There is a story in the collection called Avadanasataka (One Hundred Legends) of the Sarvastivadin school, one of the schools of early Indian Buddhism that did not survive to present day, relating one episode from the Buddha’s previous lives. The story is about king Padmaka who sacrificed his life to cure his subjects of a disease. Here is an academic article about this episode.
The Buddha was prompted to tell this story of his previous life in order to illustrate to his monks, once again, the workings of karma. All of the monks in the Buddha’s milieu were sick with a digestive disorder, while he remained well. The Buddha presented the story of king Padmaka as a proof that no good deed is ever lost and that what he had done then has an effect now in that the Buddha has good digestion.
The king Padmaka was virtuous and compassionate. He discovered that only if his subjects eat the flesh of a particular fish the epidemic that has been ravaging his kingdom would be stopped. So the king committed suicide vowing to become that very fish. He dies, is reborn as the special fish, which, in one version of the story is eaten by the people. The fish announced that he was in fact the king who gave his life to his subjects, and that in the future he would come back and liberate sentient beings from the suffering of samsara and lead them to nirvana.
This is a nice story, illustrating many important concepts of Buddhism, including karma, generosity, compassion, and emphasising that nirvana is the ultimate goal, higher even than health and life. So far, so good.
However, one cannot help but notice that the story is still quite patriarchal. The hero is male, and for that matter a privileged male, who, having all the opportunities in the world, makes one heroic decision. Granted, according to one version of the story, his fish body also continues suffering for 12 years. I suspect this aspect of the story is there exactly to pre-empt feminist critique of “at least he only had to die once, whereas women suffer every day”.
I have two alternative stories to the one about king Padmaka. One is about my maternal Great Grandmother. Her name was Alexandra. She was born in 1907 and died when she was 97, having encased in her lifetime the whole time-span of the Soviet Union. Great Grandmother worked since she was a teenager. However, “slaved” would be a better word, as she did not receive a kopeck of salary until she was 50.
In 1957 a “sovkhoz“, a state-owned farm, was organized in her village, which paid its employees some salary. Before that, it was a “kolkhoz“, a collective-owned farm. It “paid” the workers in something that was called “labour-days”, the days that you contributed to the kolkhoz. For these labour days, you possibly could get some services or goods that the kolkhoz could offer. In addition to working in the fields and as a milkmaid, my Great Grandmother also owed the state “natural taxes” in milk, potatoes and other edibles. So she had to work at the kolkhoz and in addition to that to tend her own farm, from which she could only have a share of crops and animal produce. Alexandra’s husband was sent to Stalin’s camps and she had to raise her daughter on her own.
Moreover, my Great Grandmother could not seek employment elsewhere, as domestic identification documents were not issued to villages dwellers until 1974, as Stalin, who started this policy, needed agricultural workers tied to their land so that they kept producing food was needed in the cities – all part of the rapid industrialization project.
If this is not giving up one’s body, I don’t know what is. By the end of her life, Alexandra’s hands looked more like some sort of robotic limbs. And still she was working with those hands, crocheting endless round placemats for us all. At one point, my Mother told me, my Great Grandmother was ready to pass, yet she forced herself to eat so that she could live a bit longer in order to receive pension from the state so that she could help my brother financially.
She had been giving her body everyday: to the state, to her village, to her family. During WWII she produced food that helped the Red Army soldiers overcome the Nazis, for which she received medals after the war. My Great Grandmother was still working on her own farm in her 80s. She was sending us boxes of potatoes, cherry preserves and even eggs when there were food shortages in the Soviet Union.
My second story is about my paternal Grandmother. Her name was Evfrosinia. She had six sons, simultaneously working at the kolkhoz and at their own farm, and at the same time she was producing beautiful embroidery: traditional and modern, flowers and portraits. How she managed – I have no clue. Her alcoholic husband beat her. She outlived him and was still lifting and carrying potato sacks so heavy that I as an 18-year old girl, visiting her, could hardly carry.
By the end of her life my Grandmother could not lift her arms and needed help tying her headscarf. Later on, she lost mobility. A relative – a female relative – had to carry her out of the house. All her sons got married and lived elsewhere.
I am removed from these women only by two and one generation, respectively. And I have a PhD. So I am pretty sure they could have had a PhD or could have become anything they wanted in their lives. However, due to patriarchy and the oppressive aspects of the Soviet regime, they had to give up their bodies and their minds, to a large extent, to tyrants who did not value them and abused their bodies and spirit.
Nevertheless, some parts of their bodies are now alive in me – through their genes, and through the physical nourishment, housing, clothing and human warmth that they had given me in their lifetimes. So I too, like the Buddha, can claim ancestry of the great Bodhisattvas, who gave their bodies for the benefit of others.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a content writer at http://content4you.org. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 9th year. Oxana is now exploring the Sacred Feminine through marking seasonal festivals, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Oxana is an artist and an author. Her works can be found on her blog.