December – a Women’s Month


December is the month of Christmas. Jesus Christ is the venerated person of the month. Santa Claus too plays an important role at this season. Then why do I identify the month of December with women? Mostly because it is in this last month of the year, on the Unduvap Poya day, that Venerable Sanghamitta Theri is especially remembered and venerated.

Theri Sanghamitta

Born in 256 BC to Emperor Ashoka and Vidisa Devi, Sanghamitta, the younger sister of Mahendra (Mahinda) was married, according to records, at age 14, to Agribrahmi – a nephew of King Ashoka, and had a son, Sumana. She ordained as a Buddhist nun when she was 18. When a request came to Emperor Ashoka, from King Devanampiyatissa to send a nun to Lakdiva to start a Theravada Bhikkhuni order, he was willing to do so, but not accede to the request to send his daughter as suggested by his son Thera Mahinda, now established in this land. But Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta requested she be sent to the newly Buddhist country and that’s how we received a sapling of the bo tree under which Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment to become the Buddha.

The story goes that Theri Sanghamitta, aged 32, landed in the north of the Island in Jambukola, and thus a vihara in Jaffna that claims she landed at the site of the temple. She traveled in procession to Anuradhapura where the sapling she brought in a golden bowl was planted in the Mahameghawana Grove. The tree lives to be venerated, and is acknowledged to be the oldest historically recorded tree in the world.

Theri Sanghamitta entered the nuns’ order 114 years after the Parinibbana of the Buddha. There was a strong nuns’ order in the time of the Buddha with the beautiful story that his foster mother, Prajapathi Gotami, was the first ordained nun in his dispensation. She had pleaded for long that nuns be permitted ordination but the Buddha was reluctant to give permission to women to leave their lay lives and enter the monastic path, most probably because he felt it would disrupt families and children would be uncared for. The Buddha in his wisdom 26 centuries ago recognized that the most important person in a household is the wife/mother. Finally Prajapathi Gotami induced Ananda Thera to plead on her behalf. Women like Patacara who lost her entire family within a day and Kisa Gotami who refused to accept the fact her child was dead, were consoled by the Buddha’s preaching and became nuns. Thus came into Buddhist literature the Theri Gathas of nuns during the Buddha’s time giving expression to their frustrations, hardships of lay life, and the joy of finally attaining arahantship. The translated first and last stanza of the 6 stanza gatha of Theri Vimala is apt here:

Infatuated was I/ With my beauty, wealth and fame;

Arrogant of my youthfulness/ I did look down on other women.


Broken asunder have I/ Bonds – divine and human;

Having gone beyond lust and desire

Calm of mind I became/ And serene.

And Theri Patacara recites:

One day, washing my feet, /I watched the water trickling down From high ground to the low/And I set my mind on it.

Then going to sleep at night she put out the lamp and Just as the flame went out/So was my mind set free.

Ayya Khema

Many Sri Lankan Buddhist women will remember Ayya Khema and also give her merit for leading them on to meditation. A German Jew who converted to Buddhism, Ayya Khema was dynamic, a disciplinarian but inside of her stern exterior a woman with minor foibles who loved a good laugh. She was brave and undaunted. She suffered from cancer and was in Sri Lanka after an operation or two. None of us lay woman knew of her illness, only that during ten day retreats she would live solely on water, not even tambili, for a day or two. But not one meditation sitting would she miss; not once did she stay away in her kuti. She went to San Francisco and got higher ordination as a nun, and as she told us, in the Mahayana tradition, the only available tradition for higher ordination for women. Giving up her Nuns’ Island close to the Island Hermitage on the Ratgama Lake in Dodanduwa, she returned to Germany refusing to live again behind barbed wire. The Island Hermitage Head Monk advised barbed wiring Nuns Island to keep JVPers out in the late 1980s. Ayya Khema died about ten years ago, leaving us a legacy of her books and a very inspiring and loved memory.

The lineage of Theravada nuns was broken here in this country and also in other Theravada Buddhist countries. Ten preceptors however, have sought higher ordination and received it under the Mahayana order. It is good we have the yellow robed ordained nuns in Sri Lanka today, Ven Kusuma leading them, as they filled the vacant space of the four major groups in Buddhist society: monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.

Women coming into their own

We have been reading how the vast subcontinent of India has raised its voice as a concerted women’s voice against the sexual violence of men. The gang rape of a university student in New Delhi roused the ire and thus the protest of women in India. It has shaken society all across India and the Prime Minister himself has made a proclamation that rape will be dealt with more severely henceforth. His pronouncements are trustworthy. The perpetrators of the crime were apprehended and are in jail. Give it to the Indians to take up a cause and raise a huge hue and cry and get results.

The gang rape in India brings to mind Pradeshiya Sabha members of Sri Lanka who are alleged to have committed the same crime and heinously – one of an injured Russian woman after murdering her companion, a British citizen, and another restraining a young girl for several days and raping her at various hotels and homes. These said-to-be-rapists are moving around freely. Our Sri Lankan women are vociferous in groups and singly too, but to no effect it must be admitted, merely taking the two instances I refer to.

Women in politics

That subtitle immediately brings to mind Aung San Suu Kyi and how her non-violent quiet resistance has brought results in that she won an election; she is in government and her party followers who were imprisoned set free. She made tremendous personal sacrifice for her country and is now able to serve it more evidently and forcefully. We await the day when she will be leader of Burma.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike is remembered with mixed feelings. She brought international fame to our country by being the first woman to be elected Prime Minister and was dubbed at one time ‘the only male in the Cabinet.’ We also regretfully remember her firm strictures on foreign exchange control so that those going overseas could only carry a few dollars and less pounds sterling; this in the face of her daughters being educated abroad.

Sonia Gandhi also takes centre stage when one talks of political women. She is to be admired even more than the two I have mentioned because being an Italian, she completely Indianized herself and is accepted as the head of the country through her being president of the ruling Congress Party. Admirable also is the fact she refused to be Prime Minister but instead voted in an Indian economist who had done good for the country as its Finance Minister.

Sri Lankan woman politicians

On the whole, the entire batch of women members of Parliament leave much to be desired. In my mind the only person to be admired unreservedly and worthy of mention is Thalatha Atukorale, a consistent campaigner for rights. I had been, in discussions with friends, voting for Rosy Senanayake, even saying she should be given the mantle of leader of the UNP. She blotched her copybook with her demand (or so it is said) for Australian golden syrup and other exotics for breakfast in the Parliament canteen. She is clever, equally fluent in Sinhala and English, may know Tamil or will learn it, but she let herself down with the canteen fiasco. However, she calls for admiration and given power will make a good leader.

The others, mostly film stars, I will not mention. I must however say that I blush when I consider how the girl Pabha – MP for Gampaha with high preferential votes - said at an interview she did not know about the 17th Amendment and 18th though she crossed over from the UNP, the party that got her into Parliament, to vote for the 18th. Another actress cum model is better known for her partying in St Kitts while a bid was made to hold the Commonwealth Games in Sri Lanka. She was quoted as saying she hardly knew Sinhala and that she came forward to contest to serve in the Southern Provincial Council due to being asked to do so by a certain Aiya!

The women who lost loved ones in the civil war and after are a band to be cheered on. They have serious grievances, but in this country of ours, protests by women have not been anywhere near what the Indian women mount. Women need to band themselves and demand justice and a lowering of the cost of living. They are the ones who suffer most since children cannot understand the difficulty of making household financial ends meet and husbands, in the majority, leave much to be desired in their treatment of their wives, especially if they are sole breadwinners.

On that note I end my last column for 2012, with a sincere good wish to women of Sri Lanka to be stronger in standing up for rights. May the New Year be a much kinder year to this wonderful country of ours!

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...