Women can’t catch a break, it seems. This was as true in the Buddha’s time as it is today. The nun Sundarinanda pretended to be ill and skipped a meal in order to avoid a sexual predator, but she was pursued and violated by him anyway. The nun Citta sneaked out of her sleeping area also to evade a pursuing abuser, but though she escaped his clutches she was blamed for being out alone at night. Two other nuns, whose names we don’t know, were attacked by an unscrupulous ferryman who claimed that he had to take them across the river individually instead of together. He assaulted each woman when he had her alone.

A number of the specific rules found in the Vinaya, the monastic code, that were prescribed for bhikkhunis but not for bhikkus were developed (by men, it might be noted) in an effort to protect them from such dangers. Bhikkhunis were not allowed to wander alone as bhikkhus did, because they were considered an easy target for abuse and rape. In traditional Indian society a woman was under the protection of her father until married, her husband once married, and her husband’s family if she were widowed. Those women who, like the Buddha, “wandered forth” into the homeless life formally took leave of these relationships, and this rendered them vulnerable in a way the men were not. The nuns always had to travel in pairs or groups and to keep a wary eye out for masculine threats.

Related: Nasty Women Meditation

But the women of ancient India were not helpless. We have remarkable access to many of their stories in the Therigatha, a collection of poems written by the first generation of Buddhist nuns and preserved with commentary in the Pali canon. The merchant’s daughter Bhadda (who later became a nun) was about to be shoved off a cliff by her lover, a thief in pursuit of her jewels, but she was able to turn the tables on him at the last moment and sent him plummeting instead. The local mountain goddess approved, saying:

Not every time is it the man who is wise;
women too are wise, and they see what’s going on.

Then as now, women gained power by finding and using their voice. When the nun Subha is accosted in the woods by a man “full of passion” with “a disturbed mind,” she calls him out:

What have I ever done to you,
that you stand there obstructing me?
It is not appropriate, sir,
that a man touch one who’s gone forth.

He remains undeterred and clumsily presses himself upon her:

You are young and not bad-looking;
what will going forth do for you?
Cast off that yellow robe and come!
let’s delight in the flowering wood.

She puts him in his place, not only by rejecting him but also by naming his delusion:

Blind fool, you chase an empty thing,
an illusion placed before you.
Your gaze is thoroughly confused,
as if you had seen some picture smeared on a wall with yellow paint.
The wisdom of men is useless!

She then declares her emancipation, from him and everything else:

My mindfulness is established,
amid praise, blame, pleasure or pain.
Knowing that all conditioned things are flawed—my mind is not attached.

The place where the power and confidence of these ancient women is most evident is in their rejection of Mara’s many attempts to undermine them. Mara is a trickster figure, a shadow of the unconscious mind, and as such is as active today as he was when the Buddha was alive. This is the deep psychological source of the aggressive and misogynous urges that lead some men to demean, harass, and even assault women. One of the forms Mara takes in the early Buddhist literature is that of a male demon who addresses the nuns as they practice meditation, whispering insinuations that play upon their unique vulnerabilities.

He taunts Gotami, who tragically lost her young son:

What’s this? Like one whose son is slain,
you sit all alone in the woods . . .

To Uppalavanna, meditating in the forest, he plants seeds of fear:

You are alone, without a friend.
Child, are you not afraid of rogues . . . ?

All three sisters of Sariputta, the Buddha’s foremost follower—Cala, Upacala, and Sisupacala—are provoked by Mara in different ways:

Why has your head been shaven thus, and why practice this foolishness? . . .
Enjoy the sensual pleasures, do not have regrets later on . . .
Apply your mind to heavenly realms, the places you have lived before. . .

Each of these nuns stands up to Mara and faces him down, uttering the same verse of rebuke. Each of the poems they left behind ends with the same phrase:

The mass of darkness is dispelled.
Know this, for sure, O evil one:
It’s over! You are defeated!


Related: What the Buddha Taught About Sexual Harassment