This is an edited version of a post published in 2014
Gandhi’s relationships with women were complicated but I believe he operated from the conviction that men and women are completely equal. He wrote,
Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour? But she forgets them in the joy of creation.
Who, again, suffers daily so that her babe may wax from day to day? Let her transfer that love to the whole of humanity, let her forget that she ever was or can be the object of man’s lust. And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man as his mother, maker and silent leader. It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world thirsting for that nectar.”
Photo: Gandhi with women workers, Greenfield Mill, England 1931
Ahimsa (Sanskrit: “not to injure”) means non-violence. Do not harm. An important principle in all the major Indian religions, and in fact, the phrase “do no harm” is often used for the Buddha’s first precept.
Historically, Buddhism has exhibited some extremely misogynistic tendencies and even today there remain issues in a few Buddhist schools regarding gender equality. Yet, Buddhism has also a tradition of revering women as uniquely awakened beings. In Prajna-Paramita literature, Buddhas are not born from Nirvana but from the practice of Prajna-Paramita or Transcendent Wisdom. Transcendent Wisdom is called the mother of all Buddhas.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the first step toward generating bodhicitta, the altruistic thought of awakening, is to recognize all sentient beings as one’s mother. Based on the idea of infinite rebirth, at some point every sentient thing was one’s mother.
Women are seen as the symbol of compassion, personified by not only ‘mother beings’ but also such celestial beings as Kuan Yin, the ‘goddess of compassion.’
Some people maintain that women are naturally more empathetic than men, but there is research that suggests one gender does not experience more compassion than the other, rather each experiences compassion differently.
And so, the potential for what Gandhi called “infinite love” is universal, compassion is innate. Gandhi’s words echo this famous guidance from the Buddha in the Metta Sutta:
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world.
– – – – – – – – – –
* Quote: M.K. Gandhi, Women and Social Justice, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1954, 26-27.