With Ashoka's conversion in the mid-third century B.C.E., the teachings of the Buddha quickly spread throughout India. Many men and women joined the Sangha as professed monks and nuns. One of the primary features of Buddhism, and one that made it particularly attractive to many people, was its abolition of distinctions inherent in caste system. Sexual discrimination was also pervasive in traditional Hindu society. Women who became Buddhist bikkhuni, or "female monastics," were thus given greater opportunities for personal spiritual development lacking in Hinduism. Accompanying the spread of Buddhism was a great outburst of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic activity among both the bikkhuni and bikkus, their male monastic counterparts. Indeed, the reverence for female arhants, or "worthy ones," is keenly illustrated by the Therigatha, or Hymns of the Sisters, which form a part of the Buddhist Pali canon, or Tripitaka. The 73 stanzas that comprise the Therigatha were committed to writing in the early first century B.C.E., having been transmitted orally for centuries along with brief, half-legendary sacred biographies of the female arhants. Varying in length from a few short lines to many long verses, the psalms often provide insight into why the seventy-one women represented in the Therigatha became attracted to the strict discipline of the Order.


(Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Volume 1--Psalms of the Sisters, C.A.F. Rhys Davids, trans., The Pali Text Society, Oxford University Press [London: 1909], pp. 77-79, 142-46, 156-63. The language of the texts has been slightly updated.)




The way by which men come we cannot know;

Nor can we see the path by which they go.

Why mournest then for him who came to you,

Lamenting through your tears: "My son! my son!"

Seeing you know not the way he came,

Nor yet the manner of his leaving you?

Weep not, for such is here the life of man.

Uninvited he came, unbidden went he hence.

Lo! ask yourself again whence came your son

To bide on earth this little breathing space?

By one way come and by another gone,

As man to die, and pass to other births--

So hither and so hence--why would you weep?


Lo! from my heart the hidden shaft is gone,

The shaft that nestled there she hath removed,

And that consuming grief for my dead child

Which poisoned all the life of me is dead.

Today my heart is healed, my yearning stayed,

Perfected the deliverance wrought in me.

Lo! I for refuge to the Buddha go--

The only wise--the Sangha and the Norm.




A maiden I, all clad in white once heard

The Norm, and hearkened eagerly, earnestly,

So in me rose discernment of the Truths.

Thereat all worldly pleasures irked me sore,

For I could see the perils that beset

This reborn compound, "personality,"

And to renounce it was my sole desire.

So I forsook my world--my kinsfolk all,

My slaves, my hirelings, and my villages,

And the rich fields and meadows spread around,

Things fair and making for the joy of life--

All these I left, and sought the Sisterhood,

Turning my back upon no mean estate.


Amiss were it now that I, who in full faith

Renounced that world, who well discerned the Truth,

Who, laying down what gold and silver bring,

Cherish no worldly wishes whatsoever,

Should, all undoing, come to you again!

Silver and gold avail not to awake,

Or soothe. Unmeet for consecrated lives,

They are not Ariyan--not noble--wealth.

Whereby greed is aroused and wantonness,

Infatuation and all fleshly lusts,

Whence comes fear for loss and many a care:

Here is no ground for lasting steadfastness.

Here men, heedless and maddened with desires,

Corrupt in mind, by one another let

And hindered, strive in general enmity.

Death, bonds, and torture, ruin, grief, and woe

Await the slaves of sense, and dreadful doom.

Why herewithal, my kinsmen--nay, my foes--

Why yoke me in your minds with sense-desires?


Know me as one who saw, and therefore fled,

The perils rising form the life of sense.

Not gold nor money can avail to purge

The poison of the deadly Asavas.

Ruthless and murderous are sense-desires;

Foeman of cruel spear and prison-bonds.

Why herewithal, my kinsmen--nay, my foes--

Why yoke me in your minds with sense-desires?

Know me as she who fled the life of sense,

Shorn of her hair, wrapped in her yellow robe.

The food from hand to mouth, gleaned here and there,

The patchwork robe--these things are good for,

The base and groundwork of the homeless life.


Great sages spew forth all desire of sense,

Whether they be in heaven or on earth;

At peace they dwell, for they freeholders are,

For they have won unfluctuating bliss.

Never let me follow after worldly lusts,

Wherein no refuge is; for they are foes,

And murderers, and cruel blazing fires.

Oh! but an incubus is here, the haunt

Of dread and fear of death, a thorny brake,

A greedy maw it is, a path impassable,

Mouth of a pit wherein we lose our wits,

A horrid shape of doom impending--such

Are worldly lusts; uplifted heads of snakes.

Therein they that be fools find their delight--

The blinded, general, average, sensual man.


For all the many souls, who thus befooled

Err ignorant in the marsh of worldly lusts,

Heed not that which can limit birth and death.

Because of worldly lusts mankind is drawn

By woeful way to many a direful doom--

Where every step does work its penalty.

Breeders of enmity are worldly lusts,

Engendering remorse and vicious taints.

Flesh baits, to bind us to the world and death.

Leading to madness, to hysteria,

To ferment of the mind, are worldly lusts,

Fell traps by Mara laid to ruin men.

Endless the direful fruit of worldly lusts,

Surcharged with poison, sowing many ills,

Scanty and brief its sweetness, stirring strife,

And withering the brightness of our days.


For me who thus have chosen, never will I

Into the world's disasters come again,

For in Nirvana is my joy always.

So, fighting a good fight with worldly lusts,

I wait in hope for the Cool Blessedness,

Abiding earnest in endeavor, until

Nothing does survive that fetters me to them.

This is my Way, the Way that leads past grief,

Past all that does defile, the haven sure,

Even the Ariyan Eightfold Path, called Straight.

There do I follow where the Saints have crossed.




In the fair city of Patna, earth's fairest city,

Named for its beauty after the Trumpet-flower,

Dwelt two saintly sisters, born of the Sakiyas,

Isidasi the one, Bodhi the other.

Precept-observers, lovers of Jhana-rapture,

Learned ladies and cleansed from the taint of all worldliness.

These having made their round, and broken their fasting.

Washed their bowls, and sitting in happy seclusion,

Spake thus one to the other, asking and answering:


"You have a lovely countenance, Isidasi,

Fresh and unwithered yet is your women's prime,

What flaw in the life yonder have you seen,

That you did choose surrender for your lot?"


Then in that quiet spot Isidasi,

Skilled in the exposition of the Norm,

Took up her tale and thus did make reply:

"Hear, Bodhi, how it was that I came forth.

In Ujjeni, Avanti's foremost town,

My father dwells, a virtuous citizen,

His only daughter I, his well-beloved,

The fondly cherished treasure of his life.

Now from Saketa came a citizen

Of the first rank and rich exceedingly

To ask my hand in marriage for his son.

And father gave me him, as daughter-in-law.

My salutation morn and eve I brought

To both the parents of my husband, low

Bowing my head and kneeling at their feet,

According to the training given me.

My husband's sisters and brothers too,

And all his kin, scarce were they entered when

I rose in timid zeal and gave them place.

And as to food, or boiled or dried, and drink,

That which was to be stored I set aside,

And served it out and gave to whom it was due.

Rising betimes, I went about the house,

Then with my hands and feet well cleansed I went

To bring respectful greeting to my lord,

And taking comb and mirror, liniments, soap,

I dressed and groomed him as a handmaid might.

I boiled the rice, I boiled the pots and pans;

And as a mother on her only child,

So did I minister to my good man.

For me, who with infinite toil thus worked,

And rendered service with a humble mind,

Rose early, ever diligent and good,

For me he felt nothing save sore dislike.

Nay, to his mother and his father he

Thus spoke:--`Give me your leave and I will go,

For not with Isidasi will I live

Beneath one roof, nor ever dwell with her.'


ŽO son, speak not in this way of your wife,

For wise is Isidasi and discreet,

An early riser and a housewife diligent.

Say, does she find no favor in your eyes?'


`In nothing does she work me harm, and yet

With Isidasi I will never live.

I cannot suffer her.Let be, let be!

Give me your leave and I will go away.'

And when they heard, mother and father-in-law

Asked of me: `What then have you done to give offence?

Speak to us freely, child, and speak the truth.'


`Naught have I done that could offend, nor harm,

Nor nagged at evil words.What can I do,

That me my husband should so sorely dislike me?'


To guard and keep their son, they took me back,

Unwilling guides, to my father's house, distressed,

Distraught, he spoke: `Alas! we're beaten, pretty Luck!'


Then father gave me for the second time as bride,

Content with half my husband's sire had paid.

From that house too, when I had dwelt a month,

I was sent back, though I had worked and served,

Blameless and virtuous, as any slave.

And yet a third, a friar begging alms--

One who had self controlled, and could control

Favor in fellow-men--my father met

And spoke to him thusly: `Be my son-in-law!

Come, throw away that ragged robe and pot!'

So he came, and we dwelt one half moon more

Together.Then to my father thusly he spoke:

`O give me back my frock, my bowl and cup.

Let me go away to seek once more my scraps.'

Then to him my father, mother, all the tribe

Of kinsfolk clamoring [said]: `What is it then

Here dwelling likes you not?Say quick, what is it

That we can do to make you better pleased?'

Then he [said]: `If for myself I can suffice,

Enough for me. One thing I know: beneath

One roof with Isidasi I'll not live!'


Dismissed he went. I too, alone I thought.

And then I asked my parents' leave to die,

Or, that they suffer me to leave the world.

Now Lady Jinadatta on her beat

Came by my father's house for daily alms,

Mindful of every moral precept, she,

Learned and expert in the Vinaya.

and seeing her we rose, and I prepared

A seat for her, and as she sat I knelt,

Then gave her food, both boiled and dried,

And water--dishes we had set aside--

And satisfied her hunger. Then I said

`Lady, I wish to leave the world.'

`Why here,' my father said, `dear child, is scope for you

To walk according to the Norm.

With food and drink can you gratify the holy folk

And the twice-born. But of my father I,

Weeping and holding out clasped hands, besought:

"Nay, but the evil karma I have done,

That would I expiate and wear away.'

Then father said: `Win Enlightenment

And highest Truth, and gain Nirvana. That

Has He, the Best of Beings, realized.'


Then to my mother and my father dear,

And all my kinsfolk tribe I bade farewell.

And only seven days had I gone forth

Where I had touched and won the Threefold Lore.

Then did I come to know my former births,

Even seven thereof, and how even now I reap

The harvest, the result, that then I sowed.

That will I now declare to you, and you

Will listen single-mindedly to my tale.


In Erakaccha's town of old I lived,

A wealthy craftsman in all works of gold.

Incensed by youthful blood, a wanton, I

Assailed the virtue of my neighbors wives.

Therefrom deceasing, long I cooked in hell,

Until, fully ripened, I emerged, and then

Found rebirth in the body of an ape.

Scarce seven days I lived before the great

Dog-ape, the monkey's chief, castrated me.

Such was the fruit of my lasciviousness.

Therefrom deceasing in the woods of Sindh,

Reborn the offspring of a one-eyed goat

And lame; twelve years a gelding, gnawn by worms,

Unfit, I carried children on my back.

Such was the fruit of my lasciviousness.

Therefrom deceasing, I again found birth,

The off-spring of a cattle-dealer's cow,

A calf of lac-red hue; in the twelfth month

Castrated, yoked, I drew the plough and cart,

Purblind and worried, driven and unfit.

Such was the fruit of my lasciviousness.

Therefrom deceasing, even in the street

I came to birth, child of a household slave,

Neither of woman nor man of my sex.

Such was the fruit of my lasciviousness.

At thirty years of age I died, and was reborn

A girl, the daughter of a carter, poor

And of ill-fortune, and oppressed with debts

Incurred to usurers.To pay the sum

Of interest that ever grew and swelled,

In place of money, woeful little me

The merchant of a caravan dragged off,

Bearing me weeping from my home.

Now in my sixteenth year, when I

Blossomed a maiden, that same merchant's son,

Giridasa the name of him loved me

And made me wife.Another wife he had,

A virtuous dame of parts and of repute,

Enamored of her mate.And thus I brought

discord and enmity within that house.


Fruit of my karma was it thus that they--

In this last life--have slighted me, even though

I waited on them as their humble slave.


Well! Of all that now have I made an end!