Brides of the Buddha

Nuns' Stories from the Avadānaśataka

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Karen Muldoon-Hules
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , June
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Karen Muldoon-Hules’s work focuses on the stories of renunciation of ten female followers of the Buddha from the eighth chapter of the Avadānaśataka, a Sanskrit Buddhist compendium of stories most likely compiled between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE and finalized in its extant form in the early 9th century (8). In this study, Muldoon-Hules presents an excellent piece of scholarship that adds nuance to the scholarly account of early Buddhist Indian women, which she sees as overly dominated by scholarship based on Pāli sources. She examines the Avadānaśataka in its literary and historical contexts and provides a sophisticated analysis of its stories. Comparison between the Buddhist text and non-Buddhist contemporaneous accounts drawn from Vedic texts, Sanskrit literature, and Jain texts reveals that, for early Buddhist Northern Indian society, marriage was perceived as an obstacle to female renunciation. Muldoon-Hules suggests that, as a result, the Avadānaśataka stories of female renunciation appear to both justify female renunciation and promote it. 

In chapter 1, Muldoon-Hules emphasizes that most of the scholarly work on early Indian Buddhist women has been based on Pāli texts, but was seen as pan-Indian, therefore discounting regional differences. Instead, she seeks to “broaden the scholarly conversation about early Buddhist women to include the texts of other South Asian Buddhist traditions and epigraphic evidence” in order to “re-establish women in their historical and geographical context” (6) and to expand knowledge about early Indian Buddhist women. She provides precise and detailed background information about the Avadānaśataka, placing it within its historical, literary, and doctrinal contexts, and emphasizing its likely impact over a wide part of Asia. 

Chapters 2 and 3 set the scene for discussing the eighth chapter by providing historical, legal, and literary background about marriage in Vedic texts, classical Indian texts, and Indian Buddhist texts, respectively. According to the author, two main issues emerge in the Vedic and later material: the marriage of a girl is her father’s responsibility and a source of anxiety, and for women it is “the sole path to heaven” (31). In chapter 3, she examines and accepts the dominant position that Buddhist marriage norms follow the surrounding culture and further argues that the Avadānaśataka stories describe what she calls “Hindu” marriages and can be best understood in that light. This points to the continuity between Brahmanical and Buddhist marriage practices and forms the grounding for her understanding of these stories.

In chapters 4, 5, and 6, Muldoon-Hules narrows her attention to the Avadānaśataka’s eighth chapter to provide a fine-grained analysis of each of the ten stories, which all illustrate the tension between marriage and renunciation for (especially young) women and seek to resolve it by promoting renunciation as an acceptable path. She divides the stories into two main categories, the first one of which she examines in chapters 4 and 5 and the second in chapter 6. She frames these stories of female Buddhist renunciation within the socio-religious context in which they were most likely composed and transmitted and compares them with largely contemporaneous texts—mostly Sanskrit, although she also draws on Pāli texts, mainly to highlight differences. She convincingly shows that the stories address prevailing concerns for early Indian society (introduced in chapters 2 and 3), especially the father’s responsibility in marrying his daughters, his anxiety over the rejected suitors’ likely frustration, as well as the difficult situation of girls who are “not desirable as wives” (121). She persuasively establishes how these concerns and the way they are addressed in these stories are steeped in Vedic and Brahmanical values and practices. When these values and practices are subverted, as when the girls take on an active role, she briefly argues that it is a literary device to model desired behaviors for girls and families and betrays a need for younger nuns. This, I believe, would have benefitted from a more detailed analysis.

In her conclusion (chapter 7), Muldoon-Hules brings the different threads of her argument together, claiming that the ten stories of the Avadānaśataka are either unknown in the Pāli texts or present very limited overlap with the Pāli sources, therefore pointing to the existence of a separate Northern Indian hagiographical tradition for nuns. They also confirm the continuity with earlier Vedic and contemporaneous Brahmanical practices, in particular that marriage remained the main “career” for women—the dominant position with regards to women’s social roles (and religious lives) in Pāli texts. However, she sees two stories as providing evidence that other “careers” (of Vedic savant and actress-dancer) were possible, although the fact that the girls are still expected to get married appears to undermine her claim. Overall, the stories justify female renunciation in a context in which marriage was considered to be the only acceptable social and soteriological path for a woman and was therefore an obstacle to female renunciation at a young age. The stories therefore aim to encourage young women to join the Buddhist order of nuns by presenting cases in which renunciation is beneficial, in particular to the girl’s father.

Muldoon-Hules’s meticulous and precise scholarship is based on Sanskrit literature, epigraphical, and art-historical evidence and makes a strong case for her reading of the Avadānaśataka stories both as “marketing” literature for the female Buddhist order and as strongly located within the dominant Brahmanical socio-religious context. Unfortunately, the work as a whole feels rushed and uneven. For example, Muldoon-Hules’s use of the anachronistic term “Hindu,” while understandable, would have benefitted from even a brief explanation. Some recent and pertinent scholarship in women and Buddhism is not discussed, or even referenced (for example, Bhikkhu Anālayo, “Mahāpajāpatī’s Going Forth in the Madhyama-āgama”, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 18 (2011), Pascale Engelmajer, Women in Pāli Buddhism: Walking the Spiritual Path in Mutual Dependence, Critical Series in Buddhism, Routledge (2015)). In addition, the decision not to include the translation of the eighth chapter and to leave a relevant discussion to a future work (8, 124) diminishes the value of the work as it stands. To add to the feeling of an overly hasty work, there are an unusually high number of typographical errors, and the author notes that she lacked the time to check some sources (for example, 57 n22). These issues point to a wider problem in academic publishing—the pressure to which scholars are subject: publish quickly and frequently even when it weakens the quality of one’s individual offerings. Despite these caveats, Muldoon-Hules’s work is a valuable addition to the fields of Buddhist studies, gender studies, and women in Buddhism. It adds nuance to the early history of Buddhist women and increases the understanding of early Buddhist history. It would be very useful in advanced undergraduate classes in gender studies and Buddhist studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pascale F. Engelmajer is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Carroll University, Wisconsin.

Date of Review: 
August 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karen Muldoon-Hules is lecturer in the Asian Languages and Cultures Department and the Center for the Study of Religion at the University of California, Los Angeles.


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