Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women
Translated by Charles Hallisey
Harvard University Press, 2015
336 pp.;$29.95 (Cloth)
Not many people resort for counsel to the songs (gathas) of the elder women, the theri, of Buddhism. Poets once in a while take to their poems, as they might to Sappho and Corinna from Greece, or to Ono no Komachi and Lady Murasaki from Japan—women who wrote at the outset of a great classical tradition. But on the whole modern Buddhists say little about these women, the earliest female Buddhist practitioners, who in their songs left behind vivid accounts of their anguished lives, resolute quests, and crisp realization. Collectively, their songs are known as the Therigatha (“verses of the elder women”): a compilation of mind-bending poems that is the earliest anthology of women’s spiritual poetry. Charles Hallisey, a lecturer on Buddhist literature at Harvard University, has just published a good, streamlined, bilingual version of it, as one of the inaugural volumes of Harvard’s new Murty Classical Library of India, a project that aims to release translations of 500 works of Indian literature over the next century.
The Buddhist canon holds a companion volume, the Theragatha, poems of the first Buddhist men. Early Western commentators refer to these disciples as monks and nuns, which is not really accurate. They did not reside in a monastery. In fact, they lived nowhere, a wandering herd of mendicants following the homeless life. At certain times they would gather to hear the Buddha speak, then break into small bands to spread his ideas. They owned a few key items, generally listed as three: a patchwork robe, a begging bowl, and a razor for tonsuring the head.
Most of the theris were direct students of Shakyamuni Buddha. Some took vows with women close to him, including his own mother, Pajapati. They wandered the dirt tracks and ox-cart highways of India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Probably they composed their gathas—songs or poems (the word can mean either)—in the Magadhi language. These were passed along orally until 80 BCE, when they were written down in Pali, the literary language that became the repository for early Buddhist scripture. None of the Buddhist texts or, for that matter, rock-carved images of the day suggest they carried books or notebooks. It’s a good indication that the poems were indeed spoken aloud, and not written. But at this distance in time we have no way of knowing for sure whether the theris sang, chanted, or recited the gathas; whether they ritually sang them in groups, repeated them as mantras, or ruminated on them in solitude.
What we can deduce is that one practice these women followed was to compose a kind of enlightenment verse. Archaic India made continual use of language that rises above or dips beneath conscious understanding. Yoga, tantra, poetics, mantra, magical syllables—all found subliminal ways of affecting the listener; ways in which words exceed their meanings. When heard, the poems create echoes, shadows, hair-raising sensations. It is quite possible that the early Buddhist gathas were formed not just to tell a harrowing story—as many accounts of these women’s lives do—or to give literal instruction, but to transmit an electric flash of insight. A poem, after all, is a state of mind.
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