Indian Bhikkhunis, Samaneris and a maechi, clicked at Sisaket town's Wat Maha Phuttaram vihara
Indian Bhikkhunis, Samaneris and a maechi, clicked at Sisaket town's Wat Maha Phuttaram viharaMayura Saavi

How female monks from India are championing gender equality in global Buddhism

Buddha established four sanghas with bhikkhus (male monks) and bhikkhunis (female monks) considered equal in dignity and sharing the same goal of advocating for social change. Unfortunately, today the Bhikkhuni Sangha struggles for recognition and has largely lost its identity, with some nations even criminalising its existence.

In April 2024, approximately 120 Indian monastics traveled to Thailand on an invitation by the Thai royal family as this year marks 150 years of friendship between India and Thailand amidst their shared Buddhist camaraderie. In commemoration of this milestone, Thailand launched a three-month training program for Indian monks and a one-month program for Indian female monastics, commencing on April 1st. While arrangements for training Indian monks are in Chiang Mai, female monastics dwelled in the Sisaket forest meditation center until April 30th. The program witnessed participation, with approximately 70 Indian men as bhikkhus (monks) and Sramaners (temporary monks- students in robes), and 54 women as Bhikkhunis and Sramneris. 

According to the Maar Yachan Katha in the Chullawagga (Buddhist text), Buddha established four sanghas, with bhikkhus (male monks) and bhikkhunis (female monks) considered equal in dignity and sharing the same goal of advocating for social change. Unfortunately, today the Bhikkhuni Sangha struggles for recognition and has largely lost its identity. In India, despite less than 70 years since conversion, both the Bhikkhu Sangha (male monastics) and Bhikkhuni Sangha (female monastics) actively promote Buddha's message of peace, harmony, equality, and inclusion, as envisioned by Tathagat Buddha. However, in many Buddhist countries, while the Bhikkhu Sangha thrives, the Bhikkhuni Sangha is absent, with some nations even criminalising its existence.

Despite the historical and philosophical roots of Buddhism in India, the contemporary demographics of the Buddhist population in the country reveal a stark underrepresentation, emphasising the urgent need for revival. 

Notably, this resurgence is championed by the followers of Dr BR Ambedkar, who embraced Buddhism on 1956, October 14th in Nagpur, Maharashtra, challenging the entrenched social hierarchy perpetuated by the caste system, and advocating for equality and liberation. Today, we find the majority of Indian Buddhists from Maharashtra, especially in the Vidarbha region, who call themselves Navayana Buddhists and follow the Theravada tradition of Buddhism.  

According to the royal order of 1928 by the Sanghraja (Supreme patriarch) of Thailand, equal rights for men and women for ordination are denied by its Ecclesiastical Council, which says, ‘No woman can be ordained as a Theravada Buddhist nun or bhikkhuni in Thailand.’ The Council had then issued a national warning that any monk who ordains female monks would be punished.

Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, a pioneering Thai scholar, became the first fully ordained Bhikkhuni in Thailand in 2001, despite unfavourable legal conditions. Her efforts led to the establishment of the Songdhammakalyani Buddhist Women's Training Centre in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, where hundreds of women from various countries receive ordination and training as Bhikkhunis. She states, "Buddha himself established the four groups of Buddhists: Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, Upasikas (laywomen), and Upasakas (laymen). The absence of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in Thailand compelled us to revive what we were missing."

Now in her 80s, she continues her mission to highlight the existence of Bhikkhunis through various media platforms. Her mother, Venerable Voramai Kabiling, was the first woman in Thailand to courageously wear a yellow robe in the 1950s, rejecting the conventional Maechi attire. Maechis, who wear white robes, represent a Thai tradition exclusively for women, not originating from Buddha’s time. 

Historically, the uniform for Buddhist monastics is 'kasaya chivar' (literally meaning- Bronze coloured robes), ranging in colours from yellow to orange-maroon and brown, which were crafted using natural dyes from Palash flowers during the era of Tathagat Buddha. Even today, this practice remains among the Theravada Buddhist monks in Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, India, and Burma. But over some time, in many of these countries, new traditions were made exclusively for female monastics. 

The colour of robes distinguishes both the level of ordination and tradition, with white usually worn by a renunciant before ordination and pink symbolising a state of ambiguity—no longer lay and not yet monastic. Female monastics are often made to wear white or pink robes and are called Dasa Sheel Mata in Sri Lanka, Thilashin or Sayalays in Burma, Guruma in Nepal and Laos, and Siladharas at Amaravati Monastery in England. None of them are considered fully ordained Bhikkhunis. Meanwhile, male monastics in all of these countries wear the kasay chivar as their uniform and are recognised by their traditional sangha as Bhikkhus. Although Indian bhikkhunis wear kasay chivar, in the last few years, Indians too have started adopting alternative names for Bhikkhunis as ‘Arya ji’ and ‘Mata ji.

Why are female monastics not simply called Bhikkhunis and given similar robes as they wore during the period of Tathagat Buddha? With these new identities, it is believed there have been no female sanghas as Bhikkhunis in the Theravada countries. 

Bhante Suniti, the secretary of the All India Bhikkhuni Sangha, expresses concern, stating, "While we appreciate the reverence associated with titles like Ayya ji or Arya ji (meaning Noblewoman), it's disheartening to witness the fading recognition of the traditional term 'bhikkhuni' in favour of these newly emerged appellations. We must safeguard and uphold the usage of these ancient, culturally significant titles."

On April 4th, in Thailand, a grand celebration was organised, where the royal family donated robes to the Indian bhikkhus, symbolsing Thailand’s profound reverence for the shared legacy of Theravada Buddhism. In a gesture of inclusivity, robes were also dispatched to the Sisaket Vihara, extending the same honour to the bhikkhunis and newly ordained sramners and sramneris. The robes sent to female monastics were adorned with the same colours, signifying equality and unity within the sangha.

This initiative in Thailand also saw the ordination of 72 Indian women as Maechis. While this is appreciated by lay Indian Buddhists as a form of cultural exchange, it has drawn criticism from Indian Bhikkhunis. They express concern that the introduction of the Maechi tradition could overshadow and potentially erode the already struggling Bhikkhuni Sangha in India by introducing a new foreign practice.

Bhikkhuni Vijaya Maitriya, a renowned Buddhist author, in her eighth Hindi book titled Bhikkhuni Sangha ka Itihas, writes, "It is noteworthy that while accepting women in the Sangha, Buddha not only thought about the independent association of women but he used the word 'Bhikkhuni' for women."

Women from the Ambedkarite community as Navayana-Buddhists have a history of double oppression, both in terms of caste and gender. They are staunch advocates of equality and demand dignity at the same level as the bhikkhus. History appears to be repeating itself; just as Buddhism spread from India to the world through Bhikkhuni Sanghamitra, daughter of King Ashoka, today we see Indian Bhikkhunis once again propagating the lost essence of Buddha’s teachings.

Mayura Saavi is a development communications professional and independent journalist focusing on gender, caste and cultural discourse, Buddhism, film, and education. As a co-founder of the PDCR Foundation, she is dedicated to promoting media literacy, digital citizenship, and the representation of marginalized communities in mainstream media. 

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