Sometimes 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 Mahavira—the 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 human—they’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 text—the Uttaradhyayana—women 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.