In search of spiritual parity

In search of spiritual parity

A senior research scholar and journalist, Teena Amrit Gill, recently screened her documentary film at the India International Centre in Delhi. With this film she brought to the fore a very niche subject that few would know about in India and even fewer would care. White Robes, Saffron Dreams dealt with the conspicuous absence of bhikhunis or Buddhist nuns in Thailand – a country that has an ancient tradition of Theravada Buddhism and over three lakh practising bhikhus or monks.

It opened the eyes of many who imagine Thailand, and broadly Southeast Asia, to be an egalitarian society and Buddhism to be a gender-neutral religion.

Gill, a student of gender and development studies, landed at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok as a senior researcher in 1993. Here she noticed the lack of female Buddhist priests and apprentices, even as men in saffron robes crowded the streets seeking alms every day.

On further investigation, she realised that in spite of Lord Buddha himself having started an order of Bhikhunis (his mother Gautami was the first), women are forbidden from being ordained by the powerful all-male Bhikhu Sangh in Thailand.

“There is a deeper repercussion to this,” the filmmaker explained, “Inspite of Thailand being a prosperous economy, a huge section of the population lives a hand-to-mouth existence. Forty per cent of the children drop out of school by the age of 13, more than half of them girls. While the chain of Buddhist temples spread across the country admits boys and gives them religious and secular education till university level, girls are left out.”

“The boys are free to complete their learning and return to material life the very next day. Girls have no option but to remain uneducated and toil for even the most basic of needs.”

Interestingly, women are the biggest contributors to sustaining the system of monkhood in Thailand.

Married women can be seen giving alms to bhikhus every morning and evening. The belief is that being a male is the next step in the evolution of the human soul and giving alms to bhikhus will help the women to be born as male next time. Some women also take to servicing bhikhus where they are exploited, cited the film, but they
persevere in the hope they can attain manhood and become a monk in the life thereafter.

In 1928, two young sisters Sara and Chongdi Bhasit secretly took the vows and the holy robes in a radical attempt to revive the dead Bhikhuni Sangh. They were forced to disrobe and jailed. In 2003, a Thai woman travelled all the way to Sri Lanka to receive full ordination as a Theravada nun, much to the chagrin of the Thai Bhikhu Sangh. Named Bhikhuni Dhammananda, she is now the abbess of the only temple in Thailand where nuns are ordained. The film featured a beautiful interview of her besides some invaluable archival photographs.

“The Thai are a very law-abiding and subservient people,” says Gill, “In India,
if we sense any kind of injustice, we come out on the streets, burn buses and uproot barricades. In Thailand, this is the farthest they are willing to go against the establishment – to do what they want to do in as quiet a manner as possible and, in fact, punish themselves.”

The situation, though, is changing and the future holds out hope. White Robes, Saffron Dreams was screened at four places in Thailand earlier this year and it was well received. “It has been a long struggle for the women,” says Gill, “The fact that the Thai society is acknowledging this discrepancy is the first step. Hopefully, women will be accepted as equal claimants to their spiritual legacy in the days to come.”

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