The Role of Women in Hinduism & Buddhism

Written by theresa bettmann
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The Role of Women in Hinduism & Buddhism
Women have played roles in both Hinduism and Buddhism unlike those seen in Western faiths. (Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images)

Hinduism and Buddhism are two belief systems often equated in Western minds, but are actually dissimilar in important ways. Together, however, they have played a major role in shaping much of Eastern philosophy and culture. Both can be traced back to roots in the Asian subcontinent, and rank among the most widely-followed faith traditions on the planet. The general topic of women in religion tends to spark intense debate, given that many faiths are patriarchal. But the role of women in Hinduism and Buddhism has been historically different.

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Hinduism

Hinduism is one of the five largest religions in the world, and is also the oldest. It is based on a way of life rather than strict religious protocol. There are hundreds of gods in the Hindu pantheon, but all are manifestations of one central god or Brahman. Hindus are free to worship any god they choose. They are expected to live a righteous life of dharma, or social duty, based upon truth, non-violence, cleanliness, contentment, and perseverance. The core concept of Hinduism is the cycle of reincarnation, which is based upon living a righteous life now to insure rebirth into a higher caste in the next. The ultimate goal is successfully evolving through the caste levels until final liberation is achieved. That liberation, called Moksha or Nirvana, and is where the spirit is eternal, genderless, and omnipotent.

The Role of Women in Hinduism & Buddhism
Hindu women at one time experienced full equality with men. (Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images)

Hindu Women

In ancient Indian, or Vedic, times, women were equal to men and held an honourable place in society. Many Rigvedic hymns were composed by women. They were able to participate in religious ceremonies, and held important positions such as scholars, philosophers and teachers. Some women, called brahmavadinis, even chose to remain unmarried and live lives of religious study and ritual. For those who chose domestic and family life, they were respected in the role of wife and mother. Hindu literature such as the epic poem Ramayana, tells of how kings and towns were destroyed as a result of a single woman who was wronged. However, women's rights in India declined through the course of history with the Islamic conquest, political instability, poor economic conditions and foreign invasion. European culture, including that of the British when occupying India, denied women dignity and encouraged their passive obedience. This concept began to bleed into Hindu society until women became part of the lowest caste of sudras. Women could not divorce or remarry. If widowed, a woman was required to remain celibate for the rest of her life. When India regained independence, many women's rights were restored, but not to the same degree of egalitarianism they once enjoyed.

Buddhism

Buddhism is an Eastern religion which does not follow one deity, and does not recognise a particular Godhead. It also does not have priests who officiate between the faithful and the divine. Buddhism is essentially an atheistic faith with no place for a god or priest, but instead is based upon the doctrine that salvation is due to one's own effort. The original Buddha was a man who discovered and achieved enlightenment, by following principals of what he considered universal law existing in everyone. Buddhism believes in a cycle of reincarnation, as well as dharma and karma, but without the bonds of the caste system. The ultimate goal is for one to purse the right path toward enlightenment and ultimately become a Buddha him or herself.

The Role of Women in Hinduism & Buddhism
Meditation is one tool Buddhists use to pursue the path of enlightenment. (Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

Women in Buddhism

Very little about Buddhism identifies it with a particular gender. The pattern of reincarnation, according to Buddhist doctrine, suggests that gender is not synonymous with the spirit. For example, a person can live out one life as a male, and another life as a female. The particular gender identity is only associated with a particular life. Therefore, the Buddha's path could be practised by anyone, male or female. Buddhism in its purist form has no place for the conducting of religious rituals; it is based upon a way of life. Over the years, many different versions of Buddhism added rituals like worship, chanting, or symbolic offering practices. Yet most of these changes continue to recognise men and women on equal terms. Some western influence has leaked into some sects of Buddhism, suggesting that a person's bad actions in this life will result in reincarnation as a woman in the next. However, this is not the common belief. Unlike Hinduism, a Buddhism marriage is not a sacrament, but a secular tradition recognising a contract between equal partners. Therefore, divorce and remarriage are not forbidden, and a widow's social status is not changed in any way.

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