Q23. What is Jain view on gender-based inequality? Is there inequality between men and women in religious context? If yes, why and should it continue?
This is a very practical question from today’s youth and non-traditional Jains. Gender discrimination is something that human race has endured over time and across all cultures. Gender-based inequality is a term that implies differential treatment based on gender regardless of race, religion, caste, or creed. There has been progress towards gender equality over the past decade in various areas with awareness, education, and actions. However, many challenges with gender inequality are still pervasive.
First let us talk about what is meant by gender-based inequality from a religious perspective.
Gender-based inequality in a religious realm implies that women and men are treated differently. And there is inequality or discrimination in the religious responsibilities, experiences, practices, rules, norms or what you’re allowed to do based on the gender.
Some of the gender-based inequalities that we have observed between men and women in practicing Jain religion are:
· Women cannot recite certain sutras and cannot perform certain rituals
· If rituals are performed by men and women together, all sutras should be recited by men
· Women cannot enter in temple during their monthly period
· In some sects, women cannot attain liberation. They need to be born as a man for liberation
· In some Jain stories it is said that bad karma results in being born as a girl
So, the questions we must ask ourselves are:
· Why do we have inequalities and restrictions only for women?
· Why do practices exist that treat women inferior to men?
· Do Jain principles or Bhagwan Mahavir state that women are inferior to men?
· How much of these practices, including what is written in scriptures, are influenced by the culture at the time of writing the scriptures and how much is truly based on Tirthankar’s preachings?
To understand Jain view, we will first look at various key aspects like what we can learn from Mahavir Swami’s life, Jain fundamental beliefs, and most importantly the purpose of Jainism.
What we can learn from Mahavir Swami’s Life
The day after Mahavir Swami attained Keval Gyan (Omniscience), he established the fourfold order of Jain Sangh, known as the Chaturvidh Sangh - Sadhu, Sadhvi, Shravak and Shravika.
Mahavir Swami initiated:
· Gautam Swami and Chandanbala, 1st Sadhu and Sadhvi, by providing them 5 Maha-vrats.
· Anand Shravak and Sulsa Shravika, 1st Shravak and Shravika, by providing them 5 Anu-vrat, 3 Guna-vrat and 4 Shiksha-vrat known as 12 vrats (vows) for laypeople.
He did not indicate any place in Acharang sutra (Agam 01) and Upashak Dashang Ang Agam (Agam 07) that men are superior to women. It was right away described as fourfold, including women as two of its components, laywomen (shravika) and nuns (sadhvi), alongside laymen (shravak) and monks (sadhu). This has been recognized and accepted by all Jain sects without any disagreement or embarrassment.
This action demonstrates to us that Bhagwan Mahavir, our spiritual teacher, treated women and men equally, he did not create any gender bias and he is the first guru of Jain monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. He realized that men and women are different because of gender and hence he created different gender based aachar but treated both as equals.
Before Mahavir Swami’s time there were 4 vows, in which brahmacharya and aparigraha were merged, because women were treated as property. In his time, he created a fifth vow to distinguish women’s status, not equal to property.
Mahavir Swami was open-minded and very progressive for his time. Culturally during that time, many inequalities existed in the Indian community. It was a male dominated society and women were considered property of men. Despite of all that, we can see from Mahavir Swami’s actions that he neither agreed nor promoted gender biased inequalities or any other kind of inequalities.
Next, we want to shed light on the Jain fundamentals and principle as they relate to this question.
Jain Fundamentals and Principles
According to Jain fundamentals, every living being is a soul and has the potential to achieve liberation. All the Jain fundamentals and principles are gender independent. Jainism even goes to the next extent and treats not only humans, animals, but even 1-sensed earth, water, air bodied also as equal souls who in their pure form possess Infinite Jnan, Infinite Darshan, Infinite Charitra or Infinite Happiness, and Infinite Energy or Power.
However, all souls in their impure form, is covered by Karma and hence possesses only Limited Jnan, Limited Darshan, Limited Charitra, Limited Power and Energy. To achieve liberation, one must first eliminate Mithyatva (Darshan Mohaniya Karma) and then reduce and ultimately eliminate Kashayas (Charitra Mohaniya Karma).
All humans (both males and females) with a fully developed mind, have the capability to eliminate Mithyatva and reduce and ultimately eliminate Charitra Mohaniya Karma through practice of meditation. Both men and women are equally capable of becoming knower and observer, by practicing meditation and have the potential to achieve liberation.
Physical differences in humans have no bearing on achieving the true nature of the soul. Then, why should women be any exception? Human life is capable of achieving liberation with gyan and dhyaan, regardless of the physical differences in the human body.
Our Tirthankars are Vitraagi, they don’t have any kind of attachments. They would not create any discriminating restrictions for men or women.
As we can see, there is nothing in Jain fundamental beliefs and principles that are gender driven or endorses inequality. And furthermore, Jainism is an introspective (bhaav pradhan) religion which promotes compassion, equanimity, friendship, and love towards all living beings. There is no place for inequalities or discrimination towards women.
Social and Cultural Influences that created Inequalities
Mahavir Swami’s actions, virtues, teachings, and characteristic traits teaches us equality, however, things changed slowly after his nirvana.
The social and cultural influences of that era impacted the religion sphere and the inequalities towards women proliferated into Jainism. Women were treated as property of men and they were sold in the open market. Even Chandanbala was sold by her owner in an open market. Mahavir Swami freed enslaved Chandanbala, and dogma/stereotypes were broken by making her the first Sadhvi of Sangh. However, the scriptures that were written hundreds of years after Mahavir’s nirvana have society’s biases embedded in them.
The inequalities continued to carry forward as traditions or blind beliefs. They hold no spiritual or principle driven reasons.
When such inequalities are questioned then reasons are provided to retroactively justify the conditions that are already in place. If we think about it, most of the time one blind tradition is justified with another blind assumption.
The question that often comes up is why change and why disturb something that is going on for generations? The reason is because people lose respect and drive away from religion when they see such inequalities. Several other religions have changed and eliminated inequalities to certain extent.
Religion has the potential to be the pioneer and set an example of the changes we wish to see in all realms of society like social, professional, economic, decision-making. Equality is the fundamental right of all living beings and all the Jain principles uphold that value.
There are also psychological, social, and spiritual pitfalls for both genders because of inequality.
Women or girls might consciously or subconsciously see themselves as less and that prevents them from achieving their potential. They often form an unintended and an invisible barrier within them to equal opportunity, and may doubt themselves from taking courageous steps even in the realm of spiritual practice
Men or boys knowingly or unknowingly might create a sense of entitlement or ego within them, which would come in their way of healthy relationships, lifestyle and spiritual liberation. There is also the irony that even if he himself may not initially recognize the harm in treating women as inferior, he may object when other men treat his own mother, sister or wife that way.
From a religious perspective, change is needed so that the true essence of religion of equality and Ahimsa that Jainism preaches is maintained and in the name of religion we don’t knowingly or inadvertently cause any harm to any soul or cause any barriers for a soul’s progress.
From a cultural perspective, we see a highly conflicted behavior. On one side the religion elevates many Goddesses and holds them in high regard, but then ironically, it also puts numerous restrictions and constraints towards women of the society and their potential involvement and their contributions towards growth of the religion. This suggests that the culture itself is in conflict and should be treated as a changeable force and not as an immutable authority.
Bottom line, if something is wrong and against the principles then we must change.
How do we elicit change?
At an individual level, first educate yourself, understand, verify the information with your logic and internalize it. Reflect on your own previously internalized bias and attempt to uproot your unconscious negative attitudes, whether toward your own or the opposite gender.
Knowledge is power. Once the knowledge becomes our own then we can educate others around us.
“Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.” - Aristotle
This quote from Aristotle points out the distinction between knowing and understanding. When we understand and internalize the knowledge then we can educate others with respect while maintaining the harmony. This kind of approach creates a potential to make the change a natural transition.
There are going to be situations when we can’t change the deeply rooted belief systems and that’s beyond our control. But at a minimum what we don’t want to pass on something that is against our Jain principles and Jainism teachings to the next generation.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world” - Gandhiji
First and foremost, women should see themselves as equal. Women should understand the cultural programming and subconscious barriers that are preventing them from seeing themselves as equal.
At a community level, we should not create any rules that create or promote inequalities like women can’t read certain sutras or make statements like women can’t attain liberation or one is born as a woman because of bad karmas. Jain religious principles are not and should not be male dominated. Both men and women should be treated equally. Jain principles are universal and apply equally to all souls and doesn’t distinguish by gender.
In 1980s, Shri Amar Muniji took a revolutionary and historic step in the right direction by giving the title of “Acharya” to Sadhvi Chandanaji of Veerayatan. Acharya Chandanaji is the first and only Jain nun who has been given the title of “Acharya” thus far. But it is still an exception and not the norm.
Our spiritual teacher Tirthankar Mahavir treated everyone equally, yet the inequality was created after his time, mostly because of the era and culture they were in. There is nothing in our Jain values and principles that states or promotes any kind of inequalities between Monks and Nuns, Laymen and Laywomen. In Jainism, equality is a fundamental principle and every soul has the same potential and same inherent soul qualities.
Women and men are physically different, but they should be treated equal. If a systematic or radical change is required, then we all have to do our part. Whether it is writing about it, creating awareness, or calling out discrimination when we see it.
If we fail to do the right thing by sitting on the sidelines, remaining ignorant or not questioning inequalities under the pretense of faith in religion, then we are doing a disservice to the current and future generations.