Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, although known for his incredible contributions to the well-being of the Dalit community and other oppressed castes, is seldom recognized as the feminist who had always advocated women’s right to equality. It is thus no surprise that “The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman: Who was Responsible for It?” is just one of Ambedkar’s several works that critically investigate the plight of Indian women while never losing the sense of empathy for the community he speaks. It is included in the second part of the seventeenth volume of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: writing and speeches, the first edition of which was published by the Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, on October 4, 2003. The article was originally published in 1951, in the journal, The Mahabodhi (Calcutta).
The article begins with the mention of another article named The Position of Women in Hinduism and Buddhism by Lama Govinda, which was largely a vindication of Buddha against the charges that incriminated him for being the man whose teachings were believed to be responsible for the bringing ruin to Indian women. Furthermore, Chapter V of Mahaparinibbana Sutta seeks to prove these allegations, whereby Ananda, one of Buddha’s disciples enquires him about women and how they should be treated. In response, Buddha ostensibly conveyed his disregarding attitude towards women. Although the passage is indeed found in the text of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta as it was published by the Oxford University Press. It is not important whether the passage exists or not. It is, however, important to verify its authenticity later and check whether or not the text is an interpolation by a Bhikkhu if at all one is to refute the allegations made in it.
(In pic: Ambedkar in a group photograph with the leaders and activists of the All India Untouchable Women Conference held at Nagpur in 1942. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
The case is very similar to that of the Sutta Pitaka which provokes serious debates as it is extremely bewildering for those who know already the central teachings of Buddha. Ambedkar suggests with enough textual evidence that the Sutta Pitaka which had originally come down via oral culture – characterized by various memory-schemes and narrative inputs of every generation – is not genuine and is simply an interpolation by the Bhikkhus, made into writing only after four hundred years of the Buddha’s death. Ambedkar states that after all, it was the monks who had edited and compiled the text. So, it was indeed valuable for them to preserve Buddha's rule of celibacy and it is not unlikely for the Monk editor to interpolate such a rule.
On the other hand, there is also a different dimension of this issue that needs to be looked into when one is speaking of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. The very exchange about women between Ananda and the Buddha as mentioned in the Pitakas is highly absurd, even to the possibility of such a question being raised and such an answer being given in reality, thus deeming the account of the entire incident to be unauthentic. The bone of contention is if there was any actual relevance or necessity for Ananda to ask such a question. In case one still believes that the exchange amounts to any truth, one must consider the content of the Buddha’s gathas, mentioned earlier in the same chapter of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, that Ambedkar quotes in the “The Rise and the Fall of the Hindu Woman” to illustrate Ananda’s sweet nature and his frequent encounters with members of both the sexes who might or might not have belonged to His Order. To elaborate on the incredulity of the incident, the author argues that since the Buddha knew about Ananda’s encounters with women had never raised any objection before there was absolutely reason behind the aforementioned report of the Buddha speaking ill of women or interdicting and forbidding Ananda from keeping any contact with them. Thus, corresponding to the supporting argument, Ambedkar deems this whole passage in question from Mahaparinibbana Sutta to be so unnatural that it must be regarded as a later monastic interpolation.
Elucidating further how the notions of the passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutra are in stark contrast with the actual essence of Ananda’s life, Ambedkar inspects the third of the five complaints made against the disciple by the Sangiti (Council): allowing the body of the departed Buddha to be touched and soiled by the tears of women first. Ambedkar argues that given the kind of disciple Ananda was, it was impossible that he could have so consciously disobeyed his master’s words had he been warned against keeping any contact with women. Therefore, it naturally follows that Ananda had never been given any such advice in the first place, disobeying which had called for above-mentioned complaint.
Ambedkar now goes on to consider the question from the side of the Buddha, shedding light on two instances that prove that it was extremely unnatural for Him to give such a reply if at all Ananda had posed any question as alleged. First, in his own lifetime, the Lord had a woman named Visakha as one of his eighty chief disciples who bore the title of Chief of Alms-givers. This would not have been possible without the Buddha's consent. Second, when Amrapali, one of the most beautiful courtesans of Vaishali invited the Buddha and the Bhikkhus for a meal at her house, there is no proof that Buddha had refused to meet her, with enough evidences pointing towards the monks accepting the invitation. Other examples that make the alleged response from the Buddha hardly believable include the story from the Nandakovada Sutta, where Mahaprajapati Gotami had brought five hundred alms-women to the Lord, requesting Him to instruct them on the Doctrine and Discipline, which He complies by instead of running away, as would have been fitting if the Buddha thought ill of women. Among other such instances, Ambedkar speaks of the frequent visits paid by Queen Malika – wife of King Pasenajit – to the Buddha for religious instructions which were scattered in the Pitakas. Therefore, with the support of these instances, it becomes clear that neither did the Buddha never ostracised women nor were women afraid of approaching the Buddha.
Ambedkar states that even though the Buddha had always been dreadfully keen about maintaining celibacy, he never tried to interdict the connection between the Bhikkhus and women, rather advising the former to regard women as their mother, sister or daughter.
While addressing another accusation against Buddha regarding His apparent opposition to women joining the Sangha and the subsequent creation of the subordinate Bhikkhuni Sangha, Ambedkar argues that in fact, the Buddha had ultimately allowed it and exhorts the need to analyse further the context of His initial objection. To refute the accusation of the Buddha cogitating women as intellectually and normally incapable, Ambedkar states that Lord, in the course of one of his arguments with Ananda, had unequivocally declared that women were fully capable of realizing His Doctrine and Discipline and thus, believing that admitting them in would lower the status of the Sangha was out of question. The author asserts that the Buddha’s decision to make two separate Sanghas was primarily rose out of his fear that in a confraternity of men and women Parivrajakas it would be difficult to control the sex instinct, due to which the rule of celibacy would be completely lost, thus calling for building different Sanghas for practical reasons.
However, to demonstrate that the insubordination of the Bhikkhuni Sangha to the Bhikkhu Sangha also was based on logical and practical grounds and in no way implied the superiority of the male sex over the female, Ambedkar explains that the women who newly joined the Sangha had to learn the Doctrine and needed training in this rules of Discipline, a task what only the Bhikkhus could be entrusted with since they had already been trained in the same. Thus, this would automatically forge a hierarchical teacher-student relationship between the Bhikkhus and the Bhikkhunis. Hence, Ambedkar argues that there is no concrete ground for the charge in the Sutta Pitaka which accused the Buddha of being prejudiced against women.
In Section II of the text, Ambedkar discusses the general attitude of Buddha towards women. Anyone familiar with the sacred literature of Buddhism knows that instead of holding women in low esteem, the Buddha always honoured them and treated them equally. According to Him, a daughter might prove to be even better offspring than a son, and might grow up to be wise and virtuous who could bear a child destined to perform great deeds and rule great realms. Buddha’s conviction transformed King Prasenajit's sorrow into happiness the day he became the father of a baby girl.
Ambedkar gives another example to support his argument, by revealing how the Buddha made people conscious of a woman’s worth and said, “Woman is the commodity Supreme because (as the commentator adds) she is of indispensable utility, or because through her Bodhisattvas and world rulers take birth” (Ambedkar 118). In this way, Ambedkar brought to the front the Buddha’s opinions about the womankind while emphasizing the Lord’s sense of equality, justice, and morality.
In the third section, Ambedkar writes that by allowing women to take Sannyas or Parivraja (monkhood), the Buddha proved to be revolutionary at a time when the Brahmanic theory had already denied women the right to attain Sannyas and acquire knowledge. In addition to this, the Brahmins had always worshipped the Vedas while not recognizing the Upanishadas as a part of their sacred literature, which originally discussed the idea of Sannyas. They accepted the volumes and its ideals only on several conditions, one of which stated that no women and Shudra would be eligible for Sannyas. However, it is necessary to understand the reason behind this opposition, which finds its origin in the discourses of Manu which stated: "Women have no right to study the Vedas. That is why their Sanskars (rites) are performed without Veda Mantras. Women have no knowledge of religion because they have no right to know the Vedas. The uttering of the Veda Mantras is useful for removing sin. As women cannot utter the Veda Mantras they are as untruth is" (119).
This proves that women were not only prevented from realizing their true potential in spirituality but were also kept from understanding religious scriptures which again wrongfully reinforced the argument of them being incapable of gaining knowledge. Ambedkar also writes of the hypocrisy of the Hindus who, although religiously worship goddesses since ancient times, subject an ordinary woman to unreasonable contempt, ill-treatment, discrimination and injustice, therefore, caging her in the prison of patriarchy and depriving them of basic human rights. The author calls this attitude towards the womankind an insult to humanity as a whole – a kind of wrongdoing which the Buddha completely reverses by allowing their admission to the Bhikkhunis Sangha, giving all women – married, unmarried, widows and prostitutes – equal access to knowledge which would lead them to experience an intellectual communion, and making them equipped to lead lives as dignified, rational and free individuals, and in the process, helping the cause of women’s liberation. Ambedkar remarks that enabling women to do so far out-weighed the point of the hierarchical relationship between the two Sanghas.
Ambedkar remarks in the text that women in pre-Manu's time had played a very significant role in India’s history, occupying high positions in the intellectual and social circles of the country. He goes on to give several instances of mentally stimulating arguments between male and female scholars in support of his claims, some of which are worth mentioning – those between Janaka and Sulaba, Yajnavalkya and Gargi, Yajnavalkya and Maitrei, and finally Sankaracharya and Vidyadhari, thus illustrating their profound knowledge of matters and tremendous ability to debate logically.
This leads Ambedkar to infer that it was only Manu who could be held responsible for downfall of Hindu women. His rules became the primary obstacles to women journey of reaching the pinnacle of being. Ambedkar enlists some of the laws found in Manu-Smriti that reaffirm this allegation of Manu being a misogynist: women are the cause of distraction for men.; a woman is not a complete individual in herself, and must have no say in choosing her husband; since she is an extremely manipulative creature, no man should be with her alone. she is lustful and often disloyal towards her partner and thus always be guarded and dominated by a man. In fact, she is incapable of being independent even as an adult and would need her father to protect her in childhood, her husband in youth, and her son in her old age against any and every kind of evil inclination, who would otherwise bring sorrow to her family. Manu also states that no woman should have the right to divorce her husband, and that even if he abandons or sells her, she would continue to serve him throughout her life as his property and slave. Ambedkar inspects Manu’s main motive behind stating so, and reveals that far from considering marriage a sacrament, he intended to shackle a woman to a man, who is not bound with her at all.
Such monstrous edicts of Manu, as Ambedkar argues further, illustrate how inhuman, unjust and disrespectful he is and encourages people to be towards the women of Hindu religion. He attempts to take away their liberty by declaring that women should not have any domination over any property while also propagating hatred and violence towards them by normalizing women being subjected to corporal punishment which earns a husband the right to beat his wife.
The laws in Manu-Smriti disabled women in performing sacrifices by making it mandatory to chant the Veda Mantras, which was made impossible by the very rule that women were not allowed to read the Vedas and were deprived of education, receiving which would condemn her to hell. They also state that if she serves and worships the male members of her family devoutly, then she might be allowed a place in heaven. The laws also prohibit the performance of funeral rites and obsequies for those born out of intermixture, those addicted to asceticism, and those who died by suicide. One of the most heinous points mentioned in the Manu-Smriti is that it declares the act of killing a woman a Upapataka, or a minor offence. Ambedkar infers that this would only be possible to say if women had no value for Manu at all, which had exactly been the case.
Using these arguments as pieces of evidence, Ambedkar proves very lucidly that it was primarily Manu who was to be blamed for the downfall of women, and not the Buddha. Manu, truly representative of the Brahmins and Brahmanism, devised laws to oppress not just women but also the Shudras, all of whom were eager to convert and join Buddhism which would help them regrow their wings to fly, that had been previously clipped by the stifling, regressive nature of the Brahmanic religion. On the other hand, the Buddha had endeavoured to empower women by constructing by uplifting them to the level of men through a proper sense of justice and equality. Hence, one can infer through Ambedkar’s arguments who had been responsible for the rise and fall of the Hindu women after all.
Ambedkar, B.R. "The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman. Who was responsible for it?". Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.17, part II, edited by Prof. Hari Narake, N.G. Kamble, Dr. M.L. Kasare, and Ashok Godghate, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2019, pp.109-129.
Madhumita Mandal studies English Literature at Presidency University, Kolkata.