The origin of Theravada
Buddhism is traced back in 3rd century BC, and its name is derived
from “Sthaviravada”, a term which no longer exists and is unknown. The meaning
of the name “Theravada” is teaching of the elders, and it is the major type of Buddhism
in Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand. The Theravada religion has spread
all over the world, and now has approximately 100 million members around the
globe. Buddhism has set out duties for each gender. According to Theravada, all
leaders and teachers must be men, and the women occupy the lower ranks. There
has been tension amongst Buddhists in Western and Asian regions because the
west advocates for gender equality due to their liberal approach to things, and
being highly educated.

Historically, Buddhist women’s
youth comprised of serving and following the orders of their parents. They also
had to respect their husbands after getting married, and their grown children
too. Parents chose the spouses of the Theravada Buddhist women, and they were
viewed mainly as facilitators in the society and religion. This essay aims at
describing the role of women in Theravada Buddhism.

The Role of Women in Theravada Buddhism

Buddhist women derive their
respect from being good mothers. Their role is to protect the rest of the
people in the community in terms of care and support. The Buddhists believe
that good relationships amongst a mother and a son is essential in
spirituality. Mothers bless their sons as they start their journey of a career
and other vital stages of life. These blessings are considered so special that
without them, one believes that their career will not be successful (Andaya,
2002). This belief has been a major role of Theravada women which has been
passed from one generation to another.

Appleton (2011) describes how
women cannot become Bodhisattva because of the rules set by the religion. Women
are considered to have some spiritual shortcomings, therefore, cannot achieve
the highest ranks of the faith. These beliefs make women inferior to men and
make their roles revolve around facilitating and preparing men to be the best
they can. Theravada women were seen as spiritually inferior, but they were
given a ritual which made them feel appreciated known as upisiki. Upisiki
ritual recognized women for their role of nurturing and mothering in society (Andaya, 2002). However, these roles have been changing with time. In 1000
CE, Sri Lankan monks began the process of guiding the people to be more
involved in the Buddhist community.

The women who had been ignored
for a long time got the privilege to become direct members of Buddhism when
they started being allowed to give offerings to the monks. They were also able to
become nuns, or be promoted with upisiki after reading new literature/texts.
One primary benefit of these teachings was the Sinhalese princess called
Vatasiki (Appleton, 2011) who became the first nun. Nuns had a higher rank and could mediate for the
other people. The Theravada Buddhist believe that those who devote themselves
wholly to serve, like nuns and monks, will achieve great rewards. Women are
considered as a sign of multiplication or increase. Therefore, during offering
times, involving women would be a great success because women were considered
to make the offering merit, bring about higher rebirth, and success in the
community (Andaya, 2002).

In Theravada, especially in
northern Thailand, communal feasting is a significant occasion. Monks must
accept any food prepared by the devotees (Andaya, 2002). Women
have a role in cooking for the monks. Any woman can devote herself to make the
food while males are not involved in cooking. It is a type of merit-making for
women because they show how responsible they are in taking care of others in
the community. Women are the ones to feed the monks through the Dina or
devotion. Giving food to the monks was believed to be placing it in front of
the lordship (Andaya, 2002). The women who did that
were highly praised and highly regarded by everyone in society. They believed
in doing so, so their lives would be favored and blessed by the Buddha.

Another role of the Theravada
women was providing the monks with clothes. In the past, the clothes were made
by local women. Weaving in Southeast Asia was very common, and women have been
weaving for the past 2,500 years (Appleton, 2011). They would weave the clothes and present them to the
monks. Clothes could also be offered during life-cycle rituals such as the Dina.
Offering a pillow, cushion or a cloth during these ceremonies indicated that
one had given an extension of themselves to the lord (Ratanakul, 2007).

If a woman gave a very highly valued
gift, her name would be recorded for posterity and she would be remembered in
the future. Cloth production was considered a form of social bond strengthening
during the rituals because some clothes portrayed certain symbols. For
instance, when a new monk was visiting, veils of colors would be laid on the
road to show respect. Women would kneel and spread silk sashes on which the
monks would step on as they were being welcomed (Ratanakul, 2007). These actions were believed to bring together the
community and make society look a lot better and holier. Therefore, women were the
facilitators of unity amongst different people in the community.

During the visikhi ceremony,
which took place at the end of every rainy season, women had a role to give
kathina robes to the monks (Andaya, 2002). The visikhi ceremony was a very important occasion for women because it
was a time for merit-making. Giving out a robe in this celebration would earn a
woman a lot of respect in the community and many blessings in terms of children
and grandchildren. The kathin ceremony was considered as an event that
symbolized monks’ return to lay life (Andaya, 2002). During the kathin festival, there was time for monks
to take robes and those involved were the close female relatives, usually the
mother. When a mother learned that their son was interested in going back to
lay life, she would spend the whole night weaving a robe for him (Ratanakul,
2007). Some women came together as a group to
weave robes a few days before to the kathin ceremony to offer them to the
monks. It was believed that the unity in weaving one robe would mean that every
person involved would be magnified and receive a merit. They also believed that
they would become famous and rich in the future (Andaya, 2002).

Motherhood was highly respected
in the Theravada Buddhism. The metaphor of nurturing was prevalent in the
religion and mothers were considered as a source of protection. When a person
wanted to go to a Buddha, they would go saying that they are going to their
immortal noble mother (Andaya, 2002).
Motherhood was considered as a signal of security in the community. If a
son-mother relationship is good, it was believed that their son would be
successful in their spiritual life. Therefore, Theravada mothers had a role in
acting as symbols of protection. According to Andaya (2002), when a young boy was starting his career as a
Bodhisattva, he had to be blessed by his mother. Even until now, mothers are
considered as the Buddha of the home by their sons.

The mother of a Bodhisattva is
a big player in his spiritual journey. She brings forth the first arousing
thought in the Bodhisattvas which guides and directs his steps into Buddhahood.
It is very essential for Bodhisattvas to show respect and appreciation towards
their mother because the mother acts as their pillar (Andaya,
2002).

Mothers must be shown a lot of
respect because of the selfless care they show when nurturing children. It is a
huge sin not to respect a mother in Theravada Buddhism (Seeger,
2009). The story of Angulimia exists, who is
described as a murderer and a robber, that gives warning to everybody to
respect their mothers. Angulimia wanted to kill his mother but was converted by
the Buddha. If he had killed his mother, he would never have peace in his life (Seeger,
2009). Phra Malai who is a Theravada legend
warns people that mistreating a mother is equivalent to abusing a monk. People
who mistreat their mothers are said to be punished the most and will be reborn in
a worse form. These warnings show how mothers must be respected because of
their caring nature. Women are held in high esteem, especially mothers (Seeger,
2009).  

Theravada Buddhists believe
that after a baby is born, the love of the mother converts the blood in her
breasts into milk, which feeds the baby (Ratanakul, 2007). They link the physical nourishment to spiritual
strength hence show the importance of women in their religion. Gotam
Mahipajipat is a woman in Pali who took care of the Buddha when his mother
died. Gotam who was also the initiator of the Buddhist order of nuns is
depicted as a mother of Buddha and a female Buddha. Because she nourished the
Buddha physically and made him healthy spiritually, she is very highly
respected. Theravada Buddhists linked physical nourishment to spiritual
nourishment (Ratanakul, 2007). A Buddha
acts as a mother to his followers. He treats them compassionately and in a kind
manner. Although a baby may show temper tantrums by abusing, hitting or
complaining about a mother, she acts calmly and comforts the baby. They are
expected to be as a mother to their followers, hence, affirming the respect
held by mothers in the Theravada Buddhism (Andaya, 2002).

Buddhist rulers should portray
mother-like characteristics to succeed in their rule. They must be
compassionate and kind to their followers (Andaya, 2002). Moreover, they should show parental care and
maternal love to everyone. King Kyanzittha, once a king of Burma, promised his
people that he would treat them like his children and he will feed them, and make
them feel like a child in its mother’s bosom. Buddha scriptures also depict
women as an essential caregiver without which the world cannot progress (Ratanakul,
2007). Women are said to be the future because
they are fruitful. These characteristics portray the role of women in the
society. Women are the source of compassion and kindness in the Theravada
religion.

Several sources have shown that
females are very good at communicating with the supernatural world (Andaya,
2002). Royal women, for instance, would be
involved in some major affairs during the rule of their sons or husbands. A
good example is in Sukhothai where the Queen Mother together with her son
campaigned to get back their land, which was grabbed by Ayutthaya. The queen
mother would guide her son no matter how old the son grew, about how to rule (Seeger,
2009). The queen mother helped her son take back
their territory and together they were able to destroy the enemy. Therefore,
women, especially the old ones in the Theravada religion are considered as
effective communicators with superpowers. Some people even believe that the
queens possess special powers that guide and protect them (Andaya, 2002).

            A long time ago some women were
ordained to become nuns in the Theravada communities. Some of their roles
included teaching, meditating and performing rituals. Most of them were old
women who were highly regarded in the society and very educated (Andaya,
2002). Moreover, widows were most preferred to
be nuns. A Sri Lankan monk who visited the Theravada nuns was amazed by the
knowledge that the nuns possessed. However, in the beginning of the twentieth
century, these roles were abolished. Although some people were in support of
the idea of having female nuns in Theravada religion (Appleton, 2011).  

Women were considered to be
weak in the Theravada society because being born a woman showed inadequacy. They
were able to make a niche for themselves and support the Theravada religion (Andaya,
2002). Women were highly appreciated if they
served monks. Some would be elevated to higher social leadership posts after
gifting the leaders. For instance, Sujiti who was a chief’s daughter, that
became the first lay disciple after offering the Buddha who was fasting, some
rice (Andaya, 2002). Women were service people
in the society who held things together. They were expected to support men,
especially during ceremonies, were things like cooking had to be done.

Conclusion

Although the Theravada women
have missed out on many leadership posts in the religion, they have been
offered many opportunities that make them a part of Buddhism. Some activities
such as making clothes and cooking are considered feminine and give the females
a chance to participate. Long ago it was something that made them feel appreciated
and wanted. The activities were translated into offering to the supreme powers
through which women would be rewarded and blessed. Motherhood was held and is
still held with high respect in the Theravada religion. Their culture which
stipulates that mothers should be respected and obeyed has made women become
respectable people in the society.

Mothers are also celebrated for
their selflessness hence act as a guide for their sons who are growing. The
mother-son relationship is very vital in Theravada religion because they believe
that if the mother relates well to the son, he will succeed. Although women do
not hold prestigious posts in the religion, they have been given some vital
roles which make them a part of the religion. In today’s world striving towards
gender equality, you see the traditional Theravada evolving and including the
concept of women being equal to men. However, tension amongst Buddhists in
Western and Asian regions still exists because of the disagreement to change traditional
beliefs and a disapproval of evolvement.