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India’s Buddhist nuns you don’t hear about: Landladies, loan sharks, merchants

Voices of Buddhist women have been lost to us. But new research reveals they had brilliant commercial and religious minds, and shaped the financial fortunes of the Buddhist sangha.

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It is not something one expects to come across in a dry collection of Buddhist monastic rules, but here it is:

“He said: ‘I have been seized by a debt collector.’
‘Who is the debt collector?’
He said: ‘A nun.’ ”

The history of Buddhism is very often thought about as a history of intrepid men—from the Buddha to the hundreds of monks, preachers and translators who carried their doctrines to the corners of the world. Partially due to a lack of sources, partially because the compilers of texts tended to be men, and partially because we haven’t looked for them, the voices of Buddhist women have been lost to us. But new research reveals that they had brilliant commercial and religious minds, shaping the financial fortunes of the Buddhist sangha. History, as always, is more complex than we might think.

The amazing nun Sthulananda

In his pathbreaking 2014 collection of papers, Buddhist Nuns, Monks, and Other Worldly Matters, Gregory Schopen, a professor of Buddhist studies at the University of California, analysed a somewhat-ignored Buddhist text, the Vinaya or rules pertaining to monastic discipline of the Mulasarvastivada school. It was compiled by male monks at a time when Buddhist sects had spread far and wide through the subcontinent, perhaps as late as 200–400 CE, almost 800 years after the death of the Buddha, at a time when it was just one religion among many. The general formula of the Vinaya is: a story is narrated, the Buddha is (supposedly) consulted, and he then (supposedly) declares a monastic rule. In reality, of course, senior monks were probably coming up with rules for their own particular social and cultural contexts.

This Vinaya spends a considerable amount of time discussing a nun (bhikkhuni) named Sthulananda, a resident of Shravasti—once a major city located in present-day Uttar Pradesh. On one occasion, Sthulananda finds out that a wealthy man has fallen terminally ill and is giving away his wealth to “ascetics and brahmans and the poor and needy.” She immediately arrives at his house, recites a Buddhist text, and asks him for a gift. Since he has given away all his possessions already, he offers her a promissory note written by someone who owes him money. Sthulananda then goes to the debtor and demands that he repay the loan; the unfortunate man is unable to do so, and she promptly drags him to court, causing a scandal.

The next occasion where we come across Sthulananda is after she has convinced a householder to build her a nice little retreat, where she has taken up residence with some other nuns. While wandering around in an evening drizzle, she comes across a group of South Indian merchants, sitting drenched in the rain, who morosely inform her that they haven’t been able to rent a place to stay. “Sons,” she says, “you must know what it will be like at night—giving even more rent, you must find a place! This will be ruinous for your merchandise, and if it gets drenched by the rain, no one will buy it!” The merchants say that even at twice the going rate, they haven’t been able to find a place. Sthulananda then demands that they pay her even more than that, drives the other nuns away from her residence, and lets the merchants stay there.

And finally, in yet another instance, Sthulananda hears about a wealthy, dying man, “goes scurrying” to his deathbed, and asks him for a pious gift. Having nothing left to give but a single house, he offers it to her. She then waits for the family who were living there to leave for the wealthy man’s funeral, and locks and seals the house. When they return, she informs them that she owns the house, and only opens it up after they have agreed to pay rent!

Of course, the compilers of the Vinaya regard all this with disapproval. But even if Sthulananda was not based on an actual person, we must assume that at least some nuns were engaging in business activities of this sort—otherwise there would have been no need for a rule against them. As Professor Schopen points out, it is also significant that it was legally possible for nuns to do all this. Clearly there was some conception of women having property rights, and they were recognised as independent persons by the legal system in some parts of the Gangetic Plains.

It is also surprising how many nun-directed activities the Vinaya rules against. Many of these were traditionally performed by women; for example, nuns were completely banned from underwriting brothels or financing sex workers. (Of course it is also debatable how “Buddhist” such activities were). But the issue was also taken up with activities that seem less controversial to us, such as garland-making, brewing and weaving. However, one can imagine that the nuns had good reasons for trying to invest in what other women were doing. Though they had some legal protections, ancient and medieval India were (like today’s India), not the kindest places for women.

Also read: Rise and fall of Indian Buddhism was a stranger, more exciting process than we know

Commerce and worship

Significantly for us, the Vinaya is not equally disapproving of all nun-driven entrepreneurship. Taking someone to court, as Sthulananda is supposed to have done, was grounds for forfeiture of all assets as well as being driven from the Buddhist sangha. But setting up a tavern was only as bad as, say, eating a mango, and might at most earn one a scolding. And crucially: if the nun was in need, or if the profits were to go to the sangha, then there was no offence at all.

This, possibly, is one of the reasons behind Buddhism’s dazzling success, century after century. While male monasteries were generally situated at some distance from settlements, female nunneries were in the thick of urban centres, and nuns were deeply involved in society. They blessed children, participated in rituals of the lay community, and, as the monastic rules suggest, indulged in commerce for the benefit of the sangha. Nunneries were secure complexes in the heart of a city, which secular and religious authorities would think twice about before bullying. They were the perfect sites for storing goods for sale, as Sthulananda seems to have recognised above.

The Vinaya is also well aware of financial instruments. In another story, monks are given a large endowment. They lock it up because they don’t know how to invest it, and so their monastery falls into disrepair. They then try to give it out as loans, which fails because they lend either to the poor and needy or to the rich and powerful. Finally, the Buddha (supposedly) declares a rule that a loan is only to be given out when twice its value is handed over as collateral. A signed, sealed, dated and witnessed contract is to be issued with the names of senior monastic officials and the borrower, together with the amount and interest. There is little hint of lending or donating for charity, notes Schopen. This is all “strictly business”, and certainly there must have been defaulters and exploitative monastic landlords within such a system.

Not every Buddhist school was as encouraging of monastic business as the Mulasarvastivada. But at least some of them were. In Andhra, dating to around the same time, we have examples of monasteries that seem to have held enormous properties, on par with or more than royal families. In Nagarjunakonda, an ancient city and sacred site near the present-day Andhra-Telangana border, archaeologist Himanshu Prabha Ray reported, in her book The Winds of Change: Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia, the presence of storage rooms and inscriptions commemorating valuable donations, as well as coin moulds to issue currency. At Bavikonda and Thotlakonda near present-day Visakhapatnam, hoards of local and foreign currency were found.

Buddhism, like all successful religions, grew not because it was emancipatory but because it could do business well, and, when needed, ruthlessly. It was because of its wealth that it became possible for it to innovate one of the most important ritual practices in the subcontinent: the community worship of sacred images and buildings. We will return to this in future editions of Thinking Medieval.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval’ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.

(Edited by Prashant)

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