Buddhism and the Feminine

April 6th, 2009

Barhut yakshi

A woman set free! How free I am,

how wonderfully free, from the kitchen drudgery.

Free from the harsh grip of hunger,

And free from the empty cooking pots,

Free too from that unscrupulous man,

The weaver of sunshades.
Calm now, and serene I am,

All lust and hatred purged.

To the shade of spreading trees I go

And contemplate my happiness.

Buddhism, from its inception, acknowledged and even welcomed strong, positive images of women.  Buddhism appealed to women for this very reason; women were not only welcome, but played a vital role in the religious community. This is evidenced by the powerful, affirmative depictions of the female figure which proliferate in pre-Buddhist and Buddhist artwork of the East.  As early as the first period of Buddhism in India, issues relating to women were recorded.  Women were “spiritual daughters” and tales of the liberation of women, through Buddhism, were written down in the Therigatha ; “…one can not fail to be impressed by the dignity, strength and size of the women’s order as portrayed in the Therigatha”, written in the 6th century B.C.E.  The poems of theTherigatha are perhaps the earliest recorded stories of women. Although they were not put into written word until much later, these are important records of the spiritual journeys of early, itinerant nuns who were contemporaries of Buddha.

Although Siddhartha considered his wife and child impediments to his own spiritual growth and was at first reluctant to ordain women, he never stated that women could not attain Dharma.  From the earliest Buddhist period, women played a vital role in Buddhism and were a part of the Sangha. The Eight Weighty Rules, perhaps a nod to the culture of the time period, set a precedent for gender hierarchy in Buddhism, and nuns were subordinate to monks; still, women were vibrant participants if not equals. The art of the period indicates the positive role played by women.
Images of the Buddha did not exist in the earliest Buddhist art.  Coomaraswamy states, in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1926, that Friar Bala dedicated a Bodhisattva image “probably ca. 123 A.D.”  At about the same time, “trepitakas, those “who know the Three Pitakas,” those who knew the whole of Buddhist sacred literature as it existed at the time” were setting up the first Buddha images. These were well learned monks and nuns working in Sarnath and Gandhara and around the region.  Bala specifically names a woman, Buddhamitra, indicating not only his special relationship with her, but the fact that she set up cult images at Kausambi, a sacred Buddhist site. This indicates that women were not only achieving high positions within the Buddhist community, but they were also responsible for establishing a new cult within Buddhism.  The nuns were able to, and did, study and become as influential as the monks.  Despite the Eight Weighty Rules, women could achieve prominence and positions of leadership within the Buddhist community. As stated by Susie J. Tharu and  Ke Lalita, in Women Writing in India, women received the same training and education as their male counterparts in the monasteries.  Both men and women could attain nirvana and both were trusted to spread the doctrine.

From early Yakshis to Hariti and Kuan-yin paintings, reliefs, and sculpture examples of the inclusion of women in Buddhist art indicate the extensive and powerful role they played in Buddhism.  Some of the most beautiful depictions of the female figure of the time are found at Barhut, Sanchi, and Diderganj.  Feminine sexuality is depicted with sensitivity and appreciation.  The goddess like portrayal of the Diderganj Yakshi, with its superb Mauryan polish, presents the female as a regal, strong, and proud.  While she is dignified, she is still a very sensuous and feminine figure; her rounded breasts and hips indicate her fertility; she is regally and modestly adorned. These Yakshi figures were protective, talismanic, and magically potent images used for ritual and possibly liturgical roles at these sites. The earliest Yakshi images on Buddhist monuments appear at Barhut in 1st -2nd century B.C.E..

Yakshi figures were visual representations of fertility. The Woman and Tree motif is very common and distinctly Indian; the woman holds a branch or kicks the tree to make it blossom.  The wide hips, rounded breasts, and ornate girdles indicate fertility and femininity; a hand placed close to the womb draws the viewer’s attention to that connection as does the deeply cut pubic triangle.  Femaleness is celebrated and exaggerated; these figures honor the magical, spiritual potency of women.  While the stupa containing a Buddha relic emanates his power, the Yakshis adorning the stupa generate powerful auspicious forces that combine with the relic to heighten the powerful effect of the stupa.  “Worshipper, seeing the Yaksinis set amid imagery of the earth burgeoning with life, would certainly behold in this symbolism the hope and promise of profound well-being”. While the interest in Yakshis diminished after the 2nd century, the goddess cult of Hariti, kept the spirit of the Yakshis alive within Buddhism from the 2nd-11th centuries.

Hariti exemplifies a vast range of Yakshis from demonic child eater to to Yahshi Queen and “Dharma-Protector”.  The Hariti cult was the first goddess cult with in Buddhism. Hariti, Goddess of Motherly Love,who represented the epitome of motherhood, was often depicted with her children.  Although she began as a demoness who devoured children, she came to accept the teachings of Buddha and changed her ways.  The visual imagery used in representations of Hariti often exhibits glorification of motherhood,  auspicious fecundity, well being, potent life-force and abundant energy. Images of Hariti are found within the dining-halls of Indian monasteries indicating the veneration of Hariti within the monastery; here is a Yakshi figure not only worshipped by the lay community, but also the monastic community.  Food offerings were promised to Hariti by Buddha himself; I-tsing, a traveler and writer, reported that Hariti images had a place at the table with images of Arhats and monks during special monastic feasts. It is possible that temples were erected in Hariti’s honor, and women worshipped there in hopes of conceiving children of their own.  “Hariti came to represent the aggregate of yahsinis”. Hariti, strengthened the appeal of Buddhism to women in the east.

Perhaps most illustrative of Buddhism’s positive depictions of females and its intrinsic appeal to women is found in the transformation of Avalokitesvara into Kuan-Yin,  Goddess of Mercy, in China.  Avalokitesvara, guardian deity of Ceylon and patron of Tibet, was a popular figure in India from early Buddhism throught the 12th century. Although he was unmistakably male in India, Tibet and elsewhere in South East Asia, he underwent a gender transformation in China as female universal savior who responded to all. Up through the T’ang dynasty (618-907) Kuan-Yin, as Avalokitesvara was known to the Chinese, was male in art and religious practice. It was in the early Sung (960-1279) that newer, feminine images of Kuan-Yin began to appear.  The transformation was complete by the Yuan period (1206-1368);however, orthodox clergy still disagree with this gender reversal.   The androgynous Water-Moon, Kuan-Yin of the 10th century had some male and some female characteristics.  Taoism, already established in China before Buddhism arrived, revered the feminine. Women were attracted to Taoism in part due to the strong female role.  The feminization of Kuan-Yin was a response to competition between Taoism and Buddhism and the patriarchal stance of Confucianism; women wanted a greater role in religion.
The first truly Chinese images of Kuan-Yin was the Water-Moon figure; after this period Kuan-Yin became feminine and local myths surrounding Kuan-Yin began to emerge. It is quite possible that the artist’s iconography influenced the development of Kuan-Yin into a popular female goddess.Monks, laity, and even Confucian literati appreciated the feminine Kuan-Yin; art and literature helped to establish the transformation.  “It is also through art that one can most clearly detect the bodhisattva’s gradual, yet undeniable sexual transformation”. As the cult of Kuan-Yin became popular in China, the Chinese adapted him to make him their own.  New sutras, stories about Kuan-Yin, aided in this local transformation; Kuan-Yin began to become feminized.  Once artists began focusing on the female aspects of Kuan-Yin, Yu theorizes, stories and rituals propagated and circulated the new gender.  Moon in the Water is a motif often used as a visual metaphor to illustrate the Buddhist concept that the world is empty; illusion.  Water-Moon images were the first step in the Avalokitesvara-Kuan-Yin transformation.  These painted or sculpted images were meant to be used as venerated icons.  This Kuan-Yin bestowed a good rebirth, safe childbirth, and enlightenment on the worshipper.  The popularity of this more feminine version of Avalokitesvara was well noted, copied and spread.  The White Robed Kuan-Yin, symbol of enlightenment, was soon to follow and was obviously female, influenced by the Chinese standard of beauty and the popularity of the feminine version.  The popularity of the White Robed figure and iconographies of Kuan-Yin helped to establish her rise; literature and rituals followed quickly.  In time she became firmly established and a very popular, well entrenched, goddess in China.
The strong, feminine iconography of the Yahshis held widespread appeal as early Buddhism took root and spread throughout India and across Asia.  Strong female figures are indicative of the prominence of women within Buddhism.  Nuns were given the same training and roles as the monks.  Female deities and goddesses flourished in Buddhism and many women found a place for themselves within the Buddhist sangha, playing a vital role in the establishment of Buddhism across Indian and into Asia.


Coomsaraswamy, Ananda. “The Indian Origin of the Buddha Image.” Journal of the American

Oriental Society, no. 46 (1926): 166.

Gross, Rita. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of

Buddhism. New York: State University of New York Press. 1993.

Schopen, Gregory.  “On Monks, Nuns and ‘Vulgar’ Practices: The Introduction of the Image

Cult Into Indian Buddhism.” Artibus Asiae, (1988): 153-168.

Shaw, Miranda Eberle. Buddhist goddesses of India. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2006.

Sutherland, Gail Hinrich.  The Disguises of the Demon” The Development of the Yaksa in

Hinduism and Buddhism. New York: Albany State University of New York Press. 1991.

Tharu, Susie J., and Ke Lalita. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. To the Early Twentieth

Century.  New York: Feminist Press, 1991.

Yu, Chun-Fang. Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara. New York:

Columbia University Press. 2001.

Susie J. Tharu, Ke Lalita, Women Writing in India, 65-67. Rita M Gross , Buddhism After Patriarchy:36. The Eight Weighty Rules for nuns, the Garudharma, are as follows:Nuns must rise and bow to monks, Nuns must spend rainy season in retreat with monks as supervisors, Monks demand a twice monthly confession from nuns, Monks will participate in the interrogation of accused nuns, Monks will determine the penalty of accused nuns, Monks must participate in nun’s ordination, Nuns must never reprimand or criticize monks, and Monks may admonish nuns.  There was no reverse of these rules; subordination of women was demanded; the precedent for a gender based hierarchy was established with the creation of these rules.

Ananda Coomsaraswamy, The Indian Origin of the Buddha Image. (Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1926) vol. 46,166.

Gregory Schopen On Monks, Nuns and ‘Vulgar’ Practices: The Introduction of the Image Cult Into Indian Buddhism. (Artibus Asiae, 1988), 161.

Miranda Eberle Shaw. Buddhist goddesses of India. ( Princeton University Press, 2006), 124.

Miranda Eberle. Shaw. Buddhist goddesses of India. ( Princeton University Press, 2006), 120-122.

Miranda Eberle. Shaw. Buddhist goddesses of India. ( Princeton University Press, 2006), 127.

Chun-Fang Yu..Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara. (New York: Columbia University Press,          2001), 4-6.

Chun-Fang Yu..Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 22.

Chun-Fang Yu..Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 223.

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  1. John Johnston Says:

    Good article, nicely written. Glad to see this subject examined.

  2. Kitkatmat Says:

    Hi KT,
    I am reading Dakini’s Warm Breath; The Feminine Principle In Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D.
    I love it.
    I’m also reading Alex Grays Art Psalms. I think you would enjoy both! Look them up online.
    I am listening to 2 cd’s, Dakini Lounge
    & Hotel Tara; The Intimate Side of Buddha-Lounge.
    Best wishes with all your work, it’s wonderful.
    Have a great summer.

  3. general commentary Says:

    general commentary…

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