jainism, women and equality
in the time of mahavira, jainism brought a more enlightened attitude to indian religious culture.
jainism is a religion of equality
jainism is a religion of religious equality, devoted to recognizing the rights of all living creatures, so it’s not surprising that it accepts that women are able to play their part on the road to liberation.
but although jainism is in many ways dedicated to equality, for some jains a woman’s very femaleness creates spiritual inequality.
the period when jain religion emerged as a major religion also saw casteism and class-hatred ruling supreme. a few of the classes or castes styled themselves as superior to others and the inferior classes were required to serve them as bonded laborers. jain religion opposed this inhuman class distinction and glorified the soul that dwelt within each human being. therefore, it emphasized equality between men and women. jainism regarded women as equal partners of men in strong contrast to the common concept of woman as an inferior being. in the jain fold, religious and social functions, a woman enjoys as many rights as a man does; it would therefore be sheer ignorance to treat woman as inferior. jain religion has pre ached that where a man goes, woman can go; what a man does, woman can do.
achievements of man and woman should be considered as being on equal level. matters of religious achievements and self development are related to the soul rather than to the body and the difference of sex as merely on the physical plane. woman is thus equally at liberation by freeing themselves from the bondages of desires, passions and doings that is karma. jain religion pointed out that there is no difference or distinction as far as the souls of a man and a woman are concerned, on the spiritual plane. thus it would be illogical, irreligious and ignorant for a man to treat woman as an inferior. thus the approach of jain religion towards woman is based on the concept of equality.
the sectarian divide:
the digambara jain sect believes that women cannot achieve liberation without being reborn as men first. the svetambara sect disagrees.
nakedness digambara jains hold this view because they believe that nakedness is an essential element of the road to liberation.
mahavira himself, whose life shows jains the way to liberation, set an example of total nudity that digambaras believe monks should follow. since women are not allowed to be naked in public they cannot achieve liberation directly, and so are seen as second-class citizens.
this ban on female nakedness is partly intended to protect both men and women:
- if women went around naked it would cause men to experience sexual desire and the desire produced would hinder the man’s progress to liberation.
- naked women would feel ashamed of being naked and the feeling of shame would hinder their progress to liberation.
- it’s also intended to prevent the disruptive consequences of allowing women to walk around naked.
- ahimsa and women
digambaras also believe that women are inherently himsic (which is best translated as harmful). this comes partly from a belief that menstrual blood kills micro-organisms living in the female body.
the killing of the micro-organisms is said to show that a female body is less non-violent than a male body – although that idea doesn’t have any scientific support and isn’t found in modern jain thinking.
some jain texts say that menstrual blood is a sign of impurity.
but the idea that women are spiritually impure because of menstruation is a rather odd basis for a jain argument, since jainism usually concerns itself with thinking, speaking, and acting rightly – there isn’t any other area where jainism says that involuntary bodily functions are a spiritual obstacle.
another argument is that because a woman’s nature is to care for children and other dependants, she will find it much more difficult to break free from these earthly attachments, and unless she does this, she cannot achieve liberation.
man women relationship
jain religion has also probed some of the deeper aspects of man- woman relationship. the significance of the word nari had been fully explained in ‘sutrkrutang niryukti’ and in ‘churni’ woman has been classified as ‘dravya stri’ and ‘bhav stri’. dravya stri would mean the physical formation of a woman and bhav stri would mean her temperament. also in ‘uttradhyayan churni’, ‘nishith churni’ and ‘acharang churni’ the female temperament is elaborately described. again, ‘tandulvaicharik prakirnak’ dwells upon some 94 innate characteristics of women.
indeed, at some places the description seems to be derogatory but it is specifically mentioned in ‘bhagvati aradhana’ that this description of the shortcoming applies only to ordinary women and women of no chastity, whereas women of chastity have no such shortcomings. moreover, in praise of women this book mentions how the glory of a virtuous woman spreads everywhere and she is like a goddess on earth. she is worshipped even by the gods and no words are adequate enough to praise her. it is for this reason that the jain agams regard wife as ‘dhammasahaya’ – as one who helps in religion.