Suggestions of Self-Restraint to Male Monks in the Acaranga Sutra by Elisabeth Schilling

green pathSometimes there are tricky statements in wisdom literature, as we all too-well know. For instance, in Acaranga Sutra—a Jain text on the teachings of Mahavirathe author says, “The world is greatly troubled by women. They (viz. men) forsooth say, ‘These are the vessels (of happiness).’ But this leads them to pain, to delusion, to death, to hell, to birth as hell-beings or brute beasts (I.2.4).

How incredible. A woman has the power to cause a man to regress in his re-birth to a being of hell or brute beast. As a side note, I disagree with the line of progression to enlightenment (I’d rather be born a plant than a humanthey’re more peaceful and therefore wise; humans are the only species on earth to be destructive), but I get the point. This may be why, in another Jain textthe Uttaradhyayanawomen are listed among the twenty-two troubles that “a monk must know and conquer,” (women are number eight). Why? Because “a wise man [. . .] knows that women are a slough. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a slough is an impassible place of muddy ground or mire on the road of one’s journey (n.1, 1.a.), a state or condition, especially of moral degradation, in which a person has sunk (n.1, 1.b.), the skin periodically shed from a serpent (n.2, 1.a.), or a layer of dead tissue formed on the surface of a wound (n.2, 3). In summary, women are something men need to shed for their transformation.

This literature is for male monks whom, I imagine, are assumed to be heterosexual. It is actually in the solution set out for this specific community of readers that I find a potential for compassion when I read it through a feminist lens: “One should teach oneself not to cultivate (sensuality). Thus I say, He should not speak of women, nor look at them, nor converse with them, nor claim them as his own, nor do their work. Careful in his speech and guarding his mind, he should always avoid sin” (Acaranga Sutra, I.5.4).

For instance, when Mahavira says the men should not speak of women, I think that if women were seen as “vessels of happiness or pleasure”—objects to be both desired and feared—in Mahavira’s time, then men were probably speaking of some women in those terms. Perhaps Mahavira felt it was better for them to not talk about women at all until they could speak of them in ways that were less reductive.

When Mahavira tells the men not to look at women, I think about how some men look at some women today. As sexual conquests. As innocent and perpetually sweet childlike beings, angelic and not to be taken as seriously as a man. Some men look at the ways women dress and judge them as too slutty or too butch. Of course, women do this to each other as well. But, in this case, maybe the focus was on the men who couldn’t be trusted to look at women at all until they readjusted the way they looked.

When Mahavira tells the men not to converse with women, I think of the gendered ways men and women can habitually speak to each other. Most immediately, I think of an episode of The L Word when Alice agrees to go on a double date with Dana and Tanya, the latter who couples Alice up with her guy friend, Chris. Dana claims that Alice acts different when she flirts with guys than when she flirts with girls. Dana asks, “Do you have to flirt with him like that? [. . .] I guess girls don’t bring out the ‘Hey what do you do for a living?’ ‘How do I look?’ ‘Do you think I‘m pretty?'” (S2, E4 “Lynch Pin). On one hand, Dana is jealous, and The L Word can lean toward seeming critical of bisexuality, but on the other hand, the scene opens up a discussion of gendered role-play. Also, I think of the old Saturday Night Live skit with an ambiguously-gendered person named Pat. In the skits, neighbors, barbers, and salespersons could not get to a significant level of conversation with Pat because they were all attached to first figuring out “what” he or she or they is. This skit alludes to the potentially gendered ways some people want to converse with each other. Maybe Mahavira might have restricted his male audience from speaking with women so that they could cultivate upekṣā, or equanimity.

Telling men not to claim women is perhaps the most obviously helpful, especially in a culture when women might have been seen as property. But even subtly, I think sometimes people can act as if we own each other. That is how demands, expectations, manipulations, and violence happens in relationships. How would we need to re-adjust our treatment of lovers, families, and even our children if we saw them as ultimately free, unclaimable bodies?

And when he tells men not to do women’s work, I feel that this might assure us he is not speaking to the men as if they should be the protecting benefactors of oppressed women. Maybe he is telling men to get out of our way—to let women do their work, whatever work they choose to do. 

My other point is that I do not think these texts necessarily see women as the problem. Most often the person or object (or objectified person) is neutral, and it is our relationship with it or him or her that is off-balance. If I have a troubled relationship with chocolate brownies, then I cannot demonize that food. Maybe I do need to stay away and figure out how to have a healthier relationship with the brownies, but brownies aren’t evil. This is an idea that is present throughout Indian philosophic literatures, and so I suggest it could be applied here.


Note: This entry is an idea that I presented in a paper at this year’s SASA conference at Claremont McKenna (March 24-26). It is my commentary on an original idea from Dr. Deepak Shimkhada that he asked me to lend my perspective to.

LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.


Author: Elisabeth S.

Elisabeth S. has a Ph.D. in Religion from Claremont Graduate University (2014) and teaches philosophy, literature, creative writing and composition in Colorado.

15 thoughts on “Suggestions of Self-Restraint to Male Monks in the Acaranga Sutra by Elisabeth Schilling”

  1. What is your definition of wisdom literature, would that be equivalent to the scriptures and/or teachings of the so-called main religious traditions, sometimes known as the so-called main patriarchal religious traditions, because their “wisdom” far to often includes the subordination of women? And if the latter is true, in what sense should they be called wisdom traditions with no further qualification? Scriptures or traditional teachings of x religion seems more neutral, wisdom implies that they are where we should turn to understand the meaning of life. And wisdom traditions (plural) seems to imply that all scriptures and traditons of the so-called main religions teach the same message and that identifying this so-called universal message as the central teaching of x or y religion is not a matter of (selective) interpretation. (As I have argued many times on FAR, I believe that all statements as to the essential or core teaching of any tradition–whether it is alleged to be essentially a message of love or liberation or essentially a message of domination are a matter of interpretation: choice of which passages to call central and which to call peripheral or less important).

    Are you aware of Pence’s recent statement that he will not meet with women alone or where alcohol is present without his wife. The problem may be St Augustine’s penis as RRRuether once named it, but those who suffer from this problem are more likely to blame women than themselves. In either case, women are excluded from positions of power by men.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for all of your insight. I do agree that teachings of X is more neutral and I’m putting a value on the literature that I read by calling them “wisdom texts.” I do see the literatures I read as providing life guidance for me, at least I try to see them that way, wondering what I can gain from them. But it is a matter of what I see in them, and my readings take the liberties they need to so that they can work for me. I don’t necessarily seek wisdom from these particular verses about women because they are too painful on their surface, but I want to tell myself that they must be there. Yes, not condemning verses can perpetuate or endorse the subjugation of women. But is it possible to condemn a particular reading of a verse (instead of the verse itself) and offer a new one that works toward redemption? I’m not changing the “need for separation” part, just the reason for separation (putting the blame on the monks and not the women). That is what you really helpfully point out with Pence. But Jain monks are doing this in a context of dealing with their relationship with all subjects/objects of aversion and attachment, i.e., cold, heat, grass, thirst, travel, asana, learning, etc. Jain women (in the Śvētāmbara sect at least) are equally able to reach enlightenment as men. This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems in cultural practice (the menstruation taboo, for example, when entering the temple), but Pence isn’t trying to not cultivate sensuality in all aspects of his life, and the Jain monks in this text are.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I can understand. I am taking creative liberties with these verses, and why? Why try to give the author the benefit of doubt and not just castigate the implication that women are objects of sensuality to be discarded? I guess I feel that those verses are there, and, while one option is to wish them gone, the other option is to just re-read them. I also feel that I’m taking creative liberties, but feel somewhat secure when thinking of the spirit of Jainism (non-violence, equanimity) and the rest of the text. Book II of the Acaranga sutra speaks equally to monks and nuns, instructing them in explicitly equal ways – there are not, except maybe for one or two verses, different instructions.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ve hit on exactly my question to myself, “How can I possibly take these verses about women seriously?”

      The Acaranga Sutra is actually two books, and there are many verses that I used to guide me. For instance, in Book I, lecture 4, it says, “All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law which the enlightened ones who know have proclaimed.” This to me is the spirit of Jainism, so I wanted to find that spirit in these verses. Is that burying my head in the ground, not calling a spade a spade? Maybe.

      But then I also see this verse from Book II: “A monk or nun, putting aside wrath, pride, deceit, and greed, considering well, speaking with precision, [. . .] not too quick, with discrimination, should employ language in moderation and restraint.” So that also led me to feel that the “not converse” with women might have been for this reason – the desire we all speak to each other with moderation and restraint, and maybe the others were in this spirit as well.

      Is it possible to deal with problematic verses like the ones about women in the Jain text by trying to redeem them? I don’t know. Maybe that’s not really helpful at all. But it’s helpful to me when I am trying to take the rest of its literature seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Before reading your post, all I think I knew about the Jains is something I have a vague memory of reading: that their respect for life was such that they wouldnt even kill the fleas sucking their blood. That sounded kinda nuts, but reverence for life is a good philosophy. After reading you post and your replies to our comments…..well, I’ve lost my respect for Jainism.


  2. Jainism, just like Hinduism and Buddhism is inherently misogynistic. Today there appears to be a tendency to intellectualize, rationalize and offer absolution to misogyny in Eastern religions . André Zsigmond


    1. Thank you for your comment. I don’t see misogyny constantly or persistently in the texts I read. Sometimes, of course. But I wonder if we have to throw everything out. It wasn’t everywhere that I wrote I see potential values.

      The first part of my post was very critical. The point is that these men obviously are misguided in the way they are want to see and treat women, and I see the message to them as being basically (and thankfully), “Step away” until you can not harm yourselves and others with that misogyny. What is absolving in this idea? There is absolutely no endorsement of negative male attitudes toward women in my post. I find a POTENTIAL for compassion in the SOLUTION to this misogyny. Thank you for prodding me to make that more explicit.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. LaChelle, Have been pondering your essay. How DO we make religious tradition relevant for us in modernity? The following is an excerpt from Ayesha Chaudry’s piece (3/27/14), “Does the Koran allow wife-beating? Not if Muslims don’t want it to.” The essay refers to the (in)famous “wife-beating verse,” Qur’an 4:34:

    “Religious texts mean what their communities say they mean. Texts do not have a voice of their own. They speak only through their community of readers. So, with a community so large (1.3 billion) and so old (1,400 years), Islamic religious texts necessarily speak with many voices to reflect the varied histories and experiences of the many communities that call themselves Muslim.

    The fact is that 4:34 can legitimately be read both ways – violently and non-violently, either as sanctioning violence against wives or as offering a non-violent, non-hierarchical means for resolving marital conflict. Muslims may follow whichever interpretation they choose, and the inescapable truth is that the interpretation chosen says more about the Muslim in question than it does about the verse. This marvellous agency comes with a heavy responsibility: Rather than holding 4:34 responsible for what it means, Muslims can and must hold themselves responsible for their interpretations.

    Needless to say, this problem is not unique to Islam. Believers from every religious tradition rooted in patriarchal texts must find ways to reconcile evolving notions of gender equality and justice with religious traditions that were interpreted to sanction gender discrimination, social inequality and religious intolerance.

    An essential characteristic of religion is that it must be made relevant to the modern day and yet remain rooted in the past; this, after all, is what gives believers a sense of belonging to a “tradition” that is longer and more permanent than themselves. So, in each attempt to bring religious beliefs in line with developing notions of justice, believers must renegotiate their relationship with a tradition that did not hold these same values.”

    Ayesha’s point (one of them anyway) seems to be that people within a religious community need to decide how to “read out” the text. One of my favorite Islamic Studies theorists, Farid Esack, says: “The Qur’an is fluid. The text is frozen. Interpretation is always chosen.”

    If you are a part of the Jain community, you are doing appropriate work contributing to how the community “reads out” the text. If you are not a part of the Jain community, I believe it’s still appropriate to ask questions of the texts considered “truth.”

    These are my thoughts for now. So much more can be discussed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for taking the time to muse and share your thoughts. Your articulation (“Believers from every religious tradition rooted in patriarchal texts must find ways to reconcile evolving notions of gender equality and justice with religious traditions that were interpreted to sanction gender discrimination, social inequality and religious intolerance”), is really helpful here. Thank you so much for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Judith Plaskow and I were recently discussing the violence in Exodus 15 and Jeremiah 7 with a class. After I finished my exegesis, I said “and that is why I cannot call myself a Christian.” Judith’s answer was that these texts are perfectly horrible and she does not want to redeem or explain away the violence within them. She believes there are other reasons for being Jewish and that Jews must name the negative aspects of the Bible and wrestle with what to do with them when they come up in the liturgical calendar. She does not wish to explain them away.


    1. I appreciate your comments. It is true that trying to explain them away is a great risk. Why try so hard to preserve something that is strongly violent in any way (violence including sexism of course)? If religion serves to cause more problems instead of be a solution, then are we not hurting the world by supporting something that might sooner vanish away if we did not? I suppose we could even retain the tradition/world view (as you say Plaskow does) and say that not all of it is wisdom, that it is not an all or nothing decision. Those are both more certain ways of keeping people from validating their hate by pointing to something supposedly sacred/divine/authoritative.

      I respect, on one hand, Richard Dawkins, for instance, for his, what comes across to me, quite rational departure from religion all together, he feeling it is antiquated, unscientific, and harmful. On the other hand, I feel great compassion and respect for the millions of people who are religious or spiritual in some way. Simply because it doesn’t seem like religion will disappear completely soon is not a good reason to try to fix it, some might say because of my earlier statement (second sentence) of support. I might agree.

      But I also might say, I do not think doing away with religion, even though it has caused harm, will make for a more peaceful world. I really believe we can use it for peace. I do not, myself believe in a God that is a singular or even multi-valent, anthropomorphic, sentient being. I think the universe is living, though, like a plant is living, for instance. But maybe my personal views are beside the point.

      What I think my reason is for being a scholar of religion, seeking personal life guidance from religious texts, and from, then, needing to and being willing to try to reconcile certain parts I see as problematic (such as an “angry god” or the God that is “over” the earth and causing catastrophes – I will actually discuss this in my next post) is because I genuinely see salvific advice in the texts I am familiar with. For instance, the ideas in the Yoga Sutras and Gita about hard work without attachment has been so helpful to me, helpful in taking me from a depressive, suicidal state of isolation about my hopelessness in the academic job market to being, well, a hard worker that is no longer lazy or so entitled. The Gita, bringing it up, is problematic to me because of the war scenario (what do we do if the war is real, so to speak, can we respond to that?), and I still don’t know what to do with it, but I wouldn’t want the Gita to “go away” because, excepting that for now, it is absolutely life-giving to me.

      Christianity is a tradition and literature that I tend to keep a bit of distance from for now simply because that was my personal background of hurt, but reading all of the other literature helps me know I can read Jesus as compassionate and wise as well when I really am ready to take it on again. But I guess I haven’t really answered “why.”

      Can’t I find the guidance somewhere else? Or can’t I embrace only parts of it? To the first question, well I haven’t found this guidance elsewhere in my 36 years. To the second, I hesitate to answer. I still feel I am a really new scholar. I’m just starting to draft my first book, and these blog posts on FAR since August of last year are really my first serious tries at published/public scholarship musings. I just don’t know what I’ll do.

      This exchange has reminded me of the weight and responsibility we bear when we put a statement out into the world where it becomes a living, breathing thing. I remind myself to put out what I think is life-giving and contributive. Many lessons have been reiterated through this exchange.

      And I deeply thank everyone who commented on my words for that. Thank you, Carol, for also being such a mentor and guide in my journey. Perhaps She Who Changes will continue to teach me about uncertainty and imperfection, realities that will help guide my scholarship to a beneficial-for-all path. Much love.

      Liked by 1 person

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: