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.