Birth in Buddhism

The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom

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Amy Paris Langenberg
  • New York, NY: 
    , May
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This revision of a dissertation written at Columbia University is a tour de force for anyone interested in childbirth and fertility in Indian Buddhism. Birth in Buddhism: The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom addresses questions regarding Buddhist women in premodern North India and how they may have understood their bodies and reproductive capacities in the light of classical Indian Buddhist discourses about the impurity of the womb and the suffering associated with birth. The textual focus of this study is an early-first-millennium Sanskrit Buddhist work entitled the “Descent into the Womb scripture” or Garbhāvakrānti-sūtra. Drawing out the implications of this understudied text, Amy Paris Langenberg offers an innovative, theoretically rich argument about the significance of childbirth and fertility in Buddhism. Studies that focus on the impurity of the female reproductive body in classical Indian Buddhist discourses are not new, but the approach that Langenberg takes puts this book in a class of its own. Langenberg has a broad comparative reach that allows her to demonstrate how dominant themes in Indian Buddhism stand out against the background of non-Buddhist Indian Vedic-Hindu and court-literary contexts in which beauty, purity, and auspiciousness are central values. Langenberg argues that birth is a master metaphor in Indian Buddhism, with birth discourse shaping what it means to be female and male in Indian Buddhist constructions of gender, and that by devaluing the religious role of female fertility, Buddhist discourse on women’s impurity provides a “portal to a new, liberated feminine life for Buddhist monastic women” (i).

Readers will gain insight into how femaleness and maleness are performed and negotiated in actual middle period Buddhist communities in Langenberg’s careful, thoughtful readings of pre-modern Indian Buddhist texts and artifacts. As opposed to the work of second-wave feminist scholars—who tend to apply litmus tests to see how liberated pre-modern Indian Buddhist women were were based on conceptions of gender equality that reek of Western modernity—Langenberg draws on Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Nirmana Salgado, and other post-structuralist and post-colonial feminist thinkers. Her work brings Buddhist gender studies into conversation with third- and fourth-wave feminism, queer theory in religion, and other approaches to religious texts and practices that highlight the complexity of identity and the possibilities of a non-binary framing of gender identity. Even if Langenberg finds that “the most destabilizing critiques of constructed identity tend not to be undertaken in classical Buddhist contexts (180), her work nevertheless illustrates the irrelevance of liberal feminist ideas of self and agency for Buddhists of yesteryear and today. Rather than applying modern liberal feminist categories in an anachronistic way that shows Indian Buddhists to be lacking in gender equality, Langenberg asks how gender is performed by Buddhist communities of the middle period. 

Major methodological insight comes from Michel Foucault’s work on the generative nature of restriction. According to Langenberg, the trope of female bodily impurity gives women an alternative form of personhood, namely non-reproductive personhood as constituted by the institution of female monasticism in ancient India. Classical Indian Buddhist discourse on birth created a space for a different kind of selfhood—that of monastic female personhood—in critiquing birth and showing that, in ancient South India, the positive values traditionally associated with the reproductive female body (auspiciousness, beauty, and the like) lacked grounding in reality. Langenberg reveals that “the ascetic critique of ordinary fertility as a coveted goal was far more productive of sexual and reproductive life in ancient India that it ever was repressive” (138). In this way, we can see that disciplinary practices create a self: “[e]ven in its denigration of female embodiment, the Buddhist discourse of birth is, I argue, constitutive of female Buddhist ascetic agency” (8). 

Langenberg's most provocative argument is that today’s Buddhist monastic women are free from the burdens that a high religious value placed on fertility imposes. She does so through reference to concepts of auspiciousness that were prevalent in premodern South Asia. After reading Birth in Buddhism, I wondered about the extent to which Buddhist women living in the specific contemporary cultural contexts outside South Asia see their situations mirrored in constructions of the female body that seem anchored in South Asian cultural constructions. If there is little connection between this South Asian body of discourses and contemporary constructions of female reproductive personhood in Southeast Asia, East Asia, and other locations where contemporary Buddhist women live, then the relevance of elite Buddhist textual discourse that is said to liberate women and create a space for personhood is called into question. Therefore, I was delighted to encounter a recent publication in which Langenberg sets her focus on current day communities of monastic women. In a 2018 publication (“An Imperfect Alliance: Feminism and Contemporary Female Buddhist Monasticisms,” Religions) she connects the dots between pre-modern and contemporary practice in an article that is full of rich ethnographic material on several contemporary communities of Buddhist nuns.

One of the most important scholarly contributions Langenberg makes in the book is in bringing various modalities of female and male asceticism into focus. Chapter 5—focusing on auspicious ascetics—assesses the extent of monastic male participation in rituals that enhance laypeople’s fertility. Using literary critical lenses, Langenberg speculates about the complicated dynamics of monastic involvement in rituals that guarantee lay fertility. What is required, she suggests, are “discursive and literary contrivances” that assuage the discomfort of monks’s own concessions to the primacy of lay fertility. Langenberg discusses archeological and textual evidence from the middle period that show monastic involvement in ensuring lay fertility, safe childbirth, and the protection of young children. Rituals that harness monastic male austerity to the achievement of lay fertility goals would have constituted a source of material gain for monastic men at the same time that monks would not want to endorse fertility as an unconditional good. In this chapter, Langenberg moves adroitly beyond well-known figures associated with childbirth in Indian Buddhist legends, such as Hārītī and Angulimāla—two fertility figures with dark pasts—to explore narratives about Sujātā and Aniruddha. Narratives about the elder Aniruddha illustrate benefits to monks of involvement in fertility and child protection. In stories about Aniruddha, the senior monk gains a monastic servant by blessing infertile couples with fertility while eliciting from them a pledge that any child that might be born from this monastic intervention will become a monk: a monk who provides care as a monastic attendant. The boys whom Aniruddha is said to have produced through the magical power of pledges yields him monastic servants, a low-status monastic initiate who looked after senior monks material needs in Indian Buddhist monastic settings. 

This is a deeply researched book. Langenberg ranges with ease through a wide array of scholarship relevant to her topic. She engages an impressive range of premodern Indian religious texts dealing with gender, embodiment, fertility, anatomy, purity, and pollution, as well as secondary scholarship from anthropologists, literary theorists, and social historians. Few studies of the topic have engaged Foucault and post-colonial theorists such as Salgado and Mahmood at all, and even fewer have successfully engaged critical theory. This book shows how Langenberg became a leading voice among scholars of gender and sexuality in Indian Buddhism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Liz Wilson is Professor of Comparative Religion at Miami University of Ohio.

Date of Review: 
April 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amy Paris Langenberg is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College.


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