Buddha and the status of women.

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani

“Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; “ but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.(Genesis 2:15, 16, 17). …” the serpent…said to the woman, “Has God indeed said,‘ You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; “but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die…’ ” And the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, [gods or angels or sons?] knowing good and evil.”So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings….He [God] said, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?” Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”So the Lord said to the serpent: “Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”…Then the Lord said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, [gods or angels or sons?] to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”– (Genesis3: 1-7, 11- 13, 14, 22). However, in Genesis 1: 26 -27 it says: Then God said, “Let Us make man in our image, according to Our likeness”. So God created man in His own image; on the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”.
Either Eve like Adam was created in God’s image or not. If she was, then why blame her for eating from the fruit of the forbidden tree? She was already like the gods, knowing the difference between good and evil, even before she ate from the fruit of that tree. If she was like the gods, then why did she fail? Of course, Adam put the blame on Eve and Eve in turn put the blame on the Serpent. Finally God blamed all of them, specially the Serpent who started this tragedy in the first place. However, the main character here is Eve who is ruined as a result of disobeying God’s command. Eve has been carrying the burden of guilt on her shoulders to this day. In the history of Judeo-Christian tradition it has always been Eve, not necessarily Adam, who was the cause of this great drama in the Garden of Eden as if women had not already been blamed for practically many disasters longer before these two Religions. Ironically in Islam, the last of the Abrahamic Religion, Eve is not the only one to blame for this event. In fact mankind, one unit, was responsible for what happened there. But this, by no means, exempts Islam from the theological questions we have asked the other two Religions. These questions gradually will turn into philosophical ones which are subjects of the philosophy of Religion in general. However, there is one major difference between Islam and other two Abrahamic Religions in that the former (Islam) emphatically urges us to use our Intellect (AQL) which is not the reason we apply to our daily affairs. AQL is a light from God within us like the ray of the Sun. It helps us know things as they really are. A famous expression among Muslims can shed light on this matter: “Have your faith in Allah but make sure you always tie your camel”. Here camel stands for the Intellect. In other words, anchor your boat while you are looking to the stars for direction. Socrates, the father of Western intellectual tradition, was known for engaging his students in a dialogue in order to pursue the truth. He said to Euthyphro, who was one of his students: “… “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is loved by the gods because it is holy, or it is holy because it is loved by the gods”. “…The holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved by God because it is holy and not to be holy because it is loved”. “But that which is dear to the gods is dear to them because it is loved by them and not loved by them because it is dear to them”. While I am bowing before the statue of Buddha I ask myself: “Is this statue so beautiful because I love it or the reason I love it is because it is so beautiful?”In other words, is beauty relative to the observer or it has its own objective value regardless? This is exactly what Socrates is talking about. Are things right because gods say so or they are right in themselves and thus gods acknowledge they are? Put it in another way, do we have to blindly follow what God or gods want us to, or we should use our own intelligence (AQL) based on which we then make our own choices? In Genesis 22:1-19, God told Abraham: “…Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you. So Abraham rose…”. Here Abraham did not challenge God and just followed His command though at the end the angels stopped him from killing his son and instead a ram was sacrificed. Abraham’s faith is confirmed by God because he passed the test successfully. Eve, on the other hand, along with Adam and the Serpent are thrown out of the Garden of Eden just because they defied God’s command. Who really failed the test here, Eve or Abraham? Eve challenges God by saying that just because you say my action was wrong it is was not necessarily wrong. You rewarded Abraham at the end just because he followed your command without asking you why you wanted him to sacrifice his only son for you. You never gave him any reason which made your command seemed arbitrary. You said you were testing his faith as if you are not omniscient or all knowing. If creation is that without which you would not be perfect, then why punish us? I am a woman and my name is Eve or the mother of all living according to my husband. I deserve to know the truth. If it is true that you are the creator of everything, then why did you bring about the Serpent who defied your authority? Because you know very well that without evil good would not have any reality. Not only did the Serpent not tempt me, he in fact told me what you yourself admit afterwards that it was true, namely, I would know about good and evil like you. But I did not have to know it just because I ate from the fruit of the forbidden tree. I already knew that without evil, good would have no meaning. In the created world, opposites define each other. But you yourself said that after you created everything, it was good. Then does evil come from? You made me out of Adam’s rib. Although I am curved like the Serpent but I am made of bone and was extended from Adam’s spine before you shaped me into a woman. I still lean on him for support just like the Serpent who is curled up the forbidden tree for support. I am the mother earth on which the Serpent moves. Yes he and I are and will be very close to one another. I really do not know why you do what you do. I chose knowledge over Eternal life but you punish me as if I sold my soul to the Devil. You only commanded without any substantial reason why I would die if I ate from the fruit of that tree. Perhaps I failed to ask you. However, the Serpent clearly explained why you asked us not to eat from that tree. He also told me I would not die if I ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This turned out to be true unless you meant something else by dying. However, the Biblical history is a witness to the way you treated those who had dedicated their whole life to serve you. For example, regardless of what Jacob did to his father and brother Esau, that is, he indeed deceived them both, you said in the Old Testament: “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated”. Job loved and obeyed you all his life and see what you did to him! Perhaps you are not as perfect as we think you are. After all you are not the Ultimate Reality which cannot be named or else it would be limited. As ‘God’ you are only a title. As other names, they all limit the Ultimate Reality. Thus, these masks of gods are nothing but limitations. Besides, we all create our own gods and worship them. Perhaps there are more than 600 billion gods that are worshipped on a daily basis. We create God or gods in our own image. When I passed the blame to the Serpent for my action, I was just being politically correct to save my job as Eve. But what is interesting is that though you yourself knew the answer, you still interrogated us so you hear the truth from us. Perhaps the reason Adam and I covered ourselves with fig leaves was because we announced the fact that we were man and woman and had to leave our home to join each other and become one again like we were before as Adam only. However, this time we could not become one as a male like Adam and thus we had to produce females too. God, are you beautiful because we love you or we love you because you are beautiful? Perhaps you are what you say you are, that is, you are beautiful and love beauty. But how do I know? I have never seen you. If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then we must have been anthropomorphizing you, namely, we have been ascribing human form or attributes to you. If what the Hindus thought of Buddha were true and he really was one of the Avatars (Incarnations) of Vishnu (One of the three masks of the Ultimate Reality), then why did he (Buddha) remove the belief in a personal God or gods from his teachings? If this were the case, then God Himself or gods themselves were willing to unmask Himself or themselves through Buddha who directed us to the Reality beyond the personal God or gods. However, Buddha was never regarded as an Avatar of the god Vishnu by the Buddhists. He has never been worshipped as a god and the statues of Buddha are unlike the ones in Hinduism. Buddha’s statues are symbols of what he had become, namely, awakened to the light of the Sun (Reality) and enlightened as a result. The heart of Buddhism has always been beating for the suffering existing in this world. If the prophet of Islam stopped the Arabs who were committing female infanticide, that is, burying their new born female infants alive, Buddha metaphorically halted the suffering of women from being buried alive socially, economically, psychologically, spiritually, etc. The Indian women had been suffering hardship under the caste system which had been derailed from its original purpose and meaning and there was nothing left of it except an skeleton. Buddha totally rejected the caste system and preached that even the untouchables, who are considered outside of the four castes, can also become enlightened. If Plato (427-347) B.C, the Greek philosopher, wrote in his Republic that even women can become philosopher kings, Buddha elevated their status to the level of Buddhahood by saying that your mothers are Buddhas at homes, therefore they deserve the highest reverence and respect. At the time of Socrates and his student Plato 40,000 men were in charge of determining the destiny of Athens and not even one woman was allowed to participate in politics. Plato completely revolutionized the status quo concerning women. For Buddha, even though men and women had different reproductive systems and function differently, they still have the same mental capabilities. Men and women, according to Buddha, complement each other like the Chinese symbol, ‘Yin (the moon, female) and Yang (the sun, male)’.They are both equal in mind and being human. In the beginning Buddha objected to the community of the nuns but later he softened his position and let it pass the test of time which it did. The nuns Sanga (community of the religious order) came to an end after a while. Buddha knew that women had gone through centuries of being mistreated which was not going to come to an end so easily. Since they were not physically as stronger as men, they would become subject to great harm if they were to travel in the woods or other unsafe areas like other monks for their daily meals. However, he did not stop women from trying and he let them find this out for themselves. Given the time and the cultures they were living in at the time, Buddhist nuns and their Sanga were not able to survive. However, now that the time has changed, there are more women who are becoming nuns in many countries.

Unlike Aristotle (384-322) B.C, the Greek philosopher and the student of Plato, Buddha never taught that “A modest crown of a woman is her silence”. Buddha rather said that silence, which is an undividable reality, is noble. Aristotle believed women’s place was at home where they were to be faithful wives and productive mothers raising beautiful children for the future of the polity without themselves being involved with politics as mothers. John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher and a political thinker of the 17th century being influenced by Aristotle’s thoughts also held that women served best when they were queens at their houses and not part of the political process. For him women were not to count when it came to majority rule policy. Thomas Jefferson, the most important among the founding fathers of our nation, who was mainly responsible for the Declaration of Independence of 1776, was deeply influenced by Locke’s ideas. His view on women’s status was not much different from Locke’s. Women in America, in spite of all the odds, have been fighting for their rights ever since and still continue to battle discrimination even to this day. Among many names these are the two who were outstanding in the 19th century: one is Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906), the American feminist leader and suffragist and the other is Elizabeth Cady (1815-1902), the American feminist and social reformer. While the African American were able to vote after the Civil War, thanks to the efforts of Susan B. Anthony, women themselves were not entitled to suffrage, or the right to vote, till the beginning of the 20th century. However, the same women who had been denied of many rights in America joined the work force during the First World War as if the burden of raising a family was not enough. American economic machine accelerated and soon excelled in the world thanks by far to the works of millions of women who left their homes to answer the call of their government for help. But once the War was over, the divorce rate skyrocketed and women, who are by nature nurturer, were left alone with their children. Progress at what expense is the question which has been asked by many contemporary Western philosophers. How much are we losing in this trade off? If tomorrow all women decide to stop working, what will happen to our fragile economy? Family, which has always been the foundation of great nations, is on the verge of collapse along its values in America. Without doubt women have always played a significant role in this valuable institution. Their importance is incomparable. The screaming and challenging voice of Eve can still be heard across five thousand years of Biblical history of the Abrahamic Religion. The voices of many Indian and Chinese Eves, who have been struggling for their freedom from bondage, are heard across more than five thousand years. The voices of Persian and Greek Eves, who have been fighting for their rights for thousands of years can also be heard. Is not it about time the world dealt with their grievances? Buddha’s message about the status of women is loud and clear and it is ranked way above Plato who was a strong advocate for women’s rights within the society of Athens. Buddha must have heard Eve’s voice which had been suffocated throughout the history of mankind (womankind).He responded to this call urgently and raised her to the top of the Jacob’s ladder so that she would get what she had always deserved which was to become enlightened and be treated with justice and fairness.