Posts in: PA357
Well, fourth block is coming up on the end—where has the time gone? I feel like I was just moving my stuff out of storage, picking out an outfit for the Video Dance Party, and catching up with friends about their summers. Now here I am, packing up my stuff yet again, saying goodbye to friends, finishing up last minute details to get ready to leave for the rest of the year. It is a strange feeling that I won’t be at CC next semester, and will instead be in Spain…it’s both nerve-wracking and exciting. In addition to dealing with these both fun and stressful end of semester shenanigans, since the block plan never stops, of course class goes onward just the same.
The second half of the course has focused on Buddhism and prevalent themes throughout the tradition. It has been pretty eye opening to study Buddhism in an academic setting. I feel like in the United States, much of what people believe about Buddhism only touches on the surface of it, and there is so much more to know; there is so much more to Buddhism than prayer flags, yoga, and the Buddha.
A big theme that we, of course, studied in detail is the issue of gender inequality. As you should know by now, after reading even a sentence of any of my previous blogs, women in South Asia are considered completely inferior to men in every sense, so it should be no surprise that women are inferior in Buddhism.
One clear example that demonstrates the gender inequality in Buddhism comes from the example of monks and nuns. As much as one would hope that nuns and monks are equal, that is far from the truth. Part of this inequality comes from eight rules that the Buddha supposedly imposed. For example, in these rules, it is said that every monk is superior to every nun; the amount of time a monk has been ordained is irrelevant. In this way, a monk who was ordained yesterday outranks a nun who has been working as a nun for forty years; she must listen to everything he says and cannot question him. This rule is so absurd and frustrating; it makes absolutely no sense for a young monk to order around a nun who has been a nun for almost her entire lifetime.
In addition, it is extremely difficult for women to find economic support from their communities, which goes back to the concept of karma. The simple fact that these nuns were born as women and not men implies that they must have done something in their previous lifetimes to deserve this awful fate, and therefore they are not really worth giving to. By contrast, the monks find economic support easily. When nuns struggle to get a tablespoon of butter, monks receive full, elaborate meals from communities, living a life of luxury in comparison to nuns. Some of the details were pretty appalling, and the way nuns are treated is disheartening.
Another really interesting point we learned about this week is the practice of meditating on deceased women in order to help reach the next stage of life. You are probably thinking “WHAT!?” Yeah…let me explain. A main concept in Buddhism is the cessation of desires in order for growth. The reason for this idea is based on the fact that if you have desires, since everything in life is impermanent, your desires will never be fully satisfied, and you will inevitably suffer. Because of this, it is better to try to just not desire anything and realize the impermanence that is the world.
Of course, living without desires is easier said than done. In terms of monks, they are supposed to not desire women, and live the ascetic life. Of course, a lot of these men had problems not desiring women. In order to fix this, men would meditate on dead women in order to understand the impermanence of life and the disgustingness of the female body. After death, women’s corpses would be brought to open fields and all were told to come view the body. While viewing these women (except for one exception who actually became aroused while looking at the corpses…gross), men understood that there was really no reason to desire women, because the body is an impermanent thing and not something to desire. In this way, they were able to renounce the world and move forward spiritually, on the path to enlightenment.
Although this practice to me seems a bit gross, I can respect the fact that it helps men to understand the impermanence of the world through these corpses. However, what I cannot stand is the fact that male corpses were never used for the same practice, which enforces both a hetero-normative attitude (that men would only ever desire women and not men) and the idea that women cannot move forward spiritually.
As the block wraps up, I have learned so much about gender inequality in South Asia, as well as in the rest of the world. It is something that is always depressing, and Tracy even ended the class today saying something like, “Well…I’m trying to think of something positive to end the class with…” but it was impossible; the only positive she could think of was that there were free Jimmy John’s sandwiches at the religion majors lunch after class. However, despite the depressing feel this class has had and the constant readings about rape, beatings, women as impure, and SO MANY MORE HORRIFIC CONCEPTS, it has been a class that has taught me a lot of important information that applies to my life and every woman’s life out there. Not only has it showed me how lucky we are to live in the United States and the liberties we have in comparison to many others out there, it has also showed me how much more that needs to be changed in the future.
As unbelievable as it seems, week one of block 4 has come to an end. This fact is even more significant to me this year, as I am going abroad to Spain for the entirety of the spring semester, something that I am both excited and terrified about. I have never spent more than a month in any place other than Maine or Colorado, so it will most definitely be a shock, but I’m sure it will allow for some growth and fun memories…I just wish this block would slow down just a bit since there is so much preparation to do before I jet off to España. (Cue the music: La gente está muy loca)
Anyway, this week in class we learned a lot about…SURPRISE…women (and gender in general) in Hinduism and Buddhism. We read The Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit text. We read this same text last year during Tracy’s “Hinduism” course; however, this time we read it looking out especially for themes of gender and what it means to be a woman during this time. There are a whole slew of examples in The Ramayana concerning gender, but I picked out a few that stuck out to me to discuss.
First, there’s the story of Ahalya. Ahalya was the perfect woman, which in this time period essentially meant two things: she had the perfect appearance, and she was completely devoted to her husband, addressing his needs fully, and giving up any of her own needs and desires. Because of her obvious perfection, Ahalya of course attracted many male suitors. The god Indra became immediately infatuated with her; however, unfortunately for him, a man named Gautama won her heart (or at least her hand in marriage) instead. Of course, losing Ahalya infuriated Indra to no end. I mean, how many women out there were both beautiful and completely devoted to their husbands at this time? (Hint: most women) Even so, Indra did not want to give up on Ahalya. For this reason, he sneakily took the form of Gautama, skedaddled off to Ahalya’s house, and seduced her into bed with him, with Ahalya believing it was Gautama the entire time. Of course, because nothing positive ever happens in these stories (I am exaggerating, but really, that is what it seems like), the real Gautama entered into the room, caught the two in bed, and became very angry. He told Ahalya that she had sinned with her body, and changed her into a shapeless piece of granite, saying she would not transform back into her normal figure until Rama saves her in the future.
Ok…as a female reader, I have many problems with this situation. First, Ahalya had no idea that this man who came in and seduced her was actually an imposter. She completely believed it to be her husband, since he took the exact form of Gautama. Was she supposed to interrogate him first, to make 100% sure that this man who looked exactly like her husband was her husband? He walks in…WAIT, I want to be sure…are you Gautama? Because you look completely like him, but I want to be sure you are not an imposter who has taken the form of my husband in order to seduce me because I am just THAT desirable. That would be a little crazy to do every time your husband comes in. Considering women at this time were already inferior to men, let’s not add completely crazy to their description as well.
In addition, at this time, women were not really permitted to say no to their husbands. If Ahalya had said no to the real Gautama, she would have been punished for dismissing him and not devoting herself completely to him. We have seen this idea numerous times in class already, so that really was not an option for Ahalya, as sad as that fact is.
In addition, it is just depressing that Ahalya, who was essentially raped by Indra, was punished severely for “sinning with her body.” This poor woman was completely victimized by Indra, however she ends up being the one who apologizes and asks for forgiveness from Gautama. Of course, he does not give it to her and instead, turns her into granite. It is clear that Gautama just felt like less of a man because of this act between Indra and Ahalya. Because of his loss of masculinity, someone had to be punished, so of course that person was the woman.
Another interesting story from The Ramayana concerning women comes from the story of Rama and Sita. For those of you who don’t know the story, I’ll give a quick overview. Rama, son of the king, was married to Sita, the most beautiful woman in all the land. Rama was set to be the next ruler, but in order to better serve herself, Rama’s step-mother decided that she wanted her own son to rule, instead of Rama. Therefore, obviously the best and most simple solution was to banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years (familial relations were clearly very healthy back then). Rama listened to his stepmother, as it was his dharma (duty) to listen to his father, and thus his stepmother as well. Sita, the doting wife that she was, of course followed Rama to the forest, as that was her dharma as a wife. Personally, I might have stayed behind to tend to my nice castle in peace, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, while out in the forest, Sita saw a golden deer. She essentially demanded that Rama capture this deer for her, since she simply had to have it (holiday season is coming, everyone, take note from Rama and get all of your loved ones golden deer). While Rama was out and about trying to capture this deer, Sita was captured herself by the evil Ravana. Ravana had seen her earlier and took note of her beauty, and realized he needed Sita in his life.
While Sita was in Ravana’s house against her will, she pined for Rama the entire time, even threatening suicide once because life wasn’t worth living without Rama. Meanwhile, Rama tried to find Sita endlessly; he even enlisted the help of monkeys to find his beloved Sita. Eventually, of course Rama found Sita; however, he was cold and unwelcoming to her once he found her. He explained that he could not take Sita back because she had stayed with another man, and no one in their right mind would allow her to return to his house. Essentially, he couldn’t respectfully take Sita back when she had stayed with another man, and possibly hadn’t been faithful. However, instead of Sita being offended, she decided to prove her purity to him by an ancient fire ceremony, in which she jumped into a fire to prove her purity, with the fire god Agni as her witness. She proved her purity to Rama, and the two were reunited.
Again, as a reader, especially as a feminist reader, I take some issues with this whole ordeal. Sita herself stayed pure the entire time when she was in the house of Ravana; her devotion to Rama was never in doubt. However, when they were reunited, Rama essentially punished her for being abducted, something that was completely against her will. Rama felt like his masculinity was put into question when Sita was in the house of another man, and therefore he had to prove to himself and to his people that he was manly enough to not take his (devoted) wife back…really, it just showed that he was not a great husband. To top it all off, Sita felt like she had to prove her purity in a humiliating and public way, something that no woman should ever be subjected to.
After reading The Ramayana for the second time around, it is clear how large a role gender plays. The first time I read it, I thought it was a nice love story between two people that ended with a “happily ever after.” However, it is now clear to me how it is actually a story where woman are treated pretty unfairly, and are expected to be perfect and devoted wives always. When they stray from this expectation, even slightly or even accidentally, punishment ensues by the men in their lives.
Well…clearly, this class has some overarching themes of gender inequality. I see everyday how unequal men and women are, both in ancient texts and in the modern day. Obviously, it can get pretty depressing; I sometimes leave class feeling like men and women will never be equal. Sure, some people believe that they are equal today, but that is far from the truth. Although women today may not be expected to dutifully follow their husbands to the forest for fourteen years, they make significantly less money than men for the same jobs, there has never been a woman president in the US, and an outspoken woman is typically considered aggressive and unruly, whereas an outspoken man is considered to be typical. These gender discrepancies are, to say the least, discouraging…especially as a female who hopes to do well in the future. However, this class has been so eye opening to these problems. Even from the first week, it is clear that I will learn some of the most valuable lessons and information from this class.
How’s that for a liberal arts education?
Block 4 is always an interesting block to be had at CC. It is right after Thanksgiving break, which for me, is a break that always flies by in an instant. The past two Thanksgivings, it seems as if right after I get off the plane in Maine, ready to spend some quality time at home, I get right back on to return to CC, getting thrown into block 4 at full force. Sure, there’s some time to spend with family over break, and of course there’s lots of delicious turkey and pumpkin pie. However, it seems like Thanksgiving break consists of more travel time than actual relaxation time. For this reason, I decided to stay on campus for break this year with two of my friends. It was very relaxing, and we managed to make our Thanksgiving just as special. Therefore, instead of returning to CC late on Sunday night, ready for sleep and nothing else, I found myself readier and more excited to begin block 4 this year than in the two years past.
This block, I am taking a course called “Women in Hinduism and Buddhism,” taught by Tracy Coleman. It is my eighth block straight in Armstrong, and I am beginning to think I will never leave the place, but I am surprisingly okay with it. Although the majority of CC students have a strong dislike for Armstrong, and I’ve even heard of a “Tear down Armstrong” campaign, I really love the building. Sure…it vaguely resembles a prison, there is little to no sunlight, and the temperature of the building is never quite right. However, there are so many other great aspects about it; it is close to both Worner and Wooglin’s, so you can grab a coffee on the way to class on those days when 9:00 (or 9:30) class seems impossible, I swear the water fountains are the coldest on campus, and it houses some of the best faculty at CC (not that I’m biased). So next time someone tells you about a plan to tear down Armstrong, remember these important details!
As I arrived at class, it appeared to be not a class on “Women in Hinduism and Buddhism,” rather, “Women at CC,” as there were no males to be seen. As it was not yet 9:00, the class wondered aloud whether or not any brave males would come, which is a very typical conversation that occurs at CC whenever a class is cross-listed as a Feminist and Gender Studies course. Needless to say, one brave male arrived to our class of seven girls, creating for a total of eight students in our class, definitely one of the smaller classes I have had at CC, but not atypical. The intimate class size is one of my favorite parts of CC. This year, I have had one class with five people, one with sixteen, one with ten, and now this one with eight. Because of the small size, it is easy to get to know everyone in class, including the professor. At CC, as clichéd as it sounds, you are much more than a number in the class and a final grade on paper. At CC, you are encouraged, and even expected, to talk to professors after class about the material, you go to their houses for meals (really, I’ve gone to three different professor’s houses for breakfast), and you call them by their first names, which, talking to friends from other schools, is not the norm. For these reasons, I am always excited to begin a new block, ready to meet some new people and learn some interesting material.
But, enough about how great CC is…Even from the first day and listening to Tracy discuss her plans for the course, I could tell this block was going to be fascinating; learning about women’s roles in religion is always eye-opening, and the texts we will be reading, even from their titles, are intriguing. For example, we are reading a book about what it is like to be a Buddhist nun, and we are also reading the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic about Rama and Sita that I read in “Hinduism” last year, but am excited to read from a different perspective, being really attuned to gender divisions and how the ideal woman is classified. We are also going to discuss at length the concept of dharma, or duty, and how everyone has a specific dharma, and how it greatly differs based on gender. We are also going to discuss the concept of bhakti, or devotion, which is essential to Hinduism, especially in the Ramayana (Sita’s devotion to Rama is incredible). This class is sure to be an eye-opening one, and I am looking forward to updating all of you about it!