Bodies of More and Less Value by Oxana Poberejnaia

oxanaThere 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.

Alexandra's Union fees book

Alexandra’s Union fees book

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.

Alexandra's medal for work during WWII

Alexandra’s medal for work during WWII

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.

Evfrosinia with her 5 surviving sons

Evfrosinia with her 5 surviving sons

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 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.

Categories: abuse, Ancestors, Body, Buddhism, In Remembrance, Patriarchy, Women's Suffering

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18 replies

  1. This a really moving post. I am pretty sure most of us have women like this in our ancestry, maybe a few more generations back for some of us. I know quite a few women like this in Greece today. Their lives deserve celebration whether or not we wish to emulate them in our own lives. And you are so right that if we are going to talk about self-sacrifice we should include women throughout history who numbers are legion.

    Your post begs the question of whether or not self-sacrifice is a good thing or not and whether if it is, it makes a difference if it is chosen or imposed. I am thinking of Valerie Saiving’s essay on the sin of self-negation. I would not call your ancestors sinful though the conditions in which their lives occurred may have been. The question Saiving raises is whether or not giving yourself for others without “adequate” (this is a value judgment) concern for yourself is a good thing.

    Have you been thinking about this?

    PS I would add that we should also be asking if the idea of sacrificing oneself as opposed to say loving the world more fully is an ideal that has its roots in war and the sacrifice of the soldier for a supposedly larger cause.


    • Carol, Your question about self-sacrifice is a good one. Until now I have been thinking of the values of war in terms of heroism, giving the soldier a possible immortality that he might not be able to attain through the natural means of having children/grandchildren. But, of course, the reason for this heroic value — maybe he will be sung in the songs and stories of war for his heroism — is that he actually is putting his life on the line, that he’s possibly sacrificing himself. Do you have any more thoughts on this?


      • In Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition, Leslie C. Orr discusses hero stones as a type of memorial of self-sacrifice. This sparked me to remember that Val Plumwood wrote in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature that the warrior ideal was intimately related to Plato’s despisal of the body: just as the warrior sacrifices his body in war, so the philosopher sacrifices his body in the higher cause of philosophy, with the goal for both being some kind of immortality preferable to life in the body.

        Just thinking in general, I don’t see self-sacrifice as part of matriarchal religions, though generosity is. There is a big difference between giving freely out of love for bodies and sacrificing the body.

        By the way, if I were a Christian, I would not focus on Jesus as choosing to sacrifice himself, but rather would explain that his devotion to his vision of a better world for all led without his choosing it to him being sacrificed by others.

        For me, as well, killing the ego and subduing the flesh are violent metaphors.

        I personally am much more likely to be motivated by love for others, than by judgment against my-self for selfishness or ego-centrism.


      • Thank you, Carol and Nancy, for your thoughtful comments! Yes, indeed – self-sacrifice due to oppression is not a good thing.

        In addition, as we know, the oppressive world order all too often is internalised by women just as well as by men. Women might start seeing their identity as sufferers, being proud of it, and some even start imposing this identity on younger women.

        The goal of my post was to juxtapose a male privileged hero who sacrificed his body with female oppressed heroes who sacrificed their bodies. You both point out completely correctly that the issue of willing sacrifice, more love and so on deserves further discussion.


      • And you did that very very well Oxana.


      • Thanks, Carol, for the citations. I don’t know Leslie Orr’s work. I’ll go look for it.


    • Thank you, Carol! So kind of you! You know, in this life, when some things work out and some don’t, when you find understanding from some people, and not from others, this blog is such a great place to be and feel supported by fellow seekers. Best wishes!


  2. An ode to the ancestors. We all stand on their shoulders. If it wasn’t for them, we’d have far fewer choices available to us today. It’s a reminder to respect this time and what we have.


  3. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to your maternal and paternal grandmothers Oxana. We stand on their shoulders as petruviljoen says in her comment. Brave heroic women – conditions forced upon them yet they met their circumstances with grace, love, strength, giving …

    Carol Christ raises important and intriguing questions – I will look out for Saiving’s essay on the sin of self-negation. At this moment I do not know her perspective, but immediately it brings to mind with what I sometimes struggle – the question of serving others to the negation of self, and/or the importance of firstly taking care of one’s self before being of service. Which is more important?

    That need not be the question – perhaps it is both and neither should exclude the other. Both are heroic attempts to be in the world –

    Today as I write it is the Equinox – the autumn equinox here in South Africa. A day when the lengths of days and night are of equal length – in the north, turning to Spring and renewal, in the south, autumn as harbinger of winter – dark, dank.

    But it is a day of balance even if momentarily .. and to which I pay tribute too.


  4. Thanks Oxana. I am deeply moved by the combination you work with as to how values of Buddhism fit in and thus remembering your grandmothers as great bodhisattvas. Our everyday lives are scriptures too.


  5. Very interesting post, thanks!

    I console myself by knowing that this could have been worse: i.e., the story could have specified the king being reborn as a female fish, or blamed the GI epidemic on women! The abhidharma/Sarvastivadin schools are notorious for their ontological essentiallism (I think Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi has written about this).

    Thanks for writing about this!

    Since I am not yet a contributor to this site, I would like to share with you my paper which published Friday on Buddhist ecofeminism, which you and other readers here might enjoy; it compares a Buddhist teacher’s work for women and the environment to feminist theologians’ construction of ecofeminism (Denise Ackermann in particular and others more generally)

    Is South Asia’s Buddhist Leader the Gyalwang Drukpa an Ecofeminist? Dialectical, Grounded Analysis of Eminent Feminist Theology Illuminates the Foundations for a Vajrayana Buddhist Ecofeminism


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