamber for the queen in the royal household in other narratives. We can see here that the security of the queen in such confinement was not always assured. Evil was done to her by people in the guise of the ascetics, who were trusted in the royal mansion.

Instances of claiming rights over women of the royal household by a brᾱhmaṇa feature in the story of the past of the Juṇha- Jātaka.16 We come across certain incidents around the royal household of Benaras. The Prince Juṇha was made the king after his father as he finished his education in Takkasilᾱ. After becoming the king he was reminded by a brᾱhmaṇa about the promise he made to him. Once the prince overlooking the brᾱhmaṇa broke his begging bowl and told him that he would compensate him after he became the king. On hearing that he was made the king the brᾱhmaṇa came to the royal household. At first the king ignored him. The brᾱhmaṇa immediately told him that one should not ignore a brᾱhmaṇa standing in his way. Then the king and brᾱhmaṇa entered into a conversation. The king could not remember his encounter with him. After reminding the king of their meeting the brᾱhmaṇa asked him for villages, wives, dancing girls and so on. As the story ended, the Bodhisatta added great honour to him. In the story the bargain between a brᾱhmaṇa and the king is notable. The brᾱhmaṇa asked for rights over his queen and the dancing girls. It allows us to suggest that gender relation in the royal household developed around the nuptial ties and beyond it.

Household structure beyond wedlock

While the marginalised position of married women in general could be traced in the conventional household, a completely different scenario is apparent in the household of women located beyond marital bonds. These range from the courtesan, to widowed and unmarried women. The structure of their household is intriguing in the midst of a highly patriarchal and misogynist society. How gender relations have been embedded there is worth noticing. The courtesan is categorised as the ‘other woman’ in the conceptual framework. The otherness gets manifested in different aspects of her being. For instance a matriarchal model of a household outside wedlock could be traced in the story of the past of the Aṭṭhᾱna- Jātaka.17 We come across the courtesan’s household. We get a different picture of the urban household in the courtesan’s dwelling. She was the matriarch in her household and she was not ready to give favours without the stipulated price even to her regular client. Besides she had the authority to turn out the merchant from her household with force when her words failed to achieve the purpose.

The independent existence of a widowed woman features in the representation of a lay household in a brᾱhmaṇa’s village. In the verse of therῑ Candᾱ,18 she said that earlier she was a poor widow without children and could not afford food and clothing. It was after meeting bhikkhunῑ Paṭᾱcᾱrᾱ and following her advice thatshe could realise the highest goal in her life and liberate herself from worldly bondings. ‘ sā ca maṃ anukampāya pabbājesi Paṭācārātato maṃ ovaditvāna paramatthe niyojayi.’19

Repeated mention of interdependence between the royal household and the order shows its relevance in the social sphere. The instance of a single woman securing identity outside marriage features in the verse of therῑ Sakulᾱ.20 She was born to the royal household and was a dedicated lay follower of the Master. One day she became inspired by the Master’s ordination of a bhikkhunῑ to the highest rank and thought to achieve same for herself. In her next births she practiced merit by making offerings to the monastery. In the following birth she also assisted the Master in the acceptance of the gift of the Jeta grove. Later she became a believer and attained arhantship. ‘ bhikkhunī upasampajja pubbajātim anussariṃ visodhitaṃ dibbacakkhuṃ vimalaṃ sādhu bhāvitaṃ..’21

Another variant of the same instance features in the verse of another therῑ.22 She too was born to an affluent household by accumulating merit in alms giving. Constant repetition of the alternative way of prosperous rebirths for the therῑs and the notable transition from an ordinary lay household to an affluent one and finally renouncing all for joining order, as a viable alternative is significant.

Thus in the Therῑgāthā a different portrayal of the structural relations within the household becomes visible. Sharply contrasted to the narratives in the Jᾱtakas,23 we get a varied manifestation of upward social mobility in the Therῑgāthā. Alms giving by the lay household to the saṇgha ranged from things of regular use to groves and cells for residence. In the verse of therῑ Khemᾱ24 we come across her different births in different households. In her first birth she was a slave and dependent on others for her livelihood. On seeing the Elder seeking alms, she gave him three sweet cakes and took down her hair. After many fortunate births, she became a queen of the royal household and continued her activities. Reborn in a wealthy family, she made a great park and donated it to the order. In her next birth she gave a cell to the order. Then she was born as the queen to Bimbisᾱra and being infatuated with herself she ignored religion. It was brought to the notice of the Master, who made her realise her mistakes and at last she joined the order. Mᾱra, the evil spirit came across her path in a youthful shape to tempt her. However, he could not succeed in derailing her.

Like the Therῑgāthā, the verses of bhikkhus in the Theragᾱthᾱ, throw light on the events narrating their move from home to homelessness. However, the transition in the lives of bhikkhus has been portrayed as a more naturalised process and it has less dramatic representation compared to its counterpart in the Therῑgᾱthᾱ. Yet the verses narrating their events of renunciation opened before us several instances regarding households.

Wealth, domesticity and renunciation occur in a pattern in the understanding of households. This becomes evident in the verse of thera Gosᾱla.25 He was born in a wealthy family of Magadha. After learning about the renunciation of a person of the same status, he thought to himself, if a person of that magnitude could renounce the world, he should follow him. He joined the order and started dwelling in an upland area near his village. His mother was a regular alms giver. On his round for alms he visited her and got porridge to eat. Eventually he got insight and started to desire to dwell in the hilly tracts in absolute bliss.‘ Ahaṃ kho Veḷugumbasmiṃ bhutvāna madhupāyāsaṃpadakkhiṇaṃ sammasanto khandhānaṃ udayabbayaṃsānuṃ paṭigamissāmi vivekaṃ anubrūhayan ti.’26 In this commentary the transition in the notion of space is notable. Besides, the dependence of the brother on the household after renouncing the same is remarkable. Here the transition in bonding with the worldly life is significant. In this particular section the structural understanding of the household brings forth the gender relations in terms of marriages. It was evident that certain rituals such as the name giving ceremony and sending children to educational institutions were specifically meant for a son. In many cases the husband had an important voice in the decision making for the child and the passive presence of the wife becomes striking. However, the occasional presence of the wife as an equal partners and the widowed mother with an active voice in the household, hints at the multifaceted attitudes depicted in the texts. Besides, the possibility of widowed women of a poor household with an independent existence has been represented. At another level harem quarrels formed an important part of the royal household.

Contrary to the patriarchal household model the courtesan surfaces as the sole matriarch of her establishment. The Therῑgāthā points to an important instance of almsgiving. In this particular activity, the striking presence of the woman as a significant almsgiver irrespective of her marital status becomes notable. A remarkable comparison with the Jᾱtakas crops up when the Therῑgāthāspeaks about instances where women took independent decisions of learning the doctrine and donating to the saṇgha beyond their matrimonial status. However in the Theragᾱthᾱ, the household features as a ground of sufferings. Marital relations and other worldly ties within the household have been described in the context of the thera’s severing the bond with them. What is evident then is that the household is represented as a gender-differentiated space in all three categories of texts, even as different aspects are highlighted.


Relations of dependence and hierarchy within the household and ‘beyond’

The understanding of the nuptial ties would remain incomplete without the discussion on relations of hierarchy perpetuated through the factor of dependence between a wide range of households and ‘beyond’ it. Although androcentricism and patriarchy was a part of the Buddhism, there were other possibilities speaking in favour of historical attempts to challenge the conventional discriminatory attitudes and structure. It becomes evident from the multifaceted narratives of the Buddhist texts that women’s spaces within the household or the Buddhist saṇgha were neither certain nor unalterable. There were several instances where women made their presence felt and found their niche. At other times they had to face resistance from the patriarchal society and succeeded in surmounting it.

The confrontations between two different kinds of household could be visualized in the story of the past of the Dasaṇṇaka- Jātaka.27 We get a picture of interaction between the royal household and that of the priest. The son of the royal priest came to meet the king. Seeing the queen, he became enamoured by her. On hearing his condition the king said that he would send the queen to the priest’s house for seven days to stay with the priest’s son. As the queen was taken to the priest’s house, his son took delight with her. They became enamoured of each other and fled to another kingdom. Instead of returning to the royal household on the eighth day as said by the king they absconded from the priest’s household to some unknown place. Great sorrow befell on the king and no physician could cure him. With the intervention of the Bodhisatta the king realised that it was not worthy of him to pine for the queen, who never loved him.

The interesting instance of a close interaction between the royal and the ordinary household is notable. We could barely trace the voice of consent of the queen in the royal household. She was sent by the king to the house of his priest as the queen was desired by the priest’s son. The silent presence of the queen is noteworthy. However, we see that in the ordinary household she had a nice time and became enamoured of the priest’s son. Very interestingly, she took the bold step of absconding with her companion out of fear of returning to her royal abode.

The queen as the significant adviser to the king in the royal household is relatively rare, yet surfaces in the story of the present of the Mahᾱsupina- Jātaka,28 wherewe learn of the sixteen wonderful dreams of the King of Kosala. The brᾱhmaṇas of the royal household interpreted his dream and predicted severe danger. They suggested the only solution was in expensive sacrifices and offerings. They had plans to make a livelihood of it. Soon after the queen Mallikᾱ came to know about it. She immediately asked the king to meet the Master, who was the chief brᾱhmaṇa of this world and the world of the devas. The king acted as per the advice of the queen. He met the Master and described his sixteen dreams to him. However, the Master interpreted each and every dream of the king. He also pointed to the effect the dreams could bring in the distant future without harming the king.

In the narrative, we get an idea about the interdependence of the royal household and the brᾱhmaṇa. Moreover, we also see that given an opportunity the brᾱhmaṇas never stopped to exploit the king in their own interest. Besides, the queen could be seen as a benevolent adviser to the king in the hour of need. It was with her advice that the king met the Master, who gave him the ultimate solution and revealed the fraud of the brᾱhmaṇas of the royal household. The contest of the brahmanical tradition with that of the Buddhist monastery becomes apparent.

What is important to notice is the power play within the royal household. The queen could be seen wielding her charm to gain her own interest. In the story of the past of the Bandhanamokkha- Jātaka,29 we learn about the royal household and the power play within it. The king asked his queen for any boon she wished to have. Interestingly, she asked him to abandon the company of any other woman. From then on, the king never looked at any women of his harem with an eye of love. On the contrary, we see that the queen seduced the king’s messengers in his absence. However, it was the Bodhisatta who proved difficult for the queen. Even in the face of a life threat by the queen, he refused to commit any sin. On the king’s return the queen filled him with false stories blaming the Bodhisatta. The king announced severe punishment for the Bodhisatta who was one of his most trusted officials. The Bodhisatta told the king that he was a born brᾱhmaṇa and had never been dishonest in his life. He revealed the reality of the queen to Brahmadatta. He asked him to forgive her and said that nothing could be done as women are born with innate wickedness.

In the above narrative we see the strong power that the queen exercised. She could prevent the king from getting intimate with any other women. Besides, she was so independent that she was involved in physical intimacy with the king’s messengers. She exhibited the extreme level of her power by threatening the Bodhisatta’s life.

The gendered notion of hospitality, as an important part of the household, features in the story of the past of the Mahᾱassᾱroha- Jātaka.30 We come across two different households. One is that of the ordinary man who gave shelter to the Bodhisatta, the king of Benares, at the time of distress. As the man took the king to his house, he made him sit on his own special seat. He asked his wife to bathe the king’s feet with water. After that he arranged the best possible food for the king that he could and made a bed for him to lie down. The royal horse was taken care of as well by the layman. As the king left, he told the man to visit his place. Later we see that the layman visited the king’s palace and received a very cordial treatment from the king. He asked his queen consort to wash his friend’s feet and himself sprinkled water. The king accepted the gifts brought by the man. As the story progressed, we see that the king gave half of his kingdom to the man and dwelt in perfect harmony. The marginalized position of women in both the households becomes clear. Bathing the feet of a male guest seems to be a common gesture, whereas, any reverse gesture has never been mentioned.

The tone in the Therῑgᾱthᾱ hinted at the aversion to the householder’s life. Yet the constant reference to the therῑ’s household in the past life is visible. In the verse of a therῑ,31 she has been addressed as Sumaṅgala’s mother. Her son grew up to become an arhant. She became a therῑ reflecting upon the miseries of her life as a householder. In this commentary, the identity as a mother in the worldly life does not cease after renouncing the same. What is remarkable is the fact that instead of being identified by her patrilineal descent or by her marital status, she was known by her son’s identity.

Breaking ties of domesticity was common for the theras. Compared to the instances of therῑs, severing bonds with children do not feature as a cause of suffering for the theras. In the verse of thera Singᾱla-Pitar,32 he was born to a wealthy household. After getting married a son was born to him. He named him Singᾱla and came to be known as Singᾱla’s father. Later he renounced the life of a householder and learnt dhamma from the Master. Eventually he started living in the wood with his fellowmen. In the commentary we see the thera’s transition in the context of his dwelling. He moved from the secure life of the home to homelessness. He renounced his marriage and the son born within wedlock to attain arhantship.

The household appears as a body that is united and structured by certain laws and rituals. This has been discussed above while referring to all three texts. We perceived the gendered nature of these norms as well. For instance the birth of a therῑ brought immense poverty for her family which stood in contrast to a thera whose birth was deemed to be a good omen for the family.

Apart from this, we see that in the Therῑgᾱthᾱ and the Theragᾱthᾱ greater emphasis has been given on the alms giving aspect of the lay households to the saṇgha. In contrast to the Jᾱtakas, marriage as the only way of the upward social mobility of women is absent in the Therῑgāthā. Here donative skills and meritorious deeds feature as the potent mechanism of climbing the rungs in the social hierarchy. Female members of the family could be seen actively participating in almsgiving. The incidence of seducing ascetics by women in the social sphere features occasionally. Yet that could not stand in the way of monks meeting women for alms. In fact the act of alms giving has been valorised to a great extent. I intended to prise out information about the household as a site for several activities grounded on nuptial ties. The Buddhist textual traditions regarded the household as a centre of production, reproduction and consumption. The idea of a structural hierarchy and relations of interdependence within the household surfaced in varied layers. What becomes crucial is the fact that male and female identities had defined roles and responsibilities within the household. But these roles were not static and can be best understood in terms of the specific socio political contexts.

What one finds visible along with the hierarchical division within the household is the relation of dependence between the powerful and underprivileged. In the Jᾱtakas, the understanding of matrimonial relations develops through heterogeneous possibilities. We come across instances of compatibility, infidelity, unequal power relations arising out of the shared spaces within the household. This allows us to perceive gender bias at varied levels. For instance the remarriage of the husband was almost like a natural possibility but on the contrary even the thought of the wife remarrying after the husband’s death made the husband insecure. Often donative interests of the ordinary and lay couples were reasons of their compatible marriage. Yet other possibilities were all pervasive. However, the Therῑgᾱthᾱ provides limited knowledge about the experience of married couples within the household. Either endless bickering stemming out of marital ties or bhikkhunῑs joining the order as a means of ending worldly suffering recurs in the verses. In the Theragᾱthᾱ, the household has been represented as a mere obstacle that could be easily surmounted by the determined thera. Even all the seductive advances of their wives failed to stop them from renouncing the bondage of worldly existence.

In all these three texts dealt with here, the worldly tie as cause of every suffering is a common motif. Unlike the Therῑgᾱthᾱ and the Theragᾱthᾱ the Jᾱtakas, do not emphasize on the renunciation of home to homelessness as the ultimate goal, whereas, almsgiving beyond gender and class barriers remains one of the important concerns in the narratives. Overall, the Jᾱtakas represent the household as a porous space- entry was possible through marriage and birth, members of different social categories could share the space on a short term or a long term basis. In contrast, the representation of the household in the Therῑgᾱthᾱand Theragᾱthᾱ is more monolithic. People escape from it to attain liberation. People (both men and women) leave the household in the Jᾱtakas as well, but for a variety of reasons. This provides us with a more complex understanding of the household.


Notes and References

  1. Kumkum Roy, Looking within looking without: Exploring households in the subcontinent through time. Primus Books, New Delhi.2015.
  2. Dummedha-Jātaka , Story No: 50. E.B . Cowell,(ed.), The Jātakas, Vol. 1, New Delhi, Munshiram Manohorlal, 2002. Vol:1-6.All the references of the Jᾱtakas are made from these volume.
  3. Asᾱtamanta- Jātaka , Story No: 61.
  4. Ekapaṇṇa- Jātaka , Story No: 149.
  5. Canto:1. Part :4,Commentary:XXXVI, Verse:36. Rhys Davids,C.A.F, Psalms of the Early Buddhists , London, Pali Text Society,Luzac and Co Ltd,1964.  (First edition:1909). All the references of the Therῑgᾱthᾱ and Theragᾱthᾱ are done from this volume.
  6. 10.04.2016. Verse:36 .
  7. Canto:1. Part :9,Commentary:LXXXII, Verse:82
  8. Canto:11. Commentary:LXIV, Verse:224-235.
  9. Mahᾱsᾱra- Jātaka , Story No:92.
  10. Canto:1. Part :2,Commentary:XV, Verse:15.
  11. See 10.04.2016. Verse: 15.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Sujāta- Jātaka , Story No: 306.
  14. Ayoghara- Jātaka . Story No: 510.
  15. Dhajaviheṭha- Jātaka , Story No:391.
  16. Juṇha- Jātaka , Story No:456.
  17. Aṭṭhᾱna- Jātaka , Story No: 425..
  18. Canto:5 Commentary:XLIX, Verse:122-126.
  19. See, Charles Hallisey. Verse: 125.
  20. Canto:5 Commentary:XLIV, Verse:97-101.
  21. Charles Hallisey(tr.),Ther ῑ gāthā: Poems of the First Buddhist Women ,Murty Classical Library of India,2015.p.60. Verse:100.
  22. Canto:3 Commentary:XXXI, Verse:45-47.
  23. Story No:306.
  24. Canto:6. Commentary:LII, Verse:139-144.
  25. Canto:1 Part :3,Commentary:XXIII, Verse:23.
  26. 10.04.2016.
  27. Dasaṇṇaka- Jātaka , Story No:401.
  28. Mahᾱsupina- Jātaka , Story No:77.
  29. Bandhanamokkha- Jātaka , Story No: 120.
  30. Mahᾱassᾱroha- Jātaka , Story No:302.
  31. Canto:2 Commentary:XXI, Verse 23-24.
  32. Canto:1. Part :2,Commentary:XVIII, Verse:18.



Taniya Roy
Asst. Professor, Department of History, Ashutosh College, Kolkata