Critical Review of the Debate of Man-Woman Equality

Published: 01.03.2012
Updated: 30.07.2015


Critical Review of the Debate of Man-Woman Equality

(In Digambara, Śvetāmbara, Yāpanīya and Contemporary Perspective)

A paper submitted for presentation in a U.G.C sponsered National Seminar on 'Women and Jainism' on 11th - 12th February 2012, organized by Shri Atma Vallabha Jain Museum, Acharya Nagarjuna University, Nagarjuna Nagar (A.P.)


In Jain tradition, the equality of man and woman is considered in respect to mokṣa or nirvana and in this context they consider the impossibility of a woman to attain nirvana as she fails to establish her as complete possessionless due to inability of her being nude. Ācārya Kundakunda has explicitly opposed attainment of liberation from woman birth. [1] Based on this, the post Kundakunda literature have further enhanced the view of non-liberation from woman soul and thus increased the gap between man and woman similarity. In this paper the points of man-woman inequality highlighted by the Digambaras are noted down from the original Digambara texts. We can sum up the Digambara views about a woman in nutshell, likewise: -

  • A woman cannot attain liberation in strī-paryāya but man can attain mokṣa from purua-paryāya. [2]
  • Man can observe five bigger vows and of course the vow of non-possession completely. He can accept nudity very easily. Due to social constraints a woman cannot observe the vow of complete nudity. Hence her vows remain incomplete. [3]
  • A monk observing five bigger vows are eligible to be worshipped. A nun cannot enjoy this status. [4]
  • In Jain śāstras six bodily statures (sahananas) are mentioned. Among them the first three statures are strong. A woman cannot have strong bodily statures so they are called abalā [5]
  • By nature, bodily impurities are found more in a woman than in a man. [6]
  • Therefore woman is not eligible to possess the pious scriptural knowledge. [7]
  • A monk possessing scriptural knowledge is eligible for pahaa, pāhaa, adhyāpana and vācanā, whereas a woman cannot. [8]
  • As a corollary, a nun cannot acquire a designation like Ācāryā, Upādhyāyinī etc. [9]
  • - Since a woman is deprived of knowledge the expertise in conversation (vādaddhi) becomes a privilege of man. [10]
  • Only a man can acquire the iddhis and siddhis like āmosahi etc. [11]
  • The mystical power and mystical body which is used for the removal of doubts is also a privilege of a spiritual man. [12]
  • In a spiritual ladder, a man can progress up to the end stage but a woman can reach only up to the fourth stage i.e. samyaktva. [13]
  • Treachery, crookedness and deceitfulness is inherent in a woman. [14]
  • Through cruelty is naturally inherited in a woman, yet she does not cross the upper limit of cruelty. Hence she never dwells in the seventh hellish region. [15]
  • As a corollary, she cannot attain the extreme state of bliss that is mokṣa. [16]

Thus the Digamber granthās have succeeded in proving the assumption that a woman is far inferior to a man. Commentator Guṇaratna in his book śa-darśana-sammuccya has elaborated the long going debate of man-woman-equality. He has proved that a woman is not inferior to man in all respects, at all levels and times.

1. Man-woman-equality in Yāpanīya tantra

According to the views of the eminent Jain historians, Yāpanīya Saṁgha tried to reconcile the views of Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras right from the 6th-7th century. Concerned persons may go through the history books written on Yāpanīyas. [17]

Haribhadra quotes in Lalitavistarā: -

यथोक्तं यापनीयतन्त्रे - 'णो खलु इत्थी अजीवो, ण यावि अभव्वा, ण यावि दंसणविरोहिणी, णो अमाणुसा, णो अणारिउप्पत्ती, णो असंखेज्जा उया, णो अईकूरम ई, णो ण उवसन्तमोहा, णो ण सुद्धाचारा, णो असुद्धबोंदी, णो ववसायवज्जिया, णो अपुव्वकरणविरोहिणी, णो णवगुणठाणरहिया, णो अजोग्गा लद्धी ए, णो अकल्लाणभायणं ति कहं न उत्तमधम्मसाहिय ' त्ति । [18]

The meaning is: -

A woman is not a non-living being, not incapable to attain liberation (abhavya), not devoid of right faith, not a non-human, not a non-Aryan, not having life-span of infinite years, not having extreme cruelty, not having insatiable passions like moha, not unable to observe right conduct, not having bodily impurity, not without efforts to attain other-worldly merits, not unable to attain the last nine stages of the ladder, not possesses non-eligibility to acquire mystical powers and ultimate good, then how can one think about a woman to deprive her from the supreme goal of human life?”

Thus the Yāpanīyas establish the man-woman-equality in sixteen points. They start from the lowest category and the further five points are really beyond debate and suspicion. These points are derived from the philosophical framework provided by Jainism which are agreeable to all sects. The further points throw light on woman's mental, moral, intellectual and spiritual capacities.

The points of having complete aparigrahī, nudity and physical stature are not dealt with in the above-mentioned passage. It is a creditable effort to point out man-woman-equality without being partial and biased on sector.

2. Haribhadra's exposition of Yāpanīya views (as documented in the commentary Lalita-vistarā)

A verse of Caitya-vandana-sūtra runs like this: -

इक्को वि नमुक्कारो जिणवर वसहस्स वद्धमाणस्स।

संसारसागरा ओ तारे इ तरं व नारीं वा ॥३॥ [18]

Haribhadra thinks that the words ' नरं व नारीं वा ' - is the right opportunity to expose the debate of man-woman-equality. During the time of Haribhadra (i.e. 8th century) the spread of Buddhism was at its peak. The contemporary Buddhist thoughts were quite liberal towards woman. It might have inspired Haribhadra to express Jain views about woman which were congruent with the non-absolutistic spirit of Jain thoughts.

The debate of man-woman-equality, the intellectual gymnastics of Haribhadra, his rationality, power of reasoning and impartiality is really praiseworthy which is depicted in the lengthy commentary on Caitya-vandana-bhāṣya. Considering the limitations of a research paper, it is not possible to scrutinize the whole reasoning of Haribhadra. But when one goes through the whole debate, [20] one feels that at some places Haribhadra has a topsy-turvy in the matter and he has by-passed the real issue. We can enumerate the issues likewise: -

  1. Haribhadra picks up the issue of being an Āryan or non-Āryan according to the scriptures. If Haribhadra would have taken a position that - 'all the Āryans (whether a male or female) are uttama-dharma-sādhakas and all non-Āryans are not' - then it would have been more logical. But he avoids to speak about non-Āryan males and speak about non-Āryan females. This hesitation is probably due to the examples of Harikeśa Cāṇḍala etc. found in scriptures. Therefore there is a scope of doubt that Haribhadra has treated non-Āryan males and non-Āryan females with a certain discrimination.
  2. All the Jain sects - viz. Digambaras, Yāpanīyas and Śvetāmbaras hold the same view about the cruelty of womenfolk. They think that extreme cruelty is the privilege of males. Therefore a woman is unable to take birth in the seventh hell and bear the hardships (upasargas). It is expected from Haribhadra that in this issue, he could have said that, 'both man and woman can go to the seventh hell.' In this matter Haribhadra accepts the scriptural views and stamps incapability of 'the worst variety of raudradhyāna' of womenfolk. But unlike Digambaras, Haribhadra mentions that,'without having gone to the seventh hell, a woman can attain the ultimate bliss i.e. nirvaa.'
  3. A special point is noted down by Haribhadra at the end of the debate concerned to the scriptural studies. Haribhadra opines that the sādhvīs are not eligible for scriptural studies and naturally for the reaching the same. Prohibition of scriptural studies for women is not actually seen in the scriptural texts. [21] But with the advent of time, during the 8th century A.D., the socio-cultural background denied formal and religious education to womenfolk in India in general and to Jain nuns in particular. Haribhadra tries to compensate this injustice by some lame arguments. He says, 'there is a negation of śabdaśruta and not of bhāvaśruta to women.'

Thus we can conclude that though Haribhadra advocates a lot in favor of women, the issues of

  1. Āryan and non-Āryan,
  2. the arguments of saptama naraka and
  3. the negation of dravyaśruta -

show the philosophical and social limitations to his advocacy.

3. Guaratna's arguments on man-woman-equality:

Haribhadra's Ṣaṭ-darśana-samuccaya possesses an esteemed position among the Darśana-saṁgrahas. While depicting Jain views Haribhadra mentions: -

बद्धस्य कर्मणः साटो यस्तु सा निर्जरा मता।

आत्यन्तिको वियोगस्तु देहादिर्मोक्ष उच्यते॥ [22]

Guṇaratnasūri (later half of the 14th century A.D.) picks up the issues of man-woman comparison in the context of the above mentioned verse. His long debate [23] is presented in the light of Digambara views. The methodology and expression is totally different from Yāpanīya-tantra and Lalita-vistarā.

Guṇaratna seems to be totally against the inferior and under-privileged position of womenfolk. He raises questions about the criteria of this position and negates one by one.

After the critical examination of the thirteen points presented by Guṇaratna, we can say in nutshell that: -

The uniqueness in bringing out the points of man-woman-comparison is remarkable. Guṇaratna pleads four points viz. observance of vows, nudity, aparigraha and cloths, very successfully. He mentions the mental, moral, intellectual and spiritual capacities of women which are similar to men. Guṇaratna accepts the bindings imposed by scriptures about the seventh hell with a meager opposition. He is unable to go beyond the customary practices about the vandanīyatā of a monk. We cannot expect application of the model of social justice from Guṇaratna in the field of education and other skills, considering the socio-cultural conditions of the medieval period. The accusation of treachery and deceitfulness is not fought out fully by Guṇaratna.

But to sum up, we can say that, the credit goes to Guṇaratna to drag out the debate of man-woman-equality from the mokṣa-based arguments and to opt fresh outlook like the criteria of superiority and inferiority.

4. The debate of man-woman-equality in darśanavijayajī's book

In 20th century (exactly 1943) Muni Darśanavijayajī wrote a book named 'Śvetāmbara-Digambara-Samanvaya'. In this book he had treated several issues of the sectarian controversy. Man-Woman-debate is one of the part of his book. Muniji followed a unique methodology. Though he was a Śvetāmbara, he studied all important Digambara texts (viz. Ṣaṭkhanḍāgama, Kundakunda literature, Gommaṭasāra etc.) very minutely. All the issues concerned to this debate were put together from the Yāpanīyas, Haribhadra and Guṇaratna. Muniji exerted a lot to put forth the points of man-woman-equality from the actual citations drawn from the Digambara texts. [24]

It seems that at many places he is successful in establishing man-woman-equality but at few places he has taken shelter of far-fetched reasoning to draw favorable conclusions. The main theme underlined by Darśanavijayajī is likewise: -

"The obstinacy of nudity led the Digambaras to accept many views against the man-woman-equality."

We can interprete the above-mentioned assertion in a slightly different way. We can say that: -

"For carrying out the male-dominated culture not only in the social field but also in religious and spiritual fields, Digambaras invented new devices to keep the womenfolk on the secondary position. They emphasized to prove that, their findings have a philosophical stand and hence the man-woman-inequality emerged in Digambara writings."

To sum up, we can say that the efforts of Munijī are different and praiseworthy in general but a lot of implications brought out by him are far-fetched. His metaphysical quest of the gender-based inequality is the harbinger of the new era of 'feministic criticism.'

5. The efforts made by Jain nuns to bring equality among nuns and monks, in the 21st century

In India since the last four decades the movement for man-woman-equality is spreading like fire. Primarily Jain sect fails to accept any social change and transformation easily. Hence the concept of this equality in Jain sect has taken roots only since last two decades. Mixed reaction is observed for social causes like female foeticide, higher education in women, establishment of independent carrier, financial rights, freedom of thought, etc. At present only 5 to 10% of Jain population have accepted the above changes. Most of the Jain population residing in villages and smaller cities are still unaware of this agitation and prefer to be the way they are.

The transformation seen in the society is also reflected in the sādhus and sādhvīs. In this paper, the concept of man-woman-equality is discussed primarily in the above context. Hence the conclusion of this research paper focuses on the changes that have occurred in the sādhvīs.

The concept of man-woman-equality which was restricted, only to attainment of liberation is now applicable to a variety of social causes. The colors of transformation have also affected the sādhvīs which forms the important, unavoidable aspect of Jain tradition.

It is observed in literature that only the male Ācāryas have discussed the issue of woman liberation. The thought process of nuns have not been taken into consideration. But in today's scenario, it is seen that the nuns have taken lead for man-woman-equality and they have started thinking and working on those lines. These changes can be summarized as: -

  • The śrāvakas residing in foreign countries invite mainly the sādhvīs for cāturmāsa and for observing Jain rituals. Nuns travel abroad for the same and take active participation in social service for reformation and for the betterment of society.
  • They do not restrict themselves only to religion but have expanded their horizon for Jain literature, language, philosophy, etc. Hence many of them have succeeded to become graduate, post-graduate, doctorate and so on.
  • Sādhvīs and Śrāvikas have taken active participation in educational institutes which promote research and teaching in Jainism and Prakrit. They enjoy learning and teaching without considering sectarian differences.
  • Sādhvīs and Śrāvikas are leading in editing books and forming libraries.
  • Many hospitals and gośālās are successfully handled and run by the sādhvīs and śrāvikās due to the leading role taken by them for mankind and animal service.
  • Samaī-sagha is taking initiative to attend various seminars, conferences and panel discussions with the help of modern techniques like power-point presentation, in India and abroad.
  • The code of conduct regarding vandanās as mentioned in chedasūtrās is also undergoing a vital change. Obviously the lead for this, is taken by sādhvīs. As expected, it is getting a mixed response (favorable and unfavorable) from the sādhus. According to this, the sādhvīs feel that vandanā should be based on the seniority of the dīksā and should not be on the basis of sex i.e. man or woman.

We conclude on an optimistic note that the footsteps taken by the Śvetāmbara Sthānakavāsī Sādhvīs is an endeavor to bridge the gender-based gap in Jain religion.

Conclusive remarks

  • Ācārya Kundakunda was the first to initiate the discussion about man-woman-equality based on nudity and liberation of female soul. In post-Kundakunda era the Digambara Ācāryas stressed on the man-woman-inequality based on philosophical and social grounds.
  • Yāpanīya sect which tried to have no sectarian difference but Śvetāmbara and Digambara precisely tried to reduce the gap between man and woman inequality mainly on religious ground.
  • Except a few social and philosophical differences Haribhadra have also tried to prove that a woman is equal to man.
  • Guṇaratna widened the horizon for sex equality which was initially based only on the view of attainment of mokṣa. He stressed on the view of woman being no inferior to man leaving besides a few philosophical aspects.
  • Darśanavijayajī have added the principle of anekāntavāda to the aspect of man-woman equality. To prove this, he has used various citations from Digambara literature.
  • In the last two decades Jain sādhvīs have practically tried to prove man-woman-equality by their actual work. Thus they have shown an optimistic beginning of being an equal aspect of their counterpart, the so-called stronger sex of the society - 'MAN'.

List of Reference-Books

  • अंतकृद्दशा अंतगडदसा : अंतसुत्ताणि ३ , जैन विश्वभारती , लाडनूं (राजस्थान ) वि. सं. २०३१
  • उपासकदशा (उवासगदसा ): वृत्तिरचयिता घासीलालजी महाराज , श्वेतांबर स्थानकवासी जैन संघ , कराची , १९३६
  • कार्तिकेयानुप्रेक्षा : कातिर्तिकेयविरचित , सं. पं. महेन्द्रकुमार पाटनी , दिगंबर जैन शिक्षण संयोजन समिति , इन्दौर , १९९६
  • गोम्मटसार (कर्मकाण्ड ): नेमिचंद्रसिद्धांतचक्रवर्तीविरचित , निर्णयसागर प्रेस , मुंबई , वी. नि. . २४३८
  • जैन आगमात स्त्री : डॉ. नलिनी जोशी , सन्मति तीर्थ , पुणे , २०००
  • जैन परंपरा और यपनीय संघ (प्रथम खंड ): डॉ. रतनचन्द्र जैन , सर्वोदय जैन विद्यापीठ , आगरा , २००९
  • तत्त्वार्थसूत्र : उमास्वातिविरचित , विवेचक पं. सुखलालजी संघवी , पर्श्वनाथ विद्यापीठ , वाराणसी , २००१
  • बारसाणुवेक्खा : कुंदकुंदविरचित , सं. पद्मश्री सुमतिबाई शहा , सोलापुर , १९८९
  • भगवती आराधना : . शिवार्यविरचित , सं. पं. कैलाशचन्द्र सिद्धान्तशास्त्री , श्री हिरालाल खुशालचंद दोशी , फलटण , १९९०
  • मूलाचार : . वट्टकेर , सं. कैलाशचन्द्र शास्त्री , भारतीय ज्ञानपीठ , दिल्ली , १९८४
  • ललितविस्तरा : . हरिभद्रसूरिविरचित , मुनिचंद्रसूरिविरचित पञ्जिका टीका सहित , हिंदी विवेचन - भानुविजयजी , 'दिव्यदर्शन' साहित्य समिति , अहमदाबाद , १९६३
  • व्यवहारसूत्र : शूब्रिंग , देवनागरी रूपांतर , जैन साहित्य संशोधक समिती , पुणे , १९२३
  • श्वेताम्बर - दिगम्बर (समन्वय ): मुनि दर्शनविजय , शा. मफतलाल माणेकचंद , बोरडी , १९४३
  • षड्दर्शनसमुच्चय : हरिभद्रसूरिविरचित , सं. डॉ. महेन्द्रकुमार जैन , भारतीय ज्ञानपीठ प्रकाशन , दिल्ली , १९८९
  • सूत्रपाहुड (अष्टपाहुड ): कुंदकुंदविरचित , सं. डॉ. हुकुमचन्द भारिल्ल , श्री कुंदकुंद कहान दिगंबर जैन तीर्थ सुरक्षा ट्रस्ट , जयपुर

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Abhavya
  2. Acharya
  3. Anekāntavāda
  4. Aparigraha
  5. Atma
  6. Body
  7. Buddhism
  8. Digambara
  9. Digambaras
  10. Digamber
  11. Dravyaśruta
  12. Gommaṭasāra
  13. Haribhadra
  14. Jainism
  15. Kundakunda
  16. Moha
  17. Mokṣa
  18. Muni
  19. Naraka
  20. Nirvana
  21. PK
  22. Para
  23. Prakrit
  24. Samyaktva
  25. Soul
  26. Sthānakavāsī
  27. Sādhus
  28. Sādhvīs
  29. Tantra
  30. Vācanā
  31. Yāpanīya
  32. Yāpanīyas
  33. cāturmāsa
  34. Ācārya
  35. Ācāryas
  36. ācāryas
  37. Śrāvakas
  38. Śvetāmbara
  39. Śvetāmbaras
  40. निर्जरा
  41. राजस्थान
  42. सम्यक्त्व
  43. सोलापुर
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