The other day while rummaging around in a closet, I ran across an old book I have on Mahatma Gandhi and since I hadn’t seen it for some time, I began thumbing through the pages and almost immediately hit upon this, which is so beautifully said, that I just have to share it with you:
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.”
Ahimsa (Sanskrit: “not to injure”) means non-violence. Another way to put it is “do no harm.” It is 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 demonstrated 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, Transcendent Wisdom. Consequently, Transcendent Wisdom is the mother of all Buddhas, and naturally when contemplated in this way, visualized as feminine.
Likewise, compassion, or in Gandhi’s words “infinite love,” is often represented as Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. And we have the famous words attributed to the Buddha,
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.
We can all be inspired by this year’s co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, the young campaigner for women’s rights and education. After she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012, she said,
Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.”
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* M.K. Gandhi, Women and Social Justice, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1954, 26-27.