When Ananda was a Woman

Ānanda is well known for his support for bhikkhunis, and his gentle, feminine character, which stands in contrast with the more heroic masculinity of ascetics such as Mahākassapa. His gender was, it seems, problematic for the tradition. The Mahānāradakassapa Jātaka (no. 544, 6.219-255. See also Dhammapada Commentary 1.327.) tells of the time Ānanda was born as the wise and beautiful princess Rujā. Stories of gender change, while known, are rare in Buddhism; and I know of no parallels for this wild story of sexual ambiguity.

Rujā is the faithful and honest Cordelia, who dares to speak the truth to her father the king when he had strayed from the path and there was no-one to show him the dangers of his choices. King Aṅgati ruled the kingdom of Videha from his capital Mithila for many years, until he received evil counsel from an ignorant ascetic. He fell under the view that there was no fruit or result of good or bad deeds, since there was nothing after this life. Accordingly, he neglected his former careful and charitable governance and gave himself over to the pleasures of the senses. No-one could bring him back to the path of righteousness except his only daughter, Rujā, who told her father of her own past lives and her strange kammic inheritance.

I remember seven past lives through which I have fared on, and after passing from here there will be a further seven.

In my seventh previous life I was born as the son of a smith in the city of Rājagaha in Magadha. I had a bad friend and did much evil. We went about sleeping with other men’s wives as if we were immortals. These actions remained laid up as fire covered with ashes.

By means of other kammas I was born in the land of Vaṁsa in a wealthy family of Kosambi, great and prosperous with much riches. I was their only son, and was always honored. There I followed a friend who was devoted to good works, wise and learned, and he established me in good purpose. On many nights I observed the 14th and 15th day uposatha. Those good kammas remained like a treasure hidden in water.

But the fruit of the evil deeds I had done in Magadha came around afterwards like a noxious poison.
From there, O king, I passed to the Roruva hell for a long time, where I was tormented by my kamma: when I think of it I cannot be happy. After experiencing wretched suffering there for many years I was born as a castrated goat in Bheṇṇākata. I carried the sons of the wealthy on my back and in a carriage; this was the specific result of the kamma of going after other men’s wives.

After that I took rebirth in the womb of a monkey in the wilds. On the day of my birth they took me to the leader of the herd, who cried out, ‘Bring my son!’ Grabbing me with force, he ripped off my testicles with his teeth, despite all my cries. Then I was born as a castrated ox among the Dasaṇṇas; though swift and fair, for a long time I pulled a carriage. Next I was born among the Vajjians, but was neither men nor woman, even though born in this human state, so hard to attain. All of these births were the result of my going after other men’s wives.

Then I was born as a gorgeous nymph in the Nandana Grove in Tāvatiṁsa heaven, adorned in bright colors and flashing jewels, singing and dancing in attendance on Sakka. While I was there I remembered the seven previous births, as well as the next seven. The former good deeds I did while at Kosambi have come around in their turn, and from now I will only be born as a human or deity. For seven births I shall be honored, but not until the sixth will I be free of my female gender. At that time I will be born as a supreme male deity in heaven.

In identifying Ānanda with this complex tale of moral ambiguity and gender transgression, the Buddhist tradition records its uncomfortable acceptance of the liberal tendencies that Ānanda demonstrated. The basic character is powerful and brave: she stands beside her father when all others had failed, just as Ānanda stood by the Buddha when he was attacked by the drunk elephant Nāḷāgiri, while all the arahants fled. Standing up to the patriarchy she is, or could be, a great female role model. This is undermined by her identification with Ānanda, and more so due to the dubious gender ambiguity of her past. She is not, it seems, standing up because of her true ‘feminine’ strength, but because she is, quite literally, a man trapped in a woman’s body. Her crime – or rather, the crime of the man who she once was – was adultery; that is, transgressing on another man’s property. The role of the women in the relationship is not considered.

The specific nature of the kammic reprisal is interesting: adultery is punished by gender confusion. It seems the point is that he in some way destroyed or attacked the masculinity of the husbands, which is established by their rule and control over their wives. If the women stray, this sends the message that the husband is not man enough for them. The transgressor is, accordingly, punished by having his genitals attacked, ripped off, missing, or replaced by female genitals. The severity of the punishment is gradually attenuated, until with the ripening of good kamma he takes a positive female form where he can be happy. The image of what constitutes a good female life is entirely a product of the male gaze: a happy woman, he assumes, is sexy and beautiful, dancing and singing for his pleasure. This text, unlike the early Suttas, takes it for granted that the male form is desirable and normative.

Rujā’s eloquent and moving testimony, however, is not enough to persuade her father, for as the text says, ‘while parents naturally love their children’s words, they do not thereby give up their old opinions.’ She did not give up, but made worship to the deities and begged for divine help. No less a being than the Bodhisatta in the form of a Great Brahmā answered her call. He appeared to the king in the form of an ascetic and engaged in a debate on virtue and its results.

The king, wittily enough, challenged the ascetic, saying, ‘If you are so convinced of the truth of the next life, how about you lend me $500 now, and I’ll pay you back $1000 in the next life!’ This incipient Marxist critique, however was refuted, as the ascetic said that no wise man makes a loan to an unreliable person – thus showing that ethics are just as relevant to our prosperity in this life as the beyond.

Reason was not enough, however, for this obdurate king, so the ascetic used his psychic powers to show him in detail the horrors of hells, seeing which the king broke down and begged for redemption. Thus Rujā’s quest was successful in the end, but she needed the help of the ultimate patriarchal authority to succeed.

18 thoughts on “When Ananda was a Woman

  1. Bhante said: ‘This text, unlike the early Suttas, takes it for granted that the male form is desirable and normative.’

    That’s interesting.

    To me this statement suggests that the early authors of Buddhist suttas were more clearly focused on the 4 Noble Truths. So suffering was ‘normative’ and its cessation was ‘desirable’.

    Later authors were perhaps influenced by that which is perceived as the norm even today…that the best sort of pleasure somehow exists in relation to the opposite sex.

    Even feminist critiques of this in popular culture by and large fail to depart from this paradigm.

    That’s why for me, in the end, feminism was just not enough. It required the grace and liberating wisdom of the Triple Gem before it came to life in any meaningful and useful way, for me… For me feminism was not discarded but rather remained as a satellite orbiting the sun of the Dhamma; it still serves as a tool for highlighting suffering and offering compassionate dignity to the human condition; so that all can seek and find that most ‘desirable’ cessation.

    Perhaps Ven Ananda was one of the early feminists and the highly patriarchal society of the time found it incredible to fathom his motivations and so settled for recriminations (i believe he is blamed in some text for not asking the Buddha to delay his parinibbana) and weird explanations about his history and character (such as the one you have posted above).

    Perhaps…

    We do this work on our own at the end of the day. Man or woman, what grace can we offer ourselves? It’s that grace that makes the cultivation of the 8 factors of the 8 fold path easier. And how much easier to have this grace if we are not influenced by painful notions of ourselves (painted with the brush of all the kilesas) that do not encourage confidence in ourselves as seekers of the way… For example those notions that somehow to be female is harder, less than. These things are like a ball and chain that most of us are not aware of. A number of things have made me increasingly aware of the delusion inherent in this particular obstacle. Recently reading Ven Sujato’s book ‘Bhikkuni Vinaya Studies’ seriously challenged any subtle notions that i might find it harder because of being female. I’m even finding that the odd sexist comment or even joke just doesn’t seem to get as massive a rise out of me as it might have done in the past. Such a weird thing to start to feel a sense of personal liberation from issues of gender. Such a nice feeling. Bring on the Dhamma…it feels like it really is for me too!

    Perhaps even i can experience that deep moment of untangling myself from all the notions of ‘self’ that seem right now (and for who knows how long) to continually arise. Perhaps even those powerful gendered notions of self can begin to weaken now and eventually be let go of more and more…

    I’ve heard that we create heaven and hell. Perhaps modern feminism and ancient buddhist feminism are going someway to reshaping the landscape of the heavens. Perhaps in eons to come, the female devas won’t be pictured by humans as most happy in serving their male leader? Perhaps the picture will be more in line with those things that lead to inner happiness. Less sensuality in the heavens too then? Who knows what we are all shaping here…if nothing is permanent, then even the structures of the heavens and hells will not stay the same for ever

    Thanks for helping make the way available to all human beings, regardless of whether they happen to have taken birth as female or as male.

    • Dear Kanchana,

      You said: “Perhaps even those powerful gendered notions of self can begin to weaken now and eventually be let go of more and more…”

      _/\_ May I add that the bottom line also is: Anatta. :)

      “the female devas won’t be pictured by humans as most happy in serving their male leader?”

      I can’t remember where Ajahn Brahm’s talk on this is, but he said that there are no female devas serving male devas. The pleasures devas experienced are based on what the particular devas’ mind cherishes. Well, if we talk on the level that ‘devas’ have substance (or identity or whatever term one prefers to use), then the female devas serving them are just figments of their imagination generated by their good kamma and their desires.

      What I’ve found interesting is Ven Ananda seemed to play an important role in Buddhism and there seem to be a few thought-provoking or debate-worthy tales about him. Using a dramatic art term, other Arahants seem more like ‘flat’ characters and very easy to understand. :)

      Much metta,

      Dheerayupa

    • Thanks for that Dheerayupa. I hadn’t heard that bit about there being no ‘female’ devas…interesting…

      Much metta, K

    • Dear Kanchana,

      Ajahn Brahm did not say that there were no female devas. He said that the ‘female devas’ who are described as serving male devas are not real devas. IMHO, since most, if not all, ancient texts were written by males, the sensual heavens were men’s fantasies. Who knows, sensual heavens for female devas might be quite interesting. Hee! Hee!

      BTW, I may have a chance to see you at a Friday Night’s talk in April… :)

      Mega metta,

      Dheerayupa

    • Dear Dheera

      I think there’s at least one story from the Vimanavatthu of a female deva from the Nimmanarati heaven. Apparently, the denizens of this heaven are able to create their own playmates.

      I wonder what this devi would have engineered to be her playmate?

      Just being cheeky!

  2. Hmm, most interesting. Bhante, have you contrasted this Jataka with the Dhammapada Commentarial account of Sorreya, who was first father, and then a mother, on account of his lustful thoughts directed at Ven Mahakaccana? The emasculation of Sorreya did not seem to have stemmed from his adultery/ “usurping” of a male’s property in a wife, but from his kamma being directed at another male.

    Against the Sorreya account, can be contrasted the Commentarial account dealing with Ven Vakkhali, arguably a case of a “gay” monk – he ordained because he was in love with the Buddha. No gender transformation in this case though.

  3. “In identifying Ānanda with this complex tale of moral ambiguity and gender transgression, the Buddhist tradition records its uncomfortable acceptance of the liberal tendencies that Ānanda demonstrated” not sure about that. Seems lika a bit of a leap you have mad there Bhante.

    • Fair enough, it’s a leap, but I stand by it.

      The point is that these stories do not become associated with certain people for no reason. Someone, sometime, thought it was natural for such a story to be associated with Ananda, not Mahakassapa or Sariputta.

      Ananda was ‘liberal’ on a number of fronts, not just women: the texts associate him with democracy rather than hierarchy, with the fourfold assembly rather than just the bhikkhus, and so on. The Buddhist tradition has always had an ambivalent attitude towards these notions, as it does today, and frequently has inclined to a more ‘conservative’ position. Likewise, the Ruja Jataka is deeply ambivalent regarding women, yet in the end she is a hero.

      Thus she, and by extension Ananda, are ‘accepted’ within the tradition, but their memory is complex and associated with problems (such as those raised by Mahakassapa at the First Council) and hence ‘uncomfortable’.

      If not this, then do you have any other suggestions as to why this association between Ruja and Ananda come about, and what is the significance? It is, in any case, an extraordinary tale which calls for some reflection…

    • Dear Bhante

      I’ve always been a more than a little troubled by the suttas’ portrayal of Ven Mahakassapa as a rather grumpy arahant, versus the very soft and cuddly images of Vens Sariputta and Ananda. Leaving aside the account of the First Council, Ven Mahakassapa and Ven Ananda seem to be set up as 2 very stereotype/archetype characters acting as foils to one another. We have those stories of the bhikkhunis Thullananda and Thullatissa rushing to defend Ananda from Mahakassapa’s admonitions, and Mahakassapa’s rather grumpy reaction to these 2 nuns. One would have thought that a Arahant would be bereft of patighanusaya, but the accounts are very difficult to reconcile with the Ideal.

      Worse, in the Thullatissa episode, we see Ananda very out of character when he tries to soothe Mahakassapa’s feathers by blaming Thullatissa’s outburst on account of her being a woman.

      Do you think these accounts are historical or simply the imaginings of the early redactors in trying to consolidate Mahakassapa’s role in the First Council?

    • Hi Sylvester,

      Yes, the points you make are very valid. I think in the figures of Ananda and Mahakassapa we see genuine historical figures, with distinct personalities, which have been used by the Buddhist tradition as expressions of archetypes, or political/historical movements or perspectives. The drama of these encounters comes from the intersection of these two aspects. My book White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes looks at this in some detail.

  4. Well if it is about creating an archetype and using that archetype in a skillful way that’s one thing. But what troubles me is that the lines between a historical figure and a mythical story get blurred and the created archetype takes on an authority, which it actually doesn’t deserve (hope this makes some sense)

  5. “Rujā is the faithful and honest Cordelia, who dares to speak the truth to her father the king”

    An interesting comparison. Here’s an account of Cordelia’s role in King Lear:

    “Despite her eventual defeat [she is captured and hung by her sisters], Cordelia is truly the moral hero of the play, sacrificing all and transcending the traditional female role for the sake of loyalty, love, and truth.”

    (from http://womenshistory.about.com/od/goddesseurope/p/cordelia.htm)

    The comparison with Cordelia makes me wonder whether we could see the intervention of the Bodhisatta at the end of Ruja’s tale, not as signifying her need to appeal to “ultimate patriarchal authority,” but rather her need for the skills associated in Greek mythology with Hermes, the messenger god (the one with the cute little wings on his sandals – not exactly a patriarchal figure). The qualities of faithfulness, love and truth are beyond gender difference, but to be effective they must be communicated in a form that can reach the individual listener, here the patriarchal and sensual King.

    Ruja’s (assisted) success in this respect sheds some light on Cordelia’s failure – despite the depth of her faithfulness and love, Cordelia was not trusted by her father, or her competitive sisters, and became isolated and vulnerable. The comparison with the Buddhist tale suggests a reading of King Lear as a tragedy of failed communication. Ruja’s story on the other hand seems like a powerful encouragement to persist and make skillful use of all means available (gentle or graphically explicit, feminine or masculine, human or divine) in order to communicate the truth of the dhamma to the ones we love.

  6. … The role of the women in the relationship is not considered.

    The specific nature of the kammic reprisal is interesting: adultery is punished by gender confusion. It seems the point is that he in some way destroyed or attacked the masculinity of the husbands, which is established by their rule and control over their wives. If the women stray, this sends the message that the husband is not man enough for them. The transgressor is, accordingly, punished by having his genitals attacked, ripped off, missing, or replaced by female genitals.

    I would not conclude that the point is the transgression against the husbands.

    My conclusion would be, that it’s about mis-use of sexuality.

    It would seem, that the Blacksmith’s son & friend were not your garden variety adulterers, rather adultery was their past-time, hobby and challenge.

    The male mind is excited by conquest and delighted by power – ultimately, the goal is to get the woman to submit to his will, and often, the less willing she is, the better. The question is, what means is he willing to use to accomplish the goal?
    Presumably for a career adulterer, ever trying to up the excitement, up the danger, “living as if immortal”, anything would go – however immoral. The game would work in this way, a woman is targeted, the goal is to have sex with her, by any means necessary. This would range from showing her a good time to enticement, deception, black-mail, coercion – even out-and-out rape if all efforts to persuade her fail – but presumably the career adulterer would know the tricks and mind-games really well – he’s certainly not going to show himself as he really is to his victims, he would invariably deceive them. So I don’t read the adultery as being evil in and of itself, but rather the evil is committed towards the ends of adultery, and this evil is in the form of deception, intimidation etc.
    (And I think it’s fair to say, that more blame lies with the manipulator, than the manipulated)

    So here, the context would be severe mis-use of masculinity, with extreme contempt for femininity, and given that context, the “punishment” is appropriate – use it wrongly and lose it.

  7. Dear Blake,

    Sadhu to your insight and analysis. It has made much sense to a simplistic mind like mine. :)

    Thank you.

    Much metta,

    Dheerayupa

  8. The interpretation of this Tipitaka scripture seems very conjectural and P. C. biased. Should we be surprised? Of course not.

  9. The whole story is the subjective experience of one person, and is shaded by his/her beliefs and experiences in previous lives.

    The specific nature of the kammic reprisal is interesting: adultery is punished by gender confusion.It seems the point is that he in some way destroyed or attacked the masculinity of the husbands, which is established by their rule and control over their wives. If the women stray, this sends the message that the husband is not man enough for them. The transgressor is, accordingly, punished by having his genitals attacked, ripped off, missing, or replaced by female genitals.

    I don’t believe that punishment is enforced by an external force, there is no overseer who decides how one is to be “punished” for their actions in previous lives. Instead I believe each soul punishes itself. The reincarnated soul himself believed that he had done wrong by committing adultery, and believed that an appropriate punishment was to be castrated, born as a female or to have his testicles mutilated. Thus this is what happened. The view that men rule and control their wives, and that straying women meant husbands were not man enough for them is just his own view, and influenced the way in which he received punishment – it doesn’t necessarily mean that the view is correct, just that this is what he believed.

    The image of what constitutes a good female life is entirely a product of the male gaze: a happy woman, he assumes, is sexy and beautiful, dancing and singing for his pleasure.

    Because this is how he/she that experienced and recalled the previous lives thinks of a happy woman. Perhaps that is how Rujā herself (in this life) would wish to live? Remember that these previous lives and the perspective offered to us of them is subjective and coming from a fallible human soul that experienced them, not an objective outside observer, or a deity or god that might know the “truth”. The soul himself (herself) believes this to be true, and so it is, for him (her).

    This text, unlike the early Suttas, takes it for granted that the male form is desirable and normative.

    Again this is how the soul recalling its previous life thinks, this is testimony from the mouth of a human female that recalls being male and being “punished” for acting badly as a male by being reborn as a female. Of course then, subjectively, the “norm” would to become male again when the “punishment” has ceased. This is a subjective view of the person experiencing these lives, not an objective view of someone outside of the cycle. A god or deity may not see being made female as a punishment, but to the transgressor (and probably to the men listening to the story) this was clearly felt as a punishment – and so it is recalled as being so.

    She is not, it seems, standing up because of her true ‘feminine’ strength, but because she is, quite literally, a man trapped in a woman’s body.

    Why does she feel that she is a “man trapped in a woman’s body”? Perhaps because the first life she remembers was a male, and so she feels this is her “true” gender? Do souls have a gender? When they are incarnated into a physical form they do, and their beliefs and thoughts are influenced by that form. If they reincarnate as the opposite gender and then recall their thought processes and beliefs from a previous life, there could be gender confusion as they seek to reconcile the differing male and female perspectives / personalities.

    Her crime – or rather, the crime of the man who she once was – was adultery; that is, transgressing on another man’s property. The role of the women in the relationship is not considered.

    The women’s role is not considered because since she is a “man trapped in a woman’s body” she is thinking like a man, and probably taking full responsibility for the transgression (believing the women to be too weak to stand up and prevent such a transgression perhaps?). Also, we do not know what happened to the women he committed adultery with – they are not telling the story. Its perfectly plausible that they received karmic punishment in a similar or different way to the transgressor himself, but he of course would not know this as he was reborn somewhere else, and so he/she might believe that they were not punished, or not even consider whether they were or not.

    Thus Rujā’s quest was successful in the end, but she needed the help of the ultimate patriarchal authority to succeed.

    Of course she did, she was living in a time where men made all the decisions and didn’t take women’s contributions seriously. The fact that she needed help from a male only proves that her father was dismissive of her opinion and story for whatever reason (perhaps because she was young, female, or because he didn’t want to believe her), not that she was unpersuasive or weak.

    • Hi Cellany,

      Thanks for these thoughtful reflections.

      One of the differences in our approaches, which I think leads to some of the interpretive differences, is that you are reading the story as a personal one, whereas I am reading it as a communal text. For me, such texts are an expression of a community. They are not created by an individual, but evolve through multiple tellings over a long time. As such, they express values, often in subtle or unconscious ways, that are felt within the community.

      This is not to say, however, that there is no individual dimension to them. Obviously, a community is a group of individuals, and ultimately it is one person who has said these things in the form that we have them. So readings from different perspectives are useful, even essential.

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